Music, News & Commentary

Australian Rolling Stone founder on the magazine’s death after 46 years

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Last year, Rolling Stone magazine celebrated its 50th year on American newsstands.

This week, the Australian edition has ceased publication — 46 years after I launched it in 1972.

Back in 1967, I was publishing a pop-music tabloid called GoSet, selling 70,000 copies a week across Australia. America had no nationwide music paper until late that year when a uni dropout named Jann Wenner started Rolling Stone.

We all believed, with varying levels of conviction, that rock ‘n’ roll was an expression of an emerging youth culture that would change the world.

In 1970, I spent two weeks with Jann and his wife Janie in San Francisco having fun, and crafting an agreement under which I would publish an Australian edition of their magazine.

Working out of a group house in Glebe, a few mates and I coaxed the Aussie Stone toward sustainability. Alistair Jones and I edited our small local editorial pages, with articles in those very early years by Jen Jewel Brown, Colin Talbot, and others. Helen Garner even interviewed Billy Thorpe.

Rolling Stone was mostly about men behaving badly, be they rock ‘n’ rollers, US Generals, or the writers themselves.

Our business team back then included Geoff Watson, who was my business partner in both the GoSet and Rolling Stone adventures, Jon Hawkes, who courted investors and rolled the joints, and the extraordinary advertising team of Terry Cleary in Melbourne and Michael Zerman in Sydney.

Geoff Watson died last year in his mid-80s, having lived his last decades in a donga in the Daintree rainforest, self-sufficient and off the grid and thrilled that he had morphed from a grumpy, besuited management consultant into a slightly-less-grumpy hippy. He cared for the environment, helped a mob in the far north set up a pizza shop and loved reading the radical political stuff I mailed from Manhattan to his Cape Tribulation post box.

After getting the local Stone rolling, an expanded crew of us launched the Aussie counter-culture broadsheet called The Digger, and when that had ran its course I sold the Australian Rolling Stone franchise to a trio of Sydney gonzo publishers in 1975. I also moved myself to New York where I kept up with Rolling Stone through occasional chats with Jann and mutual friends, and by reading the infrequent outside-the-box, political stories he published.

Now that the Wenners have sold their shares in Stone and the Aussie version is kaput, I hereby offer my choices for the magazines’ finest achievements:

Tom Wolfe’s radical chic

When I arrived at the Wenner home in 1970, that night’s real dinner guest was Tom Wolfe, the writer of four books — The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and other long titles. Jann and Tom talked about The Brotherhood of the Right Stuff, a story about American astronauts that Tom was writing for an upcoming issue of Stone with photos by Annie Leibovitz on the biggest assignment of her nascent career. Wolfe’s stories, dubbed “new journalism”, were rich in lively descriptions of characters, places, and cultures in motion. Important critics of media and literature loved that he inhabited the tripping brains of the heroes, while containing them in a well-woven story.

Given where we are now in terms of fact/fiction/faction, Tom looks to have been a mixed blessing to journalism. He once wrote: “I think every living moment of a human being’s life, unless the person is starving or in immediate danger of death in some other way, is controlled by a concern for status.” I don’t think that’s true.

A (US) edition of Rolling Stone from 1972

Fear and Loathing

When we launched the Aussie Stone, Hunter S. Thompson, the chain-babbling trasher of all cultures, was cranking genre-bending writing up a notch. Rolling Stone gained new energy from his epic report on the 1972 US election, spicing up Nixon’s thrashing of George McGovern with an acid-fuelled vision of America as a “pitiful helpless giant” (if only). More famously, Thompson and his Samoan attorney (actually Mexican) went to a business convention in Las Vegas with suitcases of booze, pills and white powders. Their ostensible journalistic purpose was to unravel white racism toward Latinos.

Hunter Thompson did a great job of trashing the suit-wearing, over-eating, know-nothing guys who run much of America, but his ferociously first-person reportage may have helped spawn a million online ratbags. Matt Taibbi has written the best serious stuff in Rolling Stone in recent years, tearing apart the banksters of Wall Street with some of Thompson’s madness and tenacity, and more substance.

The first issue of the Aussie edition (and the 100th issue of the US edition)

The reporter who died after killing the General’s career

In 2010, Michael Hastings, a 30-year-old freelance writer, spent time on the road with General Stanley McChrystal, whom President Obama had put in charge of the US war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. McChrystal and his support crew let Hastings into diplomatic meetings, late-night booze-ups and heavily armed visits to alienated Afghanis and disillusioned GIs.

Hastings’ story for Rolling Stone faithfully reproduced the General’s no-bullshit repartee, making it stunningly clear that McChrystal and his fellow top military brass were appallingly full of shit — ignorant, arrogant, crazy violent, and destined to fail catastrophically at saving Afghanistan, let alone America.

After Obama read the article, he fired McChrystal and backed away from his “strategy” of having troops occupy villages to hunt down insurgents while simultaneously uplifting the good citizens. Trump is stupid enough to be reviving some of that today.

US military and intelligence honchos don’t like being discredited by journalists (or black, Harvard-educated Presidents). Last year Wikileaks released documents on how the CIA can remotely control recent-model cars. Hastings’ Mercedes hit a pole at full speed on a suburban street in LA at 4: 25am in June, 2013. There is a lot of detailed evidence that the crash was externally controlled, but, as you’d expect from intell dudes, no smoking joystick.

Hastings’ revelations about the crass and dangerous Masters of War probably cost him his life. His story is arguably Rolling Stone’s worthiest.

I’m a little bit glad Wenner published Stone for all those years — and a lot glad I didn’t.

The theme in all this is that Rolling Stone was mostly about men behaving badly, be they rock ‘n’ rollers, Generals, or the writers themselves. Jann tilted his magazine strongly toward men both as contributor, and readers (66% of them were male). In a list of ’50 notable current and former staff of Rolling Stone’ on Wikipedia, there are only three women. One is a music journalist, another had an unhappy stint as publisher, and the third is Sabrina Erdely, who wrote the Stone investigative piece on 2014 titled A Rape on Campus, which the courts found to be profoundly flawed. It cost Wenner Media millions of dollars in multiple defamation and libel cases and thus contributed to the company’s downfall.

I’m a little bit glad Wenner published Stone for all those years — and a lot glad I didn’t.


ABCTV journalist Jeune Pritchard interviewed me in January, 1972 about a showdown with Rupert Murdoch’s Southdown Press over the launch of the Australian Stone.

It’s a piece of true-to-the-period drama below:


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