Rolling Stone Magazine’s Fall from Musical Grace

It was the fortieth anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley that got me thinking about a magazine I subscribed to faithfully back in the day, and can’t in good conscience flip through anymore, Rolling Stone.

It’s a tale of two covers, the 1977 Elvis Presley Memorial issue, and the 2013 cover featuring Boston Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

I’ve been a reader and a rocker from the earliest moments those interests could be pursued, and when I found an issue of Teen Screen featuring Elvis Presley in a drugstore magazine rack in the late fifties, a longstanding and voracious interest in the intersectionality of rock music and rock journalism was born.

I’ve got Beatle magazines so old the pages threaten to fall away like powder. My ancient issues of Guitar Player, printed on glossier paper, have held up better, including one with a 1969 cover story on a thirty-three-year-old wunderkind Glen Campbell.  I’ve kept in a dusty file cabinet Hit Parader numbers that review Def Leppard as a young band with great potential.

But it was Rolling Stone that set the standard, and for one reason: the writing. RS always had the best rock writers. Musically attuned wordsmiths whose grasp of the subject matter went beyond the music and into the life circumstances and artistic motivations of the musicians being covered. Whose prose easily eclipsed the fanboy-fan girl hagiography in magazines like Circus.

The way those early RS writers wrote about rock informed the way I wrote about rock forever after.

I have in my collection an original copy of the very first issue of Rolling Stone, purchased on Haight Street in San Francisco, dated fifty years this summer. Talk about a time capsule: featured is a review of Arlo Guthrie’s album Alice’s Restaurant, written by fledgling publisher Jann Wenner himself.

The next milestone was Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which I read in monthly installments in the magazine. I was too young and frankly too dense to fully understand that the work was a countercultural condemnation of the Republican Party. I thought Thompson’s grotesque portraitures of conservatives that looked nothing like my conservative Catholic parents and their friends were because: drugs.

It was only years later, after reaching political maturity, that I figured out exactly where Rolling Stone  was coming from.

Before the Beatles, there was Elvis. One of the first three singles I spent my allowance on was Presley’s “Return to Sender.” An all-time favorite movie scene occurs in “Jailhouse Rock,” when Elvis leads his fellow inmates through a choreographed riot. I was not turned off by “Do the Clam.” The King of Rock’s back-in-black return in a 1968 television special announced to the world that he wasn’t over, and could give the forces of the British Invasion a run for the money.

Then he died, forty years ago this August, a shock to all but his inner circle, and this I can tell you: Rolling Stone’s coverage of the death of Elvis Presley was magnificent.

The photo on the vaunted cover conferred pop cultural sainthood. They wrote up his early childhood in Tupelo, Mississippi. Wenner and his editors sent a talented reporter to cover the mourners at Graceland. The issue-wide coverage included a beautiful elegy written by one of the top writers.

The Elvis Presley Memorial issue showed why Rolling Stone was the coin of the realm for rock journalism.

I subscribed for years, engrossed by their damnation of corporate rock acts like Kansas and Styx, their lauding of the advent of Punk, and their ongoing coverage of classic superstars like Dylan. I didn’t always agree with their assessments; in fact, they often lambasted my favorite bands. They were roundly dismissive of Led Zeppelin. But the writing was good, and the depth of how they approached rock music was head and shoulders above the competition.

Occasionally something not related to music, something with a discernible leftist slant made it onto the pages. My reaction was usually something like: “what can you expect, they’re all hippies,” and I’d skip to the write-up of Quiet Riot. It was around the time of Quiet Riot’s 1983 breakout with “Metal Health” that it dawned on me that the magazine was veering in a radical leftist direction I could no longer overlook. They didn’t like Ronald Reagan, a big time deal-breaker. It was getting harder to overlook the blatant liberalism on my way to the article about Johnny Winter.

But the overarching bias that ensued after the controversial 2000 election of George W. Bush signaled the end of my interest in even reading rock coverage in the magazine.

The final straw came in 2013, when surviving Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was put on the cover with the story subhead reading: “He was a charming kid with a bright future, but no one saw the pain he was hiding or the monster he would become.” I hadn’t picked up a copy of the magazine in years, and with that cover story, my decision to view this periodical as less than bird cage liner was borne out.

Here was an ingrate immigrant, who’d cowardly plotted an attack that ended up killing three, injuring several hundred others, and causing multiple traumatic amputations and necessitating numerous surgical amputations. Among the dead was young Martin Richard, an eight-year-old boy who’d come to watch a marathon.

Part of the story’s introductory note (after the obligatory “hearts go out to the victims” reference) is disingenuous on its face, posturing that because Tsarnaev is young, and lots of RS readers are young, an in-depth piece falls into their wheelhouse. Did that mean that publications with older readerships would be less able to justify a cover story?

While there’s nothing wrong with the decision to publish a story on the attack and its perpetrator, you have to read all the way to the end to appreciate the humanizing spin the writer folded into the narrative. How the bomber was crying for days after his act, and how the attending healthcare workers had to check themselves from becoming sympathetic to the terrorist. Cue the violins.

The fact that they ran a story is not the problem; it’s the content and subtext of it, and the way it was splashed on the cover. Somehow the braintrust at RS saw fit to feature this dangerous malcontent done up in soft focus like Davy Jones in an old issue of Tiger Beat.

This is when I knew that my old favorite magazine had transmogrified from anti-Bush wacko leftist to seriously anti-American subversive. In the years between Elvis’s sad end and the post-9/11 era, Rolling Stone had gone horribly wrong.

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