Looking for Jann Wenner (New Yorker)

Looking for Jann Wenner


It’s difficult to imagine what Jann Wenner—the editor and publisher of
Rolling Stone, and a man with more firsthand insight into the psychic
hazards of the celebrity profile than almost anyone else alive—thought
might happen when he cajoled the investigative reporter Joe Hagan into
writing his autobiography.

Whatever Wenner’s hopes were four years ago, when Hagan first signed on,
he is now is plainly unhappy with “Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of
Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine
.” (He called the book “deeply
flawed and tawdry” in a recent
and cancelled several planned appearances with Hagan.) At first, the
depth and tenor of Wenner’s displeasure—the book was too invasive and
sensationalistic; too much was made of his sexual escapades—made me
wonder if the two men were in fact colluding, staging a provocative
public feud to make a very long book about a seventy-one-year-old
magazine editor seem impossibly tantalizing.

But Hagan’s portrait of Wenner is crisp and cutting: using Wenner’s own
archive, and more than two hundred and forty interviews (including
conversations with Mick Jagger, Yoko Ono, Bob Dylan, and Paul
McCartney), he narrates the story of an indulgent and widely disliked
man who is obsessed with celebrity and consumed by ambition. (When the
editor Will Dana, who worked with Wenner for twenty years, tells Hagan,
“I basically think he’s 51 percent good,” it feels like a moment of
circumspect generosity.) Hagan’s story is so aggressively substantiated,
and so alarmingly consistent, that it’s difficult to imagine how “Sticky
Fingers” could have turned out any other way.

In the book’s prologue, Hagan cites the magazine’s “radical
conventionality” as Wenner’s most striking innovation; Rolling Stone,
he explains, “instantly legitimized and mainstreamed the underground.”
This process involved equating “confession and frank sexuality with
integrity and authenticity,” a wild conflation that quickly became
dogma—precious and paramount to the new-media companies (like Vice) that
ultimately usurped most of the magazine’s cultural capital.

Hagan makes these points early on in “Sticky Fingers,” and the book is
adamant throughout about the ways in which Rolling Stone invented
cultural value: the journalistic forms it introduced and cherished, the
readers it innervated, the brazen and devious ways it commercialized the
counterculture. “The framework of American narcissism has its roots in
Jann Wenner’s pioneering magazine making,” Hagan explains. He asks his
readers to seriously consider Wenner’s role in establishing the tenets
and behaviors now associated with modern celebrity: “Today the
signifiers of fame—confession, preening self-regard, and blunt
sexuality—are so built into modern media manners that few can even
recall a time when they were novel.” (That time, he implies, was before
1967, when Wenner and Ralph Gleason founded the magazine, in San
Francisco.) Though I mostly agree with Hagan’s judgment, this is a vast
and odious legacy to drop exclusively at Wenner’s feet.

Rolling Stone has, at least, always been an engine of progressive
politics, and Wenner boldly published some of the best and most
interesting New Journalists of the last fifty years, even if—and by now,
anyone who writes regularly about the Western canon is resigned to how
this sentence ends—most of them were deeply troubled white men who also
engaged in wildly sexist or otherwise bigoted behavior. Gonzo is a
thrilling but troublesome tradition; even before Rolling Stone published, in 2014, a strangely uncorroborated story about a rape at the
University of Virginia, it was hardly a bastion of journalistic
integrity. Hunter S. Thompson, probably the magazine’s most famous
former contributor, was a stunning stylist but a noted fabulist.
Likewise, many of the magazine’s reporters grew uncomfortable with the
close relationships that Wenner had with the rock stars they were tasked
with covering. Cameron Crowe—whose semi-autobiographical film, “Almost
Famous,” is, at heart, a cautionary fable about getting too friendly
with your subjects—bristled at being made to play softball with the
Eagles. “I felt it was blurring the line that had been so sculpted and
held as precious and true,” he told Hagan.

The book also describes how, in 1979—when the alarms at Three Mile
Island, a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, were wailing, and most
residents of the eastern half of the United States were spooked if not
fully panicked—Wenner was on vacation in Aspen, with the actor Michael
Douglas, who was about to appear on the cover of the magazine for the
first time. Wenner refused to let his terrified staff leave the office,
and instead required that an editor, Harriet Fier, keep faxing him
drafts of the Douglas profile, so that Douglas himself could make

Hagan calls cocaine “the lingua franca of countercultural risk,” and it
is plentiful throughout this story, as are extramarital, intra-office
dalliances and various other vices. (“Everybody slept on their desks and
had sex on their desks,” Wenner’s publicist, Bryn Bridenthal, told
Hagan.) For writers like me, who came of age as magazine journalists at
the beginning of this century, just as print was starting to falter—when
you could smell the smoke, but couldn’t yet see the flames—the wildness
of our vocational predecessors can sometimes feel bewildering. By the
time I started writing regularly for periodicals, in the mid-aughts,
there was very little patience for ribald shenanigans. Freelance rates
had been decimated; contract gigs were scarce and coveted. If you were
fortunate enough to get a steady job, you protected it by behaving as
responsibly as you could. Yet, reading “Sticky Fingers,” I began to feel
self-conscious about the professionalism and workmanship inevitably
borne from that toughening up. What am I doing, neatly tallying my
expense receipts and filing clean copy on time? This isn’t how art gets
made! What of rock and roll? What of freedom?

Of course, nobody in “Sticky Fingers” appears especially happy or
satisfied, including Wenner. (His ex-wife, Jane, whom Wenner left for
the Calvin Klein model Matt Nye, after finally publically identifying as
gay, in 1995, is the book’s most tragic figure; her heartbreak feels
heavy and infinite.) Even some of the book’s more salacious tidbits are
fundamentally depressing: Keith Richards, comparing Jagger and Wenner,
tells Hagan, “They’re very similar people. They’re both very guarded
creatures. You wonder if there’s anything worth guarding.” Wenner
himself appears oblivious to the darker side of his own story. At one
point, he suggests to Hagan that he use “Wilson,” a 2013 biography of
Woodrow Wilson, by A. Scott Berg, as a model for “Sticky Fingers.”

Wenner’s stake in Rolling Stone itself is now up for
and it remains unclear how the magazine—which, in addition to losing
credibility as a source of unbiased criticism, was catastrophically slow
to adapt to digital platforms—will be reborn under new leadership. For
Hagan, the two institutions—Wenner and his magazine—are inseparable. He
approaches his topic with an essayist’s instinct: dismantle, question,
question again, and surmise. Though “Sticky Fingers” is, at five hundred
and forty-two pages, a formidable read, it’s also terrifically smart and
full of anecdotes that anyone remotely interested in rock and roll,
publishing, or the legacy of the nineteen-sixties will find engrossing.

Some who have worked closely with Wenner have described Hagan’s book as
fair but perhaps uncharitable. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, the
critic and author Alan Light points out how “simple ruthlessness can get you a long way, but it can’t sustain a
five-decade career.” Writing in
the journalist Corey Seymour expresses gratitude for Wenner’s
willingness to take risks on young, hungry writers: “Jann had sent me,
barely out of college, on a mission to work with my teenage self’s hero,
Hunter S. Thompson, telling me to simply meet him at the airport and
‘see what happens.’ ” When I asked Baron Wolman, Rolling Stone’s first
chief photographer, what he thought of the book, he reiterated the
magazine’s importance and its singularity. “ ‘Sticky Fingers’ (and I’m
not a fan of the subtly pejorative title) is a compelling read about a
unique man and an equally unique publication who and which commented
upon and influenced our culture for five of my eight decades,” he told
me in an e-mail. That part of Wenner’s legacy, at least, is undeniable.
Whether the ends justified the means is a question only he can answer,
though perhaps not just yet.


via New Yorker http://bit.ly/2v93nIt

November 1, 2017 at 10:59AM

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