Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine'

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'Sticky Fingers' by Joe Hagan.
'Sticky Fingers' by Joe Hagan. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

"Jann Wenner did what Jann Wenner, at his very best, was known to do," writes Joe Hagan. "He took a gamble on a writer."

Wenner, the co-founder of Rolling Stone, asked Hagan to be his biographer. He granted the author "endless hours of interview time," writes Hagan in an afterword to the resulting volume, Sticky Fingers. Wenner also made 500 boxes of documents and recordings available to Hagan. Also, at Hagan's insistence, Wenner agreed to allow the book to be independent, not "authorized": Wenner would not be able to review or approve the manuscript before publication.

When Wenner saw a pre-publication galley, he hit the roof. He stopped speaking to Hagan, issued a statement calling the book "deeply flawed and tawdry," and refused to help promote the book. Hagan stood by his work, and reviewers are standing by him: Sticky Fingers holds a positive rating on Book Marks (a Rotten Tomatoes for books), with raves outnumbering positive or mixed reviews, and not a single pan.

"He's used to having control," Hagan told the New York Times, "and that's a difficult thing."

The book certainly makes for a fascinating read, and inescapably a juicy one. Wenner has built his success on being, as he's often described by his own staff, a "starf---er": a man who maintains relationships with the biggest names in the music world and beyond.

What's remarkable is that he's managed, for so long, to keep those relationships in balance. He'll pull a string to make a friend happy (one of the book's most recent revelations is that Wenner personally insisted that his magazine designate U2's tepidly received 2014 release Songs of Innocence as best album of the year), but then he'll allow something that will infuriate the same friend.

Joni Mitchell, for example, boycotted Rolling Stone for much of the '70s after the magazine ran a gossipy diagram of her lovers. She eventually came back to the magazine, though — and so did John Lennon, who was irate when Wenner published their lengthy 1970 interview in book form. Hagan argues that it was the posthumous Lennon cover — Annie Liebovitz's iconic photograph of the nude Beatle wrapped around Yoko Ono — that cemented Rolling Stone’s status as the paramount media institution of rock and roll.

The other rock star who looms largest in Hagan's account is Mick Jagger. A longtime, if inconsistent, member of Wenner's inner circle, Jagger emerges as a paramount example of Wenner's editorial compromises. The magazine's name was inspired by Bob Dylan's song "Like a Rolling Stone," but the Rolling Stones took umbrage and threatened legal action.

The fledgling magazine both feared a lawsuit and coveted the cooperation of stars like the Stones, and Jagger saw an opportunity greater than a one-time cash payout.

Everything was falling into place: Jagger had already been toying with the idea of starting a magazine and now here was Jann Wenner, who already had a successful one named Rolling Stone, and was thereby poised under Jagger's thumb.

Jagger soon appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, and helped bankroll a British version that eventually proved to be an "expensive boondoggle."

Musicians weren't the only parties exerting influence on Rolling Stone: the magazine also took money from record labels for advertising and investments. When Greil Marcus published his now-legendary takedown of Bob Dylan's Self Portrait ("What is this s--t?"), writes Hagan, "Wenner was so furious he had a more positive review drawn up and printed in a subsequent issue. Didn't Marcus understand that Clive Davis of Columbia had just forked over thirty grand to save Rolling Stone from dissolution?"

And yet, Rolling Stone has published some of the most important journalism of its era. It legitimized pop music criticism, it pioneered the "new journalism" through writing by Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, and it has continued to publish hard-hitting reportage — although in a seriously, perhaps critically, crippled manner since its refuted 2014 story "A Rape on Campus."

Hagan is articulate in describing the larger significance of Rolling Stone. In a manner it could not have done as a more academic enterprise, he argues, Rolling Stone codified the 1960s as a signal moment in cultural history. In maintaining itself as the keeper of the flame with what Hagan calls "radical conventionality," Rolling Stone (and ancillary projects, like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) institutionalized the idea of the rock era as a cultural watershed, with the Lennons and Jaggers and Dylans as its gods. That idea, needless to say, was both gratifying and remunerative for both Wenner and the stars he put on his cover.

In Hagan's accounting, that seminal Lennon cover was a peak moment for Rolling Stone. Each succeeding decade saw the magazine slipping farther away from the pulse of pop music, although the profits and prestige continued to roll in as the publication became a must for everyone from movie stars to potential presidents. A photo of Wenner and his writers — including Thompson — interviewing then-presidential-candidate Bill Clinton in Little Rock now looks significant. A sax-playing baby boomer was headed to the White House, and the counterculture had simply become the culture.

What of Wenner's personal life? What does he have to be so mad about? Although there's certainly plenty of unflattering material, it's nothing particularly shocking. Wenner came out as gay in 1995 ("when the vogue for coming out was in," notes Hagan), and it had long been an open secret that his marriage was, well, sort of open. The constant flow of drugs, the betrayal of friends, the harassment of his staff...none of it really surprises you, does it?

His wife, Jane Wenner, is perhaps the book's most fascinating character. Serving Wenner and Rolling Stone in capacities ranging from financial to editorial to emotional, she herself may be the most important revelation of this book about her husband. Writing in Bookforum, rock critic Jessica Hopper asks, "When do we get a Jane Wenner book? When will we see the lives of rock's founding women without having them lensed through the lives of the men around them?"

The sum of Hopper's review is praise for Hagan's book — in large part because Hagan makes room for the voices of Jane and the many other people Wenner screwed over. Hopper calls Sticky Fingers "an epitaph for an industry rather than a shrine to a man who shaped it."

In other words, though Hagan celebrates his subject's professional glory days, he doesn't leave the reader longing to return to them. Maybe that's what made Jann Wenner so mad.

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