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’