We both know that Rolling Stone — the magazine you founded and remain Editor and Publisher of — has been the subject of endless irate rants over the years. Here’s another one.
I’ve been a reader since the first issue, dated November 9, 1967. This missive has been a long time coming, about 25 years, which probably makes my frustration with your magazine older than most of your readers. A quarter of a century is a longtime to keep anger bottled up. Capped bile can cause hair cancer and bad dreams and I want neither.
Rolling Stone was The Bible for the generation of rockers and freaks twixt the late ’60s and early ’70s. It was a wondrous time to be young but I’ll keep my cannabinoided and hallelujah chorused memories to myself because many roll their eyes at the mention of Woodstock Nation, and I’ve come to bury the past, not to praise it. But Jann, the quality of Rolling Stone’s journalists during that stardust and golden historical blip–the smarts, the knowledge, the wit–was top shelf. A short list includes J.R. Young, Al Aronowitz, Jonathan Cott, Jon Carroll, Greil Marcus, David Dalton, Michael Lydon, John Burks, Robert Palmer, Jerry Hopkins, Timothy Crouse, John Mendelsohn, Ben Edmonds. Your co-founder, the late, great Ralph J. Gleason. The three greatest American writers of the last half-century, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and Nick Tosches. The sadly overlooked Grover Lewis. My ex-Lampoon pal P.J. O’Rourke (yes, he came later). The Holy Ghost, Lester Bangs. One of my oldest and best friends, Larry “Ratso” Sloman. I think the man who reinvented the English language, Richard Meltzer, wrote for you too.
You, as well, Jann. Your interviews with Lennon, Dylan and Garcia were masterworks.
Lo, tho I revere the late underground press, the weird-turned-professionalism of the vintage Stone was mighty.
I stopped listening to most rock music in the early 1970s because its soul was leached from it by tacit slack and corporate conspiracy. That would be the era when musicians’ muttonchops garnered more of their attention than their chop chops, producers and engineers homogenized records with an overdose of slick, and record company executives–not usually revolutionary in any time period–ceased to pretend that they were part of any underground and returned to their roots as unapologetic vultures.
Bob Dylan has continued to make great records, as have a handful of others, and I stayed with your magazine until the early-to-mid 1980s. I recall your infamous advertising campaign from the greed-is-good epoch; the Reagan era that we still endure with blood on our hands and a hole where our hearts should be. PERCEPTION VS. REALITY, your ad campaign screamed. PERCEPTION was a depiction of a hippie, REALITY a yuppie. That’s when you clearly jumped ship, Jann, and defected to the Darkness and the Dumb.
I read your magazine occasionally, despite the airbrushed cover portraits of movie stars and Britney Spears, puerile reviews of puerile music and the cute, precious, pampered, overpaid, board-roomed and groomed product that pass as humans. We don’t need to know that an actor is eating garlic-parmesan Buffalo wings while she’s being interviewed. You once covered Woodstock, Altamont, and–with incisors bared–Watergate and the Fall of Nixon. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas first ran on your pages. You published the most poignant obituary of Frankie Lymon of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. I used to sit and re-read it because it was simultaneously devastating and thrilling.
As for the present, I do read all of Matt Taibbi’s armor-piercing political excavations and thoroughly dug Charles M. Young’s piece on Jerry Lee Lewis. Young is one of the last warriors of the word. “With Jerry, there was a genuine feeling of danger, and that was part of the excitement,” says Robbie Robertson of the Killer. The same can be said of Rolling Stone when it was great. It may seem ridiculous now, but putting John and Yoko nude on the cover in 1968 was not only financially wise — it was subversive. You remain the former, but not the latter.
The issue dated October 19 of this year was also the 20th anniversary of your annual “Hot List” and that means it’s been about 20 years since I’ve read Rolling Stone regularly because the concept of what’s hot and what’s not makes me nauseous. “Hot,” as you define it, is something or someone so spectacular, the reader will want to know about it or them. Garlic-parmesan Buffalo wings will never be “hot,” no matter how thoroughly cooked.
On page 78 of this issue is a list piece called “Hot Subcultures: Where It’s At, 2006,” in which your anonymous writer(s) purport(s) to satirize three current pop culture trends: Emo Dudes, Skate Rappers, and Freak Folk. Breaking down cultural phenomena by simplistic category is taking-a-shit lit, not journalism. I know nothing about the first two, but with the last category, you fired a shot from atop Rolling Stone corporate headquarters at one of the few authentic underground movements currently thriving amidst the noise of culture. Freak Folk–as is usually the case–derives its name from someone who needed a buzzword to describe something. This is the easier road than copping that something can’t be easily described. Dylan hates the term Folk-Rock. But Freak Folk is not the most shameful handle on the planet, so for the sake of clarity let’s use it.
Point by point: The “Homebase” of Freak Folk is the Echo Park, not Silverlake, area of Los Angeles. The itemized “Cool Kids” are true enough, but limited. Where is Josephine Foster or Winter Flowers or Becky Stark & Lavender Diamond? Calling Charles Manson the “Icon” of Freak Folk is a dumb joke, simply not funny or accurate. It’s like calling Dubya “America’s Icon.” Naming “red meat” and “The Man” as “Nemeses” is more trite oh-those-hairy-hippies humor. There are no “Must-Have-Accessories” nor “Dirty Little Secrets”, because there are no rules, and gossiping about peoples’ sex life is for Congressmen, not artists.
You–and I say ‘you’ because I’ve been told for years that you, Jann, vetted everything–are correct in calling Arthur Magazine the “Bible” for this community of musicians, simply because it functions for these young people the way Rolling Stone functioned for an earlier group of young people at the birth of another counterculture. (Full disclosure: I’m on Arthur’s Council of Advisors and have occasionally written for them. I also wrote about drug war politics for Rolling Stone for a short time years ago.) Arthur’s editor Jay Babcock and publisher Laris Kreslins are doing what you did in 1967, chronicling the rise of music and culture by young people from the under-to-the-overground. Here’s, in part, what I wrote about Arthur in the LA Weekly in 2004, before I became a contributor:
“When the first ish of Arthur crossed my radar two annums back, envy devolved into self-pity. Why do these scribes get to be dangerously edgy? Why doesn’t the text show any evidence of hack editors hacking freespeak? Why is there nary a sign of yuppie lifestyle? Why them, not me?
“The answer is that a crew of writers and artists, tired of fewer outlets for cutting-edge cultural reporting sans the stink of corporate commerce, got off their asses and started their own bimonthly national freebie newspaper. Arthur has a baroque, multicolored, psychedelic look with comics in the margins and everywhere else. In short, it doesn’t belong to that increasingly bottom-lined and bantamweight category called “alternative,” it’s full-blown contrarian.
“Refreshingly, the Arthurians refuse to engage in the hoariest of countercultural arguments: hippie vs. punk. In fact, like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, the paper exists in an anti-temporal warp where the past, present and future of mavericks coexist, creating a cohesive community in an increasingly fragmented society of subcultures. Babcock allows writers to riff in extended pieces, unencumbered by word counts, giving them the space to work in detail. It’s a more picturesque New Yorker, created by and for freaks, produced from inside the avant mondo as opposed to merely chronicling it.”
Heavyweight contributors have included John Sinclair, Douglas Rushkoff, Kristine McKenna, Michael Moorcock, David Byrne, Thurston Moore and Byron Coley. Yes, Arthur is largely responsible for trumpeting the Freak Folk movement but they’ve also run extensive features and reviews on jazz (Sun Ra), hard rock (Comets On Fire), heavy metal (Om), and Indian music (Pandit Pran Nath). They’ve also covered psychedelics (Daniel Pinchbeck, Jeremy Narby), comic book scribes (Grant Morrison), anti-civilizationists (Derrick Jensen) and the war in Iraq. When the United States was still looking for weapons of mass destruction in 2003, Arthur interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Chris Hedges, who foresaw the disaster. More recently, Babcock confronted Sully Erna, lead singer of millionaire rockers Godsmack, over his band providing music for military recruitment. The heated debate spread throughout the Internet.
Under their Bastet label, Arthur has also released CDs, a DVD, and literature in mimeo format. The most recent CD is So Much Fire To Roast Human Flesh, an anthology of psychedelic folkies and others curated by musician Josephine Foster (a true gem), with the proceeds going to counter-military recruitment groups and programs. Arthur produces festivals, including the legendary ArthurFest in 2005, headlined by Yoko Ono. Beginning this Thursday, October 19 through Sunday, the 22nd, they’ll host Arthur Nights at the Palace Theatre in Los Angeles. The line-up includes Devendra Banhart, the Sun Ra Arkestra, Bert Jansch, the Fiery Furnaces, Tav Falco & The Unapproachable Panther Burns, and a hundred other musicians who exist outside corporate music, ranging in age from very young to very old. Arthur has been feted by many, including the New York Times, The Guardian and, yes, Rolling Stone–your magazine, Jann — who named the upstart publication “hot” in the “Hot List” of 2004.
What Arthur and Babcock recognize is that the people need optimism, not a new Hummer. If one wishes to hurl the epithet “hippie,” we don’t care. As a 51-year old freak, I’m glad there’s a magazine like this for me to read. I attend Arthur events and see young and old people imbued with hope, animated with intelligence quotients, seeking other artists. Beauty is the new subversion, Jann. I never believed ‘hippie’ belonged to an era anyway and I’m old enough to know that history is cyclical, that we are evolving, that we will blunder through horror to eventually arrive at new plateaus of Love, Peace, Justice, Art and Fun and Who Knows What.
The jaded and ironic and sarcastic and smug and selfish attitudes of the past–as reflected in the sold-out pages of Rolling Stone–have done nothing but imprison us in a hamster wheel of work, kill, die. I am publicly inviting you–Jann Wenner–to resign from Rolling Stone and come work at Arthur as a staffer. You’ll have to simplify your lifestyle, but we’ll find you a sweet little crib in Echo Park. I bet we can get some brilliant, revelatory interviews out of you.
MICHAEL SIMMONS is an award-winning journalist and currently filming a documentary on the Yippies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.