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A New History of Rolling Stone Reveals Its Complicated, Compromised Relationship to Rock Stars

The first biography of the magazine’s founder is much more critical than HBO’s conveniently timed new documentary, and it’s a better tribute for it.

If we could somehow resurrect John Dos Passos to update his U.S.A. trilogy for the post-1960s era, he’d be hard-pressed to find a character more compelling than Jann Wenner, founder and publisher of Rolling Stone magazine. No media magnate has been more influential in shaping the cultural legacy of The Sixties—not the years themselves, but the idea of them—than Wenner, nor has anyone proved so talented at profiting off that idea.

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In 1967, Wenner, then a 21-year-old Berkeley dropout, started Rolling Stone in San Francisco, and over the next decade he made it into one of the great magazines of the 20th century. He had a preternatural gift for what Joe Strummer once called “turning rebellion into money,” like a bridge between the revolutionary Sixties and the rapacious Eighties made flesh. In the 50 years since his magazine’s founding, Jann Wenner has been many things to many people: genius and opportunist, visionary and plunderer, hero and scoundrel. He has sometimes been all of these things to the same people. (In the interest of full disclosure, I interned at Rolling Stone as a college student in 2002—my interactions with Wenner were rare, always brief, and never unpleasant.)

While he’s never been a shrinking violet, Wenner and Rolling Stone have been garnering an unusual amount of attention as of late. He is the subject of a terrific new biography, Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, the first full-length book on the publisher. Hagan was hand-picked by his subject and given unprecedented access to Wenner, his archives, and scores of his associates, but shortly before the book’s publication, writer and subject had a falling out that was chronicled last week in a dishy back-and-forth in the New York Times.

And on Nov. 6 and 7, HBO will air the four-hour, thoroughly authorized documentary Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge, directed by Alex Gibney and Blair Foster and co-executive produced by Wenner himself. The documentary’s ostensible occasion is the magazine’s anniversary (the cover date of Rolling Stone’s first issue was Nov. 9, 1967), but its carefully manicured celebration of the magazine can’t help but feel like a counteroffensive to Hagan’s book. Stories from the Edge is intermittently enjoyable but overly puffed up, an infomercial dressed up as history.

Hagan’s book is nowhere near as flattering, but its scope and rigor ultimately do far more to honor its subject than the HBO special. Wenner has attacked Sticky Fingers as “deeply flawed and tawdry, rather than substantial,” an assessment that is both incomplete and incorrect. Hagan’s book is certainly flawed and certainly tawdry (it’s rock ’n’ roll, after all), but it’s undeniably substantial, an engrossing and exceptionally well-reported chronicle of a cultural empire and its emperor. Rolling Stone’s table of contents pages have long been crowned with the credo “All the News that Fits,” an irreverent tweaking of the New York Times’ high-handed motto; by this standard, Hagan’s book is surely worthy of its subject.

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We tend to think of Rolling Stone as a quintessentially Sixties artifact, and the publication certainly presents itself as such. But the magazine gained its true foothold in the 1970s, when it was regularly printing groundbreaking work from the likes of Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Greil Marcus, Ben Fong-Torres, and Annie Leibovitz along with ample doses of nostalgia. To later generations of readers, Rolling Stone often seemed like it was incessantly reflecting the Sixties generation back to itself through a soft lens, but the truth is that the magazine had pretty much always been doing that: Read critics like Jon Landau and Lester Bangs in the magazine in the early 1970s, and their writing is already shot through with loss and creeping disillusion. Cameron Crowe, who became one of Rolling Stone’s star feature writers during the 1970s while still a teenager, recalls landing assignments to cover bands like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and Black Sabbath simply because none of his elders at the mag wanted to write about them. Rock and roll was already dead by then, anyway.

As Hagan’s book shows, the driving, irresolvable tension behind both Wenner and his magazine from the beginning was the clash between the desire to do meaningful journalism and the desire to be near fame. For all the great music writing that Rolling Stone has produced, Wenner has also enjoyed being friends with rock stars and has been known to value those friendships at the expense of editorial credibility, or simply good taste. He’s long given certain stars the right to edit their own interviews before going to press, and the line between criticism and hagiography has frequently blurred, particularly as Wenner and his favorite artists have aged. See this five-star review of Mick Jagger’s 2001 solo effort Goddess in the Doorway, penned by the publisher himself, or more recently, the time Rolling Stone declared U2’s eminently forgettable Songs of Innocence the best album of 2014. Hagan reveals that Wenner demanded the ranking personally. (“My dictate. By fiat, buddy. That’s that.”)

Sticky Fingers

And the line between starfucking and fucking stars over was crossed early and repeatedly. There’s no artist more central to the Rolling Stone mystique than John Lennon: He graced the cover of the magazine’s first issue back in 1967, and Leibovitz’s photo of Lennon and Yoko Ono that appeared on the front of the Jan. 22, 1981 issue—released shortly after Lennon’s murder and entirely dedicated to remembrances of the late Beatle—might be the most famous magazine cover in American history. (If you’ve never read this issue, I’d strongly recommend tracking it down: It is, from front to back, a masterpiece.) Wenner and his magazine have kept Lennon’s memory and legacy alive with purposeful ferocity: Since his death, Lennon has appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, either by himself or as a member of the Beatles, no fewer than 15 times.

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And yet as Hagan’s book makes clear, the reality of Lennon and Wenner’s relationship was far more complicated than most people knew. In December 1970, Wenner coaxed Lennon into sitting for a lengthy conversation that was published in Rolling Stone in two parts under the title “Lennon Remembers.” It was an extraordinary coup for the young publisher, and to this day it remains the most famous interview Lennon ever gave. Shortly after it ran, Wenner received an offer to turn the interview into a book for $40,000. Lennon was vehemently opposed, but the cash-strapped Wenner did it anyway, and the two never spoke again. (Lennon was so angered that he later supported a short-lived competing magazine, called SunDance, with the intent of putting Rolling Stone out of business.)

This is a terrific story in Hagan’s telling, a perfect combination of myth-busting and muckraking. The print-the-legend nature of Wenner’s personal and professional philosophy has been absorbed into his magazine from its beginnings, and it’s this spirit that Hagan’s book most successfully captures, in all its highs and lows. Late in the book Hagan provides a sobering account of Wenner’s reaction to the disastrous 2014 article “A Rape on Campus,” which was published (and subsequently retracted) while Hagan was shadowing Wenner for the biography. Wenner’s dismay and pain at a scandal that would scar the reputation of the magazine he built comes through viscerally, offering one of the most human moments of the book.

Some of Wenner’s criticisms of Sticky Fingers are well-founded. For starters, Hagan spends too much time on Wenner’s love life, building the publisher’s struggles with his sexuality and marital strife into a central motif of the book, which sometimes feels extraneous and prurient. And the book’s focus on Wenner himself, sometimes at the expense of the “and Rolling Stone Magazine” part of its subtitle, occasionally causes Hagan to lose the forest for the trees. Hagan isn’t a music writer, which is mostly for the best as he doesn’t get dragged into internecine squabbles over Rolling Stone’s place in pop discourse. (The word rockism doesn’t appear once in these pages, thank God.) But there can be a tendency in books like this to assume their subject’s significance rather than illuminating it, and there’s far too little here about Rolling Stone’s impact as postwar America’s premier institution of music criticism. Sticky Fingers spends more time on Rolling Stone’s splashy features and its dishy “Random Notes” section than its vaunted reviews section, where generations of teenaged music geeks dreamed of one day seeing their bylines. And Hagan makes only a single passing mention of 1976’s landmark Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, which is still probably the most influential anthology of American rock writing ever published.

Wenner recently announced that he’ll be selling his controlling stake in Rolling Stone, which will make him an even richer man and likely leave him with some time on his hands. I hope he gives Hagan’s biography another read. Its 500-plus pages, flawed and tawdry as they sometimes are, are a formidable tribute to an American original and a titan of his age, an age we’re arguably still living in. Sticky Fingers really does print the legend and all the news that fits.