Jann and Jane Wenner at their home on Ord Court, December 1970.
Jann and Jane Wenner at their home on Ord Court, December 1970.
Photo by Robert Altman/Courtesy of Knopf

Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner Gets the Bio He Deserves...But Doesn't Want

Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine
By Joe Hagan
560 pp.
$29.95
Knopf

Joe Hagan is one smart guy. The seasoned journalist was assuredly flattered when Rolling Stone magazine co-founder and guiding light Jann Wenner began courting him to write his biography. But he also knew that Wenner had done the same with two other would-be Boswells, only to pull the plug after much toil when he didn’t like the results.

So Hagan included a legal agreement that he could publish whatever he wrote, and Wenner surprisingly agreed. He was perhaps keen to see the book on shelves and part of the multi-media celebrations for the magazine’s 50th anniversary this year, including a coffee-table book and four hour HBO documentary. However, as The New York Times chronicled, the two had a major falling out over the book’s content. Good thing that Joe Hagan is one smart guy.

Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner Gets the Bio He Deserves...But Doesn't Want
Book cover courtesy of Knopf

“Jann Wenner’s life tells the story of a man and his generation,” Hagan writes in the book’s introduction. “It is also a parable of narcissism. Through image and word, Wenner was a principal architect of the rules of modern self-celebration—the ‘Me’ in the Me Decade.”

And indeed, the Jann Wenner we encounter in these pages is…not the most admirable guy. Though passionate about music and youth culture, he’s also an enfant terrible, cocky, vain, egotistical, and an inveterate social climber and star fucker.

Wenner is also a spendthrift who could beg for funds to keep the magazine afloat in the morning, strong arm record companies to purchase ads for albums that just might get positive reviews in the afternoon, and blow thousands on limos, liquor, and Oriental rugs at night.

One of Wenner’s complaints is that the book focuses too much on his sometimes reluctant homosexuality and many (many) encounters. At various times he was straight, bi, or gay, and banging everyone that he could. Throw in a symbiotic partner in wife/muse Jane Wenner – who did the same and seems to have entranced everyone who came into contact with her — and it’s a toxic fleshy mixture. When Jann does announce his homosexuality to her in 1994 (on Christmas Eve, no less) and takes up with a partner, it's still many years before he and Jane actually divorce. But Hagan does indeed spill too much ink on this topic far beyond any point is made.

Rolling Stone found early successes and integrity with exposes on the Altamont concert, the Patty Hearst and Charles Manson cases, long-style profile interviews with no topics off limit, and coverage of drugs, politics, and hippie culture. It’s hard today to imagine just how revolutionary the magazine was in its early years. Not just in its coverage and voice, but promo items: New subscribers early on got a commemorative roach clip in the mail!

With few exceptions (as in Crawdaddy!), popular magazines did not treat rock music and musicians seriously. Standard questions were more akin to Tiger Beat subjects like “What’s your ideal girl?” than “What do you think about U.S. policy in Vietnam?”

But just as much as Jann Wenner wanted to be Mick Jagger or John Lennon he also wanted to be Henry Luce or William Randolph Hearst, and made no bones about moving the revolutionary magazine into mainstream Establishment culture. Hagan very interestingly recounts this evolution from a counter-cultural bible on newsprint—and initially sold mostly in record stores and head shops—to its place as a glossier product in the ‘70s and ‘80s and wider chronicler of celebrity and pop culture.

Gone were the days of long-haired sales reps calling on clients in tank tops and having drug scales on their desks. That’s not how you got TWA, Porsche, and Polaroid interested in taking out ads. Hagan reports that in-house campaign called “Perception/Reality” featured a peace sign on one side of the page and a Mercedes Benz symbol on the other. Some staffers called for it to be pulled as it seemed to negate the entire foundation and spirit of the magazine. Wenner initially agreed, but then ran it anyway.

Wenner’s relationships with many dangled precariously off bridges burned or at least often on fire. Be it journalist and mentor Ralph Gleason, star writer Hunter S. Thompson, rock stars Mick Jagger and John Lennon, a host of business partners. Hagan's portrayal of his hot and cold relationship with Jagger is of particular interest and absurdity.

And then there's Annie Leibovitz, who started as a nobody at the magazine and has in subsequent years become one of the country's most famous photographers. Hagan notes that Leibovitz had physical relationships with both Wenners as well as a debilitating drug problem, which she also shared with them. Though she would go on to take perhaps the most famous picture ever to appear in the magazine, a naked John Lennon curled up on the floor against a clothed Yoko Ono, just hours before he was assassinated.

Gonzo journalism founder Hunter S. Thompson became Wenner's most famous and influential writer, but his erratic behavior exacerbated an already rocky relationship.
Gonzo journalism founder Hunter S. Thompson became Wenner's most famous and influential writer, but his erratic behavior exacerbated an already rocky relationship.
Photo by David Hiser/Coutesy of Knopf

By the 1980s, Rolling Stone often followed cultural trends instead of instigating them. Wenner was initially reluctant to embrace “MTV-era” stars, preferring to popular the magazine with coverage of his ‘60s heroes when an “old” rock star was in his 40s, and included more features on actors and whatever new topic had his interest that month. He also expanded his empire into other magazines like the wildly successful Us Weekly.

Recent years have been less kind as Rolling Stone fed fare more on its legacy than its current state. The magazine – like most in the publishing industry – is today a shadow of its former self in terms of page count as emphasis has moved to its website. And its heavy coverage of news and politics has led music lovers to other, often English, magazines.

Its reputation was also bruised by the since-debunked and falsified report of a rape victim on the University of Virginia campus that resulted in lawsuits, investigations, and an eventual complete retraction. Son Gus Wenner now runs much of the operation, and in an anniversary shocker, both Wenners recently announced that the magazine is up for sale.

“Don’t believe anything you read about rock and roll, only what you see coming out of amplifiers,” a very young Jann Wenner once wrote about another music magazine before he put out the first issue of Rolling Stone.

It’s an odd sentiment coming from a man who based his life and career on pursuing just the opposite, Joe Hagan’s book is an epic and unsparing portrait of a man full of contradictions and a chief shaper of popular culture for five decades.

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