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

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

“High-functioning Narcissists can be incredibly effective people.” – direct quote from page 503.

I know this is incredibly dorky, but I grew up loving rock magazines almost as much as I loved rock ’n’ roll itself. In the ’70s, rock mags were ubiquitous. Hell, you could find them in grocery stores, even. By the time I was in middle school I knew the exact date that Creem magazine arrived at the market a few blocks away from my suburban home. On said days, I would ride my bike to the local market after school, hoarded lunch money in hand, to get my monthly rock ’n’ roll missive from Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Richard Meltzer, Nick Tosches and Jaan Uhelzski. That night I’d read every word.

The aforementioned Creem was kind of the good/fun/way-cool cop to Rolling Stone’s bad/boring/self-righteous cop. But Rolling Stone was indeed an important rock mag that had some gravitas. I would always buy Creem, but I’d only buy Rolling Stone if I had some extra money and it covered something especially cool – which was only about half the time. I was only 12 or 13 years old, but I was already hip enough to know that Creem covered the up-and-comers, while Rolling Stone was mired in the notion that everything had already been done – and done better – in the fucking ’60s. In other words, Creem was for the forward-thinking, punk smartasses, while Rolling Stone was for the upwardly mobile, burned-out and sold-out carbon copies of their parents that the hippies had become.

Still, Rolling Stone was an important, tastemaking magazine that published some excellent writing – scattered amongst its copious coverage of artistes like Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, David Crosby, The Eagles and an occasional moral panic screed about the coming danger and inherent wrongness of punk.

Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner was a wunderkind who, for better or for worse, defined the ’60s California mellow ethos and, later, came to serve as personification of how the California dream went horribly wrong. Wenner began in the ’60s as a hero of the underground (not my underground, but the underground nonetheless), morphing into a coke-addled, wannabe Hearst in the ’70s, a Rupert Murdoch style media mogul in the ’90s and early oughts, and, finally, a downsized capitalist casualty of the 2008 market crash. Oh yeah – he’s still the Svengali of the bloated, dreadful Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, too.

Joe Hagan’s pithy Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine is an unflinching retelling of the Wenner saga, replete with a lot of dirt-dishing and a heaping helping of trenchant cultural criticism, to boot. This is to say that the book is entertaining and insightful – and then some. So, while I’m not exactly buckwild about Rolling Stone or Wenner himself, Sticky Fingers will remain in my ever-growing trove of rock books, a neighbor to the “important” works of Ellen Willis and Robert Christgau, but more likely somewhere on the other side of Peter Guralnik where the neighborhood mutates from loft space into quasi-suburbia.

Sticky Fingers is not Wenner’s “authorized” biography – but then again it kinda is. And there’s a sticking point. In the book’s afterword, Hagan first mentions that he was recruited to write the book by Wenner himself, then lauding Wenner’s editorial prowess and that he “wanted the right to review the most deeply personal matters – namely his sex life,” and finally asserting that Wenner “did not read the manuscript of this book before publication.” Methinks Hagan is doing a bit of sleight of hand by saying that Wenner “reviewed” some of the material and yet that he didn’t read it. This begs the question of how Wenner could review something without reading it? I’m splitting hairs here, but that’s what I do. (And, by the way, I assure you that I do in fact read the books I review in stomp and Stammer.) Here, Hagan dances about architecture by more or less saying that Wenner didn’t read the book prior to its publication – except for the parts that he wanted to read, that is.

Nevertheless, Sticky Fingers delivers umpteen tasty tidbits about super-important ’60s rock stars in service of telling Wenner’s story. Wenner was there, on the periphery perhaps, but he was much more than a bit player. The ’60s were Wenner’s Rosebud/Camelot, and that’s cool. For better or for worse, the ’60s figure heavily in whatever’s left of rock ’n’ roll to this day. So Wenner’s story is in its way the story of rock ’n’ roll – or, as he would call it, “rock and roll.” And unfortunately, rock ’n’ roll is dead or dying. Wenner’s life exemplifies this dissipation. In a way he became what he at least claimed to despise.

Hagan writes: When Wenner ordered up a Rolling Stone feature on Donald Trump and his “narcissistic personality disorder” the staff had to just shake their heads and laugh. Wenner took issue with the idea that he himself was a “clinical” narcissist: Self-centered, egotistical… yes… but not beyond that. Wenner, of course, was a pioneer of the age of narcissism. And so it goes.