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

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

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.

View all my reviews

Advertisements

Tom Petty, 1950-2017

9343459_web1_2017-10-02t193609z_1366893742_rc15e7f0c850_rtrmadp_3_people-tompetty

(Update: Petty died Monday night.)

Tom Petty was the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll fan.

Most rock musicians are fans, of course. That’s why they become rock musicians. John Lennon idolized Elvis Presley; Kurt Cobain was fond of Black Flag. But Petty both wore his love of music on his sleeve — and got to be friends with his heroes.

He and the Heartbreakers got to back up Bob Dylan — and then he was in a band with Dylan (and George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne). Petty and the Heartbreakers later backed up Johnny Cash. And Petty, ever the fan, was genuinely pissed that pop and rock broadcast radio became boring and flat. That wasn’t what he signed up for. (He later created his own show, much like his friend Bob.)

Tom Petty is in grave condition. Earlier today, CBS News reported that he’d died after apparently suffering a massive heart attack Sunday night, less than a week after concluding the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour.

But as of 4:35 p.m. ET TMZ said Petty is still “clinging to life,” though he’s off life support and not expected to live past today. I hope TMZ is both right and wrong. CBS, now citing the LAPD, has pulled back on its obituary, and others that ran with the news are now backtracking, too.

He’s always been a fighter.

I could never say I was a hardcore Petty fan, unlike friends who have all his albums and were working his songs into their setlists 30 years ago. (Fans beget fans, the wonderful way of the world.) But I loved much of his music. “I Need to Know” is still a model of a balls-to-the-wall single (the fact that it couldn’t get into the Top 40 is criminal); “Love Is a Long Road” pours out both desperation and a touch of hope; “Girl on LSD” is the kind of absurd toss-off that’s all too uncommon in our smug and cynical times.

He could be passionate. Years before “The Last DJ,” it was Tom Petty who fought his record company from raising the price of what became the LP “Hard Promises” to $9.98. Petty was going to retitle the record “$8.98,” then the standard list price for albums, if he didn’t get his way.

He got his way.

His hero-friends, half a generation older, seemed to treat him like a welcome, impish younger brother. I’ve long felt, fairly or not, that it was Petty who gave Dylan his sense of humor back after that sometimes dour mixed bag of early-’80s albums. I don’t know that Dylan would have worked in a reference to Joe Piscopo on “Infidels.”

I also think it was Petty who was the secret weapon in the Wilburys, though this was a group with a world-class voice and a ukulele collector.

Then there was Petty the quiet observer. The best example of this Petty is “To Find a Friend,” off 1994’s “Wildflowers.” It’s as muted and finely wrought as a Raymond Carver short story:

In the middle of his life
He left his wife
And ran off to be bad
Boy, it was sad
But he bought a new car
Found a new bar
And went under another name
Created a whole new game

(Tom, I’ll forgive you for using “quiet as a mouse.” You knew what you were doing.)

I remember reading an article about Petty learning the craft of songwriting. I’m probably screwing up the timeline (and the story, for that matter), but what I recall was a Petty at loose ends after Mudcrutch, his earlier band, had broken up. So he’d sit with famed producer Denny Cordell, who’d signed him, and listen to record after record. Cordell would explain structure and musical choices, and Petty lapped it up. (Having colleagues like Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench didn’t hurt his education.) He wore those lessons on his sleeve long after he became a platinum-selling artist and created his own distinctive sound — passionate, a little funny, humane.

After all, he was a fan.

A not-so-Trivial conclusion

manuels.1998
Trivia at Manuel’s Tavern, late 19th century. That’s me on the right.
Time only goes forward, but memory goes backward. So, as the days count down to the arrival of the moving van, I’ve been trying to look forward — packing up books, throwing away paper, making preparations — while attempting to avoid a confrontation with my emotions, which are mulling over the past.

It’s been largely pointless.

I’ve been in Atlanta for 26 years, not to mention my formative college days, and emotions come with the territory. I want to be upbeat as I open the new door — it’s an adventure, right? — but I’m all too aware of the one swinging behind me.

So it’s with some dread that I approach Sunday night’s Team Trivia at Manuel’s Tavern, my final show.

I can’t overstate how much of a rock Trivia has been. I arrived back in Atlanta the weekend of April 20, 1991 — almost exactly 26 years ago — and one of the first things I was told about was this “trivia game at Manuel’s.” So I spent that Sunday evening with (in my memory) my old Emory friends Tim and Alec at the Tavern. We won, too.

A year later I was hosting, and I’ve been hosting ever since.

Continue reading

The story in the attic

I’ve been slowly — very slowly — making my way through the house and alternately getting rid of some stuff and packing other things in advance of my move. It’s been eerie and melancholy.

I filled five bags full of books to take to a trusted local shop, and I felt like I was pulling out fingernails. Last night I went through my CD racks to weed out discs that have been thoroughly burned or seldom listened to, and still I felt like I’d chipped away pieces of my soul.

I would not get along with Marie Kondo.

But what’s been more sobering, in some respects, was finding old documents I’d completely forgotten about. There was a time — a time before journalism became my full-time job — that I thought I’d be a fiction writer. I was never very prolific, but apparently I was more disciplined than I recalled. In memory, until taking a creative writing course during my fellowship year at Michigan, I hadn’t written a short story since college. (Side note: Amber Hunt, your photographs are always welcome sights on the KWF page.) But in reality, apparently I was doing more than that: Among the papers I found in the attic was a short story I’d written around 1993. Attached to it was a rejection letter from The New Yorker.

I have no memory of writing that story, or sending it off to The New Yorker.

Continue reading

Sunday reads: Chuck

o9ehhy

Some stories about the death and life of Chuck Berry, the man who helped start a revolution:

And if you aren’t in the mood to read, well, just listen. Nobody said it better than Charles Anderson Edward Berry.

Another day, another dumb jingle going through my head

The writers of jingles sure know how to create earworms. Here’s today’s:

Until just now, when I started researching this blog entry, I hadn’t realized the music for this jingle was actually from an old minstrel song, “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers.” It was a parody of a popular spiritual.

From religious tribute to humorous jab to marketing tool. America is an amazing country.

If you’d had asked me when this commercial originally ran, I probably would have said late ’80s or early ’90s — but I should have known better. Because, as I’ve written before, the 1970s were definitely a golden age for advertising jingles. No pun intended.

Sunday read: The rise and fall of Mitch Ryder

maxresdefault

I really enjoy the articles on Music Aficionado, which features a lot of material on classic acts and occasional obscurities, sometimes from unusual angles.

And also about subjects I hadn’t given much thought about. Like Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.

For a couple years in the mid-’60s, Ryder was huge, known for manic, headlong versions of pop music chestnuts. (“Devil with the Blue Dress On” is the best example.) Suddenly the hits ended as suddenly as they began. I’d simply assumed that Ryder, like a lot of blazing singles acts, burned out when the trends turned to album-length releases and the move to psychedelia in 1967-68.

The truth is more complicated than that. It involves Bob Crewe — yes, of Four Seasons fame — a concert featuring Cream and the Who, and an LP that’s apparently truly awful.

It’s my Sunday read. You can enjoy it while listening to this:

That will wake you up.

You can find “What Happened to Mitch Ryder?” here.

That’s SIR Raymond Douglas Davies

ray-davies-70
Image from Mojo.

Somehow, I missed this:

The KinksRay Davies received a knighthood Saturday for his service to the arts as part of Queen Elizabeth’s annual New Year Honours list.

Yes, Ray Davies — Kinks frontman, beer pedestal, tradition-keeper of little shops, china cups and virginity — is now Sir Ray Davies, knight of the realm.

This probably makes me happier than it does Davies, an occasionally curmudgeonly sort who was nevertheless gracious about the honor. “Initially I felt a mixture of surprise, humility, joy and a bit embarrassed but after thinking about it, I accept this for my family and fans as well as everyone who has inspired me to write,” he told the BBC.

But for me, well … Ray Davies may be my favorite songwriter. I love the Beatles, but there’s something about the Kinks that speaks to my innermost heart.

Continue reading

Review: ‘Anatomy of a Song’ by Marc Myers

Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and PopAnatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop by Marc Myers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You can see the underpinnings of a more thorough book in “Anatomy of a Song.”

In this work, Wall Street Journal columnist Marc Myers collects 45 of his articles from his column of the same name, providing a tour of rock history through some key singles. He starts with Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and concludes with R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” taking time to breeze through “Please Mr. Postman,” “Chapel of Love,” “My Girl,” “Different Drum,” “Maggie May,” “Rock the Boat” and several others — 45 songs in honor of the 45 rpm record, the longtime form of the single.

“Breeze” is the operative word. Though there are a few revelations — I had no idea Fats Domino played piano on “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” or there was an early, crummy mix of “Rock the Boat” (and Jim Gordon and Larry Carlton played on THAT) — too much has been written elsewhere, and sometimes you get the feeling chapters are cut off before the artists (or producers, or writers) really have a chance to dig deep.

That’s a given with an 800-word column, but it shouldn’t necessarily be a given in a book from those columns.

Continue reading

Good music everywhere (almost)

vintage_channel_master_14-transistor_two-band_am-fm_radio_model_6518_made_in_japan_red_plastic_26_chrome_circa_1960_8504806163
Image from Wikipedia.

I don’t know where I was specifically — in a restaurant, maybe, or a mall clothing store — but I do know that’s where I heard “Love’s a Real Thing” by the Super Eagles.

Never heard of the Super Eagles? No reason you would. They’re from Gambia, for one thing, and had their greatest success in the ’60s and ’70s.

And yet here I was, hearing this catchy tune in the most unlikely place: a public place.

(Quick update: My wife tells me we heard it at Osteria La Buca on Los Angeles’ Melrose Avenue.)

It’s not the first time I’ve been taken with a song that aired over the speakers at some store. (Mostly) gone are the days of syrupy Muzak, when you’d be subjected to inoffensive versions of “Cecilia” in a clothing shop. Now I hear songs I never would have discovered otherwise — at Starbucks, at Kroger (!), at hole-in-the-wall boutiques and restaurants. Sometimes these places are running a satellite radio channel from SiriusXM; other times they’re airing some employee’s Spotify playlist or old CD collection.

Ironically, the one place I never hear anything surprising is on terrestrial radio (with the occasional exceptions of college stations or the rare independent). Which is why I long ago gave up on terrestrial radio, at least here in the Atlanta market.

But still, I’m glad. Between iTunes and streaming services, we now have access to millions of songs. Thanks to a combination of human curators, clever algorithms (which aren’t as clever as humans) and Shazam, I’m able to listen to — and download — songs that may never have crossed my radar a few years ago.

Don’t take it for granted, kids. You’re living in a world of amazing artistic access.