When I got to Rolling Stone, the party was over. I turned up just in time to see a cigarette floating in the last cocktail of the night. It was 1993, and I was in my mid-20s. I went on the road with the Rolling Stones, but they were cranky and old, bickering with reporters who called them the Strolling Bones. I hung out with Hunter S. Thompson in Woody Creek, Colorado, but he’d hurt his back and broken his leg and seemed ancient, drugged, and boozy, lost in a visionary delirium. Rolling Stone, co-founded by Jann Wenner in 1967, had chronicled Woodstock and Altamont and everything else, but now appeared to have just one story left to tell—its own.
Wenner asked me to write that story, which would also be his autobiography, given the entwinement of his life and the life of his magazine. I would be a ghost. I said no, because how do you capture the voice of a person who stammers and vents, follows tangents, does not seem to know his own mind, loves but does not always appear to like himself?
The project continued without me, first with one ghostwriter, then with two, then with at least one ghostwriter and an editor, before it landed in the ditch where I came across it 15 or so years later. Wenner’s agent said the book was finished but needed punching up—would I do that? I said yes. The “manuscript” I was sent turned out to be a few chapters that took Wenner into high school. I backed out again. Wenner approached me a third time. Now I was to be not his ghost but his biographer. We met at the 21 Club in Manhattan. I had a list of conditions. I wanted freedom, feeling that his need for control was what had wrecked the previous attempts. To my surprise, he agreed. I wrote a proposal, which was submitted to publishers. I was offered more money than I had ever seen. I imagined it in a stack, or else in a briefcase, handed to me on a park bench. When Wenner learned the terms of the deal, he backed out. I won’t go into the unpleasant particulars. Suffice it to say that the problem lay in whether he would be portrayed as he saw himself, or as he was seen by others.
I was relieved. The thought of spending years tangled in the details of his life, his neuroses, was almost more than I could bear. The money had fogged my mind for a moment. I have one artifact of that experience, a picture taken by my wife minutes after my agent called to say “They’ve countered the counteroffer” as the bidding for the book intensified. I’m riding the carousel in Central Park, grinning. Coming across the photo now, I think, Look at that fool! He believes himself to be a millionaire.