Thursday, December 21, 2017

Sticky Fingers-The Jann Wenner/Rolling Stone Book | Lefsetz Letter

“Rock and roll then was real, everything else was unreal.”

John Lennon

This is the most depressing book I’ve read all year.

There’s always been music. It’s not like the Top Forty was blank before the Beatles. Even a few good groups dominated the airwaves prior to ’64, like the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys, but culturally, it was a vast wasteland.

And then the British Invasion began. And wiped out everything that came before it. Oh, Brian Wilson rose to the challenge, his band still had hits, but almost no one else did. Bobby Rydell? Fabian? Everybody who sang before suddenly no longer had a career. It’s kinda like Kodak, decimated by digital photography. Although in the case of the Rochester company there was fair warning, nobody saw the Beatles coming.

It was a revolution. We were invaded. Buzz was rampant, radio jumped on board and when the band appeared on “Ed Sullivan” three times in February, it was over, just that fast, a new world existed.

And it wasn’t only the Beatles, new bands followed in their wake. It was all you talked about, what was on the airwaves. Your records were precious, you spun them over and over.

And then came the San Francisco sound and underground FM radio and it was like the gods of music doubled-down, just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, it did.

And Jann Wenner decided to chronicle this.

He’s not a villain, just another guy with vision out to make a buck. And all the buzz about this book is about the portrayal of Jann and his rejection thereof. But that was secondary to the foundation of the magazine, and the end of the dream.

I’d say it was like AOL in the nineties, but that was about you and me connecting.

I’d say it was like the dot com evolving into the app era, but everybody doing that was more interested in making a buck than art. These were coders and hustlers, success was on Wall Street, whereas the musicians of the sixties succeeded by invading our hearts. It was a revolution based on creativity, money was a byproduct, it was about disobeying the rules, being an individual, who you were was just as important as what you made.

And then it collapsed.

That’s what no one wants to talk about today, how it’s not the same. There’s a hit parade, there’s a chart, but this is not baseball, with the same rules handed down through the ages, this is about personal expression, this is about the zeitgeist and…

We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.

Hell, one can argue it died when Don Henley sang that line.

But no one wants to admit it. They just want to point to record sales and streams, as if you could quantify art, and hearts and minds.

So what you’ve got here is a relatively lame recounting of the fifty year history of “Rolling Stone.” Not as lame as the unwatchable HBO special with regard thereto, but the problem with history is it’s best when written by people who were there, in this case the author was not.

Yes, the highlight is the beginning, how the magazine was birthed and stayed steady.

And then there’s the tale of Thompson, Hunter S. that is. And this is done pretty well, but then you ask why there hasn’t been a gonzo doctor since. And then you realize writing is a third class citizen. And you can’t make bank, not the kind they do on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, so the best and the brightest don’t go into the field, which is left to the academics, hell, have you read the output of the Iowa Workshop? It’s like listening to metal records. There’s a code you don’t know that ends up with books you don’t want to read, even though the press keeps saying how great they are. Thompson tested limits, today writers kiss ass.

And the Patty Hearst story is told poorly and the key point is not made… This is what made “Rolling Stone” legitimate, when it broke Patty’s story, when it was suddenly the equal of the big boys. It was the equivalent of SNL, the youth finally took over. And that’s a good analogy. The media keeps trumpeting SNL when the truth is it’s a tired formula endlessly repeated. Like an aged rock star with plastic surgery plying the boards as if he still counted.

After that…

There’s not much to say.

There certainly isn’t much about the music. And there’s little about the blink, the short reviews after “Blender” came on the scene and fudged its numbers. No, it’s basically the story of a rich guy living a good life. Which is what the boomers did en masse, sell out, become their parents, even though their hair was long and they still smoked dope.

I read yesterday that “Sound and Vision” lost ninety percent of its readership, went from nearly a million as “High Fidelity” to under 100,000 with its new moniker. Turns out buying a first class stereo is no longer a dream, but don’t tell that to those still buying equipment, they’ll tell you it’s the same as it ever was.

But it’s not.

But ain’t that America, where no one can sacrifice and everybody believes they rule. Hell, it’s worse than ever in this internet era.

But the truth is times change. And institutions too.

I still get “Rolling Stone,” but I’m not sure who it’s written for. Aged boomers or young hipsters. And by trying to appeal to multiple demographics it ultimately appeals to none. So far from its original mission, where it cared about its generation and nothing more.

But the generation got old and the music died and…

The dream is over.

P.S. There’s a lot of Lennon in this tome, but my favorite story was when Wenner and John went to lunch and fans approached the Beatle for an autograph and he said…GO AWAY! That’s a rock star, not someone who keeps championing his fans and trying to please them. That’s a sycophant, however rich. We need leaders, when we’re not watching the parking meters.

“Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine”


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