The Writer Who Saved Rolling Stone

Hunter Thompson made a “solemn promise to sell his soul to Rolling Stone.”

From Joe Hagan’s new book Sticky Fingers—The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine:

In August 1970, he [Jann Wenner] and Jane [Wenner’s wife], gunning to recruit [Hunter] Thompson, came driving up the dirt path to Thompson’s cabin in Woody Creek, Colorado, both tweaking on speed after driving seventeen hours straight from 38 Ord Court. “We were trying to take a rest in the car.” said Jane. “I said, thank God for drugs.”

Thompson and his wife gave the Wenners the grand tour—the Hotel Jerome and his gun collection and menacing Doberman pinschers—and for a week Wenner and Thompson, lubricated with dope and acid, plotted their future together. (The first idea was to send Thompson to Vietnam.) Thompson had a bottomless need for attention, and who better than Jann Wenner to provide it, what with his upward-looking thousand-watt grin and wide-screen ambitions? Together, they were an amusing sight, the ambling beanpole with cigarette holder akimbo and the squat pole climber Jann Wenner. “They looked like Laurel and Hardy,” said Ralph Steadman. . . .

Thompson, of course, painted the whole affair as a Faustian bargain, but one in which Mephistopheles—Jann Wenner—would ultimately lose. He made a “solemn promise to sell his soul to Rolling Stone and then with a twinkle in his eye buy it back,” Steadman recalled later. “Fuck them, Ralph! Even the devil has to pay!! I have tapped into a rich, greedy vein, and I will milk it like a terminal heroin addict.”

But while Thompson was using Wenner, he acknowledged the excellence of the instrument. Thompson saw Wenner’s ambition as the perfect analogue of his own. “What a fuckin’ editor,” he told Steadman. “He’s crazy, but he’s got a dream. He wants to be a big editor like. . .Hugh Hefner.” Indeed, this was a rare and ‘cosmically preordained” marriage. Thompson needed ample attention and freedom, Wenner a new blueprint for Rolling Stone. “I wasn’t consciously looking for Hunter to be the next big thing,” said Wenner. “We sparked as we saw each other as kindred spirits.”

Thompson and Wenner were both cynics—different species, same genus. They were both children of the 1960s who didn’t fully believe in revolution, both of them voyeurs, hedonists, and gleeful substance abusers. And they were both users of other people, which bound them in balanced symbiosis, each certain he was getting the better of the other. . . .

The reinvention of Rolling Stone around Hunter Thompson would be nearly as important as the invention of the newspaper itself. Had Thompson never come along, Rolling Stone might have survived as a rock-and-roll trade  paper, but instead it was about to become the most adventurous and ambitious newspaper-cum-magazine of the 1970s. . . .For the next several years, Wenner’s identity would be wrapped up in the image he saw in Thompson’s warped aviators—the sunglasses that Thompson would call, in the most famous piece of writing he would ever publish in Rolling Stone, “Sandy Bull’s Saigon-mirror shades.”

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