Jann Wenner: architect of a rock'n'roll empire

The Rolling Stone editor and publisher traded his pioneer credibility for the gaudiness of youth celebrity while maintaining a role as a voice of American liberalism. How will this play out in the UAE when the magazine's Middle East edition launches next week?

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So how does an uber-rich left-leaning secular Jewish pop culture media tycoon mesh with the Arab world?
The region is about to find out, when Jann Wenner launches Rolling Stone Middle East on Monday. There'll be the launch party, with stars and models huddled under glittering hotel chandeliers (we'll leave the swinging for Tom Cruise on the Burj Khalifa), but come Tuesday morning, will the newsstands rock?
It's been a long trip in the chauffeured limo from Haight-Ashbury to zillionairedom for the editor/publisher Jann Wenner. And those who scoff at the idea of a middle-aged rock mag in the Middle East should consider the man behind it.
Wenner's story is inescapably American in its trajectory: youth culture gone mega, a kind of innocence gone entrepreneur, paralleling the rise of the ultimate Yank export: rock'n'roll. Founding the mag in the heart of the counterculture San Francisco in 1967, he built a media empire from the earthquake of rock culture. Over subsequent decades, he traded pioneer cred for the gaudiness of youth celebrity, while maintaining an in-and-out role as a voice of American liberalism.
Wenner grew up in the strange privileged limbo of a wealthy childhood, exiled from New York to a private boarding school near Los Angeles while his parents worked towards a divorce. After being turned down by Harvard, dropping out of Berkeley and writing an early rock rag column called "Something's Happening", Wenner legendarily founded Rolling Stone with the jazz critic/mentor Ralph J Gleason and a $7,500 loan from the family of his future wife, Jane.
Headquarters was a rent-free warehouse newsroom on top of a printing press. Wenner's chosen motto - "All the news that fits" - was a cheeky take on The New York Times slogan, "All the news that's fit to print", implying the new magazine would explode the scope of coverage, leaping off from the very notion that rock'n'roll was a lens through which to see the rising youth culture, and beyond it, the altered culture itself. Rolling Stone was an undeniable game-changer. It not only covered rock'n'roll, it covered the world through it.
Asked decades later how the 21-year-old editor would have seen his future, Wenner replied: "He didn't think about those things." But he was dissembling. At the very least, Wenner always knew he intended to be the hippie with equity.
Reports from the time identify Wenner's business eye - he wanted ad revenue, not just counterculture beard-stroking. And he wanted to change the culture from the top down, with the Wenner imprimatur - ego to match vision. The young editor became infamous for his office tantrums, manipulative tendencies and perceived betrayals of the freaks and hotshots he initially championed.
"Pretty much everybody eventually got fired," a former writer once said, including the imperious sacking of Jim DeRogatis in 1996 over a negative review of Hootie and the Blowfish's (awful) album Fairweather Johnson, allegedly because the band's label had spent considerable money on advertising in the mag. The former Stone writer Neal Karlen once called Wenner "the rich kid bully at camp who wouldn't share his footlocker full of candy unless you did his chores on the job wheel".
Those same critics, however, would never deny Wenner's eye for raw and rising talent.
The list of American originals made famous in Rolling Stone's pages is legion: Hunter S Thompson, Joe Klein, William Grieder, Joe Eszterhas, Cameron Crowe. Likewise, the magazine built its reputation on the space and leeway given. This was the editor who loosed Thompson, a banned legend for his wild-eyed, lacerating but often presciently deranged political writing. Unfettered by editorial gentility or word count, Thompson could denounce the president Richard Nixon as "a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream", a man who "could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time".
This was the editor to whom a terrified Tom Wolfe turned when bridging the transition from nonfiction to novels, persuading Wenner to serialise - for a hefty payday - The Bonfire of the Vanities before its release. Wenner discovered a young photographer named Annie Liebovitz, and made her the doyenne of rock portraitists. The entire world has seen her famous shot of a naked John Lennon draping himself over wife Yoko Ono.
Wenner himself became the prime interviewer of major Democrats including the presidents Bill Clinton ("He'll be the first rock'n'roll president in American history") and Barack Obama, on the way to defining the magazine with both of his faces: an unapologetic American liberalism and a lust for the clout of celebrity.
His own friendships with the icons of the age - Lennon, Jagger, Dylan - and the celebrity elite of the media world have always dually functioned as corporate leverage as well. His eye ever trained on legacy, he cofounded the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1983. Not everyone loved the institutionalisation of the music, but Wenner famously said of sneering inductees the Sex Pistols: "If they want to smash [their trophies] into bits, they can do that, too."
By then, Rolling Stone was mid-stream in its series of transformations: after a rise to preeminence in the 1970s and consolidation in the 1980s, the magazine lost sway to competitors and a changing culture it misread (it booted hip-hop). Following a slouch into irrelevance in the 1990s, we end with the corporate glitz of the new millennium.
And yet, the magazine still stutteringly rearticulates itself in the political conversation, driven by Wenner's own convictions. The Bush White House loathed it, and the magazine recently took down Gen Stanley McChrystal, the US forces commander in Afghanistan who was fired after he was quoted criticising the vice president Joe Biden in the article Runaway General.
But there was more - a typically American "scandal" as, inevitably, Wenner himself became the story. In 1995, he left Jane, wife of 28 years, mother of three sons and co-owner of the magazine, and came out as a gay man with his partner Matt Nye, with whom he now has a son and two daughters.
How does this play in the region? Well, it has not hurt him elsewhere.
Go back to the very source. In Wenner, you have perhaps the first unapologetic capitalist entrepreneur of his generation - certainly in media. And his is not a leveraged empire: Rolling Stone is owned by Wenner Media, estimated at a worth of well over US$500 million (Dh1.8 billion), and has been reported as having no debt.
And Wenner's newest branchout does not come without precedent. Rolling Stone Middle East will take a page from Rolling Stone India.
"We look forward to being a part of the Indian scene in our small way, reverent of the past and excited and challenged by the future," Wenner said when launching that branch of the brand - one of 18 international editions, including Germany, China, Japan, Chile, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia and Russia.
And no, the Indian version has not become a Bollywood-steeped colonial rag. Two-thirds of its content comes from the mothership, the rest generated locally, in a country now reported to have more than 1,000 rock-(like) bands hoping for a shot at a coveted cover. The last issue, a Roger Waters cover, includes stories on the Mumbai rockers Split, East/West fusion jam band Indian Ocean, the hard rockers Indus Creed and the folktronica siren Natasha Khan, known onstage as Bat For Lashes, who is English of Pakistani background.
It will be a symbiotic relationship - Wenner's magazine conferring credibility to the nascent scene and in turn profiting from the Next Big Thing that may emerge from booming developing economies. In the UAE, Rolling Stone lands in an economy built on oil but transformed by tourism into one of the world's 10 most popular jetset destinations. And lavish shopping means pricey entertainment and castle-mortgage paydays for entertainers. If anything, the UAE lands more major-league rock acts than India - Aerosmith, Elton John, Coldplay, Pink, Phil Collins and Céline Dion have all performed here. Kylie Minogue was rumoured to have cashed north of $3 million to perform at the opening of the Atlantis Resort a few years ago.
Will Rolling Stone work in that context? My New York deli guy thinks so. He's from Yemen. "In Dubai, maybe ... But no, it wouldn't work in Yemen."
And some things may not fit. Will it run Rolling Stone's new Ozzy Osbourne "health issues" column? When one writer sought counsel for his vertigo, Dr Ozzy responded: "I thought I had vertigo . I went to the doctor, and he said, 'Mr. Osbourne, the problem - as far as I can tell - is simply that you're very, very drunk.' "
Well, editors edit. Aside from that, RSME may be a good fit. Wenner correctly read the tea leaves back in 1967, realising rock'n'roll respected no boundaries - cultural, political or geographical. And the UAE is just one more gleaming, blinging champion of the entertainment marketplace to be seduced.
* The National