It’s difficult to read Joe Hagan’s new biography of Rolling Stone editor and founder Jann S. Wenner without feeling a pinch of pity, and a much larger dollop of disgust.
Wenner, after all, handpicked journalist Hagan, who has interviewed celebrities like Karl Rove and Hillary Clinton, to write the book. And he offered him access to a vast personal archive spanning his five decades at the helm of the iconic magazine, which he recently put up for sale. What Hagan produced was not the expected rock and roll hagiography, but a disquieting and oddly arms-length portrait of a media mogul with almost no laudable qualities beyond his ambition.
To the author’s credit, he paints a portrait of his subject’s unhappy childhood — an early divorce, self-involved parents — that helps explain Wenner’s desperation for acclaim. The problem is that, for the remainder of the book, Wenner comes off as an insecure fan boy with no true principles, journalistic or otherwise. (Wenner judged the book “deeply flawed and tawdry, rather than substantial,’’ according to The New York Times.)
If you think I’m exaggerating, get a load of this passage, which comes exactly 16 pages into the prologue:
“That Wenner is the same age as President Donald J. Trump, whose ascent to power was built on celebrity, is perhaps no coincidence. Indeed, Wenner’s oldest friends saw in Trump’s personality, if not his politics, a striking likeness to the Rolling Stone founder — deeply narcissistic men for whom celebrity is the ultimate confirmation of existence.”
I highlight this passage not to pile on Wenner, but because it represents one of the few samples of daring prose in this otherwise exhaustive and exhausting book.
Without a doubt, Wenner has led an outsized life. He launched Rolling Stone at 21 and guided the magazine to cultural prominence. Along the way, he provided a venue for writers like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe and published a ream of influential investigative journalism.
Alas, most of “Sticky Fingers’’ is dedicated to documenting what might be called The Groupie Legacy of Wenner. We get endless pages devoted to his flirtations and feuds with rock and roll illuminati (Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen et al). We hear about his coke binges, his workplace machinations, his deals and debts, his unhappy marriage, and his affairs. Which is to say: We hear a lot about what happened but not much about what it means.
This isn’t necessarily Hagan’s fault. Wenner offered his biographer plenty of archival material, but precious little access to his inner life — a pattern others have experienced. As Keith Richards puts it at one point, speaking of Wenner and Jagger: “They’re both very guarded creatures. You wonder if there’s anything worth guarding.”
This opacity is especially vexing when it comes to Wenner’s tortured sexuality. He was a gay man who struggled for decades to come out of the closet. Hagan notes this fact, of course, but we never hear from Wenner himself about what it was like for him to play the hard-charging hetero hedonist.
Thus, Hagan is left to narrate a familiar yarn, that of the insecure high schooler who finds a path to popularity by commandeering the yearbook.
What’s shocking to encounter is the transparency of Wenner’s con. Early on, he waxes poetic about the counterculture mission of Rolling Stone. “We wanted to be heard,” he insists. “[W]e wanted the music to be heard, we wanted to change things.” Two pages later, Wenner reveals the true nature of his pitch: “We are not hippie. I’m in this to make a success and to make a lot of money.”
So much for flower power.
Wenner’s essential innovation, as Hagan deftly notes, was “reframing rock and roll as a celebrity culture like any before it.”
Because Wenner evinces no creed beyond self-interest, virtually everything he does is transactional. “On the surface was the druggy ease of friendship,” Hagan notes of the publisher’s perennial role as party host, “beneath it the torque of opportunism.”
Wenner pursues money and fame in the same way a shark pursues lunch. This gives the book a certain gossipy momentum. But it undercuts any sense of surprise or disappointment when this prince of the 1960s embraces raw tabloid profiteering. He scoops up US Magazine and blithely wrings millions from the Hollywood rumor mill.
Even the brief peek we get into Wenner’s role as a father seems consistent, if unsettling. While the oldest of his adopted sons recounts a history of physical and emotional abuse, Wenner notes the boy was “not everything I would want in my son . . . But I accepted it and just tried my best to work with it.” It would be hard to imagine a more dispiriting response.
Gonzo journalist Thompson offers the most trenchant assessment of his former boss: “Asked years later of his impression of Wenner in that first meeting, Thompson snickered and said, ‘A troll of some kind.’ ”
The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine
By Joe Hagan
Knopf, 547 pp., illustrated, $29.95
Steve Almond’s new book, “Bad Stories: Toward a Unified Theory of How It All Came Apart” will be out in spring.