Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Sticky Fingers

Sticky Fingers, by Joe Hagan
No month stated, 2017  Knopf

I remember when this book came out a few years ago; the most notable thing about it was that writer Joe Hagan, who had personally been asked by Rolling Stone honcho Jann Wenner to write the definitive history of the magazine, had turned in a book so displeasing to Wenner that Wenner cut off all ties with Hagan, disavowing the book (and going on to write his own autobiography). Reading the 547-page doorstop that is Sticky Fingers, one can understand Wenner’s displeasure. While the book starts off on relatively sound footing, it soon becomes apparent that Joe Hagan’s goal is to write a modern-day The Lives Of John Lennon (a book that he even references in the text): a malicious attempt at cutting down his subject. But, as with Albert Goldman’s much-detested biography of John Lennon, the subject of Sticky Fingers ultimately comes off as okay – it’s the biographer who comes off like the bad guy. 

Sticky Fingers is at least shorter than Goldman’s epic of a character assassination, but it’s no less vindictive. What’s interesting is that the first half of the book seems relatively even-toned, until the knives come out in the second half. But, at least for this reader, the cumulative effect was that I became sympathetic to Jann Wenner. For, like Goldman in his Lennon bio, it soon becomes clear that, while Joe Hagan has interviewed many people for his book, he has only used their negative comments about Wenner. Just as The Lives Of John Lennon gave the impression that John Lennon was a marginally-talented narcissist who only stumbled into success through luck, so too does Sticky Fingers convey that Jann Wenner is a “star-fucker” and “groupie” who managed to run the definining magazine of his generation only by luck. 

The frustrating thing is that I was looking forward to the book. I’ve long been interested in the very early Rolling Stone, and over the years have picked up several original issues, the majority of the mass market paperback anthologies, and also in 2007 I got the Rolling Stone: Cover To Cover CD-Rom, which features every page of every issue from the first one up through 2007. I also picked up two earlier “unauthorized histories” of Rolling Stone: Robert Sam Anson’s 1981 book Gone Crazy And Back Again, and Robert Draper’s 1990 book Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History, neither of which I’ve read. I’ve also picked up – and reviewed here – a few roman a clef novels about Rolling StoneRising Higher and Angel Dust

All of which is to say I’m very interested in Rolling Stone, at least the first several years of it, though I admit I lose interest once the ‘70s become the ‘80s and beyond. Reading Sticky Fingers, though, never once did I get the impression that Joe Hagan has ever liked Rolling Stone, and nowhere in the book does he capture the magic of flipping through those early issues of the magazine, the newspaper so brittle from the years as to split in half as you turn the page, to find nigh-endless interviews with rock personalities of the day, epic album reviews, psychedelic art, various feature stories, “dope world” communiques, and occasionally even poetry. There is a definite magic to the first ten or so years of Rolling Stone, and it’s clear why readers of the day “grokked” it, but Hagan can’t be bothered to tell us that. Indeed, when he does comment on the magazine, it’s in a derogatory or mocking tone. 

However, it’s to Hagan’s credit that about 85% of the book focuses on the ‘60s and ‘70s. Indeed, the ‘90s and ‘00s only take up a few pages at the very end of the book. This is because the ‘60s and ‘70s were the prime years of the magazine, something everyone acknowledges. And too, Hagan does provide the occasional interesting backstory about some of the more famous stories from the magazine’s golden years, some of which had me accessing my CD-Rom to check them out. But one wonders if this same behind-the-scenes info is also in Anson’s and Draper’s books. 

For the most part, though, Sticky Fingers is a biography of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner…but, just as Albert Goldman’s Lennon bio was also about Yoko Ono, so too is Sticky Fingers also about co-founder Jane Wenner, aka Jann’s wife. (And a quite attractive wife at that, if you don’t mind a little toxic masculinity with your review.) As I say, it’s pretty incredible how similar Sticky Fingers and The Lives Of John Lennon are. We even start at Wenner’s childhood, with the same focus on Wenner’s mother as there was on Lennon’s mother in that other book – with the caveat that Hagan is much more enamored with Wenner’s mom than I was, as she comes off as the epitome of the self-involved “upper crust” narcissist. I did appreciate Hagan’s subtext (possibly unintentional, though) that Wenner’s mother decided late in life that she was a lesbian, just as Jann Wenner himself came out as gay later in his own life. 

While I have not read those earlier Rolling Stone exposes, one thing I know they both agree on is that Jann Wenner was not the best of bosses, sort of enjoying the high life with rock royalty and leaving his employees to do the brunt of the work. To which I say, “Who gives a shit?” Honestly, this sort of ignorace about the working world baffles me…it’s like these biographers have never had a real job outside of the journalism industry and don’t understand that this is essentially how it works in the corporate world. So yes, there’s a fair bit of bitching from Rolling Stone employees new and old, but again the humorous thing is, no one would know who any of these people are if they hadn’t worked for Rolling Stone in the first place. But then the same sentiment can be extended to Joe Hagan himself – I’d never heard of the guy previous to this book. 

Writing-wise, Hagan does for the most part keep his narrative moving, but the passive-aggressive tone soon becomes wearying. He also writes in that pretentious style favored by modern journalists; back in the ‘90s I remember getting a subscription to Esquire due to a bunch of frequent flyer miles, and I was immediately turned off by the highfalutin, desperately-trying-to-sound important writing style throughout. Unsurprisingly, Joe Hagan writes in that exact style, doling out sentences like, “When Simon and Garfunkel came to San Francisco to play the Community Theater in Berkeley in May 1966, they made a special trip to Berkeley to meet Ralph Gleason, whose collection of Lenny Bruce recordings, bequeathed to him by Bruce himself, was highly prized samizdat.” To paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy: If you use words like “samizdat,” you might be a pretentious twat. Especially if it’s in a sentence that also has “Simon and Garfunkel” in it! 

As in Goldman’s Lennon-bashery, from the beginning of this epic tale we are to understand that Jann Wenner had no real part in anything that made Rolling Stone great, and any success he enjoyed was either due to someone else’s idea or due to a fluke. So then the origin of Rolling Stone itself is framed as Wenner perhaps ripping off some other underground magazines of the day, then straight-up using the printing plates designed for a defunct paper. Only occasionally will Hagan admit that Wenner might have come up with a good idea on his own, but just as soon as we’re told something positive, Hagan will undercut it with a biting comment – he does this throughout the book, increasingly so as we get a few hundred pages in. Again and again, any time we are told of a good deed Wenner has done, or any time someone else makes a positive comment about him, there will be a single-line sentence that undercuts Wenner. For example: 

Travolta was pleased [with Wenner’s screen test for a featured part in Travolta’s 1985 movie Perfect]. He characterized Wenner’s second screen test “one of the best I’ve ever seen…I’ve never seen a beast like this one on celluloid before.” 

At least that’s what he said in his “actor’s notebook” that Wenner published in Rolling Stone. 

Just like that, throughout the damn book. Speaking of Lennon, Sticky Fingers is even framed around him, opening in 1970 – well after Rolling Stone had become a success – with Jann and Jane Wenner enjoying a brief friendship with John and Yoko. We get the insider scoop that Wenner, despite Lennon’s specific demand, published Lennon’s long interview with the magazine as a book, Lennon Remembers, and Lennon never forgave him for it. Obviously a jerky move, but then again one could see Wenner’s point – the interview would have been the property of the magazine, for Wenner to do with as he pleased. Speaking of which, we get a lot of legal wrangling between Wenner and Mick Jagger over the use of “Rolling Stone,” with Jagger incensed in the early days that it infringed on his band’s name; wranglings which humorously took decades to be worked out between the two men. One wonders how Jagger feels now that this book, too, “rips of” the Stones for its title – but even then, “Sticky Fingers” is a lame title, as it has no real bearing on anything…other than being yet another dig at Jann Wenner, implying that his career has been the result of “sticky finger” thievery and backstabbing. 

Despite being 500+ pages, Sticky Fingers is very shallow in the research department. Again, it’s all written about on the surface level of an Esquire article. We’ll get cursory overviews of some of the more famous pieces that ran in Rolling Stone, maybe a little behind the scenes stuff…but that’s it. There’s no mention whatsoever of more minor figures from the magazine’s early days: no J.R. Young, no Smokestack El Ropo. Not a single mention of either of them – nor any confirmation of my pet theory that early contributor “Elmo Rooney” might have been Steve Martin, who literally portrayed Elmo Rooney in the ultra-weird Rolling Stone 10th Anniversary TV Special. (“Elmo Rooney” was probably really Charles Perry, who was also “Smokestack El Ropo,” but still – it’s a fun idea.) 

One of the things that drew Wenner’s ire upon the publication of this book is Hagan’s strange obsession with Wenner’s sexuality. In a way I can appreciate it, though…I mean Hagan has at least tried to cater to a “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” ethic. But the obsession with Wenner’s latent homosexuality and how it shaped Rolling Stone in its early days – even subconsciously! – gets to be as wearying as the constant single-sentence barbs. Indeed, coupled with Hagan’s other obsession (namely, the insinuation in Keith Richard’s autobiography that Mick Jagger has a small penis – something Hagan refers to several times in this book!), the reader begins to wonder if there’s a little “latency” in Hagan himself. Actually this might explain the increasingly vicious tone the book appropriates toward Wenner. 

On that same note, Hagan is really, really bothered that Rolling Stone was essentially “by white men for white men.” Of course, the white population of the United States was around 90% in 1970, but who cares about such trivialities – I mean Jann Wenner should’ve catered at least a little to the nascent albino trans population, for crying out loud! How dare he go for the majority of the population? I mean what was he, a businessman or something?? But boy, we do get a lot of today’s mandatory white male-bashing; Hagan most seems to be bothered by Joe Eszterhas, who wrote for Rolling Stone in the early ‘70s before heading to Hollywood. Hagan has it that Eszterhas was not only a chauvinist but that he also plain made up most of his stories. To which I say big woop; this is no different than what writers were doing over at the Men’s Adventure Magazines of the day. Kudos to Eszterhas for pulling it off in a more “respectable” periodical. Hagan also mentions that Eszterhas liked to carry around a buck knife, which he’d lay down on the table when in heated discussions in the editorial room – a WTF? note that made me laugh out loud. I think I’m gonna start doing that at the office. 

Hagan is so focused on his white male-bashing that he misses the forest for the trees. For, despite being “by white men for white men,” there were indeed women and “people of color” (in the modern parlance) at Rolling Stone, even in the earliest days. Chief among them would be Robin Green, the first female reporter, and Ben Fong-Torres, a Chinese journalist who was one of the main contributors for years and years. So hey, right there – opportunities for Hagan to expound upon “muh diversity.” 

But in another laugh-out-loud miss on Hagan’s part, we’re told that Robin Green was Jann Wenner’s “resident assassin,” the reporter Wenner would send when he wanted a hit piece on someone, and not really good for much else. And Fong-Torres was even worse, notorious for snooping through the personal belongings of his subjects and also publishing personal material in his stories – like stuff taken directly from a private notebook he spied in someone’s house. And it’s humorous – no doubt unintentionally so – that Hagan does essentially the very same thing in this book! According to Rolling Stone veteran Greil Marcus, Hagan took a particular story Marcus had given him about Jann Wenner and distorted it to make Wenner look bad; Marcus further declared Sticky Fingers to be a “vile” book. 

Anyway, while there was some precious “muh diversity” at Rolling Stone, even in the beginning, apparently Green and Fong-Torres weren’t the best representatives…or something. It just made me laugh, particularly given how incensed Hagan was at Jann Wenner’s race-and-gender faux pas in 2023, more on which anon. 

Despite all attempts to make him appear spineless and craven, Wenner still comes off in a positive light…in particular in a flap in the Rolling Stone offices after the publication of the Altamont special, in 1970. This was, in Hagan’s dramatic telling, a watershed moment in the paper’s origin, as the radical leftists in Wenner’s employ demanded that their boss trounce Mick Jagger for his part in the debacle and death at that festival…pushing Wenner to defy his “groupie” image and go after Mick Jagger himself. Wenner did so…after which, in typical fashion, the radical leftists wanted more: they wanted Rolling Stone to become overtly political, and essentially staged a coup. In a move modern-day executives at Disney and Boeing and etc should learn from, Wenner stood his ground and kicked the radical fuckers out. And Rolling Stone went on to its greatest success in the ‘70s, while those fired radicals faded into the woodwork. Certainly there is a lesson there, but Joe Hagan misses it…perhaps intentionally so. 

Otherwise the mistakes are for the most part minor, like when Hagan tells us that “the first Steve Miller Band album” was Sailor, when in reality it was Children Of The Future. Since stuff like this is admitedly outside the scope of the book, it’s forgiveable. But the goofs about Rolling Stone are a bit harder to swallow, given that this is supposed to be the “definitive story” – I mean, like on page 414 we get a scant few paragraphs on Tom Wolfe’s serialized Bonfire Of The Vanities, which ran for 27 installments in the mid-1980s in Rolling Stone. Not even broaching the plot or telling us much at all about the story or its reception, Hagan informs us that the protagonist is “a Wall Street trader,” Hagan unsurprisingly using the character as an opportunity to take yet another swipe at Wenner, lending the impression that Wolfe was serving up a veiled parody of his editor. There’s only one problem. In the original Rolling Stone serialization, protagonist Sherman McCoy was a writer. It was in the heavily-revised hardcover edition of the novel, published in 1987, that Tom Wolfe changed the protagonist to a Wall Street trader. Hagan has gotten this detail wrong. Which makes one wonder how much else in Sticky Fingers he’s gotten wrong. 

The appearance of Hunter Thompson at Rolling Stone after the Altamont issue was another factor that took the paper to its success, and Hagan writes of the increasingly fractious relationship between Thompson and Wenner. But otherwise there isn’t much here about Hunter Thompson that’s revelatory; I mean he comes on strong, burns out quick, and is soon a shell of his former self. At least this is how he’s presented here; Hagan has it that none of Thompson’s work after the mid-‘70s is worth the paper it was printed on. We do at least get another dig at Joe Eszterhas here, this time from Eszterhas himself (who likely regretted talking to Hagan, given how Hagan made Eszterhas come off in the book), who claims he tried to emulate Hunter Thompson. This is clear just from reading Eszterhas’s pieces, in particular one of his last stories, the infamous “King Of The Goons” hit-piece on Evel Kneivel. 

There’s no denying Rolling Stone lost much of what made it special as the ‘70s wore on, and by the point in Haggan’s narrative where the magazine becane a slick and moved to New York my interest had waned – as had Joe Hagan’s. The ‘80s-‘00s are for the most part rushed through in a few hundred pages, or should I say I skimmed through a lot of it. I’ve never had time for Bruce Springsteen or Bono, and Jann Wenner was a big fan of both, hence there’s a lot of stuff about the two of them which I skipped. That said, the cover of “Blinded By The Light” by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band is one of my favorite songs ever. I couldn’t care less what the Springsteen original sounds like.  Otherwise we just get a litany against Wenner for all the things Hagan accuses him of missing as the century neared its his reluctance to feature rap in the magazine, or how he missed out on the importance of MTV.  Yawn

As mentioned as the book goes on the knives increasingly come out, and we get a lot of stuff about Jann Wenner lying to people, or enjoying the high life while his poor employees must scrimp and save, or how he’d take credit for articles others worked on. Again, yawn. (Which rhymes with “Jann!”) We also get too much on Wenner’s sex life, with the curious tidbit that it’s his affairs with men that Joe Hagan most focuses on. (Hmmmm….) On the female front it sounds like the guy did pretty good for himself – I was especially impressed by his involvement with none other than Mary Microgram of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test, a book I read 30 years ago and keep meaning to read again. Aka Denise Kaufman, she was also in the all-female group Ace Of Cups, which was a favorite of Jimi Hendrix. 

But the absolute nadir of Sticky Fingers is the Afterword, in which Joe Hagan essentially pats himself on the back for not turning in the hagiography Jann Wenner apparently expected. And how does Hagan know Wenner expected such a thing? Why – because Wenner would take Hagan to concerts! And Wenner gave him Rolling Stone merchandise…a-and he even gave him the complete mono vinyl set of the Beatles discography as gifts! And Wenner showed Hagan photos of rockstars from Wenner’s personal collection! I mean, the craven bastard!! No wonder Joe Hagan felt justified in sharpening his knives and cutting that fucker up good! Seriously though, this last part is just unbelievable in its lack of self-perception; totally unaware of the ill-will he is engendering in his reader, Hagan basically congratulates himself on the great job he’s done with this book – and he’s also eager to tell us how Jann Wenner stopped talking to him after Wenner read the manuscript, shortly before it went to press. For Hagan stipulated that Wenner would not be able to make any edits to the book – cue another round of self-congratulations for this incredibly wise decision. 

Ah, but if you thought the knives were out in Sticky Fingers, just check out this hit piece from the September 2023 Vanity Fair. So in September of 2023 Jann Wenner published a new book titled The Masters, focused on seven rockers who in Wenner’s estimation were “masters” of the art – and Wenner had the absolute fucking gall to only write about white men. The horror!! In an interview with the pathetic New York Times Wenner further stated that “performers of color” were outside his area of focus, and further – gasp! – he said that female performers weren’t articulte enough in the rock field, or somesuch. 

There was much weeping and gnashing of teeth in the virtue-signalling world of modern journalism. Joe Hagan’s glee at finally getting to really dig into Jann Wenner is almost palpable in this Vanity Fair piece. 

The thing is…well, first of all, Jann Wenner has every right to say what he wants, and if I wore a hat I’d take it off for him, just for how he demonstrated the courage of his convictions. A rare sight indeed in today’s emasculated era. But Jann Wenner has the right to say what he wants because of the little fact that we live in the United States, and we have freedom of speech here. The PC Thugs of Hagan’s industry think they are arbiters of what is “permissible” speech. FUCK THEM. Jann Wenner is free to say whatever he wants, even if it ruffles feathers. If he is guilty of anything it is apologizing for his comments. Curiously, for a bunch of so-called “liberal” types who “just want to breathe,” these modern-day progressives are like sharks with blood in the water when they detect any weakness in their enemies. The woke battlefield is littered with the corpses of famous personalities who have said something “wrong,” apologized for it – and then been cancelled. Jann Wenner is just the latest example. If there is one lesson from any of this, it is never to apologize to the foaming-mouth radicals, and only to fight back. Sadly, only a very few understand this. Jann Wenner himself once understood this…like when he fired those in-house radicals in 1970. 

But the other thing is, Wenner really isn’t in bad company. I’m not sure if he’s been cancelled yet (which could be easy because he’s dead and not around to defend himself), but in 1948 the poet Robert Graves in his book The White Goddess put forward the notion that women could not be poets, that only men could truly write poetry; women, in Graves’s philosopy, were instead the muses who inspired poets. Thus in Graves’s estimation the only poets with a “voice” were men. This, essentially, is the same proposition Jann Wenner has put forward about rock music. And I can’t say I disagree with him. Obviously there are exceptions – glaring exceptions at that – but for the most part rock music is the product of white males. Sure, rock originated from rhythm and blues played by black musicians in the early 20th Century…just as much as it originated from the country music played by white musicians in that same era. But what it came to be – what most people think of when they think of “rock” – was mainly the work of white males in the 1960s and 1970s. Sort of like how Buddhism began in India…I mean, do you think of a person from India when you think of a Buddhist? 

And besides, all this race and gender identity politics bullshit is a modern obsession. Back in the glory days of rock, the musicians didn’t make a big deal out of being white, or being male, and nor did the listeners. Hell, if you listen to the Freeform Progressive Rock Radio of the era, you’ll notice that there was just as much soul and blues played as there was rock. But we live in an era of race obsession, no matter how absurd, thus Jann Wenner’s comments struck such a nerve. 

But then I could have just linked to Greil Marcus’s superbly-argued defense of Wenner.

Personally I think Wenner shouldn’t have backed down…and in fact his “faux pas” was another indication of how he has an innate sense of knowing the direction things are going. Fortunately, we are currently seeing pushback against race and identity-focused ideologies, particularly against companies that espouse these ideologies. As it turns out, most Americans don’t like being told how to think; Hagan’s industry is crumbling as a result of people cancelling their subscriptions to these woke propaganda outlets. In my mind, Jann Wenner’s only mistake was that he didn’t retain control of Rolling Stone and take the tone of the magazine into more of a populist direction. After all, the underground of today is the right. The left has become the establishment. In the ‘60s the FBI targeted hippies; today the FBI targets grandmothers who took selfies at the Capitol. And curiously a lot of those former hippies are now Trump supporters. Even I know a few people my age whose parents were hippies back in the ‘60s but who are now MAGA Republicans…and I hardly know anyone, so you have to wonder how many of them there really are out there. Rolling Stone, just as it had once before, could have become the voice of this new underground. 

If you think that sounds crazy, just remember that Donald Trump was himself once a Democrat. 

I bring up the dreaded topic of Trump because Joe Hagan himself does, in the closing pages of Sticky Fingers. We are told that Wenner was “interested” in Trump’s 2016 candidacy – cue more hue and cry from Hagan, who again displays his coastal ignorance by telling us that those dim-witted Trump supporters only vote for Trump because he’s famous. (FYI, they aren’t voting for him because he’s “famous.”) In Hagan’s mind, Donald Trump is the epitome of the fame-obsessed narcissism Jann Wenner has long been enamored with; there follows the most superficial appraisement of Trump that…well, it gives one an indication of why most Americans are so ill-informed, if they’re getting their “news” from people like this writer. 

This book upset me so much that I actually looked online for a way to contact Jann Wenner somehow, to let him know Sticky Fingers was just a stupid hatchet job and “nothing to get hung up about.” It’s just a vicious screed that ultimately makes the writer look like the bad guy, without showing any true understanding of its subject – again, the similarities to Goldman’s Lennon bio are many and profound. And no doubt the fates of both books will be similar. Hagan seems to have a premonition of how his own book will be treated by history: toward the end of Sticky Fingers he mentions how upset Jann Wenner was with Goldman’s The Lives Of John Lennon when it was published in 1988, commissioning a rebuttal in the pages of Rolling Stone…yet Hagan notes it was all for naught, as Goldman’s book was “destined to be forgotten.”  Surely the same fate has already befallen Sticky Fingers

My only regret in reviewing Sticky Fingers is that I’m giving the book any visibility. So I guess I read it so you don’t have to. But if you do get the urge to read it, try getting it from your library – or maybe order a cheap remaindered copy on Checking there now, it seems there are a ton of such copies available for a pittance. Which is about all this “vile” book is worth.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Rolling Stone totally ignored punk and American Underground bands when they were happening in the 70's and 80's. Instead they put The Grateful Dead on the cover like it was still 1968 (If they had Moby Grape, the best of the SF bands, on the cover in the 80's, then I wouldn't have minded).
REM refused to be interviewed for RS due to this very reason.
Some of the most groundbreaking and exciting music was ignored by this magazine when it was released. Shameful.