Jann Wenner defends his legacy, and his generation's
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Jann Wenner defends his legacy, and his generation's
Jann Wenner, a co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine, at home in Montauk, N.Y. on Aug. 22, 2022. Wenner has written a second book rooted in his time at the magazine: “The Masters,” which will be published on Sept. 26, 2023, consists of interviews that he conducted during his Rolling Stone years with rock legends like Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Bono and others, as well as a new interview with Bruce Springsteen. (Dana Scruggs/The New York Times)

by David Marchese

NEW YORK, NY.- In 2019, Jann Wenner officially left Rolling Stone, the magazine he co-founded in 1967, but he hasn’t left it behind. Since stepping away from the iconic publication, where I briefly worked as an online editor a decade ago, Wenner, 77, has written two books rooted in his time there. The first, a hefty, dishy memoir called “Like a Rolling Stone,” was a bestseller after it was published last year. The second, “The Masters,” which will be published Sept. 26, consists of interviews that Wenner conducted during his Rolling Stone years with rock legends including Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Bono and others, as well as a new interview with Bruce Springsteen.

Those interviews — lengthy, deeply informed, insightful — are the kinds of pieces that helped Rolling Stone earn the reputation it held for so long as the music publication. Under Wenner’s guidance, the magazine also developed a reputation as a source of crucial and hard-hitting investigative journalism. But it has taken some reputational hits over the years. Chief among them a widely read investigative piece on an alleged rape at the University of Virginia — which turned out to never have happened.

As befits a man who has been held up as an avatar of his generation’s achievements and failings, Wenner has left behind a complex legacy. But it’s one that he’s happy to defend. Talking to Wenner, who spoke from his home in Montauk, New York, I couldn’t help but suspect that he misses the cut-and-thrust of his journalism days. He was very willing, eager even, to engage in discussion about his approach to interviewing his famous rock star friends, his own and his magazine’s possible missteps, and what the baby boomers really achieved. (This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.)

Q: You developed personal friendships with a lot of the people you interviewed in “The Masters.” I’m curious how you think those friendships helped the interviews, and are there any ways in which they hindered them?

A: By and large, they helped. Because the interviews I did, they’re not confrontational interviews. They’re not interviews with politicians or business executives. These are interviews with artists. They’re meant to be sympathetic, and they’re meant to elicit from the artist as deep as possible thinking that they’re willing to reveal. I think that the friendships were critical. I mean, the example of Mick Jagger — he just didn’t give interviews to anybody, and he still doesn’t. It’s because we were friends, I got him to do it. I had a particular kind of relationship with Bob Dylan. Jerry Garcia, we were old buddies from years ago. So, it really works. The only place it hurt was with Bruce. That was the interview I did for the book, not for the magazine. And my friendship with Bruce is very deep at this point. It makes it difficult to ask questions that you know the answers to. You’re trimming your sails to the friendship.

Q: In the Maureen Dowd profile of you last year, you said that the Rolling Stones look like “Lord of the Rings” characters. Did Mick Jagger give you a hard time about that?

A: Oh, yeah.

Q: What did he say?

A: He couldn’t believe I had said that. I had to say, “Look, I’m so sorry. I was just, in the pursuit of publicity, trying to be super clever and please forgive me.” Of course, he did. But it was one of those careless remarks. A friend shouldn’t say that kind of thing. You don’t want to read it in Maureen Dowd’s thing in The New York Times. Oh, Mick Jagger looks like he’s Gandalf the wizard. He was absolutely right, and I felt terrible.

Q: In the introduction to the Bono interview in “The Masters,” you mentioned that he edited and reviewed the transcript. What does editing mean in that context?

A: Looking for grammatical stuff, usage stuff; changing a word here and there, if he’d want to use a different word that’s more precise; maybe something was too intimate and he decides he doesn’t want to put it on the public record. I’m happy to do that with these subjects. As I said before, these are not meant to be confrontational interviews. These are profiles in a way. If I have to trade the level of trust that is necessary to get this kind of interview, to let people put a few things off the record, nothing of any value, maybe something about their kids or their family or not wanting to put down somebody. I let John Lennon edit his interview, and everything he said in that interview —

Q: Oh, is that true? This is a famous interview from 1970. He unloaded his public feelings about the Beatles. But I didn’t realize that you let him edit it.

A: Yes. He went through, and he made changes here and there. Basically, it’s interview subjects clarifying what they want to say, making it more precise. Because it’s a long stream of yap and verbiage and you sometimes don’t think through every word. I want them to have the opportunity to say precisely what they meant.

Q: I think it’s fair to say that the average reader assumes that what shows up in the publication is basically what was said. But you’re saying, actually the subjects go over the transcripts. And, for example, you got pilloried for reviewing Mick Jagger’s “Goddess in the Doorway,” giving it five stars, when the critical consensus on that album was that it was kind of a dud. The broader question is, when it comes to interviews with the people that you admire, who are also your friends, are you shading into something that’s a little more like fan service, or a kind of branding, than objective journalism?

A: Look, nothing was ever substantively changed from the original interviews. These are all minor changes that really get to accuracy and readability and all that stuff. Secondly, these were not meant to be confrontational interviews. They were always meant to be cooperative interviews.

Q: But there aren’t two kinds of interviews.

A: Yes, there are. The kind of interview I wanted to do was to elicit real thinking, not to confront or challenge or get somebody defensive. But let’s go to the underlying thing: Did my too-cozy relationships alter our coverage?

Q: That’s right.

A: OK, let’s go to the example of the Mick Jagger thing. The editors themselves put it at four stars, and there was not a critical backlash to the thing. The only backlash to it was from Keith Richards, who, instead of calling it “Goddess in the Doorway,” called it “Dogshit in the Doorway.” It’s still quite a good album. So I personally intervened. Having sat there and listened to Mick make it, I was in love with it. I confess: I probably went too far. So what? I’m entitled.

Q: Rolling Stone had a history of producing certain kinds of stories that ended up being definitive. But there were a handful of stories that raised questions of integrity. The University of Virginia campus rape story would be one of those. Even Hunter S. Thompson — I don’t know that anyone would hold him up as a beacon of factual accuracy, regardless of the literary merit of his stories. Was there anything endemic to Rolling Stone that caused you to put the pursuit of the juicy story ahead of concerns with accuracy?

A: One word answer: no.

Q: Is it just one-offs?

A: The University of Virginia story was not a failure of intent, or an attempt to be loose with the facts. You get beyond the factual errors that sank that story, and it was really about the issue of rape and how it affects women on campus, their lack of rights. Other than this one key fact that the rape described actually was a fabrication of this woman, the rest of the story was bulletproof. It wasn’t for recklessness. I mean, we made one of those errors — every publication in the country, including The Times, makes every 50 years at least. You get slammed for it. We took our beating. But it wasn’t indicative of how we operated. It wasn’t an error of being casual with the truth, or trying to stretch it, or mission creep, or anything like that.

Hunter, well, you know, sui generis. Hunter, in fact, was as accurate a reporter as I’ve ever had, but it’s just that his stories went beyond facts, into areas of the truth and spirituality and pharmacology that none of us are really able to judge on our own. My mission always, journalistically speaking, was the truth is the most important thing. As we all know now, if somebody really wants to hoax you, there’s very little you can do about it. Except have the kind of hypervigilance that would mean you could probably publish nothing.

Q: So, almost a decade later, there are no lessons that you drew from that experience? In your mind, it’s just wrong place, wrong time? That seems like sort of a glib response.

A: There are two main things in the story. One was the account of this gang rape given to us by this source, Jackie. That turned out to be a fabrication. Because we didn’t want to identify her, we didn’t demand to meet people to corroborate her story. Our mistake was to let her out of that demand, not wanting to put her through the trauma again. That was one story that ran through the long piece. The other story, having nothing to do with Jackie, was about the handling of rape on that campus by other people — handling rape in general across the country. It was a conscientious, serious attempt to do that issue, and that was like the third piece by that particular individual on sex crimes and one of our second or third pieces about campus rape. So then the hoax was discovered and we lived with the consequence of that. It was one of the most miserable professional experiences I’ve ever had. I don’t mean to be glib about it, but I don’t feel wholly to blame for this, or that it’s some terrible black mark. I think the lesson I learned is, yes, it does happen to everybody. The other thing is, of course, we could have been tighter. So, you know, there’s a series of circumstances. I can’t pull out the hara-kiri knife for that one.

Q: To go back to the book now, in the introduction to the book —

A: Am I let off the hook, David? Am I forgiven?

Q: That’s not for me to decide.

A: History will speak.

Q: History will speak. This is also a history-will-speak kind of question.

There are seven subjects in the new book; seven white guys. In the introduction, you acknowledge that performers of color and women performers are just not in your zeitgeist. Which to my mind is not plausible for Jann Wenner. Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, Stevie Wonder, the list keeps going — not in your zeitgeist? What do you think is the deeper explanation for why you interviewed the subjects you interviewed and not other subjects?

A: Well, let me just …

Q: Carole King, Madonna. There are a million examples.

A: When I was referring to the zeitgeist, I was referring to Black performers, not to the female performers, OK? Just to get that accurate. The selection was not a deliberate selection. It was kind of intuitive over the years; it just fell together that way. The people had to meet a couple criteria, but it was just kind of my personal interest and love of them. Insofar as the women, just none of them were as articulate enough on this intellectual level.

Q: Oh, stop it. You’re telling me Joni Mitchell is not articulate enough on an intellectual level?

A: Hold on a second.

Q: I’ll let you rephrase that.

A: All right, thank you. It’s not that they’re not creative geniuses. It’s not that they’re inarticulate — although, go have a deep conversation with Grace Slick or Janis Joplin. Please, be my guest. You know, Joni was not a philosopher of rock ’n’ roll. She didn’t, in my mind, meet that test. Not by her work, not by other interviews she did. The people I interviewed were the kind of philosophers of rock.

Of Black artists — you know, Stevie Wonder, genius, right? I suppose when you use a word as broad as “masters,” the fault is using that word. Maybe Marvin Gaye, or Curtis Mayfield? I mean, they just didn’t articulate at that level.

Q: How do you know if you didn’t give them a chance?

A: Because I read interviews with them. I listen to their music. I mean, look at what Pete Townshend was writing about, or Jagger, or any of them. They were deep things about a particular generation, a particular spirit and a particular attitude about rock ’n’ roll. Not that the others weren’t, but these were the ones that could really articulate it.

Q: Don’t you think it’s actually more to do with your own interests as a fan and a listener than anything particular to the artists? I think the problem is when you start saying things like “they” or “these artists can’t.” Really, it’s a reflection of what you’re interested in more than any ability or inability on the part of these artists, isn’t it?

A: That was my No. 1 thing. The selection was intuitive. It was what I was interested in. You know, just for public relations’ sake, maybe I should have gone and found one Black and one woman artist to include here that didn’t measure up to that same historical standard, just to avert this kind of criticism. Which, I get it. I had a chance to do that. Maybe I’m old-fashioned and I don’t give a [expletive] or whatever. I wish in retrospect I could have interviewed Marvin Gaye. Maybe he’d have been the guy. Maybe Otis Redding, had he lived, would have been the guy.

Q: The last interview in the book — Springsteen, you ask him: Did we change things? You were talking about the boomers. And he has this humble, positive answer: We didn’t fix all the world’s problems, but we moved some social ideas and practices forward. What’s your answer to that question?

A: Bruce is a little more modest than I am. I think that we made striking changes socially and morally and artistically. I don’t think rock ’n’ roll changed everything. I don’t think rock ’n’ roll overturned segregation or the war in Vietnam, but we played huge parts in it. Both consciously and unconsciously. Despite the Trump thing, despite the Republican presidents of the last 30 years, which have held back enormous amounts of progress, society has become so much more liberal. I think rock ’n’ roll played a huge role in that. Did it do everything? No. Was it the sole thing? No. But we did a lot.

Q: So, what are valid criticisms of your generation?

A: What didn’t the rock ’n’ roll generation do? I mean, it didn’t get everything done. But I have no fundamental, deep criticisms. Is there something that you think we didn’t get right?

Q: I did one of these interviews a few years ago with Pete Townshend, and I asked him a similar question about the promise of rock ’n’ roll — how it ended up playing out. He was much more negative and, I think, realistic about that — basically saying that the promise ended up being abandoned as soon as there was enough money and stardom. I think that’s a valid criticism. Something that had potential as a social force was reduced to entertainment.

A: Well, God bless Pete. I could have predicted what he’d say. Pete has got a pox on everybody.

Q: But a smart man who has some good ideas.

A: Smart, articulate, a wonderful person to talk to. So you are saying, and Pete is saying, “Oh, it became commercial”?

Q: That it ceased to have meaning beyond itself.

A: So it became commercial. It became successful. I think I say this somewhere in my introduction to the book that, despite the fact that it became a billion-dollar business, the ideals and goals were never abandoned. I mean, to reach the peak in our society is now being called becoming a rock star. Yes, it became commercial, but so what? It’s still a music that speaks to people’s deepest desires and innermost thoughts. It’s still a music of political consequence.

The financial success that these people had didn’t require them to sell out. It required them to do more of the same. Be just as outrageous; do what you’re doing. Nobody said, “You have to tone back your message now.” I mean, God bless Pete, and I know he’d say that. But it’s not true. The work was worthwhile, we had fun doing it. It was meaningful. We were very lucky. We’ve lived really privileged lives. Now, we get to rest. At the same time, we can look at our kids and the world we leave behind as being as motivated and as inspired to do the same thing. In that sense, rock ’n’ roll still lives — and will live.

Q: Well, thank you for taking the time to talk with me.

A: I enjoyed doing it. I wouldn’t mind seeing the written transcript. I’d be curious to look it over.

Q: Yeah, right!

A: After it’s published. God, forgive me.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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