"I remember, when I got hired at Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner called me into his office, and he was bein' such a jerk, tryin' to intimidate me. But you know, things go best when you have a real kamikaze attitude about stuff. I said, you know me, you know my background. And I asked him what his favorite albums were, y'know, like, his favorite Stones album, his favorite Dusty Springfield album. So he hired me—but as an editor. he said, "We don't need a staff writers." I said I don't know, I want to do both; I'll edit during the day and I'll write at night.
"He's no dope. He saw how hungry I as. And every single issue in the four years I was there, I edited and assigned articles in the same issue in which I wrote something. I exhausted Rolling Stone, and it exhausted me."
But not so much that Timothy White can't laugh about it today. White was a top thoroughbred in RS's stable of writers between 1979 and '82, writing some 20 cover stories; since leaving the employ of Wenner, the magazine's notorious owner/taskmaster, he has written occasionally for the New York Times Magazine, and he has entered the promised land of magazine writers everywhere—he's turned to writing books. One was the well-received biography of Bob Marley, Catch a Fire; another is the sumptuous new Rock Stars, an "art book" with a difference, which White was promoting when he dropped by our office. (The difference is that, unlike the usual testaments to vapid taste, Rock Stars does more than merely weigh down the coffee table. It contains more than 80,000 words of White's text among the often startling photos.)
White—who, at 32, shows a natural boyishness that's further enhanced by his characteristic bow tie, sleeveless sweater, and white bucks—already has his next three books planned. first up is a rather unusual social history of southern California, and we'd guess the writing of it will yield some great stories. But we doubt they'll top the anecdotes White has already amassed—most of them about the hippie generation's answer to Life magazine, Rolling Stone.
White actually began his journalism exploits while attending a "wacked-out experimental college that was part of Fordham University, called Bensalem. It was named after this island in Francis Bacon's New Atlantis, that these guys were shipwrecked on—so you know this has gotta be the fuckin' 60s." He also had a low-level job on the sports desk at Associated Press in New York, where he felt the need to "do somethin' cool" to advance his career; so he phonied up a press pass and managed to score a daylong interview with Muhammad Ali, sequestered in his training camp before his bout with George Foreman in Zaire. In White's words, "I was just a sports clerk"—but one of these exclusive piece on the champ spattered on the front pages of Sunday sports sections around the country. "I think Ali knew I was this young kid lookin' for a leg up, and he gave it to me."
White was soon writing and editing at Crawdaddy—he had decided he wasn't yet ready for RS, which he idolized—but three years later, he stopped gathering moss and went to work for Wenner. "Those were the glory days when the place was still a clubhouse, and we all fucked around totally, and the place was nuts," said White, whose voice sounds always on the edge of laughter.
"One of the secrets of Rolling Stone was to keep Jann away from the writers. I mean, Jann is a brilliant guy, but he's also a bully. As Hunter Thompson put it, " a cruel bully and editor, guilty of inspiration in both areas.' Wenner was a head case when I began, and a head case when I left, but to this day, I loved having the guy in my life. He was a great motivator: he makes you say, 'I'll show him,' and you do."
For example: "Two weeks after I was hired there was this editorial meeting, and everybody was there—the great, the near-great, what Jann would call the ingrates—all facing Jann at this big wooden table, and he was humiliating everybody, goin' for their weakness. He was cussin' everybody out. He was sayin' to David Felton, who had won a national magazine award a few years before for the Manson reportage, he was sayin', "And Felton, you bag of shit, you've been saying you're gonna get me a Johnny Carson interview for like seven years, and where the fuck is it?"
"Well, I'd been working for two years to get an interview with Carson. So I raised my hand and said, 'Excuse me, I talked to Johnny Carson a week or so ago.' And things got real quiet. Wenner looked at me and glared. And we were off and running. With a man like that, when you just have a little power over your own situation, he doesn't go for it."
Then there was the time RS decided to do a story on Billy Joel, who had been regularly panned in the magazine's pages. White, who'd interviewed him for Crawdaddy, was dispatched as goodwill emissary; Joel claimed to carry no grudge against RS, but begged off because of personal problems.
"I came back to the office," White continued, "and they said, 'Man, we don't have anything for the cover.' Now a lot of times you were made to feel that your job was on the line. So I had to jump on a plane to Detroit, where Joel had gone for a concert, on two hours notice. I had no tickets to the concert, I had to sneak past the Detroit cops; I paid a cabdriver a $50 tip to jump two median strips, to get me to the arena on time. I snuck in, I hid under trucks and behind semis and things, and I got filthy, 'cause I was looking for Billy Joel in the bowels of this arena. The glamour of being a Rolling Stone reporter."
As it turned out, White found the singer, pled his case, and Joel relented. "After the show, I went to his hotel room, and he had two bottles of Johnnie Walker Red Label, and a big bucket of ice. I don't drink hard liquor, and I said that. And he said, 'You're really too much. After all this crap, you don't drink liquor—well, I don't do interviews.' And he poured a full glass of scotch into a water glass, and he made me drink the thing down, before we started the interview." Interview finished, White flew to New York, frantically transcribed the tapes, wrote an introduction to it, and saved that issue of RS—although one person was less than impressed. "Was I a hero?" White asked us, rhetorically. "To Wenner? Forget it. The day after we went to press he was pissed off because I didn't come in."
Last week, when chronicling the initial salvos in the First Wingo War—WW I—we didn't have space to tell you the remarkable tale of a surviving victim of that conflict. His name is Lloyd Greene, but for the purposes of our analogy, let him remain the Unknown Soldier.Greene, who is 60, works for the Sun-Times, where he is regarded by his peers as a good rewrite man and copy editor. But Greene no longer performs those functions; these days, his main and essentially only task is to prepare page 5 for each day's editions of the Chicago tabloid. Lloyd Greene is the man who gets the day's Wingo news from the paper's promotions department and then turns it into copy. He is the man who writes Wingo.
For his efforts—and remember, this is all they're asking him to do—the paper's management pays Greene more than $40,000 a year (in accordance with the Chicago Newspaper Guild's contractual provision for employees of more than five years' service). You might think that some of his fellow editorial employees—who are overwhelmingly unimpressed with the paper's treatment of Wingo—would resent what has turned into a cushy deal for Greene. Actually, it's just the opposite. As one Sun-Timesman explained, "Lloyd is looked on with respect, like a martyr. As long as he's writing the Wingo page, it means that none of us will be asked to do it." Or, in the words of another media-watcher: "It's the great journalistic equivalent of diving on a live hand grenade."
And now that the Sun-Times has lost columnists Royko and Simon, Greene's odes to Wingo are often the most entertaining pieces in the front part of the paper (except, of course, for Patrick Buchanan's laughable op-ed ravings). In fact, we'd like to see the Wingo columns collected into an anthology at some future date. The title? What else but Tome of the Unknown Soldier
Our Man in NY
We hate to brag, but facts is facts. So today we bring you the news that Reader film critic Dave Kehr has been named to the selection committee of the New York Film Festival—the second oldest such affair in America, and widely considered one of the most prestigious in the world.
This is no small responsibility—last year, the NYFF drew some 55,000 filmgoers—and Kehr proved his usual effusive self on the subject. Are you excited? we asked with excitement. He nodded and smiled sagely.
Small wonder. The 25 or so films that each year make up the NYFF are selected by a committee of only two permanent members and three others, each of whom serves a three-year term. Kehr's predecessors on the committee have been such noted critics as Susan Sontag and Andrew Sarris, his associates will include Molly Haskell (formerly of the Village Voice, now film critic for Vogue) and Richard Corliss (of Time). And, you'll be interested to know, in 22 years the NYFF has been moved only four times to appoint a non-New Yorker to the selection committee; Kehr is number five, and the first from Chicago.
Actually, when it comes to something like this, we don't hate to brag after all.