About 45 years ago, an offbeat rock group named Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show released a rather quirky single, in which they sang that achieving superstardom in the rock music world is not complete unless you get your “picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone”.
Since John Lennon got his picture on the cover of Rolling Stone’s first issue in the fall of 1967, this publication, which started amongst the world of underground newspapers in San Francisco with its original intention of being the literary voice of the youth culture of the late 60s, has become a much revered magazine of the rock ‘n’ roll era. It has turned record reviews, concert reviews and interviews with musicians and singers into a serious genre of journalism, thanks to the words of Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Jon Landau, Ben Fong-Torres and Joe Ezterhas, amongst others; and it helped give birth to a new form of news-oriented journalism thanks to the unconventional writings of Tom Wolfe, Matt Taibbi and of course, Hunter S. Thompson. And topped off with the unique portrait-style photography of Annie Leibovitz, this crazy sundae of a publication became THE printed voice of the baby boomer generation who watched TV, listened to top 40 and FM radio, went to plenty of rock concerts and bought a lot of records.
However, the story of Rolling Stone wouldn’t be complete without telling the story of its creator Jann S. Wenner. Part journalistic maverick, part aspiring media baron, part glory hound, part spendthrift, part celebrity maven and part Machiavellian figure, Wenner lived his life through Rolling Stone. This has made him a fascinating and frustrating figure to those who knew him, worked with him, or had a passing interest in him.
Which is why Joe Hagan wisely decided to make his excellent – and dizzying – tome Sticky Fingers a dual biography, because both subjects go together hand-in-hand so snuggly.
On the magazine side, the book highlights 50 years of Rolling Stone’s greatest – and not-so-greatest — moments, from its breakthrough series of articles that exposed what happened at the tragic Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont in 1969 and why, to the series of articles by Hunter S. Thompson that evolved into “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, to the articles about the kidnapping ordeal of Patty Hearst, to the disastrous 10th anniversary TV special, to the lawsuit brought about by the investigative piece about the University of Virginia rape case. All of those behind the cover stories are told with plenty of excess and gory details, and makes for luridly fascinating reading that Rolling Stone itself would have gladly wrote about during its rebellious early years.
And in the middle of this 50-year three-ring circus was Jann Wenner, the product of a capital “D” dysfunctional family who found a refuge in rock music and journalism. The portrait you get of Wenner is an individual who loved the life of being a celebrity, would spend copious amounts of money to build up the prestige of Rolling Stone and his personal lifestyle (he threw large amounts of money at high profile contributors like Thompson and Richard Goodwin to produce columns and eyewitness articles for the publication, but in turn produced very little at best), at times had a low regard for value in friendships (case in point John Lennon, who didn’t speak to Wenner for a decade after he broke a promise that he wouldn’t publish in book form the monumental interviews with Lennon that originally appeared in Rolling Stone in 1970), was filled with sexual ambiguity (his marriage in name only to Jane Schindelheim and his constant quest for male lovers), and the many failed ventures he undertook to increase Rolling Stone’s presence and its monetary value (for example, the brief period of time during the early 70s when a British version of Rolling Stone was published, which was totally funded by Mick Jagger). In fact, after reading how Jann Wenner ran Rolling Stone in such a volatile, unpredictable manner, you wonder how this magazine managed to stay in business for as long as it did.
Although Hagan conducted over 240 interviews for this book and was officially approved by Wenner himself (Hagan even had access to his vast personal archives), Wenner probably regrets it after the final result. Sticky Fingers is a whirling dervish of a book about one of the most influential journalistic publications of the baby boomer era, which served as a literary keeper of the rock music flame, and the enigmatic, insecure, ego-driven man who guided it to its much revered legendary status.
As Hagan writes towards the end of the book: “Jann 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.”
…And 50 years later, it’s still regarded as a pinnacle of success if you get your picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone!