Rolling Stone isn’t much of a magazine anymore, though It does have some great stories. And it exactly those stories that pack a powerful nostalgic blow as the magazine is featured in a new video and book to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its premiere issue. HBO has hit another high hat in rockumentaries with the two part Rolling Stone: Tales from the Edge but it is Joe Hagan’s comprehensive biography Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine that deserves the encore.
Having full access to Jann (Yahn) Wenner’s personal archives of extensive notes and diaries, Hagan has created the perfect in-depth look at the magazine that those of us in love with rock and roll couldn’t live without. Bands have fantasized and written great songs about being on it’s cover and for a brief moment of time their record reviews (often wrong or inspired by financial considerations) were considered the bible of criticism. Hagan uncovers the hidden madness, sex-capades and financial back stabbing that underscored the brilliant reporting and ground breaking insights the biweekly rag covered from Altamonte to Patty Hearst and beyond.
The HBO series meanwhile gives a precursory look at the magazine’s impact leaving out some vital details that add resonance and depth to this quintessential story of the Baby Boomers’ generation. It is only hinted at in the video, but elaborated covered in Hagan’s 500 page tome, that Wenner was driven from the start to make a lasting impact. His goal was to be Hugh Hefner of Rock and Roll and in many ways, including the bizarre sexual relationships, he succeeded. Not many of his co-workers came out of the other end of this 50 year journey liking Wenner, but almost all respected what he accomplished as a documenter of a crucial time of America social upheaval and cultural revolution.
The video version of this chronicle tells the stories by topic while Hagan’s massively researched masterpiece takes a day to day approach. They both work for their respective mediums. The HBO two parter directed by Alex Gibney explores a few stories he considered “uniquely Rolling Stone.” These consists of a mostly forgotten feature on rock groupies and the explosive exposé of Ice-T during the “Cop Killer” phase. The video spends exorbitant time on the magazine’s political coverage while almost nothing on Wenner’s sly business moves and back stabbing maneuvers to rock greats including Mick Jagger and John Lennon. Both stories given full tilt in Hagan’s hands.
The independent publication is deservedly being celebrated with all its warts and perceived hipness. Most of us remember anxiously awaiting the arrival of the magazine at the record store and then later in the mail. Once we had it in our hands we would take a long look at its cover (remember “He’s Hot! He’s Sexy! and He’s Dead”?). Then we would spend hours reading every word. As a sign of our coolness, we would leave it laying about in our bedrooms or be sure the cute girls saw us reading it in class. It spoke to us about us. There was nothing else like it. It was counter culture until it became mainstream and then it still mattered. I mean really isn’t it still all of our dream to be on the cover of the Rolling Stone?