LIKE a lot of people I know, I’ve just finished the biography of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner. Sticky Fingers is more than just the story of one man, though it gets close to its subject: It’s a real cultural history of English and American music, of American magazines, of pop culture in general, and a shadow biography of what I call Boomer Triumphalism.
Wenner, as you may’ve heard, does not come across terribly well in here: He manages to betray or lie to just about every friend of professional associate, and comes across, often, as a manic, social-climbing, coked-up rich boy. Some from the early days of Stone have challenged the emphasis (though not the facts) of the telling, including the formidable rock critic Greil Marcus. (The book started out as a friendly project, pitched by Wenner himself, that became less friendly.)
Others find Wenner so distasteful they have told me they are not interested in the book. That he shifted English pop culture is undeniable. What are it causes and consequences?
I corresponded with author Joe Hagan about Sticky Fingers and the half-century it chronicled.
Let’s start with Wenner’s achievement. How was our world — at least, the world of music, media, and pop culture — changed by him? How big an impact did Wenner exert at shaping the way people in the English-speaking world see their culture?
Without overstating it too much, I think Jann shaped how people thought about the 1960s, and specifically the rock and roll culture that emanated from that era. His key insight of 1967 was that rock was a whole worldview that valued personal freedom and social progress. But he also had a hand in shaping how people viewed rock stars themselves, how they should look and behave and present themselves in the media. The cover of Rolling Stone was, for several decades, a kind of stylebook of rock stardom, which involved confession, shock and sexuality, the de facto virtues of youth rebellion. And Rolling Stone gave rock stars credibility as social commentators and critics, something that was unthinkable before Rolling Stone.
I got tired after a while of writing “Conflict !” in the margins of your book for all the dodgy ethical/ journalistic calls Wenner made, most obviously his allowing musicians to edit their own interviews. What were his most serious breaches, and on balance, how substantial a departure from professional journalistic standards do they seem?
In the beginning, RS was more like a trade magazine, a booster for the rock world, and less an organ of journalistic grit. Wenner understood that certain elements of the mid-60s teen magazine world were successful, including working hand in glove with the rock stars themselves. Even after RS ramped up its reputation with coverage of Altamont or the Charles Manson murders, Wenner still maintained that boosterism (letting rockers edit their own interviews) because it was good for business. When it comes to the kind of activist journalism he espoused, Wenner’s philosophy was basically that you piss outside your tent, not in it. For him, a record review didn’t fall under the protocols of the Columbia Journalism School.
Then there was the New Journalism era, known as much for stretching the old protocols of journalism as it was for serious reportage. Joe Eszterhas admitted to Playboy in the 1990s that he made up dialog in some RS stories and people constantly questioned Hunter S. Thompson’s work, wondering how much of it was made up. Jann Wenner was fundamentally a risk taker and he took risks on writers. Rolling Stone was sued for libel in 1976 for $100 million and ended up paying a fine and publishing a retraction, but that was an anomaly and Wenner learned from it.
On whole, I’d say RS’s journalism outweighed its boosterism and occasional backscratching. For Wenner, letting his idols control their own stories (or adding an extra star to a Mick Jagger solo album) was a small thing compared to the serious work he published. Obviously this all fell apart with the UVA rape story, which not only hurt their reputation but exposed the brittleness of the magazine as a whole.
Wenner has spent his life engaged with music, and musicians, but I still wonder: What is this guy’s taste like? He loves the Stones and Dylan, but who doesn’t? And he seems to think Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs and Billy Joel and eventually The Eagles are right there behind them. Does he just like — as one of his defrocked writers once charged — whatever sells?
It’s not just whatever sells. Jann always hated KISS, who sold a lot of records, and he never put Steve Miller on the cover of RS, because he personally disliked him. Jann liked the Big Three — Dylan, Beatles, Stones— and he likes California bands of the kind that defined his own success and his own era. His tastes didn’t evolve much past 1977. He is fundamentally a commercial nostalgist. And he likes bands who seem to be an homage to those same bands, like Lenny Kravitz or Kid Rock (who he genuinely likes). He came around to U2 a few years into their popularity, but he came around hard. (Bono was among those who got to edit his own interview.) Bruce Springsteen is a rather late breaking enthusiasm that he developed after Bruce paid him a visit in Sun Valley, Idaho several years ago. Certainly Jann’s access to Bruce added to the appeal. But let me add: Jann’s tastes, as middle of the road as they were, gave him a good sense of his average reader, who wasn’t a critic but more a mainstream fan. He understood the appeal of the main pantheon of rock stars who roamed the earth for decades.
Often reading your book I tried to find a brilliant decision —a nose for talent, a strategic masterstroke, an unorthodox move that nobody else could have come up with — but mostly kept looking. And yet the number of magazines and cultural ventures that spun out after a year or a decade are legion, while Wenner kept going. despite the coke and bad decisions and ego overload. Wenner clearly had the right idea at the right time, and rode the wave of an expanding postwar economy and music business, but was he a genius — as an editor, businessman, politician — or was he just rich and lucky and born the right year?
He was definitely lucky — he told me that himself when I first asked him about the key to his success — but his primary talent was a) being an adept social climber who inserted himself wherever the culture action was, which made him a natural bellwether for what was happening, and b) identifying talented people. That’s no small thing. As I write in the book, he recognized ambition that rhymed with his own and gave writers and photographers and designers freedom to experiment and pursue their obsessions. When it worked out, it was often a huge deal — especially in the 1970s. I think this is especially true of Annie Leibovitz. In the end, Wenner became a kind of diplomat for a successful generation of rock stars who became their own industry. He excelled at that.
I think that like me you are a Gen Xer who came of age after many of the great ‘60s heroes had either broken up, OD’ed, or become rich/ boring celebrities, and after the Baby Boom had woven its own youth into eternal myth. To what extent is your book a quintessential Boomer’s story, with Wenner seeking to make his generation’s heroes the Universal Gods, moving from campus protestor to suspenders-wearing plutocrat, ending as a sort of pop-culture version of Donald Trump?
I think it’s the story of the last 50 years in America — the prime years of the boomers, certainly, but the prime years for all of us, whether we liked it or not. Because we have lived in the boomer shadow for a long, long time. Their money and influence and self-involvement shaped music, film, politics—even the underground culture that emerged to counter it, whether punk or grunge. Jann’s story defined a lot of that narrative—indeed, I often call him the “id” of the baby boom because his personal story, and the story of RS, hews so closely to the generational story. That story is essentially ending right now. Jann did not predict that his 50-year anniversary would mark an ending, but here we are.
After years of working on the book, what seems like a Herculean number of interviews and a very heavy amount of research, how do you view Wenner and his body of work, such as it is? How do you think of him, his magazine, the rock and pop and celebrity establishment he leaves us with?
I think of him as a kind of Greek parable of his age. And the establishment that was left us is now being toppled and rebuilt in the image of a more racially plural and fast-moving generation—partly in response to the old generation’s last brittle totem, Donald Trump.
Obviously I strongly disagree that the book is a “hit job.” It’s unvarnished, sure, but not unfair. I understand that a lot of people’s careers were made by Jann and certainly there are those who share his reverent and nostalgic view of the past, especially at the 50 year mark. I don’t begrudge them their hurt feelings or critical reviews, though I seriously doubt that Greil Marcus read the book beyond the index. I think the book makes a strong case for Jann’s editorial genius and overall legacy. And most independent critics have observed that.