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The dream of getting 'Stoned'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Back in 1972, the group Dr. Hook spoke for countless musicians when it sang about what a thrill it would be "to see my smiling face / On the cover of the Rolling Stone."

But there were also those whose dream was to see the story they wrote on the cover of Rolling Stone. These were kids who read Rolling Stone in high school and college, who used its profiles and reviews to stoke their own knowledge and enthusiasm, and who revered the writers almost as much as they did the stars.

It's not the most common rock and roll dream, but it's the one at the heart of director Cameron Crowe's new film, "Almost Famous." Largely based on his own experiences as a teen-aged writer for America's most famous music magazine, the film not only shows what it was like to be behind the scenes in the age of Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin, but offers a hard look at the difficulties involved in walking the line between fandom and journalism.

The fact that the film's central character, like Crowe himself, entered this world at the tender age of 15 may make the world of "Almost Famous" seem slightly fantastic. After all, most writers who do get published in Rolling Stone don't start until they're well into their 20s.

So what's it like to see your name as a byline in Rolling Stone?

"When my first piece ran, I thought I was famous," says Anthony DeCurtis, a Rolling Stone contributing editor who had his first byline in the magazine in 1980.

"I really thought that everybody who wrote for Rolling Stone was famous, and that people would be stopping me on the street," he says. "I mean, it made no sense -- I don't know how they were even supposed to know who I was. But that's what it felt like. It was like I'd made it.

"But that certainly proved not to be the case for some time."

When DeCurtis started writing for the magazine, he was 29 and living in Atlanta. At the time, the B-52's were one of the hottest new acts in the country, and the quintet -- which originally hailed from Athens, Ga. -- was about to give its first concert in Georgia in more than a year.

Thinking the event newsworthy, DeCurtis pitched the idea in a letter to then-Rolling Stone editor Jim Henke. "One afternoon, the phone rang," recalls DeCurtis. "It was Jim Henke. He says, 'Look, I have no idea who you are or what your work is like. But why don't you go review the show? And if it's good, we'll run it.' So that was how I got my first assignment."

Not only did the piece run, but DeCurtis quickly scored several more assignments. "This created this very false sense of confidence on my part," he says. "I thought, 'Well, gee, this is kind of easy.' And I was quickly disabused of that notion. I was assigned a piece on the Athens scene, which was the first long piece I wrote."

'Kind of easy'

Although the editors said they liked the story, it never ran. "I essentially didn't hear from them after that for another two or three years," says DeCurtis. Eventually, though, his persistence paid off: after a couple years of free-lancing, he was hired by the magazine in 1986, and was a senior editor when he left in 1995.

Not every writer sees making it into the pages of Rolling Stone as a ticket to stardom, but nearly all see it as a turning point in their careers. Elysa Gardner, currently a music and theater critic at USA Today, says that when she first saw her byline in Rolling Stone in 1991, she simply sat and stared at the page in disbelief.

"I was incredulous," she says. "I had grown up reading the magazine. It was, to me, unbelievable that I would have my name in there."

Although Gardner was only a few years out of college when she scored her first Rolling Stone assignment -- a review of a since-forgotten album by the English group Dream Academy -- she had already been published elsewhere and was working as an assistant to the music editor at Entertainment Weekly.

Even so, she says, "It was a big deal. My friends were extremely impressed. I had just moved into my first apartment, and had a little housewarming party for myself. One of my friends led a toast for me, but instead of saying, 'Here's to Elysa's new apartment,' they said, 'Here's to Elysa's first article in Rolling Stone.' "

It may not seem so prestigious to have started off reviewing an album nobody remembers, but that's typical of the way things work at Rolling Stone.

'Work your way up'

"The thing that a lot of writers don't really get is, you don't just call up and get to review the new Stones album. Doesn't happen," says David Fricke, a senior editor at the magazine who picked up his first byline there in 1977, when he was in his early 20s. "If you want to play in the big leagues, you have to work your way up."

That was certainly the case for me. My first piece for Rolling Stone, back in 1979, was a review of the second album by Trillion, a group you'd almost have to have been a member of to remember. It wasn't a particularly glorious assignment, but for a 22-year-old looking to get his foot in the door, it was a nice start. More to the point, it eventually led to better and more high-profile work -- including a cover story on Led Zeppelin -- over the next 16 years.

But as Fricke points out, becoming a regular among the writers for Rolling Stone takes as much persistence as talent. When Fricke scored his first assignment, in 1977, he thought, "Oh, man, I got in the golden gate." But getting in the golden gate doesn't mean he got to stay in heaven. Indeed, it wasn't until a few years later that Fricke started landing regular work from the magazine.

"All I did was to keep doing good work, getting better and getting it in on time," he says. "And it really was as unglamorous and as simple as that."

To that extent, Fricke thinks "Almost Famous" does an excellent job of depicting what it's like to write for a music magazine like Rolling Stone. "Writing, anywhere, is a very slow, a very intense and laborious process," he says. "But there's a lot of glamour involved, and I think the movie actually captures that in a much more accurate way.

"I had that same buzz when I was on the road, though I certainly was not 15 years old. In a lot of ways, Cameron captured the fun of writing, and the fun of getting to the heart a subject that means a lot to you."

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