May 10, 2007
Revolutionary, wild, unpredictable - and that was just the writers
By Robert Love, The Independent (London)
This is an edited extract from “The Best of Rolling Stone,” edited by Robert Love (Virgin Books).
Jann S. Wenner, Editor
When I started Rolling Stone in 1967 - in a second-floor loft above a small print shop in San Francisco - I wrote that the magazine “is not just about music but also about the things and attitudes that the music embraces.” As time went on, I began to interpret that charter rather broadly. We understood that music was the glue holding a generation together. And through music, ideas were being communicated about personal relationships, social values, political ethics and the way we wanted to conduct our lives.
The paths that led editors and writers to Rolling Stone are a part of that story. They came from all kinds of places in all kinds of ways. David Harris wrote to me from prison, where he was serving two years for defying the draft, Eric Ehrmann wrote from his fraternity house in Ohio. When Joe Eszterhas, then a reporter with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, came to the loft offices to purchase back issues, the mailroom guys were certain he was a narc. (Naturally, he went on to write major exposes of narcotics officers in Rolling Stone.)
Hunter Thompson showed up in my office wearing a grey bubble wig, carrying a huge satchel full of God-knows-what in one hand and three six-packs in the other, and talked for an hour straight. After his first assignment, “Freak Power in the Rockies” about his nearly successful attempt to be elected sheriff in Aspen, Colorado, he went on to write “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and many other memorable pieces. They would change the fate of Rolling Stone and the face of journalism. Within a few years we had assembled a legendary writing and reporting staff. Over the years many writers have come through the portals and delivered great pieces. As you will read here, the story behind the story can be as remarkable and telling as the story itself.
In the fall of 1969, Jann Wenner was 23 years old and still had long hair, fluffed out and tucked under in a pageboy bob, and Rolling Stone was still referred to as an underground newspaper, and the Sixties were still the Sixties. Woodstock had occurred (in the same sense that the Krakatoa tidal wave occurred) a few months before. Therefore, it looked unseemly when Underground Editor Wenner, whom I had never met, arrived for our appointment in a stretch limousine with enough steel strung out in the wheelbase to modernize Guatemala. It was out of character, or so I thought at the time. It wasn’t until 20 years later, in the decade some anonymous genius has forever more branded as “yuppie,” that I realized the spirit of the age may change, but all Rising Generations are alike. Given the slightest stack in the velvet rope, they’ll take everything.
The windows of the limousine were tinted deep raspberry. The driver was a Keith Richards look-alike with a ponytail, a fringed leather jerkin and a pair of smoked glasses. The car service was Head Limo, specializing in ferrying rock musicians and other heads. (Heads: a Sixties expression. You could look it up.) It was the most terrifying ride I ever took, and I had once been on a bus driven by Neal Cassady. As we careened through the streets of Manhattan, it became obvious that the driver couldn’t see out of this raspberry coffin any better than I could and cared a great deal less. Purely from an urge to shorten the trip, I agreed to it when Editor Wenner proposed the lamest assignment I had ever heard of in 12 years of US journalism: the annual meeting of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers.
Alas, I was fated never to write this revelation of the music industry in the raw. Shortly thereafter, with the idea of gathering material for a non-fiction book about New York City, I attended a party given by Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Felicia, for the Black Panther Party of America. That evening was so bizarre I put the rack robbers aside and wrote an article (for New York magazine) entitled “Radical Chic.” Then I did a companion piece about the poverty program entitled “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.” And by then the rockers and rack-jobbers of yore were hopelessly old news.
Being a Calvinist at heart, I couldn’t get my guilt to lie down and die. So when Young Wenner - his youth is one of the longest on record, having lingered now for countless decades - approached me almost three years later with another assignment, another Florida assignment, in fact, I assented before he had even finished the sentence. The idea was to go to Cape Kennedy and cover the launch of Apollo 17, NASA’s final mission to the Moon, and the antics of all the people who are drawn to such events, all those who insist on being at heavyweight championship fights and the World Series and bicentennial celebrations in New York harbor, those who show up, in short, when things are happening.
The whole swarm materialized at the Cape. In the VIP grandstand on the night of the launch was everyone from Frank Sinatra to King Hussein of Jordan, who insisted on flying in to the Cape at the controls of his own military jet. The air controllers sent their women and children to north Georgia. In fact, the king merely ran off the runway and came to rest harmlessly on the bands of the Banana river. Half the content of the New York tabloid gossip columns was there. Also on hand was a young photographer named Annie Leibovitz, who had just started doing work for Rolling Stone and looked like 12 people, all of them identical and born with batteries included. It was as crazy a scene as any chronicler of the social tableau could wish for.
But my eyes kept wandering to the rocket, the Saturn V rocket that would launch Apollo 17, a stupendous thing 36 stories high, a white shaft gleaming in a bath of arc light against the night sky. Three men were perched up on top of it in a little thimble known as a command module. The rocket was gorged with a highly volatile fuel called liquid oxygen, and the three men were waiting for someone to light the fuse. Who on earth were they? Or, rather, what were they? Why were they willing to do such a thing?
It was a pretty obvious side-eyed question, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I told Young Wenner I wanted to make the story a study of the psychology of the astronauts themselves. And since I had a good 10 days or so until the deadline, why not include all the astronauts who had signed on for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs? No stranger to folly and the delusions of journalists, Young Wenner said go ahead.
At first I thought my task would be easy, because this, the final mission to the Moon, had turned into a reunion of all the astronauts and they were in a jolly mood and quite approachable. Or they were approachable up to a certain point. Unfortunately, that point was my key question: “What does it take to be an astronaut?” The very subject seemed to violate a taboo. The taboo had to do with a secret code of conduct among military pilots, which I decided to call “the code of the right stuff.” I can remember flying from Florida to Texas and from Texas to Colorado to San Jose, California, frantically in search of some stray astronaut somewhere who would break the code and spill the beans. My one article for Rolling Stone turned into four, each written against some yet more hellish deadline.
After some seven weeks, 50,000 words had gone into this series, which Editor Wenner entitled “Post-Orbital Remorse,” referring not to the astronauts, as everyone thought, but to the author.
By now it was March of 1973. After three months of couscous, fluids and bed rest, I decided to rewrite the series in book form. I figured this might take five or six months. It took a little longer. In the summer of 1979 I completed the rewrite and, trying to overcome the remorse, renamed it “The Right Stuff.”
I swore I would never go through any such experience again. Therefore, I can’t fully account for what happened next - which is to say, how I then got involved with writing serially for Rolling Stone, over a period of 60 relentless weeks, meaning 27 consecutive hellish deadlines, a book entitled “Bonfire of the Vanities.” All I know is that only Jann Wenner is mad enough to have let such a thing happen.
The first time I opened up a Rolling Stone, I was living in New York. This was in 1968. I was working at Marvel Comics as Stan Lee’s secretary.
Rolling Stone came out of the Bay Area in those days. Maybe I moved out to Berkeley because the magazine made it sound like it was such a party out there (it was). A couple of years later I was still reading Rolling Stone, stoned, cover to cover. I’d had it with waitressing and my roommate gave me the name of Alan Rinzler, the associate publisher. I borrowed a jean jacket that had an emblem of people fucking on the back and took my dog and went across the bay to Rolling Stone. If they didn’t want the fucking jacket and they didn’t want the fucking dog, fuck ’em. Alan had his dog at the office, too. Now this was hip.
I told Alan I’d do anything to work there - secretary, receptionist. He said he’d just hired a receptionist. Was there anything else I could do? I’d written some short stories in college so I said: “I can write.” Alan arranged for me to meet Jann Wenner.
My meeting with Jann lasted about three minutes. He was short, cute, endomorphic, a nail-biter who talked fast and thought fast and sent me out the door with an assignment to write about Marvel Comics.
I came back with 10,000 words, for which Jann paid me five cents a word.
They put Hulk on the cover of Rolling Stone.
My price went up to 10 cents a word, and I was made a contributing editor - becoming the only woman writer on the masthead for some years.
My beat, if I had one, was irony. I wrote about Dennis Hopper in his good old, bad old, unreformed days, a whorehouse in Nevada and the following story - a fairly thorough exploration of the marketing and selling of a teen idol, David Cassidy.
Cassidy’s PR man had approached Rolling Stone about the article. David was getting old for “The Partridge Family” and David now wanted to be considered an adult talent. Since the media had created the teen idol in the first place, it seemed logical to call on the media to transmogrify his image. And what groovier vehicle than a cover of Rolling Stone?
I spent five days on tour with the fellow - first-class flight to New York, rooms at the Plaza, a pleasant, uneventful five days. But still... other Rolling Stone writers were traveling with the Stones, Dylan, the Dead, Neil Young, and here I was with this kid and his mom, Shirley Jones, who always seemed to be somewhere around. Go be ironic.
After the article ran, there were a few unhappy letters from young girls because photographer Annie Leibovitz had persuaded David to pose naked - he wanted to be hip, didn’t he? - and one photograph revealed David’s pubic hair, which his young fans said he couldn’t possibly possess.
I heard David’s PR man got fired as a result of the article. David himself, after “The Partridge Family” got cancelled, dropped out of sight for four or five years. He went to Hawaii, I think. But he had a small comeback in 1990, even reaching the Top 40 with a song called “Lyin’ to Myself.” As for the title, “Naked Lunch Box,” Cassidy’s people marketed a line of David Cassidy lunch boxes. But the article also ran in the same issue as an interview with William Burroughs. It ran 10,000 words. I counted every word. I always did. It was one of the most satisfying parts of my job.
“Chet, who’s this Arnold Schwartza, uhm, Schwartzanooger, Schwartzenhiger, oh, who is this person?” The speaker was the ever-charming Dolly Parton. The year was 1977. I had been doing a series of interviews with Dolly for a big feature, a possible cover for Rolling Stone. I was hard at work on the old Smith-Corona when Dolly called. “Arnold Schwarza-whoosit?” I replied. “I think he’s some weight-lifter from Poland or somewhere.” In my mind’s eye, I could hazily make out a recollection of some recent book or documentary flick or something called Pumping Iron, whose perpetrators had lobbied heavily and at great expense to hype it to the editors and writers at Rolling Stone as a great work. Unsuccessfully, as I recall. Weightlifting was not something that occupied much of RS’s accessible or operating frontal lobes at the time.
“So, Dolly,” I said, “why are you calling me at midnight to ask me about some muscle guy? Are you throwing me over for a real man? Is that the deal?”
She just laughed her famous Dolly little-girl giggle, all whipped cream and maraschino cherries. “No, silly. You know that you’re my steady. It’s just that Judy (Ogle, her assistant and friend) said that your photographer - now, what is her name? OK. Annie’s person told Judy that this Arnold Schwartzehoover is coming to my photo session tomorrow. My photo session. Mine. What do you know about this? Am I supposed to wear a jockstrap? Am I going to be photographed bench pressing 300 pounds?’ Her tone became a trifle frosty, definitely a chill in the air.
I scrambled to take cover. What the hell was Annie up to now? I had never seen a photographer who could put people through hoops the way Annie could. Working with her was always, always an adventure - one well worth the effort, for there was no better photographer working. Still - keeping up with her was an all-day job, and then some. You’d better pack two lunches if you so much as went out for coffee with Annie. Of course, Dolly didn’t know any of this. She was just now beginning to branch out, blossoming as a national and even universal commodity. In fact, she had been very wary of the whole RS thing, not at all sure what a rock ‘n’ roll magazine was going to do with - or to - her.
“Trust me, Dolly,” I said in my most convincing voice. “Whatever Annie is doing, she has only you in mind. Believe me,” I said, praying for belief.
“Well, we-yull. You sure, now?”
“Trust me, darlin’.”
“OK.” The purr returned to her voice. “But - one thing, mister. You’re going with me to my photo session. Deal?”
“Deal,” I said with relief. God only knew what was going to happen, but if I was there I could at least have some measure of control over whatever level of madness might obtain. I could always, as I once did, threaten to have Annie deported, or worse, if things got too out of hand. Besides, I would never pass up the chance to hang out with Dolly again.
I called a friend at RS who was always in the know and totally au courant with everything that was happening at the magazine. “Of course,” my friend told me. “Annie is just using Arnold as a prop. What did you think? No, don’t tell me. Look - beautiful, voluptuous woman, you put a hard muscleman next to her, great contrast, right? Great picture, right?” She laughed and hung up. Hmm.
All was harmony and light at the studio. Annie hugged Dolly like a long-lost cousin. Dust motes were dancing in the sunbeams radiating through the skylights. I heaved a sigh of relief. Arnold and entourage showed up. He was very charming to one and all, although I rather got the impression that he was not entirely sure just why he was there. Still, like a trouper he changed into his little bikini and began posing with Dolly.
Then something happened that I missed, as I sat in the background and sipped coffee. Dolly and Annie had their heads together and were giggling helplessly like schoolgirls. Arnold, in his little bikini, was retreating, a trifle red in the face.
Oh. I suddenly figured it out. Graphically. Arnold had been lifting Dolly for a shot. But he had sort of... become... aroused. And his modest tumescence had made two of the earthiest women I have ever met fall out in laughter. I never heard the last of that.
Ah, “the story behind the...” This is the lifeblood, the inspiriting force, the anima brula of every drunken bore of a foreign correspondent. And I am one. The bombs burst louder with each telling. The bullets fly closer. The villains grow viler. The heroes gain such stature that they’re drafted by the NBA. The warm camaraderie among journalists becomes a boiling fondue pot of eternal brotherhood. And the local girls get so pretty it’s a wonder that Sports Illustrated hasn’t done swimsuit issues in Tbilisi and Kuwait.
Me telling you how it really was - that’s when I turn into a hell of a fellow with broad perspectives, brilliant foresight and a physical bravery I’d hardly dreamed of three drinks ago. Let me freshen this up and I’ll suddenly remember I could speak the native lingo. Once I get started on the story behind the story, why, I’ve had people leap off bar stools, knock me to the floor, pry open my jaws and jam in a whole bowlful of those salted Goldfish crackers, just to get me to shut up.
Fortunately for you, the reader, there is no story behind my story of the fall of Ferdinand Marcos. The advantage of the casual and unstructured (not to say pointless and sloppy) style of reporting presented here is that I was telling you the whole truth - lies and all-in the first place. That said, some things were omitted from “400 Years to a Convent, 50 years in a Whorehouse” - some for lack of space, some for decency’s sake. But most of what was left out was left out because I didn’t know what it meant, if it meant anything at all.
I got hooked up somehow with a hugely alcoholic lying Australian who said he was the former head of security at the presidential palace, a personal friend of Ferdinand Marcos’s, the godfather of the Pilar Street sex-club strip, the owner of three islands given to him by his Filipino father-in-law and a colonel in the Confederate Air Force. The Australian was so drunk he admitted these were lies. The man made no sense, had no information and was treated like a pariah everywhere he went. But as a result of letting him drag me on a day-long inane and frenetic tour of Manila, I met the city jailer, the bar-owning thug, the mama-sans and a number of other characters featured in my article. There’s a lesson for young journalists in this somewhere. Though come to think of it, the jailer, thug and mama-sans didn’t have any information or make much sense either.
I say the Australian was treated like a pariah, but not by Filipinos. They were as unfailingly affable to the Aussie toss-pot as they were to everyone else. Even in the midst of berserker violence, mob law and riot, there was a cheerful, wholesome courtesy to Philippine manners. People are so good-natured and obliging, it’s sometimes all you can do to keep from strangling them.
Congenial atmospheres and sunny dispositions extend even into the most degenerate areas of the city’s red-light district. A pretence of social as well as other kinds of intercourse was maintained. No sexual arrangements were concluded without the rudiments of flirtation. The young lady who took you upstairs was your “girlfriend,” and she was going on a “date.” You’d better not be making eyes at any of the other young ladies, either, or your girlfriend would get as jealous as any girlfriend - though on an hourly basis, of course.
It’s heartbreaking - and terrifying - to think about all that now. This was 1986, the year before AIDS manifested itself in Manila.
My article remains, I think, a fair portrait of Third World political turmoil. But it doesn’t contain any answers. What makes a pleasant, decent and deeply religious society so corrupt and violent? How can a nation rich in resources, opportunities and willing, educated citizens stay amazingly poor? Why can’t a new and honest government made up of intelligent people change these things? Let me say three words you’ve probably never heard from a journalist before: “I don’t know.”
I don’t know the answers to those questions. And I don’t know if there’s any reason to dredge up this hoary wad of reportage. But I do think it behooves us to learn a little about the rest of the world even if we don’t learn much. Americans are famous for international ignorance (pretty strange in a nation of immigrants, if you think about it). It’s gotten us in trouble before.
There was a quiet period after the ’86 election, while everyone waited for the votes to be miscounted. An ABC-TV producer friend mine, Betsy West, and I decided to take the day off. Betsy had a car and a driver, and we traveled down into Laguna to a famous beauty spot called the Pagsanjan Falls. From the town of Pagsanjan we were taken in a dugout canoe up the river through the jungle to the waterfall itself. While good-natured boatmen poled us along, Betsy and I discussed the Philippine situation. Revolutionaries infested the hills, gangsters ran the government, street protests were growing, and at Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base, the American military stood ready. “It’s like Vietnam,” I said, although I’d never been to Vietnam. “It’s getting really tense, like Vietnam,” said Betsy, although she had never been to Vietnam either.
“I wonder if we’re getting into another Vietnam?” I said.
“It really could be like that, a Vietnam-type situation,” said Betsy.
“It even looks like Vietnam,” I said, gazing into the triple camp foliage along the riverbanks.
“Oh, God,” I said, “another Vietnam.” And just as I said that, we rounded a bend in the river and there - all tattered papier-mâché and weathered plastic - was Kurtz’s temple. Another Vietnam, indeed - we’re boating through the “Apocalypse Now” set.