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"Rolling Stone" provides a snapshot of the death of politics?

By James DiGiovanna

MARCH 30, 1998: 

Rolling Stone The Complete Covers 1967-1997, with an introduction by Jann Wenner, (Harry N. Abrams publishing). Hardcover, $39.95.

LEWIS H. LAPHAM, the pretentious editor of America's most middle-brow magazine, Harper's, recently railed against James K. Glassman's assertion that politics are dead, the age of politics is over, and we Americans are finally ready to get on with other things and leave the political to the trash heap of history.

Frankly, Glassman is something of a right-wing hatchet-man con-artist, but he hit on something that Lapham, sitting amongst his illegally reprinted "readings" and fake statistics for the Harper's Index, seemed unable to grasp: Americans really have gone from being one of the least political peoples in the world (at least if de Tocqueville was even vaguely correct in his impressions) to being almost completely apolitical, largely as a result of redefining the word "politics" to mean "whatever the hell it is I want to do."

Among a million other causes for this shift, but perhaps none with so strong an effect, was the idea put forth in the late '60s and early '70s that rock music was somehow the bearer of politics. Clearly, doped-up hippies with weeping sores on their genitalia were really striking a blow against The Man, man, and you better get out there and get with your scene if you want to be a radical. You see, changing the world is really about doing your own thing.

One of the biggest culprits in this move that changed the meaning of the word "radicals" from "the communists who nearly toppled the U.S. government in the '20s" to "the long-hairs who could barely play their guitars in the '80s" was Rolling Stone magazine.

Celebrating its 30th year with characteristic self-importance and shallowness, Rolling Stone has just released The Complete Covers: 1967-1997. Yes, the covers, big, glitzy pictures of big, glitzy stars, and some accompanying text which repeatedly explains how damn important this all is, dammit. In a move worthy of TV Guide magazine, this $39.95 book is being released with at least five different covers (at least that's how many they sent me...reviewers get many perks), so if you want a complete version of this thing, be prepared to shell out nearly 200 bucks.

Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, who calls a cover photograph of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards "heroic," for god knows what reason, provides the introduction; but most of the interior text is drawn from the magazine itself, spanning its history in dubious insights about the centrality of rock culture.

There's an odd juxtaposition of semi-serious pieces like those attacking Richard Nixon (who perhaps wasn't always a synonym for "easy target"), fashion notes, and celebrations of the likes of Boz Scaggs (does anyone actually own a Boz Scaggs record?).

There's something interesting about watching the progression of cover subjects, from the era when Rolling Stone was just seconds behind the times, to the mid-'70s, when it wallowed in its own meaninglessness, to the later '70s and early '80s, when it almost completely missed the Punk explosion, printing only two covers with punk bands until early '90s punk nostalgia set in with the success of Nirvana.

If you like rock, a form of music that strikes me as genuinely less inventive than Muzak, then you'll probably enjoy this tome. Like rock, it seems to have only one beat and only one progression, the easiest one possible. A good example of this is the simplicity of the multiple covers: Each one is reversible, with one side commenting on the other in the least subtle fashion possible. There's the one with the picture of Bob Dylan on the front, and Jakob Dylan on the back; or the one with Alice Cooper on the front, and Marilyn Manson on the back...get it? Get it?

Still, this book is of interest in that it really does provide a testament to the diversions of an age that allowed politics to die, or at least to be taken over by a smaller and smaller group of richer and richer people, who can assure us that as long as the rock music they're selling us sounds angry or concerned, then we're involved in the process and fighting the good fight.

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