Rolling Stone

Nowadays, I tend to celebrate my birthday by dimming the lights, honing the tweezers, and fighting a valiant battle against ear hair. This year, however, my super-duper special day happened to coincide with NYC visits from two of the great bands of my happy adolescence, The Police and Squeeze. And so it was that I found myself at ye ole arenadome last night, woozy on eight-dollar Michelobs and flush with "remember when Sting was cool?" nostalgia.

This is not a conversation that evolves well. After a few warm recollections of MTV and dirt bikes, my friends and I somehow wound up attempting to out-filth one another with witticisms like "when Sting was cool, my [extremely explicit anatomical reference redacted] hadn't yet [archaic verb participle redacted] and [borderline-insensitive ethnic stereotype redacted] wasn't even [obscene gerund redacted]." Happily for the people around us, the lights dimmed shortly thereafter. It was a grand evening. Andy Summers kicks much tushie.

I enjoyed the nostalgia kick so much that I'm trying to sustain it as long as I can, whether by listening to arena-rock mainstay "Give the People What They Want" during lunch or by donning a skinny tie for tomorrow's Squeeze outing. My subway reading, of course, will be Rolling Stone, the magazine that launched my love of the medium more than 20 years ago.

Thing is, Rolling Stone isn't a nostalgia read, even in a year where the mag is celebrating its 40th birthday with a trifecta of phone-book-thick retrospective issues. A lot has happened since I last took a critical look at it, the least of which being that I've learned how to write a semi-intelligible column. The mag itself has almost reinvented itself, bulking up its pop-culture muscle without corrupting its mind (the national-affairs coverage) or soul (Mick, Keef et al).

The Aug. 9 issue showcases much of what Rolling Stone is doing right nowadays. The cover feature on the genesis of Guns N' Roses kicks off with an amazing anecdote about the, uh, ambient noise in the band's "Rocket Queen" and ascends from there, refusing to yield to cheap rock-and-roll-was-real-back-then-man sentiment. The profile of Stevie Williams, dubbed a "skateboarding gangsta hero," is the rare youth-culture piece that speaks to all audiences. Rob Sheffield's "Pop Life" column runs circles around anything that Entertainment Weekly trots out on its final page, while the mag's takedown of carbon-neutral wankfest Live Earth doesn't pull any punches.

Rolling Stone has also rediscovered its investigative mojo. This issue's National Affairs columnist, Jeff Goodell, ain't no William Greider (not as severe) or Hunter S. Thompson (not as unreadably incoherent). His piece on "The Ethanol Scam," however, slices through the do-gooder haze and exposes a supposed panacea as potentially worse than the disease. More, please. A few pages later, Vanessa Grigoriadis -- one of the three or four best magazine feature writers out there -- takes an in-depth, occasionally wince-inducing look at "To Catch a Predator" stings and their unintended aftereffects. After reading this piece, you won't ever feel the same way about gotcha! journalism. That's high praise.

You may have noticed that I haven't yapped much about music so far, and that's intentional. As it did a few years back, Rolling Stone's music coverage lags behind everything else between its covers. There's nothing wrong per se with the check-ins with Ryan Adams, Dave Matthews or the Smashing Pumpkins, but they lack the depth and imagination of the stories noted above, not to mention comparable ones in titles like Harp. And yet RS still flags these artists on the cover, at the expense of a mention of the "Predator" piece. I wish the mag wouldn't be so stubborn about trumpeting its music-first lineage; by doing so, it obscures some of its best writing and reporting. I'd like to see RS acknowledge the obvious: that music may no longer be its core mission.

Also interesting, at least to me: the online media kit, which teems with pictures of moderately hip mainstreamers like Avril Lavigne, Beyonce, John Mayer and Eminem. The mag itself, however, devotes more space and energy to comparative fogeys like The Police and Kid Rock, not to mention looking-back pieces like the one on G n' R. It's just an interesting choice, is all.

So yeah, I'm probably going to fire up a subscription for the first time in 10 years or so. Rolling Stone reads and looks (thanks for taking it easy on the multiple entry points) sharper than it has in quite some time, and deserves a fresh look from anybody who hasn't picked up a copy in a while. It's an entirely different publication than the one I grew up worshipping, and in many ways a better one.

Published by: Wenner Media
Frequency: Twice a month, as always
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