Why the ex-Rolling Stone publisher’s response to HootieGate was total nonsense
Recently, Bruce Springsteen and Jann Wenner had a public gab session at the 92nd Street Y, a long-respected site for cultural and critical discourse in New York City.
During this chat, Mr. Springsteen asked Mr. Wenner, “I heard you once fired a writer for writing a negative review of a Hootie & the Blowfish album…Were you that wild-eyed a fan of the Blowfish?”
Rather than simply answer Mr. Springsteen’s question, Mr. Wenner then sprayed the audience with a confusing, obfuscating and inaccurate array of yesses, no’s, facts and fiction. It was as if someone asked you if you wanted your bagel toasted or not and you said, “Yes, no! James Madison, now, he was a helluva Prime Minister!”
This is a subject I know a little about (Hootie, that is, not James Madison), since I am fairly connected to the Hootie story; I was once an A&R person, and I signed Hootie & the Blowfish to Atlantic Records in 1993. Roughly 29 years later, I wrote a pretty deep book about the band (Only Wanna Be With You: The Inside Story of Hootie & the Blowfish, a book you will like more than you think you will, I promise).
For better or worse, it is entirely possible that when I commence the 49-day voyage in the Bardos between death and rebirth, my obituary will prominently say that I discovered Hootie & the Blowfish, which is neither entirely accurate nor inaccurate. It may also say that, according to John Lydon, I tried to get him to go to the zoo with Kurt Cobain. Likewise, this is not entirely accurate nor inaccurate, though who am I to argue with John Lydon? But this is neither here nor there.
As stated, Bruce Springsteen and Jann Wenner were doing a thing at the 92nd Street Y. Apparently, Noam Chomsky and Fran Leibowitz weren’t available. Also, have you noticed that for the last few decades – really, since The River – in every picture of Bruce Springsteen, he has an expression on his face like he’s trying to decide whether he wants the soup or the salad? Seriously, look and tell me I’m wrong. Okay, back to 92nd Street Y. Since I got a wee bit off track, I’m going to repeat the question Mr. Springsteen asked Mr. Wenner. (Also, as a profound fan of Neu! and Hawkwind, one can say repetition is my spirit animal.) “I heard you once fired a writer for writing a negative review of a Hootie & the Blowfish album. Were you that wild-eyed a fan of the Blowfish?”
It’s a fairly straightforward question, actually, requiring only the most basic recall of facts to respond. But Mr. Wenner stammered and searched for an answer; he is not interested in accuracy, but only in giving the response he thinks Mr. Springsteen wants to hear. “At the time, [Hootie] were intensely popular,” Wenner told the crowd (according to The New York Post, a paper I haven’t read since Melba Tolliver was regularly on TV, and I say that with enormous, genuine respect for the groundbreaking Ms. Tolliver). “And I said, ‘That is the wrong attitude here. They deserved it, they were huge!’ Now, in retrospect, maybe I was right. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe she was right!” Wenner also referred to the staffer who was fired as a “then-temporary music editor.”
First of all, what the holy hell does that answer mean? Secondly, here are the most basic facts: The editor in question wasn’t a “she,” wasn’t “temporary” and wasn’t fired because they wrote a negative review of Hootie. So, like, wrong, wrong, wrong.
I have written about this incident at length in my book, but here’s the short version:
When Hootie’s second album, Fairweather Johnson, was released in mid-spring 1996, Jim DeRogatis, a he, was a senior editor at Rolling Stone (and most definitely not a temporary editor). Jim searched long and hard for someone to review the Hootie record, but he found no takers; that’s because, according to Jim, reviewing a high-profile new release from a blockbuster act was a thankless task at Rolling Stone. As Jim said in my book, “Thou shall not disturb the flow of commerce. Now, you can give a bad review to the Melvins’ record or any number of albums that weren’t big sellers, but you could not give a bad review to something that’s selling. So no one wanted to do the Hootie record.”
Finding no one else to review Fairweather, Jim took on the job himself. Jim handed in a smart, somewhat snarky review that was, for the most part, fair, fun and perceptive. I’ve read Jim’s original review, and as someone who was both a friend of the band and involved in the making of the somewhat overwrought and overlong Fairweather Johnson, I have no problem with it whatsoever. Jann Wenner didn’t like Jim’s review of Fairweather Johnson one bit, so he chose not to run it (replacing it with a far-less colorful, positive assessment of the record).
Let’s make this explicitly clear: Wenner did not fire Jim Derogatis because he wrote a negative review of Hootie & the Blowfish. Absolutely not. Jim DeRogatis was fired after he talked to the New York Observer about the whole kerfuffle. When Observer reporter Carl Swanson heard about the shit-canning of Jim’s original review, he reached out to Jim for a comment. “I get this call at home from this New York Observer reporter who says they’re doing this story about the Hootie review being killed [Jim said in my surprisingly fascinating book]. And I say, firmly, ‘I can’t talk to you.’ And the Observer reporter says, ‘Well we have the whole story already, we just want a comment from you.’ I say, again, ‘I really can’t talk to you.’ And the Observer writer says, on the third attempt, ‘Answer me one question. Is Jann Wenner a Hootie fan?’ And I say, ‘That son of a bitch is a fan of anything that sells eight-and-a-half million copies.’”
Jann Wenner blew a grapefruit-sized gasket when he saw Jim’s quote in the Observer, and that’s when he fired DeRogatis. Jim wasn’t fired because he wrote a bad review, but because he made a snappy comment to the press about Wenner.
Oh, to further muddy up the already-murky waters of fact and reality, Wenner also told Springsteen and the 92nd Street Y audience that this same naughty staffer told him [Wenner] that their “proudest achievement” was keeping the Hootie & the Blowfish off the cover of Rolling Stone. Now, the problem with that statement is that Hootie were on the cover of Rolling Stone (in August of 1995). So, Jann’s cognitive Hot Wheels have really spun off the track here; neither Jim (nor any editor) could take any damn pride in keeping Hootie off the cover of the magazine, since Hootie were most definitely on the cover. Wenner is just making stuff up here, for Baal knows what reason.
So there’s that. But I also want to say this, and it’s damn important:
First: What is most disturbing about Wenner’s babbled response to Springsteen’s relatively simple query is not the weird, tumbling, contradictory recollections about DeRogatis, or even his bizarre confusion about Jim’s gender. It’s the bit when Wenner covers all his cultural bases/biases and says, “In retrospect, maybe I was right. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe she [sic] was right.” What is happening here? Jann Wenner, an extremely well-respected 76-year-old man with enough money to wrap an entire levee protection system around the island of Hispaniola, appears to go into an utter panic when he thinks that Bruce Springsteen or someone out there in the 92nd Street Y audience might think he once liked Hootie & the Blowfish.
But who knows, maybe he should say he likes them? After all, Darius Rucker is still really famous (you can almost see the gears turning in Jann’s head). Wenner is one of the most respected figures in the history of rock journalism, yet he goes into a flop-sweat panic when someone asks him a simple goddamn question regarding whether he liked an artist or not. Aren’t we all too bloody old to look over our shoulder when someone asks us if we like a fucking pop record or not? When I was 16, I was too cool to like amazing bands like Boston or Van Halen. This is a form of idiocy common to 16-year-olds, and is forgivable. It is not forgivable in a 76-year-old man who is looked upon as one of the definitive authorities on the genre of rock’n’roll.
Secondly: For his extraordinary work uncovering, identifying, and exposing the obscene crimes of R. Kelly, Jim DeRogatis is an American hero. I can think of virtually no other music journalists those words can be applied to. So, Jim is the winner here; or rather, all the young women who won’t get abused by R. Kelly in the future because of the work Jim did are the winners.
Jim’s achievements, and the grace of his research, courage, and reportage, transcend any confusing nonsense Jann Wenner whelps out.
VIDEO: Jann Wenner in Conversation with Bruce Springsteen at 92nd St. Y