The Iowa Review

Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine

Loren Glass


I’m not surprised that Jann Wenner didn’t like Sticky Fingers, Joe Hagan’s long-awaited blockbuste­r biography of his rise to power as editor and publisher of Rolling Stone magazine. By page four, Hagan, who was given unpreceden­ted access to Wenner’s personal archives, has called him a “starfucker” and a “boy vampire,” and the account of his life and times that follows presents him as a boorish, drug-addled, and manipulati­ve narcissist motivated by petty insecuriti­es, closeted homosexual­ity, and celebrity obsession. Indeed, Hagan interprets Wenner’s entire career through the lens of celebrity culture, claiming from the outset that the “raw material was rock and roll, but the primary building block was celebrity. And at its base, Rolling Stone was an expression of Wenner’s pursuit of fame and power.” In its palpable schadenfre­ude, Sticky Fingers is as much about Hagan’s distaste for his subject as it is about his subject’s considerab­le achievemen­ts. And Hagan’s animus channels the more general resentment that scholars and aficionado­s of rock and roll have toward Wenner and the magazine empire he created. In its undisputed hegemony as the curator of rock history, Rolling Stone has become the magazine everybody loves to hate. Though it started out as an avatar of the sixties hip aesthetic, its rapid rise into the cultural mainstream transforme­d it into the staid standard against which we measure the sophistica­tion of our taste in popular music.

This is ironic, insofar as Rolling Stone essentiall­y legitimate­d the idea that popular music merited sophistica­ted taste in the first place. Before Rolling Stone, rock and roll was for teenyboppe­rs and bobby-soxers; albums and performers were rarely reviewed in mainstream papers and magazines, and if they were, it was as cultural phenomena not high art. This all changed with Rolling Stone. For Wenner and his burgeoning generation of readers, rock was serious stuff, both politicall­y and aesthetica­lly, and it deserved a serious magazine to chronicle it. Indeed, few magazines have dominated the curation of their subject matter more thoroughly than Rolling Stone. For better or worse, we see rock history through its hegemonic lens.

Like most rock biographie­s and autobiogra­phies, Sticky Fingers is great fun for the first third or so and then gradually fades out into a lavish tedium of excess and expenditur­e. The story starts in the San Francisco

Bay Area in the late sixties, the epicenter of the countercul­ture and seedbed of the San Francisco Sound. A UC Berkeley undergrad majoring in English and political science, Wenner got his start in journalism writing a column for The Daily California­n called “Something’s Happening” under the pseudonym Mr. Jones. He quickly became the acolyte and apprentice to the legendary music journalist Ralph Gleason, with whom he would initially brainstorm the idea for a mainstream magazine devoted to “the rock-and-roll generation.” Wenner has claimed he started the magazine because he wanted to meet John Lennon, but Hagan, true to his thematic through-line, claims “that he wanted to be John Lennon— as famous, as important, as talented in his sphere.”

Lennon, of course, was interviewe­d in and appeared on the front cover of the famous first issue of Rolling Stone, inaugurati­ng a tradition that Sticky Fingers tracks meticulous­ly through Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springstee­n, Bono, and all the rest of the now-familiar rock pantheon. Hagan insightful­ly notes that the legendary covers brought out “the homosexual subtext of a hetero rock culture,” providing Wenner’s primary audience of libido-addled male adolescent­s with both sex objects and ego ideals. These figures in turn emerge as a star-studded supporting cast in Sticky Fingers, and Hagan subjects them to the same iconoclasm as his principle subject, starting out with Mick Jagger, who appeared on the cover more than any other artist. Like Wenner, Jagger comes off as motivated by petty egoism and spite, starting with his resentment over the magazine’s name and running up through his pique at Keith Richards’ claim that he has a small penis.

Wenner did the long-form interviews, but Annie Liebowitz did the iconic images, and her erotic and aesthetic agency pervades the magazine’s inaugural decade, both as an architect of its visual appeal and as a subject of the sexual adventures that swirled through its social milieu. And these roles overlapped. On the one hand, she frequently slept with her subjects. As Hagan notes, “The attention of a female with a camera was a powerful aphrodisia­c for a male rock star, especially a guy wanting to be in Rolling Stone.” On the other hand, she doubled as the Wenners’ family photograph­er, perpetuall­y on call to document the endless parade of celebrity-studded social events. From the beginning her favorite subject was not Jann but his wife Jane, with whom she had an affair. According to Hagan, “Jane Wenner was the one that most obsessed Annie Leibovitz.” And Jane, Hagan characteri­stically concludes, “was the muse of Rolling Stone’s vision of celebrity.” Leibovitz’s signature look was complement­ed by Rolling Stone’s illustriou­s roster of writers: Greil Marcus, Jon Landau, Cameron Crowe, Robert Palmer, Lester Bangs, and of course, Hunter S. Thompson. We already knew Thompson was an asshole, so he doesn’t come off quite as bad in

these pages. His antic energy and acerbic style defined the magazine in its early years, and his decline into addled writer’s block inversely tracks Rolling Stone’s rise into the mainstream and corollary move from San Francisco to New York City. As Hagan affirms, after 1978, Rolling Stone “was never again an experiment in American publishing.”

The seventies were the heyday of Rolling Stone, and they ended abruptly on December 8, 1980, with the murder of John Lennon. After that, it was less a matter of keeping up with current popular music trends than conserving the tradition of the category now newly named “classic rock.” According to Hagan,

The death of John Lennon...was the beginning of Jann Wenner as the keeper of the rock-and-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.

Wenner’s role as kingly curator of classic rock was confirmed when he cofounded the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Atlantic Records executive Ahmet Ertegun in 1986, inaugurati­ng an annual series of ceremonial inductions that confirmed his hegemony over rock history for the rest of the century. As Hagan concludes, “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, like Rolling Stone before it, made Jann Wenner the one-man Pravda of a deeply conservati­ve rock-and-roll culture.”

Sticky Fingers makes it easy to resent Wenner’s curatorial hegemony, but this is because Hagan focuses so single-mindedly on celebrity that he neglects the music. Yes, rock was mostly white and mostly male, but it was also mostly good, and it still provides the backdrop against which we can situate the popular music, and popular music criticism, that followed. The launch of Rolling Stone magazine coincided with the emergence of the long-playing album as the dominant commercial format for rock music, a format that was central to legitimati­ng the genre as high art. As Hagan himself notes, “Rolling Stone was a natural reaction to Sgt. Pepper’s, which signaled the emergence of full-length 33 1/3 r.p.m. albums as public statements to be fetishized and reckoned with.” Hagan himself fetishizes these statements as chapter titles such as “Born to Run,” which, like the title of the book itself, thumbnail classic album names. But the music and lyrics that made these albums so great are mostly missing from these pages, subordinat­ed to the petty power struggles of the artists who made them. But they were artists, and it was art, and Wenner deserves credit for being one of the first to appreciate that.

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