Sex and Drugs and Rolling Stone

‘Sticky Fingers’ gets the sordid details right but misses the big picture.

By 1969, Jann Wenner had turned Rolling Stone into the bible of rock music and popular culture. It was all downhill from there.
By 1969, Jann Wenner had turned Rolling Stone into the bible of rock music and popular culture. It was all downhill from there.

It was 1967 in San Francisco, and 21-year-old Jann Wenner was seeing his generation flood the world with two roaring currents: alternative culture and radical politics.

Jefferson Airplane was filling the Fillmore West. Timothy Leary was urging 30,000 at the Human Be-In to “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Bus tours of the Haight brought hundreds of out-of-towners to gawk at the long-haired freaks.

“Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine” by Joe Hagan, 560 pages, Knopf, $29.95

It was the Summer of Love.

On the political side, thousands were marching with the Mobilization. Black Panther Bobby Seale was recruiting at San Francisco State. Mario Savio was going to jail for a Free Speech rally at Berkeley.

It was The Movement.

Wenner was an eyewitness. A Berkeley dropout, he got a job from Warren Hinckle at Sunday Ramparts. Wenner injected his passion for the rock scene into the paper and took as his mentor Ralph Gleason, the San Francisco Chronicle’s famed jazz critic.

When Sunday Ramparts folded, Wenner and Gleason decided to start a music magazine “like the Melody Maker and the [New] Musical Express,” Joe Hagan quotes Wenner in “Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine.” It “would cover not just the records and the music but would cover the whole culture.”

Wenner was an energetic, charismatic and excitable young man, and Hagan’s biography draws a rich, rushing account of Rolling Stone’s first decade. Jann got Gleason and Jane Schindelheim, Wenner’s future wife, to fund the startup — with $7,500, which seems a tiny amount today. It was then. Wenner grabbed the discarded paste-up boards of Sunday Ramparts and got the weekly’s printer, Garrett Press, to print Rolling Stone.

Hagan has done an amazing number of interviews for this big book, and everyone I know says they were quoted accurately, if not completely. That includes me in a brief appearance. And it’s written so well that you can tear through the 560 pages in a weekend.

But …

Hagan gets the quotes, but he doesn’t quite get the context. He doesn’t really understand what a big deal it was to put the big currents of the generation into a magazine and lift it off the ground — at a time when advertisers resented baby boomers and the target audience had no cash.

Like Wenner, Hagan is distracted by gossip, buzz, spin and dirt. He takes on the big questions, but never answers them completely. Instead, the book reads like the longest New York magazine piece ever — and twice as bitchy.

Hagan does fold in chunks of culture, but he’s more interested in the private lives of Wenner and the people around him, starting with Mick Jagger, John Lennon and Bob Dylan. I was left wanting to know how young Jann jumped into the company of these stars.

And how did Wenner find, hire and keep his amazing staff? Half of the book is about the first 10 years, when he hired editors like Paul Scanlon, Marianne Partridge, Harriet Fier and Terry McDonell, and writers like Joe Klein, Jonathan Cott, Michael Rogers, Chet Flippo, Jon Landau, Tim Cahill, Timothy Crouse, Joe Eszterhas, Mikal Gilmore — and, of course, Hunter S. Thompson.

Never mind the art department and the big influence Rolling Stone had on design. Hagan acknowledges photographer Annie Leibovitz, who put the magazine on the map visually, but he’s more interested in her sex life and drug habits than her work.

Left unanswered: How did Wenner do it? And how did he keep turning the business around from near disaster? We hear that business guys Joe Armstrong, Jim Dunning and Kent Brownridge saved the company several times, but how? And what was Wenner’s role, other than spending money? This is a great business story, but it’s not in “Sticky Fingers.”

Finally, why is Rolling Stone now struggling? “Because, internet.” That’s not enough.

There is a whiff of moralism here, the notion that Wenner was taken down by all the sex and drugs. But was he? His whole persona seemingly was formed while tripping. We’re left with a cop-out, a quote from managing editor Will Dana, who was forced out after the magazine had to retract a sham story about a fraternity rape at the University of Virginia three years ago: “Basically, I think he’s 51 percent good.”

Hagan seems to have decided on that arc from the beginning: Sudden success. Heyday. Decline. The tipoff is the awkward title, “Sticky Fingers.” If Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone could suggest the eponymous rock group, Hagan felt he could suggest one of their albums. In that case, I would have gone with one of the songs on it: “Wild Horses.”

Wild horses couldn’t drag me away

Wild, wild horses we’ll ride them some day


Three Great Bios of Big-Time Publishers

• “The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst” by David Nasaw (2001): A strong biography that destroys the myths about Hearst that culminated in “Citizen Kane.”

• “Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print and Power” by James McGrath Morris (2010): Hearst’s early rival is almost forgotten today, but his contribution was the first really modern newspaper, the New York World.

• “The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century” by Alan Brinkley (2010): How Luce elevated the concept of mass media with tightly edited and glossy big-circulation magazines Time, Fortune and Life.

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