clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Jann Wenner Biography Is a Feast of Sourness

‘Sticky Fingers’ is a dishy and exhaustive portrait of a magazine icon—but it doesn’t quite do justice to Rolling Stone

Jann Wenner holding a copy of Rolling Stone against a psychedelic background Getty Images/Ringer illustration

His father called him “a pain in the ass.” His mother called him “the worst child she had ever met.” His boarding-school classmates called him “Nox,” short for “Obnoxious.” His writers called him everything from “the fascist insect” to “a troll of some kind” to “Yarn Vendor” to “the rotten little dwarf,” and not all of those people were Hunter S. Thompson. Keith Richards compared him, unfavorably, to Mick Jagger: “They’re both very guarded creatures. You wonder if there’s anything worth guarding.” Plenty, as it turns out. World, meet Jann Wenner, biography subject. His biographer doesn’t seem too wild about him, either.

Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine is a 547-page feast of exquisite sourness, a four-year-long interview with an allegedly hideous man. (“An inveterate social climber whom friends found so cocky as to be overbearing,” is how Hagan describes his subject—on page 7.) Wenner, who has ruled counterculture bible Rolling Stone with a gilded iron fist since its 1967 inception, fully cooperated with Hagan for this book but now regrets doing so, telling The New York Times last week that he found the finished product “deeply flawed and tawdry.” Which is, more or less, how Hagan describes Wenner’s life and times, fixating upon the editor-publisher’s casual cruelty, naked ambition, flagrant celebrity worship, rank opportunism, and especially his once-closeted homosexuality.

This is a dishy, exhausting, and invigorating airing of grievances, half of them Wenner’s, the other half provided by Wenner’s various enemies, from his ex-employees to miffed rock stars (poor Joni Mitchell) to his fellow moguls. (“Fuckin’ Jann Wenner,” is how David Geffen puts it.) Our antihero both flirted with Art Garfunkel and constantly maligned Paul Simon in print as a secret punishment for flirting with a Wenner paramour or two. The pervasive boldface-name trashiness is both thrilling and exasperating, in that it comes to overwhelm the book’s shrewder insights—just like Rolling Stone itself.

Sticky Fingers does for social climbing what Into Thin Air did for mountain climbing. You will not emerge from it liking Jann Wenner, nor will you wish to ever again absorb even one additional fact or opinion about him. But as an operatically mean biography of what appears to be an operatically mean guy, this book is without equal. Or at least, if it has an equal, I want nothing to do with it.

A quick disclosure: I decided I wanted to be a rock critic while reading back issues of Rolling Stone in my orthodontist’s office. (Shout-out to Dr. Pfister.) This was the early ’90s; I was 14 years old, with a modest handful of blurbs for rollingstone.com in my illustrious professional future. By then the magazine was no longer the impeachable avatar of cool that it had allegedly been in the ’70s, but it was enough that it took seriously the same things I took seriously, from Nine Inch Nails to Winona Ryder to Beavis and Butt-Head. I read immersive features on bands I’d come to love (Steely Dan) and bands I’d come to enjoy avoiding altogether (Butthole Surfers); a few years down the line, I’d be equipped to better appreciate a deep dive into, say, the sordid history of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” At this stage, Rolling Stone didn’t have to be as cool as its mythical best self; it just had to be cooler than me.

But Hagan’s message to me now is simple: You’d already missed it. Like Saturday Night Live (the magazine’s closest 1970s analogue) or MTV (same deal for the ’80s), Rolling Stone is one of those underground-to-mainstream cultural institutions that was declared Over just a few minutes after it began. It cast a shadow so large that it immediately subsumed itself. The chicken-and-the-egg conundrum of this book is whether Wenner himself loses interest in the magazine as a cultural phenomenon over time, or whether it’s just that Hagan does.

Sticky Fingers dutifully hits the highlights of Rolling Stone’s half-century in print, leaning heavily on the first 10 years. The magazine minted superstar writers (Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Cameron Crowe) and eccentric superstar photographer Annie Leibovitz. It offered definitive coverage of such grim generational touchstones as Altamont, Charles Manson, Patty Hearst, and rock ’n’ roll’s myriad untimely deaths. (Hagan cites the issue immediately following the 1980 murder of John Lennon as Wenner’s finest hour as an editor, with a startling cover consisting solely of Leibovitz’s most famous photograph.) The magazine’s rock criticism—and political diatribes, and tabloid-roiling gossip, and “gonzo” journalism—was at once lofty and loopy, easy to parody but much harder to replicate.

At the height of its subversive cool, Rolling Stone truly mattered. And by the fact of its very survival, it continues to matter, if only to give each new subversive and cool thing—from Spin to Blender to Pitchfork—something to push against. The reviews section alone has been maddening over the years, featuring endless three-and-a-half-star equivocations with a handful of knee-jerk five-star reviews for Mick Jagger solo albums or third-rate U2 records that have Wenner’s sycophantic fingerprints all over them. But the writing itself has always been thoughtful, and serious, and hugely beneficial even if you use it to construct an opposing worldview that dismisses the notion of the magazine’s relevance entirely.

As for Wenner himself, this book’s thesis is that nothing—not the revolutionary music, not the idealistic ’60s ethos, not the righteous left-wing politics—mattered to him half as much as getting close enough to rich and famous people that he could get rich and famous himself. Even the sound of his office typewriter is here described as “a rhythmic clacking of ambition and need.”

Hagan is clear-eyed and hard-nosed about classic Rolling Stone: “It was a man’s magazine, though women read it; it was a white magazine, though African Americans were fetishized in it; it was a left-wing magazine, though it was tempered by Wenner’s devotion to the establishment.” Wenner was, fundamentally, a salesman, and what he sold was a never-ending golden age full of scuzzy dreamers who fancied themselves impervious to the very notion of being sold anything.

If Jann Wenner had only one great idea, it was an idea with staying power: that the 1960s—“the Sixties”—was a mythic time that would be endlessly glorified and fetishized by his generation in records and books, TV shows and films, T-shirts and posters, for years to come, for ever and ever, amen. The 1960s, with all its passion and idealism, was, at its sacred core, a business.

This approach required a razor-sharp cynicism and unquenchable thirst for attention that, from the sound of it, was practically Wenner’s birthright. He was born in Manhattan and raised in Northern California; his workaholic father ran a baby-formula empire, and his brutally detached mother was a writer who titled her memoir Back Away From the Stove. (When his parents divorced, Wenner recalls his mother telling him, “You’re on your own now, Buster Brown.”)

Off he went to boarding school, where he obsessed over his rich and famous classmates, seized control of the yearbook, and edited his girlfriend’s love letters for grammar. By then, he’d already begun wrestling with other sexual urges: “When he was twelve,” Hagan writes, “Wenner was arrested at the local library for engaging in ambiguous horseplay with the son of a local sheriff.” Chapter 2 begins with a detailed description of his first experience with LSD; the first line is, “When Jann Wenner emerged from the closet, he was crying.” Which might not be tawdry, exactly, but it’s awfully cute.

Jann Wenner Getty Images

He yearned for the power and prestige of Harvard but wound up at the University of California–Berkeley, falling in with a volatile and suspicious crew of beatniks, drug explorers, journalists, and nascent rock stars. His path to the first issue of the San Francisco–based Rolling Stone—published on November 9, 1967, with John Lennon on the cover—plays out like a prequel to The Social Network. As Hagan writes, Wenner’s vision was “begged, borrowed, recycled, and stolen.” Which is to say that every concrete element of that first issue—from the layout to the initial subscriber base to the editorial philosophy and journalistic cred (San Francisco critic Ralph Gleason was an early benefactor) to the very idea of an underground newspaper that took rock ’n’ roll seriously—was based on a previous publication, or somebody else’s original idea. He wasn’t the first, but he was very arguably the most brazen, and that, as always, is what matters.

Soon Wenner had a supernova career, a Porsche, and a young wife, Jane Schindelheim, who had a massive effect on Rolling Stone both financially and aesthetically, with a keen eye for both vivid personalities and interior design. Also, she “made Wenner palatable to people otherwise put off by his hyperactivity and forceful personality,” as Hagan puts it. They stayed together for 26 years, both enjoying numerous semi-discreet affairs and indulging various drug-fueled languors, but fundamentally bound by what Hagan describes as their “mutual desire for power and pleasure and style.”

Wenner finally came out in 1995, after falling in love with a former Calvin Klein model named Matt Nye. Though separated from then on, Jann and Jane wouldn’t officially divorce for another 17 years; Jane’s devastation makes her both the saddest and most compelling of the hundreds of people Hagan interviewed for Sticky Fingers. As one of her lawyers puts it, “I’m not sure anybody else could have dealt with either of them.”

Over time, the book’s carefully calibrated balance of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll falters a bit. Blame the ’60s, or, more to the point, blame every subsequent decade for failing to live up to the ’60s.

Hagan is great at plumbing the dark side of the boom years. When the era’s news got heavier—from the Kent State massacre to the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention to the escalation of the Vietnam War—Wenner “recognized, correctly, that rock and roll and the counterculture were getting a divorce—rock and roll on one side, revolution on the other.” Wenner chose rock ’n’ roll, pushing harder for more celebrity gossip and relative arcana, which enraged many of his politically radical young writers and editors, who began leaving (or getting fired) in droves. (As one ex-staffer put it, “It was the only case of a ship jumping a sinking rat.”)

Hagan likewise adeptly lays out both the triumph and the tragedy of Hunter S. Thompson, Rolling Stone’s most beloved writer, whose classic 1972 book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas originated in the magazine. Thompson brought a renewed batshit revolutionary energy to Wenner’s universe, but his self-destructive tendencies soon got the better of him. They got the better of everyone around him, too, contributing to an increasingly toxic—and increasingly macho—atmosphere. “There are those who see Hunter’s destructive tendencies as cute and then there are those who have to clean up,” a longtime employee named Sarah Lazin once wrote in a memo to Wenner. This in turn helps with Hagan’s convincing, book-long argument that important is not always synonymous with great.

But plowing through the back half of Sticky Fingers, you come to miss Thompson’s particular brand of chaos, even in ignoble decline. As the ’70s drag on and the relatively moribund ’80s and ’90s loom—punk and disco didn’t sell as many magazines, and later superstars from Kurt Cobain to Kanye West merit only brief cameos here—the book’s focus shifts almost entirely to Wenner’s rampant egomania. In the late ’70s, Rolling Stone moved from San Francisco to New York City, which nobody on staff seemed to enjoy save the grinning guy at the top of the masthead. Wenner dabbled in other magazines (most successfully, a reboot of the celebrity-obsessed Us Weekly), snorted a lot of cocaine, threw lavish parties in the Hamptons, bought a private jet, and took ski trips with such fervor that Caroline Kennedy called him “the Jimmy Buffett of winter.”

Per Hagan, only John Lennon’s death returned Wenner to his purest self, and only briefly, and that purity only relative:

The death of John Lennon was the end of the Beatles, but it was the beginning of Jann Wenner as keeper of the rock ’n’ roll myth. The Rolling Stone version of history—in biweekly issues and Rolling Stone–branded picture books, anthologies, and televised anniversary specials—was carefully shaped by Jann Wenner. He was the fame maker but also the flame keeper. The success and power of Rolling Stone made him the de facto architect of rock’s cosmology, but it was his attention to the legends that made him the indispensable man.

This is a valuable service to the culture even if you conclude that such mythmaking and shrine-building is total bullshit: If you’re the sort of critic who enjoys slaughtering sacred cows, then you grudgingly owe a debt to whoever declared those cows sacred in the first place. Wenner was never, for one second, regarded as one of Rolling Stone’s superstar writers or thinkers, but from Lester Bangs to Greil Marcus to Jancee Dunn to Touré to Mikal Gilmore to David Fricke to Rob Sheffield, he could offer the magazine’s best critics and writers one of the biggest platforms they’d ever have. His own reviews quickly slipped into parodic overpraise, but the reviews section overall is underrated as both a trailblazer and a gleeful archenemy.

To Hagan’s credit, this book is never a hatchet job, but it’s unremittingly harsh, even the smallest details and throwaway asides rarely breaking in Wenner’s favor. Randomly, he helps Billy Joel come up with the song title “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” at which point Hagan notes that lots of people really hate that song. And when Wenner is hospitalized with a gallbladder infection and adds the get-well cards he receives from the likes of Richard Gere and Jackie Onassis to his scrapbook, Hagan describes all that stuff as “the physical evidence of the story Jann Wenner told about himself.” It’s a strange case of a biographer berating his subject for collecting too much invaluable primary-source material—for having the foresight, and the audacity, to anticipate one day having a biographer. Such presumptuousness—and the fact that Hagan is the third person to attempt a Wenner bio, and only the first to get enough cooperation to succeed in publishing anything— doesn’t make Wenner the most reasonable or well-adjusted public figure. But it paradoxically reinforces the idea that he’s a notable one.

This sort of sniping can dilute the power of Hagan’s more justifiably hostile moments, though only slightly. It’s enormously satisfying to watch him lambaste the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—in which Wenner and a few record-label giants turn a poor sap of a pay-per-view TV producer’s vision into a petty, exploitive, and hilariously bloated boondoggle—as “a rock-and-roll mafia.” But the downward spiral grows ever more precipitous from there.

Like many media moguls, Wenner made some catastrophic business decisions, drastically underestimated the disruptive power of the internet, and found himself thoroughly blindsided by the financial crisis of 2008. But none of his foibles and public mistakes damaged his reputation half as much as a November 2014 Rolling Stone feature about the gang rape of a University of Virginia student that collapsed disastrously under scrutiny, resulting in a humiliating retraction and a string of costly lawsuits. Wenner is now on his way out. In 2016, he and his son and corporate heir, Gus Wenner, sold a 49 percent stake in Rolling Stone to a Singapore music-technology company. Last month, Jann put his remaining, controlling stake up for sale, announcing his intention to stay on at the magazine, though acknowledging that for the first time in Rolling Stone’s history, that decision won’t be his to make. With 500 pages of a sordid, Wenner-disavowed book as evidence, one might conclude that that’s for the best. He finally got the biography he always wanted, but also the one he probably deserved.

But I do find myself rooting for Rolling Stone itself. It’s a bizarre sensation to be a devoted 20-plus-year subscriber to a magazine whose golden years allegedly ended before I was born. Even in the ’90s, it worked better as a nostalgia mill than a reliable indicator of What’s Happening Now. But the magazine knew what it knew, and loved what it loved, and could teach you how to think critically, which was valuable even if you used that newfound knowledge to reject most of what it was attempting to sell you. Even reading it in 2017, you might concede that Rolling Stone is still the outlet best equipped to deliver a sweeping retrospective on the Allman Brothers Band, or a pocket history of Fleetwood Mac’s “Silver Springs,” or a surprisingly affecting cover story on Michael Jackson’s daughter, Paris. At their best, those pieces are written with a vibrance that keeps them from reading like stuffy museum pieces cravenly ordered up by the rock ’n’ roll mafia. The central argument of Sticky Fingers is that Jann Wenner’s overpowering personality and lust for fame often overshadowed the actual magazine that made him famous in the first place. He might not deserve better. But his life’s work might.

An earlier version of this story misstated the year John Lennon died. It was 1980, not 1981.