Under the covers: Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner talks new memoir and iconic Britney, Lennon, Go-Go’s and Cassidy photos

Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner’s new autobiography, Like a Rolling Stone: A Memoir, is a sprawling account of a fascinating life, its more than 500 pages packed with stories about coming out to his wife after 25 years of marriage, his political reporting and activism, and his deep friendships with Mick Jagger, Jackie Onassis, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Hunter S. Thompson, and John Lennon. But as Wenner speaks with Yahoo Entertainment for our Under the Covers series, the conversation naturally turns to Rolling Stone’s most iconic — and most infamous — covers themselves.

Jann Wenner in 1970. (Photo: Getty Images)
Jann Wenner in 1970. (Photo: Getty Images) (Bettmann via Getty Images)

When asked which is his favorite Rolling Stone cover, Wenner doesn’t hesitate to answer. “Well, the one of John and Yoko, their second naked one… that Annie Leibovitz took three days before he died, is certainly probably the most iconic, recognizable, famous cover,” he says.

Lennon and Wenner/Rolling Stone shared a long history — Lennon appeared on the cover of the magazine’s very first issue in 1967, and after Wenner reached out to John Lennon and Yoko Ono about publishing the couple’s widely banned Two Virgins nude photos, their bond was cemented. As detailed in Like a Rolling Stone, Wenner and his then-wife Jane accompanied the couple to a screening of the Beatles’ documentary Let It Be, then wept with them on the street outside the theater as they contemplated the band’s impending breakup. And Wenner's "Lennon Remembers" 1970 interview was so explosive and in-depth, it was eventually published as a book on its own. When the Jan. 22, 1981 issue of Rolling Stone ran after John’s tragic murder, Wenner made sure to slip in a secret message to Yoko and Sean, which Beatles buffs only discovered years later — making that Leibovitz cover even more special. In the hidden note, Wenner vowed to look after Lennon’s widow and child. Wenner later became the godfather to Lennon and Ono’s son, Sean.

“I was just car wreck of emotional… I was distraught, and upset, and very moved by all the events. And so, just as the last thought, as a little last little bit of a prayer to John, I wrote [a note] by hand and snuck it into the issue in a place where nobody could find it, right where the staples are, right in the binding. And I never told anybody about it,” Wenner reveals. “And somehow it started to get out. I don't know how — I guess it’s the same people who listen to the records backwards and found ‘Paul Is Dead,’ you know what I mean? Somebody found it, and it ultimately made it way to Yoko, who kind of made it public.”

Jann Wenner with Yoko Ono, and Sean Ono Lennon at the 19th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2004. (Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage)
Jann Wenner with Yoko Ono, and Sean Ono Lennon at the 19th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2004. (Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage) (KMazur via Getty Images)

Other covers were more controversial. In light of the #FreeBritney movement, Framing Britney Spears, and recent revelations about the hell a young Spears endured throughout her career, the pop star's racy “Inside the Heart, Mind & Bedroom of a Teen Dream” cover — shot by David LaChapelle, just shy of Spears’s 18th birthday in 1999 — is definitely being viewed in a new light. But Wenner stands by LaChapelle's photo spread, and he insists that Spears was totally fine with it.

“David LaChapelle did great photos for Rolling Stone. He did Kanye West, which was fabulous, wearing a crown of thorns and holding a stick of dynamite. I mean, he did many, many, but one of the most memorable was Britney Spears, when she was holding the ‘gay Teletubby’ — the purple, with the triangle,” he chuckles. “It was brilliant. I mean, it just mocked all the silliness going on about that thing. And also, it was a real insight into Britney. [LaChapelle] got her in her little teenage stuff, her bicycle and short-shorts and hot bikinis. And her own self-sexualization was so strong, and this was just representing that. We weren't doing anything to overtly sexualize her, just picking up our cues from her.

“I don't know if that was her idea, but she certainly had agency,” Wenner continues. “Certainly, everything you look at with Britney, she knew what she was doing this entire time. … So, I think that [criticism of the 1999 cover] is all wrong. To her credit, it was great stuff. It's memorable, and it's not at all perverse or weird or anything. She's fully clothed. She's just making a statement about her sexuality — and that's what her music did, you know? That was the message out there: that if you think teenagers are not coming close to this level of adult sexuality, you're mistaken and you're not talking to your kids. You’re not seeing what's going on in society.”

Britney Spears on the cover of Rolling Stone, 1999. (Photo: David LaChapelle/Rolling Stone)
Britney Spears on the cover of Rolling Stone, 1999. (Photo: David LaChapelle/Rolling Stone)

One female music act that wasn’t thrilled with their sexy cover was the Go-Go’s, who were, they claim, coerced by Leibovitz to pose in Hanes tighty-whiteys and were furious when that image eventually ran with the headline “The Go-Go’s Put Out.” (The double-entendre headline for their second, more modest cover, “Women on Top,” arguably wasn’t much better.)

“They were pissed off,” Wenner admits. “They've got a point, you know? I mean, [those headlines] were meant in fun and silliness. I think at that time, I'm not sure that people were that sensitive to the kind of sexism that would surround such a headline today. I mean, nobody would probably put that out today as a headline. … We're talking about uh, 40 years ago. Times are different.”

Rolling Stone often came under fire for its sexualized cover shots — usually of women, some of which weren’t even musicians, like MTV's Singled Out vixen Jenny McCarthy suggestively slathering a hot dog with mustard, or Friends it-girl Jennifer Aniston reclining with her bare derriere on display. Fortunately, these editorial decisions didn’t damage the magazine’s reputation, since Rolling Stone was running award-winning music and political coverage at the same time. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, those issues were among the magazine’s biggest successes at newsstands.

“Yes, beautiful women generally sell,” Wenner shrugs, adding, “I think I've always thought that sex appeal was one of the big, big facts of rock ‘n’ roll: the look, fashion, style, and sex appeal. I mean, what is rock ‘n’ roll about? Let's start with the beginning of it, you know: dancing, getting close, the beat, getting worked up. I mean… ah!”

Wenner points out with a laugh that Rolling Stone did try putting sexy men in various states of undress on its famous annual “Hot Issue,” but “that never worked!” Additionally, he questions the decision to run a “bizarre” cover photo of teen idol Donny Osmond in a tool belt back in ‘70s, but he is proud of Leibovitz’s famous nude shot of David Cassidy, which marked a “career change” for Cassidy and helped that reluctant teenybopper shed his Keith Partridge image for good.

“Listen, there's been a lot of men with their shirts off on the cover, looking provocative and sexy and hot,” Wenner notes, even chuckling about an infamous 2000 cover photo of Al Gore that sparked speculation that the bulge in the politician’s khakis had been digitally enhanced. “Al called me. He says, ‘I’m hearing all these [rumors]. … Let me just ask you something: Is this a good thing or a bad thing?’” To which Wenner naturally answered, “It’s a good thing, Al!”

That being said, Wenner admits, “Of course, we're going to get some things wrong.” And he’s not just referring to Osmond’s tool-belt photo. He admits that Rolling Stone was way too critical of Led Zeppelin in the early days, so much so that “when they reluctantly, finally gave in to doing a cover story, Jimmy Page showed up to the cover session with a bouquet of dead roses.” He also remembers with great amusement receiving an angry letter from Roger Taylor — the drummer of Queen, another band the magazine inexplicably derided at the time — written on an airplane barf bag. And then there was the time when Buddy Miles, livid over a negative review, showed up in a huff at Rolling Stone HQ. “We sent the biggest man in the office out the deal with him, but [Miles] was much bigger and he pinned him up against the wall, over the watercooler, raging around. He didn't hurt anybody, but that was the most disgruntled,” Wenner recalls.

Jann Wenner's 'Like a Rolling Stone: A Memoir.' (Photo: Little, Brown and Company)
Jann Wenner's 'Like a Rolling Stone: A Memoir.' (Photo: Little, Brown and Company)

Considering all the controversy and commotion Rolling Stone stirred, Wenner obviously did something right — 55 years after the magazine’s launch amid the 1960s’ counterculture revolution, we’re still talking about all these images and articles. And while Wenner’s Boomer generation has come under fire for its supposed increasing conservatism, Wenner says, “I don't see it. I still believe in peace and love. I think my generation did a great job, and is still in there, for the most of it. And part of the reason I wrote the book is to make sure that that's understood. There's been enough culture war bullshit. There's been enough calling people out for being hippy, all that stuff, and thinking, ‘Your generation just left at a mess.’ That's not the truth. The truth is, we did a lot: meaningful, important stuff.

“Why I started Rolling Stone, it was part of the vision that we had: that the music itself had enormous social, political, moral, ethical messages, powerful, and that they were being communicated to people. Not the conventional politics at the time, but more kind of moral politics — the politics of Bob Dylan, of alienation, what's going in society. And this became an important facet of music and something I wanted to deal with personally. I felt the music… was the better way of looking at politics, through the prism of what the rock ‘n’ roll poets were saying.”

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