On a recent episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, author Joe Hagan talked about his new book, “Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine.” In tackling this four-year project, Hagan had access to Wenner’s enormous archive of material, but he also interviewed rock stars, co-workers, friends and enemies. Wenner — who asked that the book be written — wasn’t happy with the edn result, but Hagan stands by the book as an honest portrayal of a time, a man and an industry.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview here, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka, that’s me. I’m part of the Vox Media podcast network. I’m here at Vox Studios with Joe Hagan, who is powering up with some coffee right now. We’re gonna talk about sex, drugs, rock and roll, the publishing business, a little bit of the internet, some business stuff, too. Joe has written an amazing book called “Sticky Fingers: The life and times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine.” Welcome, Joe.
Joe Hagan: Thank you for having me, Peter.
This has been on my radar for a while. This is a big book. This is a book that when it got announced was a big deal. How many years ago, four years ago?
Yeah, four years ago. That was a little ... Three and a half.
Luckily for you in some ways it’s now making a second splash, because one, it’s a big important book, and two, there’s a story about the story, which is the subject of your story now disavows the book, or doesn’t want anything to do with it.
Controversy. It’s worked out well for you.
It has. I didn’t know that that was a thing that could happen. That the controversy would be good for me, that would be part of the publicity. I did know that it could end up being that he didn’t like the book.
But the outcome in my mind was that I would be like sued out of existence, or he would find a way to make it not work for me.
Make the book go away.
Yeah, or something like that. So it’s not been that, and I’ve been thankful for that.
This is a long, comprehensive biography of Jann Wenner, who many people listening to this podcast will know, but in case people don’t, was the creator, still owns Rolling Stone, or at least half of Rolling Stone Magazine. And for a long period was a really big deal in American publishing and American media.
I would say, yeah. He was kind of a celebrity in the ’70s.
Was a celebrity.
Yeah, you’d see him often in the gossip columns and the photo spreads, and he was this kind of man on the move.
And the idea of this magazine editor as celebrity is something that has been fading for some time. We just saw a whole slew of semi-famous editors resign, but this is a whole other strata of fame and power. It’s one of the things I want to talk to you about, is how to explain this book to an audience that doesn’t really get magazines, because magazines are archaic today. But let’s try, and then we’ll get into the controversy and all that: Why was Rolling Stone a big deal when it was birthed back in the ’60s?
Because rock and roll music was not really anywhere on the radar of the adult mainstream media, which was very kind of narrow. You know, you had three TV channels, and maybe three or four newspapers in America that were powerful.
But we’re talking about well into the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and past Elvis.
Yeah. Well, the Beatles had just come onto the scene, but they were considered this teeny-bopper fad on the side.
Nothing you would write about seriously.
Yeah, there was no credibility. The Rolling Stones, to write about the Rolling Stones would’ve been like writing about a strip club or something. It’s like why, it doesn’t have any ... It’s not for the palate of the main media consumer and the mainstream world. Jann’s whole thing was his timing was impeccable. It was the summer of ’67, you had the Monterey International Pop Festival, which was the first time all these rock bands came together under one roof, and all the mainstream media showed up, to say, “Hey, the kids are kind of organizing in this new way, and hippies have come around in San Francisco, and there’s this whole metastasizing culture going on.”
The key component here was that the record company people were showing up with checkbooks and something was about to give. This was about to become a business in a real way. Psychedelic group with songs that went on for like 30 minutes or whatever could get a record deal.
So, even though decades later, we just group the ’60s and pop music and rock music of the late ’60s and the Summer of Love and all that into one big group. It didn’t dominate mainstream culture at that time, we sort of caught it on the upswing.
It was on the cusp of this about to become mainstream.
There were lots of people listening to music that wasn’t like this as well, which [crosstalk 00:04:48] picking up on.
Mainly not listening to this kind of music.
And magazines, this is again, it’s hard to explain the importance of a magazine in the ’60s and the ’70s, through the ’80s.
Sure. Well, let’s go back to what you just said, was like what did Jann capture here? He basically at the time, to get a magazine in the mail, that was the entire internet, like right into one little bound thing.
The curated version of the internet.
Exactly. All the crossroads were coming together. It was like anything you could know was gonna be here. Alternately, you’d get a record at the record store, you would go over the liner notes and whatever else is said on it, and that was as much as you were going to know about these guys. Here was the entire universe delivered on a platter. These guys were gatekeepers. Jann was an arbiter. He was able to package and kind of define a culture that had up to that point not been defined.
The way he defined it was his stroke of genius, which is he took elements that everybody recognized in the mainstream, like good writing, columns that were typed, set, and not groovy, crazy psychedelic drawings and everything on them. It looked like a newspaper that your parents would get, except it had stoners in it. So this was like a revelation. If you’re 18 and you wanna listen to Iron Butterfly, here’s your magazine.
And was it important that it came out of San Francisco instead of New York where the rest of the media companies, the rest of business was?
Absolutely, yeah. Yeah, it was on the opposite coast of the actual record business and had an outsider’s point of view, but it was in the center of what was considered the youth boom. San Francisco, California, this was where everybody went to go see hippies, live among them and do drugs. Jann knew that and he sort of had it to himself. Basically he was like, “I’m going to create a newspaper at this place and you’re all going to come to town and get into my magazine.”
He wasn’t the first person to write about music, as you go over and over in this book. Borrowed, is the polite term for it, lots of ideas and lots of other building blocks that went into this. He liberally lifted from other people. Some people were trying this in various forms.
Absolutely. Well, you think of the Facebook story. There’s very ... similarities here, where some guy, another guy, comes to Jann with the idea. “Hey, I’m going to make you the editor of my rock and roll magazine.” This guy Chet Helms, who was a famous hippie in San Francisco, asked Jann to do his magazine with him. Well, the guy kind of doesn’t really get it together. He’s a little bit too much of a hippie, and Jann takes the idea and runs with it. He’s got the hustle, and he is also not a hippie, he’s a preppy. He’s sort of a preppy who adopted ...
Yeah, Jann’s a preppy, he’s ...
He literally went to prep school.
He was like, wore Brooks Brothers, even when he started Rolling Stones he has a Brooks Brothers shirt on. He has a little sort of like Prince Valiant hairdo and everything, so he’s half in, half out.
He doesn’t look super cool in the pictures.
I would say yeah. People didn’t know what to make of Jann in some ways because he’s half in and half out. But that makes him a journalist in a way, having a perfect journalistic posture, in a way.
There’s a great photo in there of Mario Savio being taken away at Berkeley. I had no idea this was the case, but there’s Jann Wenner in the background, it’s a stringer at the time running up behind him.
Again, I’ll guess we’ll go back and forth in time, but his ambition wasn’t just to create Rolling Stone at one point, right? You refer in the book several times as he wanted to created sort of a Hearst-like empire.
Yeah, he wanted to be the Henry Luce of the counterculture.
So he had said, “I want to create this massive” — he wouldn’t call it then, but what today you call “multimedia empire,” right? He wanted his hands in lots of stuff. Now, who knows, depending on how quickly the sale goes by the time this podcast is out, he may have already sold his remaining half of the company. He’s still a rich man, he’s still going to make some money from the sale, but it’s nothing like what he could have had.
Do you think he’s okay with ... I mean, clearly he’s a man, among other things, motivated by money. Do you think he gets what he missed or got wrong?
Yeah. He’s considered it. In fact, in our conversations he began to recede from the idea that he had been a good businessman at all. He wanted to kind of shift over and adopt his legacy as an editor instead. He would say always, he would always quote Ralph Gleason, his co-founder, the jazz critic Ralph Gleason, saying, “You know, the proof that Rolling Stone was a good idea is that it survived Jann’s management.” Jann was the one that told me that quote, and it was because he was sort of wistfully, vaguely, regretfully looking back at all the errors he had made.
As a businessman.
As a businessman, and he made a lot, but the most epic one was of like 10 years ago, when he took a loan, sort of sunk him.
We can get into that.
Yeah, but to your point about at the beginning, his ambition was just, it was absurd. It was at the level of people are like, “What? You want to be the Henry Luce of the counterculture? You want to be William Randolph Hearst?” This was absurd, out of rock and roll? Out of a rock and roll newspaper? This was an absurd idea. Just shows you, he had this outrageous confidence.
Among other reasons when Jann Wenner ... You give the book to Jann Wenner. He says, “I hate this book.” This is after him opening up his archives and showing you hours and hours of interviews. He says, “I hate it.” Among other things, he describes it as “tawdry.” Lots of it is tawdry, right?
Because you’re describing his behavior, which is fairly described as tawdry. He had a lot of sex and drugs and bad behavior towards people in his life, his wife found out. What made him think that if you told his story it wouldn’t be tawdry?
Well, I wondered that from the get-go. When I was trying to negotiate my independence in this book, the thing that he was always like, “Don’t get so much into the sex.”
Because he came to you and said, “I want you to tell my story.”
“I want you to tell my story.” He asked me to write the book. I was sort of both flattered, but also completely caught ... I had reservations because of other, of him, just knowing him, and seeing ...
Famous control freak.
Yeah, and seeing that his need, his ego was so outward. It was so shameless in a way, and it was part of his charm, too, how egocentric he was.
But you could see it on the surface.
He’s grinning. He’s got the Cheshire grin. He thinks he rules the universe. He’s got that kind of like ... You don’t see or find people like this very often. There’s something kind of like almost narcotic about being around this guy’s ego.
Because even in his diminished state, rock and roll is down, magazines are done, Rolling Stone is down. There’s still a sphere in which he’s the middle of the sphere.
Bruce Springsteen still is his buddy.
And Bono is still his buddy.
And Mick Jagger is, at least act as if they are his buddies.
That’s right, and he would show me pictures of himself with them every time we got together, first thing, on his phone.
Yeah, new ones. “Just last week, me and Bruce were in South America, check it out.” I liked that, I thought that was fun, but I was also like, it was so curious to me how into it he was. You and I are journalists. He’s ostensibly a journalist, he’s an editor, right, a publisher. After you’ve been around maybe some powerful people or celebrities or had interaction with them, there’s kind of a diminishing return there. But not for Jann, he doesn’t have that diminishing return thing. He’s really completely energized by ...
By fame and celebrity.
Yeah, and this, his proximity to it gives him life. This was what fascinated me about him. I was like, “Wow, he’s so unusual in this.” The other thing that fascinated me about when I first met him was that he is so wealthy and loves to live high. He was known, there are people that have three times as much money as this guy who would never live like him. He lives ostentatiously.
There’s a line in there about, at one point he owns a Gulfstream and then he upgrades the Gulfstream. It’s the first Gulfstream he has. He’s got his own private plane, he loves it. He says, “I want to figure out trips I can take on it, and while I was figuring this out we would go circle LaGuardia to have lunch, just so I could use the plane.”
That’s right. Yeah, yeah. He loved the private plane so much. But underneath that you would think that he would be very sophisticated and have a kind of refinement and so forth. He’s not refined. There’s a kind of intense open appetite, that he has a feeling. I saw him as a barbarian when I first met him. He has kind of like ... I’ll give an example.
There’s a story in the Telegraph this week, it was a review of my book. The opening anecdote is that a guy leaves a sandwich on his desk and Jann just comes by and takes it and eats it and walks away. The first time that I went to his house to go swimming, because I met him in a café. He had just moved up to near where I live, in upstate New York. He says, “Come to my child’s birthday party.” I said, “Wow, okay.” This is going to be amazing, right? I go over there, unbelievably beautiful place.
You bring your kids.
I brought my kids, my wife was there. Annie Leibovitz is there with a couple of, with her kids, his — Jann’s — sister and her husband, and an exotic animal handler with a blue macaw on his arm.
So just what you thought.
I mean, the whole place was just ... My mind, I was just like, “Wow,” you know?
Of course Annie Leibovitz and a blue macaw.
Yeah, of course. It was a beautiful day anyway, and his pool’s gorgeous and the pool house is like this modernist thing that’s incredible, 20 foot ceilings. I remember being in the pool, swimming around and observing him the whole time, because of course I’m fascinated with this guy. I was like, “Wow, look at his empire, look at his stuff.” He had poured these glasses of rosé and they were sitting around on tables around the people. I just watched him casually walk around and consolidate everybody’s glass of rosé into his, and then drink it. I remember thinking, “Wow, he didn’t have to do that but he did it anyway, because he wanted to.” Anyway, things like that I would observe. That was the beginning of me being fascinated with him, before the book ever happened.
He says, “I want to do this book.” You have a lot of trepidation. You tell the story in the book, you told it in the Times, a lot of places. You get lawyers involved to say, “I will do the book but these are the conditions.” He wants some constraints or ability to talk about his sex life is the one thing he’s sensitive about. You agree to that to some degree. But everything else is yours, and again he gives you all this information, encourages all his buddies to talk to you. Again, I think you end the book saying the question is, is he 51 percent good or 51 percent evil, or something to that effect.
Bad. I read the book thinking, “Boy, I do not want to hang out with Jann Wenner. He’s an unpleasant person, behaves terribly towards lots of people, and the best thing you can say about him in many cases is that he doesn’t mean to hurt them.” So again, did he imagine that you would skip all of that? Is he used to a world where no one tells him that? Or did think there’s only a little bit of it and the good’s going to win out?
Yeah, I think that is probably true. He wanted me to write a book, I believe, that defined him. He believes that his success retroactively carves out the history based on having ... won, right? “I won the game. My success is proof of my virtue.” As I was writing the book, it’s not like I didn’t think he had been successful, and I did. But that’s not how I thought of the book. He thought of the book as ... I mentioned Woodrow Wilson, go read that biography.
He wanted something, kind of like a vaunted tome, but there was a little bit of a delusion in that the material is about rock and roll, and it’s about the ’60s and ’70s. How are you going to write a real upstanding book about that period? But the truth is, actually, a lot of books are getting written like that. If you go to the music section of the book store, and I’d pick up, and I was doing this all the time, to look at these books, these histories. A lot of them are really bad and dull, because there’s a kind of hagiographic ...
Right, and that’s about most things. Many things are hagiographic. Also, there’s a well established now arc of pop and rock and roll and media stories in general, where someone rises up, they reach great heights, they have a fall, involving sex. There’s a whole “Behind the Music” trope for this, right?
Then at the end they sort of come out and in the end they’re still on the up.
Yeah, nobody wants to read those chapters. But I remember Dwight Garner’s review of the Paul McCartney biography about a year ago. He said, “Basically, after The Beatles break up I stopped caring.”
Well, the beauty for me though in this story was that Jann’s archive told this incredibly rich story. Because here you don’t have to rely on the memories of 72-year-old people, or even Jann’s memory. You’re going in here and you’ve got actual personal letters.
He created this archive, he archived his scrapbook himself, which again is telling.
He saved every last shred of toilet paper from his life. There was ... everything was in here, it was almost like, “Wow, how did you have that kind of prescience that you thought you needed to save all this stuff?” And really all of it, including a daily to-do memo that his secretary would have typed out for him. He had stacks of these, like hundreds of them. You could go through them day by day by day by day. All of his calendars, you could see what he was doing every single day.
It’s someone who thought that everything ... that he was important.
Exactly. So for me, this was both a challenge, because it’s like the proverbial drinking from a fire hose. But on the other hand, I can actually make a portrait of what it was really like to be there. How both banal and messy and realistic it all was, and how it wasn’t all just ... it didn’t have to have all the nostalgic gloss on it. When you carve that back, well, you’ve got something way richer and way more novelistic in a way, because you can get into the details that are so the kind that Tom Wolfe was loving and people liked to read back in those days.
Yeah, Tom Wolfe made up a lot it, right?
That may be true. I didn’t.
But I didn’t have to, because of this archive. That archive started to tell a story that Jann wasn’t telling.
I want to talk about how you actually made this book. First I want to hear from one of our excellent sponsors. Be right back.
I’m back here with Joe Hagan, the author of “Sticky Fingers,” Jann Wenner’s life story. You were talking about the archives that Jann Wenner opened up to you. Now I guess he regrets opening them to you. He also told, I guess, many of his friends, “Hey, Joe’s going to write about me. You should talk to me.” Again, you’ve got to look at the book to get a sense of how many will you talk to, and then in case you don’t, in the, I don’t know, what’s this called?
Notes. It’s called notes. Chapter by chapter you explain, “Here’s who I talked to.” So here’s Chapter 5, Chapter 5 [Notes], some of the people Joe talked to for this. Jann Wenner, of course, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Clive Davis, Bob Dylan. That’s a partial list of one chapter.
So these are people that got on the phone with you or opened up their house to you.
You’ve been a journalist for a long time, what is the difference between approaching these folks, presumably who Jann had said, “Go talk to Joe,” versus when they’re promoting something? A lot of these folks have very mediated lives, at least when it comes to the press.
They’re used to talking under certain circumstances and they want to promote a project, there’s a thing they want to sell. Here it’s a different thing, you’re trying to get to a story that isn’t really about them.
Right. Well, this is where I was very lucky, because the subject of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone is one that nobody asked these people.
It’s a new idea.
Yeah, if you’re going to interview Bob Dylan, would any of your questions be like, “Tell me about Rolling Stone’s cover through years,” or, “Tell me about the first time Jann Wenner interviewed you.” Nobody had asked these people these things. It turns out that there are these long trails of stories about the ups and downs they had with the guy who arbitrated their image in the press.
So they’ve thought about ... it’s not just you asking them about press coverage or Time Magazine. This is, again, part of the idea of important ...
It’s about relationships.
But it’s how important Rolling Stone was and how important Jann Wenner was, and those relationships. A lot of your book is about his relationship with John Lennon or his relationship with Mick Jagger and the back and forth. So these guys had long histories with him and they were talking about it.
They were prickly, and up and down. The thing that got me to understand the vision of the book at the outset was a stroke of fortune. I said, “I’ve got to write a book proposal, so I’m going to pick one person to write about. I’m going to go into the archive, look through it all and see what comes out of it.” John Lennon, I picked.
That ended up being an incredible story. It’s the opening of the book, and it shows you these rise and fall. A kind of Jann on the one hand, devoted to The Beatles, completely loving The Beatles, loving John Lennon.
He’s a fanboy.
Yeah, fanboy of epic proportions. And on the other, willing to cut somebody down to gain success for himself sometimes. He was mercurial in this way. That’s the word everybody always used about Jann, mercurial. To me, the Lennon story showed, kind of ended up being a blueprint for a lot of what I was seeing with Jann. Now, in the book proposal I added later the death of Lennon, in which Jann produces what ends up being the most iconic Rolling Stone cover ever. That’s naked John Lennon wrapped around Yoko Ono, picture taken three hours before his death.
That is kind of a turning point in the life of Rolling Stone and in Jann’s life. It allows him, in the arc of this story, to have some kind of karmic redemption after he betrayed John Lennon back in the early ’70s. He makes it up to him in death and turns him into this kind of Christ figure. Which later, you learn that Paul McCartney resented. These kind of twists and turns ...
So when you go and talk to Paul McCartney about Jann Wenner, and Jann Wenner has said to Paul McCartney, “He’s doing the book. Go talk to him,” right? So that opens the door. Do you have to spend hours with Paul McCartney before he gets to the stuff that really irks him, or does it come right out? It seems like you didn’t have to ...
It started to come right out.
Yeah, so these guys have beefs.
They had beefs.
Maybe Jann doesn’t get that they have beefs, necessarily.
In fact, a media mogul whose name I shall not say right now because this was a private conversation, but he said to me a couple of weeks before the book was going to come out. He said, “Does Jann understand how many people dislike him?” I said, “I don’t know.” He says, “Well, I don’t know why he’s doing this. I don’t understand.”
It seems like a Barry Diller, David Geffen quote to me.
I’m just going to ...
You’re going to nod quietly?
So, in any case, there was a little bit of an awareness deficit about how people felt about him and what people might say about him. The Paul McCartney thing ends up ... The reason I couldn’t believe how candid he was, but how excited I was by it, was that it created whole secret histories that were happening right behind the scenes of all the covers and the biweekly things that we’ve seen throughout the history ...
And there’s a lot of horse trading and favors and betrayals that if you look at any one of them individually are pretty petty. Again, they’re interesting because they involve rock and roll stars.
Exactly, yeah. Ended up with a trademark infringement and stuff.
Right, but over time it’s this whole life these people had together, fighting with each other.
The last Jann Wenner, or the last John Lennon interview, I guess he’s speaking, he started addressing Jann Wenner, even though he’s not in the room. “I know you want to know what my apartment looks like, it’s not that interesting.” He’s cutting him down, it’s great. So again, John Lennon is spending time thinking about what Jann Wenner thinks about him.
Yeah. You’re talking about Jann Wenner at the height of his power. He was the guy. That cover was coveted real estate for people. To be on that cover could mean more sales, more awareness, it turned you into a sexy icon. That’s what rock stars live and breathe on.
I mentioned sex and drugs, that cover was in 1980, that’s when it was shot?
It was in January ’81.
’81, so the preceding few years, Rolling Stone has picked up and moved from San Francisco to New York. Lots of the original people have been shunted off, fired or quit. A lot of the book is dark, but this is a very dark part of the book. There’s a lot of cocaine use, which sounds exotic and fun, but you explain quite clearly it’s not so much fun. He and his wife are living this really dark existence, sort of separate and drug addled. What pulled them, or at least what pulled him out of that? Because if it’s a movie, someone comes and saves him. It doesn’t happen in the book.
No, it doesn’t happen. Jann, well, he’s got incredible fortitude for drug use. Everybody noted this about him. And he had incredible willpower, and he was able to pull back without having to go to rehab like everybody else. He didn’t get into real hard stuff. I mean cocaine is real hard but he didn’t get into heroin and other kinds of things. But he was able ... and he drank a lot too, that’s another thing. That’s no small thing.
Swigging from a bottle of vodka.
Yeah, yeah. People, observers of him from the late ’70s into really even the mid-80s, remember him as kind of a mess. If you see pictures of him, he looks like kind of a mess sometimes, but sometimes he could pull it together, focus and actually make decisions. This was part of his constitution, which is no small thing. That probably helped him be successful, was his ability to sustain.
Sort of genetic luck, like being able to ...
Genetic luck to sustain all of this abuse. I mean, it caught up with him in the mid-80s, he gets diagnosed with diabetes, he’s overweight and he’s a total wreck, and then he has to reformat.
But there’s a lot of people who could apply that to who were partying with rock stars for real. Other people around him didn’t ... Annie Leibovitz, the way you portray her, had a very difficult time with drugs, nearly died multiple times.
Yeah, I mean she was a wreck. It’s funny because I would interview people separately, and they would then, each of them unprompted, “Oh, well there was the time I had to go get Annie out of the hospital and pretend to be her mother,” or something. She had been dumped there by the drug dealer, okay, that’s the managing editor. Then Jann tells his story, then Jane tells hers, then the associate photo editor tells hers. They’re all telling, and then the art director, all these people told me their own versions of all of these stories that were happening. I was like, “Wow, this was happening a lot.”
So you triangulate it, and you’re not still entirely sure what happened but multiple things happened that were not good.
That’s right, bad. She talked about it too, to her credit. She was somewhat reluctant to get into but she says, “I was overdoing it. I was doing a lot of drugs and I had to see a coke specialist,” and blah blah blah.
As successful as that magazine was, as Jann Wenner was, financially it really took off in the ’80s, well after the magazine’s cultural heyday. That’s when I started reading it as a kid. I knew that it was a thing but I knew that Spin was the cooler thing. I think the first issue I picked up had a Jackie Collin’s excerpt in it, in the fiction issue. So even as a seventh grader I knew this was not a cool magazine, but that’s also when he started minting money from that publication. What changed in that business? How did he change it?
Well, the record business consolidated. That was their ...
That’s what funded the magazine primarily, people buying ads for albums ...
That and the auto and the cigarette and the alcohol. In fact, that was the main stuff, was all this big ... those categories, as they would say in the advertising world. I think what partly started to happen was the music business was reanimated by MTV. Jann benefited from that in a big way, because suddenly you had stars to put on the cover, other than Foreigner and Styx and REO Speedwagon.
Put Go-Go’s on the cover.
Yeah, because those people, nobody wanted to look at those people. Jann needed sexy people to put on the cover. He had already started to put movie stars on the cover, but here was a whole new world of people to put on the cover, and it was symbiotic with MTV’s success.
And it’s also one of his several significant missteps. We’ve referred to one of them, but one of them, he had a chance to own, what, 25 percent or a third of MTV?
Yeah, 25 percent of MTV.
Would have traded Rolling Stone for that.
That’s right, he would have been factored in. They would have been one company. Bob Pittman tells the story, and Jann talked about it, too. Jann said, “You know, one of the first of many bad business decisions, not doing that,” because he would have been probably quite rich at this point and probably been some kind of quarter owner in Viacom or something.
Again, hard to imagine how big MTV was and Viacom was, because now they’re on the downswing.
At the time it was huge, yeah. It was the thing. I grew up with MTV and that was my main touchstone. I subscribed to Rolling Stone, but MTV I had a personal relationship with.
He missed that, but it still powered the publication for a while.
Exactly, and the other thing is, is that ... two other things. They started really focusing on the business in new ways, focus groups, marketing research. I found it all in Jann’s archive. These really dense examinations of which covers were working and which weren’t.
Instead of swashbuckling as an editor, you’re actually looking at data.
Yeah, and he had business guys who were really involved in what was going on. Kent Brownridge, the publisher at the time, was — the publisher is the business manager — but he was determining a lot of what was going on behind the scenes. Then when they hit one million circulation, which in the magazine business was a big deal. If you were now reaching a million guaranteed readers, well, advertisers are going to come flock to you because now they can hit all these things. That was necessarily going to change the editorial and make it more mainstream and focus it, and then one thing built on the other. Then Jann’s next thing to do was to do this giant ad campaign, the famous ad campaign, perception, reality. Which was, we’re going to go out and tell Madison Avenue, “Our readers are not hippies.”
Yeah, you think that from the ’60s and the ’70s stuff, that’s done. Now it’s like, before and after. It was perception, was a hippie, counting some pennies, and reality is a yuppie with an American Express card. One’s a sports car, one’s a VW bus, one’s a sports car. McGovern, Reagan, it went one after the other. It was a huge success.
Embracing the idea of selling out.
Embracing it. That was fine, because it was the Reagan era and it was the ’80s. People ... that generation was really to have kids and make money. Jann found a way to build that into his formula, which was kind of a risky move if you think about it, because it did maybe contradict some of the essence of the magazine.
Right, and the other thing you point out, sort of — and I have a memory of this culturally — at that time the ’60s had become a thing that was sort of museum quality and revered.
You talk about, with the Lennon thing. He becomes the keeper of the Lennon legend, and then eventually, literally at one point starts running the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The ’60s and this kind of nostalgia and this kind of archival sense of what music is, “I’m going to be the guy who runs that. I’m going to be in charge of that. That’s what you come to Rolling Stone for, and yes maybe there’s a picture of Madonna on the cover but really we are the main through-line of rock,” in many ways to its detriment, never embraced hip-hop, never embraced new music of any sort, really.
Well, he became conservative, when you think about it. That was a thing that kind of even began in the ’70s a little bit. Jann had a really acute sense of the power of anniversaries, of the power of ...
This book was supposed to be titled, “The Fiftieth Anniversary.”
That’s right, he actually, in advance, one of the reasons that he was so adamant that I do this book, even when I was showing some reluctance to do so, is he knew his time was running out. That he’d gone through two other writers, he had one bullet left in the chamber. He’s got four years runway, which is about, that’s what you need to write a biography at the least, and the 50-year anniversary was coming up.
He knows the anniversary is huge. Every time there has been one it’s been a huge media extravaganza for Jann. Then he rolls out the pantheon, the Stones and the Beatles and everybody you love. It’s like this kind of Zeus, the Olympic level of the rock gods. He started doing that, even in the late ’70s this was already ...
Again, if you want a context, remember “Almost Famous,” which is the Cameron Crowe story. Cameron Crowe was a real person writing for Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone. Is there a Jann Wenner cameo in that movie?
He is. Yeah, he’s walking across the street in front of a limousine or something like this. I’m having a hard time remembering but it was a walk-on.
Yeah, as a sidebar, I’m not going to spend time talking about “Perfect” the movie, but you should go Google “Perfect” the movie.
Absolutely, and look for the scene with Jann doing aerobics.
I was unable to find it, for better and for worse.
Yeah, maybe I’ll post it up later, but I don’t want to hurt his feelings. He’s embarrassed. He kind of can laugh at it but he regrets it.
But again, he’s someone who had a lot of ambition, and one of those ambitions was to be in movies. Again, a portion of this book is detailing his fights with various people over who was going to make a movie and was he in or was he off and then was he in or was he off, back and forth. I was going to tell you guys to go Google that movie while we take a break but you should listen to this message from our fun sponsor, and then we’ll be right back with Joe Hagan.
I’m back here with Joe Hagan who’s not terrified, even though he just said. We were detailing some of Jann Wenner misses. He missed MTV, even though he profited from it. You made a reference to this, he took on a huge loan to buy back half of his company from, was it just half, of Us Magazine, right?
Us Weekly, yeah.
Us Weekly, which was a huge moneymaker. It’s initially not a moneymaker, he gets Disney to buy half of it from him, and then he buys it back, borrows $300 million at the peak.
That’s right, a peak of the market, and the market crashes and he’s stuck with a $300 million loan and declining revenue.
Right, which he’s being off, I guess, ever since.
In fact, I would say that was the real come-to-Jesus moment in the last year, the reason he’s partially, one of the reasons he’s selling all this stuff, is the loan. Because what happens is if you’re no longer hitting a certain revenue mark and able to meet the payments, once it goes, dips below that line, the bank says, “Hey, wow, we’ve got to start finding where you’re going to get this money.” That’s when the sale started going on.
So he sold off Men’s Journal, he sold off, he sold off half of Rolling Stone, the other half is for sale now.
On the market, yeah.
Maybe, again, it’s been sold while we’re speaking. One of the things that’s relevant to that is another thing that he did with eyes open, I think, was say, “I don’t want to participate in the internet. I don’t like the internet. I don’t like reading it.”
He had a palpable reaction to it.
Which a lot of people did. It’s hard to remember now.
Yeah, totally understandable. For a while, probably the smart thing to have done.
Yeah, I wrote about that at one point. He would do these licensing deals. He was like, “You, you go internet me, I’m not going to spend a penny on it. You pay me.” He dealt with Real Networks for a while. There was a period where lots of smart publishers spent tens, hundreds of millions of dollars burning money on the internet with nothing to show for it. He just made money.
That’s right, and he didn’t.
Had it not done that, had he tried to make a go of it, do you think that Rolling Stone would have been a genuinely successful internet property?
Well, he may have failed like everybody else, but he may also have laid the groundwork for something that could be successful. A lot of getting successful in this business or any other is being willing to try and fail, and then try and fail again, and see how much risk-taking you’re ready to do. But he didn’t see it, he saw a black hole there and he wasn’t going to go there. Then the real thing that happened is Us Weekly became so successful, he didn’t feel like he had to anymore, because here he was making piles of money on a print magazine. Which, you know, probably one of the last super ...
Right, print magazine in the 2000s, when that story ... You shouldn’t be launching new successful magazines, but it was ginormously successful. Again, hard to remember.
Hugely, and it shielded his company from — the rest, Rolling Stone — from decline in a way, because it was underwriting Rolling Stone after a time.
Again, there’s a quote in there, he just says offhandedly about the first editor who made that magazine very successful, Bonnie Fuller. He’s talking about the back and forth, because she wanted to go after stars, and the stars being his buddy. He said, “She didn’t like anyone attractive or successful and she’s the most unattractive person you ever met.” God, he’s telling you this, right?
Yes, he was.
A guy who says this to you in real time, knowing that you’re writing a book, that’s someone who lives in a very specific bubble.
That’s Jann. You know, I told you at the outset, he has this raw unrefined quality about him. Well, that’s how Jann can be. He has this barbarian gut thing and he has gut reactions to people and gut responses. At one time that was his genius. He knew what people wanted and what was good and what was bad. He could make judgements.
If he broke a few eggs in the process, or broke all the eggs, it worked out.
Yeah, it was fine, it worked out.
The people who were upset with you eventually, and this is another part of the book. Mick Jagger’s mad at him and then he comes back. John Lennon’s mad at him, they come back but they’re not buddies, but at least they do business.
Yeah, Irving Azoff, who was the manager of The Eagles, says something to this fact. Like, “Yeah, there’s the falling out, but there’s always the makeup, you know, because we’ve got to do business here.” They would just do business again but then Jann would complain about Irving, “Oh, everything I do with him turns out screwed up.” They’re always complaining about each other because somebody’s always feeling like they got the other guy. These guys are all sort of like pissy competitive guys duking it out for whatever ...
Remaining bit, shrinking bit of turf.
So back to where we started, you spent four years on this thing. You know that at a minimum there’s many, many, many unflattering things about him when you finish it. You haven’t talked to him about it, right? You’ve just been working.
No, I had ... Well, towards the end, when I was almost done — and I was keeping him at arm’s length during the writing because like ...
Was he calling up and saying, “How is it going?”
Yes. “Can I read some of it? What’s going on?” No, you can’t read it. Then there were a series of meetings starting in late last year and into this spring, where he’d sit down, say, “What’s going on? Who have you been talking to? What are you writing?”
By the way, it’s a staggering thing to realize someone’s been ... I mean, it’s flattering but also terrifying to know that someone’s been working on a story on you for four years.
He started getting nervous. He started asking me more about it. He started asking more and more, pressuring, “You should really let me read it. I can make it better. You know that I can make it better.” In my mind I’m like, “No,” but I was very nervous when I would go into these meetings with him. I had knots in my stomach, “I’m going to have to deal with Jann. He’s going to try to pressure me to do this and I know I can’t.”
And also because you know what you’ve written about him, right?
And I know what I’ve written. It’s always ... in any journalistic job there’s the collection of all the information, and then there’s the pivot into writing the story, in which you’re alone in a room and you’re like, “You know what, I’ve got to call it like I see it, and this is the story, and here’s the vision for this book, and this is how it’s going to roll.” I know who Jann is at this point, and I’m not going to shrink from who he is. I can’t soft-pedal this. On some level, there’s a comic level of folly to some of those things that are going on here.
I mean, you’re talking about a guy who’s like the kid in a candy shop, who’s got it all. What if you were a guy in 1967 put into a slingshot, really a cultural slingshot in which you’re going to be shot across the next 50 years, and you can have anything you want. The world is your oyster, you can do no wrong. You have this incredible power and opportunity and access, and the whole concept of the ’60s is throw off the rules and you’re free. Boy, this is going to be fun. Jann had a hell of a lot of fun. But there was a lot of foibles and folly and messiness and darkness and all these other things.
By the way, there’s some special custom cocaine furniture that I keep forgetting to mention.
Well, yeah. In the late ’70s there’s a guy named Dakota Jackson — still a prominent furniture maker, you can go find him — who was from a family of magicians. He made secret compartments in some of his things, consoles and furniture. He made a console, like an entertainment console, for Jann and his wife Jane. It had a secret compartment on each side, which ... he wouldn’t say they were for cocaine, but they were used for cocaine.
They were his and her cocaine ...
... stashes. In the middle was a mirror that pulled out that you could snort the lines off of.
So this is the life he leads, you’re writing his book.
Yes, sorry, digression.
No, no, no. I brought us there.
But you don’t show him the book, so at some point do you slide the thing under the door and then run away?
Let me tell you two things that happened before this that are important. One is, there was a time when I had to go to him with a list of really private stuff that I had found in his archive, and I had to get his signature on them, because they were ...
Because it was sex stuff?
No, we had an agreement that stuff that didn’t involve Rolling Stone business at all but were really private letters between let’s say Jann and his wife or Jann and some other person, or stuff that predated Rolling Stone, like his dairies, had to get his sign-off. I remember, I’d already finished the manuscript. This was the moment where I go in and he could use this as leverage. He could say, “You know what, no,” to all that. It would really have screwed up the book in a big way. I was very nervous about it. Can you imagine, you’re going in, you wrote the book.
He could cut out 30 percent.
He has the power to ... not 30, but a lot of really exciting stuff that I loved. I went in there. He had looked it over the day before, and we’re having lunch off 6th Avenue at the Rolling Stone offices, looking out over the street. He says, “Well, I really want to read the book. I think you should show me the book.” I said, “Jann, I can’t do it. I can’t do it.”
I said — and I wrote kind of a version of this in the back of the book — but I said to him, “Your legacy is that you are a great editor who gave writers freedom. You let them run. You let them do what they had to do, you let them fulfill their vision. Here we are at the end of this book and this is a make or break moment. You can either let me be free and that’s your legacy, or you try to put the clamp down on me and I’m going to put that in the book. You know what I mean? I don’t think that’s what you want, you know what I mean? This is your moment of truth.”
You’re the guy who published Hunter Thompson.
That’s what I told him. That’s what I told him. I said, “You can’t, you’ve got to let me be free here.” Then he said okay, and he signed off on all the stuff, including the sex stuff, that was a separate thing. I didn’t have to show him that but I felt obligated to. I wanted him to know that I was being transparent with him, and I was transparent with him throughout. I was very honest with him. I would even give him long explanatory ideas about what my vision for the book was.
Because part of, I think, being a responsible journalist, just as a person, is you don’t sandbag the person you’re writing about. You don’t have to give them ... But you say, “This is what I’m writing, this is what I’m saying. You shouldn’t be surprised when you read it.”
So you feel like you gave him enough.
Well, then further along, the title was going to come out. I knew that was going to be hard for him. That was going to be the moment where my hand was the most tipped, “Sticky Fingers.” That was a real epiphany to me, that name. I knew as soon as it came into my mind, that’s the title of the book and there’s no going back. I told the publisher, “This is it, you can’t change it.” They didn’t want to change it in any way, they loved it.
Then they created the press release and a cover, and then it was going to come out on a Monday morning. The Sunday afternoon, I wrote Jann a letter and I said, “Here it is. This is it.” There’s a press release with it too and it had excerpts from the book and some of it was kind of sexy.
He was really upset by the title. He wrote me an email. He wrote to my publisher. He was really upset. He wrote me a letter, “You’ve got to change it.” He wrote to the publisher, “You’ve got to change that title. That’s not ...” He wanted “Like a Rolling Stone,” or “Jann Wenner and His Times” was the one he really wanted. I said, “No Jann, this isn’t going to change.” I got very emotional and very intense. I knew I wanted to keep him on the reservation. I tried to get him to see that this was the moment, you’ve got to hold your breath and jump over the river with me here on this one.
I sent him a very long letter about what the title was and what this book was about, and it was about ambition and it was about you having your hands on everything. Just this whole arc of your life is about this, in addition to the Rolling Stones album irony, and with the trademark issue that we can discuss. But anyway, so I wrote him that letter and he said, “Okay. Let’s meet for coffee.” We met for coffee. We had a powwow.
That’s this summer.
This summer, this May. We shook hands and he hugged me. He said, “Okay. I can live with it.” He wanted to hear what I had to say about it. But my last conversation with him, at that moment, was I said, “Jann, you’re not going to like everything in the book. Half of it’s going to be dark and half of it’s going to be light.” I said, “Take this book to a private island and do some primal scream. Read it, do some primal scream therapy, get through it and come back and embrace the book.”
I’ve got to say, Joe, I think it’s 80 percent dark.
Well, he does too. But you know ...
But again, the difference is I don’t think it’s unfair. That sounds ... you’ve exhaustively researched it. I don’t know that I would want a mirror held up to my face.
It’s exhaustively researched, and not only that, if some people that I talked to had their druthers it’d be a lot darker. There’s a Chicago rock critic who can’t stand him, we asked him to do a conversation with me at a bookstore or whatever. He said, “No. That book’s too nice.” It’s what he said about the book. He says, “It’s too nice to Jann.”
I won’t say what he called him but he just didn’t like the guy at all. There are certain people that think he’s really kind of dreadful. I didn’t feel like … you may think that he was a jerk and did some horrible things in the book, but another friend of mine read it and said, “Yeah, gosh, geez. He did some really ...”
I do wonder, I know people who’ve worked for him and they would not say he’s an awesome guy to hang out with or to work for. I remember guys who worked there, at Rolling Stone, said you have to ... It’s a clean desk policy, I thought they were kidding.
Really, the rock and roll guy wants your desk clean, you have to keep your desk clean if he comes by. But they worked for him for a long time, so there’s clearly, whether it’s the thing that he built and mixed with his personality, people wanted to be around it of their own accord. They weren’t forced to work with him.
He keeps creating something so damn cool that everybody wanted to be on the inside. There was a kind of Stockholm syndrome vibe to some of the people that worked there, like they’ll take a lot to be there. No, he didn’t pay him a lot of money, I mean sometimes. There was a lot of opportunity there, there was a lot of freedom to do a kind of journalism that was aggressive and risk taking and interesting. I respect that.
In the history of Rolling Stone magazine and all of its many great writers was some aspect of my mandate, but really the book is about Jann as the avatar for this generation. It’s not just about this like ... as I told Jann at the beginning, this is about what happened above deck, and below deck on your pirate ship, there’s a lot of interesting things that went on there, but Robert Draper wrote that book. I’m going to do a different book. It’s going to be you and all of these iconic people that you had relationships with, and how that translated into what people saw in the magazine.
He eventually gets the book, you say, “Go do your primal scream therapy.” Have you heard from him?
I mailed it to him after Labor Day in September.
That’s when the breakup comes, the official breakup.
I didn’t hear anything, radio silence. I got nervous. I knew, I was like, “Oh God, I can only imagine.” I basically went zen with myself and said, “You know what, the chips are going to fall where they may.”
If you were a cynical person — again, we’re fast forwarding. He broke up with you, there’s been a lot of discussion about it, a big New York Times profile of it. If you were cynical you’d say, “This is good for Joe.”
Yeah, some people think that.
That Jann Wenner doesn’t like it.
I could not see that at first.
You wanted him to like it, or at least to accept it.
I wanted him to accept it. I wanted him to read it and say, “You can’t say this is bad.” You know what I mean, it’s not ... Not to be arrogant about it but I think the book’s good. I don’t think that it’s ... I think he should ... listen, it’s difficult. How could he? It’s 500 pages about him, and for a guy like him to look in the mirror for 500 pages and not see what he wants to see is going to be difficult. But isn’t that true? Somebody was just telling me, if Steve Jobs had lived to read Walter Isaacson’s book, he would have hated it.
Sure. You saw what happened for all the people who worked for Steve Jobs, all acted as his proxy, saying, “We hated it.”
That’s right, and I’m getting that from Rolling Stone people. But the truth is you’ve got to write what the story is, and the story is not all pretty, and that Jann was ... You know, I think of Jann, I always say that he is like Peter Pan and Captain Hook in the same guy, but he was a lot of Captain Hook. You can’t avoid that that was part of what made him successful.
His remaining half of the magazine is going to be sold. The way they present it, the story is, “Well, he’d like to still be involved and so would his son,” but they’re selling the company, whoever buys it is very unlikely to keep the Wenners around.
I wouldn’t think so.
He’s got X amount of years left on the planet, what do you think Jann Wenner does now that he’s sold Rolling Stone Magazine? He sold his entire publishing business off in pieces.
I really don’t know. It really is a fascinating question that I think about a lot, because the premise of my book, and my belief and my knowledge, is that Rolling Stone was Jann’s identity for all this man. Imagine, you’re 21 years old and you’ve only done Rolling Stone your entire life. I mean, he’s done Us Weekly and other things, but Rolling Stone is what he, as he said, put Hunter on my tombstone not Brad Pitt. He wants that. It’s his legacy. That’s who he is.
You watched his health decline, the summary, he had a heart attack and other things happened to him. It was happening all at the time that Rolling Stone was going down the drain. There was definitely some kind of, I don’t know what you call that but your body reacting to your psychological and emotional condition. It was like as his time with Rolling Stone was deteriorating, he was deteriorating. It really is his identity. It’s why he couldn’t sell the thing in 2006 or 2008, when he had the opportunity, cash out for piles of money.
We totally forgot that, he could have sold the whole thing to Hearst, make him a billionaire.
Yeah, he could have been ...
Forgot that, that was another business decision ...
Yeah, yeah. He could have been huge and he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t let go because, and this is David Geffen who’s talking about this in the book, Jann was afraid he wouldn’t have any friends if he sold the whole thing, because this was his entire ...
If you don’t own Rolling Stone, if you don’t publish Rolling Stone, is Bruce Springsteen still going to hang out with you.
Exactly, he was worried that that was going to happen. Geffen’s like, “Oh, I’ve sold companies here and there. If they’re not your friends, they’re not your friends. Whatever, you only have two friends anyway in life, so just go on.” But Jann couldn’t. There was a kind of insecurity there, I think. It really was the moment that tested Jann’s identity, versus, do you want to be as rich as God and have a ton of money? Can you let go of this thing? In a way, it’s such a, God, a Shakespearean moment for me. It kind of plays that way in the book. Now, what we’re seeing since then is the result of that decision. It’s got a tragic element to it.
Yeah, it’s a tragic element, except he’s still going to have a really nice palace.
Yeah, tragic in that it’s tragic I guess for me because I, in my book, had followed him from the cradle. When I got to the end of my book, it was very emotional for me and very powerful for me. Even though there was all these reasons to dislike him or to think that Jann was a rapscallion, I could feel the end for him, in a way that he wasn’t even really expressing but I could see it happening to him. I could see behind his façade of, everything is great, which he always does anyway. He kind of poses as, like, everything is on the up.
You fake it till you make it.
Yeah, exactly. Fake it till you make it. But underneath, I was intuiting and had been around him enough to know that there was something really strongly upsetting to him.
And you had to like him, because even though, again, my guesstimate is 80 percent negative stuff, you spent four-plus years with him, plus part of your childhood, etc. You had to like him, otherwise you can’t do a project like that.
No, no. I did like him. There’s a level at which I liked him as a journalist, because I just found him so fascinating and at times absurd. There’s a guy named Earl McGrath in the book, who has a quote in there where he says, “There’s some people you like just because how terrible they are.” He was like, “Not that he’s terrible, but he does things where you say, ‘I would never dream of doing that.’ But he does it with such verve, you’ve just got to admire it.”
There is a level at which a lot of Jann’s friends feel that way about him. They see him being such a rapscallion, and they’re like, “Can you believe that Jann did that?” But they see, he’s got this Cheshire grin on his face at the end of the day, and he’s like, “What, me worry?” They just have to laugh.
So you guys are going to end up hanging out somewhere cool, eating or drinking or smoking something interesting, in a year or two.
You know, I will say this and I’ve been saying this, and it’s either wishful thinking or I don’t know what you want to call it but, I do believe he will come around to the book. But it will be for opportunistic reasons because it’s Jann Wenner. I’ll say what I think may happen if I were just to ...
Movie deal, because he’s the bottleneck on the whole thing. Imagine it was a TV show, like a “Mad Men” kind of thing, which kind of has that serialized vibe to it because he ran a serialized magazine. You get the sense, eventually people are going to come knocking on his door and say, “Hey, I know you’re ...”
This is a Netflix series.
Yeah, “You’re retired, how about you become executive producer of a giant Netflix show?” What’s he going to say? So maybe that softens the blow for him, I don’t know. But I also think the book stands, this is my declaration, okay?
Yeah, I want to hear it.
Yeah, I think the book stands as a real legacy for him, that it wouldn’t, if it had been the book he may have wanted, if it had turned out to be this, as Dwight Garner described it, this bust in the foyer of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that would not have been a legacy for him.
It’s a significant accomplishment. It’s 500 pages. We’ve spent an hour talking about it. We could keep talking about it. We’re going to end it here so you can go read it. Go buy “Sticky Fingers” by Joe Hagan. Joe, thanks for popping by.
Thank you for having me.
This was great fun.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.