The first issue of Rolling Stone to bop me between the eyes at the newsstand bore a black border on the cover. It framed an obituary portrait of the guitarist Jimi Hendrix, the quantum mechanic of psychedelic rock, who had died of an overdose of barbiturates or sleeping pills at the age of twenty-seven, an early extinguishing more befitting a Romantic poet. The next issue of Rolling Stone also carried a black border, this one memorializing the blues rocker Janis Joplin, the queen of husky catarrh, whose death mirrored Hendrix’s: overdose at age twenty-seven. It was 1970, and a scant three years after the Summer of Love the counterculture was filling the coffins.
Founded in 1967, based in San Francisco, Rolling Stone was in the hairy thick of the tribal youth tumult, reporting on hippie hedonism, radical protest, and, in a notorious cover story, the floating seraglio of rock groupies whose thrift-shop splendor and Twiggy eyelashes made them style icons for those seeking backstage passes. But other publications were also bumming it to Haight-Ashbury and rolling around in “dope, sex, and cheap thrills.” It was in its formal expressions of generational mourning, its neo-Victorian decorum in honoring its fallen heroes, that Rolling Stone found stature and distinguished itself from the kaleidoscopic collage of underground papers and New Left organs on the news racks. Addressing a national audience instead of just a fervent sect, Rolling Stone made itself the designated mourner of rock royalty, the grief counselor of Woodstock Nation, and keeper of the tablets. A year later, Jim Morrison of the Doors would be framed in a black border on the cover, the Lizard King having reached the fatal cut-off age of twenty-seven.
My freshman impression of Rolling Stone may have been unduly inked in grim tidings, yet it’s remarkable how often in Sticky Fingers, Joe Hagan’s gossipy, rackety, roller-coaster history of Rolling Stone and its founder, Jann Wenner, death rouses the magazine from its fortnightly routine to a reckoning moment. When John Lennon was murdered in December 1980 in front of the Dakota, where he lived with wife, Yoko Ono, Wenner, who had featured Lennon on the cover of Rolling Stone’s debut issue (and later, to spectacular effect, put a nude John and Yoko on the cover, an instant sellout), was as distraught and unstrung as anyone—“up all night making phone calls to friends, trying to make sense of it like everyone else,” and attending the impromptu vigil in Central Park with other fans, then pulling himself and his staff together to assemble a tribute issue that would be a fitting burial shroud.
“For the first issue of the Reagan presidency, Wenner put [photographer Annie Leibovitz’s] image of John Lennon wrapped around Yoko Ono on the cover without any text other than the logo. Every page was dedicated to John Lennon,” including inside the seam of the magazine’s binding, where Wenner published a private message to Lennon that, as Hagan notes, could be read only with a magnifying glass. “The January 22, 1981, issue of Rolling Stone was Jann Wenner’s single greatest triumph as a magazine editor and a sculptor of rock legend,” Hagan writes. “It was an homage to a man but also to a time and to a generation.” Under such crisis conditions the two jostling journalistic modules of Wenner’s personality—the idealistic fanboy who wanted to swing with the stars and the kingpin whose ambition, he once confided to an associate, “was to become the Henry Luce of the counterculture,” the print tsar of the enlightened rabble—joined together to produce greatness.
A complicated character without being inherently interesting, Wenner, a Berkeley dropout who found a spot on the iconoclastic radical monthly Ramparts and worked on the spinoff Sunday edition that would become the prototype for Rolling Stone, was fundamentally a hustler who knew when to pounce, a Machiavellian intriguer with the ravenous munchies, an opportunist whose antennae told him when something was about to break big in the mainstream (such as Saturday Night Live in 1975).
Hagan’s biography is a tireless account of a velociraptor appetite. Wenner’s was omnivorous—for fame, glory, sex, drugs, food (in a ravenous frenzy, he once ate frozen food straight out of the icebox and was sped to the hospital when it expanded in his stomach, like some David Cronenberg beast), social status, cultural recognition, political clout, and luxury furnishings—and in its chewy path of creative destruction there was a notable absence of what the cultural theorist Irving Babbitt called the “inner check.” Wenner was capable of great strokes of generosity, such as footing the hospital bills for a Rolling Stone editor sick with AIDS, but primarily he put himself first at the feeding trough. In the advertising-plush heyday of Rolling Stone, Wenner, discarding his scruffy origins, “intended to live like a sultan.” That meant a full-time driver, a Downton Abbey staff of servants and nannies, a $4.2 million brownstone in Manhattan, a Georgian manor in the Hamptons, and a private jet (a Gulfstream II, eventually upgraded to a Gulfstream IV).
Satchel Paige’s evergreen piece of advice—“Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain’t restful”—is one to which Wenner paid no nevermind in his pursuit of more-more-more. Sticky Fingers offers a comprehensive record of personal and business betrayals, double-dealing, excursions into the polyamorous (Wenner and his wife Jane, a major influence on him and the magazine, both detoured into same-sex dalliances), showboating, and bingeing that leaves former friends and associates for roadkill and takes a toll on Wenner’s beanbag constitution. After attending the funeral of one of comedy’s most ballistic talents and overindulgers, John Belushi, who had died of an overdose after a night of hard partying at the Chateau Marmont, Wenner was hospitalized with a gallbladder infection: “He had grown fat and unhealthy, bloated from alcohol and cocaine abuse, which exacerbated his psoriasis.” No, the social ramble ain’t restful, and Wenner’s accelerated dissipation was proof that the rock star lifestyle is best left to the pros, who learn how to pace themselves between tailspins with carcasses intact. Keith Richards, take a crooked bow.
The cult of the male rock star as Dionysian codpiece, vaunted oracle, or guitar-wielding thunder god has fizzled out in this century, thank goddess, but it was formative in forging Wenner’s ideal of the perfect make of stardom he aspired to hang with and cultivate. Rock chicks need not apply. (Hagan notes how Joplin, Joni Mitchell, and other female artists were sexistly slagged off in Rolling Stone’s columns.) Wenner courted the crafty, misanthropic Bob Dylan, befriended U2’s Bono, the Who’s Pete Townshend, and Bruce Springsteen, and won over John Lennon, scoring the coup of the revelatory “Lennon Remembers” interview of 1970, in which the former Beatle, having recently undergone Arthur Janov’s “Primal Scream” treatment, torched his former bandmates (“the biggest bastards on earth”), their fans (“idiots”), and the con job that was Sixties idealism (“nothing happened except that we all dressed up”). Lennon, however verbally candid he might be, maintained an ascetic aloofness that Yoko tended with an iron touch. Not so the elusive yet attainable butterfly who flutters most tantalizingly through these pages—that eternal tease, Mick Jagger. (Hagan’s book takes its title from the 1971 Rolling Stones album whose original cover, designed by Andy Warhol, fronted a tight pair of jeans with a working zipper that housed a prominent bulge that, erroneous rumor had it, belonged to Jagger.)
As in so many rom-coms, the Jann-and-Mick relationship was initially sparked by an irritable spat: “When he first saw it, Mick Jagger was startled by the audacity of Rolling Stone—to name a newspaper after his band and not even put the Rolling Stones on the cover of the first issue? It was an affront that would stick with Jagger for the next fifty years.” Adding insult to affrontery was Jon Landau’s scornful pan of the Stones’s wobbly magic-carpet-ride LP Their Satanic Majesties Request and the complete dearth of cover stories on the band while the Beatles were given darling preference. A former student of the London School of Economics, Jagger knew how to exploit an opening to maximum advantage and hung a threatened lawsuit for copyright infringement over Wenner’s woolly head, an excellent way to hold someone’s attention. In 1968 the Stones were mixing their next album, Beggars Banquet, in Hollywood:
Wenner arrived bristling with bonhomie, eager to win Jagger over for an interview and to broach the sticky issue of the Rolling Stone trademark. After Wenner scribbled detailed notes about the new album, Jagger invited him back to his rented house in Beverly Hills, where they listened to an acetate of the first album by the Band, Music from Big Pink, ate pizza and talked business. Wenner was in heaven, basking in Jagger’s luminous stardom.
Jagger proposed that Wenner come to London to discuss the possibility of publishing the British version of Rolling Stone, with Jagger as half owner. In business with Mick! What could be more loverly?
The British cousin of Rolling Stone was a ham-fisted botch, a rack rag heaved into the printing presses with an almost contemptuous lack of oversight. Not only did Jagger’s editorial staff manage to misspell the name of the Kinks’ Ray Davies in a headline—sacrilege!—but it bungled the spelling of Bob Dylan’s name too. Wenner flew over to London to instill some professional rigor in the enterprise, but was basically given the piss-off by Jagger’s pirate crew, whose antics escalated from carelessness to reckless endangerment. The staff hosted a record-industry party where the punch bowl was spiked with LSD, propelling several guests on bad acid trips to the hospital, including T. Rex’s Marc Bolan. Jagger, off shooting the kangaroo western Ned Kelly in Australia, was blithely indifferent to the shambles he had left behind, leaving Wenner to do all the fuming. The plug was finally pulled on Rolling Stone UK, and the lopsided partnership ended.
Shortly after, the Rolling Stones would perform a free concert at Altamont Speedway that would be one of the defining vampire stakes of the decade. Once again, death was the spur. A young man named Meredith Hunter was fatally stabbed by Hells Angels whom the Stones had fecklessly hired to provide security. Long before New York Times editor Howell Raines popularized the phrase “flooding the zone,” Wenner executed the drill, putting all the resources of Rolling Stone into action to cover the debacle, eleven writers in all: “Even the record critics, like Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus, were conscripted into service.” It was both a major fact-finding mission and a fault-finding inquiry fueled by reportorial urgency and personal payback. The special issue was Rolling Stone’s coming-out moment as a major journalistic contender; in The New York Times, pop essayist Albert Goldman compared its scale and detail to “a muckraking masterpiece on the Robber Barons.” And the biggest mucker was Mick. Hagan writes: “Through an alchemical mix of petty business grievance and self-preservation, Jann Wenner nailed Mick Jagger’s hide to the wall with vindictive aplomb.”
Jagger’s hide was too nimble and slithery to stay nailed for long. He wouldn’t have the longevity he’s enjoyed in show business if he wasn’t cagey, adaptable, and fluent in the art of wooing. It was in both their interests that the rupture be mended, and Jagger made the opening move, inviting Wenner to be the first earthling to see a screening of Performance, in which he was making his film acting debut in a hothouse tale of louche criminality, androgynous couplings, and heavy lipstick applications. Rolling Stone’s staff was furious at what they saw as a pandering about-face from their fearless leader. Their vote didn’t count:
However hypocritical he appeared, Wenner wasn’t interested in further alienating Jagger. It was an astute business decision. Mick Jagger would be the most important and iconic face in Rolling Stone’s history, appearing on more Rolling Stone covers than any other artist (thirty-one times), always a consistently high seller.
Eventually, Wenner and Jagger enjoyed a mutually beneficial bromance, with Jagger visiting Wenner’s apartment to inhale coke and partake in jam sessions, Wenner and his wife Jane vacationing with Mick and Bianca Jagger in Barbados. Advancing age does not fade Wenner’s infatuation: “A man in his sixties, Jann Wenner still liked to go backstage at Rolling Stones concerts, flip through Mick Jagger’s costume rack, and squeeze into a pair of the singer’s pants. ‘They don’t quite fit me that well,’ he admitted.” Perhaps not, but getting into Jagger’s pants at all must be something of a dream fulfilled.
Like Harold Hayes’s Esquire, Willie Morris’s Harper’s, and other New Journalism rocket launchers of the 1960s, Rolling Stone provided an expansive stage for a succession of keyboard virtuosi whose high-velocity prose and/or incredible access to their subjects turned their appearances into events. Nearly all of these wordslingers were men: among them, Cameron Crowe, the wunderkind who covered the Allman Brothers on tour when he was sixteen and went on to become an accomplished screenwriter-director (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky); rock critic mandarins Greil Marcus and Paul Nelson; Republican party animal P.J. O’Rourke; David Foster Wallace, who hit the 2000 presidential campaign trail with John McCain; the Edwardian dandy of Céline ellipses and leaping italics, Tom Wolfe, whose novel Bonfire of the Vanities was feverishly dashed off Dickens-style as a serial for Rolling Stone; not to mention authors going for a muskier persona, such as fur-bearing Joe Eszterhas, future screenwriter of Basic Instinct and Showgirls, who had a buck knife strapped to his leg in case of an Apache attack in the elevator. Eszy had no time for schoolmarm writers. When editor Marianne Partridge pitched feminist writer and activist Ellen Willis’s article on rape at an ideas meeting, relates Hagan, “Joe Eszterhas snickered and said, ‘Why don’t you just lean back and enjoy it and it wouldn’t be a rape?’” To his credit, Wenner didn’t laugh, OK’d the article, and gave it considerable placement in the magazine.
In his hombre bravado and disregard for letting trifling facts get in the way of a ripping yarn, Joe Eszterhas was following in the burnt rubber tracks of Hunter S. Thompson, the original gangster of gonzo journalism, whose chemically induced epic jag of dissociation, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, illustrated by Ralph Steadman with what looks like blood jets of ink, set so many writers on a wayward course of sensory overload and rampant overwriting. Thompson’s brilliance in Fear and Loathing was inimitable, a perfect storm of writer, subject, locale, scurrilous attitude, and zeitgeist, a feat Thompson rode into legend but found impossible to top, apart from extended flashes in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. But through the meat of the 1970s, he and Wenner made the perfect team, a pair of users complementing each other to produce a powerful noise in print, the Don Simpson–Jerry Bruckheimer of journalistic showmanship.
It was too incendiary a partnership of monomaniacs to last: Thompson chafed under Wenner’s cheapskate niggling while Wenner steamed over Thompson’s ballooning expenses and diminishing output, assisted by Thompson’s prodigious drug intake. Hagan writes: “Cocaine became part of his writing life, which soon became a non-writing life.” Dispatched by Rolling Stone to Zaire to cover the “Rumble in the Jungle” championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, Thompson “dumped a bag of pot in the hotel swimming pool and floated around in it, missing the fight entirely.” The trip cost Rolling Stone thousands of dollars and yielded nothing publishable. (By contrast, Norman Mailer, there covering the same bout for Playboy, bashed out what became one of the very best examinations of boxing as an existential test, The Fight.)
Cocaine is an ego drug, and Thompson’s ego, already straining at the seams, biggened into full-blown grandiosity as he played being Hunter S. Thompson to the hilt, pulling malicious pranks, firing off his .44 Magnum, engaging in cryptic streams of Kurtz-in-Heart-of-Darkness mumbling, and basking in his own words being read aloud to him by, among others, film star and devotee Johnny Depp. Living up (or down) to his own legend wasn’t really living; it was a carny act requiring ever-gaudier stunts. Creatively desiccated, chronically ill, depressed, aging fast, Thompson found no way out of his condition except for the one F. Scott Fitzgerald called the Big Out. He would go out with a literal bang. When Thompson committed suicide by gunshot to the head in 2005, it was treated less as an American tragedy (as Hemingway’s suicide was) than as the most Hunter S. Thompson exit he could have made, the inevitable capper. The private memorial service in Colorado, presided over by Wenner, was a “multi-million-dollar bacchanal” paid for by Depp.
A year later, Wenner presided over another bacchanal, his own. He threw himself a gala birthday party whose guests included Yoko Ono, Bette Midler, then Senator John Kerry, and Hamptons neighbor Larry David. The hosts were Wenner’s wife Jane and his lover (later husband) Matt Nye, the latter’s presence prompting a drunken Robin Williams to launch into a raunchy riff about Jann and Matt doing their own Brokeback Mountain do-si-do as a pair of “rump wranglers” out on the “jizzum trail.” Al Gore, man of probity, tried vainly to put a stop to this spew, but Williams was undeterrable, and Wenner himself loved the routine. He was quite regaled: “Indeed he had never been happier—that is, until Bruce Springsteen got up and performed a song he wrote especially for Jann Wenner.” Being serenaded by the Boss must have made Wenner hug himself in his mind, to borrow a line from James Boswell.
For many, this evening would have been the capper to a life and career, the golden fade-out in a personal highlight reel and a fitting finale for an American success story. But Wenner’s appetite for greater fame, wealth, reach, and brand extension continued to rumble. He bought a nearly $6 million Gothic Revival manor in upstate New York, chopping down hundreds of trees without a permit to afford himself a baronial view of the Hudson River, a detestable deed. He made plans for an international chain of Rolling Stone hotels, whose flagship resort in Las Vegas would feature a “Gonzo Club” and a musical version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with animatronic lizards just like the ones in Thompson’s hallucinations. “The groundbreaking was scheduled for late 2008.”
2008 had different plans in store. The financial crisis of that year blindsided Wenner, as it did most of Wall Street and the world, and Wenner’s personal and business holdings took a huge gut punch. The value of Wenner Media (Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, Us Weekly) imploded. The international hotel project was shelved. Compounding the crisis was a $300 million debt load Wenner had taken on in a buyback of his former stake in Us Weekly, which he had sold to Disney. Hagan writes: “Like the banks that once showered him with low-interest cash, Wenner had badly overleveraged himself and lived as if there were no tomorrow, and then tomorrow showed up like a motherfucker.” That may not be how they discuss financial issues in Barron’s, but it does get the point across. Draconian cost-cutting was instituted at Rolling Stone. The size of the magazine shrunk, and Wenner had to kiss his Gulfstream goodbye and fly in the plebeian discomfort of commercial airlines.
Even in its spartan condition Rolling Stone was unable to make a sharp rebound because the aftershock of the financial crisis coincided with the rising mind-share of digital websites and social media, which left legacy titles fighting for their very existence. Then, when the magazine was at its most rickety, in 2014, came a near-fatal body blow: an exposé of an alleged gang rape by a posse of fraternity brothers at the University of Virginia. The story was harrowing in its details and caused a national outcry. Problem was, it was a phantasm. It took only a little digging for the account of events that night to unravel. A reporter from The Washington Post investigating the incident found a slew of inconsistencies and blank walls. “Simple fact-checking queries were proving that no fraternity party had occurred on the night in question.”
No profile in courage, Wenner confronted the crisis by heading off to Sun Valley and skiing for sixty days, an ostrich burying its head in the snow. Libel lawsuit begat libel lawsuit, and no sooner was one of them settled (with the UVA fraternity for $1.65 million) than calamity struck. Wenner fell while playing tennis with his son Noah and broke his hip, then had a heart attack: “He would need a triple bypass operation and a hip replacement.” Wenner would survive the procedures, just as Rolling Stone would survive its damaged credibility and legal ordeal, but the golden years have gone a little gray and prospects will never be as bright again for any of us fortunate wretches who grew up on print, vinyl, cathode tubes, and silver nitrate.
It’s understandable that Hagan is a bit winded when he gets to the final furlong of his biographical journey. I was feeling pretty beat myself. All those interviews, all those anecdotes, all those famous gargoyle faces bobbing in and out of view, all those reams of office lore (sex on the desk, nervous breakdowns in the bathroom stall)—what does it all signify in the clammy eye of posterity? What is Rolling Stone’s legacy? What’s it all about, Alfie?
At one time, holding Rolling Stone was like holding a piece of hot shrapnel from the cultural explosion of the 1960s while it still glowed with feeling and meaning…. The rock-and-roll story lit the way. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. But those visions had morphed into the Me Decade, and the Me Decade had turned into Me Decades, and finally the falcon could no longer hear the falconer, not even in the pages of Rolling Stone.
The falcon isn’t the only thing flapping in that passage, which sounds like Bill Moyers going extra sonorous on us, but Hagan can be forgiven for failing to find a suitable epiphany to wrap everything up in a fancy bow. He even attempts to draw a parallel between Wenner and Donald Trump, an almost poignant sign of desperation. Character analysis is wasted on such motion machines. Trying to sum up Wenner, Hagan might have been better off just adopting Marlene Dietrich’s world-weary shrug at the end of Touch of Evil when she eulogizes Orson Welles’s police captain, floating belly up in the dark water below: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”