C Letter Book Club: Joe Hagan's "Sticky Fingers"
“Where is it written that Jann Wenner should inherit the earth?” The phrase, initially an off handed insult from a rival, became a rallying cry for the ambitious founder of Rolling Stone magazine. Described by others as “cruel” even during early childhood Wenner harbors no crippling regrets about the lives and livelihoods that were trumped by his relentless pursuit of an elusive blend of power and popularity. That pursuit is recounted with impressive flourish by Joe Hagan in “Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine.” Given unprecedented access to his subject’s almost creepily meticulous archives this writer makes the reader feel like they have a front row seat to the life that inspired song lyrics, cult classics, and life-long grudges.
They also get a clear perspective on the partnership that made them all possible. Wenner married Jane Schindelheim for her New York cool, father’s capital, and seemingly endless well of forgiveness.
Her taste and charm were so crucial to the magazine’s success that during a rough spot in their marriage he seriously considered putting her picture on the cover as a mea culpa. Hagan’s strength as a writer, and maybe a human, can be seen in his not painting the long suffering Jane as just the now cliche’ tragic first wife. Instead he highlights her as a true partner who, like Wenner’s many other business associates throughout the years, was eventually dismayed to find she’d outlived her usefulness. Her agency is respected by the author from the first page even if it takes her husband years to recognize its value.
There’s no better representation of that agency than Annie Leibovitz.
Many know that before she was helping Sheryl Sandberg “Lean In” and reframing Kim and Kanye in the public eye she was crafting intimate images that would showcase pop culture for posterity.
But what isn’t widely known is that she was doing so with more than the professional help of the Wenners. The era of free love might today be labeled exercises in lacking boundaries and throughout the years each of the Wenners served, and disserved, her in a different capacity. Chaperone, adversary, lover, confidante you name the role Jane and Jann filled it. Messy? Sure, but fruitful as well.
Leibovitz isn’t the only one to walk away from the power couple sporting a few scars. While Wenner was off chasing big name writers the bylines that would define a generation were struggling to make ends meet.
Creatives fighting for adequate compensation is sadly pretty commonplace throughout history but somehow when critics are waxing poetic about the genius of Hunter S. Thompson they never mention his worries about Wenner dropping his health insurance. While some might have worried about what their employees thought about their harsh business choices the author quotes Wenner as saying “I didn’t feel too bad about it.”
The best thing about this book is that everyone gets to have their say. Hours and hours of interviews provide perspective to the picture painted by Hagan. Rolling Stone writers and photographers, musicians, publishing and music industry veterans and others are able to speak their peace about Wenner’s rise from fanboy to professional “starfucker.” His now former wife is given a chance to cement her legacy and even Wenner’s deceased parents (via letters and other documentation) and children are given the opportunity to speak their peace. The end result isn’t a flattering portrait but it is a well rounded one.
“Sticky Fingers” has been criticized over focusing too much on the subject’s sex life (he was closeted throughout the majority of his adult life) but I think that ignores who the subject is. When your kids godparents are rockstars and your best business deals are made over lines of blow who you were sleeping with when is more than a little significant to your story. Rumors about his sexuality stemmed from a tape created when recording guests at dinner parties was all the rage and deeply affected both his personal and professional choices.
The not so salacious conflicts highlighted in the books are still reflected in today’s media landscape. Rolling Stone was a magazine about the music industry but it was also a business whose survival was dependent on the music industry. Wenner’s reported habit of allowing stars to line edit their interviews and alleged inability to remain impartial would have been right at home in today’s “age of disruption.” It’s no longer even necessary to pretend like the “wall” between sales and editorial isn’t pliable and after reading “Sticky Fingers” the controversies surrounding influencers and Youtube stars seem more inevitable than shocking.
This is a great read for anyone interested in the business of media or entertainment but others will want to stick around for the sex, drugs, and legal disputes. “Sticky Fingers” is as juicy as it gets.