In ninth grade, I was a dorky, happy-go-lucky kid, thick glasses and gelled hair, and yet already obsessed with music — good music. Not just the Top 40 stuff on the radio, I’m talking about The Grateful Dead, Sarah Vaughn, Chicago, The Who, Nat King Cole, Jimi Hendrix, Sly & The Family Stone, Blood Sweat & Tears, The Rolling Stones, etc.
This was the late 1990s, and there I was, this kid sitting in fourth-period art class, right before lunch and recess. Scanning the room, my gaze rose above the cute girls sitting nearby, above the bullies waiting for me to make eye contact, to the shelves behind the art supplies tables. There they were, stacks upon stacks of back issues of Rolling Stone. I’m talking everything from the mid-1980s all the way up to where I stood, which was just before the crossover into a new and uncertain millennium.
Every free moment I had, whether it was getting a pass during study hall to spend it in the art room or those five free minutes before the bell rang during class itself, I was peeling back the yellowed pages of Rolling Stone. I was utterly absorbed. Cover stories about The Grateful Dead, Nirvana, Seinfeld, Neve Campbell or any pop culture figure of our time — this was my magazine, my portal to another world I didn’t know, but was ready to immerse myself in.
My art teacher, Mr. Gallagher, had witnessed how much I perused through his Rolling Stone collection, and also took great pride in our ongoing conversations (which lasted until I graduated high school three years later) about the merits of his favorite musical acts, which usually would circle back to the underrated melodic majesty of prog-rockers Supertramp (his favorite band).
And when it came to the final art class that year, Mr. Gallagher had a surprise for me. After class, upon saying goodbye, he, with a glint in his eye, said, “Garret, I’m planning on moving around the room and making more space for next September. I’m going to throw out all those old Rolling Stones, that is unless you want them?” I jumped at the opportunity, my mother’s car trunk filled to the brim with issues later that afternoon.
So, it’s no wonder how engrossed I’ve been with the new biography on Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone, which also celebrated its recent 50th anniversary with an HBO documentary and plenty of media fanfare. Written with exquisite detail by Joe Hagan, Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, is a vividly, and often troubling read, one that encompasses the last half-century of American music, pop culture, ideals, politics, and essence, for good or ill. The portrait of Wenner as a power hungry, celebrity obsessed socialite turned media baron is as fair and accurate as it is eye-opening and brutal to retrace.
What’s surprising about the book and the picture it paints is that it simply isn’t that surprising at all, especially if you’ve been a longtime Rolling Stone reader and also a journalist yourself. As someone who has spent over a decade interviewing iconic musicians, politicians, pop culture figures, and also partakes in social commentary, what I came across in the pages of Sticky Fingers was more like post-modern America putting a mirror up to itself.
Reading about Wenner’s trials and tribulations, the “how did we end up here?” kind of vibe, you really can draw direct connections and similarities to where we stand as a country and culture nowadays, one obsessed with image, social status, and also the comfortability in thinking that celebrity much mean you either know something, know someone, or know a solution to the problems of everyday men and women.
Even since I decided those many years ago that — hell or high water — writing about music, people, culture, the arts, and politics, is all I wanted to do, I’ve kept at the top of that mountain of dreams the possibility of someday getting an article published by Rolling Stone, just to get in that masthead once, among the same names that sparked my internal flame of becoming a writer, one of courage and intellect, like my heroes — Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, David Fricke, and so on.
But, it doesn’t really matter if that dream happens or not. For the dream alone was enough fuel to have kept me going this long, some 12 years later from the starting line, where all those iconic covers and cover stories of Rolling Stone remain the unbreakable foundation by which I’ve grown — as a writer, and as a human being.
And, for that, I’ll be forever grateful to Rolling Stone, to Mr. Gallagher, to the film “Almost Famous,” and also my publisher at The Smoky Mountain News, Scott McLeod, who has given me the two things I desire most in journalism — freedom, and also as much editorial space as I need.
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.
1 A non-competitive talent show for third to 12th graders, the annual Student Talent Showcase will be held at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18, at the Franklin High School Fine Arts Building.
2 The Water’n Hole Bar & Grill (Waynesville) will host The Dirty Soul Revival (rock/blues) at 10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 17.
3 Western Carolina University (Cullowhee) will present an event focusing on Aldo Leopold and Horace Kephart at 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 16, in the H.F. Robinson Building.
4 The Folkmoot Friendship Center will host a Middle Eastern Friendship Dinner from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 17, in Waynesville.
5 Mountain Layers Brewing (Bryson City) will host Frank & Allie (bluegrass/old-time) at 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18.