An excerpt from Tim Sommer’s acclaimed book Only Wanna Be With You
In 1996, there was a very public conflict involving then-Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, credible and very well-liked music journalist Jim DeRogatis and the pop rock band Hootie & the Blowfish, who were, at the time, the biggest band in America.
Now that Wenner is very, very much in the news, we would like to revisit this extraordinary incident where credibility, commercial success and the ego of a publishing legend collided.
The following is excerpted from a chapter in Only Wanna Be With You: The Inside Story of Hootie & the Blowfish, a book written by Tim Sommer, a frequent contributor to The Rock & Roll Globe.
The book was originally published in May of 2022. We note that Mr. Sommer had a personal and business relationship with the band – he signed them to Atlantic Records in 1993, as detailed in the book – and this is reflected in the following excerpt.
Sommer was also a friend of Mr. DeRogatis, from the days when they would often drink pints of John Courage together at Maxwell’s in Hoboken in the 1980s.
The full book can be purchased at The Book House.
Adapted and excerpted with permission from I Only Wanna Be with You: The Inside Story of Hootie and the Blowfish. Copyright Tim Sommer and published by University of South Carolina Press.
Fairweather Johnson, the second album by Hootie & the Blowfish, was released on April 23, 1996. It entered the Billboard charts at #1, replacing another mega-seller of the mid-1990s, Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. The album also sold 400,000 copies in its first week, an extremely impressive number. The very same week, cracked rear view, the debut album by Hootie, was at #21 in Billboard.
There was probably no time when Hootie & the Blowfish were more visible in America’s consciousness than these weeks in late April and early May 1996. The band had two hit albums, three visible and active singles, a full slate of talk show appearances, and a pile of other tracks still bopping around on radio and MTV/VH-1 almost constantly. The band were everywhere, an almost constant grace note in the American experience, in a way that so very, very few pop artists ever achieve.
Something else came along with being the biggest band in America: A backlash of enormous proportions. This was to be expected. To the vast majority of American music fans, Hootie had come out of virtually nowhere, and within a remarkably short space of time, they were everywhere. The reality of who Hootie & the Blowfish were, how long they had toiled (by 1996, the band had been playing for 11 years), and the credible influences that actually formed them barely mattered to these naysayers. If you didn’t know about the band’s deep college roots and the pointed lyrics about race tucked within some of their most famous songs, you might believe that Hootie & the Blowfish was some corporate plot to invent the anti-Nirvana.
“Death to Hootie!” Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails proclaimed in the pages of Rolling Stone magazine. Reznor’s big problem with Hootie, according to the same interview, was that they were “safe” and “legitimate.” Around this same time, Marilyn Manson said that, “Blaming me for what my fans do is like blaming Hootie and the Blowfish for making your life completely boring.”
I get it. As someone who grew up treating anything mainstream with profound aversion and suspicion, I understand why your average, alternative-inclined fan might have a negative reaction to anything as popular and as visible as Hootie & the Blowfish were in 1995, ’96, and ’97. And true, most of America couldn’t know the band as well as I did. My insider knowledge allowed me to know that Hootie & the Blowfish were more creatively honest and emotionally and politically complicated than 99% of the people who criticized them.
Shortly after the release of Fairweather Johnson, an event occurred that served as a major focal point for people’s resentment at Hootie’s mainstream status. This came in the form of a loud and public donnybrook inside—and outside—the pages of Rolling Stone magazine.
Today, Jim DeRogatis is one of the most respected music journalists in America. He is largely credited with breaking the story about the profound sex abuse committed by rapper R. Kelly (which he exposed in a series of pieces in The Chicago Sun Times, in late 2000), and he has a long history of articulate and important support of groundbreaking alternative acts. In 1996, DeRogatis was a well-liked senior editor at Rolling Stone magazine. He explained to me that when Fairweather Johnson was released, no one at Rolling Stone wanted to review it, even before anyone had heard the album. According to DeRogatis, this was because every writer and editor believed that with Rolling Stone, there was no room for genuine subjectivity, actual commentary, or critical nuance when talking about an artist as successful as Hootie & the Blowfish.
“Thou shall not disturb the flow of commerce,” DeRogatis says, describing what was perceived as the prevalent philosophy of Rolling Stone’s record review section at the time. “Now, you can give a bad review to the Melvins’ record or any number of other albums that aren’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.”
When every journalist he reached out to turned him down, DeRogatis decided to handle it himself. DeRogatis then handed in a fairly deep, witty, negative-leaning (but not too negative) review of Fairweather Johnson, with a few choice barbs directed at the mainstream appeal of the band. Undeniably, the review had an overall snarky tone. DeRogatis said that Darius Rucker sounded like “Eddie Vedder imitating Otis Redding,” the lyrics “reek of Hallmark-card sentimentality,” and asserted that Peter Holsapple only joined the band for the health insurance. True, DeRogatis does get in some funny slams (for instance, insinuating that Hootie fans consider “Bud Lite a psychedelic drug”); yet by consistently comparing Hootie to a respected and long-lasting outfit like the Grateful Dead (something DeRogatis does throughout the review), he at least accords them a certain amount of respect.
When he saw the review, Jann Wenner, the legendary founder and editor-in-chief of Rolling Stone, completely flipped out. He refused to run DeRogatis’ piece and immediately replaced it with a far less interesting review by Elysa Gardner (which, curiously, wasn’t that much more positive; I have read both reviews and say, without any doubt that DeRogatis’ initial review would have made me more interested in hearing Fairweather Johnson than the second, supposedly more positive review). That would have probably been that, except that in the immediate wake of his rejected review of Fairweather Johnson, Jann Wenner fired Jim DeRogatis, a journalist who was much admired by the hipster music community. DeRogatis likely wasn’t fired because he wrote a negative review of Hootie, but because he talked to the media about it. However, at the time the perception was that he was fired because he wrote the negative review. You can imagine how this was fodder for the Hootie-haters.
Jim DeRogatis tries to set the story straight: “Wenner blows a gasket and pulls it out of the magazine, and now people are shouting censorship. 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. 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.’ And now that’s in bold as a pull quote in the Observer.”
When DeRogatis got to work the next Monday morning, he found that his desk was packed and he had been fired. The media had a field day with all this: A popular and hip journalist is fired (ostensibly) for writing a negative review of Hootie & the Blowfish (even if he actually was fired for slagging Jann Wenner in the press). For much of the world, this cemented the narrative that Hootie somehow represented the pro-establishment, anti-progressive interests of mainstream America.
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