Jann Wenner talks memoir ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ at Texas Tribune Festival


360°Sound had a chance to sit in on historian Douglas Brinkley’s interview of Rolling Stone magazine co-founder Jann Wenner on September 24 at The Texas Tribune Festival in Austin, Texas. Making his very first trip to Austin, Wenner was there to discuss his new memoir, Like A Rolling Stone, which is currently #7 on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list. The 76-year-old spoke candidly about a range of topics, from Elvis Presley and John Lennon to his favorite guitarist and the most iconic Rolling Stone covers. We’ve compiled Wenner’s best quotes from the hour-long conversation.

Jann Wenner (L) chats with Douglas Brinkley at Tribune Fest

These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

On Elvis Presley…

The movie [Elvis] is really interesting. You rediscover the magnetic power of his physical presence and actions, moves, and singing. Not only did he have a beautiful voice, but he was like a tiger with this prowling intensity of his physicality and movement. It was a real release of passion. Women in the audience were just going wild. People didn’t move like that on stage in those times except for in Black music and other places. His expression of sexuality was so intense, and I think that’s what scared everybody and what still scares people today about rock ‘n roll music.

I had no personal connection. I heard “Heartbreak Hotel” when I was 10 years old. It was rockin’. At my school, there was a competition between the Pat Boone club and the Elvis club. This will tell you all about me, I joined the Pat Boone club. [Audience laughs]. However, I got hip, and I was allowed to switch sides and join the Elvis club. He’s called The King for very legitimate reasons. He didn’t write himself, but he could sing like mad. I think he’s still this incredibly pivotal figure. If you listen to the records, they sound so modern. They’re produced so well. Go give them a whirl.

On Bob Dylan…

My relationship with Bob now is very good. Contrary to the image of him out there that he’s cold and distant and mean – and he can be all those things – but I’ve found him to be a delight in the last 10 to 20 years. When we see each other, we always have a big bro hug, and we start tossing one-liners at each other. He’s very funny. Once backstage he said, ‘How’s your friend Bruce [Springsteen] doing?’ I said, ‘He’s great. He’s doing an album of his different works at each gig. Last night, he was at Rochester and he did Darkness on the Edge of Town – the whole thing.’ Dylan says, ‘Hmm, maybe I should do that. Maybe I’ll do Dark Side of the Moon.’ [Audience laughs].

I first met Bob in 1968. He shows up in the morning, and we had a conversation right there in my hotel room. He’s trying to figure me out. He was intrigued. He asked me, ‘Well, what do those people at Rolling Stone want to know?’ We sat down and chatted. We had some up and down later. Over the years, he’s done 11 major interviews with Rolling Stone with different writers. I wanted to have different writers see the different parts of Dylan. I think we’ve got a canon of his thinking.

On Jerry Garcia…

Jerry was just the nicest guy you’d ever met. He was funny and warm and humble. He liked to giggle. Jerry Garcia didn’t have a million fans; he had a million friends. That was Jerry. Totally approachable. I’d see him in San Francisco and would always ask his advice on something. He’d say what he thought of the latest issue.

I told him, ‘I’m having a real problem here. How big are we going to get this magazine? How do you run The Dead?’ He says, ‘Well, you know what, you should stop hiring people if you start forgetting their names. If you can’t remember his name, don’t hire him.’ Years later, I had name tags put on the desks because I couldn’t remember anyone’s name.

On his favorite guitarist…

There are so many good guitarists. My favorite guitarist is [Dire Straits frontman] Mark Knopfler. He’s such a supple, melodic, beautiful player. There’s a rhythm that he plays, and it’s not banging all the time. It’s mid-tempo rock that is so appealing. It’s stunning how good he is.

B.B. King was great. Mike Bloomfield was a childhood favorite. Jimi Hendrix goes without saying. Clapton is Clapton. Garcia was a really inventive guitarist. I first heard Knopfler on [Dylan’s 1979 album] Slow Train Coming. He was a session guitarist. He makes that record come alive. He also played on [Dylan’s 1983 album] Infidels. I wrote the book listening to Knofpler in the background. And the Spanish guitar named Armik who plays nouveau Flamenco. It’s just the kind of music that doesn’t intrude too much and you can kind of drift along.

On John Lennon and Yoko Ono…

After John died, I thought it was my responsibility to look after Yoko. I didn’t know them that well. I knew John and Yoko from the interview 10 years earlier. We had always stayed in touch. I just took it upon myself as a responsibility. In looking back, I realized what a key role John and Yoko played in the success of Rolling Stone. He was on the cover of the first issue by sheer happenstance.

They were always calling us up and telling us about their peace activism. We reported their activities to the world. The “Two Virgins” and “Lennon Remembers” covers were landmarks. He conferred his legitimacy on Rolling Stone by giving us that access. I felt I owed it to him to watch after Yoko. They made me the godfather of [son] Sean [Lennon], and Yoko is the godmother of my oldest kid. They were super well-meaning people who really put themselves personally on the line in their careers and their public image of fiercely advocating for peace.

On Bruce Springsteen…

Bruce is an absolutely terrific guy. He and his wife Patti Scialfa, I love them both. Bruce is one of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever met. He thinks deeply about things before he shoots off his mouth. It’s impressive. He also just likes to have fun. I’ve never seen a show where the person was having as much fun on stage as Bruce. He’s just exuberant. This energy exchange with the audience he has, I compare it to the moment he splits the atom. It’s that powerful. We’ve got a great friendship. I’ve gone on tours with him.

On the cover of Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone wasn’t coveted at first. It was unknown. Then photographer Annie Leibovitz came in. She was able to shoot beautiful pictures that made the cover itself look beautiful. It became iconic because of her portraiture work. The 1972 hit single [“The Cover of the Rolling Stone” by Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show] certainly helped, of course. It confers an enormous sense of prestige and respect. Certain covers became landmark cultural events.

On covers he regretted…

I wish we hadn’t done the Boston Marathon bomber [Dzhokhar Tsarnaev]. That cost us a lot of money. People were very angry about that. I misjudged how iconic the cover had become. We had done Charles Manson years ago. It was one of our great issues that we’re known for. The story was quite brilliant and won a national magazine award. But putting [Tsarnaev] on the cover with this picture where he looked like Jim Morrison, people thought the cover only belonged to iconic heroes, he didn’t deserve it and somehow we were lionizing him. I misjudged the sensibilities of New England with the rawness of that disaster.

On Led Zeppelin…

I think Rolling Stone was unfair to Led Zeppelin. At that time, we had some record reviewers who didn’t like to review records. They liked to use the record as an excuse to take apart the group or review their clothes or their album jacket. I ultimately fired them all because they weren’t doing what I thought was the job of Rolling Stone. The artist deserved a fair hearing and honest criticism.

We wrote a snarky review of Zeppelin, and they never forgot it. Jimmy Page had it against us for a long time. It was resolved. We did a story. Cameron [Crowe] brokered the piece, and we put them on the cover. Jimmy Page held out for a while then he showed up to the cover story session carrying a bouquet of dead roses. He said he didn’t like me because I had stolen his girlfriend in London several years earlier, which I’m not going to deny but I’m not exactly going to confirm. You wouldn’t cross Page with all his black magic things.

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