For anyone who’s even just a little bit interested in Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone, the media, cocaine, rock music, rock criticism, cocaine, the rise and fall of baby boomers, cocaine, the ’60s, the ’70s and/or the ’80s, Joe Hagan’s engrossing new book, Sticky Fingers: The Life And Times Of Jann Wenner And Rolling Stone Magazine, is an essential read. The book has already generated ample news about the iconic media mogul’s complex relationships with rock legends like Mick Jagger (mutual love/hate), John Lennon (Jann loves John, John hates Jann), Paul McCartney (Jann disses Paul, Paul hates Jann), and Paul Simon (mutual hate). But one of my personal favorite sections of Sticky Fingers pertains to perhaps the least reputable and (unintentionally) hilarious chapter in Wenner’s peerless career: Rolling Stone: The 10th Anniversary.
An infamous boondoggle that originally aired on CBS 40 years ago this month, Rolling Stone: The 10th Anniversary has been mostly whitewashed from the magazine’s narrative. You won’t see it mentioned in Alex Gibney and Blair Foster’s laudatory four-hour documentary, Rolling Stone: Stories From The Edge, which premieres on HBO across two nights on Monday and Tuesday. But the 10th Anniversary special is a fascinating (and, this can’t be stressed enough, sublimely ridiculous) microcosm of Rolling Stone‘s path from edgy outsider to establishment institution. Textually, the special has virtually nothing to do with what made the magazine great or important. But subtextually, it speaks volumes about how all forms of counterculture inevitably come to be co-opted by the indomitable forces of mainstream lameness.
If not for a little serendipity, all of us retrospective rubberneckers would never be able to experience this extravagant debacle. A note attached to the YouTube link (click it while you still can!) explains that Rolling Stone: The 10th Anniversary was taped off of television by an unwitting amateur archivist in Sacramento, and discovered 25 years later at a “flea market in 2002, on a Zenith Beta blank tape which was unlabeled.”
“Luckily I picked it up on instinct,” adds the poster.
The point of Rolling Stone: The 10th Anniversary was to pay tribute to the magazine’s first decade, a period that is still remembered as the most momentous in Rolling Stone‘s 50-year run, a time when writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Greil Marcus, Cameron Crowe, and Lester Bangs put the magazine at the forefront of hip American culture. A special that reflected the unconventional gonzo spirit of Thompson’s landmark Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas would have been appropriate to honor Rolling Stone‘s early years. What Rolling Stone got instead was the epitome of a tacky ’70s variety special, an embarrassingly glitzy monstrosity that was closer spiritually to Wayne Newton than Bob Dylan, the sort of epic exercise in “squares missing the point” inanity that has inspired parodies on countless sketch-comedy shows.
In all of the retrospectives that Rolling Stone has done about itself over the course of the last several decades, there have been exactly zero references to Jesus Christ Superstar‘s Ted Neely singing “Strawberry Fields Forever” while surrounded by dancers dressed as moving strawberry patches, or Mike Love’s aimlessly dippy monologue about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, or the time that Jann Wenner was portrayed on national television by a smirking Donny Osmond. As a result, the most comically misguided two hours in Rolling Stone history have been largely forgotten. That is, until Hagan’s book arrived to provide some reliably juicy background.
According to Hagan, Wenner originally hatched the idea for a Rolling Stone TV special in 1976. He was inspired by Saturday Night Live — like SNL, the special was conceived as an irreverent comedy show punctuated with musical performances. But instead of employing actual comedy writers, Wenner tapped Ben Fong-Torres and David Felton, two long-time Rolling Stone staffers, to come up with bits. (Felton, who famously profiled Charles Manson in one of the magazine’s earliest journalistic coups, later worked as a writer on Beavis & Butt-head in the ’90s.)
In the mid-’70s, Wenner struck up a friendship with Lorne Michaels, and the magazine soon entered a symbiotic relationship with SNL, putting the show’s cast members and many of its hosts and musical guests on the cover for the next several years. (“It was like SNL was the new editor,” Greil Marcus complained to Hagan.) John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd originally were supposed to appear in Rolling Stone: The 10th Anniversary, with Belushi appearing as Hunter S. Thompson in a sketch, until, perhaps, they both smelled potential humiliation in the air and bailed at the last minute.
But Wenner was able to retain Steve Martin, who appears in three sketches, including a memorable bit with Keith Moon about rock-star hotel demolition that was later revived in Jeff Stein’s 1979 documentary about The Who, The Kids Are Alright.
Wenner’s plans for the anniversary special were grandiose. For a director, he had two candidates in mind: Stanley Kubrick or Martin Scorsese. (Apparently, they both declined.) For the music, Wenner wanted his favorite band, the Rolling Stones, to perform a special concert on a private island.