Books of The Times: ‘Sticky Fingers’ Captures Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner and the Culture He Helped Create


Here was the egotistical fanboy who had “legitimized and mainstreamed” the counterculture in the 1960s and early ’70s. You might buy a copy of Rolling Stone simply to ogle a superstar or to find out if Jerry Garcia was still dating Mountain Girl. But as the magazine began to filter out across America, it let a lot of lonely people discover that there were other people like them and other ways to live.

Over the ensuing decades, Hagan writes, Wenner assembled “an entire American cosmology of superstars and superstar journalists, stories, and myths, all fired in the kiln of his appetites and ambition. Millions had dreamed on his pages. Bruce Springsteen said Rolling Stone changed his life. Patti Smith found liberation in Rolling Stone.”

“Sticky Fingers” is about promises and promises betrayed, and about how Wenner’s life — his increasing obsession with fame and a plutocratic lifestyle — reflected both.


Jann and Jane Wenner, in 1970. Credit Robert Altman

The visions the rock culture had once delivered “had morphed into the Me Decade,” Hagan writes, “and the Me Decade had turned into Me Decades, and finally the falcon could no longer hear the falconer, not even in the pages of Rolling Stone.”

Wenner and our current president are the same age, and Hagan draws a straight line between them. “The solar eclipse of Donald Trump signaled the complete triumph of celebrity culture over every aspaect of American life,” Hagan writes, and Wenner helped lead us to the state we are in.

Come for the essayist in Hagan, stay for the eye-popping details and artful gossip. Wenner has complained about how much of that gossip is focused on his changeful sexual appetites. Wenner has slept for much of his life with men and women and thus, to paraphrase Woody Allen on the upside of bisexuality, has rarely lacked a date for Saturday night.

Hagan could easily have named-dropped his way through this book, yet he doesn’t drop names so much as pick them up and coolly appraise them in a line or two. Here’s Joni Mitchell, “plucking a dulcimer and ululating.” Or the record executive Ahmet Ertegun, “with the half-lidded ease of a beat poet.” Or Thompson, who “mumble-grumbled like a character actor from a Bogart movie.” Or Keith Richards, “looking as if his face were roasted for a Thanksgiving dinner.”

Richards has become the Gore Vidal of rock, the elder statesman always armed with an acid quote. He says about Wenner and Mick Jagger (this book floats the possibility that the two slept together): “They’re both very guarded creatures. You wonder if there’s anything worth guarding.”

Wenner founded Rolling Stone with money borrowed from the family of his soon-to-be wife, Jane Schindelheim, after dropping out of Berkeley. A famous early cover featured a naked John Lennon and Yoko Ono. “Print a famous foreskin,” Wenner wrote in the next issue, “and the world will beat a path to your door.”

The staffers at Rolling Stone tended to sleep together, and often enough with Wenner, according to Hagan’s account. Wenner developed an outsize cocaine habit; writers and staffers were sometimes paid bonuses with the drug. When the staff stayed en masse in a hotel, the management couldn’t figure out, the next day, why all the mirrors were off the wall and on their backs.


Joe Hagan Credit Samantha Hunt

As rock music faded in importance, Rolling Stone got a lift from Wolfe and Thompson and became, in many ways, the beating heart of New Journalism. Annie Leibovitz made the magazine’s images as vital as its writing.

After Wenner himself, Leibovitz is the most fully realized character in this biography. She comes across as an endearing wild child, sleeping with some of her subjects, abandoning rental cars in haste at airports and becoming, Hagan writes, a “full-blown drug addict whose body was, more than once, unceremoniously dumped in front of a hospital by her dealer.”

In the decades that followed the ’70s, Rolling Stone made money but largely ceased to matter. Hagan charts the way that Wenner, in some of his employees’ estimation, sold out to record companies, and the way he allowed his favorite artists to control what was written about them.

Wenner had a heart attack and broke a hip in June. He has put his controlling share of Rolling Stone up for sale. The magazine itself had grown perilously thin, even before it was rocked by a discredited story about a rape at a University of Virginia fraternity.

Wenner comes off in “Sticky Fingers” as a narcissist, a bully, a seducer and a betrayer, and a troubled soul. Feuds with countless people — Lennon, Paul Simon, Greil Marcus, the promoter Bill Graham — are recounted. He also led a big life that was packed with incident and frequently even joy. “The alchemy of his appetites,” Hagan writes, is what made him a great editor in chief.

This book lays those appetites bare. In scorning Hagan’s work, Wenner’s editorial antennae have failed him. He had the nerve to select a writer and not a hagiographer, and the decision, at the end of his long career, looks good on him. At times this book will help future generations remember Wenner the way he’d like to be remembered. He told his son Theo, Hagan writes, “Put Hunter’s name on my tombstone, not Brad Pitt’s.”

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