Sticky Fingers: A New Biography Explores the Seedier Side of Jann Wenner
Given the length of time it takes to research and write a biography, it's a pretty safe bet that Joe Hagan, the author of Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone, had no idea that his book would be published on the eve of a scandal that has engulfed Hollywood, the news media, and Washington, D.C.
Since October, we've been in the pitchforks and guillotines French Revolution phase of the ‘60s sexual revolution, which Jann Wenner championed from the helm of Rolling Stone magazine just as much as Hugh Hefner did from the Playboy Mansion. To understand how we went from the unbridled hedonism of the rock stars of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the celebrity disco denizens of Studio 54 in the late '70s, to Hollywood moguls and news titans receiving lawsuits and pink slips on a weekly (sometimes daily) basis, Wenner is the linchpin between Led Zeppelin and Harvey Weinstein. And Hagan, who has previously written celebrity and political profiles for New York magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and Wenner’s Rolling Stone itself, does a thorough job of documenting his myriad excesses.
As Hagan writes, before Wenner founded Rolling Stone fifty years ago, while there were serious publications for the jazz aficionado such as Downbeat, and industry-aimed music magazines such as Billboard, fans of rock and roll were stuck with teen-themed publications such as Tiger Beat and 16, devoted to reminding young teenage girls how totally cool and dreamy Paul McCartney and Davy Jones were. As the old saying goes, the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. For 21-year-old Jann Wenner, that one big thing, as Hagan writes, is that he “made it safe for boys to ogle their male idols as rapturously as any girl might by adding a healthy dose of intellectual pretense—a phenomenon that kicked into high gear with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released five months before Rolling Stone appeared.”
This idea would launch a business empire that would slowly build to a one billion dollar valuation before the roof eventually caved in during the last decade. But we’re getting far ahead of ourselves.
The Sexual Predators Everyone Still Worships
In his perceptive essay at The Week in October as the Weinstein scandal was initially breaking titled “The sexual predators everyone still worships,” Matthew Walther noted that rock stars have long been given a pass for their exploitation of young women. British music journalist Mick Wall, in his 2010 history of Led Zeppelin, When Giants Walked the Earth, wrote that long before Zeppelin took flight, Elvis and the Beatles were taking full advantage of women on the road. “John Lennon later told Jann Wenner about the Beatles’ on the road adventures: ‘If you could get on our tours, you were in. Just think of [Fellini’s film] Satyricon. Wherever we were there was always a whole scene going on. [Hotel rooms] full of junk and whores and fuck knows what.’”
Wenner naturally assumed that because he was hanging out with rock stars like Lennon and Jagger and promoting their wares, he could lead a similar life himself. As Hagan writes, Wenner’s sex life went from gay experimentation as a young man, to marriage in 1967 to his future long suffering wife Jane, to ‘70s-era threesomes with Jane and staff photographer Annie Leibovitz, to eventually divorcing Jane in 2011, and, according to Hagan, marrying his young gay lover. Along the way, according to a Variety article last month, a male journalist “Alleges Rolling Stone Founder Jann Wenner Offered Him Work in Exchange for Sex” in 2005. “I had Jann Wenner’s tongue in my mouth,” [Ben] Ryan was quoted as saying. “I went along for a second, but then said something to the effect of, ‘Oh please, I’m not that kind of girl.’”
Only two years after Rolling Stone launched in 1967, the naive hedonism of the mid-sixties collapsed into a series of grisly implosions. The Beatles fell apart due to drugs, egos, and financial mismanagement; the Stones’ disastrous free concert at Altamont climaxed with a young man being murdered in front of the stage and being caught on film. And then to fully put the nail into the coffin of the age of Aquarius along came Charles Manson.
As Daniel J. Flynn of Big Journalism wrote last month in the immediate wake of Manson’s long-overdue death at age 83, the counterculture initially embraced Manson as one of their own. Future Barack Obama mentor Bernardine Dohrn was quoted as exclaiming during her Weather Underground salad days, “Dig it: first they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into the victim’s stomach. Wild!”
Wenner was no exception in his initial Manson worship, according to Hagan:
When Manson’s trial began in 1970, Wenner [who would then have been about age 24–Ed] leaped at the story with an idea for the headline: “Charles Manson Is Innocent!”
Wenner’s headline was less insane than it sounds to modern ears. Manson was already an object of media obsession, a former Haight-Ashbury denizen who drifted to L.A. and collected hippie acolytes for LSD orgies and quasi-biblical prophecies. While the straight world viewed him as a monster, much of Wenner’s audience saw him, at least hypothetically, as one of their own. The underground press of Los Angeles, including the Free Press, cast him as the victim of a hippie-hating media. Manson was a rock-and-roll hanger-on. Wenner was convinced of Manson’s innocence by his own writer David Dalton, who had lived for a time with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, a Manson believer. “I’d go out driving in the desert with Dennis, and he’d say things to me like ‘Charlie’s really cosmic, man.’ ”
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Meanwhile, a lawyer in the DA’s office, believing he was doing a favor for a friend of [David] Felton’s at the Los Angeles Times and that this hippie rag from San Francisco was a benign nonentity, brought Felton [then-recently hired away from the L.A. Times by Wenner] and Dalton into the office to show them the crime scene photos of the butchered bodies of Manson victims — including a man with the word war etched in his stomach with a fork. Dalton blanched when he saw the words “Healter [sic] Skelter” painted in blood on a refrigerator, instantly recalling what Dennis Wilson told him about the coded instructions Manson heard in the Beatles songs. “It must have been the most horrifying moment of my life,” said Dalton. “It was the end of the whole hippie culture.” Jann Wenner changed the headline.
Altamont would prove to be somewhat more challenging for Wenner, since it pitted the magazine’s on-again off-again attempts at serious reportage with the band whose name was often thought to be synonymous with Wenner’s publication. Wenner was more than a little besotted with Jagger, and Jagger in turn saw the magazine as essentially his free PR department. When Altamont occurred, veteran Bay Area music journalist Ralph Gleason, who was there at Rolling Stone’s start, insisted to Wenner that this was the moment in which he had to choose between publishing a fan magazine or a serious journalistic outlet:
If Rolling Stone was a professional newspaper about rock and roll, the moment of truth was nigh. What did Jann Wenner really stand for? Was he a groupie or a fucking journalist? He told him to cover the Altamont disaster “like it was World War II.” The following week, Wenner, according to Greil Marcus, sat before his editors over lunch and declared, “We’re gonna cover this story from top to bottom, and we’re going to lay the blame.” “Everybody knew I was friends with Mick,” said Wenner, “and everybody was walking around on tender toes, wondering is Jann going to let this happen. All our integrity was on the line with that. Me, in front of my staff, and me, in front of the world. And I just said, do it.”
Hagan writes that as a result, the Rolling Stone history of Altamont became for decades the official history of the event, despite several flaws in its reporting. As Kathy Shaidle wrote for PJ Media in 2013, the Hells Angels weren’t the only source of security there. Shaidle quotes Dick Carter, the owner of the Altamont Speedway at the time of the concert:
Most of the books and articles about Altamont are filled with bull. Like the Hell’s Angels were the only security, and they were hired for $500 worth of beer. We had every off-duty police officer available and every security guard in Northern California there. There were about 17 Angels who came to the concert because they were in Oakland for a convention. Sam Cutler, the Stones’ manager, asked if the Angels would escort the Stones through the crowd on motorcycle and then sit around the stage during the show to protect the band. We had purchased $500 worth of beer for the bands, and Cutler told the Angels they could have some.
The Angels were blamed for the death of Meredith Hunter. But that kid was waving a gun and screaming that he was going to shoot Mick Jagger. One of the Angels jumped his back, after Hunter fired a shot at the stage, and stabbed him with a knife several times. The audience was going to tear Hunter limb from limb, but the Angels formed a circle around him and got him out of the crowd and into a bread truck where he could be moved to get medical attention. He died in the racetrack office, but the Angels tried to save him.
Jagger initially rankled at the bad press from Rolling Stone, and in some respects so did Wenner, given that it tarnished his relationship with the band and their leader. But the two quickly had a sort of show-business reconciliation:
It was an astute business decision. Mick Jagger would be the most important and iconic face in Rolling Stone’s history, appearing on more Rolling Stone covers than any other artist (thirty-one times), always a consistently high seller. Jagger benefited, of course— years of being mythologized and glamorized by the best writers and photographers in the country, with Wenner’s personal guarantee of editorial control over his own image in a magazine conveniently named Rolling Stone. Marshall Chess, who spent much of the 1970s with the Stones, said Wenner fawned over Jagger like any female groupie he’d ever known. Jagger “knew he had him wrapped around his finger,” said Chess, who speculated, as many would, that the two slept together. (Asked about this, Wenner laughed and said, “I neither confirm nor deny.”) When Jagger brought up Wenner’s name, said Chess, it was always with a dismissive wave of the royal hand: “He’ll do whatever I want.”
Show Business for Ugly People
Jann Wenner moved Rolling Stone from San Francisco to New York in 1977. Hagan quotes his wife Jane as saying that ironically enough, the radical politics the magazine had long since championed had played a role in the move:
Jann Wenner said it was Jane who ultimately catalyzed Rolling Stone’s move to New York. Her paranoia and anxiety had spiked to uncomfortable levels in the wake of the Patty Hearst episode. “San Francisco got very tricky at one point, because you had the Zodiac, the Zebra, and the SLA,” she said. “It was too small. There were too many people that were just too closely removed from the SLA and the Mansons…there was something creepy happening at that point.”
The move also allowed Wenner to transform Rolling Stone into a sort of rock version of Vanity Fair -- a house organ for Hollywood and a vehicle for mainstream Madison Avenue advertisers that also happened to run record reviews. As a result, by the 1990s, Wenner's fortune was at its peak. While reluctant to fully commit Rolling Stone to the nascent World Wide Web of the mid-to-late 1990s, “Wenner didn’t miss the tech boom entirely,” Hagan writes:
In October 1999, his friend Gil Friesen, former head of A& M Records, offered Wenner shares of a new Internet company called Akamai Technologies, which hadn’t existed fifteen months before. The day it went public, it shot up 458 percent over the asking price. Wenner was having lunch at the Four Seasons with Friesen, Hard Rock Cafe co-founder Peter Morton, and Tom Freston of MTV while he calculated the value of his investment on a piece of paper. Suddenly, he leaped from the table and let out a whoop that stunned the walnut-paneled Grill Room. “And I’m just squealing, ‘Yeah!’” recounted Wenner.
“Go ask Julian [Niccolini, proprietor of the Four Seasons] about it. They remember it to this day. Nobody had ever screamed like that.”
He made $35 million.
According to Hagan, Wenner could have sold Rolling Stone in 2006 to Hearst for 1.1 billion dollars. “Wenner couldn’t do it,” Hagan writes, quoting Wenner: “My life is wrapped up in Rolling Stone, my career, what I do day to day, and I didn’t want to jeopardize that.”
In retrospect, he should have taken the money. In addition to "the Great Recession's" impact on business in general in the fall of 2008, as Lee Smith wrote in a brilliant expose on Weinstein for the Weekly Standard titled, “The Human Stain: Why the Harvey Weinstein Story Is Worse Than You Think,” why did the Weinstein story finally break?
It’s because the media industry that once protected him has collapsed. The magazines that used to publish the stories Miramax optioned can’t afford to pay for the kind of reporting and storytelling that translates into screenplays. They’re broke because Facebook and Google have swallowed all the digital advertising money that was supposed to save the press as print advertising continued to tank.
Look at Vanity Fair, basically the in-house Miramax organ that Tina failed to make Talk: Condé Nast demanded massive staff cuts from Graydon Carter and he quit. He knows they’re going to turn his aspirational bible into a blog, a fate likely shared by most (if not all) of the Condé Nast books.
And Rolling Stone hasn’t been immune itself, of course, which is why it’s now up for sale. Two milestones along the way during Rolling Stone's own slim down were its 2013 cover featuring suspected Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in a soft-focus photograph looking like a dreamy up-and-coming rock star, and its infamous University of Virginia story headlined “A Rape on Campus” the following year. The bomber cover was one of the last gasps of the radical chic era Wenner, looking to declare Charles Manson innocent in 1969. According to Hagan, the UVA story was the result of an in-house corporate counsel who was “fed up with the workload and leaving for a new job, handing the libel work to an associate lawyer.” The associate lawyer had assumed that his predecessor had vetted the story for libel. She hadn’t. The result would permanently stain the reputations of Wenner and Rolling Stone.
Wenner didn’t help matters by telling UVA Associate Dean Nicole Eramo during her trial against Rolling Stone, “I’m very, very sorry. Believe me, I’ve suffered as much as you have.” As Hagan deadpans, “It turned out to be a costly line.” NPR reported in November of last year that “Jurors Award $3 Million In Damages In Defamation Suit Against Rolling Stone.”
In his “Human Stain” article, Lee Smith wrote “You know the old joke about Washington:”
That it’s Hollywood for ugly people. [in founding George magazine in the mid-1990s, John F. Kennedy Jr.] thought that this was unfair to Washington and that the people in the nation’s capital had the capacity for glamour, too.
But it turns out that the joke works in the opposite direction: Hollywood is for ugly people, too. That was Harvey Weinstein’s essential insight, and how he managed to combine the worlds of politics, entertainment, and media. They’re all repulsive—and I know they’re disgusting or else they wouldn’t be courting, of all people, me.
After first exploring how Wenner transformed his magazine into a PAC for Bill Clinton’s 1992 run for the White House, Hagan quotes from multiple superstar attendees at a 2006 party Wenner threw to celebrate his 60th birthday, at which both his wife and gay lover were present and. The dialogue sounds like it would be perfectly apropos at a booze- and drug-soaked Hollywood wrap party:
For his sixtieth birthday, in 2006, Wenner threw himself a lavish party starring his favorite celebrity royals: Yoko Ono, Robbie Robertson, Robin Williams, Bette Midler, Lorne Michaels, Senator John Kerry, Peter Wolf, and Larry David. (Jagger and Bono had other commitments.) The party hosts were, conspicuously, Jane Wenner and Matt Nye, who sat at separate tables. Douglas marveled at the “trapeze act” of Wenner’s wife and his gay lover in the same room. A drunk Robin Williams, who was photographed by Dick Avedon for Rolling Stone in 1979, unleashed a lurid, semi-coherent tone poem that cast Jann and Matt as the stars of Brokeback Mountain. “Yes, before there was a cocksucker ranch, there was two gay men being rump wranglers way before everybody else. Yes, indeed,” ranted Williams. “Look at sweet Matt, looking all that he is. Traveling that jizzum trail, and I know you have been. You a rump wrangler, and you know who you is! You a gay cowboy, and you know what you is!”
Al Gore tried pulling Williams down, but he was unstoppable, and then he pulled out some handcuffs for Wenner’s birthday present. Sim Wenner, who had flown in from Hawaii, berated Williams for his homophobic remarks. But Jann Wenner loved it. Indeed he had never been happier— that is, until Bruce Springsteen got up and performed a song he wrote especially for Jann Wenner:
I got to know the man a little bit, by and by, I’ve never seen so much innocence and cynicism walk side by side I never guessed a man whose magazine once changed my life, Would one day want to have a threesome with my wife.
Hagan has been given a fair amount of grief by critics (and apparently by Wenner himself) over his choice of the title “Sticky Fingers.” But it's oddly appropriate on several levels: Long before he started his magazine, Wenner has been a Rolling Stones obsessive. And while Jagger initially rankled when he first heard the title of Wenner's magazine, he’s has been happy to use it for decades as his own personal PR vehicle. The Stones' classic 1971 album Sticky Fingers is loaded with drug references -- and according to Hagan, in addition to marijuana and LSD during the 1960s, beginning early in the following decade, Wenner “was taking to cocaine like an Irish poet to rhyme.” Another allusion to the title are repeated descriptions by Hagan on how Wenner used Rolling Stone’s cash flow as his own personal cash register:
[By the mid-1980s] Wenner intended to live like a sultan. Brownridge said Wenner spent every dime he made as soon as it landed in his bank account, which drove an endless and exhaustive pursuit of advertising dollars from auto manufacturers and cigarette makers to keep pace with Wenner’s yen for new luxuries. Rolling Stone was a lifestyle support system for Jann Wenner.
Wenner eventually acquired the ultimate status symbol: his own private plane. And of course, despite his magazine riding the ecological fad of the 1970s, and similarly doomsday-themed global warming in the 1990s, Wenner was as hypocritical about its use and abuse as enviro-grandees such as Al Gore, John Kerry, and Leonardo DiCaprio. “Wenner’s Gulfstream II jet seated ten people and featured a dining table, four overstuffed couches, and a foldout bed. It cost $ 6 million… ‘Then it became ‘What can we do to fly this thing? Where can we go? How can I take it in the air?’ recalled Wenner. ‘I would just circle over LaGuardia to have lunch.’”
As Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote at National Review Online in a piece titled “Hugh Hefner, Gangsta Rap & The Emerging Moral Majority,” the death in September of Hefner seemed to set in motion a reappraisal by the left of the last several decades. As “angels sang Hugh Hefner toward his final reward, whatever that may be, I realized very few believe Hefner’s overall effect on the culture was positive. And the anger at him was especially strong on the left,” Dougherty wrote, adding later in his article that:
It’s not hard to imagine that in the near future the new cultural and economic elite will allow themselves to conclude that people such as [record producer] Jimmy Iovine and [rapper] Dr. Dre grew rich while demoralizing and degrading the middle and working classes of the nation...Moral concerns pop up one decade in right-wing clothes, and, in the next, change into another outfit. Obscenity warnings were the pet project of moral majoritarians in the early 1990s. Trigger warnings are the project of progressives now. Each side believes that some people are too vulnerable to be exposed, unsupervised and unwarned, to certain adult content. And, in fact, advocates of trigger warnings would likely put them on most of the same content that earned obscenity labels in decades past.
Wenner and Hefner were, of course, the two publishers most responsible for promoting the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Hefner would have his predominately male readers imagine themselves tuxedo-clad in the penthouse suite, “mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex,” as he wrote in his debut issue in 1953. Wenner wanted his predominantly male readers to picture themselves onboard Led Zeppelin’s infamous “Starship” private plane, or doing lines with Mick and Keith -- and enjoying each band's endless stream of willing nubile groupies. Other than the beat of the “mood music on the phonograph,” there’s surprisingly little difference between the two publishers.
Hagan quotes Wenner himself as admiring his fellow publisher:
Wenner had tried to become a great American media mogul on the order of William Randolph Hearst. For a while he was successful, but he didn’t rate himself as a businessman now. He’d been too impulsive, fired too many people, took that loan. Rolling Stone — an idea so great it survived Janno’s management. “I see myself primarily as an editor,” said Wenner. “And that’s what I have a real skill at. I’ve been more lucky and made more money than any other editor other than Hefner. Maybe Luce.”
He related to the Playboy publisher. Now, there was a man who stamped the world with his personal vision of life. An individualist. A maverick. A lucky guy.
“He lived it,” said Wenner. “He lived it.”
For better or worse, and with a surprisingly high body count of damaged people around him, Wenner has lived it as well.
As I said, he’s the man who connects Led Zeppelin and the Beatles with Harvey Weinstein, Hollywood, and Democratic politics. To understand how we got here, Sticky Fingers is a must read.