April 14, 1974
The Rolling Stone Reader
By Alix Nelson, The New York Times Book Review
What bi-weekly magazine recently ran a 33,000 word interview with Daniel Ellsberg and sold 350,000 newsstand copies, outstripping Newsweek's most popular single issue, and equaling the best newsstand sale of Time magazine for 1973?
What magazine has a readership whose median age is 21, has 14 per cent of its following under the age of 18, and has an anticipated ad revenue for the current fiscal year — mostly from record companies and musical instrument manufacturers — of close to $3-million?
Rolling Stone. And here you thought that was the name of a British rock group.
To mark the publication of "The Rolling Stone Reader," we'd like to offer one bird's eye view (persons of my gender are also regularly referred to by Rolling Stone as chickies, broads, dollies, foxes and so-and-so's old lady) of a journalistic phenomenon which has been called, not inappropriately, Jann Wenner's "man-child."
Back in November, 1967, with an original start-up figure of $7,500, Wenner launched a publication to reflect "what we see are the changes related to rock and roll. Because the trade papers have become so inaccurate and irrelevant ... we hope we have something here for the artists and the industry and every person who 'believes in the magic to set you free.'" That magic, essentially white, male and San Francisco hip, was duly recorded over the next three years, and if you weren't heavily into music, festivals, groups, groupies and dope busts, there really wasn't anything in the paper you could actually read.
Along about the end of 1970 and in 1971, you began to hear of occasional Rolling Stone articles that would make you go out and buy a particular issue — Hunter Thompson's "Freak Power in the Rockies," a long and interesting account of a proposed political takeover (Joe Edwards for mayor, Thompson for sheriff) by the hip element that had settled in Aspen, Colo.; several interviews in which a sour John Lennon revealed What It Really Was Like in the heyday of the Beatles and Isaac Haber's "How Abbie Hoffman Won My Heart & Stole 'Steal This Book,'" which Wenner must have been delighted to run since it lent support to his basically anti-yippie (some say simply apolitical) stance.
In fact, in 1970, editors John Burks and Jon Carroll and others had left Rolling Stone over an argument with Wenner as to what direction the magazine ought to take, with Carroll & Company pressing for a shift to political-cultural focus, and Wenner holding out for a continuance of the same (almost exclusively) music orientation. Even as late as 1971, resident grandfather Ralph J. Gleason was maintaining that "music is still where it's at," but the opposing point of view had already been persuasively aired by Jon Landau in an earlier issue: "Bob Dylan has lost much of his impact ... the end of the Beatles as a group is now irreversible ... there are no longer any superhumans to focus on."
"It's to Wenner's credit," says Carroll, "that he'll reverse himself when the evidence warrants it," and although it is difficult to speculate on which were the key factors triggering the reversal (the atrophy of the music world in the hands of the new hustlers, the coming of age of Wenner and the staff and their contemporaneous readers, the aura of profit journalism beginning to emanate from the "new journalism" that was surfacing in other magazines), it became increasingly clear in the pages of Rolling Stone that the times they were a-changin'.
Another change that took place around that time was the setting up of a new publishing arm of Rolling Stone, Straight Arrow Publishers, under the direction of Alan Rinzler who had formerly been with the Macmillan Co., in New York. "When I arrived in San Francisco," says Rinzler, "Rolling Stone was still not financially out of the woods"; one of the first high-yield programs he initiated was the marketing of mass paperback reprint rights to material originally printed in the magazine, some of which might first be put in a hardcover or a quality paper edition under the Straight Arrow imprint (which also covers a number of non-Rolling Stone related books).
"Our first sale was the collection of Lennon interviews, called 'Lennon Remembers,' to Popular Library for $35,000" and thus began a parade of spin-off paperbacks still coming down the pike: "Rolling Stone Interviews I" and "Rolling Stone Interviews II" (Warner Paperback), "Rolling Stone Record Reviews, I and II" (Pocket Books), "Rolling Stone Rock and Roll Reader" (Bantam, just published), and the current "Rolling Stone Reader" — to name only a few.
Perhaps the fourth anniversary issue of Rolling Stone, Nov. 11, 1971, can be looked at as sort of a watershed. Although music still dominates the first half of the issue, and the format has not yet been revamped to start out with the World News Roundup instead of Random Notes (groupie gossip), and the issue includes, along with features on the Beach Boys, the Band, and Sly Stone, articles on Fellini, Young Americans for Freedom, and Hunter Thompson's 30,000-word Part I of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (to be followed by his 50,000 word Part II in the following issue, and which together — brilliant though they be — have pushed the boundaries of macho writing some several light-years beyond anything dreamed of in Mailer's philosophy).
Wrote Wenner in its editorial, "We have been called (by Time) The New York Times of the alternate culture ... and both our friends and critics have used the 'new Time magazine' metaphor to put us in our place. Such comparisons are not totally inaccurate: we're media ... an eye for unknown thousands of people to see their world through."
What they saw over the course of 1972, 1973 and into 1974, was the world not only through the eyes of Hunter Thompson, who had moved from Sports to National Affairs Desk, but also through those of Tom Wolfe, Richard Goodwin, Andrew Sarris, Jane Fonda, Truman Capote, Tom Hayden, Garry Wills, Charlotte Curtis and Anthony Hayden-Guest, in articles ranging from Hugh Hefner and The Pubic Hair Papers, through two exhaustive Ellsberg interviews, an excellent account of the Buffalo Creek disaster (that's a coal-mining town, not a bad singing group), and pieces on Bertolucci, R.D. Laing, Howard Baker, John Dean 3d and Alger Hiss in an interview with his son. All this and McCartney, Ringo and Dylan again, and everything else that's "coming up & going down" in the realm of music, pop and pure.
But what is even more impressive than the bifurcated readership it manages to serve at once — 16 per cent of which is now over the age of 25 — is the fact that nowhere else today is so much sheer space and money allotted to a given feature-length interview or article. The magazine's slogan "All the news that fits," turns out to mean that Rolling Stone will expand the page-space to fit all the news and nuances relevant to a subject, rather than the other way around — an absolutely unique policy in the annals of modern journalism.
"The Rolling Stone Reader," which includes a number of these long pieces of reportage, does not necessarily represent the magazine at its best, however, since the best tends to be siphoned into books by an individual author (Wolfe, Thompson, Timothy Crouse, et al.). But it does contain an extraordinary article by Grover Lewis, "Splendor in the Short-Grass," a portrait of Texas small-town aspirations and Hollywood star-strutting on location with Bogdanovich shooting "The Last Picture Show" together with a piece by Thompson at his finest, "Strange Rumblings in Aztlan," on politics in the Barrio of East L.A., and a very effective example of reconstructive reporting by Joe Eszterhas, "Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse," on the bloody battle for the town square in Harrisonville, Mo., waged between the long-hairs and the village elders (a longer version of which is published by Random House under the same title).
It's merchandising, baby, but the writing is real.