In retrospect, it was probably inevitable: This week, Jann Wenner, the mercurial founder of Rolling Stone magazine, told The New York Times that he was disappointed in a new biography to which he'd given his participation, slapping down the writer, Joe Hagan, for producing "something deeply flawed and tawdry, rather than substantial."
True, the book traffics in the mountains of cocaine hoovered up during the seventies and eighties from office desks, which doubled as convenient plinths for copulating co-workers. But Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine is also substantial.
Four years in the making and backed by almost 100 hours of interviews with Wenner in addition to 250 interviews with long-time employees and key figures in Wenner's life (including Mick Jagger, Yoko Ono, Lorne Michaels, Annie Leibovitz and his ex-wife, Jane, whom he divorced in 2011, 16 years after leaving her and publicly coming out as a gay man), Hagan's 547-page opus is a delectable peek behind the curtain of one of the most influential outlets in pop-culture history.
We spoke with Hagan this week, before the Times published its report. But Wenner had already relayed his displeasure to Hagan's publisher and cancelled promotional appearances for the book.
Why do you think Wenner's upset?
He thinks the book is salacious. He hates the title. But – this is an important point – he's a man who's had control of his own narrative for a long, long time. He's controlled the narrative on a biweekly basis for the world of rock 'n' roll. And in a way, my job and my commitment was to step outside of that storyline and write about it from the outside.
Would you like to explain the title?
The book is about ambition. It's about a man who always called himself "the first baby boomer," right? He's the id of the baby-boom generation. He represents all of their ambitions, their appetites, their acquisitive nature – the sort of "grab for everything" [mentality].
Given how he's depicted – a brilliant editor, sure, but also a cynical, duplicitous, pathologically insecure, grasping social climber – why do you think he agreed to participate in the book?
His ego. I live not far from him [in Tivoli, N.Y., about a two-hour drive north of New York City] and I think one part of him thought, "Well, he'll sort of be in my orbit, I'll be able to get him to tell the story as I see it."
It's odd to think he wouldn't have foreseen this result.
Even his own sister told me in an interview, Merlyn, "You know, Jann's gonna have to contend with the trail of tears that he left in life, how he treated some people."
Rolling Stone is seen as a counterculture bible, but you note that its design was "radically conventional," and in fact Wenner himself was a terribly conventional person who often mocked those who said he'd "sold out."
He was not a hippie. He was a preppy who got caught up in the fervour of what was going on right in front of him. His friends were getting involved in it, all these preppies and high-society kids were going in that direction. Jann followed them there, went along for the ride.
As you note in the book, all the social categories were collapsing; and now, of course, we live with the legacy of that.
Some of the trends that the sixties birthed, many of them we think of as positive and revolutionary, but the social chaos of the seventies both liberated and also had a destructive element. How did it come to pass that Rolling Stone in 1967 had John Lennon on the cover and there was a great unbelievable revolutionary vision of the future in which the youth of the future, the baby boom, were going to take over the world, and rock 'n' roll was the first expression of their power, their values – and flash forward 50 years of cultural history and you arrive to this incredibly disconcerting moment? There was, it turns out, in the pendulum swing of history, some kind of logic to it all, and I try to make sense of that in the book.
Speaking of this disconcerting moment, a couple of times you flick at the notion that Wenner is a Trump-like figure.
During the election, all these people were calling me, friends of Jann's, employees, calling me impromptu to sort of say, "Wow, it's remarkable sometimes how similar they are, just in the way they speak and talk and their sense of creating reality with their own statements." The force of their egos.
They're both born in 1946, and they certainly share an almost predatory hunger for fame.
I try to make something of a case for how some of the articulations of fame and some of the cultural inventions of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone magazine became baked into our culture.
You could argue, and I do in the book, that celebrity eventually became all-powerful and decoupled from all ideas, let alone 1960s ideas. And now here we are, with a person who really doesn't have any ideas whatsoever, he's just purely an attention monster, you know? A fame monster.
There seemed to be some ambivalence threaded through the book, in your celebration of a magazine that was for a long time pretty sexist, and also very white.
Rock 'n' roll was a white male culture, that's just the fact of the matter, and Jann reflected that in his magazine. I realized part of my job here is to peel away some of the nostalgic layers – and some of the hagiography that Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone itself built. Because you're kind of writing about not just a man but a man who invented an entire worldview. And, as you got further into the latter years of this Rock Age, you really started to see a kind of revisionism and a kind of soft lens looking back over what it all meant and how great it was: It's about love and truth and beauty and the greatness of this generation to have a revolution, and on and on. There's truth to some of that. But what wasn't really understood was how kind of messy it all was, you know?
This interview has been condensed and edited.