Sticky Fingers: Jann Wenner and the Birth of the Modern Celebrity

Jon Foro on December 22, 2017

Sticky-Fingers220.jpgJann Wenner wanted a biography. As founder and Editor in Chief of Rolling Stone magazine, he has wielded an outsized influence over popular culture for decades, and his biography would have to match. When Wenner launched his “sort of a magazine and sort of a newspaper” in 1967, it also shot him into the whirlwind; soon he was socializing with the likes of John and Yoko, Mick , Janis, and Jimi, while indulging in the excesses inextricably intertwined with the rock-and-roll lifestyle. His success was deserved; as an editor, his eye was confident and sharp, and as the magazine grew in stature through the 1970s, his direction fostered the careers of Hunter S. Thompson, Annie Leibovitz, and Greil Marcus, just three of the many counterculture outliers to grace its pages. (Maybe grace isn’t always the right word.)

One might assume that he’d been planning a monument to himself all along, but in hiring Joe Hagan to write it, he might have gotten more than he bargained for. Wenner kept an exhaustive archive of all of his records and correspondence, and he gave Hagan full access. He also gave his permission--or at least acceded to it--to write the story as he saw fit, with all the sticky facts that unfailingly accompany a life so large. And, man, did Hagan pull it off. Sticky Fingers is overstuffed with anecdotes, interviews, and history that not only evoke Wenner’s persona in all its grandiosity and creative energy, but also that of the era he helped create.

One way to know that the book is good: Although Wenner reportedly regrets the result (he has denounced it as “tawdry”), he doesn’t dispute it. Hagan did him a favor. This is certainly not hagiography, but ultimately, Wenner will loom larger for it.

Hagan met us at Book Expo last summer to talk about the book--long before Wenner had a chance to read it. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Growing up, Jann Wenner was something of a preppie, maybe a little uptight. How did he become Jann Wenner, chronicler of rock and roll and the counterculture?

It really started in high school, a boarding school in Los Angeles called Chadwick. It was [attended by] all the children of celebrities, near Bel Aire in Hollywood. He felt like an outsider, but he got in by becoming the yearbook editor. Once he was the yearbook editor, he was arranging the pecking order, which was very important to him early on. He became very interested in social strata and social climbing. He was shameless about it, and people knew this about him.

He was listening to Johnny Mathis at this point, but later on, as he goes to Berkeley, he will discover drugs and rock and roll. He's right there in the center of it as it's starting to happen. He has a column at [the The Daily Californian newspaper]--a rock and roll column--but he did it anonymously as "Mr. Jones." He had a picture of himself with a fake beard, fake glasses, and a harmonica around his neck. He wanted to be able to write about drugs and the psychedelic scene without drawing a lot of attention to himself.

He went to an acid test in San Jose, the first time the Grateful Dead played as the Grateful Dead. He had just seen the Stones that night. He saw that this world, which seemed very bohemian and on the outskirts of the mainstream's interest, had all the same qualities that every other part of society had. There was going to be money, and people wanted to be famous. He ended up writing about that later in The Sunday Ramparts, his first professional job. By that time he'd met Ralph Gleason, a jazz critic, who becomes the co-founder of Rolling Stone.

Jann's idea was, "If I'm going to cover it and make it a thing, I'm gonna do it nicely. Make a nice newspaper." The real ka-ching moment [happened when] he took The Sunday Ramparts, which had folded, and recycled it as his--he just put "Rolling Stone" on the top. And it was this beautifully designed newspaper. [He] wanted it to look British and fussy, but the content would be local exotica. That was the beautiful combination, so representative of Jann himself.

Did he nick the name from Dylan?

More or less. Gleason wrote an essay on rock and roll called "Like a Rolling Stone" for The American Scholar. It was a super pretentious essay that invoked Plato, Nietzche, all this other stuff. Jann just took his premise and boiled it down to what would end up being his opening essay in Rolling Stone: Rock and roll is not just about music; it's about this whole culture of youth, and we're going to write about that.

From Hunter S. Thompson to Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone has a long history of edgy political writing. Was that always the vision?

Early on, Jann was hands-off with politics. As Vietnam became more intense and the politics got more radical, he was very skeptical of it--in fact, he attacked Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin as being hucksters. Kent State [was a] huge inflection point. Right around that time, Rolling Stone went bankrupt and Jann needed to raise money, and fast. Jann gets in with his record company people--Clive Davis, Jac Holzman--and they bail him out to the tune of $200,000. Suddenly he's in a position to be having to write about rock and roll.

Meanwhile, his staff had become super radicalized; they want to turn the magazine into a very frontal anti-Vietnam, political magazine. It becomes an internal conflict, almost an attempted coup by the staff to take it away from him. He was not good at firing people and he hated confrontation, but one at a time, he drives everybody out. When Kent State happened, he had about 50 people on staff; by 1970 he has about a dozen.

Right at that moment, who does he find but Hunter Thompson, and Hunter Thompson becomes the real catalyst for injecting politics into Rolling Stone. Hunter and Jann weren't interested in being on the margins of culture. They wanted to engage the power structure and whack the hornets nest of the mainstream Democratic party and Nixon.

Did that re-inject a little legitimacy to the magazine?

Absolutely. And it came at a time when rock and roll culture had hit a torpid, moribund moment, where it's going inward, and you're getting Joni Mitchell, CSNY, Neil Young. Everybody's sad-sacking around. The record business is starting to professionalize, and they see this as an industry. Suddenly Hunter comes along. He's this perfect invention for them. He's satirizing things and he's countercultural and he's about drugs. But he's not demanding anything--he's covering [stories] as a journalist. I don't think Jann understood fully what Hunter was doing at first, but he was very infatuated.

There were discarded attempts at a biography in the past. How did the book come now, and why do you think he chose not to write it himself?

As he readily admitted to me, he's a terrible storyteller. And I just think he didn't want to. I had met him in upstate New York in a cafe--I recognized him, introduced myself, and he invited me over to a couple of social events at his house. His estate was outrageous. Jaw hanging down, I brought my wife and kids and they all swam in the pool. The little Tom Wolfe in you is just observing everything, and I'm thinking if I could write about this, it would be really amazing.

One day he takes me to lunch, under the pretense that he's going to give me a contract at Rolling Stone. But then he said, "Well, what about writing my biography?" You're shocked and flattered, and there's anxiety immediately about how that's going to work. Should I even do this? I went to his office, and I [said], "I'm just going to read you a bunch of negative stuff that was in other articles--see how you cope with it."

He didn't cope with it too well at first. He wanted some say over certain personal matters and how they would would be handled, "so I don't expose people that I don't want exposed." So we wrote it all down, and we made a contract, one I could live with. He wanted it fact-checked, which I would have done anyway, and that I would review the most intimate, personal stuff with him. Not that he would ix-nay all of it, but he would know.

Sticky Fingers is packed with details and anecdotes about Wenner's life and relationships, much of which was drawn from his own records. How did you go about your research for the book?

I went into the archives--all this correspondence, telegrams, crazy stuff. I was in heaven. There are 500-plus boxes, bankers boxes, full of files and pictures, audio cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes. You order them up, and they're delivered from a mountain--a literal mountain in the Catskills that goes deep into the earth. In the case of a nuclear holocaust, they would survive. Immediately I was just gobsmacked by what I was seeing in there.

In certain periods of the year, every weekend I would spend 3-4 hours talking, tape-recording it all, showing him archival materials, trying to stimulate his memory. Looking through old issues. It was a real learning curve for me, how to deal with this amount of information. When I wasn't interviewing him, I was ordering up 20-30 boxes at a time. The way to focus it was to focus on characters. Who are the main characters that people want to know about, and who are important to him? It turns out there is an inner circle, and it's what you expect: the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan. He had the most intense relationships--or he tried to--with them. Same with Hunter and Annie Leibovitz.

How would you characterize his influence across those two decades of music, the '60s and '70s, when Rolling Stone probably seemed the most relevant? What's his legacy

Well, complicated. It's the story of a counterculture blooming out of late-'60s San Francisco and slowly congealing into an industry. Jann is a part of that--he was a handmaiden to the record labels, shepherding the culture of rock and roll into all of these other avenues of power: Hollywood, Washington, and eventually New York. Jann understood intuitively that rock and roll was about power and money and fame.

If you ever see the first issue of Rolling Stone, there's a little story down in the corner about the Jefferson Airplane having just gotten a record deal. They're sitting around swimming pools and they're living like kings. These were the revolutionaries of San Francisco rock and roll, but they're spending their dough. Jann was cued in: This is an adventure we're about to have here. The Sixties ended up being about the youth culture. They had more money than any group of kids in history, and they were going to create pleasure palaces [for] themselves. Jann was the perfect maker of those pleasure palaces, because he knew what he wanted. I call him the Me in the Me Decade.

What do you think his reaction will be?


I think he will be troubled by having to face some of the dark side of his life, which he knows is there. But I also strove to make a book that finally told the true story of who he is and the culture he made, and connect it to the modern culture and plug it in it in and make it relevant, in a way that I don't even know that Rolling Stone is at this point. A lot of people don't know who he is. When they find out, they're going to be blown away.

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