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The Hip Capitalist

by Kyle Smith

Sex, drugs, and Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone has been in business for 50 years — its first issue was dated November 9, 1967 — and it has been disappointing radicals for at least 49 of these years. Its co-founder Jann Wenner’s approach to revolution was to un-foment it: He advised readers to steer clear of the fervor of Chicago 1968. In 1970, as the radicals began to figure out that the magazine, freshly bailed out by record corporations, was actually a sales brochure for rock dressed up as a counterculture Bible, a graffito reading “Smash ‘hip’ capitalism” appeared next to the entrance of Rolling Stone’s San Francisco office.

From the beginning, Wenner, a shameless social climber obsessed from a young age with wealth, debutantes, and the celebrities’ children he met in boarding school, had one demand of his readers. It wasn’t that they take back the streets or crush the corporate power structure or kill the pigs or end the war in Vietnam. It was that they make him, Jann Wenner, personally rich. The son of a lesbian bohemian and a Jewish baby-formula manufacturer named Ed Weiner (who changed his name around the time Jan was born; the second “n” in “Jann” was an affectation Wenner came up with in high school), Wenner simply used rock as his ticket to yachts, drugs, five-star hotels, sex with beautiful boys, and access to famous people. Today, in an era in which the founder of every restaurant-rating app vows solemnly to change the world, it’s refreshing just how frank Wenner was about his desire to use the way the world was changing to his immense monetary advantage. In a 1980s campaign pitching itself at Madison Avenue, and revisited in HBO’s new two-part documentary Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge, the rock magazine ran a series of paired photos headed “Perception” and “Reality.” One such ad posted, under “Perception,” a picture of George McGovern. Facing that, under “Reality,” was a picture of Ronald Reagan. This wasn’t selling out. A sell-out is someone who forsakes his ideals to make a buck. But making a buck was Wenner’s ideal. Always.

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