Wenner Book Stirs Memories

I really enjoy reading a book I connect to – one that, because it spins me into continuous reflection and reminiscence, I can’t put down.

Jann Wenner’s memoir, Like a Rolling Stone, is such a read, pulling me back to high school, college, and parts of five decades working for a small-town daily newspaper in a place I know.

In case Wenner doesn’t ring a bell, he is the founder of Rolling Stone magazine (RS), which began as a rock and roll journal and became much, much more – a New Journalism bible that gave creative voices like Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Joe Eszterhas, Tim Cahill, William Greider, Joan Didion, and many more a place to play.

Wenner’s 554-page tour de force chronicles RS’s evolution to a media empire valued in the hundreds of millions. It hit the street in September. By the time I purchased a copy online in November, it was in its third printing. The work of a fellow Baby Boomer seven years my senior, I found it to be a quick, captivating read. I suppose that goes without saying, considering that I came of age with the magazine in the mid-Sixties and Seventies and have not missed an issue as a lifetime subscriber since the early Eighties. Plus, we share the same political bedrock.

What I already knew about Wenner was that he sold RS five years ago, and that its print edition has been scaled back to make way for a 24-hour online feed that’s not covered by my lifetime subscription. That I deciphered from catching breaking, cable-TV news alerts attributed to RS that never found their way into the monthly print edition. Thus far, I have resisted the impulse to purchase a $4.99-per-month online subscription.

There were, however, a few things I didn’t know before opening the book. Not one to read supermarket exposé rags, People magazine, or metro newspaper gossip columns, or watch the likes of Inside Edition on TV, I was not aware that Wenner was gay. Nearing 50 in 1995, he finally “came out” by leaving his wife and three young children for a young boy-toy model, with whom he had three more children. I was also unaware that he had been at death’s door due to a heart attack five years ago.

Wenner’s book took me on an evocative ride through my own life journey, starting with my peach-fuzzed teen years. Just a 14-year-old Frontier Regional School freshman for RS’s inaugural October 17, 1967 issue, I can’t claim to have read or even known of its existence back then. Yeah, it’s possible there were a few college-town copies kicking around in Amherst/Northampton record stores – but, if so, I didn’t see them. My hunch is that it took a year or more for the old two-fold, biweekly tabloid to gain wide Happy Valley circulation.

Not so in the Flower-Power neighborhood of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, then the home of Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Grace Slick and Janis Joplin, to name but a handful of its musicians. RS was published and widely available in the Hippie Bay Area from the start.

Some 3,000 miles east, I had just entered my freshman year of high school, living a stone’s throw across Bloody Brook from the South Deerfield school. It was a transition year of sorts for me. Some of my friends and classmates had left public school for Deerfield Academy. Then a staid boys’ prep school of blue blazers, Oxford shirts, khakis, and wing-tips or shined penny loafers, it was no place for anyone agog with Sixties activism and cultural revolution.

A couple of years earlier, when I entered Frontier junior high in 1965, upperclassmen were scheming to challenge to the school’s draconian dress code. As I recall, males were prohibited from wearing their hair below the collar, sideburns past mid-ear, or beards and mustaches, while jeans, bellbottoms, T-shirts, and sandals were also taboo. The fairer sex was limited to skirts and dresses covering the knees, with slacks and shorts prohibited. There was no room for the chic miniskirt and earthy braless look of the day.

As winter faded to spring, hallway whispers of a protest were abuzz. The plan was to organize an en masse dress-code-violation day. When this day of defiance arrived and drew overwhelming support, the wheels of change were flicked into motion, and it wasn’t long before the school committee adopted a more liberal dress code.

That is not to suggest there wasn’t strong opposition from conservative, law-and-order types. No, in fact, full-throated disagreement was persistent from Goldwater men my father privately, in the comforts of home, called “John Birchers.” Of a reactionary, flag-waving, love-it-or-leave-it persuasion, these “patriots” wailed about inmates running the asylum.

Reading Wenner brought it all back to me in living color, deeply stirring my memory juices.

That right-wing clamor only got louder when, fueled by opposition to the Vietnam war, the drinking age was lowered from 21 to 18. The justification was that teens drafted for foreign wars should not have been deemed by law too young to buy spirituous liquor. Again, there were strong arguments on both sides of that issue, but liberals eventually prevailed and the drinking age was lowered.

This new freedom, coupled with release of a new, easily accessible birth-control pill, unleashed a raucous, Roaring Twenties-like scene that lasted about a decade on college campuses across the land. Then, with Vietnam far in the rearview, Reagan steering the ship of state, and college campuses running amuck, Mothers Against Drunk Driving banged the drinking-age drum back to 21.

With its trademark leftist lean, RS jumped into all those battles and many more. The biweekly rock and roll periodical became the voice of the young, taking courageous stands on civil rights, abortion, birth control, marijuana, LSD, and women’s lib, while covering the crushing 1968 assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King and condemning the National Guard murders of Kent State antiwar protesters.

RS also warned of dire consequences relating to the re-emergence of Richard M. Nixon, who welcomed George Wallace’s segregationist Dixiecrats into the GOP to narrowly defeat Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election. Yes, Martha, that was the genesis of our current Republican Party, now the voice of the South and white nationalism headquartered at Mar-a-Lago.

Though introduced to an occasional RS issue in the late Sixties, I didn’t become a devoted reader until my college years of the early Seventies. That’s when I had the good fortune of meeting UMass Professor Howard Ziff – the former Chicago Daily News night editor who grew up in Holyoke and graduated from Amherst College. Soon after we met, he told me he remembered playing football against my dad.

Ziff and I arrived at UMass in 1971. Holyoke friend David M. Bartley, then a state rep, had recruited him to establish a Journalism Department at UMass’ Amherst flagship. Talk about being at the right place, right time – I had a front-row seat.

Working his city newsroom on the periphery, Ziff had witnessed the ugly Chicago Democratic National Convention of 1968 and was deeply disturbed by what he viewed as misleading, whitewashed news coverage of the riotous police brutality that unfolded. Disillusioned with the mainstream media as a result, he ended his newspaper career and landed in Amherst, where I found him. Looking back, I find it disheartening that never in my travels did a meet another journalist worthy of the respect I hold for him. He was head and shoulders above the rest. I feel fortunate to have met him, and only wish I could have worked for such a man.

Ziff was a pre-24/7-cable-news and pre-Internet visionary who strongly believed the future of print news was New Journalism. He called it RS style and fed us a steady diet of Thompson, Wolfe, Eszterhas, Didion and many other “New News” pioneers. A Dickens and Orwell scholar, he also gave us a good dose of those iconic British writers considered by him to be the fathers of New Journalism, their creative non-fiction way ahead of its time.

He believed that “objective,” cream-of-wheat AP Style reporting was passé and already starting to chase away some newspaper readers. He believed modern, educated readers wanted more pizzazz from bold, creative voices willing to take positions on important issues with an entertaining voice. Conservative mainstream news editors stuck in their old ways didn’t buy it, and I got a good taste of such dandruff-specked, out-of-touch dinosaurs in my own newsroom.

There, pasted on the office wall of an editor and teacher through whose desk all local copy passed, was a bold, 84-point warning that read, “NO ADJECTIVES!” Imagine that. This from a man born within days of me and educated at another New England university. That boldface office sign condemning adjectives as enemies was a disqualifier in my world, and I craftily avoided the man for more than 30 years until it became impossible.

Before I retired, this man displayed his true socio-political colors during the daily editor’s meeting held in his office. There he told of his brother – I want to say older – who had retired to South Carolina to flee the Massholes flocking to his Granite State. Oh my! No wonder we had irreconcilable differences about news gathering and style.

Old habits die hard, even when the handwriting was on the wall and newspapers across the land, including ours, were hemorrhaging readers at an alarming rate to TV and Internet news. Tired of objective AP Style with many online options available, sophisticated readers peeling off in new directions. On their way out the door, they snickered aloud pondering when newspaper climate-change stories would stop auto-inserting the annoying caveat that some scientists do not believe in human culpability.

Wenner the innovator filled the niche and reaped riches. His memoir brought it all home to me, and then some, in one tidy package. I found validating his defense of RS style, and fascinating his reminiscence of difficult professional exchanges with Hunter Thompson – high priest of Gonzo Journalism and perhaps the all-time best chronicler of presidential campaigns. Read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 if you doubt me. It’s a classic: Essential HST.

Having read and remembered most of the landmark stories Wenner cites in his memoir gave me personal insight into the dynamics, as did working simultaneously for my entire full-time newspaper career in a smalltime newsroom not nearly as interesting or “with it” as his.

I highly recommend the book to anyone north of 60, and would encourage younger readers to give it an open-winded shot. RS and New Journalism was a product of the idealistic Sixties, and everyone, young, old and in between – even Reagan Revolutionaries – would be better off with a little nibble.


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