Book Review: Sticky Fingers by Joe Hagan

Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine

Joe Hagan

Paperback, Alfred A. Knopf, 2017

40.00 NZD

In the spring of 1970 Jann Wenner, the 24 year-old editor of Rolling Stone, sat with his beautiful wife Jane in a darkened theatre while their guests John Lennon and Yoko Ono wept in sadness and frustration at the sight of Paul McCartney singing on the roof of the Apple Building in the newly-released concert film Let it Be. Soon after, Lennon would grant Wenner an exclusive interview on the bitter unravelling of The Beatles, his ramblings transcribed verbatim over many pages of the ascendant magazine. Having attained what he wanted, Wenner abruptly released a book version of the interview, contrary to his agreement with Lennon, who was incensed by the betrayal. Although the two men never spoke again, following Lennon’s 1980 murder, the ever-opportunistic Wenner would position Rolling Stone as the premier defender of “his friend John’s” image and legacy.

This episode is well chosen to open Joe Hagan’s capacious and often scabrous new biography Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine. It speaks eloquently to the character of a man who would again and again deploy his charisma and capacity for sycophancy to win people’s trust, only to jettison them at the point sufficient value had been extracted. The Wenner whose messy, largely unselfconscious life Hagan chronicles over 500 pages is difficult to like—selfish, dissipated, a dilettante and social climber whose rise from groupie to media mogul leaves a trail of financial and emotional wreckage in its path.

This lack of personal charm is not in itself a problem—it is no great insight that a successful biography need not be enamoured with its subject, indeed, some of the best are sharply critical. What does matter is whether the life being examined is worthy of the author’s analysis and the reader’s attention. In this case, the answer is a resolute yes. It is hard to imagine a life and times more suitable than Wenner’s for elucidating what Hagan astutely frames as a ‘parable of the age of narcissism’. Hagan is of course referring to the era of identity and celebrity-obsessed pop culture that began in the 1960s and continues to traverse new frontiers of digital vanity. Wenner is a fitting antihero for this narrative, a ‘principal architect of the rules of modern self-celebration.’

The story of how Wenner came to occupy this dubious cultural role begins in earnest in Northern California in 1967. A man named Chet Helms makes the mistake of inviting the twenty-year old unemployed journalist, whose sole professional experience is a brief stint at the irreverent (and quickly defunct) Sunday Ramparts newspaper, to start a hippie magazine that would be sold in record stores. To the extent there is one, Helms’ plan centres on a list of addresses sourced from a radio contest that will be used to solicit subscriptions. Like many of Wenner’s non-famous associates, Helms quickly finds himself outmanoeuvred as the energetic Wenner proceeds to plan and realise a publication (using the list) without him. Some years later, Jane Wenner will recall encountering the hapless Helms serving her ice cream in a Bay Area store.

The resulting magazine, launched by Wenner using money borrowed from friends and family—principally Jane’s wealthy parents—would be music-oriented in the vein of New York-based Crawdaddy and England’s Melody Maker, but in contrast to these fan-service sheets, focus a critical and edgy lens on the ‘entire culture’ then being spawned by rock and roll and the post-war baby boom. A name proved elusive until Wenner’s early mentor and collaborator, veteran Jazz critic Ralph Gleason, came up with Rolling Stone after Bob Dylan’s song ‘Like a Rolling Stone’.

From the start, an ethos of professionalism characterised the enterprise. This ‘very slick’ magazine, Wenner boasted in a letter to a friend, was perfectly positioned to successfully exploit the emerging ‘youth market’. On this count he was dead right. Wenner had stumbled across what Hagen describes as ‘the bounty of the biggest, richest generation in the history of the planet’. By 1964 Time was already reporting that teenagers, rarely perceived as a distinct or marketable group prior to 1945, boasted an annual income from part-time work and parental allowances of 12 billion dollars, a figure that would continue to rise.

What is more, to Wenner’s incalculable advantage, San Francisco happened to contain the cultural scene ripest for co-option. By the mid-to-late 1960s, this once sleepy city had become the epicentre of the nation’s bourgeoning counterculture and jam-rock scene, dominated by its seven ‘indigenous’ bands: The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Country Joe and the Fish and Quicksilver Messenger Service.

Rolling Stone thus originated, unlike many harbingers of celebrity-oriented vacuity, in the crucible of genuine cultural ferment. For a time, it was indeed the journal of the zeitgeist, cannily reflecting back to the remnants of the ‘Woodstock Nation’ generational obsessions with authenticity, self-expression and anti-authoritarianism. To do this, in the late-1960s and early-1970s, Wenner assembled a team of some of the freshest and most original voices in late-twentieth century American journalism. The star that burned brightest in this firmament, becoming a perverse moral compass of the magazine was Hunter S. Thompson, the drug-addled non-fiction auteur whose peculiar brand of first-person reportage invented the ‘Gonzo’ subgenre of the New Journalism. Another breakout contributor of the era was photographer Annie Leibovitz, whose lurid, intimate portraits of the famous and debauched did more than anyone to define the modern template of celebrity image-making. Both artists had complicated, at times toxic, relationships with the Wenners. Lebovitz, who comes across in Hagan’s account as neurotic, self-destructive and boundary-challenged, became entangled with both Jann and Jane in a love triangle it would take years to professionally and emotionally extricate herself from. Thompson fell out with Wenner over petty expense claims right around the time that his not inconsiderable talent entered a fatal tangle of writer’s block, self-hype and substance abuse.

While this halcyon era of Thomson and Lebovitz eventually came to an end, Rolling Stone was destined to evolve and prosper. As hippiedom curdled into sinister excess and then commercialism, the magazine would gleefully leave all pretensions to countercultural relevance behind, instead embracing increasingly bland, yet incredibly lucrative corporate-friendly content. From the late-1970s, Wenner relocated the magazine from the Bay Area to Manhattan and began successfully courting ‘premium’ cigarette and automobile advertising contracts while putting lascivious spreads of television celebrities and teen idols on the cover as often as Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger.

In Hagan’s telling, Wenner the junior mogul surfs these cultural and political upheavals as a kind of monster Id, a cocaine-snorting, vodka-guzzling, confidence-betraying supplicant to the powerful and cool. Throughout, he evinces almost no consistent journalistic ethics other than a readiness to weaponise the cultural cachet of Rolling Stone to reward friends and marginalise foes, real or imagined. Pals like Michael Douglas and Bono are given carte blanche to edit their already fawning profiles and retouch photographs prior to publication, while Wenner himself frequently interferes with record reviews in service of commercial and personal conflicts of interest.

To a shocking degree, in the 1970s and 80s Wenner would prostitute the magazine’s editorial perspective to the Democratic Party as politics temporarily supplanted music as an obsession and vehicle of social climbing. Rolling Stone became an effective adjunct of the doomed 1972 George McGovern campaign as a well as the successful runs of Jimmy Carter in 1978 and Bill Clinton in 1992. Scattered moments of journalistic and literary excellence emerge from the magazine despite, rather than because of, this cynicism and lack of objective standards, beginning with a somewhat brave evisceration of The Rolling Stones’ sordid tragedy at Altamont, contrary to the wishes of his idol Jagger. Other highlights include Thompson’s early contributions, a pioneering series on the civil litigant and radiation poisoning victim Karen Silkwood, a scoop on life of on-the-run Patty Hearst, Tom Wolfe’s reporting on NASA that became The Right Stuff (1979) and the pre-publication serialisation of his novel Bonfire of the Vanities (1987). Then there are the backfires, including the embroidering of putative ‘non-fiction’ articles by coked-up reporter (later Hollywood sleaze merchant) Joe Ersterhas and most seriously, the now-retracted 2015 story by Sabrina Rubin Erderly alleging a pack-rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house that likely never happened.

In keeping with its theme of celebrity worship, these journalistic triumphs and failures seem somewhat secondary in Hagan’s biography to the doings of a cast of famous names who flit through the narrative as both Rolling Stone subjects and associates of the Wenners. This line up of the bold and the beautiful includes arch-frenemy Jagger, nemesis Paul Simon, Atlantic Records honcho Ahmet Ertegun, entertainment Svengali David Geffen, socialites Diane and Egon von Furstenberg and jet-set photographer and hanger-on Jean Pigozzi, to name a few. Hagan’s portrayal of this demi-monde is entertaining, sensitive and often illuminating, as are the (often rueful) comments of its surviving members on the excesses and grasping of the Wenners. Most of those still alive have sat down with Hagan for interviews during preparation of the book and this depth of research and access is one of its greatest strengths.

Toward the end of narrative in 1995, Wenner, long prolifically unfaithful with both men and women, finally acknowledges his homosexuality as dominant. Scandalizing the entertainment industry, he ‘comes out’ publically during the act of unceremoniously dumping Jane for a young male model. It is a bittersweet moment, marking the end of a remarkably successful connection that was instrumental (yet undeniably deep) and the beginning of a more honest and mature lifestyle for Wenner with his new lover, Matt Nye. Had this occurred in the context of another life it might seem more like an act of bravery, but the revelation appears here as yet another instance of at-all-costs impulse gratification by a man unable to stay faithful to anyone or anything. It is fitting, if melancholy, that his decades-long muse Jane, a graceful, stylish and intelligent, if somewhat idle woman whom Annie Lebowitz memorably describes as the ‘only one standing still in all these speedy lives’, would find herself ultimately discarded like so many others in Wenner’s orbit. That Wenner is primarily a slave to his appetites, gay and straight, is reflected only too clearly in recent accusations of harassment leveled against him by male employees as part of late-2017’s ‘me too’ moment of cultural reckoning with sexual assault and impropriety in the workplace.

Overall, Hagan must be commended for a highly readable, at times incisive and always unsentimental biography of a prickly subject, the generational and cultural landscape that made his rise his rise possible and which he helped principally shape. While a parable of the age of narcissism, Hagan’s biography is never dull and itself far from shallow.

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