Recently, I was laying some smartphone scare-stats on my 14-year-old, Grace. “They say that teen pregnancy is through the floor since 2012, you know.”
“That’s a good thing, right?”
“Well, they say it’s because no one has real relationships anymore. They just sit at home and text each other.”
Grace uncomfortably put her device in her pocket.
“And you know those kids who have such stratospheric anxiety that they can’t even go to school?”
“So they say. Kids are growing up with this paralyzing social anxiety, because other kids are creating these curated personae and posting selfies from cool parties everyone else seems to have gotten invited to, and…”
“Huh.” That one touched a nerve—I knew it would. See, that was how I used to feel when I read Rolling Stone. The insider smugness of that rag hit my limbic system like a bomb. “We are the cool kids, neener, neener,” it said.
Eventually, I figured it was me. I mean, I’d grown up wanting to be an A-list vocalist and that hadn’t happened. It was the 1980s. I was a great singer and a great lyricist, but I knew I’d never be able to play guitar like Joni Mitchell or Prince, or singlehandedly write artsy-awesome songs like Bowie or Peter Gabriel—I didn’t have the skill set to own the room without someone behind me, and that someone never appeared. In my mid-20s, I ran afoul of half a dozen also-rans with varying degrees of talent and remarkably monstrous egos, culminating in a situation with an out-to-pasture producer with a wall of gold records in his office in Laurel Canyon, who wanted to make me his big comeback act. He offered me a large amount of cocaine and told me I’d need to do the blow, blow him, and pay out of pocket for the demos. That did it. I knew I was never going to be like the people I read about in Rolling Stone. I didn’t have the temperament.
Eventually I became glad I didn’t have the temperament.
I confess I found it hard to sit through HBO’s Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge. And I’d been wrong. The issue wasn’t that the magazine made me feel like everyone had been invited to the awesome party but me. The party was the problem. The party was insufferably boring.
At least at first. From the earliest days of the magazine’s conception, we go straight to a lengthy segment on naked groupies. Wow, are they self-satisfied about their coterie of stoned naked women. Wow. Wow! And thank God we got the footage of the famous “plaster caster” girls explaining exactly how they got all those plaster casts of famous weenies, because I would absolutely never have been able to figure it out. Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney veers from self-congratulatory segment to segment (I Earned the Trust of Ike Turner, Witness My Incursion Into Their Residence; John and Yoko Gave Me Their Recipe for Scones) with intermittent nostalgic commentary by the magazine’s co-founder and publisher (and the documentary’s producer) Jann Wenner as he wanders a gallery of seminal photos with Annie Leibovitz, who isn’t incorrect in pointing out that the magazine took a chance on a young, unseasoned woman photographer. There’s a very young Cameron Crowe getting the source material for Almost Famous and a very young Ben Fong-Torres being Ben Fong-Torres. It’s the late sixties, it’s San Francisco, it’s rock-and/or-roll: How could it be boring, of all things?
But it is! Holy crap, is it boring. What’s going on here? And did they really have to do the pastiche weirdness of having Hunter S. Thompson’s work read in voiceover by Johnny Depp? Is anyone not tired of that schtick? If he’d at least done it in his Captain Jack Sparrow voice that might have been kinda po-mo funny. Jeff Daniels reads most of the other clips, so it’s a little bit like you’re stuck in a very psychedelic and remarkably arrogant episode of The Newsroom. The worst part of the first hour or so is the way they manage to make one of the most exciting periods in American popular music into a Big Plastic Drag. Not only do they make insanely talented writers like Fong-Torres boring: John Lennon is boring. Mick Jagger is boring. You get a spark with Tina Turner, but then it’s gone. Jethro Tull and his flute just made me think, “Quick, get the plaster casters before that solo ends!” and I don’t think that was the intent at all.
Honestly, I was sorely tempted to turn it off. And then some footage of a very early-career Bruce Springsteen popped up and I remembered that I loved music and in the end, so did these people. And I got a second wind.
I’m glad for it, because the puffery and tired nostalgia and what feels like a relentless demand for acknowledgment of the magazine’s importance do dissipate quite a bit in the second half. They get real. It doesn’t even matter that they keep trying to point out how everyone who ever became famous in rock music owes them a debt (ten seconds of The Boss onstage and it doesn’t matter how hard they try to chalk up his success to Jon Landau; we know it’s Landau who owes Springsteen for the coattail-ride). We finally get to something that isn’t tired and overblown: What happens when an influential publication has 50 candles on its birthday cake and the people who made it what it was are old or gone and the times have changed and the structure of publishing has changed and the world has changed? How do you maintain your voice and your relevance? What happens when you make a terrible misstep? How do you cope when the counterculture has become the establishment?
This documentary is definitely at its best when it admits some criticism, detailing how the magazine foundered in the 1980s as new musical genres displaced the kind of rock that was Rolling Stone’s main wheelhouse, for example. For today’s political moment, one of the most interesting and sobering segments concerns the very unfortunate coverage of “A Rape on Campus,” the 2015 story of a college rape victim whose entire story was later discovered to have been fabricated. See, as it turns out, you have to vet stories and there are consequences when you don’t: for example, $3 million in damages for your magazine and another obstacle for actual rape victims to get their stories heard fairly. Wenner brushes it off in the documentary as “dumb fucking luck.” And perhaps it was. Or perhaps Dumb F’ing Hubris played a role? Seems like there’s plenty of it going around.
Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge is awful damn impressed with Rolling Stone, that’s what I can say for sure after watching this four-hour program. And they feel you should be as well. But here’s the thing that keeps coming back to me. It’s the moment in the first hour when Bruce Springsteen hits the stage. There was a performer with so much raw power that no amount of fatuous self-satisfaction could contain or control it, and you see with total clarity that Wenner and his early cadre of writers and photographers (incredibly talented in many cases, don’t get me wrong) were not creating culture. They were simply blessed with an absurd abundance of resources at an incredibly interesting moment, and from there, they did what any rolling stone would be compelled by gravity to do: They kept going.
I’m not sure how comfortable I’d be with taking credit for gravity.
Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge is now available on HBO GO and HBO NOW.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.