My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have a friend who isn’t interested in reading “Sticky Fingers,” the new biography of Rolling Stone co-founder and media mogul Jann Wenner. He explained that after reading too many rock ‘n’ roll biographies that are essentially litanies of sex, drugs, bad behavior, sex, drugs, and sex and drugs, he’s not interested in another one.
I can’t really blame him, but with a caveat: “Sticky Fingers” (an oddly appropriate title for the digit-in-every-pie Wenner) isn’t really about sex and drugs. It’s about money and power.
Wenner was born to money – new money, but money nonetheless. His father, Edward (whose last name was originally Weiner), founded a San Francisco-based company selling baby formula. It was the beginning of the baby boom, and business thrived.
His mother, known as Sim, was an unhappy housewife – a lesbian who thought she wanted a standard family life, but quickly realized it was a gilded cage. She and Wenner’s father divorced when he was a teenager.
Wenner – born “Jan,” a spelling he changed during his college years at Berkeley – was a precocious child who, like his mother, grappled with his sexuality. Unlike her, however, he didn’t come to terms with it until well into adulthood. It’s a plotline that comes to the fore throughout “Sticky Fingers,” often presented in gossipy ways. I’m not sure Hagan could have been higher-minded in discussing it, but after awhile the list of Wenner’s affairs, with men and women, becomes boring despite its alleged salaciousness.
The blunter throughline, however, is money. Wenner is presented as always on the make, a Sammy Glick for the Age of Aquarius.
Rolling Stone, which he co-founded with San Francisco music writer Ralph J. Gleason, does have its ideals, but Wenner never fools himself – as its staffers sometimes do – that he’s in it for justice. He sees his generation the way Madison Avenue did: as a bunch of free-spending consumers, whether buying LPs, cigarette papers and stereos or – later – cars, computers, diapers and liquor. That 1980s “Perception/Reality” ad campaign reflected Wenner’s true values.
And he wasn’t wrong: Apparently a lot of Rolling Stone readers DID vote for Ronald Reagan, despite the stories in William Greider’s politics column. (Of course, as one staffer notes, Greider’s work was always some of the least-read in the ‘80s version of the magazine.)
Which is not to say that the self-styled “Citizen Wenner,” who loved the movie “Citizen Kane,” didn’t also pride himself on creating a bold, muckraking magazine. One turning point was running the lengthy 1970 “Lennon Remembers” interview, which smashed some of the Beatles’ myths and, not coincidentally, boosted circulation at a time when the magazine was running aground financially. Another was hiring Hunter S. Thompson, who gave its political journalism a distinctive voice – also expressed by such writers as Tom Wolfe, Joe Eszterhas and Joe Klein.
In typical Wenner fashion, however, he managed to alienate John Lennon by pursuing more money out of the interview – publishing a book under RS’ aegis, one that Lennon explicitly told him not to do. It was not unusual behavior; over the years, Wenner would make enemies of friends, often shrugging it off as the price of business. (Even Gleason, whom Wenner idolized, fell away.)
But hey, business was very good. As RS’ chief stockholder, Wenner started living a life that was unavailable to many run-of-the-mill magazine editors. First he hung around with rock stars and record men, befitting their chief courtier. Then it became producers (“SNL’s” Lorne Michaels) and the Aspen/Sun Valley elite. The residences got more ostentatious; so did the overall lifestyle. I gasped when Wenner got a $300 million loan to buy back some stock and “would pay back nary a dime … funneling all the profits directly into his lifestyle.” This was in 2006; you know how the story ends.
I also gasped – or grimaced – upon reading how Wenner protected friends at the expense of journalism. It’s long been known that he’s played favorites on the review pages, making sure his pals in the Rolling Stones get glowing reviews for their crummy post-“Tattoo You” albums. (Of course, this may be payback for the crummy reviews folks like Lenny Kaye gave now-classic Stones albums like “Exile on Main Street.”) But I was surprised to read that he also gave interviews and cover stories to their subjects for vetting.
Bad form, Jann.
But, after awhile, the gasping and grimacing gave way to simply going along. Though the book makes a nice corrective to Alex Gibney’s too-glowing documentary on RS (which was produced in cooperation with the magazine), it’s missing the depth of Gibney’s interviews, which provided some nice context for the magazine’s evolution from music rag to respected periodical. It’s as if Hagan took one person’s jibe at Jann – that he simply rode a good idea for all it was worth – and overplayed it. Every so often Wenner the editor-in-chief comes into view, a man who is pretty good at his job, but then goes away in a cloud of money.
Sex and drugs, too.
As noted, there is plenty of sex and drugs. It was the ‘60s, after all; the ‘70s and ‘80s, too. LSD and pot give way to heroin and cocaine; free love gives way to slick sex and safe sex. Wenner and friends partake of it all. He manages to stay (reasonably) clear-headed while many around him fall apart.
Not the least of them is Wenner’s long-suffering wife, Jane, who was instrumental in molding the early Rolling Stone and smoothing Jann’s rough edges. Often ignored by her husband – who was busy either with the magazine or his famous friends – she plowed much of her energy into decorating, sex and drugs. The last wasn’t as easy for her to shake off as it was for her husband: at one point she’s described as so strung out that she won’t get out of bed for several days.
And that’s not counting the stories of other RS notables, especially famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, whose relationships with her subjects went well beyond taking pictures. At times chronicling these escapades is revealing. Leibovitz, for one, was discouraged from joining the Rolling Stones on a tour for fear that she’d barely emerge from the other end. She did the tour and, indeed, began a downward spiral that wasn’t turned around for a decade.
But more often it’s simply wearying. It’s a shame because Hagan also writes well when he has rich material, such as Wenner’s relationship with record labels and their moguls (such as Clive Davis and Ahmet Ertegun) and his willingness to go out on journalistic limbs when necessary (it was Rolling Stone that broke the full story on the Patricia Hearst kidnapping).
Hagan has some stylistic tics. He occasionally recapitulates some events as if you hadn’t just read them a chapter or two before. He also narrates too much, instead of letting some observers, such as Cameron Crowe, do the talking. (In Hagan’s defense, in some cases the observer didn’t give him an interview.)
He also gets some easy things wrong. “Saturday Night Live” comes live from Studio 8H, not 3H, and Dave Marsh – though he edited the “Rolling Stone Record Guide” – sure as hell didn’t write every entry.
But, for the most part, Hagan appears to have gotten it right. I do wish his portrait of Wenner were more well-rounded, but that probably says more about Wenner than it does about Hagan. As it is, “Sticky Fingers” says a lot about how money can’t buy ultimate happiness, but it sure as hell can buy so many other things.
Sex and drugs included.