The Rolling Stone Interviews
The Rolling Stone Interviews
Back Bay Books: 2007

On August 14, 1968, the Who finished a show at the Fillmore West with “My Generation.” Pete Townshend did not smash his guitar—not that night—and I wanted to know why. So I made my way backstage to ask him if he’d sit for an interview with Rolling Stone.

I wanted to know much more, in fact: where Pete grew up, what shaped his music, what his relationship with Roger Daltrey was like, what he thought rock & roll could accomplish, what his plans for the band were. We went back to my house, started talking at two A.M. and finished sometime after dawn. Pete was articulate, passionate, and lost in his own thoughts (at one point, he asked if I’d dosed his orange juice with LSD; I hadn’t). He talked about the Who’s next album, a project he was then calling “Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Boy.” A year or so later, he told me it was the first time he’d ever sketched out the whole plan for “Tommy,” even for himself.

That was the first fully realized Rolling Stone Interview. We’d included Q&A’s starting with the first issue of the magazine—one of our goals had always been delivering the voices of the artists behind the music—but this went deeper. It accomplished everything I loved about the in-depth interviews with writers in The Paris Review—it brought you into the working process of the artist—and it also opened up the private life and aspirations of a defining force in popular culture, the way the Playboy Interview did. In those days, The Paris Review and Playboy were the only places you could read a thoughtful, in-depth magazine interview, and no one was bringing the same rigor and seriousness of purpose to rock & roll.

Rolling Stone was different. From the start, we were devoted not only to rock & roll but to the culture and politics that surrounded the music, that shaped it and were shaped by it. And though we knew how to have fun (we did, after all, offer a roach clip as a subscription premium with our February 24, 1968, issue (RS 6)), we were all about seriousness of purpose. These were not casual interviews. Our reporters researched their subjects deeply, and the musicians we spoke with responded. They were bored by the short-form interviews they did with fan magazines and radio stations. We presented them with a new opportunity to articulate what they were thinking and doing, to communicate with their audience in a direct and unfiltered way.

The Rolling Stone Interview gained prestige quickly. Prestige and size—nowhere else could you read ten or fifteen pages of Jerry Garcia talking about his childhood, the first music he loved, his experiences in the army, and the days of the Acid Tests. And we spoke not just with musicians but with writers, directors, philosophers, presidents and religious leaders as well.

Sometimes these interviews lasted for hours; sometimes they stretched over days or even months. Over a period of weeks in 1969, Jerry Hopkins spoke with Jim Morrison at the Doors’ management office in Los Angeles, a nearby bar, and a strip club where Morrison was a regular. In 1973, Johnny Cash was so pleased that the magazine wanted to speak with him at the ripe old age of forty (“I’ve often read those interviews and wondered if they’d be interested in someone like me,” he said) that he sat with Robert Hilburn in his Las Vegas hotel suite after finishing a midnight show, then invited Hilburn back for more the following morning over breakfast. Neil Young broke a years-long silence in 1975 to talk with Cameron Crowe (the coup landed Cameron a staff job); they talked for so long Cameron ran out of tapes and Neil had to give him some cassettes that had alternate takes of his songs on them. (Yes, he recorded over them, but later he did also capture a long band rehearsal of then-unreleased “Cortez the Killer.”) I remember the interview that Charles Reich—the author of “The Greening of America” and a Yale law professor—and I conducted with Jerry Garcia in 1971. We spent hours in the July heat on the front lawn of Jerry’s house near Mount Tamalpais in northern California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A few days later, Reich attended a Grateful Dead recording session to get more, and then he went back a few weeks after that to talk with Jerry for another two hours. In the fall, I spent four more hours giving the whole thing a more journalistic perspective. The result—both far ranging and incredibly specific—ran in two issues of the magazine and eventually was published in book form.

From the start, our subjects were explorers, discussing things for the first time. And we were exploring right along with them, finding new journalistic territory as we went. We were hungry for insights, for the stories of how the music and culture we loved came to be, and who the people who made it were. We wanted revelations, and we got them. In December of 1970, I interviewed John Lennon in New York at the time of the release of his first solo album, “Plastic Ono Band” (still one of the most painfully honest and greatest rock records ever made). Rolling Stone already had a long history with John and Yoko (when the cover of their “Two Virgins” album was banned, Rolling Stone cofounder Ralph J. Gleason had the idea of putting it on the cover of our first anniversary issue (RS 22)). Lennon chose the magazine to discuss the devastating pain behind the dissolution of the Beatles.

Remember that the Beatles had been hermetically protected for years, and however much their image had changed, much of the world clung to the fantasy that they were the same clean-cut boys who’d worn matching suits on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Lennon’s Rolling Stone Interview ended all that. He lifted the curtain on the “orgies” that accompanied life on the road (“The Beatles tours were like the Fellini film ‘Satyricon’ ”), spoke frankly about the band’s drug use (“‘Help’ was where we turned onto pot and we dropped drink, simple as that”) and went through the Beatles catalog song by song, the first time he’d ever discussed the band’s music in this kind of detail (“‘Yesterday’ I had nothing to do with.... ‘Eleanor Rigby’ I wrote a good half of the lyrics or more”). For weeks afterward it was everywhere, because none of the other Beatles had yet publicly explained the breakup of the band. The effect was shocking. “One has to completely humiliate oneself to be what the Beatles were,” Lennon said. “And that’s what I’m saying with this album—I remember what it’s all about now, you fuckers, fuck you all! That’s what I’m saying: ‘You don’t get me twice.’ ”

That strong, unfiltered voice was everything I wanted the Rolling Stone Interview to be. The best interviews of the past forty years— excerpts of which are collected in this volume—are documents of the individuals and of the times. They are visits as well as interviews, and they bring you face-to-face with the person talking. While we clean up the syntax to make it more readable—remove the ums, ahs and repetitions—we also preserve the speech and idiosyncrasies of the subject. Over the years, I stressed to editors and writers that the interviewer has to establish himself as a stand-in for the reader—show a little bit but not too much of his own personality, and know when not to get in his subject’s, or the reader’s, way. An interviewer gets to go somewhere every reader would love to, whether it’s the dressing room after a show or a private home, and he has to deliver that experience to the reader. Sometimes that means bonding with the subject; sometimes it means challenging the subject. The Rolling Stone Interview thrives on both drama and informality. And above all intimacy.

Reading over this collection, I’m struck by how many intimate moments our subjects chose to share with us, and with our readers: Jack Nicholson recalling the moment he learned the woman he thought was his sister was in fact his mother; Axl Rose sharing his recovered memories of child abuse; Robin Williams sitting for an interview just months after the death of his father and discussing the end of his first marriage; Courtney Love talking with David Fricke less than six months after the suicide of her husband, Kurt Cobain. (“If I start to cry,” she told Fricke, “I will probably get up and leave the room. Don’t be offended.” Except that when she did start to cry, she just kept talking.)

Though he has a reputation as reticent, Bob Dylan has proved one of our most rewarding interview subjects. I remember how hard I worked to land a Dylan interview when the magazine started. He had little interest in talking with the press, and I wrote to him for nearly two years asking for a meeting. On a trip to New York in 1969, I returned to my hotel and found a phone message that a “Mr. Dillon” had called. I thought I’d missed my chance, but a few months later, I was back in New York and there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find Dylan in the hallway. He’d come to check me out, and when he was comfortable enough, we began Dylan’s first Rolling Stone Interview. Over the years, as Dylan changed masks and passions again and again, we’ve sent numerous writers to talk with him, always striving to find the right match for what was going on in his life and career. Among the best were a pair of 1978 interviews with Jonathan Cott, full of mysticism, and a frank sit-down with Kurt Loder in 1984 at the time of “Infidels.” (You can find them in a collection we put together in 2006, “Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews,” from Wenner Books.) The interview we’ve chosen here was conducted in 2001 by Mikal Gilmore after the release of “Love & Theft,” an album that stood with Dylan’s best work of the sixties. The interview is filled with the remarkable perspective (to say nothing of the clear, ringing language) that Dylan would bring to his autobiography, “Chronicles,” three years later: “Every one of the records I’ve made has emanated from the entire panorama of what America is to me. America, to me, is a rising tide that lifts all ships, and I’ve never really sought inspiration from other types of music.”

A similar perspective graces the interviews with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Keith has long been a favorite assignment for Rolling Stone writers because he’s one of rock’s great raconteurs. In 2002, as the Stones celebrated their fortieth year, he talked with David Fricke about longevity and mortality: “We’re fighting people’s misconceptions about what rock & roll is supposed to be. You’re supposed to do it when you’re twenty, twenty-five—as if you’re a tennis player and you have three hip surgeries and you’re done. We play rock & roll because it’s what turned us on. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf—the idea of retiring was ludicrous to them. You keep going—and why not?”

Mick, on the other hand, does not relish interviews. He’s reluctant to look back, to be introspective or too self-involved. In 1994, though, he agreed to sit for a long interview, which we both saw as an opportunity to set it all down as a matter of history. It took over a year to put together. I joined him at tour stops in Palm Beach, Montreal, and Cologne, trailing him to better understand his routine—his vocal exercises, his preshow preparations—and I also talked to Keith, Charlie Watts and Ron Wood to find out what they would ask him. In our interviews, he went through the classic Stones albums track by track for the first time, he talked about his childhood, and he discussed the rewards and difficulties of his longtime partnership with Keith, whom he’s known since childhood. “When Keith was taking heroin, it was very difficult to work. He still was creative, but it took a long time. And everyone else was taking drugs and drinking a tremendous amount, too. And it affected everyone in certain ways. But I’ve never really talked to Keith about this stuff. So I have no idea what he feels.... I’m always second-guessing. I tell you something, I probably read it in Rolling Stone.”

In October of 2005, I went to Cancun, Mexico, to conduct the Rolling Stone Interview with Bono. I’d spent weeks preparing, speaking with the Edge and U2’s manager, Paul McGuinness, to get their insights into Bono’s character, meeting with the editors here to hone my list of questions, going back through past interviews. In Cancun, in the bedroom of a house Bono and his wife, Ali, had rented with their family for a weeklong break from touring, we talked for ten hours. We talked about his faith and religious practice. We talked about how he’d developed as a performer. We went back and forth over his progress in debt relief for the third world and his campaign against AIDS in Africa, which had aligned him with the Bush administration. And I pushed him hard on his relationship with his father, a strong man with whom he’d clashed during his childhood. “Do you ever feel guilty about how you treated him?” I asked him. “No,” he said. “Not until I fucking met you!” Later, he would remember it as a moment of personal revelation. Bono is, without doubt, one of the most articulate and passionate figures in rock & roll. Still, he wasn’t content with his answers on some matters, so he came by the office two weeks later when U2 was in New York to play Madison Square Garden, and we spent two more hours going over details. The result was one of the finest interviews we’ve ever printed.

The Rolling Stone Interview does not confine itself to music. Over the years, Rolling Stone has earned a reputation for its innovative and in-depth coverage of politics, which I’m proud to say is both deeply informed and fervently committed. We’ve opposed America’s misguided wars, from Vietnam to Iraq, and long stood for gun control, protecting the environment, a sane and responsible drug policy and economic justice. When we interview politicians, we avoid the news cycle and gotcha questions. We deliver what the political press never has time for: an attempt to discover who these people are, what they’re like, and what were the experiences and beliefs that shaped their thinking. There have been three Rolling Stone Interviews with Bill Clinton, the first in 1992 during his first presidential campaign. It was informal—the candidate wore khakis and met Hunter S. Thompson, P.J. O’Rourke, William Greider and me at one of his favorite Little Rock spots, Doe’s Eat Place. The second took place in the White House dining room, and Clinton lost his temper, exploding over what he characterized as the “knee-jerk liberal press” continually questioning his commitment to his own ideals. “I am sick and tired of it, and you can put that in the damn article,” he shouted. We did, and many others picked up the thundering rebuke in articles of their own. I asked Clinton about his temper in 2000, when I conducted the third interview (which you’ll find here) in the private residence at the White House and on Air Force One as the president was on his way to a campaign stop on behalf of Al Gore. “One of the things I had to learn,” Clinton said, “it took me almost my whole first term to learn it—was that, at some point, presidents are not permitted to have personal feelings. When you manifest your anger in public, it should be on behalf of the American people and the values that they believe in.”

Taken together, the forty interviews in this collection form a cultural history of our times, as narrated by the most important people of our times. You’ll find here rock & roll pioneers like Tina Turner, Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. You’ll find the crucial voices of the Sixties: Lennon, Jagger, Dylan, Townshend and Jerry Garcia, some caught at the start of their careers and others sharing the perspective of several decades of ups and downs. You’ll find the great songwriters of the seventies (Neil Young and Joni Mitchell), the Eighties (Bruce Springsteen and Bono), the Nineties (Kurt Cobain) and today (Eminem). You’ll find great directors like Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Clint Eastwood and Spike Lee. You’ll find writers who helped shaped generations of readers (and Rolling Stone itself), like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. You’ll find cultural heroes who rarely granted interviews, like Johnny Carson, and great interviewers who had the tables turned on them, like Oriana Fallaci. And, not content to speak with presidents, we also spoke with God, in the person of the Dalai Lama.

Times have changed. You can no longer stroll up to Pete Townshend after a show and ask if he has time for an interview. But one thing remains the same: The Rolling Stone Interview is still the most intimate, penetrating, and perceptive conversation going.

Jann S. Wenner
New York City
September 13, 2007