Exclusive Interview: How Author Joe Hagan Put Together The Life Story Of The Rolling Stone Magazine Founder Jann Wenner
The book, Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine is the story of one man’s ego, 1960s youth culture, and the history of rock and roll, all jammed into one. Like the magazine, the book covers power, fame, and politics through unbelievable stories involving icons of rock.
The book provides vivid details about John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Pete Townsend, Yoko Ono, Billy Joel, Cameron Crowe, Lorne Michaels, Andy Warhol, Dan Aykroyd, Bette Midler, and Rolling Stone contributor, Hunter S. Thompson, among others.
Rolling Stone creator and editor Jann Wenner gave exclusive access to Joe Hagan for this book, even if that meant making himself look bad on occasion. Wenner, often described as both a promoter and backstabber, gave Hagan access to conversations and images from the greatest superstars in history.
In this exclusive interview, author Joe Hagan talks about his chance encounter with Jann Wenner in a coffee shop, his career as a journalist, 1960s counterculture, and finally, the importance and danger of “grasping at greatness.”
Joe Hagan Talks Rolling Stone Magazine Book
Can you share a few details about Jann Wenner and how you got involved with this project?
Jann Wenner was the founder of Rolling Stone Magazine in 1967. He was 21-years-old, a Berkeley college drop-out, [and] got involved in the burgeoning counter-culture at the time. As things were taking off in San Francisco, where he was based, he had the idea to start a magazine to capture the dawning of this new rock and roll age that was happening.
Flash forward nearly fifty years. I met him sort of randomly in a coffee shop in upstate New York, where I was living. He walked in [and] I was working on a laptop. I flagged him down, said hello, and struck up a conversation with him and later became an acquaintance of his. After getting to know him for a few years…he asked me to write his biography. I was flattered.
What was your background before this? You had written for various publications for about fifteen years at this point?
At the time, I was writing for New York Magazine. I had been working there for almost ten years. Before that, I was at The Wall Street Journal. Before that, I had done lots of freelance things here and there, including for Rolling Stone. But I never worked for Rolling Stone as a staff writer. It was always freelance. I did profiles and that sort of thing for them. A couple of those [profiles] I did after I met [Jann]. He assigned them to me in that in-between time before he asked me to do the book.
Real Rock And Roll Began In The Late 1960s…
I came across your book while researching a timeline of events and pop culture back in the late 1960s. It seems like Rolling Stone started at the end of the Beatles and pre-Bruce Springsteen. Where did your research begin?
The first thing that I did was write a book proposal to sell the book. The way I thought of it was, “Well, let me think about who are the most important rock star relationships that Jann Wenner would have had?” Kind of out of the blue, but also he was on the cover of the first issue, I chose John Lennon. And, of course, he was the Beatle and incredibly important.
So I went into Jann Wenner’s archive, which was a vast archive of correspondents—files, letters, pictures and so fourth. I went to the John Lennon file and saw what sort of story was there and built a book proposal out of it, which more or less became the opening of the book. Because it turned out this was this really interesting narrative there.
[Jann] had befriended John Lennon and got this massive interview with him and later betrayed him, kind of other this petty business deal. So I thought that was all pretty interesting so that’s where I began.
When you’re doing a biography, you’re talking about a timeline. So you break things up into periods and you try to find out what the milestones are. You try to say, “I’m going to write about this section where it’s 1967 where he starts Rolling Stone magazine up until 1970 when the culture kind of shifted, after the 60s. You sort of break it down into chunks like that.
Generally, I went along that timeline but I sort of saved the childhood stuff until later. It was sort of a separate thing but then I kind of did it in parallel with the rest of it, until I get to the end. I basically wrote the back half of the book towards the end of the writing process. A lot of that stuff was current events—it was stuff that was happening in the last ten years.
A Backstabber And A Promoter…
So you had a relationship of the subject, but I wouldn’t call him the hero of the book. He’s a promoter but he’s also a backstabber. Why do you think this was? Was it just his relentless pursuit for more? What pushed him as a person or as a character in this book?
That is where the childhood part became interesting because when I got to know him, he already had a reputation—potentially as somebody you didn’t want to trust. My biggest challenge here was to humanize him, to at least give you a sense of what motivated him early in his life so when everything else was unfolding, you would at least see the thread of his motives and interests.
So you learn a little bit about how he was abandoned early in his life by his parents and he had this feeling that he was alone. He didn’t trust anybody. He didn’t really have a lot of paternal love as a child, [so] when he reaches high school he has this dual aspect of his personality.
On the one hand, he’s incredibly ambitious and confident. On the other hand, he’s wildly insecure. These things often go together in a character. He just becomes incredibly ambitious. What really motivates him is his desire to be around the people he [considers] the important and beautiful people. And, he’s a social climber. So when you figure that out about him, it sort of sets up the book to watch him climb through the culture—from rock and roll in San Francisco to politics in Washington to Hollywood and eventually to New York City.
You see him making his way through it and how the magazine was almost the output of that. People he would meet and befriend would end up in the magazine. He was as mercurial as the culture itself in many ways. It’s often heard but not said that the culture is ephemeral. Well, he had a kind of ephemeral nature. That’s what made him a great magazine editor, [but] it didn’t necessarily make him a great human being all the time. That’s the conundrum at the heart of the book.
Packing The Book With Truth And Secrets…
Was there anything that felt particularly shocking or anything that you were almost hesitant to put into the book?
No, I’m sort of in the let-it-rip sort of school. Let’s find out what happened and put it all in. One of the things that I understood was going to be a challenge and a task for me—and at the core of the book—for most of the history of Rolling Stone magazine, including the beginning, Jann Wenner was in the closet. He was a gay man who was married to a very beautiful woman, who’s family happened to have put up the money to start Rolling Stone.
So you had this interesting bargain that seemed to be happening here—or collaborative understanding between him and his wife—and how that was going to work. And, what did it mean for how he viewed the culture and how he navigated [the culture]. What does it mean that the person who is shaping the image of rock stars, most of whom are male, was a gay man?
I knew that this would going to churn up a lot of fascinating material, but also be full of conflict. He didn’t like exploring that as much as I did, but his marriage to his wife Jane Wenner was soft of the core personal narrative. She was so much of a part of the success of the magazine, but no one had heard of it. She was always in the background always and she sort of served a purpose for him and for the enterprise of Rolling Stone Magazine.
As you learn in the book, they had these sexually ambiguous lives. They were having lots of affairs, threesomes, drugs, and all the things that went along with the 1970s. But, it was part of how they tapped the culture. It was part of how became the culture and were of the culture.
The reason that Rolling Stone was successful, especially in the 70s, was a pure reflection of the culture that they were mining. It was the rock and roll culture and the young culture and everything the young were doing. [It] was essentially the baby boomers taking over the world.
The Best Idea Of A Lifetime…
Do you think Jann Wenner had too many good ideas that got in the way of his one great idea, which was just to focus on the magazine?
That was one of the educations of Jann Wenner in the 70s. He tried to expand in all of these different ways and he usually failed. There’s a part in the early 80s where he figures out, maybe [he] should just stick with Rolling Stone. [He] tried movies and other things and they never really worked out. Rolling Stone was the one idea [he] had that always continues to be successful.
I mean, to the point where it was almost successful to spite him—or, to spite his business decisions. In the early 2000s, towards the end of the story, he had the idea to re-launch US Magazine as a weekly tabloid. That was a later-day success of his. He hadn’t had anything like that since the beginning. It’s true that Jann had one great, big idea and he managed to both keep it going. But, also to adapt to the subject matter of his magazine, which was a swiftly moving thing, which was popular culture.
The Creation Of Rolling Stone Magazine
For those unfamiliar, can you talk about the title of the magazine and the title of the book. Specifically, in regard to Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.
Sticky Fingers was the title of a Rolling Stones album in the early 70s. It’s a notorious cover, which was of an Andy Warhol photograph of a crotch. The cover design had an actual zipper on it. On the cover of the record, you could zip and unzip the zipper on the crotch. That made a splash as you can imagine.
But the title really is both a tip of the hat to the fact that the Rolling Stones band and Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone had a conflict over the name at the outset of the creation of the magazine. There had been some legal fruckus over the trademark. This name similarity was kind of the subtext of the relationship between Jann and Mick Jagger for fifty years.
So, Sticky Fingers is a bit of a joke on that. There’s also the fact that this book is about ambition. It’s about all of these characters you’ve heard of and know about—John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, of course Jann Wenner—grasping for the things that they want. Jann, especially, who always considered himself the essence of the baby boom generation is this unbridled ball of desire who wants things and is grabbing things and taking things. Sticky Fingers is a little bit about that.
Listen, there’s the sexuality of it, which the Rolling Stones album title is also alluding to, and the groupie-dom. Jann Wenner was considered the ultimate groupie to these rock stars. But, like I said, the essence of it is about ambition. It’s the ambition of a generation to take over the world.
The Greatest Era (That Can’t Be Repeated…)
Do you think that certain aspects of the music in this time frame will live on in a way that it never will again? For example, Cal Fussman from Esquire has said there won’t be another person as famous as Muhammad Ali. Author Chuck Klosterman has said the same thing about this rock era.
Absolutely. I agree with that, but there’s a very simple explanation. It’s not that it was so great qualitatively that nothing great like that can happen again. It really was a rare moment in popular culture and in American history in which the means of listening to things and knowing about things was so limited and narrow. What I mean by that is what some people refer to as the monoculture of America.
There was a single culture back then before it fragmented with the Internet age. There were only three TV channels, a handful of newspapers, a handful of magazines and that’s how everybody knew everything. In that narrow band world, a few people came along who accrued to them immense, spectacular celebrity, which you can’t really achieve today, unless you get into the White House.
There was a cult of the individual that came out of the 60s Renaissance. And, the TV age, which took off in the 50s, was minted a new kind of fame. Elvis was the atom-bomb moment of that kind of celebrity and fame. As you watch the arc of the culture, starting in the 60s until now, you watch how fame has diminishing returns. But, the 60s was kind of a unique Renaissance. There was a kind of wave of freedom and artistry and reinvention that was peculiar to that moment.
Part of that peculiarity was the way that the media worked. There was the famous quote that was the medium is the message. Back then, the medium was generally TV and radio, but now look where we’re at [today]. Anybody can get anything from five different directions. Everybody is less famous because there are more of them. It’s the Andy Warhol thing where everybody will be famous for 15 minutes. But, now everybody is famous for like a millisecond.
Journalistic Integrity Today Versus 1970s…
Sticky Fingers has some parallels to Ryan Holiday’s new book, Conspiracy, specifically through the pursuits and questionable tactics of Jann Wenner and Gawker founder Nick Denton. As a journalist, how do you view or define today’s journalistic integrity? And, is it different from the past?
Well, there’s just a whole lot more of it, than there ever was and more access to it than there ever was. Last week, there was a story in The New York Times about Jared Kushner having meetings with different people in the White House and those people investing a bunch of money into his personal company. It was basically about this eye-popping corruption.
Somebody using their white house power to enrich their personal company. That sort of story is many orders of magnitude more scandalous than Watergate, and there’s a story like that every other week. The level of reporting is very high today and there’s a lot of it. But, there’s a lot of gradations of journalism down to the completely fictional—literally fake—news.
You get this whole spectrum and it’s up to the reader to navigate through that and see who that trust. I would say there is as great of journalism today as there ever was, [but] no single source of it is as powerful as this monoculture that I mentioned before. Back when The Washington Post and The New York times ruled the universe.
There was a book by David Halberstam in the late 70s called The Powers That Be and it was a very deadly serious book about how New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, the three TV networks, ruled the world. They were the powers at be. Well, I don’t know if you can say that today. They still have power but there’s lots of other powers too. And, it’s been kind of flattened across the Internet landscape.
I guess what I’m really saying is that it’s apples and oranges to compare the journalism world that I write about in this book. Although, with the characters, human nature is human nature. Nick Denton and Jann Wenner could be the same character, just in a different cultural setting. Because, every time new people are born, they come out basically with the same set of information. It’s not like we’re evolving.
Baby Boomers, Rock And American Culture
Is there anything else you’d like to share about the book?
The paperback of the book comes out this fall. There will be some revisions in there, covering some of the latest developments. Like, Jann Wenner selling a controlling stake in Rolling Stone, a couple of months ago.
What I would say, is that the book is a culturally history as much as it is about a single person. I sort of used Jann Wenner as a way to follow the bouncing ball. You just watch him go through the culture and you get to know a little bit about what was going on in the culture at any one moment and watch how it twists and turns and how he twists and turns with it. It really attempts to explain or understand—as I write in the book—how we got from John Lennon on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1967 to this moment we’re in.
Who would have predicted that this is where we would be? When there was this huge baby boom, this wave of young people with this whole new point of view about life, and rock and roll, and a new value system, and freedom, and civil rights and all the good things we think about in the 60s. But, then, over the arc of the next fifty years—how did that happen?
The book kind of touches on that a little bit through the story of this man and the culture. People who may not even be interested in Jann Wenner the man may be interested in the story of rock and roll, the baby boom, and popular American culture.
This interview has been partially condensed. Listen to the full audio version here.