Marbella: Unlikely magazine brings down wartime general

Rolling Stone has never been just about music

June 26, 2010|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

If Stanley McChrystal has any kind of mordant humor, surely the song playing in his head these days is that old tune by Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, the one about "the thrill that'll get-cha when you get your pict-cha on the cover of the Rolling Stone."

That's actually Lady Gaga on the current cover, nearly naked but for an undergarment that gives "bullet bra" a whole new meaning. But somehow McChrystal has managed to upstage her even though he only makes an oblique appearance in the vicinity of her left knee, in a teaser headline, " Obama's General: Why he's losing the war."

That McChrystal was no longer Obama's general by the time the issue hit the newsstands on Friday says something about how, in these speeded-up, Internet-fueled days, you can cause a total ruckus and be fired for something you say before it actually gets printed — on paper, that is. (After the news of the article, in which McChrystal and his aides speak dismissively about the Obama administration, leaked out, media outlets and then Rolling Stone itself posted the piece online.)

But it also says something about how a magazine from the Dr. Hook past manages to stay in the game and at times dominate it in the Gaga present.

One of the sidelights to the McChrystal drama has been the faint surprise that underlies much of the post-game analysis over how it was Rolling Stone that brought him down. When the punditry class chews over the article, by freelance writer Michael Hastings, it can barely say "Rolling Stone" without a parenthetical if unstated, "of all places." As in, Rolling Stone, the music mag. Or, in New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd's phrasing, Rolling Stone, "the antiwar hippie magazine."

Maybe that's testament to the powerful legend of the magazine, how it was born in the 1960s counterculture and eventually became the premier chronicler of the rock-and-roll generation. But it's been a long time, if ever, that the magazine was "just" about music — even in its early years, it was about the world around it.

Rolling Stone has been quite slick for years now — its rough newsprint paper literally gave way to the shinier stock of grown-up magazines a long time ago — with writing by the likes of Tom Wolfe and photography by Annie Leibovitz, who joined the magazine while she was still an art student. Ground-breaking books like Wolfe's "The Right Stuff," about the space program; Timothy Crouse's "The Boys on the Bus," about campaign coverage, or Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation," about industrial farming, all stemmed from Rolling Stone pieces.

So it's a bit baffling that there's any surprise that the McChrystal piece came Rolling Stone, particularly at a time when it's known as much for writer Matt Taibbi's devastating Goldman Sachs coverage — he's the guy who called the investment bank "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money" — as for its tracking of Jay-Z and Green Day.

"It was always about being bigger than the music," Abe Peck, a former writer and contributing editor to Rolling Stone in the '70s and '80s, tells me. "Remember the times — 1967 — the culture was political."

Peck, who has written for and about the alternative press, says Hastings' article is totally in line with the kind of reportage that the magazine has done over the years. "That's a story form Rolling Stone has deployed before," Peck says.

The article isn't even particularly gonzo — as Peck notes, Hunter Thompson was known for coverage said to be the least accurate but most truthful — although its use of words you won't find in so-called family newspapers seems particularly apropos when you're talking to and about soldiers in an increasingly desperate war.

Hopefully, the fallout over the article — like seemingly everything today, it played out as a test of Obama's toughness, as in, would he allow someone to dis him or would he kick some you-know-what — will prompt people to actually read the article itself.

At a time when if you watch too much cable TV you might think reporting involves sitting in a briefing room arguing with a press secretary, what Hastings offers is an astonishing, fly-on-the-wall, boots-on-the-ground account of a general at a critical juncture in a complex war.

Part of the astonishment, I think, is that over here, far from the front, the talk about the war — when we talk about it at all —rarely gets beyond support-the-troops sloganeering or political bickering. You come away from the story with a sense of what a deep and abiding mess Afghanistan is, and how shallow by contrast is the discourse back home.

It is perhaps why maybe Rolling Stone, with its history of taking on important subjects but with a sort of rock-and-roll vocabulary, may be perfectly positioned to write about Afghanistan.

"It's a mainstream magazine without feeling corporate," Peck says. "It's seen as honest. It calls B.S."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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