JANUARY 7, 2018
THE RECENT NEWS that Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner was putting his majority stake in the magazine up for sale wasn’t surprising. Like many other media outlets still tethered to print, its fortunes have been waning since the early aughts, and its reputation was severely tarnished by the now notorious University of Virginia rape story. And Wenner himself has recently been accused of sexual misconduct. Facing an uncertain future and with the magazine’s 50th anniversary on the horizon, it must have seemed like a good time to pull the plug.
For Wenner, the timing must have also seemed perfect for the publication of a biography that would celebrate his achievements. Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers was supposed to be that book. Deeply researched and written with cheeky panache, it draws on an enormous trove of personal documents that Wenner provided Hagan, as well as many in-depth interviews — with Wenner, his ex-wife Jane, and those who worked closely with him over the years, including numerous rock stars. It’s the ultimate inside story, produced with Wenner’s full cooperation. But it’s not an authorized biography, and the final product is hardly the paean that Wenner had hoped for. Instead, it’s a brutally candid account that captures the relevance of a deeply flawed visionary.
For Hagan, Wenner’s life parallels the rise of a generation. Rejected by Harvard, Wenner wound up at Berkeley, arriving as a freshman in the fall of 1963, when the campus, the surrounding Bay Area, and the nation were on the cusp of momentous changes. Like many other young people his age, he began smoking pot, taking LSD, and listening to Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. Drawn to the burgeoning San Francisco rock music scene, Wenner wrote a column about music and the nascent counterculture for The Daily Californian, and he soon developed an intuitive understanding of rock music’s importance to young people. He recognized that it was intimately connected to new attitudes and values emerging among youth — a new culture, he was convinced, that would grow and change the United States in fundamental ways, liberating it from the hegemony of squares.
But if Wenner “imbibed the new values,” Hagan writes, “they were folded into a larger pattern of aspiration,” a desire for wealth, fame, and power that was more conventional. This made him an ideal person to bring the new culture into the mainstream and help make rock and roll a big business. If he recognized rock’s potential to inspire others, he was equally delighted by the prospect that it could make him rich — and it did.
Launched in late 1967, Rolling Stone was an instant hit with music fans, who appreciated its intelligent coverage of the scene. It also appealed to musicians, who were flattered by its eagerness to take rock music seriously at the very moment they began striving to make more serious music. And record company executives soon recognized its value as a venue for advertising and publicity. Yet Rolling Stone was more than a music magazine. It covered politics, the arts, and social trends — any developments that seemed related to the new youth culture and its contemporary readership.
Hagan also accurately depicts Wenner’s desire to make Rolling Stone a haven for journalistic experimentation. Hunter S. Thompson began writing for the magazine in 1970, and in his wake came a parade of talented writers and an even broader mix of articles, including penetrating investigative reports. Thompson, Hagan argues, gave Rolling Stone a distinctive sensibility and made it “the center of gravity for New Journalism at the movement’s high-water mark.” Equally important, in Hagan’s estimation, were the contributions of photographer Annie Leibovitz. Tapping into the powerful currents of androgyny and homoeroticism that infused rock culture in the 1970s, her photos made the perfect accompaniment to the magazine’s revealing profiles, which, at Wenner’s urging, were sometimes so intimate they lapsed into prurience.
Though Hagan claims the New Journalism of Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe inspired his “no-holds-barred” account, Sticky Fingers reads more like Rolling Stone’s most salacious profiles — with lots of sex and drugs and rock and roll. No less than Wenner, Hagan knows what sells. The nuggets he extracted from the rich vein of source material at his disposal are priceless, and he embeds them into his narrative in ways certain to stimulate publicity and move units.
Hagan devotes much of the book, for example, to Wenner’s social life and personal relationships, including his affairs with men as well as women. By far the most interesting relationship Hagan examines, though, is the one between Wenner and his now ex-wife Jane: a beautiful, chic New Yorker he met right before he founded Rolling Stone. Impressed by his energy and ambition, she and her parents were founding investors in the magazine, raising the stakes of the relationship. To Wenner, she seemed the perfect partner for the “normal” life he craved, and their marriage provided cover for his homosexuality, which he continued to hide in order not to imperil his publishing empire. Throughout his career, Jane served as his co-conspirator, drawing important people into his orbit, presiding over their social life and the network of friends who were integral to his success, and maintaining friendships frayed by his arrogance and cruelty. As Yoko Ono remembers thinking after meeting her for the first time: “What did he do to get her?” Despite his continued philandering and affairs of her own, Jane remained loyal to him. She was crushed when, in the 1990s, he left her for a man and finally came out as gay.
The Jann Wenner who emerges from Hagan’s book is thus a fascinating figure, a man of “bold-faced contradictions.” He was an idealist whose brilliant editorial vision made Rolling Stone one of the most interesting magazines of the late 20th century. And he could be charming to his friends and inspiring to his staff and business associates, encouraging them to produce their best work. But he was also a greedy, vindictive narcissist who routinely used people to get what he wanted.
Indeed, Hagan presents this Janus-faced character in the book’s opening vignette, an account of Wenner’s assiduous efforts to secure an exclusive interview — and what turned out to be a short-lived friendship — with John Lennon. The interview, published over two issues, provided Lennon with a platform from which to announce the end of the Beatles and set his career on a new path, and it was a huge coup for Wenner and Rolling Stone. But eager to exploit its value, Wenner broke the promise he made to Lennon not to publish it as book. “It was a signal moment for the young publisher,” Hagan notes. “And it was completely in character. […] The two never spoke again.”
Wenner’s most important contribution, Hagan argues, was his redefinition of celebrity. He lifted musicians to the same level as Hollywood royalty — maybe even higher. And he encouraged Americans to regard intimate confessions of the most personal matters as the ultimate inside dope. More provocatively, Hagan suggests that Wenner was “a principal architect of the rules of modern self-celebration,” showcasing a variety of expressive individualism that would spread from rock stars to virtually everyone. Indeed, for Hagan, the “framework of American narcissism — from the permission to unload personal demons in public to the rise of the selfie — has its roots in Jann Wenner’s pioneering magazine making.” To some degree, this is also evident in Wenner’s career, which was inspired by a desire to become as famous as the rock stars his magazine covered.
But Hagan’s tidy narrative linking Wenner’s yearning for wealth, fame, and power with Rolling Stone’s redefinition of celebrity and role in launching our present-day “age of narcissism” is simply too pat. And at times, Hagan’s unrelenting emphasis on Wenner’s sex life distracts from and overwhelms his account of Wenner’s contributions to journalism and American culture. As Hagan notes, amid the book’s lurid details, Rolling Stone was a very important magazine, particularly during its heyday from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. But we never understand exactly why, because telling us would require Hagan to treat the magazine and the subjects it covered on their own terms, as phenomena rooted in the historical currents of the times, rather than as preludes to a media universe dominated by the likes of Donald Trump and the Kardashians.
Wenner, it should be noted with some irony, has disowned the book and canceled public appearances with Hagan to promote it. And his unhappiness with it is understandable. To say that it presents him “warts and all” is an understatement. But he really should have known better. Hagan was once a Rolling Stone intern, and like so many journalists nowadays, he specializes in a brand of intimate, personality-driven reportage that Wenner and his magazine did so much to popularize. By allowing Hagan to write an “independent biography” and opening up about subjects like his drug abuse and sexuality, Wenner virtually ensured that the book would be something other than a mere monument to his achievements. The result, however, is far better: a more honest and interesting book that is likely to keep Wenner in the public’s consciousness for years to come.
Charles L. Ponce de Leon is a professor of History and American Studies at CSU Long Beach. He has published books on the origins of celebrity in the United States, the life of Elvis Presley, and a history of television news in the United States.