Jann Wenner, the publishing icon who co-founded Rolling Stone and led the magazine for five decades, has a new book out this month titled The Masters. In the Little Brown and Company release, Wenner revisits lengthy interviews conducted during his Rolling Stone days with a selection of rock titans including Bono, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen and Pete Townshend.
To promote The Masters, Wenner sat for a lengthy interview of his own with The New York Times’ David Marchese (a onetime online editor at Rolling Stone), during which he opened up on how he zeroed in on those particular rockers for the book, many of whom are or were close friends. The book does not include any interviews with Black or female musicians, and Wenner’s explanation as to why is now catching heat online.
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Marchese asked Wenner to further explain the selection process, which is addressed in the book’s introduction where he writes that performers of color and female performers are not in his zeitgeist. “When I was referring to the zeitgeist, I was referring to Black performers, not to the female performers, OK? Just to get that accurate. The selection was not a deliberate selection. It was kind of intuitive over the years; it just fell together that way. The people had to meet a couple criteria, but it was just kind of my personal interest and love of them. Insofar as the women, just none of them were as articulate enough on this intellectual level,” he said.
Marchese pushed back on that assertion by citing Joni Mitchell. “It’s not that they’re not creative geniuses. It’s not that they’re inarticulate, although, go have a deep conversation with Grace Slick or Janis Joplin. Please, be my guest. You know, Joni was not a philosopher of rock ’n’ roll. She didn’t, in my mind, meet that test. Not by her work, not by other interviews she did. The people I interviewed were the kind of philosophers of rock,” said Wenner. “Of Black artists — you know, Stevie Wonder, genius, right? I suppose when you use a word as broad as ‘masters,’ the fault is using that word. Maybe Marvin Gaye, or Curtis Mayfield? I mean, they just didn’t articulate at that level.”
Wenner said he based that assertion on intuition, reading interviews and listening to music. “I mean, look at what Pete Townshend was writing about, or Jagger, or any of them. They were deep things about a particular generation, a particular spirit and a particular attitude about rock ’n’ roll. Not that the others weren’t, but these were the ones that could really articulate it.”
He said that he could have reconsidered his position and “just for public relations sake, maybe I should have gone and found one Black and one woman artist to include here that didn’t measure up to that same historical standard, just to avert this kind of criticism. Which, I get it. I had a chance to do that. Maybe I’m old-fashioned and I don’t give a [expletive] or whatever. I wish in retrospect I could have interviewed Marvin Gaye. Maybe he’d have been the guy. Maybe Otis Redding, had he lived, would have been the guy.”
Not long after the story was published this morning, many readers (including many journalists) took to X, formerly known as Twitter, to criticize Wenner’s stance.
Not to mention how he spoke about Black and female artists. Which I'm sure totally didn't affect his coverage at Rolling Stone! pic.twitter.com/fMAoifObtf
— Sopan Deb (@SopanDeb) September 15, 2023
Wenner and Marchese also had an exchange about the former’s admission that he allowed his subjects to edit the transcripts of their interviews, an unethical practice in journalism. Wenner defended the practice, saying that his interviews are “meant to be sympathetic” and revelatory discussions with artists, not politicians or business executives.
“Look, nothing was ever substantively changed from the original interviews. These are all minor changes that really get to accuracy and readability and all that stuff. Secondly, these were not meant to be confrontational interviews. They were always meant to be cooperative interviews,” Wenner said. “These are profiles in a way. If I have to trade the level of trust that is necessary to get this kind of interview, to let people put a few things off the record, nothing of any value, maybe something about their kids or their family or not wanting to put down somebody.”
Speaking of putting down others, Wenner said he apologized to Jagger following a New York Times profile last year during which he told Maureen Dowd that the Rolling Stones rockers look like Lord of the Rings characters. “He couldn’t believe I had said that,” Wenner said of Jagger. “I had to say, ‘Look, I’m so sorry. I was just, in the pursuit of publicity, trying to be super clever and please forgive me.’ Of course, he did. But it was one of those careless remarks. A friend shouldn’t say that kind of thing. You don’t want to read it in Maureen Dowd’s thing in The New York Times. Oh, Mick Jagger looks like he’s Gandalf the wizard. He was absolutely right and I felt terrible.”
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