Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine
by Joe Hagan (Knopf, $30)
Jann Wenner should have known better, said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. When the founder and tireless leader of Rolling Stone asked journalist Joe Hagan to write his biography, “he apparently hoped for the equivalent of a marble bust to position in the foyer of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.” Hagan has instead produced something better: a “dispassionately reported and deeply well written” 500-page portrait of a pivotal cultural figure. That hasn’t pleased Wenner, who recently denounced Hagan’s Sticky Fingers as “deeply flawed and tawdry.” For sure, the book offers ample detail about Wenner’s sex life and past drug habits. But flattering or not, it’s “a joy to read” and “feels built to last.”
Crucially, Hagan pinpoints the tension in the Rolling Stone ethos that has defined the magazine since its 1967 launch, said Jack Hamilton in Slate.com. Wenner wanted to be close to fame and support meaningful journalism. So his magazine was cozying up to John Lennon at the same time it was castigating the Rolling Stones for the violence that erupted at their 1969 concert at Altamont Speedway. It was publishing groundbreaking work by Tom Wolfe at the same time that it was manufacturing new cover stars. Wenner at one point almost destroyed his friendship with Lennon by turning a 1970 exclusive interview into a book. But he mostly remained loyal to his pals—eventually at the expense of the magazine’s critical credibility. Still, the “print-thelegend” instinct that taints Wenner’s legacy is the same instinct that enabled him to define an era.
Rolling Stone today isn’t “nearly as relevant” as it once was, said Margaret Sullivan in The Washington Post. Three years ago, it disgraced itself by publishing a big story about an alleged campus gang rape that never happened. Just weeks ago, the 71-year-old Wenner announced he is selling his stake in the brand. But however faded the Rolling Stone banner appears in 2017, it merits the close look Hagan has given it. Yes, it’s just a magazine, but Hagan’s work “helps us understand how terribly much it seemed to matter, once upon a time.” ■