Sarah Paolantonio's Reviews > Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine

Sticky Fingers by Joe Hagan
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really liked it

I went to see author Joe Hagan speak at WORD bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn the night I purchased this biography. Before I say anything else, I admire Hagan as a reporter and a biographer. I think that writing the biography of someone like Wenner who gave himself the post as gatekeeper to rock and roll and its history is more than an undertaking. Wenner has always controlled the narrative and this book is the first time he isn’t. What Hagan found through loads of personal documents, letters, photographs, and interviews with Wenner is remarkable. The bubble has burst and I thank Hagan for that.

The story Hagan told the crowd at WORD is that he bumps into Jann Wenner, they strike a friendship, and Wenner asks Hagan to write this book (just in time for Rolling Stone's 50th year). Hagan wasn't quite sure about the assignment as a few biographies had been stopped when authors got a little too close to home for Wenner's liking. Wenner asks Hagan to send him some writing and his profiles and interviews with Henry Kissenger and Hillary Clinton convince Wenner—“if you’re good enough for HRC,” Wenner told him, “you’re good enough for me.”

More information comes from Yoko Ono, McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Lorne Michaels, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Annie Leibovitz, Cameron Crowe, Pete Townshend, Art Garfunkel and most surprising of all, Wenner's wife Jane. There are also interviews with staff members, writers, editors, business partners, record executives, and so on.

Hagan dives deep into Wenner's past and hears what friends and colleagues really have to say about Wenner as a businessman and a public figure. Wenner doesn't read the finished manuscript until it's too late. It's announced that Wenner will no longer be appearing with Hagan for interviews and publicity events. And after the book officially is published, Wenner made a statement to CBS News that the biography was "bullshit," among other things. The wild hypocrisy of giving someone permission, giving them interviews, to write your biography and then simply not being happy with what was found and calling it BS just baffles me.

This is the story Joe Hagan told us at WORD, most of which I had read online that day and the day before as the news broke about Wenner’s disapproval of the biography. But hearing Hagan tell the story in person was so much better. Joe Hagan is a hero.

I grew up with The Greatest of All Time issues, Anniversary editions, and Best Of editions of Rolling Stone magazine. It was a gatekeeper to music for so many for so long. And now for the first time, there's a different side to the story. A story about an egomaniac that let the subjects of his interviews edit their copy; about someone who fought for the anti-establishment cause in the pages of RS and took home extra money while he underpaid his staff; a closeted gay man who encouraged the gaze on rock stars, cementing the idea of celebrity, fame, and success with bare skin--men and women alike--who "tell all!" This infuriates me because Wenner is also the same person who legitimized music journalism. Before RS, there weren't people writing smart copy and criticism about music. He gave that a space and took it seriously and demanded everyone else did too. Without that, I wouldn't be here and neither would a lot of the writers I love.

The details of Wenner’s subjectivity are obnoxious. The line I know from 'Almost Famous' about "the magazine that broke up Cream and ripped every album Led Zeppelin ever made" is true. Wenner hated the *sound* of Zeppelin (and Black Sabbath) and either ignored them or tore them a new one in his pages. (Cameron Crowe was often assigned to write about the bands Wenner didn't care for--Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Deep Purple.) He held grudges in business for personal reasons. Paul Simon and Wenner once dated the same woman and until Bridge Over Troubled Water made Simon & Garfunkel household names, Wenner refused to review their records.

When MTV hit planet Earth, Wenner resented the fact that someone else had the idea first and then "commanded his business managers to prepare an immediate and total makeover of RS to exploit MTV for subscriptions/edit coverage/ties ins."

Mostly, I’m angry and I can’t understand why because I should've known better. I’ve known he was an eyeroll-inducing washed up executive for a while now but I didn’t see it coming on this level. When I talk about Wenner and this biography I talk myself in exhausted circles about how ironic and capitalistic and backwards he was (is) compared to everything Rolling Stone is supposed to stand for. The magazine didn't have a fact-checking department until the 1970s. In the 80s, the “Me Decade,” he eventually ran US Army ads (Wenner was a draft dodger, got out on “homosexual tendencies” among other things). The story ends with the investigative piece about the UVA on-campus rape, a piece that was not vetted by RS' legal department on a basic oversight. Basically, no one fact checked the story. But if you're reading this review, I'm guessing you might know the ins and outs of these details from following along in the news as it happened.

Without Rolling Stone there probably wouldn't have been a Hunter S. Thompson (Wenner's byline is "Jann S. Wenner" to pay homage and, well, copy HST). The biography spends a lot of time with him and with John Lennon. Wenner was a champion of both, and idolized Lennon to a point where he never stopped making money off of him. The public death of John Lennon is sad to me and it happened eight years before I was born. But I didn't know the famous Rolling Stone cover of naked John curled around Yoko was taken *on* December 8th, hours before he was murdered. Wenner had a feud with John over the ‘John Lennon Remembers’ book (Lennon only wanted it as a magazine piece and Wenner made the book anyway, “taking the money instead of the friendship,” as Yoko put it). After Lennon’s death Wenner was inconsolable and wound up finding lifelong friendship in Ono.

The excerpts about Tom Wolfe were another highlight for me. The majority of Tom Wolfe's later work (The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of The Vanities, A Man In Full) are all thanks to Wenner's encouragement and space he gave him in RS to publish chapter length excerpts. Wolfe calls Wenner a "generous genius" as an editor and is thankful he was always pushing him to write more.

Both Wolfe and Hunter Thompson are present throughout the book because Hagan holds himself to their journalistic approach to a subject: "I felt duty-bound to convert my gratitude for Jann Wenner's generous access into the kind of no-holds-barred narrative journalism that Wenner was famous for publishing."

But the REAL ending, the real shocker, is the *very* end of the biography. "The story begins with John Lennon and ends with Donald Trump," Hagan said at WORD and he writes in the Afterword. Wenner and Trump are the same age and both are egomaniacal narcissists that lust after fame, money, and power. Wenner put Trump on the cover and saw his candidacy for president "as an opportunity."

"Wenner had a kind of grudging respect for Trump. Not for his politics, but for the way he bent the world to his ego,” Hagan writes. “Jann Wenner's oldest and dearest friends--people who worked for him in the 1960s and after--could not help but notice the likeness between Trump and the Jann Wenner they knew. The crude egotism, the neediness, the total devotion to celebrity and power."

Wenner was never in it for the youth causes or the changing music scene. He stayed devoted to his own generation, not current youth. He just wanted to be close to the rock stars he admired. So as the politics and culture changed, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, and Bob Dylan kept appearing on the cover as Wenner grew up, continued to make more money and harness more power. Apparently, to this day Wenner harasses publicists to get him backstage access only matched by the artists themselves.

This biography focuses more on the 1960s and 70s Rolling Stone and leaves out what was going on in the magazine in such a detailed manner in the 80s, 90s, and onward. Hagan stuck with Wenner as a businessman, detailed his involvement and ruling over the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and stays close to his personal life. A lot of time is spent on Wenner's sexuality and how much he hid for so long. Wenner didn't want to be seen as an "other" in society and feared being ostracized from the social clubs he climbed so far to be a part of.

Hagan recognized that the true hero here is Jane Wenner, Jann's wife. Without her, he couldn't have borrowed the money from her family to start the magazine and he couldn't have hidden in their marriage, creating a semblance of normalcy. Of course the hero is a woman. It always is.

So much has been written about this biography, especially in the corners I peruse the most: The Music Internet and Book Internet. And the reviews and features about this book all said something I will echo: read this book if you are remotely interested in rock and roll, music history, and the way celebrities are portrayed in American culture. It’s juicy and I had a hard time putting it down.

I feel extremely proud for Joe Hagan. He changed things for readers, and changed the narrative of Rolling Stone FINALLY. My generation needs this. The star of Jann Wenner and his control--his gatekeeping on rock history of what is good and what is worth it--needs to be stopped. As far as I'm concerned, Rolling Stone is just a yearbook for the artists of the 1960s. And even though The Rolling Stones were around before Rolling Stone, now when I hear their songs I wonder if they are really *that* good or if I think they're good because Jann Wenner told me so.

So much has changed for me and so many tiny parts of life trigger me to remember stories I read in ‘Sticky Fingers.’

Thanks for the inspiration, Joe Hagan. I can't wait to be a biographer one day.
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Reading Progress

November 2, 2017 – Started Reading
November 2, 2017 – Shelved
November 2, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
November 15, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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Steve Outstanding review.


Robert "Wenner is also the same person who legitimized music journalism. Before RS, there weren't people writing smart copy and criticism about music. "

About rock music. Not music generally.


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