Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine by Joe Hagan, Alfred A. Knopf, US $29.95, Pp 550, October 2017, ISBN 978-1101874370
Jann Wenner and Rock and Roll are inseparable. As Rolling Stone’s founder, editor, and publisher, Wenner helped shape the pioneering era of rock and roll. Neither of them could exist and grow Wenner without the other. In Sticky Fingers, Joe Hagan tells the story of rock and roll and in their heyday. Joe Hagan looks back at the era that was shaped as much by Wenner as by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Elton John, Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, and others.
Rolling Stone dominated the cultural and music scene as soon as it first appeared in November 1967. Joe Hagan says that the fertile crescent of psychedelia, the Bay Area, was a firmament of names and places that were already becoming touchstones for a generation: Haight-Ashbury, the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Bill Graham and the Fillmore, the Hells Angels and the Black Panthers. Joe Hagan writes, “Much was at the center of much of it, but it was bigger than music. It was an entire worldview in which young people had cornered the market on Truth with a capital T.” Against this background, when Wenner brought out Rolling Stone, it was an instantaneous hit and Wenner became the star of his own magazine.
Wenner imbibed the new values – sex and drugs and rock and roll – but they were folded into a larger pattern of aspiration. Wenner understood that along with the drugs and freedom there was fame, and also money. As a teenager, he attended a boarding school in Los Angeles that housed the offspring of Hollywood royalty, including Liza Minnelli, with whom he waltzed at a school dance. Their sparkling pedigrees offered Wenner solace from his broken home life. To fit in, he carefully monitored and organized his classmates in the school yearbook and won their allegiance to a rogue newspaper he invented to advertise his popularity and antagonize the faculty. Journalism was his VIP pass to everything he could hope to be.
Wenner had an intuitive grasp of the most significant quality of the new rock audience. It was largely male. For marketers, this new youth culture was uncharted territory, and Wenner was the pioneer. Until 1966, the primary outlets in America for the Beatles and the Rolling Stone were I6 and Tiger Beat, New York-based magazines for teenage girls who fetishized Paul and John and Mick and Keith as objects of romance and trivia. Joe Hagan says that Wenner made it safe for boys to ogle their male idols as rapturously as any girl might by adding a healthy dose of intellectual pretense. Wenner was the most important magazine editor in America from 1971 to 1977, shepherding the generational plotlines of the 1960s into a rambling biweekly serial of rock-and-roll news, hard and outrageous and impossibly long journalism, left-wing political opinion, sexual liberation, and drugs — always drugs. It was a man’s magazine, though women also read it. It was a leftwing 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.
In the 1980s rock and roll became an all-powerful institution — the opposite of revolutionary, except in the sense that Wenner had turned the youth revolution into a spectacularly profitable enterprise. Hagan says that success blunted Wenner’s feel for the culture and sow the seeds of his decline. He missed the rise of MTV and hip-hop, and later the Internet, cultural revolutions he experienced like a well-heeled uncle squinting toward Manhattan from a ski slope in Sun Valley, where he began wintering in the 1990s. It was the prickly celebrity tabloid US Weekly – his last successful invention, highly lucrative but culturally toxic – that would barricade his flagging rock magazine against the collapse of both the record and print industries, and later the entire economy in 2008.
Joe Hagan takes his readers backstage and hotel rooms and affords them to look into their private lives. He tells stories — of sex and drugs — that were never told before. Hagan has used documents and letters from Wenner’s personal archives that were unknown to the public. This makes Sticky Fingers the first comprehensive and authentic biography of not only Wenner but also of all other rock and roll stars. Sticky Fingers is a meticulously-researched and brilliantly-written book.