October 4, 2008
JANN Wenner looks pretty good for a 62-year-old founding father of
rock. Fit, tanned and sporting a salt-and-pepper three-day growth, he
radiates warmth and speaks with the enthusiasm of a wide-eyed teenager.
If you believe the Rolling Stone founder's tales of impossible
deadlines, late nights and the debauchery he experienced with rock
stars and hard-living journalists such as his friend the late Hunter
S. Thompson, he should be six feet under.
Or at least showing a bit of wear and tear.
But Wenner, who is credited with dragging the counter-culture into
the mainstream, has not only survived the parties and turmoil his
magazine has reported on for the past 41 years, he has become one of
the most successful independent publishers in history.
He admits he was lucky enough to start out on the cusp of a golden
age of music that "only comes around every 100 years" but is still
excited by the music of artists such as Prince, U2, John Mayer and
Perhaps he has been reinvigorated by his "second life". In 1995 he
separated from his wife, Jane, with whom he has three children. He
then moved to New York and started a relationship with the fashion
designer Matt Nye. The couple have adopted three children.
Wenner talks enthusiastically about the pivotal changes he has
witnessed in publishing, culture and politics over four decades, as
well as his continuing love of music.
He is a fervent supporter of the US Democratic presidential candidate
Barack Obama, who has appeared three times on the cover of Rolling
Stone's US edition.
The magazine used to stay proudly one step ahead of the mainstream,
but Wenner says that with the proliferation of the media that is no
"The mainstream became closer to the counter-culture," he says.
"Fifty years ago there were no black people on TV. You couldn't even
say the word gay. And then the evolution happened really rapidly, and
the mainstream came over and adopted styles of long hair, jeans,
rock'n'roll and the anti-war movement, because it wasn't necessarily
counter-culture, it was youth culture, it was generational. But now
news is on the web as soon as it happens."
Wenner set up Rolling Stone in 1967 in a small loft in San Francisco
with a $US7500 ($A9650) loan. The first print run was 5000 copies.
Since then, he has won countless awards and transformed his business
into a multimillion-dollar global publishing empire, licensing the
magazine in 15 countries. His publications are read by 27 million
people, yet he has also adapted to the internet age, attracting 12
million unique visitors to his associated websites.
Wenner is here for the relaunch of the Australian version of Rolling
Stone, which was recently bought by ACP Magazines. He also attended
this week's launch party, nostalgically called the Rolling Stone
Revival, featuring performances by local heroes the Living End,
Powderfinger and Neil Finn.
To compete with the global nature of internet news, Wenner says the
new Australian Rolling Stone will focus more on local issues and music.
"There's a really vibrant music scene here. In a way, there's more
music going on in Sydney than in New York, so to really work well,
you need to be the definitive bible on the local music scene." Well,
there's more in Melbourne, maybe.
At the party, he was full of praise for the smaller, more localised
version of Australian Rolling Stone, with Australian stars Jimmy
Barnes, the Veronicas, the Living End's Chris Cheney and Ben Lee
paying tribute to the Easybeats on the cover.
"That's how it should be," the American publisher says. "You're more
interested in the Veronicas … these are the people that you grew up
with, they live here, you get to see them. If we don't cover that,
then we're not doing our job."
The man credited with helping launch the careers of writers such as
Thompson, Tom Wolfe and Cameron Crowe nominates Rolling Stone's
current political reporter Matt Taibbi as an heir to Thompson.
"There were plenty of Hunter imitators, and the only one who got
close to him was Tom Wolfe. But Matt Taibbi isn't trying to imitate
Hunter he hasn't even read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail
but he is almost as funny."
And with that, Wenner heads off to yet another party. But by the
smile on his face, you can tell he will never tire of this life.
Patrick Donovan is The Age music writer.