I saw it on the cover of Rolling Stone

>> Thursday, October 16, 2008

An era ends--MSNBC reports Rolling Stone magazine is switching to a standard format starting October 30th. I don't care at all, I care a little.

At this point, after forty years, Rolling Stone is a lot like another, only-slightly younger cultural icon, Saturday Night Live, in that everybody can fondly remember how awesome it was when they were first turned on to it while they're complaining about it now. RS is an awful, awful magazine, or was when I last looked at it several years ago: it's all ads, now, and vapid little fluff pieces about teenyboppers du jour, not at all like the magazine my Dad briefly subscribed to around '79-'81, I think it was, which was a gritty, earnest magazine full of investigative journalism pieces and awesome interviews with counterculture icons and crunchy reviews of the hottest and coolest vinyl around. Thing is, I can remember my Dad bitching about how far down RS had gone since it had started when he was in college, and I think that was part of the reason that subscription lapsed and all the issues ended up in my bedroom. It's not hard for me to think there's quite possibly some eight-or-nine year-old kid (yes, I was eight or nine when I bogarted my Dad's Rolling Stones, what?) who's devouring some crazy-ass RFK Jr. conspiranoia piece or a quarter-page interview with Jack White (who, yes, is a cool dude, but in my day that interview would have been at least four or five pages long).

The times, they are-a-changin'.

My Dad's subscription was near the end of the phase when Rolling Stone was still published on pulpy cheap paper, the pages hung loosely by inadequate staples and the ink within and on the cover hardly darker than the debris embedded in the second-rate paper itself. The magazine came to the door with the library smell already on it, is my recollection, though it's possible this is one of those false memories that happens, some post-hoc association formed during cold college hours holed up in the library at AppState thumbing through bound back-issues when I was supposed to be doing research or something.

(And here is something I miss, that I'd forgotten: the feeling of sitting in a cool, dark library, squinting at a twenty-something year music review while a subarctic mountain wind screamed past black windows that were colder to the touch than the inside of a freezer, the wind finding purchase and hooking little fingers in the weak spots of the sealing compound fixing the windows in place and rattling the windows like it wanted in and wasn't going to be stopped. Sitting there oblivious between two kinds of magic, the magic of dead rock stars and the magic of a deep black night; you could have fallen into 1978 on the table in front of you or into deep space if the window had given, and it might have been all the same.)

(And here I am second-guessing even this vivid image. I remember thumbing through back-issues in the ASU library, but 1978? Or even 1988? Doesn't it seem more likely I would have been pulling and spooling microfilm reels than a bound issue? I don't think I am, but isn't it possible I'm overlaying the memories of me-nine and me-twenty? Or no? It's vivid, and possibly--in that metaphysical way--true; but is it real? Strange.)

One of my earliest, most-vivid memories of the early exposure to Rolling Stone is the review they did for The Police's Ghost In The Machine, and that dates the era of the subscription to 1981 as surely as a broken watch in the dead man's pocket. This was before Synchronicity, before "Every Breath You Take", back when "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da" was probably better-known than "Message In A Bottle" (would you believe it unless you were there?), and RS loved the album and how dark and serious it was, and posed the question of whether This Record was a sign The Police were growing up. Now, after a pricey-ticket reunion tour and Sting being a man who sells luxury cars when he isn't making the news for religiously refusing to ejaculate, it's hard to believe The Police were ever young or weren't taken so seriously. They were in consideration for being the future of music (who knew Ghost was going to prove their penultimate studio album?), and now we debate over whether they were ever that sincere to start with, or had just cagily been a fusion band that opportunistically jumped on punk at just the right moment to overtake The Clash. Anyway, I remember the big-ass, tabloid-sized page with a sketch of The Police in--yeah, this was a hard one for the artist to come up with--a police line-up (get it?) that took up, I think, the top two-thirds of the page with the review starting beneath, and that kind of layout is what embeds itself in your sense of cool when you're nine, but now Rolling Stone will look just like People, and 1981 is a long time gone.

Dare I say it, even the advertising was better back then? Rolling Stone always has had a lot of ads--well, my always, at least--I seem to remember my Dad complaining that Rolling Stone had too many ads in 1979-81 or thereabouts, and it has even more now. But I remember the ads then as being full-page ads for albums, not two-page spreads for pants and perfume. And I remember the margin ads and the back pages being full of ads for hi-fi stereos, amplifiers, quality recording gear, custom playback, the occasional scam ad directed to aspiring singers and struggling bands. ("We'll get your song published, honest! Send us your demo! We'll help you audition! Send us money and a tape, and we promise you we'll keep at least half of that!") This was, at least, rock and roll and not just the costume dress. I swear, the last time I looked at Rolling Stone, there were more pages selling cars and body washes than there were telling you about anything you might want to listen to or watch; you could have called the magazine "Trendy Consumer's Catalogue" and sold article-space to writers and come out with almost the same rag.

A rag that will be smaller now.

Someone in the MSNBC article says the magazine's size and format are a "nostalgic element but not the iconic part of the magazine." He's right and he's wrong. It was a nostalgic element because it was an iconic element, because Rolling Stone was, once upon a time, too much magazine for a standard-format to bear. Now, maybe, it's less. Goodbye, big, super-wide cover. Goodbye, acres of spread. Goodbye and good luck.

2 comments:

Janiece Murphy Thursday, October 16, 2008 at 8:55:00 AM EDT  

What you say may be true, but Matt Taibbi is a journalist in the stripe you describe.

Plus he drops the "F" bomb like crazy, which makes 12 year old me giggle.

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