I was once 'From Rolling Stone,' and it wasn't anything like MTV's new show


January 17, 2007


In the 2000 film "Almost Famous," young William Miller (Patrick Fugit), the stand-in for writer-director Cameron Crowe, somehow turns his first assignment for Rolling Stone into a month-long trek across the country with the mythic band Stillwater, transforming a rote profile into a star-making cover story while pausing just long enough for a tryst with three gorgeous "Band Aids" (Fairuza Balk, Anna Paquin and Bijou Phillips).

If that really was life for the magazine's journalists in the '70s -- and Crowe swears his movie is accurately autobiographical -- it certainly isn't anymore.

"Dude, this looks like Enron or something," says one of the six aspiring writers in MTV's new reality show, "I'm From Rolling Stone" in the first episode, which aired last week. Indeed, the magazine's swank offices near Manhattan's Rockefeller Plaza are now marked by their no-nonsense, all-business sterility: Employees are forbidden from hanging anything personal in their cubicles, and all art must be approved by the infamously tyrannical editor, publisher and founder, Jann Wenner.

Trust me, I know.

During the eight miserable months I spent as deputy music editor of the magazine in 1995-96, a horribly cheesy painting of Carlos Santana rendered as a saintly icon looked down on me the entire time, until I was fired for protesting after Wenner killed the negative review I'd written of "Fairweather Johnson" by Hootie and the Blowfish. Ah, the glamor of life at Rolling Stone!

Reality TV demands more drama than that, though, so while "I'm From Rolling Stone" inadvertently spends half its time making the experience seem more corporate and soulless than anything on "The Apprentice," the rest of each 30-minute episode schizophrenically portrays a fictional routine for Rolling Stone interns that doesn't even exist in a slacker's stoned daydreams. As one TV blogger noted, the magazine is so irrelevant to Generation Y, aspiring writers are much more likely to dream of saying, "I'm from Pitchforkmedia.com."

Nevertheless, the first episode begins with a boastful voiceover claming, "Rolling Stone has been the leading voice of music, culture and politics for 40 years." Regardless of whether that is perception or reality, it seems to be all that the six cliched but photogenic, rainbow coalition twentysomethings know about the place. Its day-to-day terrors and back-stabbing politics make Iraq look positively benign, as conveyed in two fascinating and well-researched books, Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History by Robert Draper and Gone Crazy and Back Again by Robert Sam Anson. You'd think that somebody about to undergo a televised summer internship that could lead to a job as a contributing editor might read those, or at least Google the name "Jann Wenner." But no.

"Ian? Is it Ian?" 23-year-old hip-hop writer Krishtine asks when Wenner calls to announce that she's one of the six finalists who've been chosen from more than 2,000 applicants. "Jann, J-A-N-N," the publisher replies. "Better learn that. It will be tattooed on your arm by the end of the summer, as in 'Jann wants this!' "

For anyone familiar with the real Rolling Stone, that brief scene illustrates where the series has so far fallen short. It could have been a combination of "The Apprentice," "The Real World" and "Survivor," with Wenner as a terrifying combination of Donald Trump, Puck from "The Real World: San Francisco" and the personification of every sadistic torture facing the struggling survivors. "Getting in Jann's periscope," they call it at the magazine, and it means that for a week or two, the publisher decides to harshly criticize -- loudly, often and usually in public -- everything one hapless staffer does, from the lowliest intern to the highest-ranking editor, and from the quality of their work to the state of their physique or fashion sense. Properly satisfied that the target has been torpedoed, he then moves on to the next victim -- again, and again and again.

Now that sounds like good TV, doesn't it? Alas, the publisher barely appears in the second episode, which debuts tonight. In episode two, three of the contestants are dispatched on "actual assignments." Never mind that real Rolling Stone interns mostly fetch coffee and make copies while cowering in fear of crossing Wenner's path. Here, 19-year-old indie/emo dude Colin flies to Toronto to interview dance-rockers We Are Scientists, failing miserably when the musicians respond to his lack of preparation with attitude and non-answers. Krishtine cozies up to rapper El-P -- "Like, you're a really smart dude!" she gushes -- seemingly in search of a date rather than a story, and 25-year-old juvenile delinquent-turned-journalist Russell jets to O'Hare to attend the 2006 Intonation Music Festival in Union Park.

I saw Russell running around backstage last June, trailing his camera crew and acting like more of a star than many of the performers, when I covered the Intonation festival for the Sun-Times. Under the mistaken assumption that the reporter's role is to "act a little crazy" in order to impress the person he's writing about, he took a running leap into a Dumpster while interviewing Lupe Fiasco. The Chicago rap superstar wisely passed on an invitation to do the same, and his disdain for Russell's questions -- "So, is skate rap viable? Are people gonna buy that?" -- was and is obvious.

Hard to believe, but Russell is so far the show's prime contender, though the buzz is that he'll get some stiff competition in the eight weeks to come from Tika, a 25-year-old African-American lesbian who asked a real Rolling Stone intern to transcribe her interviews, according to a recent item in the New York press. (The real intern reportedly refused and ratted her out.)

I can just see troubled journalism professors rushing to tell their students that this is not the way professionals behave. (For that, you had to tune into last year's Bravo series "Tabloid Wars," about life at the New York Daily News, and one of the most honest looks at us ink-stained wretches I've ever seen.) But everybody knows this isn't real life, it's reality TV, so of course it's just entertainment.

As such, does "I'm From Rolling Stone" succeed? As a professional rock writer and Rolling Stone survivor, I'm way too close to the topics at hand to judge how either "The Real World" set or their parents who grew up with the magazine will look at any of this. But you know I have my DVR set to record every episode, and I can't wait to see who emerges victorious -- if only to console the defeated contestants by assuring them that the winner was really the loser. Rolling Stone's new contributing editor may think he or she has scored the job of a lifetime, but they're really in for a period of certain misery, until they too hear those familiar words, "You're fired!"