Tuesday, May 23, 2023

"Some magic, mysterious thing"

Christie Hefner, right, talks to Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner.

     They considered calling it New Times or The Electric Newspaper, in keeping with the fad for odd, non-sequitur names, with bands calling themselves things like "Jefferson Airplane." But in the end Jann Wenner settled for the original idea, "Rolling Stone" when titling his groundbreaking magazine in 1967.
     And yes, lawyers from the band that already was going by the plural, Rolling Stones, did send a cease-and-desist letter. Wenner, speaking to a small gathering of about 40 people in downtown Chicago, said he replied, "prove to me that your clients want this." Otherwise he ignored the threat, and the subject didn't come up again until he partnered with Mick Jagger to put out a UK edition of the magazine.
     The gathering Monday evening, to celebrate Wenner's autobiography, "Like A Rolling Stone," was held at Christie Hefner's lovely 42nd floor apartment near the Water Tower. The former CEO of Playboy — daughter of founder Hugh Hefner — played her interlocutor role well, guiding Wenner through his reminiscence about his life at the intersection of music and politics.
      Hefner asked him about Hunter S. Thompson, the archetypal gonzo journalist.
     "Hunter was a brilliant, brilliant writer loved practical jokes, loved wickedness, loved taking drugs, loved having fun," he replied, describing "this incredible collaboration that we had ... We just kind of took to each other instantly, recognized some kind of insanity in each other, and a kind of mission we both shared, the same idea: that we could use Rolling Stone to galvanize the youth population to political action." 
     Wenner was born in 1946, the first year of the Baby Boom, and his magazine was directed at fellow Boomers, "a new generation of Americans, the wealthiest, biggest, best-educated generation in the history of the world." 
      I liked his succinct summation of various politicians: George W. Bush, "lazy"; Ronald Reagan, "ignorant"; Barack Obama, "very organized, careful, and just doesn't budge" and Joe Biden, "a terrific president."
       Of course he also spoke of music.
       "Music was the language which young people could express their frustration, their sense of alienation with society itself," Wenner said. "Some magic, mysterious thing." 
       And musicians — he was starstruck only by Jagger — Bruce Springsteen was too much of a regular guy to inspire awe, except in performance. Bob Dylan too. 
      Wenner is a star in his own right, a fact he tacitly admitted. 
      "A great magazine really is its editor," he said. "It's a totally collaborative effort, everyone brings ideas, but finally it's the editor who galvanizes it. The editor has a mission."
     The mission of Rolling Stone was to draw together the world of music and politics, to remind young readers "you could be a rock and roll fan and be taken seriously, in the same company as the president of the United States."   
     It was a casual, friendly evening, though Hefner didn't flinch from asking tough questions. "You had conflicts about your homosexuality..." she ventured at one point.
     "Growing up in the 1950s, it wasn't spoken of, you didn't know of it," Wenner began — a world that certain Republican politicians seem eager to drag us all back to.
     Coming out, Wenner said, "was wonderful and liberating and didn't change my life at all."
  When it was time for the audience to ask questions, one was if there was a cover profile that got away from him.
     "I wanted to get Sinatra," he said. "But he wasn't available to us." No, I suppose he wouldn't be. No doubt the Chairman of the Board shrugged it off as a hippie rag. He'd have held out for Life magazine long after it went out of business.
     Someone mentioned how Rolling Stone highlighted Black musicians years before mainstream publications took up the practice.
     "Rock and roll is Black music sung by white people," Wenner said, adding that Rolling Stone covered Black musicians better than Ebony and Jet, prompting a caution from Hefner that Linda Johnson-Rice, daughter of John H. Johnson, founder of those publications, was here, and he recovered artfully. 
     I should probably mention some other notables in attendance. Rich Melman was there, with sons R.J. and Jerrod — we talked food, and Jerrod's new child, 10 weeks or so away. My old Sun-Times colleague Bill Zwecker was there, with partner Tom Gorman. He's doing some travel writing. Matt Moog, the CEO of Chicago Public Media, whom I introduced to my wife as my "boss's boss's boss's boss." Writer Alex Kotlowitz; the Tribune's Chris Jones, past publisher of the Reader, Tracy Baim, and the new young publisher, Solomon Lieberman, and I couldn't resist pitching myself to him. "Always be closing," I said to my wife as we walked away.
      I promised myself beforehand, if I spoke to Wenner at all, not to tell him about working for him 30 years ago, and doing a cover story on "Drugs in America." Of course that's the first thing I blurted out when we were introduced. But he instantly knew what I was referring to, and we talked about drug policy. I meant to tell him how proud I'd been, to be at a story and say, "Hi, I'm Neil Steinberg from Rolling Stone." Though I did thank him for the oral history of Hunter S. Thompson he wrote, "Gonzo," and how I admired that he said aloud what everyone else seemed to miss — that Thompson was an alcoholic and his affliction destroyed his ability to write. 
      It was a lovely night, and my wife and I walked to Union Station, glad to be out on the town glad to see Michigan Avenue so alive and crowded with strollers, the River Walk restaurants and bars filled to capacity. On the train home, I began reading Wenner's book: taut, candid, captivating. It's easy to be honest when you come from picaresque poverty like, oh, Frank McCourt. It's harder when your parents, like Wenner's, are successful California entrepreneurs and you were raised at private schools and summer camps. Fortune favors the brave, and Wenner lays it out without apology. It works.
     I shouldn't say any more, since I've just begun, but I've made it 25 pages in and plan to keep reading, which is not true for most books I open.


  1. There WAS a New Times. I used to buy it occasionally. It was a glossy magazine that was published from 1973 to 1979 by George A. Hirsch, who had been the.publisher of New York magazine. Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill, and Mike Royko all wrote for it.

    New Times later focused on investigative journalism...covering the CIA, political spying, activism, the cult of est, the JFK assassination, and Patty Hearst. Contributors were up-and-coming freelance writers, along with veterans like Studs Terkel and Nicholas von Hoffman.

    I still have a few issues, now going on fifty years old and yellow with age. The one with the cover showing Gerald Ford as Bozo the Clown. And the War Is Over issue, with the cover showing the Viet Cong prisoner being shot through the head.

    New Times was a good magazine, but it died when the Seventies ended.

  2. I'd be envious of your opportunity to attend such an event, but for your incredible ability to capture and convey the moment. Well done and thank you.

    1. Indeed. What we've got here is the opposite of failure to communicate, to adapt Strother Martin's famous line. As EGD readers, we benefit from the fact that our host operates in enough of a rarefied position to be invited to such a gathering, yet is still down-to-earth enough to offer this clear-eyed, low-key perspective of the experience.

  3. I remember New Times. I think I started reading it around the same time I discovered Mother Jones.

  4. Glad you and your wife had a “lovely night”. You are very fortunate to have attended but you did earn your way there.
    My wife and I just returned from out annual May trip to Chicago to see our son and had many lovely nights, maybe the best when we saw a live recording of Wait, Wait…
    Don’t Tell Me at the Studebaker theatre.
    The city is so alive.

  5. The mention of the threatened lawsuit by the Rolling Stones lawyers gave rise to the question, "What would Hugh and Christie Hefner have done if a rock band called itself 'The Playboys'?" Quickly answered of course, also confirming that I am the only one in the world who had never heard of Gary Lewis (comedian Jerry Lewis's son) and the Playboys. No litigation as far as I know and they are still active according to Wikipedia.


    1. When I was in my teens (1960s), there was (at least for a while) a Far North Side high school social club called the Playboys (not really a street gang--the clubs wore club jackets...and had socials). I vaguely remember the wearing of the Bunny on their apparel. Gotta wonder if they ever got a letter from Hef's lawyer.They probably would have laughed.

      The club changed its name and its logo after another, larger outfit also adopted the Bunny symbol in the early 60s. They were not a North Side club. Nor could they be laughed off. They were from the West Side, and were known as the Vice Lords.

  6. Back in the day (early 1970s) I was a commercial bicycle courier in San Francisco, with regular stops at the Rolling Stone office on Third Street. I never saw anyone famous there. Too bad. Nice posters on the walls IIRC. No free coffee. Too bad.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.