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Home » Culture and Criticism

Rolling Stone'd

Submitted by on March 11, 1996 – 8:03 PMNo Comment

Last weekend, I went out to brunch by myself.I tucked my smokes into my back pocket and my Rolling Stone under my arm and headed around the way to the Gemini Diner.I wanted to read my magazine, but I can't even read an eye chart in the morning without the benefit of caffeine, so while I waited for coffee to hit the table, I eavesdropped on the conversations of other patrons.On my right, two women ate Greek salads and discussed a third party's new boyfriend (the verdict: "sort of cute, in a cheesy kind of way").Behind me, a man announced to his friend that he could eat eggs now, because he saw on CNN that eggs no longer have cholesterol.Just then, as the waiter poured my coffee with a dangerous flourish, I spotted a New Couple.

I can't explain how I know how to identify a New Couple, except to say that, on a New Couple, the crust has not yet cooled.They find each other perfect and fascinating, they haven't heard all of each other's "funny" stories twenty times already, they pull muscles having sex but they haven't reached the appalling let's-discuss-the-birth-control-like-adults phase yet.This particular New Couple sat diagonally across from me; the woman explained exactly what she does all day at work, and the man nodded and gazed into her eyes, enthralled.I snorted, partly because it apparently doesn't take much to enthrall this guy, and partly because I had flashed back to the New Couple period with El Rabo and the fact that it lasted for all of five minutes, because El Rabo and I have known each other since before he had chest hair, which tends to shorten the whole enthrallment trip, if you see what I mean.Then I opened Rolling Stone, and I felt as though I had joined the New Couple at their table or something.

Every Rolling Stone cover story reads like a New Couple conversation; the enthrallment level hits the red zone about two paragraphs in and just keeps rising.Obviously the editors won't choose someone they think sucks for the cover, and obviously they don't want to trash their cover subjects.Hey, man, I understand the subtle synergies of print journalism.After a couple of pages, though, the mesmerized prose slathered like cupcake frosting all over the anointed one sends me into cross-eyed sugar shock.

Take the recent RS profile of Jewel, for instance.Paramedics had to administer insulin by the time I finished reading it.Jewel has blonde hair, firm breasts, and a supple singing voice, and MTV has played her video so often that the tape melted and Jewel never has to work another day in her life.These attributes inspired Rolling Stone to publish a paean to Jewel so bewitched, so loving and admiring, so utterly lacking in critical distance that for a moment I thought I had picked up a fanzine by mistake. Jewel's kooky childhood on a farm in Alaska.Jewel's tumultuous upbringing as a product of a broken home.Jewel's rocky road to fame. Jewel's "luminous beauty."Jewel's easy rapport with her audience.Jewel's down-to-earth aura.Jewel's sparkly, flaky, scented-candle insights on life and love and art.Rolling Stone would have us believe that, because Jewel did not have the luxury of indoor plumbing during her formative years, lived out of a van for awhile, and read The Fountainhead a few too many times, she has a soulful depth that pop artists with flush toilets lack.

Rolling Stone published this cutesy-poo-fest in the same issue with the self-important, falsely authoritative "Rolling Stone 200, " billed as a "definitive list of the essential rock CDs."This gratuitous barrage of music-scenester blabbering served not only to state the obvious (um, most of us have already heard of Jimi Hendrix) and to induce — unintentionally, I fear — gales of hysterical laughter (Don Henley.Enough said), but also to indulge the expository histrionics of the writing staff.Drunk on the sweet mead of irrelevancy, an RS prole gushed about Joy Division's "Closer" album: "The withering chill of personal isolation found a warm body to inhabit, albeit briefly, in Joy Division's leader, Ian Curtis."Oh, my.Another Rolling Stoner, raving about PJ Harvey's "Dry," took the curve a little too fast with the following description of Harvey's "guilt-laden rage that is channeled through whispering, moaning and shrieking vocals over a roar of arty, flailing dissonance.""Arty, flailing dissonance.""Arty, flailing dissonance."You know how, when you repeat a word or words a bunch of times, they stop making sense and start sounding bizarre and meaningless?The same concept applies here — except that "arty, flailing dissonance" didn't make sense in the first place.Neither did printing a list of albums that fosters a false sense of coolness in the average reader, since the average reader owns at least one or two of the 200.

The next issue that arrived in my mailbox featured U2 on the cover and an all-star tribute to Allen Ginsberg inside.(A quick aside: yes, I subscribe to Rolling Stone.I won the subscription in a drawing.I don't plan to continue it once it ends.)Once again, the composition distinguished itself by swooning full-length at the feet of its subject.The resulting woozy mash note, studded with photos of Bono and his tiresomely groovy yellow sunglasses, chronicles U2's latest blitzkrieg of Very Serious Social Commentary with nary a whiff of irony.In this respect, at least, the writer managed a successful marriage of tone and content; U2's own so-called irony tends to fall flat in the face of their consistently pretentious presentation.I confess that I couldn't bring myself to finish the article, so neutral analysis may have cropped up somewhere.I doubt it, though, somehow.

Next came the Allen Ginsberg memorial section.I myself don't much like Ginsberg's work; my taste runs more to the tighter control of Bishop or Auden.Still, Ginsberg had an undeniable effect on American poetry and culture, and Rolling Stone's decision to poll musicians on their memories of and thoughts about Ginsberg showed real insight.It seemed like RS could redeem itself, and tapping Mikal Gilmore to write the profile didn't hurt their chances.Gilmore, brother of the late notorious death-row agitator Gary Gilmore, has a smooth and seamless writing style, and he rolled the highlight film of Beat apocrypha without any gee-whiz editorializing.The usual suspects lined up to remember Allen: Corso and Burroughs and Ferlinghetti; Gary Snyder and Ken Kesey; a host of refugees from psychedelia and Studio 54.They even got Kurt Vonnegut to play it straight for a few minutes, not an easy feat.But I don't quite understand what Yoko Ono had to add to the discussion, since she hasn't added much to any discussion in anyone's memory, and I certainly don't understand why Ethan Hawke participated.At least Yoko knew Ginsberg personally, unlike Mr. I Have An Actor's Body But A Poet's Soul, who only saw Ginsberg read, which anyone under the age of seventy could have done because Ginsberg gave readings compulsively, so you can color me unimpressed with the Hawkester.

Anyway, on the whole, Rolling Stone acquitted themselves well with the Ginsberg tribute, both in idea and in execution.The piece worked because they selected a worthy subject (for a change), assigned a capable professional to the piece (for a change), and didn't let the glare of celebrity blind them (for a change).Most of the time, Rolling Stone offers not straightforward reporting on the music industry but a transcript from a smoky dorm room full of nineteen-year-olds listening to "The Basement Tapes," smoking schwag pot and drinking warm Chianti out of paper cups, and throwing around words like "postmodern" and "seminal" and telling each other that Dylan represents this century's only prophet.A few years ago, I too slumped on the ratty couch of a friend, toking the aforementioned schwag and slinging the aforementioned bullshit.I outgrew it.And unless Rolling Stone wants P.J. O'Rourke to write the entire magazine, they need to outgrow it too.

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