Remembering ‘Rolling Stone: The 10th Anniversary,’ The Worst Rock And Roll TV Show Ever

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.

To help him marshal a supporting cast, Wenner enlisted Steve Binder, who produced two of the greatest rock shows ever filmed: 1964’s The T.A.M.I. Show — a theatrically released concert film starring the Stones, the Beach Boys, and a scene-stealing James Brown — and 1968’s Elvis, better known as “The ’68 Comeback Special,” in which Elvis Presley donned sexy black leather and reminded a new generation that he was still the King of Rock and Roll.

Binder’s problem, according to Hagan’s book, is that nobody wanted to help Wenner. When Binder asked Mick Jagger, Wenner’s personal friend, to participate, Jagger simply shook his head. (When pressed by Hagan about the meeting, Jagger couldn’t recall any of the details, but nevertheless maintained that turning down Wenner in this instance “sounds like a very good idea.”) The other names on Wenner’s list — Candice Bergen, Lily Tomlin, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Richard Pryor — also declined. “The minute I mention Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone, I got a no,” Binder told Hagan. “I sensed that everybody had their issues with Jann, and he may have been their personal friends, and maybe they snorted coke together, but they weren’t about to do him a favor.”

Binder had his own issues with Wenner. During a meeting in Binder’s Los Angeles office, Hagan writes, Wenner started cutting up lines of coke on Binder’s desk, right in the middle of a conversation. When Binder retaliated by blowing Wenner’s cocaine into his lap, Wenner stormed out and didn’t talk to Binder for the remainder of the two-month production. (Wenner hung out instead with the show’s musical director Jimmy Webb, the author of baroque ’60s pop hits like Glenn Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” and Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park,” who shared Wenner’s love of white powder.)

The inability to nab A-list stars associated with Rolling Stone, and the heavy behind-the-scenes drug use, help to explain how Rolling Stone: The 10th Anniversary turned out the way it did.

Eschewing a chronological, documentary-like approach, Rolling Stone: The 10th Anniversary instead unfolds as an incoherent series of fitfully connected segments. There is an opening sketch in which Martin begs Wenner (played by Osmond) to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone. (The real Wenner makes a brief cameo as a reporter.) There is another sketch starring Martin, in a Gregg Allman wig, as a spaced-out rock professor named Elmo Rooney who is interviewed by Teri Garr. Then comes the bizarre Mike Love/Maharishi monologue, prefaced by an equally strange bit in which Los Angeles Police Department chief Ed Davis grudgingly professes his love of Joan Baez’s rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” even if “I don’t like the philosophy necessarily.” Then there’s a 20-minute (!) Bette Midler performance in which she duets with Jerry Lee Lewis on “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and compares Rolling Stone to Velveeta cheese. (This segment is the highlight of the special.)

From there, things only get weirder. A pre-Apocalypse Now Martin Sheen performs a spoken-word piece about Vietnam vets over a bed of syrup-y strings. A panel of rock stars — Melissa Manchester, Billy Preston, Phoebe Snow, and Keith Moon — talk about the rigors of touring while Jim Messina (of the ’70s era soft-rock group Loggins & Messina) strums his guitar in the distance. Gladys Knight, an all-time great soul singer, performs a duet with Art Garfunkel, an all-time whitest white person.

None of this stuff makes any sense on its own, much less as a tribute to a venerated “underground” publication. But unquestionably the zenith/nadir of Rolling Stone: The 10th Anniversary is the 15-minute Beatles medley starring Neely and the Lester Wilson Dancers, which Hagan reports cost an ungodly $100,000, or 10 percent of the show’s $1-million budget, to shoot.

It’s hard to single out just one aspect of the medley that is especially ill-conceived or tasteless — is it the women in flesh-colored, diamond-encrusted suits floating on suspension wires to a supper-club redux of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” or is it the heavy-metal version of “Helter Skelter” that scores a razzle-dazzle depiction of armed revolutionaries wreaking havoc in the streets?

For me, it’s the guys who don Point Break-style Nixon and Henry Kissinger masks and mime “Back In The USSR” and “I’m A Loser” with a couple of Russian ladies. It is the best/worst, funniest/saddest, dumbest/deepest moment in the entire damned enterprise.

When you see Beatles songs rendered this way, it prompts an obvious question: Was this intended to be enjoyed by people who actually like the Beatles, or even Rolling Stone magazine? Many of the magazine’s own writers and editor loathed Rolling Stone: The 10th Anniversary. Felton slammed the special in a review that subsequently ran in Rolling Stone, and editor/critic Dave Marsh later declared Rolling Stone: The 10th Anniversary the no. 1 worst rock and roll TV show of all-time in 1981’s The Book Of Rock Lists, which was published by Dell’s Rolling Stone Press imprint.

But at least one person at the magazine stood up for Rolling Stone: The 10th Anniversary. As recounted by Robert Draper in his scathing 1991 book, Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History, Wenner marveled at the fruit-covered dancers during the “Strawberry Fields Forever” sequence. He called one of the magazine’s editors, Karen Mullarkey, into his office to share in the wonder.

“It’s great!” Wenner enthused. “What do you think? Isn’t it great?”

Mullarkey was horrified. “I think it’s shit. This is like Las Vegas!”

“What the fuck do you know?” Wenner scowled. “Get out of my office.”

Mullarkey was later fired.