I spoke with Jann Wenner (pictured with Carlos Santana in 1998), the founder, editor and publisher of Rolling Stone in April 2007 on the subject of the magazine’s 40th anniversary, which was marked that year with three special issues, largely dealing in nostalgia. It’s hip to trash Rolling Stone now, but it’s the only game in town And Wenner truly is a character. Looking back on the transcript, we seem like a couple of gals gabbing over wine coolers at the country club pool.
The Robert Draper book Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History is well worth tracking down. Jann previously told me he had never read it. It’s a pity. A memorable anecdote involves him deflowering a girl (!), inviting her to dinner with some pals, and using – unknown to her – the blood-stained sheet as a tablecloth.
HOW LONG HAVE THESE 40TH ANNIVERSARY SPECIALS BEEN IN THE WORKS FOR?
Oh, about a year.
SO AT THE SAME TIME YOU WERE DOING THE 1,000TH ISSUE-
-No, right after that. I thought, How are we going to top that? I knew we had the thousandth issue, and I knew we had to do something else with the fortieth. And I thought I’d just make the thousandth issue more of a celebration and a party-type thing. And for the fortieth issue, I thought we’d better crack down, do something of some real gravitas, and spread it out.
IT SEEMS LIKE YESTERDAY THAT YOU HAD THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY ISSUES, THE INTERVIEWS, THE PHOTOS AND THE OLD STORIES. SO I GUESS YOU WANTED TO DIFFERENTIATE FROM THOSE?
That’s a good memory … They were great issues though. Do you have our 20th anniversary issue?
NO, YOU’LL HAVE TO SEND THAT TO ME
This is modeled a little on that. This is like, ask people who you think are among the most influential of our times to say what they thought happened, and what it was about, what it meant, what lasts.
WHAT WAS YOUR PERSONAL CONTRIBUTION?
I interviewed Bob Dylan.
THAT WAS WHAT YOU WENT TO AMSTERDAM FOR?
THAT’S A LONG WAY TO GO FOR, WHAT? A 10-MINUTE INTERVIEW?
Hey, Muhammad had to go the mountain.
HOW LONG DID YOU SPEAK TO HIM FOR?
We sat down for about two hours.
WOW! WHAT REVELATIONS DID HE COME UP WITH?
It’s not revelations. You get a sense of who he is, and what he thinks, what his life is like a little today, what kind of personality.
HOW IS IT (HIS LIFE?)
He’s on the road, he loves playing, he loves doing his work.
SO HOW’S YOUR LIFE TODAY?
Aah, a lotta fun. I’ve got a great job
YES, I’VE BEEN READING ABOUT YOU IN PAGE SIX TODAY (ALLEGEDLY IN SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES WITH A MAN WHO’S NOT HIS BOYFRIEND, AND NOT JON BON JOVI)
Complete falsehoods. I don’t even know how to address it … I can say one thing for the record, it’s completely untrue.
WHAT PERSONAL CHANGES HAVE YOU UNDERGONE IN THE PAST 40 YEARS. WHEN YOU LOOK BACK AT 1967, DO YOU FEEL YOU’VE CHANGE THAT MUCH SINCE THEN?
I asked these same questions of Dylan! One thing is definitely you can feel it, those little aches and creaks. I feel I’ve kind of got the same spirit and the same energy, and kinda youthful. I do feel a little smarter, a little wiser. Age can be a wonderful thing, you get smarter. It’s just the sheer experience of it.
YOU’RE JUST AS FAMOUS AS THE PEOPLE IN THE MAGAZINE-
-No, no, that’s no true.
NO, IT’S TRUE. YOU’RE ONE OF MY HEROES ON MYSPACE
Your space, or my space?
ON MY MY MYSPACE, YOU’RE ONE OF MY MY HEROES
Well, thank you, thank you, thank you.
NO PROBLEM. YOU AND GEORGE BUSH! JUST KIDDING. ALMOST AS FAMOUS, LET’S SAY. IS IT SOMETIMES HARD TO GET MOTIVATED TO WRITE ABOUT THESE PEOPLE?
Well, first of all, I don’t feel as … In New York or literary circles or magazine in journalism I’m very well known, obviously and that’s fine. But in terms of the real full world, there’s politicians and writers. The people in this (special issue), Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Neil Young, on and on and on. Paul McCartney, Keith, Mick, Ringo. I think these are very important people. They have been principal contributors to what has made our time. They are the principal people of the post-war baby boom. Not all of them are the post-war baby boom. There’s a few older than — McGovern, Carter, Mailer, Tom Wolfe. But they have been vital contributors and loved through this whole period of the baby boom growing up.
I WAS THINKING ABOUT THE MAGAZINE IN GENERAL. NOT THESE SPECIAL ISSUES. BUT WHEN YOU’VE GOT SOME GUY FROM GOOD CHARLOTTE OR FALL OUT BOY ON THE COVER, YOU JUST GO, “GOD! HERE IT GOES AGAIN.” IT’S HARD TO GET MOTIVATED?
Oh, no, no, no. One of the things age does for you is you see that life comes in cycles and art comes in cycles, We put out 26 issues and a year and some are going to be wonderful to do and really deep and everyone’s gonna applaud, doing a massive interview with Bono, right? Or a special issue, or putting Bush on the cover and calling him the worst president ever. Someone will be really happy we put the Chili Peppers on the cover and John Mayer and Bob Dylan. Sometimes you don’t every choice like this. Sometimes you just put pop acts on the cover, because they’re interesting and fun at the moment. Fall Out Boy, they deserve it, they’re good. It’s not a big seller. It’s not my thing, but a lot of people like that. It’s a full range of stuff. You just can’t have Bono every issue. I wouldn’t even want it if I could have it.
EVERY TIME I GET MOJO IN THE MAIL. THEY’VE GOT THE BEATLES ON THE COVER. IT GETS A BIT TIRING AFTER A WHILE.
We do the Beatles every two years. But every two years!
WHERE DOES ROLLING STONE FIT IN SOCIETY. WHERE WAS THE TURNING POINT WHEN YOU BECAME PART OF THE ESTABLISHMENT, LIKE CONDE NAST?
It’s been a gradual thing, just like the generation has kinda slowly taken over American society. And the values of the ’60s and the baby boom have become mainstream values, in terms of ethical stuff, or stylistic, cultural stuff. Whether it’s the music or the influence on movies or television. A lot of the political and social agenda, for social justice and equal rights for women, environment, sex ,gay rights, civil rights. All these things came out of the ’60s and the activism of the post-war baby boom.
HAVE WE MADE THAT MANY STRIDES SINCE THEN?
I thought we were doing great in the Clinton years. We really had pushed ahead. And I think we’re now in this historical accident of the Bush administration. He got elected as a moderate or compassionate conservative. Nobody knew that he was going to take a hard-right turn. And on September 10th, it was widely considered that was a failed presidency and he was a one-term president. And then September 11 things changed, and his administration played upon people who were afraid. At a time of real fear in this country, they manipulated it in a way that nobody thought possible. And they sent it off the track. What’s happening right now is they’ve been found out, people are horrified and people have rejected hum. He’s gonna ruin the Republican party because of this. People are rejecting this war thing, the corruption, the taking of money away from poor people and middle-class people. All that stuff — the environment, the regressive nature of the civil rights stuff, trying to stop black people voting. All those things which we thought we were through with, Bush started to put back in under this fear and this war, and that’s been really widely rejected … Look at who’s running for president, who’s got the best chances right now: a woman, a black person, John Edwards is a pretty radical guy, and you’re even talking about a New York Jewish mayor as being a big favorite. Things have changed. We had a real weird episode there.
IN A WAY, IT’S QUITE GOOD FOR ROLLING STONE BECAUSE IT MAKES YOU THE OUTSIDER AGAIN?
Certainly we have benefited from doing a lot of very provocative political coverage.
OVER THE PAST 40 YEARS, CAN YOU THINK OF ANY BIG STORIES THAT GOT AWAY?
No, I can’t think of any. We’ve covered everybody, and gotten major interviews from everybody of importance, whether they’ve been presidents or poets. We’ve delivered Bob Dylan interviews, five, six, seven, eight times. Three Clinton interviews.
I WAS THINKING OF FRANK SINATRA. DIDN’T THAT ONE SLIP AWAY?
Oh yeah! We were kinda offered the opportunity to go hang out for a bit, but it was always a little suspicious. We were told that he’d give an interview. But he hadn’t given an interview in 30 years and he was not about to. So that could have been fun, but that didn’t come through. But I’m not sure that was our thing to do anyway.
WHAT ARE YOUR CURRENT MUSICAL TASTES?
There’s a variety of new music I like a lot. Like I was listening to Kings of Leon today. The Strokes, I like a lot. The big hits of this last year I thought have been really great, which were the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the John Mayer record, the Dylan record. The three records I play all the time. That’s nice that they’re also three of the biggest records. And then of course, the Stones, Dylan. I still love to listen to the R&B classics and the mainstream rock classics.
ARE YOU GOING TO EUROPE TO SEE THE STONES?
Ahh, no. No, no, no. I don’t think so.
I’LL BE THERE. I’LL SEND YOU A POSTCARD.
I’ve seen the Stones quite a few times.
NOT AS MANY AS ME
Oh, really? How many? What? Wait a minute. Slow down.
I DON’T HAVE THE ACCESS THAT YOU DO, OBVIOUSLY
How many times have you seen the Stones?
AHH, HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-SIX
Are you serious?!
You’ve counted them?!
You have done more than me. I usually get 3 or 4 times a tour. But you’ve done it 10, 12 times a tour.
YEAH, I KNOW, AT LEAST
What did you think of this last tour?
THIS LAST TOUR HAS BEEN REALLY GOOD. WHEN THEY CAME BACK LAST FALL AND PLAYED LITTLE TOWNS LIKE WICHITA AND MISSOULA, IT WAS JUST PHENOMENAL. AND THOSE TWO HOLLYWOOD BOWL SHOWS (IN 2005)
I was at that one.
THEY WERE GREAT. I WAS IN THE FRONT ROW FOR BOTH THOSE
What do you mean, front row?
THEY STUCK ME IN THE FRONT ROW. THEY’RE GOOD TO ME. I TURNED AROUND AND SAW JOHNNY DEPP BEHIND ME, BORED OUT OF HIS SKULL
I was there the next night.
TOM HANKS WAS THERE THAT NIGHT
He was my guest
REALLY? HE WAS COOL! I’VE GOT NEWFOUND RESPECT FOR THAT GUY, BECAUSE HE WAS ACTING LIKE A 10-YEAR-OLD GIRL AT AN ‘N SYNC CONCERT
Rockin’ it up. Those were my seats. That’s front row. I was sitting at the lip of the stage in the director’s chair for half the concert. Then I gave Tom the chance to sit up there too, right dead-fuck in front of Mick. And my eyes are right at his feet.
YOU WERE AT THE LIP. WE WERE IN THE FOUNTAIN AREA RIGHT AT THE VERY FRONT, THE ENCLOSED AREA WHERE THEY HAD 3 ROWS OF SEATS.
Later, Mick runs into Rita, Tom’s wife. She says, “I was there with Jann.” He says, “Oh yes, I know. I kept looking down and he just wasn’t being responsive! What do I have to do to get his ass going?!” And I was sitting there (at the show) thinking, be quiet and small, not to distract him. That was one of their terrific shows … So, I keep going back to that. I’ve loved all their records. I loved “Bridges” more than I loved the last one. But the last one, I enjoyed a lot. Mick’s solo records, I think, are way under-rated.
THAT’S THE INFAMOUS FIVE-STAR REVIEW YOU GAVE THE LAST ONE (“GODDESS IN THE DOORWAY” 2001)
You’ve been following my work.
WANDERING SPIRIT WAS PHENOMENAL, I EVEN LIKED SHE’S THE BOSS, AND I THOUGHT PRIMITIVE COOL HAD SOME GOOD STUFF ON IT. BUT GODDESS IN THE DOORWAY?
You know that story about what Keith was calling it? Dogshit in the doorway.
I LISTENED TO IT ONCE, BUT NO. I THINK YOUR FIVE-STAR REVIEW WAS GENEROUS
It may have been a little over the top. But it was definitely four, for sure.
DO YOU HAVE ANY CONCERTS OR PARTIES PLANNED? SOMETHING TO TRY AND LEVERAGE THE ROLLING STONE BRAND?
Not at the moment … Well, maybe, I don’t know. I realize that stuff’s good and important to do. It’s not my main agenda. I like the issues themselves. I’m hoping now that we’ve just finished this and I’m just back in town, I’m going to try and think of a good idea to kinda leverage the last of the 40th anniversary issues. But it wouldn’t be a concert. It wouldn’t be a party. I’d like to rather do something else, and I’m not quite sure what it is yet.
WELL, KEEP ME IN THE LOOP. IF YOU’RE NOT AROUND FOR THE 50TH, IS THERE A SUCCESSION PLAN IN PLACE?
Not at the moment. I’m planning to be around … I don’t know.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO (HOLDING COMPANY) STRAIGHT ARROW AND SO ON?
I don’t know. It will have to be decided by my heirs.
YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO ORGANIZE IT NOW SO THE TAXMAN DOESN’T TAKE IT
It’s all organized.
WILL ROLLING STONE STAY IN THE FAMILY?
I don’t know. It’s up to them to decide. When you’re done and gone, do you really care?
DOES IT BUG YOU THAT YOU’RE NOT AS RICH AS YOU COULD BE?
DIDN’T MTV COME TO YOU AND OFFER YOU THE CHANCE TO INVEST? AND THE GUY FROM NETSCAPE CAME AND ASKED IF YOU WANTED TO INVEST?
How do you know all this stuff? You are really well read on this stuff. Where have you been reading all this shit?
I DON’T KNOW. I JUST KNOW EVERYTHING ABOUT YOU
No, it doesn’t bug me. (MTV co-founder Bob) Pittman once did ask me to buy Rolling Stone and he said at the time I could have 25 percent of MTV. It doesn’t bug me because I would have sold that, a long time ago. I would never have had the wisdom or foresight to hang onto it and own more of Viacom than Sumner Redstone.
YOU COULD HAVE BEEN THE DAVID GEFFEN OF THE PUBLISHING WORLD?
I am the David Geffen of the publishing world! What are you talking about?!
ARE YOU A BILLIONAIRE?
Totally! Five times over! Six times. No, just kidding.
WHAT WOULD YOUR NET WORTH BE?
I don’t know.
YOU HAVE A PRIVATE JET, RIGHT?
WHAT ELSE DO YOU HAVE? HOW MANY HOMES DO YOU HAVE?
That’s enough. That’s enough about my private life.
HOW MANY CD’S DO YOU HAVE? DO YOU HAVE A CD ROOM?
You know what I got recently? They’re called an Olive, and they hold a thousand CDs, not in MP3 form, but in full files. They’re not compressed. There’s about a thousand in there that I regularly have as a library, ongoing library. But what’s in the basement, what’s in storage, there must be quite a few thousand.
COOL, THANKS, JANN. ANYTHING ELSE WE NEED TO DISCUSS?
I don’t think so. It’s been fun. Or as the Dead said, It’s been a trip, it’s been real, and it’s definitely been long and strange.
NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com
Copyright © 2007, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING