Joe Hagan was particularly suited to write the book; an established journalist published in outlets like New York magazine, the Wall Street Journal and, yes, Rolling Stone, the author had acclaimed profiles of political and media movers-and-shakers like Hillary Clinton, Henry Kissinger, and Dan Rather under his belt when Wenner asked him to pen his biography in 2013. Careful of the minefield that lay ahead, Hagan maneuvered himself to the resulting story quite artfully, promising Wenner naught but an honest overview of his storied, and often controversial life, something that he has delivered in spades.
Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers
Wenner provided Hagan full access to both himself and his massive archive of memorabilia, including photographs, personal letters, and email correspondence, all of which is complimented by hundreds of interviews with Wenner’s friends, former and current Rolling Stone staffers, and the legion of celebrities that “Mr. Rolling Stone” has hobnobbed with during the magazine’s five decades. The resulting book may not be to Wenner’s liking – the story doesn’t frame the RS founder in particularly glowing terms – but it seems to portray him honestly as a narcissistic, ego-driven social climber who pursued wealth and fame at the expense of friendships, romance, and his own bruised homosexuality (which itself was an open secret for decades, even among us on the lowest rungs of the music media)...in short, a relatively-successful American businessman.
Wenner’s relationships with his idols have often been equally complicated and fraught with the clash of too many large egos. A bourgeoning relationship with John Lennon was torpedoed when Wenner chose money over his friendship, leaving the ex-Beatle bitter and feeling betrayed for decades. Wenner and Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger enjoyed a similarly complex dynamic, Jagger often playing the magazine publisher like a banjo, manipulating Wenner’s need for approval to help improve his own fortunes. As Hagan found, Wenner frequently left a trail of broken (or at least badly-damaged) relationships behind him through the years, from celebrity friends to former employees.
50 Years of Rolling Stone magazine
Rolling Stone has its roots in 1960s-era San Francisco when Wenner took the idea of a rock ‘n’ roll magazine that his editor at Ramparts magazine (where he was working) and Bay area music promoter Chet Helms were both toying with and made it happen. With money invested by his mentor, San Francisco Chronicle music critic Ralph J. Gleason, and from his family and that of his wife-to-be Jane, Wenner launched the magazine that would come to define the decade, putting John Lennon on the cover of the first issue in late 1967. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and local S.F. bands with growing national followings like the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane were prominently featured in the zine’s pages, along with record reviews by early rock critics like Jon Landau, Dave Marsh, and Lester Bangs. To say that the publication struggled, monetarily, during the early years would be an understatement, but as Hagan relays, Rolling Stone has always had cash flow problems through the years, due in large part to the requirements of Wenner’s extravagant lifestyle.
Wenner would expand his media empire through the years with various publications like Outside and Us Weekly, the latter of which contributed millions of shekels to the Wenner bank account, but it was Rolling Stone that remained the flagship title of the empire. During the last 20 years of its existence, Rolling Stone – and, by association, Wenner himself – has become the de facto institutional memory of the classic rock 1960s and ‘70s, revering those artists that Wenner himself originally idolized. Hagan delves into the formation of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation and Wenner’s control of same, which was used to snub bands like Kiss and Bon Jovi while inducting the publisher’s favorite artists (as well as too many non-rock ‘n’ rollers). The book also digs into Wenner’s more recent attempts to ensure his journalistic legacy, especially the inspired work of writer Matt Taibbi – the true heir to Hunter S. Thompson – on the financial crash of 2008 as well as the UVA rape article, a travesty that threatened to overshadow five decades of otherwise solid (and award-winning) journalism by the publication.
Rolling Stone Controversy & Criticism
As mentioned above, Jann Wenner comes across in Sticky Fingers like an autocratic and self-centered creep, double-dealing his employees and exploiting friendships wherever there was a dollar to be made. Wenner’s frequent (and tawdry) affairs with both men and women are provided a thin sheen of admiration, as is his prolific use of cocaine and vodka. In fact, only Wenner’s beleaguered wife Jane comes across as sympathetic here; smart, sexy, sensitive, and quite in love with her emotionally-detached mate, the waiflike Mrs. Wenner charmed all who met her and, for a long time, she served as her husband’s tether to reality and social fixer, putting water on Jann’s frequently fiery and tumultuous relationships. Hagan doesn’t offer up every Rolling Stone controversy – the notorious firing of critic Jim DeRogatis over a negative Hootie & the Blowfish album review isn’t even mentioned – this particular mini firestorm probably a more common event than anybody cares to remember.
More egregious, in my mind, is the publication’s declining coverage of blues artists through the years. Well into the 1970s, blues music found some editorial representation in the pages of Rolling Stone, however meager. This coverage gradually decayed even as artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray helped bring the blues to new audiences, and Cray seems to be the only blues artist to be featured on the cover of hundreds of issues published in the 1980s and ‘90s (and, no, neither the Rolling Stones or Eric Clapton count). People of color, overall, have fared less well in the pages of Rolling Stone than their white counterparts, cover features on Tupac, Living Colour, Prince, and Ice-T notwithstanding. No publication can be everything to everybody, but RS has long been casually waving from the dock as the ship of cultural diversity sailed out of sight.
The Reverend’s Bottom Line
On the other hand, Hagan also portrays Rolling Stone magazine as the true American success story that it is – Paul Williams’ Crawdaddy! music zine was struggling and Greg Shaw was still publishing garage-rock fanzines when Wenner created the publication that will forever be his legacy. Over its 50+ years, Rolling Stone has been shaped by the whims and desires of Jann Wenner, and his instinct has served the magazine well overall, as it has outlasted and outpunched its competition. Rolling Stone helped bring rock criticism beyond its fanzine roots and into the mainstream and, in doing so, helped define the music and inspiring hundreds of musicians and fledgling writers such as myself.
The “Rolling Stone interview” codified conversation as an art form in and of itself, and the magazine broke new ground in art, design, photography, and journalism while introducing us to talents like Annie Leibovitz, Hunter S. Thompson, Cameron Crowe, Ralph Steadman, and many others. Hagan tells as much of this story as possible, warts and all. With the impending sale of Rolling Stone comes the end of an era, Sticky Fingers a testament to Jann Wenner’s original vision of a rock ‘n’ roll magazine that helped shape the culture it documented for decades. Grade: A (Alfred A. Knopf, published October 24, 2017)
Cover artwork courtesy Rolling Stone magazine
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