3.11.17

STICKY FINGERS: The Life & Times of Jann Wenner & Rolling Stone Magazine by Joe Hagan



The image of the brooding, avaricious, power-hungry newspaper proprietor was set in stone by Orson Welles in the film Citizen Kane and through the ages many in this line of work have conformed to the stereotype. Jann Wenner, a fan of Kane, is no exception. Joe Hagan’s biography, Sticky Fingers: The Life & Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone, paints a portrait of the man behind RS as obsessive, unscrupulous and unlikeable, a man forever on the make who for all his money and success seems strangely unfulfilled. 
The book was sanctioned insofar as Wenner initiated it by inviting Hagan to write it and submitting to 100 hours of interviews (and enabling access to his archives), but not ‘authorised’ insofar as Wenner did not have final approval of the manuscript which he evidently did not read before publication. Wenner did, however, try to influence Hagan’s work by putting a positive spin on matters and shrugging off that which might seem detrimental to his character. Similarly interviewed – Hagan undertook 240 interviews in total – was Jane Schindelheim, who was married to Wenner from 1968 to 2011, though they separated in 1995 after Wenner came out as gay and thereafter lived with male model Matt Nye to whom he is now married. Jane, whose own flaws are ruthlessly exposed, has good reason to dislike the book too, but in her case the ugly truth is tempered by her ongoing loyalty towards her husband, boundless charm and innate warm disposition. 
In this respect – the Wenners’ personal lives – the book reads a bit like a melodramatic novel. To say it is ‘explosive’ or ‘sensational’ is an understatement, and since its publication Wenner has described it as ‘deeply flawed and tawdry’. He hasn’t spoken to the author since June. Hagan doesn’t seem surprised by Wenner’s reaction, and nor am I for Sticky Fingers chronicles rampant drug abuse and promiscuity with both sexes that would make Caligula blush, profligate spending on superfluous luxuries to gratify Wenner’s gargantuan ego and an abysmal lack of moral values in which his word is as worthless as a bent roach clip. 
It will come as no surprise, therefore, to learn that Wenner has a propensity for making enemies, among them John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, Jimmy Page et al. Lennon never spoke to Wenner again after the publication in 1971 of Lennon Remembers, the series of interviews John gave to Wenner for RS on the expressed understanding they did not become a book. Dylan was angry that RS published a photograph his daughter against his wishes. Jagger felt Wenner ripped him off by naming his magazine after his band (and might now be equally pissed off that the title of this book borrows a Stones’ album title). Simon received unfavourable coverage because he slept with a girl who Wenner fancied but who’d turned him down. Page was furious at negative coverage of Led Zep. And while we’re at it let’s add Jackie Kennedy who took a dim view of Wenner ‘pouncing’ on her daughter Caroline. 
The only A-grade rock stars that Wenner seems not to have alienated at one time or another seem to be Springsteen and Bono, and although an understanding is reached with most of them it’s an uneasy truce that might fall apart at any time. In short, no one trusts him and with good reason. 
With ugly confrontations run of the mill for a man whose skin seems as thick as an elephant, you have to wonder how Rolling Stone survived. The answer is Wenner’s dogged determination to rescue it against all odds despite hovering on the brink of bankruptcy, enduring staff mutinies, tolerating wildly delinquent behaviour, especially on the part of Hunter S. Thompson, and simply picking himself up time and time again regardless. Much of the time he has the long-suffering Jane to thank for easing social situations, though the burden drives her to an addiction to Quaaludes and periods when she stays in bed for days at a time. 
Of course Sticky Fingers also chronicles the rock scene of the era from the inside, the shift from pop groups to rock bands, the corporatisation of the music industry, the way in which its fortunes are reflected in the circulation of Rolling Stone. Wenner was old school. He liked The Beatles, Stones, Dylan and The Who, and he disliked glam, metal, punk, disco and electronic dance music. He had to put up with it, of course, accepting only grudgingly that RS should cover changing styles. Thankfully he employed editors and writers who knew better but sooner or later almost all of them come up against his authoritarian ways and are fired or quit. Similarly, for someone with his foresight, he was curiously slow to adapt to MTV and, more importantly, the emergence of computers and the internet. He lost fortunes on launching other magazines, US Weekly aside, and nearly lost everything in the financial collapse of 2008. 
        In many ways Wenner’s role in the establishment of the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame – slightly dubious actually – allowed him to rise above the controversies that dogged his position in the music business. Here he could indulge his groupie tendencies and promote the acts with whom he felt comfortable, but this placed him alongside many in the industry – both performers and executives – that he had wronged in the past. Still he rode it out, even a nasty spat with Paul McCartney. In 1994, when Lennon was inducted as a solo performer, McCartney agreed to give the introduction speech on the understanding that he (Paul) would be inducted the following year. Wenner reneged. McCartney was furious and it wasn’t until four years later that he was inducted, which explains why daughter Stella, who accompanied him on stage, wore a T-shirt with the slogan ‘About Fucking Time’. 
There’s plenty more aggro in Sticky Fingers, plenty about RS’s coverage of American politics, current affairs and drug-related issues, plenty about its famous writers, notably Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, plenty about the libidinous deeds of top RS photographer Annie Leibowitz, and plenty about Wenner’s social climbing and reckless spending on mansions and private aircraft to impress his peers. And sometimes I had to laugh, like when Hagan draws attention to Wenner’s weight problems and Jane’s attempts to slim him down. “Jane had cleaned the house out of anything that was good to eat except frozen foods,” literary agent David Obst tells Hagan. “Jann, hungry beyond his comfort point, went to the freezer and actually ate the frozen foods without thawing them out and they expanded in his stomach and he had to go to the emergency room.”
There, in a nutshell, is Wenner’s greed an impetuosity perfectly summarised. Sticky Fingers is a terrific read; unputdownable if, like me, you were part of the music scene in the era on which it dwells, and literate, entertaining and enlightening in the extreme wherever you were.


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