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Hip Capitalist Journalism – A Book Review

December 25, 2017

How Rolling Stone and its editor got rich on the 1960s counterculture

I just resurfaced from reading 500 pages of a new biography on Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner. It’s called Sticky Fingers and my fingers are definitely feeling sticky. In fact, I feel icky all over after learning who Wenner has been all these years: unpleasant, greedy, boastful, untrustworthy, a cheat, and it goes on and on. This wasn’t a book about the music that would set you free, but about the magazine that would make Wenner rich.

I was astounded to read in the Afterword to Joe Hagan’s romp through the boy wonder’s life that Wenner actually gave permission to publish it. What does this tell us about the book? Sadly, it confirms Wenner’s dictum that all publicity is good publicity. But it also exposes him and his magazine, one that I read as voraciously as anyone in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as a suspect document. What, then, can we believe from this money-craving wunderkind, this California dreamer whose dream was always and only to get rich quick and stay that way no matter what the cost?

Hagan gives us the skinny, or the Random Notes, on the magazine and its various hangers-on, groupies, and wannabes. He praises the writing, editing and graphic skills that eventually raised RS to a circulation sometimes topping a million. He also shows Wenner to be a good, perhaps even a great, editor. He had his finger on the countercultural pulse and tested its boundaries to the limit, testing his own limits for drug abuse along the way.

Wenner gave us Hunter S. Thompson, Annie Leibowitz, Cameron Crowe, Jon Landau, David Felton, and a literal who’s who of topnotch journalists throughout the magazine’s 50 years. But he seems to have been bad at almost everything outside RS. He was not a particularly shrewd businessman, nor was he a good employer, firing many staff members several times over. He could hardly be called a good husband, leaving his wife Jane in a Quaalude stupor for much of the book. And though he numbered among his friends Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler and numerous record company executives, he was willing to risk those friendships for a boost in magazine circulation and advertising revenue.

Reading Sticky Fingers, you can’t help but feel that Wenner’s RS was at least some of the time a forerunner of reality TV and upscale supermarket tabloidism. His ambition and craving for a place among the stars and starfuckers was insatiable, and he took us along for the tabloid ride every two weeks. But was it a safe ride for those of us looking for the straight goods on everything from the Vietnam War to the sad saga of the Democratic Party?

It would seem not when you consider that Wenner allowed his interview subjects to edit the stories. That means we could not really be sure what was truth and what was fiction in those great cover stories about John Lennon, Bono, Bob Dylan, and literally thousands of others in the starmaker world of Big Music.

What we can be sure of is that Wenner had his eye on the Big Money right from the 1967 start of RS, the birth being helped along by Jane’s $7,500 and whatever he could beg, borrow, or steal from his friends. Ralph Gleason, the old jazz critic for the San Francisco Examiner, was an RS co-founder or at least I thought he was. Hagan reveals the fissures that developed in his relationship with Wenner, observing that Gleason was disgusted when Wenner began taking his readers higher and higher on star worship while watching his profits go higher still.

I hope Hagan did not extend an offer to Wenner to edit the book, but one can never be sure. Wenner is portrayed as a wheeler-dealer who would stop at nothing to assure his future, that of his children, and of his magazine. In his early 70s, with millions, perhaps billions, in the bank, remarried to a handsome younger man, feted annually at the televised Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame show, which he was instrumental in founding, perhaps he approved the book simply because he was flush with success and no longer needed to worry about upsetting his readership or alienating friends.

From another perspective, maybe Wenner is still an accurate barometer of what that readership wants. Maybe, with a personality similar to Wenner in the White House, he has divined that RS readers admire his rugged, scratch-your-way up the ladder of capitalist success. Maybe he still is in full command of the baby-boom generation’s secret desires.

When RS began publishing out of San Francisco in the late 1960s, it seemed to herald a more sophisticated view of what the youth generation represented and wanted, a refinement of the rough-edge underground press of the period. Through its serious treatment of that generation’s music, emerging social and political beliefs, and general philosophy, many of us turned to it for not only a fun romp through reports on the music that will set you free, but also as a weathervane for where the zeitgeist was taking us.

Having now read Hagan’s book, I truly hope that the new generation is not going to embrace Jann Wenner as mine once did. If he is the Pied Piper of our children and grandchildren, then it will not be just a Me Generation but a Me and Only Me Generation and to hell with the rest of us. Perhaps the writing is already on the wall and Sticky Fingers is just a signpost along the way to a greed-ridden and war-inflicted future.

Working the early morning shift as a DJ at CBC Radio Yellowknife, NWT (circa 1973).

True confession: I still read RS. In fact, last year I took out a subscription, the first time since 1975. I got it on one of those magazine sweepstakes deals for $2 a year. Wenner will not get richer on me that way. What I get for that is a cross between People and Esquire. The pages of are filled with ads and the copy is filled with image advertising. The exceptions are Matt Taibbi, who left over a dispute with Wenner but has now returned to produce some incisive political commentary, and Sean Wilentz, the historian, who does the same. Otherwise RS is the same as all the other ad vehicles and well deserving of its perch on the supermarket magazines racks.

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