Day 6

Sex, drugs and rock 'n roll: The life and times of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner

Journalist Joe Hagan spent four years interviewing Jann Wenner, the co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine, for a biography Wenner has now disavowed.
Rolling Stone / 50 Years special exhibition at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum on August 30, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Duane Prokop/Getty Images)
Listen20:30

By Brent Bambury

In 1994, former Beatle John Lennon was to be posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Jann Wenner wanted Paul McCartney to make the induction speech. Wenner, owner and co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine, was also one of the moguls who created and curates the Hall of Fame. He rang up McCartney and made his pitch.
Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner and Yoko Ono attend the "John Lennon: The New York City Years" exhibit at Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Annex NYC in 2009. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

"I said, 'Yeah, sure'," McCartney recalls.  "I put the phone down, and I thought, 'What about me?' The thing about John Lennon- McCartney is we were all equal."

According to McCartney, Wenner didn't want to induct them together, so he made a verbal agreement to honour McCartney the next year. But in 1995, when the nominees were announced, McCartney was shocked. Once again, he'd been excluded.

"I rang Jann and said 'I'm getting all the papers, I don't appear to be in it. You fucking bastard'."

"We had a deal."

   

Controlling the narrative

Paul McCartney is one of the hundreds of sources journalist Joe Hagan spoke to during the four years he spent researching and writing Sticky Fingers, a comprehensive and eye-popping biography of Jann Wenner.

As a subject, Wenner is unwieldy and skittish, and eager to wrest control.

He wanted to be at the center of the action and be accepted and to do so, especially in rock 'n' roll, you had to be heterosexual.- Joe Hagan, author, Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine

"I was wary of Wenner because of his reputation in the business," Hagan writes. Wenner pulled out of two previous attempts to produce an authorized biography.  For Sticky Fingers, Hagan was able to safeguard his editorial control, and Wenner, 71, co-operated, sharing documents, facilitating interviews, and talking at length to his biographer.

But at the end of the summer, when Wenner read the completed manuscript, the relationship fell apart. Now, as the book is heading for a Tuesday release, Hagan and Wenner are not speaking.

On Day 6, I asked Joe Hagan what happened.

"What happened is," he says, "I wrote a true story."

Musician Mick Jagger and Ahmet Ertegun induct Jann Wenner at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 2004 in New York City. (Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

    

A closeted man was the gatekeeper of rock 'n' roll

The story charts Wenner's rise in publishing, the stellar and near-instant success of Rolling Stone, its years of influence and years of affluence. Wenner's emotional life follows a different trajectory. An insecure child of divorce, a social climber, hungry for celebrity, and eager to charm, he's a scorch mark of ambition.

"Brilliant, vulgar, courageous, cruel," Hagan writes.

He's also gay and for decades he was closeted. From 1967-1995, Wenner was married to Jane Schindelheim, which Hagan says brought a form of stability to his commitment to Rolling Stone.

Listen, a closeted man was the gatekeeper of rock 'n' roll for twenty seven odd years. That's the story, and I couldn't not write it.- Joe Hagan, author,  Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine

"She was a full partner," Hagan says.

"She became really important for him socially. She was a social navigator for him, a salon host for him, and a lot of people who felt burned by him went to her — Hunter Thompson, Annie Leibovitz — these people would have conflicts with Jann. And to keep them in the tent of the Rolling Stone club there was Jane who would draw them in and give them, you know, comfort."

Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner attends Rolling Stone Magazine's 1000th cover celebration May 04, 2006 in New York. (Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

Wenner's wife knew that he'd had at least one affair with a man.

"It wasn't a conventional sort of love," Hagan says.

"He wanted badly to fit in, even well before the magazine started," says Hagan.

"He wanted to be at the center of the action and be accepted and to do so, especially in rock 'n' roll, you had to be heterosexual. It was a macho culture. And so, for Jann it was important to have a cover."

Wenner finally comes out publicly in 1995, ending his marriage to Jane Wenner, who in spite of her knowledge of his sexual ambiguity is devastated by the divorce.

The focus on his sexual identity and his reluctance to come out could explain Wenner's decision to distance himself from Hagan's book.

"I wrote a story that got into parts of his life that I don't think he even spent a lot of time thinking about," Hagan says.

"So when he read it — it is 500 pages long and it drills into every aspect of his life — I think he probably didn't like the image that was looking back at him from the book."

"He thinks the whole book's tawdry, doesn't like all the sex stuff. But listen, a closeted man was the gatekeeper of rock 'n' roll for twenty seven odd years. That's the story, and I couldn't not write it."

A copy of Rolling Stone magazine is displayed on a shelf at Smoke Signals newsstand on September 18, 2017 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
    

End of the empire

Hagan's book comes as Wenner is trying to sell his stake in Rolling Stone, something Wenner declined to do when the magazine had much more value. Wenner's health has deteriorated, and so has the health of his magazine.

This is a huge life. This guy lived this. Rolling Stone is the expression of a man who, like it, was at the center of the action for five decades.- Joe Hagan, author,  Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine

In late 2014, a massive journalistic failure blighted the reputation of Rolling Stone. A published story of a campus rape at the University of Virginia fell apart under basic fact-checking.

Hagan writes: "Rolling Stone had done almost no due diligence regarding the alleged incident."

"Wenner's reputation was in flames."

I asked Hagan if he felt his biography of Wenner helps or hurts the sale of the troubled publication.

"I don't know if it has an effect, but I if I were to guess I would say help, and I think because maybe people forgot what Rolling Stone means and they forgot what its legacy is and what the power of it was and why it happened."

 

    

Hagan says the magazine doesn't look like a good investment today.

"Their sales books are saying they have $10 million a year in revenue which, if you know anything about the magazine business, it means they're under water."

There's more to the magazine than a bottom line. Rolling Stone's 50th anniversary on November 9th marks a half century of publication, a brand that was built largely on the ego and drive of one person and his cherished ability to get close to the giants of rock 'n' roll, politics and journalism.

"Their lives are huge", says Hagan.

And so was Wenner's.

"This is a huge life. This guy lived this. Rolling Stone is the expression of a man who, like it, was at the center of the action for five decades."

"But it's never going to mean what it meant when Jann Wenner was the owner."

    

To enter our contest: if you would like to enter our contest to win a copy of Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone, email Day6@cbc.ca — with "Sticky Fingers" in the subject line — and tell us who was on the cover of the first issue of Rolling Stone. Good luck!


To hear the full interview with Joe Hagan, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.