In the spirit of Rolling Stone magazine’s classic 1980s “Perception. Reality” ad campaign, I ask its founder, Jann Wenner, to apply the distinction to himself. “I don’t know what the perception is. Probably an elder citizen,” Wenner, 76, says over Zoom, thick-framed spectacles framing a face graced by permanent stubble. “But maybe after this book an elder statesman.”
He is talking about his memoir, Like a Rolling Stone, which Little, Brown will publish on Sept. 12. It is the second book about Wenner’s life — and the magazine that often defined it — in the last five years. Wenner cooperated with Joe Hagan’s 2017 biography Sticky Fingers after agreeing that he would have no editorial control. He didn’t like the result. So Like A Rolling Stone is his account, score-settling included, of founding and running the publication that was at the center of 1960s counterculture and then — as the rock music that fueled it grew in power, popularity and dollar value — the mainstream for decades to come.
In the process, Wenner befriended some of the stars he most admired — among them, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono. (In an elegiac passage, he takes the former Beatle to a movie theater to see Let It Be. After the film, both men wept on the sidewalk outside.) As the magazine grew, it became known for both backstage and investigative journalism, and as the starting point for both Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. When Rolling Stone — and its audience — became central to politics in the ‘70s, U.S. Presidents sat for interviews.
“I would love for people read this book and see how important the rock ‘n’ roll thing was; how important the generation was and its place in history,” Wenner says. “True, we didn’t solve everything, but we moved the needle on lots of social and political issues.” As far back as the late 1960s, Wenner was publishing stories — and even a short-lived magazine called Earth Times in 1970 — that rang alarm bells about the destruction of the environment. And Rolling Stone crusaded for gun control following Lennon’s murder in 1980.
Rock music has since ceded its dominance to hip-hop, pop and reggaetón, and Wenner no longer owns Rolling Stone. In 2017, Penske Media Corporation, which also owns Billboard, acquired the brand. (Wenner’s son Gus remains its CEO.) That year, Wenner writes, he also had near-death experience after breaking his femur while playing tennis, which triggered a heart attack that required open-heart surgery. Judging from the Zoom call, Wenner’s vitality has returned, along with his perpetually restless demeanor and rapid-fire shorthand manner of speaking.
Looking back on his 50-year run with Rolling Stone, Wenner says the wisdom he can offer is a familiar phrase, and it’s not “All the News That Fits.” “You know what it came down to — the central organizing principle?” he says. “It’s those corny words, ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ That’s what the generation wanted; what I wanted.” And at this moment in his life, Wenner says, “I am a happy camper at the moment.”
You write at length about artists with whom you became friends. I’d like you to give me brief takes on their role in your life, the culture or both. Let’s start with Mick Jagger.
In college, he was kind of an idol for me and the exemplar of rock ‘n’ roll — the music, the attitude, and the way he conducted himself. Mick is a difficult person to get to know, but through our respective businesses, I got to know him rather well. We had a lot of fun together, and it was a great satisfying, long friendship, which continues to this day. But he moved back to Europe and his old house in London, so I don’t see him as much anymore.
You write that Jagger was hurt after reading Keith Richards’ memoir and you talked him down. Do you think the Stones would have disbanded if you hadn’t?
No, no, no. I think Mick needed talking down. He was really livid. And he needed someone to blow off steam with — someone who could understand it from the outside. I’m sure he talked to other people as well. But the Stones had too much momentum, and there was too much money involved for them to stop.
You also devote a number of passages to John Lennon.
I was still a kid when I got to know him, and I didn’t really get to know him as an adult, so it was more of a deep acquaintance. John was really smart and quick and impressive intellectually. You kind of had to be on guard with him a little. After the [1971 “Lennon Remembers” interview in Rolling Stone, in which he was highly critical of Paul McCartney, came to regret it and unsuccessfully tried to dissuade Wenner from turning it into a book], he cut off communications for a while. But he was forgiving and generous in spirit. After he died, I became great friends with Yoko. Sean [Lennon] and Yoko are big parts of my life.
What do you mean when you say you had to be on guard with him?
There are certain people who are on all the time — comedians, particularly — and you have to be at the top of your game to deal with them. He was so quick-witted that you had to step up your game quite a bit.
I was surprised to read that you were so close with Jacqueline Onassis.
We developed this big friendship, which was odd given the difference in our ages and backgrounds. I think that she was really looking for people to be friends with her kids, because her friends were all these old people from Jack [Kennedy]’s day. I think she was really trying to insert me into their lives.
She was successful. You became friends with John Kennedy Jr.
I’m good friends with his sister Caroline, too. And with Jackie. She published our books, and she was very encouraging to me. She took me by the hand when we got to New York and showed me around.
I was wondering if it had something to with you both being at the center of late 20th Century culture in different ways.
I don’t think so. We didn’t meet until like 1974, and by that time, she’s 11 years a pop icon and widow. I think she was trying to get away from that, and trying to establish a new life working with writers and interesting people who were not super politically connected — just looking for a more normal life for her and her kids. She was a great mom that way.
Judging from your book, Bob Dylan is one funny guy.
Bob is just enormous. Whenever we get together, we just start throwing one-liners and laugh the whole time. He’s very private, and I don’t blame him. Like Mick, it’s too much to deal with. They have meant so much to people in their lives, and it’s hard to respond to people who feel that way. It’s not their responsibility, but people come to them as if it’s their responsibility. He has always been great to me. We had only one confrontation, which I left out of the book because it was so long and dragged on. But I passed the test.
What was the blow-up about?
A minor thing — you know, who’s gonna run this interview, you or me? It was during the Rolling Thunder tour. In the middle of this party, he calls me over and says, “Have a seat.” And he points to the floor. I should sit on the floor for him. And it was in front of all his people — his court. [Laughs] So, I said, “Well, have one of your people bring me a chair.” And then it was, “How come you don’t put Hurricane Carter on a cover?” “I said, ‘Why don’t you put Hurricane Carter on the cover of your album?’” He said, “I did.” I said, “No. You did a single. We’ll do an article.” And finally, he gave up. This was a stage piece. It wasn’t deep.
As someone who has been immersed in politics for decades, how do you see the midterm elections playing out?
I’m full of hope about the midterms and 2024. Just a month ago, everyone was saying that Biden is not re-electable, here’s going to be inflation forever, and he’s gotten nothing done. Thirty days later, everything has changed. There’s a consensus in America that’s going to get reinforced about the need to deal powerfully with things like income inequality, gun control, climate change, racism, medical care. Those issues are not supported by about 40% of America: Trump, the Republican party, ideologues. But I think that time is waning. A boil has burst. That’s the cock-eyed optimist in me.
You’re critical of Barack Obama’s presidency in your book. What could he have done differently?
He could have gotten his hands a little dirtier in terms of entertaining congressman and his donors and playing power politics. And didn’t I specifically point out in the book? He should have investigated Bush. He should have allowed Congress to investigate the Iraq war. The lesson since at least Clinton in 1992 is that the Republicans are out to destroy unilaterally any opposition. You’re not going to charm Mitch McConnell because you’re so good at talking persuasively. You think, I can do that. I have that great talent. Well, f—, you don’t. That’s naive. You’re up against those powerful forces. He should have let Nancy Pelosi, [Sen. Patrick] Leahy and [Rep. John] Dingell investigate and put every goddamned important Republican on trial in front of the country. He didn’t play that game. And you’ve got to play that game.
Do you listen to current music at all?
Not too much.
Pop and hip-hop are dominant, and have been for years. What do you think of that?
There’s a lot of good stuff, and there’s a lot of trash and trivial stuff. Honestly, I don’t think it’s as good as [rock ’n’ roll]. I don’t think the singing is good, and I don’t think the arranging is good. Historically, it’s another turn in the cycle. Whether rock ‘n’ roll is going to come back — possibly not, because the sound is so different, and the circumstances are different. But I’m kind of stuck with the music I liked when I was young. Give me the Stones. There’s a new Bruce [Springsteen] record coming out this fall, which is stunning. I’m listening to that.
Any regrets about life, about Rolling Stone?
There’s obviously a lot of mistakes one made along the way one would like to correct. Business mistakes, or mistakes of judgment about publishing the Boston Marathon bomber on the cover. People you’ve hired. But overall if you get more of it right than wrong, in business, you’re ahead of the game.