Review: “Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine” by Joe Hagan

I give this book 3/5.

This is the antonym to a hagiography.

Hagan is a harsh writer. He was given the mission of writing this, a biography on Jann Wenner, an extremely rich person who seemingly has walked over bodies to get where he is now, from a culturally open landscape to capitalistic torpor. Wenner has denounced this book, but still, I’m sure Hagan has some rights with it.

There are some quotes which tell you what Hagan’s tone can be:

Wenner’s unabashed idol worship had so often embarrassed them—starfucker, they grumbled behind his back—but now here he was with an actual Beatle. And Yoko! Who could deny this? The hirsute supercouple were smaller than anybody imagined, but John Lennon still towered over Jann Wenner, who at five six so often found himself gazing up at his heroes like a boy vampire.

Of his family:

In the divorce proceedings, Sim gave custody of Jann to his father and took the girls with her. It was a decisive blow to Wenner’s sense of self. For years to come, Wenner would tell friends his parents fought over not who got to keep Jan Simon Wenner but who had to take him. His mother, Wenner said, once called her son “the worst child she had ever met.”

Once Wenner had wrangled together enough monies to have Rolling Stone Magazine up and running – albeit not without its legal issues, mainly where Mick Jagger owned the rights to the term “rolling stone” (and not Muddy Waters, funnily enough) – things unfurled naturally to him:

The post-1960s vision of celebrity meant that every printed word of John Lennon’s unhappiness and anything Bob Dylan said or did now had the news primacy of a State of the Union address. It meant that Hunter Thompson could make every story he ever wrote, in essence, about himself. It also meant that climbing into bed with Mick Jagger was only worth doing if you had a Nikon handy. Self-image was the new aphrodisiac. The 1970s was “the Me Decade,” in Wolfe’s famous coinage, defined by endless “remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self.” This was a fundamentally Californian mandate, sprung from the halls of Berkeley and the hills of Hollywood, where a devotion to hedonism was baked into the West’s culture of escapism and reinvention. That made Jann Wenner a walking bellwether, his own curiosities and desires a perfect editorial template for Rolling Stone. “He leads with his appetites—I take, I see, I have,” said Art Garfunkel, a close friend in the 1970s.

There is a lot of gossip in this book. For instance:

Exploiting the talents of Annie Leibovitz, who was in love with his wife, Wenner could divine the homosexual subtext of a hetero rock culture through acts of image making, personally manning the turnstile to his distinct American moment—Rolling Stone’s cover. Leibovitz’s nude photograph of teen idol David Cassidy on the cover in 1972—with a Playboy-inspired centerfold inside—was a signal moment, selling thousands of copies of Rolling Stone and establishing a new standard for self-exposure (and self-reinvention). It was also something Jann Wenner enjoyed looking at. Wenner turned the cover of Rolling Stone into a rock-and-roll confession box, with Paul Simon, George Harrison, Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor, Carly Simon, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young all eager to climb inside the Oxford border and expose their dramas, and very often their flesh, so as to be sanctified by the essential self-seriousness of Rolling Stone. And as the cover became the prime sales pitch for selling records, and the prime sales pitch of Wenner’s magazine, Wenner made Rolling Stone into a cultural event, adding vibrant colors (a rainbow border around a fedora-wearing Truman Capote), moody studio portraiture (Kris Kristofferson in shadow), winking humor (a Vargas girl riding a silver dildo for a Steely Dan profile), adventurous illustration (Daniel Ellsberg as a Roman bust), and liberal doses of insouciant sexuality whenever possible (Wenner commanded Annie Leibovitz to make Linda Ronstadt look like a “Tijuana whore”).

It’s funny to see how Hagan at times writes in a way that makes me think of the classic biographer. You know, “they did X, they went to Y”. Other times, more of the gossipy way, while speaking of Wenner’s family. To begin with:

In a single stroke, Sim both blessed and cursed her son by naming him Jan, writing that his name referred to the Roman mythological figure Janus, a byword for betrayal and contradiction. “Two-headed,” she wrote. “Gatekeeper of heaven.” (As a teenager, Jan would add the n to his first name.)

His parents don’t seem to have been very kind nor empathetic:

Ed Wenner was hardly a source of comfort. Frustrated by his intemperate son, Ed frequently hit him. Kate said her brother would crawl out his bedroom window to hide from spankings. When Wenner threatened to run away from home, his mother put a can of creamed corn in a handkerchief tied to a stick, handed him a nickel, and said, “Here, take this, you’ll need it.”

In the divorce proceedings, Sim gave custody of Jann to his father and took the girls with her. It was a decisive blow to Wenner’s sense of self. For years to come, Wenner would tell friends his parents fought over not who got to keep Jan Simon Wenner but who had to take him. His mother, Wenner said, once called her son “the worst child she had ever met.”

“Your demand that Dad and I be something to each other that we’re not, is basically a child’s demand,” she wrote to him in 1959, when Wenner was thirteen. “One stamps one’s foot and says, ‘Change the world and I will be all right!’ and it’s a nice comforting thought to have, but the world can’t be changed, families can’t be changed, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers…There is only one thing that can be changed, or rather, only one thing that you can change, and that is yourself.” (“Maternally yours,” she signed the letter.)

Wenner would never forget his mother’s parting words: “You’re on your own, Buster Brown.”

It’s fun to read of reader and musician reactions to Rolling Stone Magazine’s reviews and articles; deeply saturated in gossip and shock as they were, they often resulted in reactions from the victims:

But a few reader letters trickled in, the first one from Sharon Miller of Los Angeles, who said, “We all dig Rolling Stone.” By issue No. 3, they heard from a representative of Stax Records in Memphis, who declared, “Amen.” By April 1968, Charlie Watts, the Stones’ drummer, was writing to thank Jon Landau for the “nice things he said about me personally,” a coy reference to a critical slam of Their Satanic Majesties Request (“The rest of us, I’m sure, will try for the next one,” said Watts).

But with Rolling Stone as his sword and shield, Wenner delighted in biting the hands that fed him. In the same issue he published his Clapton interview, and he tested his influence by running Jon Landau’s critical assassination of Cream—“Clapton is a master of the blues clichés”—which Eric Clapton later said made him pass out and then disband the group. “The ring of truth just knocked me backward,” Clapton would recount. “I was in a restaurant and I fainted. After I woke up, I immediately decided that it was the end of the band.”

They often nailed sentiments of the mainstream (white) youth culture. Ralph Gleason was one of the first, and most respected writers:

And white people were finally learning how to be black. “They don’t clap as well as a James Brown audience in the ghetto areas,” wrote Ralph Gleason in June 1968, “but they clap a thousand times better than their parents did.”

Some artists were followed with verve, allowing to dominate the mag more than the other way around, even behind the scenes:

Dylan said Columbia arranged the interview, but he evidently wanted to suss Wenner out personally. Wenner would never forget Dylan’s first handshake: limp and gripless, a cold fish in his hand. While they sat in the hotel room, he agreed to let Dylan approve the manuscript and edit it before publication, which would become standard operating procedure for Wenner’s chosen stars.

There are some quite beautiful one-liners thrown around the book. For example:

While Jann ping-ponged, Jane suffered bouts of pronounced ennui, popping downers and surrounding herself with stray animals and stray men.

I can almost imagine Hagan finishing the sentence, being quite sated by himself. Which is masturbation. Still, it works in a way. It does serve a purpose asides from existing as bitchy gossip.

Also, I love this part of a stanza:

In the summer of 1971, Joni Mitchell released the seminal song “California” from her fourth album, Blue, wherein she finds herself in Europe surrounded by “pretty people” who were “reading Rolling Stone, reading Vogue.” Plucking a dulcimer and ululating, a luminous goddess of the 1970s, she pined for California and promised to return once her skin turned brown.

“Plucking a dulcimer and ululating”. Brilliant.

However, despite coiling in worship before some artists, they could turn at the crack of a whip, as with their mighty Rolling Stones at the time of the tragic slaying at their Altamont gig:

“Is Mick responsible for the killing?” ran a caption under a photo of Jagger, who was described in the story as a smug dandy in “a red velvet cape and red velvet cap,” demanding “the best of hotels, limousines, cuisine.” As his story went to press, Wenner did try getting Jagger to respond, sending a telegram to Maddox Street in London. “There is no attempt to fix blame,” he wrote to Jagger. “It was a cosmically preordained celebration for the end of the 60s.” But that was Wennerian obfuscation. Laying the blame was the point. With a dozen reporters at his back, notebooks bristling with incendiary quotations from every boldfaced rock name in San Francisco and L.A., Jann Wenner had to know he was baiting the hook for the former chairman of the Trans-oceanic Comic Company when he said, “We certainly don’t blame you but your continued silence is making other people uptight and suspicious and I think if you will make a statement in Rolling Stone it will go a long way towards straightening matters up and putting people at ease.” Jagger didn’t reply. But when the story was finished, it left zero doubt that Rolling Stone was “attempting to fix blame.” “Altamont,” said the story, “was the product of a diabolical egotism, high ineptitude, money manipulation, and, at base, a fundamental lack of concern for humanity.” Wenner had never betrayed his heroes quite like this before. He had slammed a record or two, angered a few record executives, made Eric Clapton faint. But through an alchemical mix of petty business grievance and self-preservation, Jann Wenner nailed Mick Jagger’s hide to the wall with vindictive aplomb. For a generation of readers, the story of Altamont was the one printed in Rolling Stone, seared into history like a cattle brand held in Jann Wenner’s grip.

For Jagger, the Altamont story was a betrayal by Jann Wenner; for everyone else, it was an inflection point for the youth culture.

Apropos that, one of the most significant writers came along:

Earlier that year, an ambitious writer (and ardent opportunist) named Hunter S. Thompson wrote to congratulate Jann Wenner: “Your Altamont coverage comes close to being the best journalism I can remember reading, by anybody.” Wenner replied that he was submitting the Altamont piece for a Pulitzer and offered to publish Thompson in Rolling Stone. Thus began a correspondence that would alter the course of Rolling Stone’s future, though not for several months to come.

Weirdly enough, the book almost doesn’t touch upon the finest rock journalist to ever have graced this world: Lester Bangs, a world unto himself. The book does, however, delve into Cameron Crowe and how he was affected by Bangs and his own time at Rolling Stone Magazine:

In June 1975, Cameron Crowe trudged up the twenty-four steps at California Street with jangling nerves. He was in trouble. Big trouble. Jann Wenner was upset with Crowe’s cover story on Led Zeppelin and had asked him to fly from San Diego to discuss it. “It’s like, wow, I’m actually being called to the principal’s office, I fucked up,” recalled Crowe. He was seventeen.

Wenner fired critic Lester Bangs in 1973 because he said his reviews were too negative. Bangs had declared that 1972 was “one of the stalest years in the history of popular music,” but the last straw was his review of Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings from Asbury Park in 1973: “He sort of catarrh-mumbles his ditties in a disgruntled mushmouth sorta like Robbie Robertson on Quaaludes with Dylan barfing down the back of his neck.” Springsteen: “Hilarious review…I couldn’t tell if it was positive or negative.” Unless critics were writing laudatory reviews of best-selling superstars, Wenner generally considered them pains in the ass.

There were some notable destruction on the part of Rolling Stone, where pop stars opened up to later find themselves eviscerated:

Fong-Torres’s journalism didn’t respect many boundaries, as Jackson Browne soon found out. Wenner was introduced to Browne by Danny Fields in the offices of Elektra in the late 1960s, and he first appeared in Rolling Stone in 1970, name checked by David Crosby as “one of probably the ten best songwriters around.” Browne’s first Rolling Stone cover, when he was twenty-five, featured him cradling his baby son, Ethan, in his arms, an echo of the Joe Dallesandro cover. Wenner assigned the story to a sixteen-year-old reporter named Cameron Crowe, who lived at home with his mother in San Diego. Browne remembered him as enthusiastic and sweet, a guileless fan scribbling notes, but afterward Crowe’s editor, Ben Fong-Torres, called Browne to ask for more material. “They sent Ben Fong-Torres to my house to interview me, to touch it up, to beef it up,” Browne said. “And it was the same day that Annie came to shoot me. I went to the store, and Ben Fong-Torres went into my house alone. He literally came into my bedroom…he wandered through the whole house, he described the contents of the house, he wrote down shit that I had in my fucking notebook. I felt so violated. Like, I’m going to kill this guy. I’m gonna walk to San Francisco and walk across the fucking floor and deck this motherfucker.”

David Geffen told Fong-Torres he was becoming Rolling Stone’s own Rona Barrett, the glamorous Hollywood gossip columnist famous for her dishy (and sometimes vicious) reports. “I just read your latest bit of bullshit,” Geffen told him in 1974. “Congratulations…you finally made the small time.”

Then the magazine shifted with its prime owner:

Coke eventually distorted all facets of Wenner’s life. His staff began to notice, starting in 1972. During the thirty-six-hour rush to close an issue, Wenner began conducting what staffers would come to refer to as “cocaine edits” on stories and covers, slashing them up during weekend frenzies. Office manager Dan Parker, who delivered some layouts to the Wenners’ house in the early 1970s, recalled Wenner sitting with a powder-filled goblet by his side. “I would guess a pound at least of cocaine,” he said. “I said, ‘No thanks, I’ve got a lot of things to get done.’

The book goes on with telling how Wenner became a multi-millionaire while estranging a lot of people around him. He is wrongly credited as to having spawned the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame with Ahmet Ertegun, which is really just theft and politics.

Jann Wenner still had a lifetime’s worth of grudges and hurt feelings, the legacy of the passion he inspired. The band Kiss hated him for allegedly blocking them from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in 1977, Rolling Stone depicted Gene Simmons as an unrepentant asshole in the classic “The Pagan Beasties of Teenage Rock”). Joni Mitchell threw a drink in Wenner’s face at an awards ceremony and wrote a song called “Lead Balloon”: “?‘Kiss my ass!’ I said / and I threw my drink / Tequila trickling / down his business suit.” (Jimmy Webb beat her to the punch with the Wenner-inspired “Friends to Burn,” from 1993.)

As you see, there’s a lot of conflict, hatred, gossip, ineptitude and enflamed comments that build the backbone of this book. The allure is Hagan’s writing, which is as strong as it is harsh. At its worst, it’s bitter, and at its best, it’s refreshing in a world of Facebook positivity, by which I mean false advertising; here’s the low-down, which may not be true in its entirety, but at least it’s entertainment. And isn’t that just what Rolling Stone Magazine was?

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