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Fingers in the Pie: Gary Indiana on Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone

May 17

by Gary Indiana

Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine 
by Joe Hagan
Illustrated. 560 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $29.95

"You don't get to do what I've done if you are an asshole," Jann Wenner informs an old schoolmate, somewhere near the finale of a five hundred page book single-mindedly devoted to proving the contrary. Sticky Fingers, The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, Joe Hagan's account of Wenner's personal life and career—they are, in effect, indistinguishable—casts its prime subject, on every page, as the quintessence of asshole, an implacable parasite driven by greed and a devouring, infantile ego, a compulsive betrayer of friends, conniving, dishonest, unprincipled, manipulative, and creepy. By Wenner's own lights, apparently, these are his better qualities; his only reported objection to Hagan's book is its running tally of Wenner's sexual relationships—which, though characteristically exploitative and omnivorous, are also unflatteringly abject and highly forgettable. But more on this anon.

Sticky Fingers begins by conjuring two memorably icky, intimate scenes. In the prologue, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Jann Wenner, and Wenner's wife Jane are shown sobbing in a little San Francisco movie theater, where they've just watched Let It Be, the film of the Beatles's last recording session. John and Yoko "were deep into primal scream therapy, their emotions raw and close to the surface," while Jann and Jane, thrilled to share this charged moment with "the most famous person in the world," are presumably weeping in sympathy, or else overcome by their sycophantic good fortune—they've only just met the royal couple, and already they're having a group cry. By prologue's end, Jann has permanently wrecked his blossoming friendship with Lennon by re-publishing his interview with same in book form, something he promised not to do.

In the second scene, in chapter one, Wenner drops LSD for the first time in his Berkeley apartment, with Denise Kaufman, a woman he's met earlier in the day, acting as his trip guide. As soon as the acid kicks in, the "brash fireplug of a boy" flees into his own closet, in full lysurgic freak, and spends several hours standing "in a laundry basket full of starched shirts." The closet, here, including the starched shirts, has a distinct symbolic aptness.

Thus Hagan's narrative rolls into motion, with what quickly becomes a familiar chronological ping-pong that has the bemusing effect of widely separating events that occurred close together in time, rendering time itself, particularly the brief period when Rolling Stone had an edgy cultural cachet, as a weirdly distended, coagulant sludge with various rock and roll stars, a few politicans, and a great many starfuckers, industry fixers, and assorted jet set debris puckering around in it. This tic doesn't really inhibit the pleasure of the text, so to speak, though it does scramble the reader's sense of what happened when, before or after what.

Jan Simon Wenner was born lucky—soon after his arrival in January, 1946, his parents made a fortune on Baby Formulas, Inc., a company his father started near San Francisco after getting out of the air force—and unlucky, as neither parent cared much about raising children (though two daughters quickly followed Jann) beyond the baby formula stage. "Precocious in the extreme," Jann was regularly kicked out of school, and known for his will to dominate any group, "withdrawing when the group does not recognize his leadership." His father Ed "frequently hit him," and described him as "a pain in the ass." His mother, Sim, who had discovered that she was a lesbian in college but "wanted a 'normal' life with children," "made it a philosophical imperative to focus on herself and not her children." In a 1960 memoir, Back Away from the Stove, she wrote, "I quit everything and concentrated on making enough money so that when the kids grew up we could have them psychoanalyzed."

Young Jan (named for Janus, the two-faced god, later self-amended to Jann, to sound more Scandanavian than Jewish) grew up steeped in liberal Democratic politics, the single interest his parents had in common. At age 11, he shoved his way into becoming "editor-in-chief" of a mimeographed newspaper some neighborhood kids had started, and used his micro-platform to promote his precocious views. At 12, he was arrested for "ambiguous horseplay with the son of the local sheriff." After that incident, he was packed off to Chadwick in Los Angeles, a toney coed boarding school "for the progeny of the wealthy and famous from Bel-Air and Hollywood," ostensibly "because his father hoped the proximity to girls might cure him." The Wenners' divorce followed soon after; Sim kept the girls and gave Ed custody of Jann.

At Chadwick, Wenner got his first taste of celebrity culture, rooming with Yul Brenner's son in ninth grade and dating Liza Minnelli. He added the extra n to his first name and garnered the nickname Nox, for obnoxious; one teacher observed that "he can be, and frequently is, extremely cruel to his classmates...and his actions show an alarming lack of integrity." At the same time, these classmates "found Wenner strangely sophisticated for his age." He hung out with the school's "proto-beatniks," but "organized his calendar around popular kids in whose wealth and fame he found deep affirmation."

Wenner made friends with the school's publicist, who snagged him a weekly column in a local paper and an editorial gig on the Chadwick yearbook, "the perfect tool for social climbing." Wenner also founded a short-lived underground paper, The Sardine, as a vehicle for persuing grudges, settling scores, decreeing what was cool and what wasn't, and boosting his prestige within Chadwick's sniffy microcosm.

Wenner's template was already set: the affirmation of rich, famous people would forever be a risibly overpowering fixation. Drawn to leftish attitudes, creative types and eccentrics, he wanted above all to get rich and push his way into "society," viewing all relationships as transactional means to this unwavering goal. Whether or not he was fully aware of it at Chadwick, he had already discovered his metier—not as a journalist, per se, but as an arbiter of other people's popularity, using journalism, and journalists, to lever himself into a position of cultural power and high social visibility.

Given Wenner's sour early history, much of what follows seems preordained. After Chadwick, Wenner spends a lot of energy crashing what passes for high society in the Bay Area, frequenting debutante balls and cultivating friendships with various scions. He develops a tortured crush on James Pike Jr., the son of Bishop Pike, who "also struggled with sexual confusion." At the same time, Wenner dates and sleeps with numerous girls, though "he received no pleasure from making love," according to one of them. Various adults see potential in Young Jann, while peers tend to view him cautiously, if not with disdain.

Hagan probes Wenner's caddishness in colonoscopic detail. Refused sex by the girlfriend who ushered him into the beau monde and desperate to lose his virginity, Wenner hits on her best friend, who later describes him as "gross." Enrolled at Berkeley in 1963, still chasing debs, he "slept with the daughter of a British diplomat and used the sheets from their tryst as a tablecloth for a dinner party the next night, strategically placing her plate over a stain and giggling during the meal." Frustrated by his own humid infatuation, "Wenner insulted Pike at parties and paraded new girlfriends in front of him, as if to mock his sexual confusion." (Pike later shot himself.)

At Berkeley, of course, the times were a-changin', and although Wenner's core pathology scarcely budged, the restive mix of the Free Speech Movement and the developing dope culture provided psychedelic cover for his fixed agenda of me, myself, and I: he joined the obligatory leftist group, SLATE, and became editor of its newsletter, while parleying a summer job as a traffic reporter for an NBC affiliate into a nebulous gig as a "campus stringer," providing the network with audio tapes of student demonstrations. He "rarely failed to mention his NBC job at parties, pushing the outer limits of his role there." Meanwhile, his senses zapped by that first LSD trip, Wenner took up with Denise Kaufman and began taking acid almost daily.

Kaufman was Wenner's entree into "the spirit of 1960s San Francisco." She had traveled with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in the legendary LSD bus, knew Jerry Garcia, and fronted a girl band called The Ace of Cups that opened for Jimi Hendrix. "As important to Wenner," Hagan notes, "Kaufman was from a wealthy family who made their money in real estate." Wenner saw Jefferson Airplane. Wenner saw the Rolling Stones. Wenner and Kaufman saw many bands. The music was powerful. Wenner was moved. Kaufman introduced him to Ralph Gleason, the emeritus music critic at the Chronicle. Wenner felt determined to marry Kaufman, who wasn't attracted to him and finally gave him the kiss-off. (He later learned that she'd slept with Paul Simon, resulting in years of snide reviews for Simon in Rolling Stone.)

By this time, Wenner was chubbily immersed in the emerging counterculture, and began reporting on it in the Berkeley student newspaper, The Daily Californian, in a column titled "Something's Happening," portentiously signed "Mr. Jones," after the Dylan lyric. The column made Wenner "the ultimate acid insider" at Berkeley. He used it to deride Bill Graham, who ran the Fillmore, and also "to praise the Beatles and Bob Dylan and defend Mick Jagger against accusations that he was a 'fag.'''

Before long, Gleason found him a job on The Sunday Ramparts, a broadsheet offshoot of Ramparts, a then-popular, muckraking left-wing magazine helmed by the ghastly, piratical-looking Warren Hinckle, writing "capsule reviews for the local film and theater listings," and gushy squibs about local bands, concerts, happenings. Nothing Hagan cites from either Wenner's Daily California column or his writing in Sunday Ramparts indicates any startling insight into rock music or anything else; Wenner was quick with oracular, banal observations ("Rock and roll speaks for today's experiences. It is the poetry of youth."), and mainly a booster for the local scene (Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Country Joe and the Fish), who "reserved his critical swipes for out-of-towners...[Wenner] drove to Los Angeles for the express purpose of sniffing at the rival scene, disparaging the bands, mocking their clothes, and deriding their fraudulent fans." He also disparaged existing rock publications like Crawdaddy!, as if anticipating future competition.

Out of Sunday Ramparts, though quite independently of it, Rolling Stone was born, free office space provided by the paper's printer. Shortly before this, Wenner hooked up with Jane Schindelheim, "a waifish girl-woman, narrow-hipped and flat-chested, tan-skinned and almond-eyed, with a casual chic gleaned from afternoons roaming Bloomingdale's as a Manhattan teenager." Jane's family put up completion money for Rolling Stone, giving her an ownership stake in the magazine. Eventually, Wenner and Schindelheim married. Jane was, Hagan writes, "everything Wenner desired, in theory if not in actuality."

Wenner envisioned a publication more grandiose than a mere music rag. Rolling Stone would report on the full spectrum of social worlds and alternative lifestyles spreading out around the music. The counterculture's core values of communitarianism (hippies, The Diggers, et al.) and political militancy (the anti-war movement, the Black Panthers) were distinctly at odds with Wenner's tepid sensibilities, but offered a rich, under-reported field for exploitation. (When push came to shove, Wenner urged the paper's readers to stay away from the Chicago convention in 1968, attacking Abbie Hoffman for "exploiting rock and roll for his own power trip." "...Wenner's idea of politics," Hagan writes, "was John Lennon and Yoko Ono staging concerts and bed-ins to the chants of 'Give Peace a Chance.")

After an initial, feverish involvement with the magazine, Jane Wenner withdrew from the nuts-and-bolts side of the business but remained central to the magazine's success, acting as a foil to Jann's often unbearable personality and stage-managing the heavy social demands of the enterprise. She appears throughout Sticky Fingers as a sort of prescient wraith, forever taking to her fainting couch on a jumbo dose of downers, an object of erotic allure for everyone who meets her except her husband; Hagan tries hard to make her a sympathetic figure (and succeeds, in theory if not in actuality), on the order of the Princess Cassamassima, and she must have had, perhaps still has, the kind of monied, spaced-out charisma that Edie Sedgwick had. Something spiderish and complacent lurks behind that stripe of charisma, a sense of limitless entitlement and bottomless boredom in which other people generally figure as inconsequential ectoplasms. But we all go with what we have. She did have a spirited affair with Annie Leibovitz, and a serious one with Sandy Bull, an extremely rich folk musician with a fervent coterie audience and a $1,000-a-day heroin habit, but something about Jann—his charm?—kept her always crashing in the same car, as Rolling Stone might put it. (Coincidentally, Denise Kaufman's Sandy Bull album was playing when Wenner freaked out in that closet.) As Hagan describes it, the Wenners' marriage is one of the dreariest sagas imaginable: he clings to her for conventional respectability, she clings to him because she has no imagination.

They took lovers, snorted nitrous oxide, "hosted a rolling drug salon" at their Victorian manse on California Street, vacationed on yachts and private islands with ultra-rich rock stars and their corporate proprietors. (Wenner always used the magazine as his piggy-bank, which ultimately proved imprudent.) After years and years, when the social temperature reached peak favorability, Jann came out of the closet, got a divorce, and married a male fashion model.

As a biographer, Hagan takes much the same schadenfreude-friendly approach that Kitty Kelly did so effervescently in books about Frank Sinatra, Jackie O, and Elizabeth Taylor. One problem with Sticky Fingers is that unlike Frank Sinatra, Jann Wenner is not a figure whom millions are curious about, and well before Hagan gets to the founding of Rolling Stone, the reader has learned so many rebarbative things about its prime mover that subsequent disclosures about his slithery, Trumpish behavior eventually seem, like the antics of the current US president, redundant and wearying. Still, Rolling Stone became a thing, for a time a conspicuous thing, and long after that a persistent thing, in the culture, and the magazine was so much Wenner's personal fiefdom, its inner workings so intimately enmeshed with his social relations, that it would have been impossible to tell the story of Rolling Stone without also chronicling Wenner's fitfully closed open marriage, his sexual conflicts, his antagonisms, his oft-fizzled attempts at a publishing empire, his protean ingestion of drugs, and his abiding cult worship of Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Hunter Thompson.

There were poems by Richard Brautigan and Allen Ginsberg; stories on comic artist R. Crumb and pop artist Roy Lichtenstein; interviews with Miles Davis and Tiny Tim; premier LPs by new artists like Joni Mitchell...and Sly Stone...Rolling Stone recorded every tossed-off "um" and "uh" of Frank Zappa and Jim Morrison...every hiccup of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, which Jonathan Cott grokked for readers with the sensitivity of the Oxford scholar he had once hoped to be until Rolling Stone took over his life.

Wenner had the wit to employ people who could do what he couldn't do, i.e., write about pop music authoritatively and well—John Landau, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Ralph Gleason and others. While he routinely employed as feature writers unabashedly homophobic, misogynist boors like Joe Eszterhas and Hunter Thompson, Wenner told Hagan that being a closeted gay man "gave me a good and finer appreciation of the sexuality of the guys up there on the stage, and I could understand that in a way that other people didn't," which would have been news to plenty of uncloseted gay men.

The first incarnation of Rolling Stone landed in a stretch of massive social agitation when rock music seemed on the cutting edge of revolutionary change, and every new album by Bob Dylan, the Stones, Jefferson Airplane and innumerable other groups and musicians was ecstatically frisked by young people for metaphysical signs and political portents. The magazine was very much the product of the drug scene, as reflected in the psychedelic curl of its title lettering, but the layout was staid, adapted from the now-defunct Sunday Ramparts with its "charmless black-and-white columns, blocked off with clean Oxford lines, stiff and workmanlike except for the rock-and-roll content."

While Hagan provides few examples of Wenner's hands-on talents as an editor, Wenner is clearly brilliant at networking, and at sucking up ideas from other people. Danny Fields, Elektra Records' A&R man, informed Wenner that "he needed to treat the cover...as the sales pitch—bold, eye-popping images of superstars were how magazines sold the wares." This had never occurred to Wenner previously. The cover of Rolling Stone immediately became a thing. (A few years later, a boy Wenner picked up at Max's Kansas City and spent the night with "circled back to Danny Fields's apartment on Twentieth Street and divulged every sordid detail of the affair as Fields rolled a tape recorder." The recording also became a thing.)

Rolling Stone gradually acquired influence, bestowing favor and obloquy on the products of the record industry. It quickly became dependent on advertising from the record industry as well. The paper's critics could write what they pleased about an artist, except when they couldn't. "When the inevitable blowback from a record label came, Wenner would blame a writer or simply shrug." Various business setbacks, however, obliged Wenner to take bailout funds from Clive Davis at CBS and Steve Roos, who was about to acquire Elektra Records and owned the distribution company Rolling Stone was in hock to.

When Marcus slashed Bob Dylan's Self-Portrait LP ("What is this shit?"), Wenner was so furious he had a more positive review drawn up and printed in a subsequent issue. Didn't Marcus understand that Clive Davis of Colombia had just forked over thirty grand to save Rolling Stone from dissolution? And that Bob Dylan was on Colombia Records?

Hagan's book meticulously records the internecine couplings, crushes, and petty squabbles among the paper's shifting staff, which is somewhat like reading how sausages are made. Editors and writers and business managers and ad hustlers came and went, though some simply came and stayed. Several vivid secondary characters romp through like recurring circus acts, avidly snorting and injecting things, flouncing in and out of beds—Annie Leibowitz, Earl McGrath, vice president of Atlantic Records, Atlantic president Ahmet Ertegun, Xerox chairman Max Palevsky—and erasing all lines between work and play, which begins to sound like too much of a good thing after the magazine's glory decade winds to a close with Altamont and the Tate-LaBianca killings.

By the 1970s, Rolling Stone had begun reformatting itself into the coke-fueled, limousine left version of GQ, reporting on national stories in the slant, condescending style of the ascendent New Journalism, while bestowing its cover as often on film stars in upcoming movies, TV personalities, and politicians as musicians with records to sell. Wenner recognized that the culture was no longer the counterculture, and broadened the magazine's range to reflect the interests of his own generation as it grew older, at least that part of his generation that also grew richer. Perhaps the real cultural significance of Rolling Stone was its generational focus: a "youth" publication when its readers were young, a "grown-up" magazine when they started buying cars and houses, camping in the woods instead of settling in them, and accessorizing "lifestyles" as a way to define themselves. Wenner was able to make consumerism look hip to a demographic that had once despised it. This evolution made it possible to glean advertising from other sources besides the music industry.

Rolling Stone became more conventionally political, focused on electoral politics and current events, at the same time that it became more legibly aimed at mass-market profitability. For several years, Wenner awarded endless space and prime assignments to Hunter Thompson, whose endless reporting on the inside of his own head inspired a generation of witless Gonzos to do likewise. Thompson made the liberal outrage of the Nixon era sound edgier, more anti-establishment, than it, or he, actually was. There was much in Rolling Stone to do with Patty Hearst and Charlie Manson and the McGovern campaign and Watergate; meanwhile, San Francisco became less about music, peace, and love, and more about the Zodiac Killer, the Zebra Killings, and the SLA. Inevitably, the magazine moved to New York, the publishing hub, leaving much of the West Coast staff behind.

Over the years, Wenner had slickly inserted himself into the elite he'd always dreamed of joining, starting with the Warhol entourage at Max's, eventually hobnobbing with Jackie Kennedy and the media crowd at Elaine's; after Saturday Night Live first aired, Rolling Stone became its ardent fanzine. "By 1975," Hagan writes, "Rolling Stone no longer pulled culture from the underground and put it aboveground; it was following big-budget industry stars from CBS and Warner Bros. and Elektra and Atlantic, companies that built rock and roll into a multimillion-dollar industry." Rolling Stone became, in effect, just another glossy news-and-culture industry magazine, producing the occasional sensational scoop (in recent times, the career-ending General McChrystal profile, and, less wonderfully, the Sean Penn interview with drug lord El Chapo and the hoax UVA campus rape story), which is what it remains today. It added Bruce Springsteen to the short list of stars the magazine obsessively fawned over, Wenner's faves: Dylan, Mick Jagger, John and Yoko. Wenner grudgingly let his writers cover the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and the punk scene at CBGB, but the punk scene had little interest in Rolling Stone, and the magazine had nothing special to say about the underground culture developing around punk. In the mid-80s, Rolling Stone lost what remained of its youth constituency to Bob Guccione's Spin. When rap and hip-hop eclipsed the old music, the new sounds engendered their own magazines, and something else occurred that rendered Rolling Stone, in a musical sense, de trop: digital. Wenner, a print man, understandably resisted the onrush of MTV, cable television, and the Internet, fell behind the curve, and made several disastrous business decisions while playing catch-up.

Wenner did hit the jackpot, sort of, by acquiring, via a $20 million loan from Michael Eisner at Disney, Us Magazine, a celebrity gossip sheet that competed with People for supermarket check-out space and soon brought in three times the revenue that the declining Rolling Stone did. Part of a subsequent bank loan of $300 million crafted by Wenner's real estate lawyer was supposed to pay off the Disney loan, but Wenner instead bought a private jet and an estate in upstate New York, among other things, just before the '08 financial collapse. "Now Wenner faced two nauseating trends: the slow and steady decline of the magazine business and the inevitable renegotiation of the $300 million loan on more onerous terms. The banks added interest, shackled Wenner's salary and bonuses, and took an automatic cut of his profits. This was necessarily going to redefine life." Yes, if giving up the private jet can be said to redefine life, but Wenner was never going to finish up in the poor house.

Hagan claims that "from 1971 to 1977, Jann Wenner was the most important magazine editor in America," which may be true; he goes on to write that Rolling Stone "was a man's magazine, though women read it; it was a white magazine, though African Americans were fetishized in it; it was a left-wing magazine, though it was tempered by Wenner's devotion to the establishment." Which is definitely true, and probably why Rolling Stone, which you can still buy at newsstands, seems so much a bland remnant of the faraway past. Only dead fish swim with the current.

Gary Indiana is a writer and artist. His memoir, I Can Give You Anything But Love, was published in 2015 by Rizzoli. His first two novels, Horse Crazy (1989) and Gone Tomorrow (1993), will be reissued by Seven Stories in September. 

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