During my college days at the University of Oregon, one of my favorite journalism professors, Tom Wheeler, told my class about the time he interviewed Keith Richards for Rolling Stone. I always thought it would be rad to contribute to such an iconic publication, and to meet and interview popular artists. Now, as a working music writer, I was immediately drawn to Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, which promised interviews with the likes of Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Yoko Ono, Elton John, Lorne Michaels, and Annie Leibovitz.
Knowing virtually nothing about how Rolling Stone or its co-founder Jann Wenner rose to success, I dove into the book and quickly got stuck in the mud. It’s not the easiest read—I had to Google often while trudging through all the names—and with all of the backstory provided for Wenner’s family, friends, ex-girlfriends, and their family members, I had a hard time deciding if my experience was more like reading a textbook or crawling down a Wikipedia wormhole.
From the beginning, Wenner is painted as a sort of leftist, pro-establishment Trumpian icon: fame-obsessed, manipulative, wealthy, and highly concerned with elevating his social status within rock ’n’ roll and youth culture. As the book points out, Wenner is actually the same age as the president and the two have a few things in common, despite their different politics: They’re both “deeply narcissistic men for whom celebrity is the ultimate confirmation of existence.”
Even from childhood, Sticky Fingers shows Wenner was on track to become a Slytherin-esque evil genius, citing a year-end review from one of his teachers, who said he was “unusually intelligent but with a compulsion to violence,” and “in group situations he tries to dominate, withdrawing when the group does not recognize his leadership.”
While the book doesn’t shy away from Wenner’s many unflattering angles, and the fact that his unshakeable arrogance often made him unlikeable, I could relate to and empathize with other aspects of his identity and vision—like his deeply repressed homosexuality in a time when coming out wasn’t an option, his neglectful Jewish parents, his unavoidable and ambitious fanboying, and his passion for legalizing psychedelics. I found it interesting, too, that Wenner never saw the Beatles live (he once traded two tickets for 30 hits of acid), was quoted as having mainstream musical taste, and was “not a deep musical person. I was a fan.”
Sticky Fingers is more than just a book about how Wenner came to know Mick Jagger and John Lennon, own multiple magazines, help establish the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and capture and assisted in defining an entire counterculture in print. It’s also a good refresher for the timeline of the Free Speech Movement, Vietnam War, youth-driven drug and counterculture, as well as civil and women’s rights. Though it’s a dense read, as an alt-journalist with a clear slant to her writing, learning about Rolling Stone’s strong ties to the Democratic Party and how it became an influential and respected beacon for intelligent, critical culture writing was well worth the slog.
by Joe Hagan