Jann Wenner is the co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine and he was deeply involved with music journalism and music criticism for decades. He was also the co-founder of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Late last week, the NY Times published an interview with Wenner as he promotes his memoir, Like a Rolling Stone. In the memoir, he focuses on his view of the “masters” of rock, and those are seven white guys. The Times called him out on that, questioning why he wouldn’t even mention the contributions of Black artists or female artists as music masters. Here’s that section:
NYT: History will speak. This is also a history-will-speak kind of question. There are seven subjects in the new book; seven white guys. In the introduction, you acknowledge that performers of color and women performers are just not in your zeitgeist. Which to my mind is not plausible for Jann Wenner. Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, Stevie Wonder, the list keeps going — not in your zeitgeist? What do you think is the deeper explanation for why you interviewed the subjects you interviewed and not other subjects?
JW: Well, let me just. …
NYT: Carole King, Madonna. There are a million examples.
When I was referring to the zeitgeist, I was referring to Black performers, not to the female performers, OK? Just to get that accurate. The selection was not a deliberate selection. It was kind of intuitive over the years; it just fell together that way. The people had to meet a couple criteria, but it was just kind of my personal interest and love of them. Insofar as the women, just none of them were as articulate enough on this intellectual level.
NYT: Oh, stop it. You’re telling me Joni Mitchell is not articulate enough on an intellectual level?
Hold on a second.
NYT: I’ll let you rephrase that.
All right, thank you. It’s not that they’re not creative geniuses. It’s not that they’re inarticulate, although, go have a deep conversation with Grace Slick or Janis Joplin. Please, be my guest. You know, Joni was not a philosopher of rock ’n’ roll. She didn’t, in my mind, meet that test. Not by her work, not by other interviews she did. The people I interviewed were the kind of philosophers of rock. Of Black artists — you know, 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.
NYT: How do you know if you didn’t give them a chance?
Because I read interviews with them. I listen to their music. I mean, look at what Pete Townshend was writing about, or Jagger, or any of them. They were deep things about a particular generation, a particular spirit and a particular attitude about rock ’n’ roll. Not that the others weren’t, but these were the ones that could really articulate it.
Ah, you see, he’s not racist or sexist, it’s just that Black artists and female artists aren’t articulate enough, that’s all. This is all a huge f–king mess and it exploded the second the Times published the piece. By Sunday, Wenner was removed from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation’s board, and hours later, Wenner issued an apology:
Wenner issued an apology through his publisher Little, Brown and Company, saying “In my interview with The New York Times I made comments that diminished the contributions, genius and impact of Black and women artists and I apologize wholeheartedly for those remarks. ‘The Masters’ is a collection of interviews I’ve done over the years,” he continued, “that seemed to me to best represent an idea of rock ’n’ roll’s impact on my world; they were not meant to represent the whole of music and its diverse and important originators but to reflect the high points of my career and interviews I felt illustrated the breadth and experience in that career. They don’t reflect my appreciation and admiration for myriad totemic, world-changing artists whose music and ideas I revere and will celebrate and promote as long as I live. I totally understand the inflammatory nature of badly chosen words and deeply apologize and accept the consequences.”
Someone pointed out (correctly) that the white artists Jann Wenner considers the rock and roll “masters” all grew up worshiping Black artists like James Brown, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Stevie Wonder, Lead Belly, Ray Charles, BB King, Muddy Waters and Aretha Franklin. Anyway, I have no idea why he even apologized since he really feels like Black and female artists aren’t articulate.
Photos courtesy of Cover Images.