Just how ignorant do you have to be to get kicked out of a club you started? That’s a rhetorical question which was nonetheless answered this week when Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner found himself booted from the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, of which he was also a founder.
Wenner made the fatal mistake of opening his mouth and speaking, as necessary as that process might seem while publicizing a book one has written. Wenner chatted with the New York Times’ David Marchese about The Masters, his soon-to-be published book of interviews he conducted with the likes of John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and others while boss at Rolling Stone.
Marchese asked Wenner about the book’s introduction in which he stated that Black and female artists were “not in his zeitgeist,” and hence were not included in the book.
“The people had to meet a couple criteria, but it was just kind of my personal interest and love of them,” he said, adding “Insofar as the women, just none of them were as articulate enough on this intellectual level.”
Wenner continued, “Stevie Wonder, genius, right? I suppose when you use a word as broad as ‘masters,’ the fault is using that word. Maybe Marvin Gaye, or Curtis Mayfield? I mean, they just didn’t articulate at that level.
“For public relations’ sake, maybe I should have gone and found one Black and one woman artist to include here that didn’t measure up to that same historical standard, just to avert this kind of criticism,” he told Marchese. “Maybe I’m old-fashioned and I don’t give a [expletive] or whatever.”
Rolling Stone, which he founded with critic Ralph J. Gleason in 1967, soundly repudiated him on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. “Jann Wenner’s recent statements to the New York Times do not represent the values and practices of today’s Rolling Stone. Jann Wenner has not been directly involved in our operations since 2019.”
It’s fine to be stuck in the Sixties—but that depends entirely upon what Sixties. This sort of thinking reflects not my Sixties, but my great-great grandfather’s Sixties. Maybe Jann Wenner is too old to learn that it just doesn’t do to hang signs on one’s clubhouse reading “No Girls Allowed” and “Whites Only.” If not, he’s getting an education now.
And even if one does harbor those antiquated and unfortunate thoughts, recent experience should tell one not, under any circumstances, to give voice to them. Anyone, no matter how venerable, may be toppled and their legacy irreparably tarnished.
Lest anyone think that I’m doing a virtue dance on the grave of a more esteemed rival’s reputation, let me say that I think it is dangerous to express almost any controversial opinion in public unless one is an absolute nobody. I once enjoyed that exalted status, and could say what I pleased without repercussion. I could be the Voice of Truth. I forfeited my anonymity when I took on the obligation of publishing The Syncopated Times. I am now a Somebody Fourth-Class and have to watch my mouth.
Not that there weren’t inklings along the way that I couldn’t just say anything I liked. In the first year of my marriage, my wife and I had foster children—and I still read my poetry in public. Someone reported one of my compositions to the fostering agency and I thought I was going to get arrested. A little groveling and a bit of fancy footwork saved me from having my name put on a list somewhere. (I still didn’t rate as a Somebody, though I narrowly missed being declared Persona Non Grata.)
I also made people mad and lost listeners when I first did my radio program. I found it difficult to refrain from offering commentary on the issues of the day—or on anything else within my notice. I corrected my course within a year or so, since most listeners were bound to disagree with me. If anyone did agree with me, they probably weren’t listening. In any event, my topical yakking was not relevant to my music program and I toned it down.
Was Jann Wenner brave or foolish just to let it all out there? My opinion is that he was incredibly stupid. He backpedaled after his interview, but he was an idiot not to cherish the contributions of women and African Americans from the outset. It’s not a matter of “tokenism,” it’s that those whom he excludes are integral to American music. The white men whom he lionizes are the beneficiaries of a tradition that originated in Black culture—which they will openly admit, if they are honest. A multitude of women blues and torch singers, and brilliant musicians like Lillian Hardin, added essential ingredients to the stew.
In this great digital age, when an angry virtual mob can swell and swarm at the merest hint of untoward behavior in the renowned, discretion turns out to be the better part of everything. An Icon, after all, is just someone who hasn’t disappointed you yet. I regret to say that I have not always been discreet, but I have endeavored to be kind and respectful. That, and my near-total obscurity, may keep me safe from being declared Internet Villain of the Week. I am happy to cede that honor to Jann Wenner for the time being.
Even so, on the solemn day when they conduct my autopsy, I can imagine the doctor opening me up and finding everything I didn’t say.