May 4, 2006
How Does It Feel? As His Rock Magazine Hits 1,000 Issues, Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner Is Still High on the Concept

Hunter S. Thompson is dead and the Capri Lounge is defunct, but Rolling Stone keeps rolling along. The magazine publishes its 1,000th issue tomorrow, complete with a neo-psychedelic, pseudo-Sgt. Pepper, holographic, 3-D cover.

At the entrance to Rolling Stone’s offices in midtown Manhattan sits a guitar smashed by the Who’s Pete Townshend. The shards of this artifact are embedded in a thick block of plastic, like some priceless relic of a prehistoric civilization.

Inside, it’s clean and quiet — not a murmur of rock-and-roll — with fishbowl glass offices that were designed, says Managing Editor Will Dana, so that employees can’t secretly snort cocaine, as many did at the old Fifth Avenue quarters in the 1980s.

In those days, the office included the infamous Capri Lounge, a dark den illuminated by a dim orange light, where staffers and guests inhaled powerful herbs and giggled at an album of Polaroids showing famous visitors inhaling powerful herbs in the Capri Lounge.

But now the Capri is just a memory fading from the minds of people whose memories aren’t what they used to be.

“We don’t have a Capri Lounge anymore, and the gentlemen who ran it are all gone, too,” says Jann Wenner, who founded Rolling Stone in 1967 and is still the editor and publisher. “I shut that down. I said, ‘We can’t do this anymore. It’s counterproductive to getting the magazine out on time.’ It was a bad situation. And they had all those Polaroids there — I have that book now.”

He smiles. “Those were the good old days,” he says.

Now 60, Wenner is sitting in his spacious office overlooking Rockefeller Center with one leg folded up on his chair. He’s wearing a tie but no jacket, and his face bristles with a hip three-day growth of beard.

His secretary appears, silently bearing a dose of his current drug of choice: espresso.

These days, Wenner is the kingpin of a publishing empire whose worth was estimated recently by the Wall Street Journal at between $600 million and $900 million. The counterculture icon who once inspired gossip about sex and dope now inspires gossip about... neatness. Scurrilous rumors allege that he periodically conducts inspections to make sure employees’ desks aren’t messy.

“True!” Wenner says. “I believe that a neat office is a good workplace and a neat desk reflects an orderly mind. So we clean the office up every year and everybody’s required to go throw out all their old stuff. And the place looks great.”

The neatness, the sobriety, the quiet, the general air of brisk professionalism — Wenner figures it all serves to make Rolling Stone great.

“Rolling Stone is one of the best magazines in the United States,” he says.

He may be right. Rebounding from a period frequently described as “all Britney all the time,” Rolling Stone is enjoying a renaissance. The biweekly’s circulation is up to a record 1.4 million — far above such rivals as Blender and Spin — and in the past few months, it has published a long exposé on Scientology, plus excellent articles on Iraq, Congress, Hurricane Katrina and, of course, pop culture.

In 2004 it won a National Magazine Award for its Iraq coverage, which the judges called “brilliant down to the last detail.” This year, it’s been nominated for three more of the awards, which will be announced Tuesday.

At this point, Rolling Stone is a bit like the Rolling Stones: rich, successful and reliably entertaining but no longer as innovative or exciting as in their heyday.

“It’s certainly not as novel as it once was,” says Abe Peck, a former Rolling Stone editor who teaches magazine journalism at Northwestern University. “But short of blowing itself up, how could it be?”

Quality Hip

It all started in San Francisco at the tail end of the Summer of Love, when a pudgy 21-year-old Berkeley dropout started a rock music tabloid with $7,500 raised from family and friends and a mailing list swiped from a local radio station.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” Wenner says. “I don’t think I’d ever heard the word marketing, let alone branding. I just thought it was a good idea, and I had a lot of energy and a love of music.... Nobody starts a magazine like that today. They come at you with a business proposal and six-year projections and focus groups and direct-mail tests. We just made it up.”

“Rolling Stone is not just about music, but also about the things and attitudes that the music embraces,” Wenner wrote in the first issue, dated Nov. 9, 1967. He printed 40,000 copies, and 34,000 were returned unsold.

Later, he concocted a crafty marketing scheme — a free roach clip with each subscription. “Act now,” the ad said, “before this offer is made illegal.”

Soon, Rolling Stone was running ads from record companies eager to find a way to reach young people in an era when most publications either ignored rock or scoffed at it. The magazine found a unique niche: hipper than “straight” newspapers but not as raunchy or radical as the “underground” press.

“It was hipper than anything better, and better than anything hipper,” says Peck.

Rolling Stone covered rock with tough love. In an early issue, critic Jon Landau panned guitar god Eric Clapton’s hot supergroup, Cream: “Clapton is a master of blues cliches... a virtuoso at performing other people’s ideas.”

Clapton read the review and agreed. “It was true!” he told an interviewer years later. “I immediately decided that that was the end of the band.”

Rolling Stone killed Cream! Such was the power of Wenner’s brainchild.

In 1970, a writer wearing shades and a bad wig over his shaved head showed up in Wenner’s office carrying two six-packs of beer and pitching a story idea about his campaign for sheriff of Aspen, Colo., on the “Freak Power” ticket. His name was Hunter S. Thompson, and soon he was Rolling Stone’s biggest star.

After the piece about his campaign — he lost, but not by much — he did a story on Latino activists in Los Angeles. In 1971, he wrote a long, rambling, hilarious piece about a drug-fueled trip to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race and district attorneys convention.

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” it began — an opening line that soon became nearly as famous as “Call me Ishmael.”

“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” caused a sensation, first as a two-part story in Rolling Stone, then as a best-selling book. Wenner dispatched Thompson to cover the 1972 presidential campaign in his wild “gonzo” style, and his “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail” made Rolling Stone a must-read for political junkies.

Soon Rolling Stone was America’s hot mag, filled with amazing stories: Joe Eszterhas on crooked cops and hippie murders; Timothy Crouse on the Washington press corps; Howard Kohn revealing the inside story of the Patty Hearst kidnapping; Tom Wolfe on the Mercury astronauts, rough drafts of what later became “The Right Stuff.” Plus great rock profiles by a teenager named Cameron Crowe, who later went on to direct “Almost Famous,” a movie about his experiences as a teenage writer for Rolling Stone.

Wow! All that, plus eye-popping photos by the soon-to-be-legendary Annie Leibovitz.

He’ll Take Manhattan

In 1977, Wenner left funky old San Francisco and moved the operation to New York, center of the publishing world.

Ensconced in fancy Fifth Avenue digs, he expanded his empire. That same year, he founded Outside, a hip outdoors magazine, then sold it. In 1979, he briefly ran Look magazine before it folded. In 1985, he bought a piece of Us — a poor man’s People magazine — and lost millions until the new millennium, when editor Bonnie Fuller turned it into a huge moneymaker.

In 1992, he founded Men’s Journal, an outdoorsy lifestyle magazine that has been a modest success. In 1994, he started Family Life, which soon expired. By then, Wenner had changed the name of his enterprise from the cheeky Straight Arrow Publishing to the plain Wenner Media.

Wenner’s wheeling and dealing changed the tone of life at Rolling Stone.

“It became a business,” says Stuart Zakim, who was hired and fired — twice — as Wenner’s PR man. “He started buying other magazines and it became more corporate and buttoned down.”

But not totally buttoned down. Wenner sometimes wandered the office swigging from a vodka bottle, and he became legendary for losing his temper and abruptly firing people he once wooed.

“He could be unbelievably cruel,” says David White, who was RS’s production manager in the ’80s. “But he could also be unbelievably generous. If you had a personal problem or a sickness in the family, he’d bend heaven and earth to fix it for you. He’d charter a plane or get the best doctor.”

In 1985, Wenner repositioned Rolling Stone with his “perception/reality” ad campaign, which was designed to boost ad sales by changing Madison Avenue’s view of the magazine’s readers. One ad had the word “perception” above a roach clip, and “reality” above a money clip. Another had “perception” above a peace sign, “reality” over a Mercedes-Benz symbol.

Hipsters grumbled about selling out the ideals of the counterculture, man, but the ads worked: Rolling Stone’s advertising revenues skyrocketed.

In 1995, a British newspaper revealed what was already widely known in media circles: Wenner had moved out of the $3 million Manhattan townhouse he shared with his wife, Jane, and their three sons — and moved in with Matt Nye, a fashion designer and former model. The story sparked a brief media flap, but today Wenner is still married to Jane (who owns a big chunk of Wenner Media) and is still living with Nye.

“It had no impact on his business, and he became more calm and rational,” says Zakim. “Since Jann came out, he’s healthier than he’s ever been. And financially he’s in the best shape he’s ever been in.”

Through it all, Rolling Stone chugged on, its editorial quality rising and falling with the vagaries of pop culture. “God knows the disco years were rough,” sighs former Stone writer Gerri Hirshey.

In the ’80s, as Thompson’s production plummeted, his political slot was filled by P.J. O’Rourke, who did gonzo from a Reagan Republican perspective.

In the late ’90s, when “teen pop” ruled the charts, Rolling Stone entered its infamous “all Britney all the time” era — and for a while, it seemed as if the magazine had hit bottom.

Alas, it hadn’t. In 2002, Wenner — eyeing the success of the “laddie” mags Maxim and FHM — hired FHM’s editor, Ed Needham, to run Rolling Stone. Needham Maximized the magazine with short, zippy, dumbed-down stories.

“Everything had to be a little sensationalized and slightly over the top,” says Will Dana, who worked under Needham, then replaced him.

Needham, who declined to be interviewed for this story, lasted only about a year. Today he runs Maxim.

Even in its darkest days, Rolling Stone still published some serious political and cultural stories. During the Britney era, Hirshey recalls, Wenner sent her out on the road for weeks for a profile of blues master B.B. King.

“Jann felt he had a responsibility to pay homage to those old guys, and I was happy to do it,” Hirshey says. “Riding through Oklahoma, sitting at B.B. King’s knee, it was like a mystical experience. I would forgive Jann anything, because it was his idea and he gave me 7,000 words.... The great thing about Jann is: He always had respect for the words.”

Last month, Rolling Stone announced that it will collaborate with MTV this summer on a reality series in which college journalists compete for a job at the magazine. Wenner says he’ll appear in the show, but promises that he won’t be doing any Donald Trump-style firing.

“It’s ‘American Idol’ for journalists,” Zakim says, laughing. “Jann has always wanted to be an actor.”

Zakim is a fan of the man who fired him twice. “People think I was insane to work for him twice, but there’s something about the guy,” he says. “He’s a brilliant editor, he has a great eye for talent, and he has played a major role in pop culture. God bless him, he made it to 1,000 issues. Who would have thought it?”

Amped Up Again

“I think the magazine is better than it’s ever been,” Wenner says.

He has finished that espresso and now he’s washing it down with a diet ginger ale.

“Starting in 2003, when I decided that Ed Needham wasn’t going to work out and I took over the reins again, we got on a upward curve,” he continues. “The election, the war, all that stuff really energized us. Those are big stories to cover, and you get amped up for big stories.”

He touts Matt Taibbi, who holds Rolling Stone’s unofficial Thompson-O’Rourke Chair of Gonzo Political Reporting. “He’s a sharp writer — as many laughs-out-loud as I’ve had with anybody since Hunter,” Wenner says. “He’s in Iraq right now.”

Wenner’s big, ballyhooed 1,000th issue is a nostalgic gallery of Rolling Stone’s “100 greatest covers,” along with inside info about them, including Leibovitz’s revelation that at photo shoots in the ’70s, etiquette required the photographer to bring “cocaine for everybody.”

But right now, Wenner would rather discuss issue No. 999, which featured a cover cartoon of George Bush in a dunce cap and the question: “The Worst President in History?” The story was written by Sean Wilentz, a Princeton history professor who is also identified in the magazine as the “historian-in-residence at Bob Dylan’s official web site.”

Not surprisingly, Wilentz answers the cover question in the affirmative. So does Wenner.

“There’s never been as incompetent and corrupt an administration in history,” Wenner says. “He campaigned as a compassionate man, a healer, a uniter. He was the wolf in sheep’s clothing. And on the slimmest margin — a margin that wasn’t even there — he turned hard right.”

Wenner describes himself as “a good old Democrat,” and Rolling Stone has backed Democratic presidential candidates since 1972 when it endorsed George McGovern without much noticeable effect. This time out, Wenner has no particular preference.

“There seem to be several people who would make a fine president — John Kerry, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton,“ he says. “You know who’d make a good president? Mike Bloomberg!”

He’s excited to see rock-and-roll getting political again. “Neil Young has a record out that is really anti-Bush,” he says. “Bruce [Springsteen] has put out a record called ‘We Shall Overcome,’ celebrating the songs and works of Pete Seeger. Green Day had the biggest record of last year, which was an anti-Bush thing. Pearl Jam has just put out a record, their best in 10 years, which is full of antiwar stuff. Once again, the rock musicians and the rap musicians are leading the charge.”

Wenner is a 60-year-old man running a rock-and-roll magazine. Does he have any plans to retire?

“Not in the near future,” he says.

A young woman pokes her head in the door and says a photographer has arrived to take Wenner’s picture.

Walking out of his office, Wenner pauses at a big black-and-white photo of himself. It was a gift from Thompson, who fired a bullet through the photo at chest level, then added a splash of bloodlike red paint.

“He thought it was a masterpiece of art,” says Wenner, who isn’t sure he agrees. “I didn’t like being shot in the heart.”

On his way to meet the photographer, Wenner ducks into his bathroom, then sends out word that he can’t be photographed today. Sorry, but he’ll have to reschedule.

The problem: He has a sty in his eye.

Huh? The guy displays a picture of himself with bloody hole in his heart but he can’t be photographed with a sty in his eye? Does that make any sense?

Maybe not. But that doesn’t matter.

Call him vain or egomaniacal, but Wenner does what he wants to do when he wants to do it. He’s been working that way since 1967, and now, after 1,000 issues of the magazine that made him rich and famous, he’s not about to stop.