The Rolling Stone Interviews
Jann S. Wenner and Joe Levy, Editors
I distinctly remember what killed my dreams of blue collar glory. It wasn’t a ticket or a robbery or any of the other hazards one encountered driving a hack. It was being too brain dead to read anything more than James Michener‘s Centennial–and taking two months to reread what had taken two weeks the first time. The decision to seek asylum where I could nourish my mind was inevitable and easy, as such things always are.
All that came flooding back in the past month as a string of 14-hour plus days with an extra helping of stress drove me to the lamest form of reading: the transcribed interview. This is the second post in a row where I’vebeen reading conversations. Would that the second group of yakkers were up to the first.
But let’s be fair. Before he became besotted with the idea of being a latter day media luminary–a Henry Luce of a never-really counter, now dominant (at least in media circles) culture–Jann Wenner was a force. He created the first vehicle that gave voice to a group that has continued to believe its own myth since that first issue appeared back in 1967, the year of Monterey Pop, Sgt. Pepper’s and the Summer of Love. Wenner is practically the archetypal Baby Boomer, born in January 1946 with the generation itself.
I was the eldest in a family where the popular music of the day was, at first, banned and then regulated. So I had to educate myself. Luckily I worked in the local public library which had an almost complete set of Rolling Stone. And so I immersed myself in the minutiae of the preceding generation. Before I grew tired of the Boomers, which didn’t take long at all, I was fascinated by a closer look at what I had only been able to perceive distantly in the background.
More than any other publication RS saw itself as being the voice of its generation. And nothing served to demonstrate and amplify that voice more than the Rolling Stone interview. Described by Jann Wenner, in the introduction to the present volume, as the outcome of a fortuitous accident, it’s hard not to see it as the counterculture’s ripoff of the preceding generation’s innovation: the Playboy Interview. Those extended conversations with notable personalities allegedly lent gravitas to what was and remains a skin mag.
If Hugh Hefner saw sex as central to existence then Jann Wenner arguably saw fame playing the same role. Clearly he’s besotted by the famous. Often the interlocutor himself (he carries the byline for 15% of the book’s 40 excerpts), he asks what are meant to be penetrating and deeply philosophical questions of mostly popular culture stars. Since being a rock star is a position one achieves in one’s twenties there’s an awfully good chance that the epiphany contained in that 2:50 pop gem was dreamed up in the bedroom of a disaffected teenager. Looking for insight there strikes me as particularly fruitless.
So what do you get from nearly 500 pages of conversations based on the Wenner model? You get John Lennon naming who wrote which bit of which Beatles song. You get Mick and Keef slogging off on each other, thus demonstrating better than anything else that a band that lasts for nearly 50 years is a business concern and nostalgia machine, not an organic, necessary whole. You get a pathetic Brian Wilson beseeching his interviewer for cocaine. You get Spike Lee demonstrating his penchant for argument. You get Axl Rose and Eminem on the common cruelties of Midwestern boyhood (and common paths of escaping from the same).
There are, to be sure, some entertaining moments. Andy Warhol‘s interview of Truman Capote, who had failed to deliver a fly-on-the-wall piece covering a Rolling Stones tour, is a jumbled, transcribed mess of a more or less pointless conversation that begins in the Central Park Zoo and ends in the bar at the Sherry Netherland. Ozzy Osbourne demonstrates his innate talent for comedy when, in describing Black Sabbath‘s embrace of occult imagery to sell themselves, he notes ‘We couldn’t conjure up a fart?’ Bono has a distinctly Irish moment when he tells Wenner he had no guilt about his father until Wenner posed the question.
Look, I’m more of a sucker for finding deep meaning in a pop song than almost anyone else. But that happens whether it was crafted by a pro from Tin Pan Alley or a teenager who got lucky. The disservice of Rolling Stone, and the sliver of the Baby Boom that it has always seen itself speaking for, is to try and turn ephemera into precious metal. In the end, these interviews display the limits of that alchemical experiment.