The contradictory and colourful life of the Rolling Stone editor, Jan Wenner

In Sticky Fingers, Joe Hagan has written a rollicking biography, with plentiful sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, gossip and riotous behaviour.

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A long lead into press time can cause severe problems when events come thick and fast. The Rolling Stone issue dated 27 December 1969 had a front cover picture of Mick Jagger headlined: “The Stones’ Grand Finale”. The lead story inside – “Free Rolling Stones: It’s Going To Happen” – detailed the scramble to find a venue for the western Woodstock: San Francisco’s chance to show the world how free festivals were really done.

By the time the issue hit the stands the concert had been and gone. The disaster at Altamont – a vicious murder in plain sight, many injuries, drug-saturated chaos – presented Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner with a serious dilemma. His relationship with Jagger was already fraught: the group had threatened to sue for the magazine’s use of their name, and a peacemaking agreement to publish a Jagger-sponsored UK edition had dissolved in acrimony.

The fact that Altamont had happened on the magazine’s San Francisco patch was also painful. But Wenner could not ignore the calls from his colleagues who had attended the debacle, Greil Marcus and John Burks. He cleared the decks for the next issue: reportage from 11 different writers was pulled together in a 14-page story – published on 21 January 1970 – that put the blame firmly on the Rolling Stones’ arrogance and greed.

Jagger was extremely displeased but in the end, it was business. Wenner was too fascinated by the rock star not to feature him in the magazine, and in turn the band needed publicity. Relations were re-established in September 1970 when Jagger made the cover of Rolling Stone to promote the film Performance; he would ultimately appear on the cover 31 times.

Joe Hagan’s biography of Jann Wenner presents a man of contradictions: a cheap skate who undercut writers’ fees yet paid the hospital bills of an editor with Aids; a man who was casually cruel yet on occasion capable of unexpected kindness. He was both groupie and editor: fascinated by the cultural cachet of rock stars, he became their friend but inevitably betrayed them – managing at various points to infuriate three Beatles and Dylan, as well as Jagger – because the magazine always came first.

Published on Rolling Stone’s 50th anniversary, Sticky Fingers is a rollicking read, with plentiful sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, gossip and riotous behaviour – often involving star writer Hunter S Thompson. Hagan is an experienced feature writer and the biography – undertaken with access to Wenner and his prodigious archive – appears thorough in the American journalistic tradition. Until you begin to look a little closer.

Hagan presents Wenner – born January 1946 – as an archetypal baby boomer: self-absorbed and pleasure seeking, a towering egotist who reneged on his beliefs to become a Manhattan monster. Yet this feels reductive. The problem in this account is that the past is always retrospectively tainted by later events. So Wenner’s move into celebrity obsession and the naked acquisition of wealth in the 1980s inevitably stains his actions during the 1960s. The radicalism is portrayed as only ever window dressing.

This is just more anti-Sixties hoo-ha. Exposed to the first flush of hippie culture in San Francisco, Wenner campaigned for the legalisation of LSD and, at the height of the counterculture, put his name to a radical political programme in the famous “American Revolution” issue of April 1969. He began as an ambitious pragmatist with a strong idealistic streak: like many others at the time he really did believe that the world was being made anew.

That very powerful feeling was Rolling Stone’s rocket fuel. Like his readers, Wenner was a fan and a believer. He saw a gap in the market: there was no regular magazine in America for the breadth of music that was being made in 1967. For ten years, Rolling Stone was a must-read: there was nothing like its mixture of politics, design, and serious, informed and passionate writing about popular music by Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Jon Landau and the like. To the English reader especially it was a biweekly revelation, costing 2/6.

It was a man’s world, of course, and Hagan tackles this in sections about women writers and a serious appraisal of Jann’s wife Jane’s input into the magazine. There are also discussions of gay topics and the magazine’s lack of black music coverage, which served Rolling Stone ill in the late 1970s. It couldn’t cope with disco and punk and rarely retrieved its mojo thereafter. After John Lennon’s murder – which affected him deeply – Wenner reinvented himself as the gatekeeper of Sixties rock culture by helping to found the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame.

The book tails off around this time into business, celebrity, drink/drugs binges and Wenner’s confused private life: established early on as attracted to men, he finally comes out 456 pages in. Hagan makes much of his subject’s homosexuality and fraught relationship with his mother, resulting in dreadful cod-psychological sentences such as: “Wenner was only the boy his mother had made him, the wounded thirteen-year-old with the preposterous confidence and bottomless need for affirmation.”

Hagan clumsily touches upon something here but doesn’t develop it into a dramatic portrait. Wenner could be difficult, but his vulnerability was always there, detectable by the more astute of his editors and employees – some of whom remember their tenure at Rolling Stone or other Wenner Media magazines with affection and gratitude.

In the 21st century, Rolling Stone has been a shadow of its former self. It has maintained its position largely due to good journalism – by writers such as David Fricke and Matt Taibbi – but in 2014 it was rocked by an expensive court case concerning the poorly researched and libellous story “A Rape on Campus”. Like much of the print media, it is dissolving in the face of the third-wave digital revolution. In the magazine’s 50th year, Wenner put Rolling Stone up for sale.

Nevertheless, his achievement is substantial. His skill as an editor has been to nurture great talent and to grasp the importance of cultural shifts as they happen. His commercial knack has been to then turn himself and his magazine, at various points, into the embodiment of those moments. No doubt the Sixties myth can seem oppressive to younger generations, but Hagan’s irritation at this hegemony is as understandable as it is unenlightening: Sticky Fingers is a flawed book about a fascinating subject who ultimately eludes his biographer.

Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine
Joe Hagan
Canongate, 560pp, £25

This article appears in the 18 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history