We get it—there is simply too much. So this year, we are giving our editors a last-minute opportunity to plug the things that maybe got away. See all the things you really should have read, watched, or listened to—as well as more of our year in review coverage—here.
Like a Rolling Stone: A Memoir by Jann Wenner
We’ve heard a lot in recent years about the death of rock and roll—as a genre and a sound, sure, but also as an industry, a lifestyle, and particularly as a galvanizing force. What we haven’t really heard until now is a full-throated inside account of how music came to define American life in the first place, starting in the late ’60s and onward—written by the man who channeled that revolution into a magazine, Rolling Stone, that became a cultural force of its own.
Full disclosure: I worked for Jann for a dozen-odd years in the ’90s and beyond and crafted an oral biography of Rolling Stone’s most famous writer, Hunter S. Thompson, at his instigation and with his help, so I’m perhaps not the most objective reader of this memoir. Fact is I went into this book expecting to know most of its narrative and many of its stories—yet I found myself almost continually surprised by its detail, the breadth of its scope and range, and its emotional depth.
So, yeah, come for the celebrity gossip—from the rupture in Jann’s relationship with John Lennon to his later closeness with Yoko Ono; from his years as an earnest Mick Jagger fanboy to becoming the kind of millionaire mogul who strikes business partnerships with Jagger and vacations with him (and a host of other people who defined the culture of the 20th century) on private islands and private jets. There’s also plenty of sex and drugs amidst the rock and roll. But stay for the moving account of how a college dropout with a big idea turned his vision into an empire—and changed the country and the world in the process.
Jann also writes at length here about his earliest attractions to men; his tense but enduring marriage to his wife, Jane; and his joy at raising children with her—as well as about his decision, in 1994, to tell Jane that he’d fallen in love with a man, Matt Nye, with whom Jann now has children of his own.
It’s easily forgotten, now that we’re more than a half century away from the era in which Jann founded Rolling Stone—and understandably more focused on the ongoing revolutions of tech and social media and, maybe, democratic versus authoritarian modes of governing—but the world Jann came of age in was a monoculture dominated by a kind of conformity in which the realms of pop culture and politics were kept as far apart as possible. Enter drugs, social protest, and the emerging West Coast folk, psychedelic, and rock scene, all of which coalesced around Berkeley while Jann was a student there.
Once he had the idea of starting a magazine that combined all of the above between two covers, he never really looked back, and his almost manic, fevered life of the next couple of decades is a whirlwind of struggle, drama, scoops, ambition, success, failure, money (the getting and the spending), and more. But this isn’t merely Jann’s story, or even the story of Rolling Stone: The genius of both the man and the magazine he created is that both are a prism through which to view American life, culture, politics, mores, values, music, and kicks of the last half-century. Take any major event or issue—from Woodstock to Altamont, from Watergate to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, from draft-dodging to the military-industrial complex, from nuclear power to global warming: Rolling Stone had someone there, had a point of view, was embedded with the central players, pushed things forward long before most other outlets, and called it like they saw it in a way that often incinerated the status quo.
Oddly, the story of the sun setting on his empire is at least as compelling as the story of the sunrise: Against a backdrop of his friends and family dying (Hunter, Robin Williams, Ahmet Ertegun, Tom Wolfe, David Bowie, his dearest and oldest friend, and his mother), his own myriad health and injury setbacks, and Trump—the antithesis of everything both he and Rolling Stone ever stood for—ascendant in the White House, Jann admits to taking his eye off the ball at a crucial time when it came to the company’s bottom line.
The fact that the world Rolling Stone had reflected, chronicled, and created—one in which rock and roll, formerly the province of dirty hippies and commie draft dodgers, suffused almost every aspect of our lives and had helped elect a president of the United States (Bill Clinton, who welcomed Jann and I and our national-affairs editor, William Greider, to the White House after he was elected)—was now on the decline and that the culture and the demographic it had gathered around it had fragmented into a million micro genres (hastened by the Walkman, the iPod, and social media, among other factors) had a lot to do with all of that. Jann doesn’t really take issue with this; he’s not a revanchist tilting at windmills trying to will us all back to some golden age (Make America Rock Again!).