Rolling Stone has been in business for 50 years — its first issue was dated November 9, 1967 — and it has been disappointing radicals for at least 49 of these years. Its co-founder Jann Wenner’s approach to revolution was to un-foment it: He advised readers to steer clear of the fervor of Chicago 1968. In 1970, as the radicals began to figure out that the magazine, freshly bailed out by record corporations, was actually a sales brochure for rock dressed up as a counterculture Bible, a graffito reading “Smash ‘hip’ capitalism” appeared next to the entrance of Rolling Stone’s San Francisco office.
From the beginning, Wenner, a shameless social climber obsessed from a young age with wealth, debutantes, and the celebrities’ children he met in boarding school, had one demand of his readers. It wasn’t that they take back the streets or crush the corporate power structure or kill the pigs or end the war in Vietnam. It was that they make him, Jann Wenner, personally rich. The son of a lesbian bohemian and a Jewish baby-formula manufacturer named Ed Weiner (who changed his name around the time Jan was born; the second “n” in “Jann” was an affectation Wenner came up with in high school), Wenner simply used rock as his ticket to yachts, drugs, five-star hotels, sex with beautiful boys, and access to famous people. Today, in an era in which the founder of every restaurant-rating app vows solemnly to change the world, it’s refreshing just how frank Wenner was about his desire to use the way the world was changing to his immense monetary advantage. In a 1980s campaign pitching itself at Madison Avenue, and revisited in HBO’s new two-part documentary Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge, the rock magazine ran a series of paired photos headed “Perception” and “Reality.” One such ad posted, under “Perception,” a picture of George McGovern. Facing that, under “Reality,” was a picture of Ronald Reagan. This wasn’t selling out. A sell-out is someone who forsakes his ideals to make a buck. But making a buck was Wenner’s ideal. Always.
That HBO doc, despite being co-directed by a muckraking left-winger, Alex Gibney, who won an Oscar for his anti–Afghanistan War saga Taxi to the Dark Side, is an unconvincing attempt to strain half a century of American history through the Rolling Stone filter, framing the magazine as, for instance, a kind of godfather to the Black Lives Matter movement because it once published a cover featuring gangsta rapper Ice-T in a policeman’s uniform. Gibney also tries to make it appear that RS had some important role in the Monica Lewinsky drama, during which the magazine called for an end to the “inquisition” by publishing a symposium of celebrity pleas on the matter. Singer Joan Osborne wrote in its pages, “Why the hell would you want to mess around with Monica Lewinsky, anyway? Why go out for a cheeseburger when you can have filet mignon at home?” RS thus became perhaps the first media outlet in history to compare getting between the sheets with Hillary Clinton to devouring a tasty meal. Surely if Mrs. Clinton is comparable to any entrée, it’s liver and onions served at a temperature of approximately 55 degrees Fahrenheit, possibly encrusted with lint.
The comprehensive, raucous, drug-spattered story of the magazine and its famous founder is contained in Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, possibly the most engagingly thorough exposé of an American legend since Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. Joe Hagan secured complete and unguarded access to his subject, then came to despise him. That Wenner is a lying, scheming, substance-abusing, imperious, arbitrary, and cruel star-bonker who betrays his subjects, writers, and wife is the theme of practically every page, which is why the tycoon now takes heated exception to the book.
Hagan is a little grudging on another point, but it’s equally obvious: Wenner is, in magazine terms, a genius. Or he was, for 20-odd years, which is as long a run at the top as most anybody ever gets, certainly a longer run than just about any of the rock stars his magazine chronicled. Sure, RS is today for sale, gasping for breath. But so is nearly every other magazine that depends on advertising dollars, of which there are not enough to support most existing media outlets.
RS is going the way of the Baby Boom that it and Wenner typified. His Boomer timing was impeccable, starting with his birth in the first year of the population explosion, 1946. He went to Berkeley in the mid ’60s (because he got rejected at Harvard) and was present as an NBC News stringer for the first gurglings of campus political magma. Typically, he both hid from actual revolutionary fervor (Wenner “had run away,” Hagan writes, when police beat protesters at a 1964 sit-in at San Francisco’s Sheraton-Palace Hotel) and leveraged it to aggrandize himself, causing the head of NBC News in L.A. to accuse him of misrepresenting his importance to Berkeley administrators.
Attempting an autobiographical novel (“I knew lots of people but I had no friends”) and sidestepping the draft by finding a hippie-friendly doctor to write of his “serious personality disorder, . . . homosexual and excessive heterosexual promiscuity, and heavy use of illegal drugs,” Wenner got an offer from his mentor, hipster San Francisco jazz chronicler Ralph Gleason, to write about rock for a biweekly, The Sunday Ramparts. Wenner, shameless about where his interests lay, wrote in hushed tones about how Grateful Dead member Bob Weir was “from a social Atherton family” and had “played for his sister’s debutante party.” When that paper failed, Wenner would make use of its offices and production chief just after the Summer of Love to start Rolling Stone, with $7,500 scraped together from, among others, the family of his then-fiancée Jane Schindelheim.
Like many a genius, Wenner had an idea that seems in retrospect forehead-slappingly obvious. In the Woodstock Era, the “straight” press looked at youth culture with befuddlement and hostility — there’s a priceless moment in the HBO doc when a New York Times writer simply gets exasperated with the shallowness of her interview subject, John Lennon, and walks out on him. The underground hippie press, meanwhile, produced sloppy, amateurish psychedelic twaddle whose whimsical layouts induced headache if not blindness. Wenner gathered all the hippie stuff — drug guides, concert news, record reviews, backstage gossip, profiles of rock gods — and put it in one package with a clean, newspapery format. Naked pictures on the cover (Lennon, David Cassidy) proved an irresistible method for catching the reader’s eye, and rockers such as Lennon had finally found a medium that would take them as seriously as they took themselves.
Wenner ran, over two issues, a 36,000-word interview with Lennon in 1971, teased with that nude cover art of him and Yoko Ono. Lennon loved it. Imagine there’s no filter: His every musing was quoted as indulgently as a president’s, and wasn’t he the president of the hippies? Then Wenner, against Lennon’s objections, republished the interviews as a book that earned him $40,000 but cost him the friendship: Lennon never spoke to him again. More than 20 years later, Paul McCartney told Hagan, Wenner talked the ex-Beatle into giving the speech to accompany Lennon’s induction, as a solo artist, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, whose membership, it is widely believed, is largely controlled by Wenner. McCartney says Wenner told him he would be inducted the following year as a solo act in exchange for the favor, but when the following crop of inductees was announced, McCartney’s name was missing. It would be another four years before he finally got in, by which time his wife Linda, who would have relished the honor, had died. McCartney — as well he should — takes exception to any implication by the rockistocracy that Lennon was the primary reason for the Beatles’ success. As Tom Wolfe, whose books The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities began in RS, said of Wenner, “I don’t know how he does it but I think he’s pretty much immune to guilt.”
Another trick of Wenner’s was to pay writers hundreds of dollars less than the fees agreed upon and leave underlings to grovel and beg forgiveness. Hence the nicknames the tiny mogul accrued: “the fascist insect” (from Joe Eszterhas, later a writer of Hollywood trash classics Basic Instinct and Showgirls), “Yarn Vendor” (editor David Dalton), and “the rotten little dwarf” (Hunter S. Thompson). The last of these, though, along with Wolfe, served as confirmation of Wenner’s editorial acumen: In the early 1970s, the insect-dwarf cajoled Wolfe away from other big-time magazines to get his thoughts on the Mercury space program and realized that Thompson, whose antics wouldn’t have been tolerated in respectable media outlets, was worth the trouble. Wenner and his lieutenants would feverishly sort through and string together Thompson’s disordered fragmentary dispatches — sent just before the magazine’s closing time via fax — to create the era-defining first-person comic essays that grew into the books Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.
Wenner and Thompson amplified and celebrated each other’s excesses while Wenner’s wife was off having a romance with his geeky, nervous star photographer Annie Leibovitz, everybody roaring through the 1970s on guilt-free hedonism, with Wenner keeping close at hand a goblet containing a pound of cocaine and his staffers fornicating on their desks. Thompson, the journalist as rock star, actually attracted his own groupies — desperate young male imitators — and, like a rock star, was shattered by the same medium that made him. Initially resistant to cocaine, Thompson took a liking to it when RS editor David Felton mailed some to his home. “Cocaine became part of his writing life, which soon became a non-writing life,” writes Hagan. Reduced to writing “one paragraph an hour” with a brain that had turned “into cement,” Thompson never came close to matching the scathing and hilarious work he did b.c.: before cocaine. He was mostly washed up by 36 — routine for a rocker but disappointing for a journalist.
In later years, despite the RS cover story that brought down the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, because embedded writer Michael Hastings proved willing to burn his sources and publish the kinds of gossip other embeds kept to themselves, Wenner’s magazine became the equivalent of someone’s pathetic toupee-wearing uncle trying to talk his way into a rave. A 2013 cover portrait gave one of the Boston Marathon bombers the Jim Morrison treatment. In 2014, Wenner published a fictitious account of a nonexistent gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house. In 2016, he allowed Sean Penn and the then-fugitive drug lord El Chapo to drool all over each other in a cover story, though to Penn’s chagrin, details about how the interview was arranged led directly to the kingpin’s capture. Rock had gradually slipped out of the magazine just as surely as it had slipped off the summit of popular culture. But Wenner got everything out of the magazine he wanted. As an equally comical figure, Mick Shrimpton of This Is Spinal Tap, put it, “As long as there’s, you know, sex and drugs, I could do without the rock and roll.”