Sticky Fin­gers

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

Afriend who worked for Rolling Stone for many years once of­fered a suc­cinct de­scrip­tion of the mag­a­zine’s founder and edi­tor. Jann Wen­ner, he said, was “like a shark. There’s no yes­ter­day, no to­mor­row, only the next meal”. My friend meant this lit­er­ally, telling the story of how he was work­ing at his desk one day, a half-eaten sand­wich be­side him, when Wen­ner walked past, picked up the sand­wich and moved on, de­vour­ing it, with­out a word.

Wen­ner’s vo­ra­cious ap­petite, for food — his own and other peo­ple’s — but more par­tic­u­larly for power, sta­tus, drugs, drink and sex, is vividly chron­i­cled in this en­gross­ing study of how he turned a small rock ‘n’ roll fan paper into one of the most im­por­tant and in­flu­en­tial mag­a­zines in Amer­i­can pub­lish­ing his­tory. Wen­ner has al­ready ex­pressed his dis­plea­sure with this book.

He gave Joe Ha­gan, a New York mag­a­zine writer, un­par­al­leled co­op­er­a­tion, sit­ting for hours of in­ter­views, free­ing him to re­search and re­port with­out in­ter­fer­ence, and with­out de­mand­ing to read the man­u­script be­fore pub­li­ca­tion. In­evitably, it has ended in tears, with Wen­ner now ac­cus­ing Ha­gan of writ­ing a book that is “deeply flawed and tawdry, rather than sub­stan­tial”.

One can see why Wen­ner would be un­happy. While laud­ing his achieve­ments, Sticky Fin­gers is un­spar­ing in de­scrib­ing his “will to power”, his ego­tism and his “cru­elty and un­var­nished greed” — al­though at more than 500 pages one could hardly de­scribe it as in­sub­stan­tial. As much as this is a por­trait of the man and the mag­a­zine, it is also a study of the past MU­SIC Joe Ha­gan

Canon­gate, hard­back, 560 pages, €30.90 50 years of Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture, and par­tic­u­larly the way in which rock mu­sic — “the po­etry of youth”, as Wen­ner once called it — be­came the dom­i­nant cul­tural force, and com­mer­cial com­mod­ity, on which he would build an em­pire.

The son of a busi­ness­man who made a killing from sell­ing baby for­mula, Wen­ner was a pre­co­cious child — var­i­ously de­scribed as “ob­nox­ious” and “gross” — who was kicked out of nearly ev­ery school he at­tended be­fore the age of 12. Even his mother called him “the worst child she had ever met” — al­though she was hardly a model par­ent her­self. More of a bo­hemian than her son would ever be, Sim Wen­ner made it “a philo­soph­i­cal im­per­a­tive” to focus on her­self, not her three chil­dren, and make enough money “so that when the kids grew up we could have them psy­cho­anal­ysed”. She would vir­tu­ally aban­don her son for a life of floor­length muumuus, pot-smok­ing and younger lovers.

Wen­ner was sent to board­ing schools where he cul­ti­vated an en­thu­si­asm for so­cial climb­ing among Cal­i­for­nia’s elite, open­ing a charge ac­count at Brooks Broth­ers and mono­gram­ming his but­ton-down shirts.

The hip­pie cul­ture in San Fran­cisco gave him an en­trée into jour­nal­ism. Af­ter writ­ing rock re­views for the left-wing mag­a­zine Ram­parts, he launched Rolling Stone in 1967, at the height of the so-called sum­mer of love. But for Wen­ner, de­spite his en­thu­si­asm for pot and LSD, the mag­a­zine was never a hip­pie en­ter­prise.

His de­clared am­bi­tion was for it to “be recog­nised by the es­tab­lish­ment”. He took rock ‘n’ roll se­ri­ously; he was both an ar­dent fan, in­fat­u­ated with the Bea­tles and Rolling Stones (over the years, Ha­gan writes, he and Mick Jag­ger would be­come “some fac­sim­ile of ac­tual friends”) and an evan­ge­list about the mu­sic’s pos­si­bil­i­ties as a cat­a­lyst for cul­tural change.

A bold, in­spir­ing edi­tor, he en­abled a com­ing school of crit­ics — Jon Lan­dau and Greil Mar­cus among them — and gave free­dom to writ­ers such as David Dal­ton and Tom Wolfe, mak­ing Rolling Stone the cen­tre of grav­ity for “New Jour­nal­ism” through the 1970s. He could also be bru­tal in us­ing the mag­a­zine to set­tle scores and pur­sue en­e­mies, and — even more shock­ing — to cos­set friends by giv­ing them copy ap­proval for sto­ries about them.

Rolling Stone’s big­gest stars were Hunter S Thomp­son and the pho­tog­ra­pher An­nie Lei­bovitz. Thomp­son here emerges as an at­ten­tion-seek­ing, self-in­ter­ested, quasi-so­cio­pathic prankster — the sort of per­son who spikes a party with LSD, with­out tak­ing it him­self, so he can watch peo­ple go mad for his own amuse­ment.

Wen­ner re­garded him as “my Keith Richards”, in­dulging, hu­mour­ing and feud­ing with him as Thomp­son turned into a “fal­ter­ing drug ad­dict”, fawned over by “celebrity syco­phants” such as Johnny Depp and Sean Penn. Lei­bovitz suf­fered her own nar­row es­capes, in­clud­ing flings with Wen­ner and Jag­ger and a drug prob­lem, be­fore de­camp­ing to Van­ity Fair where she be­came the fore­most pic­to­rial chron­i­cler of power and fame in Amer­i­can life.

By then, Wen­ner had moved Rolling Stone to New York, and the 1960s were long gone, mu­tated, as Ha­gan writes, into “a mythic time” that would be glo­ri­fied and fetishised — not least by Wen­ner — in records, books, TV shows and posters “for years to come, for ever and ever, amen”. Wen­ner saw that the Six­ties,

As Ha­gan waspishly puts it, Wen­ner had ‘fi­nally got the girl he de­sired and she was a man’

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