“That stupid sonofabitch looks so much like Bob Dylan I want to shoot him,” said my girlfriend, the first time she saw the photo of the Boston Bomber suspect—three months before it wound up on the cover of Rolling Stone. It first appeared in the New York Times. That’s when I heard her comment and it struck me as so funny and profound I wrote it down in my notebook—thinking I might use it someday.
That day has come, with the appearance of the same self-posed cell phone photograph on the cover of the most influential cultural weathervane we have—Rolling Stone magazine.
Now others are commenting that it looks like Jim Morrison of the Doors, but the critic on Larry Mantle’s drive-by talk show on KPCC this morning confirmed my girlfriend’s assessment—he thought it looked more like an old RS cover of Bob Dylan, from which there are many to choose.
Defenders of the most controversial cover in the magazine’s history point out that Time Magazine has had Hitler on the cover—and stores did not boycott the issue—as both Walgreen’s and CVS are now doing to Rolling Stone. Yes, say the boycotters, but Time is a news magazine, and no one disputes that Hitler was newsworthy—as was Stalin, who also made the cover. Rolling Stone is something different—it’s not a noteworthy news magazine, though in this past year another of its cover stories—on General Stanley McChrystal—actually led to his forced resignation. So where does news end and entertainment begin? Sometimes it’s a fuzzy line.
And yet, in this case, the line seems McChrystal—you’ll pardon the pun—clear. For it wasn’t the cover photo on that story which got him fired—but the content of his character as revealed in the narrative. In the present case no one has bothered to even quote from investigative journalist Janet Reitman’s 11,000 word story in their objection to the issue—this truly is a picture worth a thousand words—and then some.
We are in a new territory here—or an old territory re-imagined—and first described by Marshall McLuhan’s argument that the medium is the message. The same photo published on the front page of the newspaper of record—the Gray Lady—doesn’t raise an eyebrow as to its appropriateness. For the medium was news—as which this certainly qualifies. But when you make the cover of Rolling Stone you are being portrayed in a very different context in an altogether different medium—as a musical celebrity. You have arrived. It is rightly perceived as a reward for artistic excellence and achievement.
That is what raises the hackles of the survivors in Boston of the worst terrorist attack since 9/11—and those who witnessed the bombing at the Boston Marathon or are family members of its victims. How dare Rolling Stone suggest that this “stupid sonofabitch”—Linda’s epithet is hard to improve upon—is anything but a criminal?
Let me suggest another point of view that—while not meant to defend Rolling Stone— nonetheless appreciates the merit of what they have done. I take it as a trenchant critical apercu to point out that we as a culture—not Rolling Stone, which simply holds the mirror up to nature and reflects it—have blurred that line many times over and almost consistently portray real life villains in the context of entertainment.
Does anyone doubt that mobster Whitey Bulger—another criminal currently on trial in Boston—will find himself the subject—why not simply call him the hero—of a made-for-TV movie before his prison cell is even warm? Has anyone forgotten that yet another Boston criminal—the Boston Strangler—was portrayed as the central character in a feature length movie starring Tony Curtis?
Don’t get me started: Al Capone, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, John Dillinger, Baby-Face Nelson, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Bonnie and Clyde—is there a single personification of evil that has not been portrayed by the Hollywood celebrity machinery—glamorized and elevated beyond our ken? Rolling Stone is no different—what sets them apart is only that they celebrate music and musicians—not that they do so with any aspiration towards spiritual reward or perfection. Like Hollywood is in the business of selling movies, Rolling Stone is in the business of selling magazines—and the controversy surrounding this cover will in all likelihood sell more magazines not fewer—despite a regional boycott out of sympathy with the terrorist’s victims.
When is the last time that talk show host Larry Mantle has even mentioned Rolling Stone on his show—let alone devoted half of his program to them—all under the guise of discussing whether it was “appropriate” for them to put the photo of a terrorist on their cover? I am a regular listener and I cannot for the life of me recall ever hearing their name before. In that sense Rolling Stone’s envelope-pushing cover photo did everything it was supposed to do—made a baby boomer legacy magazine relevant again—if only for one issue, made them water-cooler conversation and got people engaged in a cultural debate—which as we know happens once in a blue moon in post-Philistine America.
I want to shoot the stupid sonofabitch too—but not because he looks like Bob Dylan—because he murdered four Americans and maimed hundreds more—who will have to live as amputees for the rest of their lives.
Call it in Kenneth Burke’s terms a perspective by incongruity for that is what portraying a terrorist as a rock star is.
We can pretend to be outraged, but keep in mind that it is only a pretense.
He belongs on the cover of Rolling Stone for one reason only—because he sells magazines, and for that I want to say shame on us—not Rolling Stone.
I want to, but I can’t; my inner Igor won’t let me—because of something that happened one hundred years ago, which one critic described as “a laborious and puerile barbarity.”
You see, like Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913—at which they threw tomatoes— it shocks our sensibilities. In short, that may be how you know it’s a work of art.
So go ahead and throw tomatoes at Rolling Stone’s revolting cover—it’s Jann Wenner’s masterpiece. And that’s why Linda wanted to shoot that stupid sonofabitch.
On Saturday afternoon at 2:00pm, August 31, 2013 Ross will present Musical Legacy of the Great March for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington (August 28, 1963) at the Allendale Branch of the Pasadena Public Library 1130 S. Marengo Ave. 626-744-7260 (free and open to the public).It will also include songs leading up to the March from the 1963 Newport Folk Festival.
Ross Altman may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Revolting Stone Cover
How the Boston Bomber Became a Rock Star