I think about Jann Wenner rubbing hundred dollar bills on his body a lot. I first saw this picture in an article The New York Times published ‘Jann Wenner and His Biographer Have A Falling Out’ leading up to the release of Joe Hagan’s book Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine.
The photo thrilled me even more than the article surrounding it: a story I would hear Hagan tell in person at his book launch at WORD in Greenpoint, Brooklyn a week later.
Hagan bumped into Wenner upstate at a country store, literally, while he was out running errands. Wenner had been shopping around for a biographer for years and always pulled the plug when an author got too close. After Wenner approved Hagan’s journalism covering appropriately famous people from Henry Kissinger to Hillary Clinton he agreed to hire him. It would be released in Rolling Stone’s 50th year. Knopf signs Hagan on for $1.5 million and Wenner “agrees to only read the book once it’s in its final form.”
Hagan spent years researching Wenner’s life, interviewing everyone from Annie Leibovitz to Bruce Springsteen to Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, Bob Dylan, Cameron Crowe, Jon Landau, Pete Townshend, Art Garfunkel, Hunter Thompson’s wife Sandy and so on. Hagan even spent hours and hours talking directly with Wenner and Wenner’s now-ex wife, Jane. There are also interviews with staff members, writers, editors, business partners, record executives, and so on. If there’s an exemplar story of anyone doing their homework, it’s Hagan reporting this story. Wenner’s personal archives, meanwhile, were kept in the side of a mountain an assistant had to escort Hagan to via golf cart.
And of course by the time Wenner reads the book, “it’s too late.” Wenner will no longer be appearing with Hagan for interviews and publicity events. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which Wenner is the chairman of (and he was inducted to it himself (eyeroll) in 2004) cancelled Hagan’s invite. Shortly after the book was published, Wenner made a statement to CBS News that the biography was “bullshit,” among other things.
I saw the black and white photo in my head: Wenner rubbing $100 bills on himself, his eyes looking up while the camera sits level with him. Hagan went on to apologize for how awkward his reading would be: it was his first time reading his writing aloud to a crowd. Sticky Fingers is Hagan’s first book.
During the Q&A I thanked Hagan for writing the book even though I hadn’t read it yet. Bursting the bubble of Wenner’s fame and more importantly his hypocrisy is what my generation needs now more than ever. Aside from an accompanied minor, I was one of the youngest in the room made up of what I overheard to be writers, editors, former Rolling Stone employees, and the sort. “I don’t really have a question for you,” I said to laughter. “But I want to know what we do now, as consumers and chroniclers of music and its story.”
Hagan of course didn’t have an answer. But he said we would soon find out.
A month before the book’s publication Wenner announced he was selling his majority shares of Rolling Stone just in time for the magazine’s 50th year.
I went home and guzzled the biography.
It opens with Wenner watching John Lennon cry in an empty movie theater as he watches the Let It Be rooftop concert footage for the first time. It goes onto chronicle Wenner’s complicated relationship to Lennon, among many other weird relationships. Wenner had a feud with John over the John Lennon Remembers book (Lennon only wanted it as it was intended: a long magazine interview and Wenner made the book anyway, “taking the money instead of the friendship,” as Yoko put it). I didn’t know the famous Rolling Stone cover of naked John curled around Yoko was taken on December 8th, hours before Lennon was murdered. After when other magazines and outlets wanted to run the photo, Wenner refused to sell them the rights ultimately capitalizing on Lennon’s death.
Meanwhile Wenner helped document music and culture for so many for so long. What I didn’t know was that he used his wife’s family money to start the magazine. He hid his sexuality from everyone for decades but privately got out of going to Vietnam with doctor’s notes declaring him unfit because of his “homosexual tendencies” while running ads for the armed forces in Rolling Stone’s pages.
Wenner claimed to fight the establishment but was actually it. He encouraged (or maybe even invented) the gaze on rock stars, cementing the idea of celebrity, fame, and success with bare skin — men and women alike — who “tell all!” Meanwhile he legitimized music journalism. Before RS, there weren’t people writing smart copy and criticism about music. He gave that a space, took it seriously, and demanded everyone else did too. Without that, I wouldn’t be here and neither would a lot of the writers I love.
Rolling Stone didn’t have a fact checking department until the 1970s. Which becomes most apparent when we get to the end of the story. The infamous UVA on-campus rape investigative piece RS went viral for in deciding who was guilty of what …wasn’t actually vetted by RS’ legal department. No one fact checked the story. And if you’ve read this far, you probably already knew that.
“The story begins with John Lennon and ends with Donald Trump,” Hagan said at WORD and he writes in the Afterword. “Wenner and Trump are the same age and both are egomaniacal narcissists that lust after fame, money, and power. Wenner put Trump on the cover and saw his candidacy for president “as an opportunity.”
“Wenner had a kind of grudging respect for Trump. Not for his politics, but for the way he bent the world to his ego,” Hagan writes. “Jann Wenner’s oldest and dearest friends — people who worked for him in the 1960s and after — could not help but notice the likeness between Trump and the Jann Wenner they knew. The crude egotism, the neediness, the total devotion to celebrity and power.”
In the end for me the whole story, which I’ve barely summed up here, is snapped in that photo of Wenner rubbing money on himself. And it’s a line from Hagan’s prologue that sits as its caption:
“From boyhood, [Wenner] compulsively hoarded every document of his life because he believed he would one day be important.”
I think about this photo A LOT. It represents a sort of evil and wanting. It’s a seamless image. I especially love the cigarette between his fingers.
To write the image would be cliche. No one would believe a perfect, organic metaphor like this. No character would so effortlessly show themselves in this light: the money rubbing boss who underpaid his employees and dipped into petty cash for coke money. Who only published reviews of records he liked and let the subjects of his interviews edit the copy.
The photo is stuck in my head like a favorite song. And it reminds me not to trust The Rolling Stone History of Music because it’s just one man’s opinion: it’s very white, very few women are involved, and it’s all for fame and money. Supposedly documenting the counter-culture of the 1960s and beyond, the magazine, especially in my lifetime, has become a constant reminder of the 1960s and what Wenner loves. He never graduated past The Stones, The Beatles, Dylan, or Bruce. Rarely does RS celebrate new music or the underdog and hasn’t since I carried around their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time issue in high school. I was fooled for very long but now it’s a joke to me. But it’s a great story. And we have Hagan to thank for that.