Cool Story, Bro

A new book and two-part documentary litigate the legacy of Jann Wenner and “Rolling Stone” magazine


When did your 1960s begin? Mine started in 2000, with the release of Almost Famous, the movie that launched a thousand aspiring rock critics and kicked off my fervent search for an ankle-length brown suede coat with shearling lining. For Jann Wenner, the founding editor of Rolling Stone — the subject of both a dishy new book by Joe Hagan and a celebratory two-part HBO documentary directed by Alex Gibney and Blair Foster — the mythic decade began when he launched his little rock ’n’ roll newspaper in 1967. It kept going for the next fifty years.

A glance at the introduction to Hagan’s Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine immediately clarifies why the author and his subject are no longer on speaking terms. The book is not just the story of “the San Francisco fanboy who had bottled the counterculture.” It’s a subtle indictment of a generation that created a throbbing, groundbreaking cultural scene — and wouldn’t let us forget it. The story Hagan sets up is one of a shrewd and pathologically ambitious young man who saw dollar signs in the bloodshot eyes of Haight-Ashbury hippies, a devoted fan of the music energizing youth culture in the late 1960s who built his legacy the American way: by monetizing a movement that swore itself immune to the forces of capitalism.

Despite this often unflattering portrait of a drug-addled social climber eager to gain access to both the halls of power and the pants of rock stars, Sticky Fingers is a testament to Wenner’s greatest strength as an editor and publisher: his skill at finding the right writer for the right subject, and his willingness to let the writer tell the story as he (and of course it’s a he) sees it. Constructed from more than a hundred hours of conversation with Wenner himself, 240 interviews with towering figures like Annie Leibovitz, David Geffen, and Keith Richards, and Wenner’s private stash of letters, photographs, and other documents, Sticky Fingers is a thorough going-over of Wenner and his epic magazine. It’s also a sharp survey of America’s golden age of print journalism and a bracingly unsentimental study of how the 1960s became a booming business before the decade had even ended. As Tom Wolfe, one of the magazine’s most important writers, described Sixties youth culture in 1987, “For the first time in the history of man, young people had the money, the personal freedom, and the free time to build monuments and pleasure palaces to their own tastes.”

A gay man who remained married to a woman — Jane, with whom he co-founded Rolling Stone — for more than forty years, Wenner embodies the intoxicating contradictions of “the Sixties.” Far from flattering Wenner’s well-documented ego, Hagan offers up his subject’s grinning portrait as target practice for young radicals today: Here is the smug face of the man who made history by shamelessly milking the personalities that powered the cultural revolution, before retreating to his mansion with a pile of blow and a gaggle of boldfaced names. Wenner’s great triumph wasn’t just to cement Rolling Stone in the landscape of mainstream media, but to cast the magazine’s goal of profitability and middle-of-the-road success as just another part of the dream, as American as Hendrix shredding “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

It’s clearly not the portrait Wenner was hoping for; he’s called the book “tawdry,” an ironic complaint for a man who once instructed his star photographer to make Linda Ronstadt look like a “Tijuana whore.” 2017 was supposed to be Wenner’s victory lap, until he had a heart attack, broke a hip, and was forced to put his baby up for sale. Then came the release of this book, which was intended to cement his place in the publishing pantheon alongside his heroes Henry Luce and William Randolph Hearst. Instead, Hagan compares the 71-year-old media baron to Donald Trump, another “deeply narcissistic [man] for whom celebrity is the ultimate confirmation of existence. At one time, Jann S. Wenner wanted to be president, too.”

No, Wenner was looking for someone to get down on his knees, and with HBO’s Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge, Gibney and Foster oblige him. The two-part documentary, airing over Monday and Tuesday nights, isn’t really about Rolling Stone; it’s a four-hour documentary version of the magazine, right down to the trademark curvy Rolling Stone font and red underlining of the onscreen text. Gibney and Foster pull a handful of the magazine’s more prominent stories from over its fifty-year history and basically excerpt them along with some iconic Rolling Stone photography and concert footage from rock stars like Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen, and, of course, the Rolling Stones. It’s a celebration of the impeccable taste and editorial judgment of Jann Wenner, a tender circle jerk set to a soundtrack of boomer delights.

Stories From the Edge, which touches only briefly on Wenner’s own background, tells a much different story than Sticky Fingers. Gibney and Foster make a meal of his involvement in the Berkeley student protests of 1964 — a Berkeley student himself, Wenner was a stringer for NBC and can be seen in the background of an iconic photo of Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio being yanked off the steps of the university’s Greek Theater. But, echoing Savio’s famed “bodies upon the gears” speech, Hagan writes that Wenner’s “true convictions lay with the ‘apparatus’ of NBC News” and reports that when police started to beat and arrest protesters at a sit-in at the Sheraton-Palace Hotel, Wenner ran away.

The doc includes another anecdote that turns up in Hagan’s book, about the time Wenner called a seventeen-year-old Cameron Crowe into his San Francisco office and urged him to write more critically about the bands he so clearly worshipped. “That’s a real editor and a publisher,” Crowe — who would go on to write and direct Almost Famous, a tribute to his formative years as a teenage rock critic — marvels. But, in the book, these kinds of stories are absolutely dwarfed by tales of Wenner’s own legendary starfuckery (Hagan reports that record producer Marshall Chess “said Wenner fawned over Jagger like any female groupie he’d ever known”). The documentary includes a segment on Michael Hastings’s 2010 exposé of General Stanley McChrystal, in which Hastings is held forth as a dogged reporter who got the story by refusing to cozy up to people in power. True as this may be, Stories From the Edge ironically fails to mention that Wenner built his empire largely by cozying up to people in power, often in exchange for favorable coverage within the pages of Rolling Stone.

The documentary, particularly the second half, devotes most of its time to exploring hard-hitting features like the McChrystal story and the Jimmy Swaggart prostitution scandal of the 1980s — stories largely absent from Hagan’s account of Rolling Stone’s history. (Hagan reports that Rolling Stone’s pivotal 1970 issue, which was devoted to the infamous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, came together without any involvement from Wenner, who was totally in thrall to Mick Jagger. Wenner insists the issue was his idea, although, Hagan writes, “nobody would remember it this way.”) While Gibney and Foster focus on the magazine’s big scoops, Hagan describes Wenner’s push to market Rolling Stone as a general-interest publication, along with his increasing reliance on star power, following the mag’s move to New York in the late 1970s.

Stories From the Edge actually obscures Wenner’s lasting influence on magazine journalism; at one point, writer Vanessa Grigoriadis talks about her 2008 cover story on Britney Spears and the hypersexualizing of teen idols of the 2000s. But Gibney and Foster completely overlook how Wenner — who learned from the pioneering rock journalist Gloria Stavers to unbutton the top button of rock stars’ pants before taking their pictures — played an outsize role in shaping our sexed-up view of what a popular musician should look like. Spears, Grigoriadis notes, “collided with the height of paparazzi culture,” but nowhere does the documentary mention that even before Wenner bought Us Weekly in 1986, he was, as Hagan writes, “reframing rock ’n’ roll as a celebrity culture like any before it.”

In the end, I guess all that matters is who gets to tell your story. Hagan has the full picture, but you have to read all these words to discover it, and isn’t it easier to flip on HBO and let the groovy images wash over you as you sway to Dylan? Look, there’s Gus Wenner, Jann’s son and heir to his legacy, meeting with editors in a fancy boardroom. (Hagan: “A quick study, the twenty-five-year-old started by firing a dozen staffers.”) If Stories From the Edge is a glittering monument to Jann Wenner’s great idea, Sticky Fingers is a testament to the kind of deeply reported, stylish long-form writing that Wenner’s great idea made possible, for a while anyway. The future of the 10,000-word gonzo feature may look bleak, but the Wenner family seems to be doing all right.

Yeah, maybe I’m bitter. If Wenner’s career was powered by money and drugs and ruthless ambition, my cohort has mostly gotten by on panic and retweets. Forgive me if I’m not in the mood to celebrate the genius of the insatiable male ego; it’s been a rough year. “Move fast and break things” sounds great, doesn’t it, until everything’s fucking broken. I think the Sixties are officially over.