Sticky Fingers: the life and times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone magazine
By Joe Hagan
(Canongate, 547 pages)
In the spring of 1967 a group of hippies based in San Francisco got together to form the Council for the Summer of Love. Their founder was a man called Chet Helms who had discovered Janis Joplin and organised psychedelic light shows featuring The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and other bands that would come to typify the West Coast sound of that time. Helms also had an idea for a music magazine which would be sold through record stores. He asked a friend, a 21-year-old Berkley drop out, if he was interested in becoming the editor of the fledgling publication. That friend’s name was Jann Wenner.
According to Joe Hagan’s thoroughly researched and engrossing biography of the founding publisher and editor of Rolling Stone magazine, Wenner’s wife Jane spotted Helms some years later, working behind the counter in an ice cream shop. Hagan quotes her as saying: “He was smart enough to be at the right place at the right time, and he just couldn’t do anything.”
As this book makes abundantly clear, Jann Wenner was cut from more entrepreneurial cloth. He took the germ of Helms’ idea and grew it into an international brand that promoted, exploited and undermined the values of the counterculture. It is hard to grasp 50 years on just how oddball Rolling Stone magazine seemed when it first hit the stands. Rivers of ink dedicated to the work of hairy musicians no-one had heard of; the stoned mumblings of Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix published verbatim as if they represented the fons et origo of revealed wisdom; song lyrics analysed with a seriousness formerly reserved for the poetry of WB Yeats and TS Eliot. Who the hell would stump up 25 cents for this stuff? Hagan reveals that an eighteen-year-old New Jersey kid called Bruce Springsteen, for one, snapped up the first issue – and there would eventually prove to be thousands more like him.
Hagan points out that the successful formula did not spring fully formed from the head of Wenner. The title for the magazine was suggested by veteran jazz critic Ralph Gleason (sparking a long-running copyright dispute with breadhead-in-chief Mick Jagger, which Hagan documents in minute detail). The obsessive attention paid to obscure bands was already a feature of ‘underground’ magazines like Crawdaddy! and International Times. The unfussy design and newsprint format was borrowed from a muckracking publication called The Sunday Ramparts where Wenner had briefly worked as an editor. The trick of combining what Hagan calls ‘pot-tinged’ articles with a straightlaced look was spotted in the early 70s by the then editor of the Sunday Times, Harold Evans. In “Newspaper Design: an illustrated guide to layout”, Evans wrote: “The words are printed – such regression – in black ink on white paper. They are laid out with a subtlety that evades most other papers, above or below the ground.”
It was the scale of Wenner’s ambition that would propel the ragbag of borrowed ideas and esoteric journalism into something truly transformative. Hagan quotes a letter Wenner wrote to Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, in 1971: “We are in a key and strategic transition now in the way the ‘outside world’ views us. Are we some temporal (sic) ‘Woodstock Nation’ sheet or a serious and worthy new kind of publication that will be around for some time to come?” There was no doubt in Wenner’s mind as to how his question should be answered.
In a new documentary for Netflix called The Center Will Not Hold, Joan Didion says that for her, and for many of her friends, the freewheelin’ 60s ended abruptly on August 9 1969 when Charles Manson and his fanatical followers embarked on a killing spree in an upscale neighborhood north of Beverly Hills . Wenner knew better than that. He realised that the perceived spirit of the 1960s could be endlessly recycled, and when a hard drinking 6’ 3’’ shaven-headed writer from Kentucky burst into the Rolling Stone offices spouting obscenities while clenching a cigarette holder in his teeth, Wenner knew he had the man for the job. Hunter S Thompson’s drugs and booze fuelled accounts of how the idealism of the 1960s had been hijacked by charlatans were devoured by baby boomers whose taste for hedonism was as deep as their commitment to political activism was shallow.
Thompson was no one-off, however. As Hagan puts it: “Wenner looked east to the successful magazines of Manhattan publishing – Esquire and New York, the Medici of the New Journalism – and vowed to best them on their own turf by publishing the greatest work by the greatest writers.” He prodded and provoked Tom Wolfe into writing about the depression suffered by astronauts and published the result in a four-part series that would form the basis for Wolfe’s best known book, The Right Stuff. The roll-call of brilliant, if wayward, writers – Nick Tosches, Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Matt Taibbi – is impressive. It is also all-male. Hagan points out that the late Ellen Willis, the New Yorker’s first pop music critic, refused to write for the magazine because she believed it to be “viciously anti-women”. She wrote to Ralph Gleason: “To me, when a bunch a snotty upper-middle class white males start telling me that politics isn’t where it’s at, that’s simply an attempt to defend their privilege.”
Another male journalist whose talent was spotted by Jann Wenner is Hagan himself. The pair both live in upstate New York and met by chance in a local cafe. One social meeting led to another and in 2013 Wenner asked Hagan to write his biography. Apparently he is not happy with the result, telling The New York Times: “My hope was that this book would provide a record for future generations of that extraordinary time. Instead, he produced something deeply flawed and tawdry, rather than substantial.”
Wenner is likely to be alone in that assessment. Hagan knows his subject well, he has delved deep into Wenner’s personal archive and has conducted more that 240 interviews with, among many others, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. For his part, Hagan told a reporter at Columbia Journalism Review: “I like Jann. I have an affection for him, enough to write 500 pages about him. I understand Jann, I think, in some ways that he doesn’t even understand himself. But I knew I had to write a book that would make him live on the page. And this is the life he lived. Even his own sister, Merlyn, said she didn’t know how Jann would deal with the book, because part of his story is that he didn’t always treat people right.”
Last year, Wenner announced he was selling his stake in Rolling Stone and was looking for a buyer “with lots of money”. Chet Helms died in 2005. A concert in his memory was organised in Golden Gate Park featuring many artists from the San Franciscan summer of love. Attendance was free.
This piece was first published in the Times Literary Supplement.