No stone unturned
Music: Sticky Fingers, Joe Hagan, Canongate, hardback, 560 pages, €30.90
'Rolling Stone' editor Jann Wenner helped to define an era - but his methods were brutal.
A friend who worked for Rolling Stone for many years once offered a succinct description of the magazine's founder and editor. Jann Wenner, he said, was "like a shark. There's no yesterday, no tomorrow, only the next meal". My friend meant this literally, telling the story of how he was working at his desk one day, a half-eaten sandwich beside him, when Wenner walked past, picked up the sandwich and moved on, devouring it, without a word.
Wenner's voracious appetite, for food - his own and other people's - but more particularly for power, status, drugs, drink and sex, is vividly chronicled in this engrossing study of how he turned a small rock 'n' roll fan paper into one of the most important and influential magazines in American publishing history. Wenner has already expressed his displeasure with this book.
He gave Joe Hagan, a New York magazine writer, unparalleled cooperation, sitting for hours of interviews, freeing him to research and report without interference, and without demanding to read the manuscript before publication. Inevitably, it has ended in tears, with Wenner now accusing Hagan of writing a book that is "deeply flawed and tawdry, rather than substantial".
One can see why Wenner would be unhappy. While lauding his achievements, Sticky Fingers is unsparing in describing his "will to power", his egotism and his "cruelty and unvarnished greed" - although at more than 500 pages one could hardly describe it as insubstantial. As much as this is a portrait of the man and the magazine, it is also a study of the past 50 years of American popular culture, and particularly the way in which rock music - "the poetry of youth", as Wenner once called it - became the dominant cultural force, and commercial commodity, on which he would build an empire.
The son of a businessman who made a killing from selling baby formula, Wenner was a precocious child - variously described as "obnoxious" and "gross" - who was kicked out of nearly every school he attended before the age of 12. Even his mother called him "the worst child she had ever met" - although she was hardly a model parent herself. More of a bohemian than her son would ever be, Sim Wenner made it "a philosophical imperative" to focus on herself, not her three children, and make enough money "so that when the kids grew up we could have them psychoanalysed". She would virtually abandon her son for a life of floor-length muumuus, pot-smoking and younger lovers.
Wenner was sent to boarding schools where he cultivated an enthusiasm for social climbing among California's elite, opening a charge account at Brooks Brothers and monogramming his button-down shirts.
The hippie culture in San Francisco gave him an entrée into journalism. After writing rock reviews for the left-wing magazine Ramparts, he launched Rolling Stone in 1967, at the height of the so-called summer of love. But for Wenner, despite his enthusiasm for pot and LSD, the magazine was never a hippie enterprise.
His declared ambition was for it to "be recognised by the establishment". He took rock 'n' roll seriously; he was both an ardent fan, infatuated with the Beatles and Rolling Stones (over the years, Hagan writes, he and Mick Jagger would become "some facsimile of actual friends") and an evangelist about the music's possibilities as a catalyst for cultural change.
A bold, inspiring editor, he enabled a coming school of critics - Jon Landau and Greil Marcus among them - and gave freedom to writers such as David Dalton and Tom Wolfe, making Rolling Stone the centre of gravity for "New Journalism" through the 1970s. He could also be brutal in using the magazine to settle scores and pursue enemies, and - even more shocking - to cosset friends by giving them copy approval for stories about them.
Rolling Stone's biggest stars were Hunter S Thompson and the photographer Annie Leibovitz. Thompson here emerges as an attention-seeking, self-interested, quasi-sociopathic prankster - the sort of person who spikes a party with LSD, without taking it himself, so he can watch people go mad for his own amusement.
Wenner regarded him as "my Keith Richards", indulging, humouring and feuding with him as Thompson turned into a "faltering drug addict", fawned over by "celebrity sycophants" such as Johnny Depp and Sean Penn. Leibovitz suffered her own narrow escapes, including flings with Wenner and Jagger and a drug problem, before decamping to Vanity Fair where she became the foremost pictorial chronicler of power and fame in American life.
By then, Wenner had moved Rolling Stone to New York, and the 1960s were long gone, mutated, as Hagan writes, into "a mythic time" that would be glorified and fetishised - not least by Wenner - in records, books, TV shows and posters "for years to come, for ever and ever, amen". Wenner saw that the Sixties, with all its passion and idealism, was "at its sacred core, a business".
Far from lamenting the new mood of celebrity and conspicuous consumption, Wenner had come to embody it. He became a fully paid-up member of New York society, a regular at Elaine's and Studio 54, with a retreat in the Hamptons and a burgeoning coke habit, a figure of growing power, but increasingly out of step with the music business.
When, in 1982, Michael Jackson released Thriller, which would become the biggest-selling record of all time, Wenner declined to give Jackson the ultimate accolade Rolling Stone could offer, explaining, "I rarely put R&B acts on the cover." Yet through it all, the magazine prospered - it was an idea, as one colleague put it, so great, it could survive even Jann Wenner's erratic management.
Simmering under all of this is the matter of Wenner's sexuality. As a teenager, Hagan writes, Wenner had been "troubled by his homosexual urges", and for years kept them closeted. Early in his marriage to Jane Schindelheim - whose parents had helpfully provided money to launch Rolling Stone - Wenner was consorting with a male lover on trips to London, and the book spares nothing in recounting his affairs with both men and women.
Jane is painted as a captivating woman, her marriage to Wenner built on a "mutual desire for power, pleasure and style", but she shrinks to a shadow, "deep into pills, ensconced in her room" during Wenner's nightly bacchanals. He left her in 1994 for a young fashion designer, Matt Nye, whom he married in 2005. As Hagan waspishly puts it, Wenner had "finally got the girl he desired and she was a man".
The book ends on a fading coda. In the past six months, Wenner has had a triple heart bypass and a hip replacement operation, and - too late for inclusion here - announced that his company's remaining share of Rolling Stone is up for sale.
This is a sprawling rollercoaster of a book - insightful, revelatory, sometimes lurid, and never less than utterly compelling. One might have thought that Wenner of all people would think twice about opening himself up to a journalist and expecting a result that would mirror his image of himself.
At one point, Hagan tells how a "livid" Mick Jagger called Wenner after Keith Richards wrote in his autobiography that Jagger had a small penis. Wenner cautioned him to do nothing. "The more you respond, the more you make an issue of it." Sound advice. Wenner may be bruised by Hagan's book, but one imagines it will ultimately be water off a duck's back. Everything else has been.