Jann Wenner's new memoir chronicles his life as co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Before things went viral, there was another sign of fame - 1972, "Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show" saying...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE COVER OF ROLLING STONE")
DR HOOK AND THE MEDICINE SHOW: (Singing) Rolling stone - want to see my picture on the cover. Stone - want to buy five copies for my mother.
SIMON: Rolling Stone was founded in 1967 by Ralph J. Gleason and Jann Wenner. Ralph Gleason would die just a few years later though his name has stayed on the masthead. Jann Wenner would make Rolling Stone a cultural milestone for millions. He's written a big, fat candy box of a memoir that abounds with lots of one-word names like Bono, Yoko, Mick, Bruce, Dylan and Jackie O - his memoir, "Like A Rolling Stone." And Jann Wenner joins us now from Long Island. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Wenner.
JANN WENNER: I am looking forward to it.
SIMON: It's irresistible just to begin to throw out some names at you and get you to talk about people you've known, worked with, sometimes disagreed with. Let me begin with Bob Dylan.
WENNER: Well, everybody thinks he's very mysterious, withdrawn and a little bit cold. I've always found him to be extremely friendly, very funny. He's always an engaging conversationalist. I think he's terrific. And of course, I think he's the great poet of our times.
SIMON: Yeah. Mick Jagger.
WENNER: Terrific guy, the model of the rock star, somebody I met very early on before Rolling Stone's even 1 year old. We went into business together publishing Rolling Stone a couple of years later in England and remain great friends.
SIMON: I found it telling, though, in the development of the magazine as real journalism - the free concert at Altamont. Eighteen-year-old man named Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death. There were other injuries. The Rolling Stones were playing there. And your magazine was all over what happened including the implication that the Rolling Stones, the music group, were partly responsible for hiring the Hells Angels to be security - and I put that in quotes - for the concert.
WENNER: We realized it was anything but Woodstock West. This was, in fact, a rock 'n' roll tragedy. In covering it thoroughly and accurate and correctly, we had to blame a bunch of people. And among them would be the Rolling Stones and Mick. And the question was, well, you're great friends with Mick. What are we going to do? We going to pull our punches? Are we going to tell the truth and lay the blame where it goes? And I said, you know, there's not a question about it. We got to tell the truth. That's our mission. That's our job. And we won the National Magazine Award for the first time for doing that.
SIMON: He sent you a note that I found interesting. Do you remember it?
WENNER: I do, indeed. After we had gone to press, one of our reporters asked him to do an interview. He sent me a note saying, look, I can answer these questions, but I'm just in a place right now where we don't feel we can be accurately quoted by you. And so I decline to speak. I hope that someday our friendship will be able to resume again. Fair enough.
SIMON: Hunter S. Thompson - brilliant, but...
WENNER: Hunter was brilliant. He was difficult. Anybody who was with him always felt that they were coming to the edge of the fun zone, you know, with him, that you were going to have more excitement with this guy than you were going to have at any other point in your life. You know, this is as dangerous as it's going to get, as daring as it's going to get. But he's also the most charming, polite and generous individual you've ever met. And you're in awe of his talent. As difficult as he became, we never exchanged cross words. We call each other brain-dead idiots and swine rat heads and all that kind of stuff, but never a cross word.
SIMON: (Laughter). You and the magazine, at one point, moves from San Francisco to New York, and you talk about going into a morning meeting and just noticing that the staff had moved visibly from the make-love-not-war crowd to the make-money crowd. What did that mean? And how did you feel about it?
WENNER: Well, our decision to leave San Francisco and go to New York was really based on the desire to grow and build the company, build the circulation, the business also. And the talent in magazines was based in New York. You didn't get the same business side - advertising sales, distribution, all marketing. And the editorial talent was primarily in New York, too.
SIMON: Yeah. Did the Woodstock generation blow it? I mean, we're speaking now at a week in which anybody living in the western United States would feel like a lobster in the pot.
WENNER: Right. The issue of the climate is - we started on it at Rolling Stone in 1970. We've been relentlessly covering it ever since. The climate crisis is not caused by the failure of this generation. The climate crisis has been caused by the oligarchs running oil and the coal companies, who control the Republican Party and many other politicians. That is a huge problem, but we alone cannot solve it. But I would stand by this generation and what it's done to advance the cause of Black people, of women, of gays, of all kinds of underprivileged people who have been looking for a fair share of our society and our wealth.
SIMON: Let me ask you to look at the way people ingest - I'll put it that way - news and information these days. Do we have the attention span to take on long problems like the environment or, for that matter, Ukraine?
WENNER: I think we do. The public attention span had been shortened quite a bit by the information age technology that constantly is putting new stuff in front of you on an ongoing basis, 24 hours a day. It encourages this distraction. Yet, on the other hand, I feel that the American public, when focused on a problem or something, is very interested and very behind it. And even though the news media may not see it as the crisis of the moment - because you need a new crisis or a new headline to sell papers. To get clicks or whatever, they have to constantly be presenting this information. Is it great for society? I don't think so. But on the other hand, I don't think that's the issue. I think the issue is the honesty and the competence of the news that is presented. The American people are still good judges of information when it's fairly and objectively presented. When the free press does its job, the informed public is capable of making the correct decisions.
SIMON: Jann Wenner - his new memoir "Like A Rolling Stone" - thank you so much for being with us.
WENNER: Scott, thank you. Enjoyed it very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.