Book review: Sticky Fingers describes Rolling Stone founder’s dirty deeds
by Michael Bailey
Jan 12 2018
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Sticky Fingers is an exhaustively researched, remarkably candid biography of Jann Wenner, who 50 years ago started the world’s first newspaper to take rock’n’roll seriously, and last month sold most of his family’s remaining stake for $US50 million.
This could also be the most honest business book published in 2017, for Wenner succeeded despite doing many of the things an MBA teaches you not to.
He could treat his staff terribly, for one. Biographer Joe Hagan spoke to dozens of former employees among the 240 people he interviewed for this book, and tales abound of Wenner underpaying them, sacking some on a whim while playing favourites with others – Hunter S. Thompson remained on the payroll long after Fear And Loathing had given way to beer and loafing – and sexually harassing nearly all of them (as a bisexual, Wenner was an equal opportunist on this front).
Burning investors and associates for short-term gain was another bad habit.
The most infamous example of this was the 1971 Rolling Stone cover story, “Lennon Remembers”, in which the erstwhile Beatle called his old band “nothing” in a cathartic interview which made the magazine’s reputation. As Hagan writes, it became “the turnstile you went through to sell records in America”, at least until the rise of MTV a decade later.
Lennon gave Wenner access on the understanding that he could approve the story prior to publication – a journalistic no-no that Rolling Stone often practised for the sake of a good cover – and that his acid words never appear anywhere else.
Yet months later Wenner cut a lucrative deal, which turned the interview into a book, and the pair never spoke again.
Of course, the reasons Wenner got to Lennon in the first place were the same reasons he could get away with all of this unethical behaviour: his driving, social-climbing ambition; his ability to read the culture, first by instinct and later through endless reader focus groups; and his singular charisma.
“There are a lot of people that you like just because of how terrible they are,” one former record label executive tells Hagan.
“Even when he’s acting his worst, Jann is doing it with a certain verve. You can disapprove of him, but you’re still amused.”
A long-form journalist whose list of credits includes Rolling Stone, Hagan was Wenner’s choice as biographer and thus gained access to his archives and his peerless network – Dylan, Jagger, McCartney, Midler, Richards, Springsteen, Townshend and Wenner himself all go on record.
“He leads with his appetites – I take, I see, I have,” is Art Garfunkel’s perspective.
However, Hagan made sure Wenner did not play the old Rolling Stone game, refusing him final copy approval and allowing the multiple character assassinations and sordid 1970s stories contained herein to see the light of day.
Hagan and Wenner have fallen out since Sticky Fingers was published in November. An authorised biography needs no greater recommendation.
Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine by Joe Hagan is published by Penguin Random House.
A delicious romp through the heyday of rock and roll and a revealing portrait of the man at the helm of the iconic magazine that made it all possible, with candid look backs at the era from Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Elton John, Bette Midler, Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, and others.
The story of Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone’s founder, editor, and publisher, and the pioneering era he helped curate, is told here for the first time in glittering, glorious detail. Joe Hagan provides readers with a backstage pass to storied concert venues and rock-star hotel rooms; he tells never before heard stories about the lives of rock stars and their handlers; he details the daring journalism (Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, P.J. O’Rourke) and internecine office politics that accompanied the start-up; he animates the drug and sexual appetites of the era; and he reports on the politics of the last fifty years that were often chronicled in the pages of Rolling Stone magazine.
Supplemented by a cache of extraordinary documents and letters from Wenner’s personal archives, Sticky Fingers depicts an ambitious, mercurial, wide-eyed rock and roll fan of who exalts in youth and beauty and learns how to package it, marketing late sixties counterculture as a testament to the power of American youth. The result is a fascinating and complex portrait of man and era, and an irresistible biography of popular culture, celebrity, music, and politics in America.