The Man Who Wanted Everything

Patrick McMullan/Getty Images
Jann Wenner and Elton John at a party hosted by Bette Midler at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, New York City, October 2005

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…

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