1 Mar 2018

Fifty years of Rolling Stone

From Nine To Noon, 10:06 am on 1 March 2018

In December 1980 John Lennon and Yoko Ono were posing for Rolling Stone photographer Annie Leibovitz. In what was to become a haunting cover shot in January 1981, a naked John Lennon embraced a fully-clothed Yoko Ono. 

Hours later, Lennon was gunned down outside his Dakota Building home in New York.

It was the end of a tumultuous relationship with Rolling Stone magazine.

Thirteen years earlier Lennon had appeared in the first edition of the San Francisco-based rock and counter culture magazine.

And soon Rolling Stone became almost a “mouthpiece” for John and Yoko according to Joe Hagan, author of Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine.

Rolling Stone, while born of the counter culture in the late sixties, became a huge publishing success and made co-founder Jann Wenner a very rich man.

It launched the careers of many of America's most famous journalists including Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe and Cameron Crowe and an appearance on its cover was coveted by rock n roll royalty and wannabes alike.

Hagan tells the story of Wenner's journey from a 21-year old Berkeley dropout to one of the most influential forces in pop culture in the first authorised biography written about him.

Wenner was from the start, despite the modish hippy hair and clothes, an ambitious hustler, Hagan says, and he cultivated friendships with rock stars as a form of social climbing.

He was a “stone cold Beatles fan”, Hagan says, and Lennon was his first celebrity snare.

“In many ways Rolling Stone became kind of a mouthpiece for John and Yoko as they began to break away from the Beatles.

“Leading up to 1970 they had developed a trust and a friendship because basically he said I will print anything you say.”

When the Beatles did finally split, Lennon gave an exclusive “exit interview” to Rolling Stone in 1971. In the middle of primal scream therapy, Lennon opened his heart and tore into his erstwhile bandmates – in particular Paul McCartney.

Rolling Stone published the interview over two editions and it was a huge success. Wenner saw dollar signs and wanted to publish the interview as a book to capitalise on that success. But in a handshake deal before the interview had agreed the material belonged to Lennon who granted Rolling Stone permission to publish.

Lennon was adamant the book should not to go ahead, but Wenner ignored his friend’s wishes and published anyway. Lennon never spoke to him again. 

“He essentially betrayed him and Lennon was infuriated. Wenner later said that was a big mistake and he chose the money over the friendship.”

Sticky Fingers by Joe Hagan.

Sticky Fingers by Joe Hagan. Photo: Supplied / Penguin Random House

Wenner would also have a troubled relationship with Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. It got off to a bad start when the Stones tried to sue the magazine over the name. Jagger and co. thought the magazine was spring-boarding off their success.

Later, band and magazine reconciled realising they were better off as allies rather than enemies, and Jagger even invested in a British version of Rolling Stone. It was a disaster, says Hagan

“Mick Jagger puts a groupie in charge, it’s not good and the quality goes down. They misspelled Ray Davies of the Kinks name on the front cover of the magazine and Jann Wenner is mortified.

“Eventually this business relationship between Mick Jagger and Jann Wenner dissolves, unhappily for Wenner. He’s very upset and tells Mick Jagger so. All of this happens in late ‘69 on the eve of a very famous concert.”

The Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert in California in 1969 is a notorious and dark counterpoint to the peace and love hippy vibes of Woodstock four months earlier.

While the Stones were on stage Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by the Hells Angels who the Stones had hired as concert security. 

Rolling Stone had to cover the shambles that was Altamont and at the same time stay friends with the influential Jagger. In the end Wenner decided to cover the whole thing from “top to bottom and we’re going to lay the blame.”

The magazine eventually published a story that blamed Jagger and the Stones for the whole debacle.

'Altamont was the product of diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude, money, manipulation, and at base, a fundamental lack of concern for humanity,' the magazine wrote.

Jagger has never forgotten this, Hagan says.

“Mick Jagger, in the interviews I did with him, he did not forget this, it still irked him many years later and it still irked him that Jann Wenner chose to call his mag Rolling Stone.”

Wenner gave Hagan access to his correspondence which he says revealed a kind of “secret history” of rock n roll.

“A lot of these relationships they were all transactional, they were all using each other to get somewhere.

“They were all really ambitious, and the book is called Sticky Fingers because it’s about ambition.”

Eventually Wenner disowned the book and hasn’t mentioned it to this day, but Hagan says it’s a true account of a life lived colourfully in colourful times.

“These were complicated lives and there was a period when it was OK to take as many drugs as humanly possible and this catalysed a lot of behaviour both good and bad.”

Rolling Stone has faded commercially and culturally and is now for sale. Hagan doubts its golden past will ever return.

“If it survives it won’t mean the same thing, or be the same thing. Rock n roll is no longer at the centre of our culture.

And without Wenner at the helm it will inevitably change in character.

“Rolling Stone was always an expression of Jann Wenner’s world. All of his hopes and aspirations were expressed in that magazine.”