BOOK REVIEW / Growing into exercise: The best of Rolling Stone: Twenty-Five Years of Journalism on the Edge, ed Robert Love, Virgin pounds 7.99

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The Independent Culture
DESPITE the daring to which it lays claim, Rolling Stone is a conservative magazine. The masthead is an important clue: a dated-looking (and sounding) swirl, part hippie typography, part American rural roadsign, unaltered since Rolling Stone began in San Francisco 27 years ago. The content of the latest issue is also very little changed from the original mix of Sixties' rock and leftish politics: there's a story about John Lennon being 'inducted' into a 'Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame', and another about 'the military uselessness of nuclear weapons'. But this isn't some cultural museum piece. Like the rest of America's Sixties generation - from the draft-dodging President on downwards - Rolling Stone hasn't 'sold out', or joined the establishment. It has become the establishment.

Many of the writers whose articles are collected in this anthology have become rich and powerful. There is Joe Eszterhas (who wrote Jagged Edge and Basic Instinct), and of course Tom Wolfe (whose giddy piece on astronauts was transformed into a sober film, The Right Stuff). That this would happen never occurred to Wolfe in the early days when, as he describes here, he was puzzled to meet the long-haired young founder, Jann Wenner, 'in a stretch limousine with enough steel strung out in the wheelbase to modernize Guatemala'. It made sense to him later, though: ' . . . the spirit of the age may change, but all Rising Generations are alike. Given the slightest slack . . . they'll take everything.'

The eye for the main chance displayed by Rolling Stone, and particularly by Jann Wenner himself, is clear from the start of the anthology. While the magazine was revelling in the revolutionary excess of the Sixties - exemplified in this compilation by a gushing opening piece about 'a completely liberated communal environment' - it was honing a style that would outlive the decade - namely, the New Journalism of subjective, vivid participation. So only one Sixties piece is included here, and the anthology concentrates instead on coverage of the decade's hangover: half the 32 lengthy extracts date from between 1971 and 1978.

Hunter S Thompson's famous and much- imitated driving and drugs story, 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas', sets the tone of contemporary rebellion against the sensible traditions of American journalism: '. . . what was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own.' The anthology shows how well this kind of slapdash flash matched the subject matter of the time: Evel Knievel charging people dollars 25 each to boil in the desert while watching him fail to jump the Snake River Canyon; California heiress Patty Hearst becoming a terrorist to spite her parents.

But while Rolling Stone was focused on what was happening to America, its musical coverage - the bulk of the magazine - was less vivid and prescient. In 1975, while the NME was detecting the first New York rumblings of the punk earthquake, Rolling Stone was sending Sixties veteran Ken Kesey to 'search for the Secret Pyramid' in Egypt. Wenner's interest in celebrities and the music business - rather than the music itself - is apparent in the paucity of music pieces here, and in their dullness. Star profiles are full of Hello] gush and Spinal Tap machismo.

'Being from Rolling Stone got you inside,' writes Chris Hodenfield about his Marlon Brando profile; the only problem was that, once inside, all those New Journalistic ideas about close observation left writers vulnerable to the dazzle of PR machines.

The Eighties challenged the magazine's remaining strong suit - its political and social reporting - as its ex-hippie readership moved to the right. Wenner partly fell for Reagan's America: there are pieces about growing out of drugs and growing into exercise. But he gave space to William Greider and other critics of the 'self-indulgent fantasy' the country was enjoying, so Rolling Stone emerged from the decade looking less foolish than the rest of the mainstream media. Now, with Clinton in the White House and Neil Young on MTV Unplugged, the magazine's time should have come again. But the anthology has no pieces written since 1987, only laments for the 'incoherence' and 'incomprehensibility' of today's America. It's really about the past.