Sex, Drugs, and Rolling Stone: The True History of Jann Wenner
With his characteristic nod-and-a-wink, Shel Silverstein immortalized the magazine in whose pages every rock star wanted to be seen and that every rock fan carried around like a holy scripture, perusing each weekly issue from cover-to-cover. Only 6 years old in 1973, when Silverstein wrote the song, “The Cover of the Rolling Stone,” Rolling Stone had already, under Jann Wenner’s leadership, grown bloated and weary, as famous for the staff’s infighting as for some of the sometimes insightful, sometimes dreadful music writing it published. Another column could focus on which of those early rock magazines produced the best writing—Crawdaddy!, Creem, Rolling Stone. Yet, Joe Hagan’s new, and provocative, biography of Wenner illustrates that Wenner’s Rolling Stone won the day but also developed into a kind of cultural Trojan Horse, masquerading as the voice of idealism and passion of youth culture while practicing a by-whatever-means-necessary-to-make-a-profit vision that ran counter to such idealism.
Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine (Knopf) gives us a glimpse of the man behind the curtain, and to no one’s surprise, Wenner plays himself rather well here: a self-serving, hollow man whose one vision is to make as much money as he can from rock and roll. Wenner invited Hagan to write this book and promised that he’d exercise no control over its contents—and Wenner was true to his word, though since the book’s publication he has lashed out at Hagan. Wenner’s choice of biographers is a bit mystifying. Hagan, who’s written for Rolling Stone but whose long-form profiles focus on political figures, appears never to have written a book, and he appears not to have more than a glancing acquaintance with rock and roll history. At least one result is that this book needs an editor; there’s plenty of repetition in these 594 pages. The other result, though, is that Hagan delivers a blisteringly honest book, and he draws on hundreds of hours of conversation with Wenner, his family and friends, and artists as he paints a portrait of an unlikable man driven by megalomania and his sexual insecurities.
Hagan dutifully chronicles the rise and fall of Rolling Stone and Wenner’s role in all of it. In the 1970s, for example, Wenner, according to Hagan, became “the most important magazine editor in America,” largely through his chameleon-like character. “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. And the success of Rolling Stone would eventually make Wenner a full-blooded figure of that establishment.” By the 1980s, Wenner had turned youth culture into a highly profitable business, and he spun off magazines as he walked through the “baby-boomer stations of the cross”: publishing Family Life when he had children and Men’s Journal as he went through a midlife crisis. In the end, Wenner’s success at turning a profit from rock and roll didn’t win him friends; in fact, he often lost friends by making financial decisions that favored a profit over friendships. As Hagan points out, Wenner’s “schizophrenic nature—a polarity of vulnerability and rageful ambition—drove the magazine. He was an antiwar liberal and a rapacious capitalist, naïve and crafty, friend and enemy, straight and gay, editor and publisher.” As Wenner’s mother said, “I’ve always felt Jann was twelve years old going on seventy-five. He’s certainly the most conservative member of our family.”
Hagan cannily situates Wenner in the culture of consumption whose seeds were planted in rock and roll. “The 1960s were over. The 1960s would never end. 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, forever and ever, amen. The 1960s, with all its passion and idealism, was, at its sacred core, a business. Mick Jagger understood. So did Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. So did Bill Graham, the thick-browed Holocaust refugee turned rock promoter who was regularly demonized as a ‘profiteer’ in Wenner’s newspaper.”
Of course, no history of Rolling Stone would be complete without some juicy stories of rock and roll excess. Wenner and Mick Jagger prowled around each other like two hungry lions, looking for the first opportunity to pounce. Yet, as “Wenner became more successful, it would become less clear who was getting the better of whom, the star or the starfucker, the rocker or his groupie. After a time, Mick Jagger came to feel exploited by Wenner.” As Keith Richards told Hagan, “they’re very similar people. They’re both very guarded creatures, but you wonder if there’s anything worth guarding.” John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Paul Simon, Robert Plant, James Taylor, and a host of others wander through the pages of Wenner’s story.
Wenner uses his embrace of his homosexuality to offer what he believes is the core of rock and roll and the core of the success of his magazine. Being gay “gave me a good and finer appreciation of the sexuality of the guys up there on the stage, and I could understand that in a way that other people didn’t, to understand how sexual this whole thing was. All of rock and roll is sex, defined … I was enjoying it. Much like the girls, and much like the guys who may not admit it, but it was really sexual.”
In 2017, a jaded Wenner expresses a certain fatalism about the magazine he helped start: “There’s so much wonderful stuff in there that will never see the light of day, and it all coincides with digital, which is the most depressing thing because it’s the end of the magazine.” The words sound prescient now since the news that Wenner would be putting Rolling Stone up for sale hit one month before the book was published.
By the time you finish this book, you won’t admire Wenner; as a matter of fact, you’ll be tired of him even before you read 50 pages. He doesn’t make for good company, and he’s not a likable man. He’s a man on whom you could never turn your back for fear that he might sell the ground from under your feet. Hagan’s biography is entertaining enough, but he can’t sustain the story because we’ve lost interest in Wenner too early in the book. By the fourth chapter, we’re thinking, “oh, this is Wenner being Wenner again; who cares?” In spite of the deep flaws of his main character, Hagan valiantly forges ahead, pointing out the hills and valleys of the history of Rolling Stone. Pick up the book for those stories, for at least in them Hagan finds a few gems.