Longtime Rolling Stone writer Neal Karlen has attacked Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner in a new book.
In an early passage, Mr. Karlen writes: “Jann, Dick Clark’s evil twin in charting the eternal youthquake, was famous for wet-kissing his friends in print. One would think that Michael Douglas, Jann’s longtime pal and social ladder to the stars, was the finest actor since Edwin Booth by the number of times he’s been on the cover.” He also calls him a “publisher who fancied himself William Randolph Hearst, but more closely resembled the rich kid bully at camp who wouldn’t share his foot locker full of candy unless you did his chores on the job wheel.”
The rants come as part of Slouching Toward Fargo: A Two-Year Saga of Sinners and St. Paul Saints at the Bottom of the Bush Leagues With Bill Murray, Darryl Strawberry, Dakota Sadie and Me (Avon Books).
Reached at his home in Minneapolis, Mr. Karlen did not sound so certain that he had done the right thing in going after Mr. Wenner like that. “It’s clearly a betrayal,” he said. “It’s terrible karma and not very good business to go after a publisher.” But later Mr. Karlen changed his mind: “I don’t feel like I betrayed Jann,” he said. “He’s a subject. He’s an entity.”
Simmering beneath Mr. Karlen’s attack on Mr. Wenner is his own disgust with himself for the years he put in as a celebrity journalist at Rolling Stone .
The book starts with his reluctantly accepting an assignment from the magazine to write about the St. Paul Saints, a Northern League team partly owned by actor Bill Murray. But Mr. Karlen claims the assignment came with a price: “Dirt is what Jann Wenner was paying me $7,500 and expenses for this one story. Wenner’s instructions after my midsummer report to my long-suffering editor were simple: If I wanted to get this story and myself back into Rolling Stone , I had to show him ‘Bill Murray driving the Saints’ team bus while Darryl Strawberry is freebasing crack in the backseat.’”
Why would Mr. Wenner want Bill Murray “carved,” as he puts it in the book? “Wenner-word had it in the Rolling Stone hallways during the years I wrote for them-had never forgiven Murray for his starring role as Dr. Hunter S. Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam , a 1980 cult classic wherein a thinly veiled Jann Wenner, played with a padded butt by Bruno Kirby, was hilariously and accurately savaged and ridiculed by Murray as a cheap corporate bastard who wouldn’t pay his writers their expense money.”
Mr. Karlen writes that accepting the “new demand to hatchet Murray” didn’t make him feel great, but he figured he could do the job. “But like most reporters,” he writes, “I instead worked that ethically ambiguous area in the middle, the land of spin, selective quotes, unnamed sources, and half-truths made certain only by ink upon paper, black upon white.”
A Wenner Media spokesman forwarded the book to Mr. Wenner, but hadn’t heard anything from him by deadline.
Mr. Karlen become a Rolling Stone writer at the age of 26, in 1986. Four years later, he moved back to his hometown of Minneapolis, after being mugged and going “temporarily nuts.” He went back to Mr. Wenner in 1994: “Wenner Communications promised me $7,500 if I could be the first reporter to find and interview Courtney Love after her husband, Kurt Cobain, blew his head off. It was heinous work, exactly what I vowed never to do again.”
At least Mr. Karlen has the good sense to show that he was a willing participant in the game of celebrity journalism, rather than its victim. After all, he didn’t just write hatchet jobs; in fact, he wrote one of the most notorious puff jobs in Rolling Stone history, the 1985 cover story on the movie Perfect , in which John Travolta played a Rolling Stone reporter and Jann Wenner played himself (“his own favorite person,” as Mr. Karlen puts it).
“The project resulted in unbelievable on-screen leakage of Hollywood chutzpah, media vanity, and Jann’s bullshit,” he writes. “Even though the film was universally lampooned as a disaster, Jann put Perfect on me, the new recruit. My job was to do the dirty work of typing that here was a terrific movie that fully deserved this Rolling Stone cover. So I wasn’t exactly an innocent …”
Mr. Karlen feels his greatest journalistic sin-and perhaps his greatest hit-was a piece he wrote for Rolling Stone in 1986 called “Bad Nose Bees.” It was about the San Jose Bees, a minor league outfit that had among its players the on-again, off-again cocaine addict, Steve Howe. This is his confession, taken from the book: “I bought everybody drinks and slept on a greasy mat alongside three of the Bees in a windowless room underneath the stadium, smoked dope with half the team, and took notes outside Fresno and Bakersfield motel rooms where the players whored away their meager paychecks. Then I completely betrayed the team in print, savaging the Bees and Steve Howe with all the confidences I’d milked from them in the middle of the darkest nights of their souls. My guilt when Rolling Stone ran the story was overwhelming, but my treason proved to be a smash with my editors.”
Rolling Stone features editor Will Dana said he assigned Mr. Karlen the piece on the St. Paul Saints thinking it would be a nice reprise of “Bad Nose Bees.” The writer says in the book that he was “told by Wenner via my editor” that “one mistake … and fry Darryl’s ass. If he’s doing drugs of fucking around, our readers want to see it.” Eventually, Mr. Karlen decided, as he writes in Slouching Toward Fargo : “I couldn’t do this. There would be no more inner discussions of my perilous finances or wish to see my name again in Rolling Stone . I hadn’t grown into a weenie; I’d grown up.”
Mr. Karlen’s self-hating stridency has taken his old colleagues at Rolling Stone by surprise. For one thing, they never saw him as a writer of hatchet jobs. During his tenure there, he was “very facile-very entertaining and competent at a very high level,” said one editor. Another said: “He wasn’t going to be tough on someone in print.” Mr. Dana denied that Mr. Karlen was supposed to “carve” Mr. Murray and Mr. Strawberry with the piece.
Mr. Wenner still seems to loom large in Mr. Karlen’s mind. Over the phone, he described him as “a daddy, but a scary daddy for a lot of people.”
He was asked if he was ever really a writer of nasty pieces, and he mentioned an article he wrote for Spy on publicist Peggy Siegel and another on fiction writer and instructor Gordon Lish for GQ . (Yes, those articles were pretty tough.)
“Editors love that shit,” Mr. Karlen said. “I think it’s karmically bad, even though it’s your fastest way of getting ahead.”
Culture clash at Details : The magazine’s new editor Mark Golin, who is a regular guy and proud of it, has not been getting along with longtime Details contributor Glenn O’Brien, who knew Andy Warhol. So when Mr. O’Brien’s contract with the magazine was up this month, the editor decided not to renew.
Mr. O’Brien wrote the Style Guy column for the Condé Nast men’s monthly. On June 8, he sent Mr. Golin a letter saying he had filed a trademark application for the name “Style Guy”-so the magazine couldn’t use it anymore.
Mr. Golin said he wasn’t going to fight. “I suppose if I was some major league rat bastard I could send a bunch of vulture-like lawyers after him,” he said. “I would hope I would be able to have enough brain cells left to come up with something equally as clever as ‘Style Guy.’ So no hard feelings.”
Mr. O’Brien said he needed the trademark because he has a Style Guy book coming out in January and might want to revive the column elsewhere. (It should be noted, however, that the magazine’s corporate parent, Advance Publications, filed for a “Style Guy” trademark in November 1998, months before Mr. Golin took over Details .)
Let’s go back two and a half years and three editors ago, to the day when editor Joe Dolce had a brainstorm that was perhaps typical of his era of Details : “He wanted to start an advice column,” said Mr. O’Brien. “The idea was that gay guys knew things that straight guys didn’t.” Mr. Dolce’s working title was “Your Gay Friend,” but Mr. O’Brien-who got the job of writing the column-is straight. So they settled on Style Guy.
Mr. O’Brien has so much downtown cred that he wrote the music column for Interview from 1978 to 1990 and still writes a column for Paper magazine. He spends his summers with ex- Details editor, and current Condé Nast editorial director, James Truman, and is very much a guiding force ofthe cultural impetus-rock ‘n’ roll-meets-fashion-that fueled Details during its Truman years. So it’s not surprising that he clashed somewhat with the babes-and-beer esthetic Mr. Golin is bringing over from Maxim .
“My first column that went to Mark Golin, he kind of stuck a lot of tasteless jokes in it,” Mr. O’Brien said. “As if he had a right to do that! I did some work on it and it went through without any changes.”
Of the decision to not renew Mr. O’Brien’s contract, Mr. Golin said: “I want to make sure the tone is consistent throughout. His humor was more mature, not quite as off the cuff.… He has a gentleman’s wit. I’m not exactly a gentleman. I hope to be one someday.”
For his final column-see it in the August issue-Mr. O’Brien wrote about etiquette for houseguests. “I was thinking about him when I wrote it,” said the writer. “I said you should always make sure you flush the toilet.”
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