Q&A: ‘Rolling Stone’ founder talks San Francisco, live music and climate change

Jan. 24, 2023, 8:35 p.m.

Jann Wenner is a man who seems to have seen it all. Flip to any page in his recent autobiography, “Like A Rolling Stone,” and you’ll see references to at least a few of his rich, celebrity friends or reminders of his many homes scattered around the country. He has certainly seen more than most as the founder and former editor of the cultural touchstone “Rolling Stone” magazine. From the outlet’s creation in 1967 to Wenner’s eventual sale of his last 51% share in 2017, the mogul has shaken hands with the likes of Bob Dylan, Barack Obama, Bono and Bill Clinton over an illustrious 50-year career. 

Wenner sat down with The Daily for an interview ahead of his Jan. 25 event at Stanford.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

The Stanford Daily [TSD]: How’s the book doing, and how do you feel about being on the other end of these interviews? You’ve interviewed everyone ranging from John Lennon to Barack Obama. How does it feel to be the one getting all this attention? 

Jann Wenner [JW]: Well, I’m very happy with the book. The reception for it’s been great. Reviews have been excellent. Mainly the reaction from the readers of the book, the readers of “Rolling Stone,” and the people have followed what we’ve been doing for so many years. They have been really gratifying. 

I’ve enjoyed doing the interviews. They’re always great, for people who understand the magazine or read the book and have thoughtful questions, and that’s what they generally are. There are a few people where I can tell that they haven’t read it, so they ask you questions that are not good, and that’s somewhere between boring and insulting — but I enjoy the dialogue with people. 

TSD: One thing that I got out of the book, which places you within a kind of history of both music and music criticism, is the focus within contemporary music on nostalgia. Just look at the fact that the biggest biopic (almost ever) is the new Elvis movie last year, which featured a bunch of new artists like Doja Cat re-inventing a song Elvis made popular. How do you feel about these blendings of modern stylings with the older music that you talk about in the book? 

JW: I think nostalgia is an ongoing part of culture. In popular culture, it looks ahead, looks back, stays in the moment — it kind of goes and swings. It’s good to look at the roots. It’s good to look where the current culture comes from, because it’s all kind of cyclical. 

So much of what’s happening in the ’60s was kind of a repeat of what happened in the ’20s. You know the ’60s and ’70s: the incredible liberation of culture and social norms and incredible technological advances of the car and radio and the telephone. And once again, we have this incredible liberation accompanied by drugs like booze or LSD and flappers, or a culture of extravagance and short skirts and all that stuff — along with this great period of technological change. 

What goes around comes around, okay? You have to be just smart enough to recognize it. 

TSD: You talk in the book about the acts today that are still worth seeing and doing something new with live performance. You include Bob Dylan, which I feel is a controversial live show. His new tour is supposed to last all the way into 2024. He’s going to be 80-something years old. What do you think of those four artists you cite — Dylan, The Rolling Stones, U2 and Bruce Springsteen — continuing to hone their craft, even into old age?

JW: I think it’s great. I mean, how fabulous to be 80 years old and still be doing that thing that you love? You do it really well and turn thousands and thousands of people on! Each of these artists you mentioned go at it in a slightly different way. They’re playing to a combination of their older audiences, their original audiences and a new audience of younger people who discover them because they’ve been able to hear them on the Internet for free (without having to buy old, used records for $20). 

They’re all still vital. They’re all still impressive performers. There’s really nothing more profound than a Bob Dylan concert. It’s beautiful. And if you want crazy rock and roll? The Stones — I mean, name me a rock group better than that! Nobody! I mean, with all due respect to the Foo Fighters, it’s far more exciting to see the Stones or Bruce or U2. 

TSD: I think it’s interesting how you moved throughout your career from artistic scene to artistic scene witnessing all of this: New York to San Francisco to elsewhere. How do you feel about the art, music and writing scenes within San Francisco, where the magazine was founded, during the mid-’60s period? 

JW: It was great. I mean, how lucky to grow up in a small city where they had rock-and-roll dances every weekend? Pretty fabulous! That’s what we did every weekend. People didn’t have record contracts, so it was a great opportunity to develop a really deep audience and practice their own craft, to have that relationship, make a living and do something. It was a chance to experiment and find out what it’s all about without all the commercial pressures. 

Everybody was involved in the audience. It was right there in front of you. It was all open to everybody, and it cost only two bucks to go to a show. A lot of your friends were all interested and it was a great time. It was your soul. There were no such things as secrets there. 

TSD: One of the more interesting accounts from the book is about David Black‘s famous piece, “The Plague Years,” being published in “Rolling Stone” in the ’80s. It’s one of the first articles reporting on AIDS outside of medical journals, as you say. Could you say more about your personal perspective as a gay man when navigating the AIDs epidemic and being one of the most influential magazine editors in the world? How did that feel for you personally?

JW: My first instincts always were editorial. What are the concerns and issues of our readership that are meaningful? We saw the stories on it. They were intriguing editorially: there’s a mysterious disease killing young people. And as I said in the book, these things were happening in our backyards — in San Francisco, New York. 

I mean, the fact that it was a gay issue obviously touched me in a way, as well as the fact that it was a minority issue. Those are all the things that touched my heart. We had to do something about it. Gay rights weren’t particularly our crusade any more so than, say, women’s rights. The big, big things we spoke on were the environment, gun control, drug legislation and presidential politics. 

TSD: You mention the environment. On that point, I read your 2020 editorial piece “The Price of Greed” from “Rolling Stone,” and it makes a very compelling point about man-made climate change. However, I saw that a lot of your book documents trips on private jets and other carbon-heavy privileges of that nature. How has your past influenced your aims today to address your personal footprint or desire more legislative change? 

JW: Well, I think life is great. There’s three things I want to say: I’m glad you liked “The Price of Greed.” That is, in a certain sense, a summation of what I think I’ve learned. The crux of the issue that forms the end of my book is that we have to have optimism. You can be simple, factional, educated and smart about the problem. Don’t deny it, for God’s sake! That’s not what optimism is. We have to live with hope.

About the personal footprint, I think it’s absolutely good to do whatever you can, whether it be simple things like “we don’t buy plastic bottles,” you know? Practice it wherever you can, but I also think that the problem here is not plastic cups or even private jets, per se. I mean, the problems are so big. It’s about things like changing the energy infrastructure in the United States. That’s where it really comes down to. 

It’s not a battle of policy more than it is a battle of political consciousness. If more rich people say “I’m giving up private jets,” it would be a real move towards a change of political consciousness. If you have all these people start refusing to fly, I think that would translate to a great change among political leadership because they would see the business leadership of the country say “even we will make a sacrifice.” 

I don’t want to get into my use of a private jet too much, other than to say that, at one time, I owned one, and I don’t anymore. There are plenty of good flights available. Yes, that’s a big modification of my behavior, but it has not affected the larger climate change problem in one bit. It has not had any practical impact.

TSD: I think that’s interesting. Not to compare “Rolling Stone” today to how it was even in 2020, but I looked at a recent article from last year comparing different artists’ use of private jets, and it was like, “Oh, well, Taylor Swift’s up here and this artist is over here!”

JW: I feel like that was in the opposite direction, as you’re saying, of what is actually helpful and useful on an industrial or global level. Naming and shaming these people doesn’t do anybody any good. That’s no constructive path for change.

TSD: On a lighter note, I was really curious about this: you starred and worked on quite a few films. Would you appear in one today? 

JW: Sure, but I don’t think there are a lot of roles. Legitimate movie stars my age are having a tough time getting roles. But it was fun. I mean, why even play? It won’t happen anyway. Michael Douglas said I should do a cold-blooded killer. Give me that role. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Brandon Rupp '25 is a columnist for the Arts & Life section who has also written for Humor. Contact him at rupp 'at' stanford.edu to tell him how much you respect his rigid journalistic integrity (or to send him music to take a look at). He appreciates that you are reading his bio.

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