This past summer turned out to be a pretty busy season of reviewing various media stuff that came my way. There was Long Strange Trip, the amazing celebration of The Grateful Dead; Elvis Presley: The Searcher, a not-so-great snooze-fest on The King; and Eight Days a Week, Ron Howard’s okay, but very familiar documentary on Beatlemania. I also reviewed a fantastic book, Astral Weeks, A Secret History of 1968, and was all set to wrap up my review run with a thoughtful, dynamic and intelligent summary of Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge, a documentary on the iconic 60s rock and roll magazine. Unfortunately, I made it to about minute 11 in the movie before I had to grab my phone, check some online reviews and begin scrolling and skipping through. This…was…a…shame. I had high hopes because there was a time when Rolling Stone provided very important music and entertainment info. Although, there were other magazines, Circus and CREEM, especially, they certainly did not diminish Rolling Stone‘s importance as a provider of RAWK to hungry teens in the 70s.
However, the documentary wasn’t much about music or even about the music that Rolling Stone covered over the years. THAT would’ve been a pretty cool documentary and one, I think, that would’ve garnered a much higher rating on the er, rate-o-meter. There was some: John Lennon, Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen, punk rock. But the thrust of the movie was edgy stories: 60s groupies, Patty Hearst, Jimmy Swaggert, Ice-T’s cop killer controversy to name a few. If you’re wondering why anyone would consider these stories important or “edgy”, congratulations! It seems nobody else knows either. Some of the reviews specifically mention the groupies story as being especially lame and inappropriate…and it was. I can’t imagine anyone other than people in the business and paid reviewers spending an evening watching this and it is another one of those 4 HOUR movies, so if you’re gonna dive in…when you grab your popcorn…better go for the pallet-size.
This experience led to a flash-back to 1977. That year, the day after Thanksgiving, I was one of millions of people who tuned into the Rolling Stone: The 10th Anniversary television special for some awesome 70s musical entertainment. I was expecting a night of good rockin’ excitement, but what happened instead was the equivalent of teenage broadcast whiplash; a high speed collision of anticipation headfirst into the brick wall of douchebaggery. Bette Midler, who was one of the special’s A-listers (LOL) quipped during her “performance:” “It’s Rolling Stone magazine’s 10th anniversary party; what could be more boring?”. Totally. Her “routine” was also pretty boring. Another major highlight was a Beatles’ medley sung by the dude who played Jesus in the Jesus Christ Superstar movie. People speak about Ted Neely today like he was a big deal in the 70s, but for my money he was not nearly as powerful a Jesus as Ian Gillan. As the above clip demonstrates, he wasn’t that great at Beatle songs either.
To say this was some of the worst television ever would be like stating The Black Death was annoying — Billboard Magazine heralded the special as an “unmitigated disaster“. Thanks to the recently-released Sticky Fingers: The Life And Times Of Jann Wenner And Rolling Stone Magazine, there is background on what went wrong and as explained by this article most of the blame falls squarely on: [Rolling Stone founder] Jann Wenner, cocaine, egomania, cocaine, Jann Wenner, and way more cocaine just in case you think there wasn’t enough cocaine snorted. While the above-linked article is a good ‘un, I’m not sure I agree with their conclusion that:
“…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 sub-textually, it speaks volumes about how all forms of counterculture inevitably come to be co-opted by the indomitable forces of mainstream lameness.”
Yea, that process certainly happens. But, there was a lot of mainstream lameness (by some people’s standards) like Fleetwood Mac or The Doobie Brothers on Don Kirshener’s Rock Concert that was way better than this special. That’s why it was so terrible; it was supremely dull and lacking great music at a time when brilliant musicians and classic tunes were literally everywhere! It’s also quite possible that the “cool” factor the magazine enjoyed was mostly the result of self-promotion and ‘mainstream lameness’ was always the ultimate goal. Today Jann Wenner is worth about $700 million, which means a long time ago he decided making money was pretty important because he didn’t find almost a billion dollars in his couch. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with making money, but it was a sad, terrible thing that the premiere youth and music magazine of the time produced such a schlocko event for its 10th anniversary television special and people like me were left wondering, WTF did I just watch? So you see, the current documentary, Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge does have a precedent. If you are curious, or perhaps masochistic and want to torture yourself, the whole debacle is on YouTube. Whoopee! Relive the horror!
But out of the rubble of past bad memories and current-year “edgy stories”, I came upon a segment in the documentary that was pretty fun, so I watched it from beginning to end. And then I watched it again. Because, while it was cool and what I had been looking for, something about it seemed…I don’t know…contrived, if not completely wrong. The segment featured the very successful, writer, director, producer and Academy Award Winner, Cameron Crowe, and Led Zeppelin. Crowe has been a contributor to Rolling Stone for 40+ years and over the course of his career he has done many a fine thing, but he got his start covering the hard rock genre of the 1970s. So first, I will review the segment exactly as it appears in the documentary with a few paragraphs of added background, and then I’ll analyze. All of the quotes not sourced come directly from the documentary as best as I could hear and type them.
A smart kid with journalistic aspirations, Cameron Crowe began writing for The San Diego Door and corresponding with rock writers like Lester Bangs while he was still in high school. Later he began writing and interviewing big bands and submitting articles to CREEM and Rolling Stone. He was hired by Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres and became the youngest contributor to the magazine. As Crowe relates in the documentary I’m not reviewing:
“They called me the guy who took out the garbage…Ask Jethro Tull about his flute; ask Ritchie Blackmore about his guitar sound. That was me and I was so happy to do that.”
Some people at the magazine were not all that tolerant or welcoming of what became known as “Arena Rock” or “Classic Rock”. Older staff actually hated a lot of this music from the 1970s that wasn’t fronted by Bruce Springsteen or Mick Jagger. Many of the bands were more than happy to return the loathing:
“Because Crowe was a fan of the 1970s hard rock bands that the older writers disliked, he landed a lot of major interviews…In an interview with Joel Selvin of the San Francisco Chronicle, Fong-Torres remarked, ‘He was the guy we sent out after difficult customers. He covered the bands that hated Rolling Stone.'”
The preeminent band that was hated by and hated the magazine was Led Zeppelin. Their albums, tours and entire existence had been panned by Rolling Stone since Day 1 and this had caused a fair amount of anger and resentment in the Zeppelin camp, especially with Jimmy Page. (It has been documented in numerous places that after what Page considered an unfair drubbing of Led Zeppelin III he spoke with no one in the press for 18 months.) In 1975 Crowe was aboard the huge 1975 North American tour filing dispatches for other publications and he pitched the idea of preparing something for Rolling Stone as well. Crowe relates that because he was a freelancer, he was able to say, “I work for the magazine, but I’m not the magazine” and bands were more likely to trust him to the point to where they would at least get a sympathetic interview. It took three weeks of convincing Zeppelin to agree to the feature and then he interviewed them, wrote it up, and sent it in.
“I really put my heart into this piece on Led Zeppelin and I sent it in and I was expecting a call, “Way to Go!”
However, the day he was summoned to Rolling Stone offices (allegedly) for his meeting with Jann Wenner, was a terrible day. Rolling Stone co-founder and (some would say) Wenner mentor, Ralph J. Gleason, had just passed away, so Crowe walked into Wenner’s office to find him drunk and upset. He did not get the accolades he expected, but instead Wenner said:
“Thank you. We’re gonna run it. But you failed…You wrote what they wanted you to write. There’s nothing in that story that was you getting to the heart of what that real scene was, what it felt like, what it smelled like, what they meant at this time in history for people to read many years from now. You don’t have that… You have them talking about themselves… Nice stuff…. But it wasn’t THE STUFF.”
The story then cuts to a current-time interview with Wenner, who reveals that his reaction to Crowe’s piece stemmed from the fact that: “…he was soft on the characters he was writing about…not that we want to be harsh but you had to have a little more worldly view of it than just a fan’s view of it.” Then the story cuts back to Cameron Crowe talking about the past, remembering that, as if to illustrate this point, Wenner grabbed a copy of author Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, presented it to the young, chastised writer of Jimmy Page dreck, and said:
“If you’re really serious about this and you want to be a writer; not a reviewer, not a critic, not a guy who loves music who’s writing about how much he loves music: You Will Study Joan Didion. You will study her profile of Jim Morrison. This is my copy. Take it!”
Crowe is holding a copy of the book in his hand as he relates this story and as a way of wrapping up the whole episode he describes it as Jann Wenner functioning as a great editor, concerned with the writers and content that was submitted, and possibly also acting in the (Ralph Gleason) mentor role. The latter isn’t said, but perhaps the viewer is supposed to imply something along those lines and on the surface, this is all very true. Crowe was living the dream thanks to the magazine and this period served as a launch pad for what would become a very successful lifetime career. The fact that he cruised down the rock and roll highway with Led Zeppelin as a teenager makes him as one of the luckiest guys in the history of music journalism, but it was luck well-earned. Even at a young age he was a great writer, and had good instincts as an interviewer, and navigator of industry politics. So this story was a fascinating profile and brought back the great vibes of the Rockin’ 70s. It’s a shame there wasn’t more of this in the documentary because that would have certainly made it more watchable. But, I can say with almost 100% certainty this episode didn’t happen as depicted in the documentary, so what’s the deal with that?
So you know the story as it is presented. Obviously, if you never watch this documentary, you are taking me at my word, but you can go check my work at your leisure. I totally don’t mind. I don’t have the contacts or resources available to know definitely what happened, but some simple research highlights what is probably NOT true. I’m not sure what it was that tipped me off; a combination of things, probably. As I’ve related over the years on this blog, I’ve written for music magazines and know that there is a procedure or format and it doesn’t involve Joan Didion. That whole part of this tale seems completely fake. Also, the idea that the magazine would’ve run a piece on Zeppelin that 40+ years later Jann Wenner still views as a “failure” is also a bit of a stretch. Because by all other metrics, it was a smashing success as we shall soon see. To reiterate this is only my opinion and I have no way to know for sure. Really. Absolutely.
First, it must be established that the process, and yes it is a process, of making news stories and documentaries entertaining has been an integral component of media/journalism for a long time. It’s not unusual for content to be juiced, or made more interesting than it is by spin or sexing it up. Here’s an article, Why the News is Not the Truth, from Harvard Business Review that leads with this historical perspective put forward by Paul H. Weaver in his book, News and the Culture of Lying: How Journalism Really Works:
The architect of the transformation [of the media] was not a political leader or a constitutional convention but Joseph Pulitzer, who in 1883 bought the sleepy New York World and in 20 years made it the country’s largest newspaper…by bringing drama to news—by turning news articles into stories with a plot, actors in conflict, and colorful details. In the late nineteenth century, most newspaper accounts of government actions were couched in institutional formats, much like the minutes of a board meeting and about as interesting. Pulitzer turned them into stories with a sharp dramatic focus that both implied and aroused intense public interest.
Certainly, the story of how a guy interviewed a rock band in the 1970s isn’t the most interesting and dramatic entertainment in the universe, especially if it goes off without a hitch. Cameron Crowe had to be worked into the documentary somehow and because he started as a fairly young guy it may have been decided that the “life lesson,” “here’s how it’s done” theme was appropriate. Of course this could happen any number of ways: the editor doesn’t like the feature, there’s some yelling, maybe the writer cries, some furniture gets broken, the writer is lacking and gets compared to someone who is much better and… SCENE! The audience not only gets a glimpse into how a magazine functions, but because the writer went on to great success, there is a life-lesson! It’s almost like The Bible!
In the latter part of Cameron Crowe’s documentary segment, he is shown holding a copy (Was it the copy? Is it a special copy unlike all of the other copies? What’s the chain of evidence here?) of Slouching Towards Bethlehem while telling the story of how Jann Wenner claimed that if he “wanted to be a great writer he needed to study Joan Didion’s portrait of Jim Morrison.” The problem is the essay on Jim Morrison that Wenner refers to isn’t in this book, it’s in another one of her works, The White Album…which was published in 1979…4 years after Crowe interviewed Led Zeppelin. The book is online in many places. Even HelloGiggles claims the essay is in The White Album and you KNOW they’re gonna get it right. So what gives? I tried to find out if there was some early edition of this book that would’ve contained this essay. Nada. Now it’s true that this essay first appeared in a magazine (The Saturday Evening Post, I believe), in the late 1960s, but Crowe is not holding a copy of a magazine, he is holding a copy of the book. It seems like a stupid thing to be wrong about since Joan Didion is being held up as a writer that Crowe should aspire to…but, why is that anyhow? Has anyone ever confused her with a rock journalist? Isn’t that what Crowe was at the time? If Crowe was working for Rolling Stone, didn’t he already have great writing chops? This is a segment about him writing up a feature on Led Zeppelin, the biggest band in the world at the time!
I have no idea what the “wrong book” means other than you would think these guys would either know or care what essay is in what book. Maybe they don’t care and why should anyone else? They are creating reality here and the important takeaway is Jann Wenner showed Cameron Crowe how it’s done, by way of Joan Didion! Wowza! That’s a great story! Talk about journalism kung-fu! High-fives all ’round! Who wants quinoa for lunch? The scene closes, this segment of the documentary is over, and Crowe never says if he read the essay on Jim Morrison and “studied Joan Didion”. Did he? Did it have any impact on his outlook, or his writing career, or the next band he interviewed? I don’t know. So many questions. Joan Didion, her essay and book are just kind of name-dropped into the conversation and then nothing ever results from the fact that they were briefly there.
There are some other discrepancies. Remember:
However, the day he was summoned to Rolling Stone offices (allegedly) for his meeting with Jann Wenner, was a terrible day. Rolling Stone co-founder and (some would say) Wenner mentor, Ralph J. Gleason, had just passed away, so Crowe walked into Wenner’s office to find him drunk and upset. He did not get the accolades he expected…
More detail from the documentary is that Ben Fong-Torres allegedly called Crowe and said “Jann wants to see you and you should know, this is not a good day.” (Because Gleason had passed away). This is all very dramatic…of course. However, according to Wikipedia, Zeppelin’s tour ended March, 27, 1975. Crowe’s feature is online here and the cover shot is here. Both have a date of March 13, 1975. A meeting to let Crowe know that they were going to run his story probably would’ve taken place in February. According to Wikipedia, Ralph Gleason died on June 3, 1975, almost 3 months after the magazine was printed. He would’ve still been very much alive when the decision was made to run the issue. By June Led Zeppelin’s tour was long over and they had even ended their legendary stand at Earl’s Court. I don’t know how this is supposed to be explained. Gleason’s death, though imminent, didn’t have anything to do with Wenner’s alleged reaction to Crowe’s feature, if this story is really supposed to be about this one feature.
The impression one gets when watching this story unfold is that although Crowe had been published in Rolling Stone, Led Zeppelin was his first big feature, because why else would Wenner want to talk with him after he has submitted his article? If Crowe has already had features published, he knows the format, knows how to go about pleasing Wenner, so unless there was really something specific about this case, why would there need to be a meeting anyhow? And if they did need to have a meeting and there was something wrong with the feature, then why not have him re-write it? That’s usually what has to happen if a correspondent has “failed” an assignment. (Or someone else has to rewrite or edit it). Interestingly enough, sources outside the documentary note that Cameron Crowe’s first cover story for Rolling Stone actually featured The Allman Brothers Band and was published in late 1973, over a year before he was on the road with Led Zeppelin. He has a complete list of all of his journalism endeavors at his website and it looks like, in addition to the Allman Brothers in 1973, he also had a cover feature on Jackson Browne in 1974. So he was obviously not a greenhorn about submitting these types of features to the magazine. On the launch page Crowe himself says of the Zeppelin feature:
“Very very proud of this one. The quest to land Rolling Stone’s first interview with Led Zeppelin was a rough one. The magazine had been tough on the band. Guitarist Jimmy Page vowed never to talk with them. While touring with the band for the Los Angeles Times, I attempted to talk them into speaking with me for Rolling Stone too. One by one they agreed, except for Page. I stayed on the road for three weeks, red-eyed from no sleep, until he finally relented… out of sympathy, I think. My mother was about ready to call the police to drag me home.
Zeppelin had actually hated Rolling Stone since the bad review for Led Zeppelin I in 1968 and were not courting the magazine for any publicity on their 1975 tour. Jimmy Page vowed never to talk to them. But then:
“In 1975, Led Zeppelin finally gave an interview to Rolling Stone. The band had frozen out the magazine after its critics panned Jimmy Page’s “weak, unimaginative songs” and Robert Plant’s “strained and unconvincing shouting,” but the freelancer Cameron Crowe…was able to break back in. Crowe’s editor, the Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, gave him some guidelines for the interview, including to interrogate the band about its “hippy dippy lyrics,” which Crowe did not end up doing.”
Led Zeppelin put Crowe on hold for three weeks before they agreed to the interview and even then, Joe Walsh allegedly had to put in a good word so the band would trust Crowe. Jimmy Page was still skeptical. No doubt Crowe had likely heard many negative things about the magazine while he was on the road with the band, so he knew he had to make nice with them or kiss his feature goodbye. So when Wenner says in the documentary…
“…he was soft on the characters he was writing about…not that we want to be harsh but you had to have a little more worldly view of it than just a fan’s view of it.”
…He is pretending the magazine had the leverage to ask the band hard questions, when, in reality, it would’ve been very easy for Led Zeppelin to continue NOT talking to Rolling Stone if they felt they were being sandbagged by a hostile interview. The 1975 tour was a smashing success and 6 of their albums were on the Billboard charts, so it was a good time to be Led Zeppelin, with or without Rolling Stone magazine. Is it possible Wenner was angry because Crowe didn’t “interrogate the band about its “hippy dippy lyrics”? That’s what this is all about? Would he really expect a teenager to take the world’s biggest band to task for their lyrics? After the years of bad blood between the band and the magazine? That’s pretty wild, if true.
The Led Zeppelin feature Crowe wrote up can be found here. The piece typifies rock music journalism of the time and anyone who read as many as I did will recognize the format. This is another issue that leads me to question the validity of this story as presented by the documentary; the rock star interview/feature format was pretty well-established across the industry and Crowe’s story isn’t lacking anything. There is no journalism jiu-jitsu missing, no matter what Wenner claims. It’s a classic intro/question/answer format that is still in existence today and was definitely the standard for entertainment features in the 70s. According to this link, the Led Zeppelin issue was one of the most successful of the magazine up to that point and it’s easy to see why it would be. Anything attached to Led Zeppelin in the 1970s sold very well and it’s a great writing and editing job. Crowe begins the piece with a humorous anecdote featuring John Paul Jones, follows with introduction of the members of the band and their manager, and then spends a great deal of time in conversation with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Contrary to Wenner’s allegations, the band do much more than talk about themselves. Crowe had a follow-up interview with the band 3 months later in May of 1975 that was not a cover story, so we can assume a thawing of relations had taken place between Zeppelin and Rolling Stone (thanks to Cameron Crowe).
Yet, over 40 years later this feature is considered a “failure” by the publisher. Even if the above discrepancies are discounted, why is this story presented the way it is in the documentary? Because of the “great editor” “life lesson” factor? Maybe. Or, if I speculate by pulling stuff completely out of nowhere: perhaps there was never any real conflict over this feature, but it is used as a setting to illustrate a philosophy. It’s possible that by the mid-70s those in charge of the magazine no longer cared about music primarily, and they really didn’t care about the music they didn’t care about….even if that translated into alienating people and losing money. It’s quite possible that teenage Cameron Crowe saved some of the magazine’s credibility and helped build or maintain its audience through the 70s because this rock music that the editors didn’t care about was in it’s heyday and generated a lot of album, ticket (and magazine) sales. Later in 1975 he did a cover feature on The Eagles, another band that was less than enamored with the way the magazine had portrayed them up to that point. Gee, some top-selling bands from the decade have a problem with Rolling Stone. Could this be why Bette Midler headlined the 1977 Rolling Stone 10th Anniversary Special? Probably. You KNOW Jimmy Page wasn’t coming…
If the people in charge of Rolling Stone weren’t that interested in music anymore at this point, what was the focus? Well, “edgy stories,” of course. This idea had been baked into the cake from the beginning; Rolling Stone as a culture magazine. It wasn’t just about the music and a case could probably be made that Jann Wenner always wanted Rolling Stone to be much more than a music fanzine. This probably explains this documentary episode and why Joan Didion makes an appearance. She completely doesn’t belong in this segment of the documentary and as far as I can see, never wrote for Rolling Stone. So now it’s time for some research that has nothing to do with the Stories from the Edge documentary. But then again, maybe it does. But first, a POLL!
A 2018 Gallup Poll provides some interesting and revealing information on Americans’ opinions of the media:
“Overall, U.S. adults estimate that 62% of the news they read in newspapers, see on television or hear on the radio is biased. They think the news media mostly provide accurate information, but still estimate that 44% of what they see is inaccurate. And they believe that more than a third of the news they see in these channels is misinformation — false or inaccurate information that is presented as if it were true…are even more critical of the news they see on social media. They believe 80% of it is biased, 64% is inaccurate and 65% is misinformation.”
Wow…totally did not expect that! (Actually I did.) It seems not only do people believe that a portion of the information they are given by the media is not true, but it is deliberately not true. Depending on how the poll questions were presented, it would also seem that people do feel that “the news” should be as close to “the truth” as possible; “the truth” being an agreed upon concept that would stand up to a judge or jury (in most cases) in a court of law. However, the Fourth Estate is not under any obligation to tell the truth and the idea of what exactly “journalism” is has been in a state of flux for a long time…and Rolling Stone is partially responsible… and so is Joan Didion.
By the time of the 1975 Zeppelin interview Joan Didion was an accomplished author and social critic who exuded detached, conservative and very respectable cool. She was talented, smart, clear of vision, ubiquitous with cigarette, very fashion-conscious and fashionable. After spending seven years at Vogue magazine, she returned to her native California and began a “career” in “journalism.” Along with some other distinguished writers of the time like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, she became a leading light and representative figure for a new school of journalism called New Journalism. This was a controversial development that began in the 1960s and revolutionized how journalism happened; a change in the point of view at a pivotal time in history when so many old mores and modes were called into question, reinvented or completely scrapped. New Journalism would make journalism even more personal and even more subjective and it would place writers in the center of work. Recall Jann Wenner’s objections to Cameron Crowe’s Led Zepplin piece:
“…There’s nothing in that story that was you getting to the heart… what it felt like, what it smelled like, what they meant at this time in history for people to read many years from now. You don’t have that. You have them talking about themselves. Nice stuff. But it wasn’t THE STUFF.”
I believe this is Wenner articulating his philosophy of writing and New Journalism: there is too much Led Zeppelin and not enough Cameron Crowe in the Led Zeppelin feature. It’s not for Led Zeppelin to define Led Zeppelin; it’s for Cameron Crowe and Rolling Stone to define Led Zeppelin. The writer defines the subject because that is how a magazine will define a culture. I don’t think he literally means that there was anything wrong with the Led Zeppelin feature, but this is not the preferred path to media stardom. By making the author and magazine the center of the story, the magazine (and Wenner by extension) actually become a rock star and not some dude/dudette with a tape recorder asking Bono, “So Bono? Is that your real name” That person interviews a rock star and then goes back to an apartment or eats in a diner or something. The media star hangs with the rock stars, and Jann Wenner definitely wanted to hang. So did Joan Didion. And so she set out for San Francisco to spend time with the Haight Asbury hippies, because in 1967 everybody in America wanted to know what was up with this scene, even readers of the Saturday Evening Post. It was here that Joan really began her “journalism” career, but it wasn’t all sunshine and groovy vibes mainly because: this wasn’t the kind of hanging a 34-year old who had worked at Vogue for 7 years wanted to do, and, while her work suggested journalism, to all of those people still used to the accepted forms and practices of journalism, it wasn’t:
Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem exemplifies much of what New Journalism represents as it explores the cultural values and experiences of American life in the 1960s. Didion includes her personal feelings and memories in this first person narrative, describing the chaos of individuals and the way in which they perceive the world. Here Didion rejects conventional journalism, and instead prefers to create a subjective approach to essays, a style that is her own.
Because Joan saw what was happening in San Francisco through the lens of her belief that the “center in America” was not holding, her articles on the hippies were a very unflattering portrait and she provoked the wrath of some in the counterculture as this article in New Yorker summarizes:
“Slouching Towards Bethlehem is not a very good piece of standard journalism, though. Didion did no real interviewing or reporting. The hippies she tried to have conversations with said “Groovy” a lot and recycled flower-power clichés. The cops refused to talk to her. So did the Diggers, who ran a sort of hippie welfare agency in the Haight. The Diggers accused Didion of “media poisoning,” by which they meant coverage in the mainstream press designed to demonize the counterculture…”
Another take on this period of Joan Didion’s journalism from Vanity Fair:
“The true triumph of Slouching, however, is Joan Didion, or, rather, “Joan Didion,” the central character in a book that famously denies that the center exists, or at least that it’s capable of holding; also, as it happens, the most enduring creation of Joan Didion.”
With the above quote in mind realize that the true triumph and center of Cameron Crowe’s feature on Led Zeppelin is clearly “Led Zeppelin”. “Cameron Crowe” didn’t even make an appearance. “Rolling Stone” was also incidental, except as a delivery vehicle. Unlike Crowe, who was glad to be there, Joan Didion didn’t have any love, empathy or commitment to anything or anyone in the counterculture. This was an important bias and one that figured in how she portrayed the subjects and settings that shared a story (ultimately with her). She came from a family of Republicans, had written for William F. Buckley’s National Review, and adored John Wayne. Despite this loathing of the counterculture she is later held up as a literary icon by the publisher (Jann Wenner) of the counterculture’s primary magazine. Why? Probably because she is/was a great writer, but also because she defined the scene by occupying the center of the story and including all manner of personal data (bias). That gives the piece a more complete realism and is, in Wenner’s mind. THE STUFF. Wenner embraced Joan’s journalism even if he didn’t share her politics:
“Didion’s transformation as a writer did not involve a conversion to the counterculture or to the New Left. She genuinely loathed the hippies, whom she associated with characters like Charles Manson, and she thought that the Black Panthers and the student radicals were both frightening and ridiculous. She found Jim Morrison kind of ridiculous, too…”
It is within this context that Joan winds up sitting in the studio with the Doors during a recording session for Waiting for the Sun in 1968. Like Cameron Crowe’s Zeppelin story, Joan’s essay on Morrison and the Doors is also online, here.
“…On this evening in 1968 they were gathered together in uneasy symbiosis to make their third album, and the studio was too cold and the lights were too bright and there were masses of wires and banks of the blinking electronic circuitry with which musicians live so easily.”
No one would read this essay to be informed about the Doors, because it isn’t very informative. Joan does not speak with any members of the band or record any meaningful dialogue. There is a sense of weirdness and dislocation throughout and a sense of the banal in the conversations that she does transcribe, but her whole reason for being in the situation in the first place is a mystery. Like her name, essay and book is mysteriously dropped into the Rolling Stone documentary, she seems to have dropped into this recording session and finds herself waiting for Jim Morrison. In this way, her essay becomes Waiting for Morrison or Samuel Beckett-ish Waiting for Godot; waiting for something/someone that never appears or if and when it does, expectations are not fulfilled and the setting in which this adventure occurs descends into the absurd. Didion’s discomfort may seem like personal vulnerability, but because of her relationship (or lack thereof) with the counterculture, she could also be read as the female equivalent of Bob Dylan‘s Mr. Jones from Ballad of A Thin Man; there is something happening here, but you don’t know what it is…do you?:
“My leg had gone to sleep, but I did not stand up; unspecified tensions seemed to be rendering everyone in the room catatonic. The producer played back the rhythm track. The engineer said that he wanted to do his deep-breathing exercises. Manzarek ate a hard-boiled egg…”
“…There was a sense that no one was going to leave the room, ever. It would be some weeks before The Doors finished recording this album. I did not see it through.”
While it is never said, and in fact, one could make the case it’s actively NOT said, one reason Joan (and her husband, John Gregory Dunne) were in the studio that night waiting for Jim Morrison was because they were trying to cast him in a movie about heroin addicts for which they had written a screenplay. The movie would eventually get made, be named A Panic in Needle Park, and star Al Pacino in his first major role. So…this might explain why there was a lot of tension in the room, but that shouldn’t necessarily reflect on the Doors. Given that some in the counterculture had already made their dislike of Didion public, it’s possible that the Doors resented her being in the studio in the first place.
According to biographer Stephen Davis, when Jim Morrison did finally show in the studio that night, he was drunk and trailed by a slutty looking teenager. Joan failed to mention these two facts in her essay. In addition to asking about the movie role, Joan had at some point expressed interest in speaking with and/or interviewing Morrison, but he apparently ignored her (and declined the movie role) either because he was in “drunk Jim” mode or for the same reason the police and The Diggers ignored her in San Francisco. Perhaps Joan’s reputation had preceded her or perhaps she had absolutely no idea how to act like a journalist. Though Jim Morrison had many faults, and had a cynical view of the counterculture, he probably would’ve viewed someone with Joan’s background and ideas with a certain amount of contempt. Can you imagine the conversation?
Joan: The Center isn’t Holding!
So why does Jann Wenner hold this essay on the Doors in such high regard in the Stories from the Edge documentary? It’s possible (and like I’ve already said I can’t know for sure) that Joan Didion’s essay on the Doors serves as an example of the type of journalism that Jann Wenner wanted for his magazine. There is nothing else in the essay that serves a purpose for the type of music journalism that Cameron Crowe was engaged in at the time. Anyone who reads this post, even without reading the Doors essay or the Led Zeppelin feature, can come to the correct conclusion that the point-of-view/subject focus of the two is different. Cameron Crowe interviewed Robert Plant, who talked about being a rock star because it’s a feature on Led Zeppelin. This is what fans of Led Zeppelin want to read. Joan Didion wrote an essay about Joan Didion hanging in a studio with the Doors and fans of Joan Didion read the essay. How many fans of the Doors even know the essay exists? Jann Wenner “told” Cameron Crowe to study Joan’s profile (even though I don’t know this really happened in 1975) of Jim Morrison because 1) New Journalism is selling Rolling Stone‘s “edgy” investigative stories; 2) this is how journalism will happen in the future; and 3) he wants Rolling Stone to have “fans” just as Led Zeppelin and Joan Didion do because that’s a very successful business strategy. On the matter of bias: people don’t necessarily have a problem with anyone whose biases they share. By all accounts, Joan Didion’s politics changed over the years so perhaps there was no longer anything for Wenner or those who identify as liberal to have a problem with. Later in the documentary, during an episode on the inimitable investigative journalist Hunter S. Thompson, these quotes are read by Johnny Depp in his Thompson character voice:
“The only way a reporter should look at a politician is down. When I went to Washington I was determined to avoid the clubby personal relationships that develop between politicians and journalists. But there are serious problems with that kind of ball-busting approach. The most obvious had to do with my natural out front bias for the McGovern candidacy…”
“So much for objective journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here. Not under any byline of mine or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as objective journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms. Its the built-in blind spots, the objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place.”
Thompson uttered these quotes while covering the 1972 Presidential race for Rolling Stone. He makes no pretense at objectivity and will take participation in the events he covers to even higher levels than Joan Didion (all the way to Gonzo Journalism). Although he is a journalist, he admits bias, and no matter the story, Hunter S. Thompson will always have Hunter as the central character. So there was more than one segment in the documentary that served as a vehicle to illustrate a certain philosophy and this approach to journalism made Jann Wenner a visionary force in the publishing world and a wealthy man. So while the Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge documentary wasn’t very good entertainment, it was educational, even if that wasn’t the movie’s intention. The New Journalists were the bloggers and social media writers of their time, long before the actual social media technologies/platforms existed. Now that the platforms do exist, there is the potential for millions of people to be New Journalists/Narrative Journalists; reporting on events while occupying center-space in their story, interspersing their “news” with their opinions and bias. I do this all of the time. Like many others, I try to be honest about it. Really, I do. Like this piece here I’ve done…there is, of course, a lot of unproven speculation and I have my own biases. I do hope no one gleans anything that comes across as sputtering outrage, because I don’t feel that way. There definitely are tensions between getting “the truth” and getting a good story. Journalism has been in a constant state of change and all of the wonderful technological advances have increased capabilities many-fold. The principles of why journalism is done and its cardinal purpose (giving people accurate information) is an important issue in the minds of many. How these needs and opinions square with those who run businesses, those who write, and those who want to report is where all of the challenges present themselves.
Stories from the Edge appears to be Jann Wenner’s sign-off, and that’s probably why it was important to inject some of his philosophy and accomplishments throughout. I’m sure there were other instances during segments I didn’t watch. Though he is still aboard at the magazine, he sold his controlling interest and will have a diminished role as time goes on. As part of his very complicated legacy, he embodies a modern-day Citizen Kane and like it or not, his achievements will affect the world(s) of publishing and rock and roll for many years to come.