Rolling Stone magazine is fifty years old. Jann Wenner, 71, was 24 when he founded the then newspaper form publication in San Francisco with the help of veteran Bay Area journalist Ralph Gleason. (The magazine relocated to NYC, Wenner’s hometown, in 1977.)
Wenner was in conversation with Alex Gibney, the director of a new documentary called ‘Rolling Stone - Stories From The Edge,’ released by HBO. An engaging discussion between the men was enjoyed in an intimate theater at the 143 year upper east side old institution 92Y.
Wenner went through the genesis and tenets of the publication, as well sharing some memorable antidotes. An interesting one was about Cameron Crowe. On a 1972 trip to Los Angeles from Crowe’s home town of Palm Springs, California, Crowe met Ben Fong-Torres, then the editor of Rolling Stone. Impressed with Crowe’s record and concert reviews, Fong-Torres wound up hiring Crowe to write for the magazine. Crowe was all of 15. Assigned by Wenner to travel with many bands, Crowe conducted extensive interviews with them, highlights being The Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin. Crowe rose through the ranks to become an associate editor. Wenner spoke about advising Crowe to be more objective with Zeppelin’s interviews, and approach it less as a fan and more like an impartial observer.
Crowe went on to be a very successful screenwriter and director, writing and directing many well known and received films, starting with 1982’s ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High.’ This film introduced the world to Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Eric Stoltz, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Anthony Edwards, Nicolas Cage and Forest Whitaker. Crowe wrote and directed ‘Almost Famous’ in 2000 as an ode to his time with Rolling Stone. Wenner said he loved the film and considers it Crowe’s love letter to the magazine.
This was in the context of Wenner and Gibney discussing how high level reporting has always been essential for Rolling Stone, with esteemed and seasoned journalists such as Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe being on board early on, in addition to Gleason.
Wenner explained that they never printed anything that their subjects didn’t want to be seen, and that they were respectful of this. Wenner had a brief background in reporting himself, that being with NBC news, being hired in 1964 at the ripe age of 21. This experience greatly helped shape Wenner’s vision of a future in reportage and the power of media at large.
In forming Rolling Stone, Wenner said that he and Gleason saw a niche that wasn’t being tapped in the states, that being a serious publication for Wenner’s generation that espoused their values, interests and concerns. He said that the market was mainly teen based magazines, and that they looked at British magazines of the time such as New Musical Express (NME), Melody Maker and Sounds as inspiration.
Wenner noted that the publication was started with an initial investment of $7,500, with the money coming from Wenner’s family, as well his then fiance Jane’s, and Gleason himself. The first cover featured John Lennon, with photos inside from Lennon’s recent appearance in the film ‘How I Won The War,’ directed by Richard Lester. A long standing relationship between Wenner, Lennon and Yoko Ono began from that point. This relationship was an important one to Wenner, as was the one with Gleason, a talented and thoughtful cultural writer and critic that was like a father figure to Wenner and taught him much. They would have extensive conversations about music, writing, culture and life in general.
Wenner went on to say that within a couple of years the publication, now a magazine format, was facing serious financial trouble. However, they were saved by receiving advances of $25,000 in advertising costs from the chiefs of three important record companies: Clive Davis of Columbia, Jac Holzman of Elektra and Gil Friesen of A&M. This coincided with the magazine broadening their subject matter to an audience that was gaining a lot of new readers. Politics were now covered more heavily, with Thompson being the front runner. Their coverage of the 1972 presidential race was their prime fodder.
Wenner made it clear that they were definitely on the left in their support and point of view. The magazine’s political based coverage continues to this day, with Wenner saying that his personally interviewing President Obama in his final months in office, and right after Trump was elected, was very meaningful for him. Wenner added that everyone in both his camp and President Obama’s had very much hoped that it would be Hillary Clinton that they’d be discussing as the incoming successor, and wasn’t sure that President Obama would even still want to do the interview after Trump prevailed, but fortunately he did.
Also discussed was how difficult it is for a hard copy magazine to thrive in today’s digital climate and that it’s time for Rolling Stone to be sold. It’s currently on the market and that end of things is being overseen by one of Wenner’s four sons, Gus. It remains to be seen how long Rolling Stone will live on. But cheers to hitting the big five 0.