Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Poisoned Well: Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers

Rolling Stone co-founder and publisher Jann Wenner, 1977. (Photo: Claire Maxwell)

I.

“He’s a dick,” said an old acquaintance, a veteran New York newspaperman, when I mentioned Jann Wenner recently. In three words, he expressed what it takes Joe Hagan, author of Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine (Knopf; 547 pp.), an entire book to say. On the largest scale of generalization, the verdict seems unassailable: one gathers it would be difficult to find a Wenner associate who hasn’t at some point felt betrayed or otherwise outraged by him. Yet this major biography of the co-founder, editor, and publisher of Rolling Stone, though it reports innumerable facts, can’t really be credited with telling the truth. In its single-minded focus on proving that Jann Wenner is a dick, it almost utterly ignores the rest of this complex and influential figure’s metaphorical anatomy.

Sticky Fingers was written at the behest of Wenner himself, who saw the fiftieth anniversary of Rolling Stone’s first issue approaching, along with his own winter years, and figured it was time for a cross-media summing-up. (Alex Gibney’s four-hour HBO documentary, Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge, was engineered concurrently.) He offered Hagan – a writer for New York Magazine whose connection to Rolling Stone began with a 1995 internship – full interview access, unlimited use of personal archives, and a free hand. Interviews would be facilitated with Wenner’s wife, Jane; a few of his extramarital lovers, both male and female; his star photographer, Annie Leibovitz; many of his editors, writers, designers, proofreaders, ad executives, and business managers; and a staggering panoply of rock stars including Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, and Bono. (Not only Mick Jagger but Mick Jagger’s publicist was interviewed.)

According to Hagan, Wenner, while permitted to review passages dealing with sex, would have no right of censorship or other control; he wasn’t even allowed to see the manuscript until late this past summer, well after it had gone to press. When he did see it, Wenner went public with his disgust and disappointment. Not for the first time in history, the subject of an officially sanctioned portrait was apoplectic at discovering the independent agenda of the portraitist: he accused Hagan of crafting an elaborate smear job, something “deeply flawed and tawdry.” (Did Hagan’s journalism for New York – where his most widely read piece was a steely-eyed takedown of Today Show co-host Matt Lauer written in the wake of the so-called Operation Bambi – give him no inkling of what might be coming?) Hagan, for his part, puts the mutual estrangement down to Wenner’s need for control over his image; presumably the Gibney summation – absorbing, exciting, and slick in ways thoroughly familiar to anyone who has ever seen a high-line HBO documentary – is closer to what Wenner hoped Hagan would provide.

Putting all this to one side, the book starts out well, and maintains a nice enough simmer for a few hundred pages. Jann Wenner grew up comfortable in the Bay Area, his early life patterned by, among other things, ambivalence about being Jewish, gay, and a social notch or two below the rich kids to whose world he aspired. One thing that makes the childhood chapters more interesting than those of most biographies is Hagan’s focus on Wenner’s mother, Sim, a bisexual writer and iconoclast whose memoir of raising the Wenner kids, 1960’s Back Away from the Stove, reads like mordant Erma Bombeck, and whose 1961 pulp novel, Daisy, is about suburban partner-swapping. Though a distant parent, a spiky individual, and not someone most of us would want to call Mom, Sim is a fascinating figure, and Hagan is right to give her the attention he does. Many of her son’s best and worst traits are plausibly foreshadowed in her, and her shows of neglect and rejection create an empathy for Wenner that Hagan permits to wither later on – largely by withdrawing whatever empathy he has allowed himself to feel.

Personal treachery and the lust after celebrity are early themes. Wenner’s fascination with debutante balls and other society doings was clear to those who knew him in high school, and during his brief time at the University of California at Berkeley; he wrote about it often, in newspaper columns and journal entries. Here, as elsewhere, it’s salutary to recall that most of Hagan’s documentation – diaries, school reports, unpublished papers, aides-mémoire scribbled just after important events – comes from Wenner himself. That the sources are personal and authentic doesn’t make them invariably accurate; it only means that they exist, and are not the post facto accusations of the spurned and burned. It would have been perverse of Hagan not to mention a high school teacher’s report on the teenage Wenner’s “alarming lack of integrity,” or not to quote the unpublished novel, written in the mid-sixties, in which he owns up to “invitations to deb parties [being] the most important thing.” Wenner’s own words and archival materials – and he seems to have saved every piece of paper he ever created or came across bearing a reference to himself – provide much of the grist for Hagan’s negativity.

The book’s most controversial elements, predictably, are its scenes of gross and rampant drug abuse (yawn) and the full-frontal exposure of its subject’s bisexuality – which, in Wenner’s case, is to say his essential gayness. But certain soap opera elements are more intriguing, at least to those curious about the less obvious or well-documented corners of the sixties. One is Wenner’s romance with Denise Kaufman, member of the pioneering all-woman Bay Area band Ace of Cups: I never knew that their misogyny-flipping signature song, “Boy, What’ll You Do Then” (recorded when they were still called Denise & Co.), was directed at Wenner. Another is Kaufman’s brief fling with the almost-famous Paul Simon, for which Wenner nursed a long grudge that kept Simon out of Rolling Stone for years. Yet another is Jane Wenner’s affair with Sandy Bull, the prodigiously talented, heroin-addicted guitarist, with whom the Wenners had a long and complicated tripartite involvement. There are numerous stories for which eyewitness testimony is in absolute and insoluble conflict: for instance, Wenner claims to have masterminded a major 1970 Rolling Stone story on American radicalism, against the unified recollection of all others that he wasn’t even in the office at the time.

As ambivalent as he is about Wenner, Hagan is equally so on his other subject – Rolling Stone itself. Here as throughout, he is most incisive when cutting something down. The magazine’s breakthrough element, he writes, was its “radical conventionality” – a disciplined layout and stylish presentation that distinguished it from the handful of other rock rags extant in 1966-67. “It was a man’s magazine, though women read it; it was a white magazine, though African Americans were fetishized in it; it was a left-wing magazine, though it was tempered by Wenner’s devotion to the establishment.” And elsewhere: “Wenner made it safe for boys to ogle their male idols as rapturously as any girl might, by adding a healthy dose of intellectual pretense.” None of which is unfair, or even impertinent. Hagan has a firm grip on the numbers that quantified Rolling Stone in its various phases – advertising dollars, circulation figures – and while these parts aren’t terribly interesting, they’re scarcely insignificant to the biography of a publishing tycoon. But what seems, for a while anyway, like an exercise in critical thinking is actually the groundwork for later, far more sweeping condemnations.

II. 

Jann and Jane Wenner, May 1968. (Photo: Baron Wolman)

Part of what makes Sticky Fingers percolate for its first half is our sense that Hagan’s bracingly tough take on Rolling Stone and its creator is undergirded by a basic respect for both. A sentence here and there will stand out for articulating some rare but familiar feeling: “There was a narcotic freedom to Rolling Stone as it charted the late 1960s, the primitive newsprint pages opening like a lotus flower, petal by petal, with revelations.” Hagan points to the necessarily bastardized nature of the magazine at its start-up, and even beyond: “The whole thing had been begged, borrowed, recycled, and stolen . . . The seams of Wenner’s Frankenstein’s monster were fused together by his obsessive mania and the newspaper’s bold statement of purpose.” That’s the fundamental equation behind all cultural breakthroughs: a combination of ready-to-wear elements transformed and made strange – even outlandish, even inspirational – by someone’s new, unified vision.

But for Hagan, we will learn, no real good could come from Rolling Stone, because the well it drew from – the soul and psyche of Jann Wenner – was poisoned. For all it might have claimed to be doing, saying, or contributing on multiple fronts, the magazine was never much more than “an expression of Wenner’s pursuit of fame and power.” A better biographer might have grasped this distortion as merely one solid edge of a much larger, tougher, more interesting truth. That biographer might have concluded that, indeed, Wenner was both a stunted, love-starved manchild and a peripatetic visionary destined to become a shaper of his age; that his magazine was both a vehicle for self-gratification and a product of real cultural genius. Hagan has, after all, prepared for this both-ness by detailing Wenner’s odd, misfit childhood, specifically his inability to secure his mother’s unconditional love and support. Even at the book’s halfway point, he calls back “the wounded thirteen-year-old with the . . . bottomless need for affirmation”; and later, he notes how Wenner “yearned for the family he never had as a child.” But the tell on Hagan’s poker face is that every glimpse of humanity and vulnerability is nullified by ridicule, or imputations of inadequacy and avarice. The “yearning” of the sentence above is followed by: “Jane’s failure to get pregnant after a couple of years sparked rumors that Wenner was sterile. Others wondered whether they even had sex at all.”

So Hagan sees the pathos in Wenner’s makeup. But does he feel it? Sticky Fingers as a whole says no. The author turns irreversibly against his subject in Chapter 12, “Whatever Gets You thru the Night.” With a new intentness, as if a direction is being charted, Hagan begins to hammer Wenner as a raging narcissist with an unquenchable need for validation through possessions, status, and proximity to celebrity. The Wenners, we’re told, “came together in their mutual desire for power and pleasure and style. . . . His underpaid staffers marveled at Wenner’s audacious commitment to luxury. . . . The Wenners aimed to impress and it worked.” The early attractions to prestige and display return as full-on obsessions, and what follows is a fairly dreary, one-and-a-half-dimensional record of substance abuse, ostentatious purchases, financial disasters, boorish behavior, pathological lies, and general worthlessness. And a ton of sex, if you care. The few acts of unselfish kindness that Hagan deigns to mention aren’t seen to indicate anything deep and abiding in Wenner’s character – unlike the substance abuse, ostentatious purchases, etc. These crimes against decency define the remainder of the book, and overwhelm any conception of Wenner’s complexity, let alone his achievement as a publisher and editor. This devolution is free of any drama or sorrow, and it can’t be accidental that my marginal notes drop off drastically after Chapter 12: the pretense that there is a dialogue worth having with this book, with its subject, or with the cultural history it covers sloughs off like dead skin. As Hagan’s Wenner gets duller and more mindless, the book becomes correspondingly laborious, a thing to finish for the sake of being done with it.

One can dislike Sticky Fingers without liking Jann Wenner. Many people have legitimate beefs with him, there are many worthy scores to settle; Wenner, especially if he would hand-pick his biographer, should bear that brunt. And it isn’t that most of the stories Hagan tells are unlikely, or his indictments, one by one, indefensible. Rolling Stone did become more fawning and celebrity-obsessed after its move to New York in 1977, as he charges. Wenner did become a self-appointed, rather fatuous “sculptor of rock legend,” tending the flames of his favorites via hagiographic cover stories and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He has committed acts of astonishing hypocrisy and duplicity. As a collection of facts, Sticky Fingers is not as rank with error as Albert Goldman’s The Lives of John Lennon, which Hagan unaccountably cites as a model; but the author does get a handful of things foolishly wrong – usually inaccuracies of chronology (and usually to do with The Beatles, for some reason). He refers often, in mid-sixties passages, to England’s warring armies of mods and rockers, but it’s not clear he knows what those groups were; he puts Bruce Springsteen’s first Rolling Stone appearance in 1971, when no one outside Asbury Park knew who he was. Such catchable mistakes, though confounding (as such mistakes always are, especially when we’re the ones making them), are minor. Of course, if quotes are fabricated or factual anecdotes twisted into fiction – as suggested by at least one of Hagan’s interview subjects – then all bets are off; but without insider knowledge, most of us cannot evaluate how the source materials of interviews and documents may have been “sculpted,” and absent any civil suits against Hagan from injured or misrepresented parties, we must assume that things are reported more or less accurately.

So it’s not any of that – or any of that alone. It’s that Sticky Fingers evidences a basic dislike of its subject; a reductive conception of the history which that subject captured, exploited, documented; and a disregard for whatever it was that made that subject the only person in the world who could create Rolling Stone, and thereby catalyze all that came from it. Hagan describes Wenner late in the book as “the baby-boomer visionary whose singular will to power, rakish personality, fortitude for excess, and wild-man charm made him a force to be reckoned with.” What’s missing from that not altogether damning characterization? For one thing, the sixth sense of a brilliant magazine man. While reading Hagan – or after, to clear the palate – one returns to a few essential anthologies: The Age of Paranoia: How the Sixties Ended (1972), The Rolling Stone Reader, The Rolling Stone Rock ‘n’ Roll Reader (both 1974), and The Best of Rolling Stone: 25 Years of Journalism on the Edge (1993). Each bursts with the lunging excesses and luxuriant rewards of counterculture journalism as the best of it was being discovered and defined. In that journalism was found, along with the showboating of post-Hemingways and pseudo-Leiblings, both the solid matter and the poetry of a new literature, a new art. One recalls not just the expected things – Hunter S. Thompson’s “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan,” or Tom Wolfe’s “Post-Orbital Remorse,” seedbed of The Right Stuff – but David Felton’s stories on cult leaders Charles Manson (co-written with David Dalton) and Mel Lyman; Grover Lewis’s “Splendor in the Short-Grass,” detailing the West Texas filming of The Last Picture Show; Charles Alverson’s “GI Blues,” about the court-martial of 13 black soldiers on a remote US Army outpost in Germany; Joe Eszterhas’s  “Charlie Simpson’s Apocalypse,” about the violent freak-out of a heartland radical; Ellen Willis’s  “The Trial of Arline Hunt,” about a rape victim’s fight for justice in San Francisco; and Howard Kohn and David Weir’s “Tania’s World,” about the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.

If you’re fortunate enough to have original Rolling Stone issues still lying around, you may return to the pages as they were first seen, felt, read – the size and power of the photographs, the expanses of print, the palpable sense that one was living in consequential times. It isn’t that Hagan doesn’t mention any of this, or permit it credit. It’s that, given his overall composition of biographical and historical elements, it carries no weight. Nor could it, because in this book’s vision of life, such things don’t matter nearly as much as other things.

III.

Author Joe Hagan. (Photo: Tim David)

What matters the most to Hagan, finally, is the positing of an equivalency between Jann Wenner and the most loathed man in the world, Donald Trump. It is a boldly, and baldly, commercial strategy: beyond the sex and drugs, Hagan’s book has been sold chiefly on its assertion that Wenner is Trump’s counterculture doppelgänger, and that his story – the story, in Hagan’s terms, of a generation – constitutes “a parable of the age of narcissism.” Hagan’s prologue has telegraphed all of this by noting that Ronald Reagan’s first presidential term began “as [Wenner’s] generation was embracing the ‘greed is good’ ethos, wealth and power as their natural birthright.” Later on, this is what Hagan says he believes: “The 1960s, with all its passion and idealism, was, at its sacred core, a business. Mick Jagger understood. So did Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. So did Bill Graham . . .” Thus does Hagan, in a particularly slick and sneaky way, reduce the entirety of the decade, which was experienced differently by every individual who lived it, to the presumptive personal motives of two rock stars, a concert promoter, and a Rolling Stone publisher. Does Hagan’s business model of the sixties include that vast majority of people who had no means, nor any known desire, to profit monetarily from what was going on – who only sought to experience the times, and did? The Trump analogy is wheeled out in the last chapter. “The solar eclipse of Donald Trump signaled the complete triumph of celebrity culture over every aspect of American life. . . . Wenner had a kind of grudging respect for Trump. Not for his politics, but for the way he bent the world to his ego. . . . Wenner, of course, was a pioneer in the age of narcissism.” The equivalency is as flimsy and conceptual as that. There’s no refuting it, because it’s not argued, only stated. And so it will be accepted by those who, for whatever reasons, are eager to accept it.

Someone could, in defense of Hagan, pull out numerous passages expressing a measure of respect for Wenner – some recognition of his singularity, or at least his duality. Like this one: “He was an incorrigible egotist, but he made up for it with a life of impact. He had mattered. He broke things; he made things.” But talk is cheap, and writing can be even cheaper. On balance and in totality, Sticky Fingers cares far less about the making than about the breaking. It is woefully narrow in its estimation of an estimable figure, and manifestly inadequate to the challenge of a challenging history. Near the end of the book, Hagan quotes an article by Rolling Stone political writer Matt Tiabbi: “As a professional misanthrope, I believe that if you are going to hate a person, you ought to do it properly. You should go and live in his shoes for a while and see at the end of it how much you hate yourself.” One wonders if Hagan saw himself reflected, in any way, by that statement. Unlike Albert Goldman, whose pop-idol biographies (and earlier cultural criticism) were full of toxic disgust, transparent jealousy, and macabre sexual fantasies, Hagan doesn’t come off as a genuine misanthrope; “disdainful” is probably an accurate description of his attitude to Jann Wenner. But given the volume of material at his disposal, and the extent of the cultural defoliation he attempts, that disdain is magnified to the point where it is indistinguishable from contempt. I suspect that at half the length, his portrait of Wenner would be not only less repetitive, but also more evocative of a sentient human being and inspired creator, rather than a mechanistic money-grubber who is all orifice. What Sticky Fingers calls out for, ironically – beyond an author able to find anything redeeming in one of the most significant figures in postwar American culture – is a good editor.

Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared innumerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

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