The Lust in the Heart of Rolling Stone

The editor Jann Wenner has been accused of trading work for sex—as a new book describes his “jovial sexual harassment” and other forms of self-gratification.

Jann Wenner, left, accepts his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction award from Mick Jagger and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun 2004.
Jann Wenner, left, accepts his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction award from Mick Jagger and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun in 2004. (Julie Jacobson / AP)

In 1975, Led Zeppelin finally gave an interview to Rolling Stone. The band had frozen out the magazine after its critics panned Jimmy Page’s “weak, unimaginative songs” and Robert Plant’s “strained and unconvincing shouting,” but the freelancer Cameron Crowe, still a teenager, was able to break back in. Crowe’s editor, the Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, gave him some guidelines for the interview, including to interrogate the band about its “hippy dippy lyrics,” which Crowe did not end up doing.

Crowe filed the piece and received a phone call summoning him to San Francisco to meet with Wenner. In HBO’s new documentary Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge, produced by Wenner with Alex Gibney and Blair Foster, Crowe recalls the encounter. “I want to tell you about your Led Zeppelin story,” Wenner said to Crowe. “Thank you, we’re going to run it, but you failed.”

The piece had been too soft on the band. “You wrote what they wanted you to write,” Wenner said, before handing over a copy of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem for the young writer to study.

The anecdote is a useful one in the mythology of a magazine founded to treat the ’60s rock boom with adult seriousness rather than Tiger Beat squeals. Watch Crowe’s 2000 film Almost Famous, inspired by his time as a teenage stringer, and you see a similar scene in which the critic Lester Bangs, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, advises the Crowe stand-in to keep his distance from his subjects: “You want to be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful.”

In Stories From the Edge, Crowe now reflects on Wenner’s steeliness: “Jann could have easily said, ‘Run the fucking story, who gives a shit. That’s a real editor and a publisher.”

The same anecdote shows up in Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers, a sensational new biography of Wenner on the occasion of Rolling Stone’s 50th birthday, but with a more ambiguous takeaway. By 1975, eight years into its existence, Rolling Stone’s initial exuberance for the rock-rooted counterculture had begun to ebb as the sound and the scene changed. Wenner had lodged himself within the celebrity galaxy that formed out of the big bang of the ’60s, and his writers hated much of the “middle-of-the-road” music that galaxy emitted. “Unless critics were writing laudatory reviews of best-selling superstars, Wenner generally considered them pains in the ass,” Hagan says, adding that Wenner fired Lester Bangs in 1973 for being “too negative.”

“This all created quite an opening for Cameron Crowe, a fanboy far too young to judge … too harshly,” Hagan writes. “Rolling Stone editors assigned Crowe to covers bands they all hated—Jethro Tull, Deep Purple—and to repair relationships with artists they offended.”

So it was with Led Zeppelin. Wenner did end up chiding Crowe about his interview, but the day that he did so happened to be the same day as the death of Ralph Gleason, the venerable San Francisco music critic who co-founded Rolling Stone. Writes Hagan, “In the twine of the moment, Wenner looked at Crowe and channeled the spirit of his mentor [Gleason].”

“The twine of the moment”: It makes it sounds like Wenner’s advice, as with so much else Rolling Stone–related, was a mere outpouring of sentimental nostalgia. The arc of Hagan’s book, an uproarious record of Wenner’s supposed venality, implies other possibilities as well. Wenner may have dressed down his teenage stringer simply for vanity’s sake. Or as a way of playing favorites about which bands were in and out. Or, indeed, to relay real and true insight. Possibly all of the above. Sticky Fingers insists that in Rolling Stone’s history, statements of higher purpose almost always served less noble forces.

Wenner commissioned Hagan’s biography but has since disavowed it as “tawdry,” and you can understand why. The book is obsessed with the tawdry, but more importantly it is moralist, examining Wenner’s exploits as if to put on trial an entire generation’s hypocrisies. It’s a particularly potent moment for such a reckoning. Wenner is not only celebrating 50 years of publication; he is also seeking a buyer for his magazine. HBO’s documentary is a neater polishing of his legacy, but it does detail the biggest editorial catastrophe of Wenner’s career: the magazine’s false University of Virginia rape story in 2014. And now there is an accusation of impropriety against Wenner, leveled by a freelancer who said the editor tried to trade work for sex in 2005.

In a year when the media in general is under fierce criticism—spurned by some of its most famous subjects, targeted by the president, and facing story after story of workplace harassment—the newly public gap between myth and reality at Rolling Stone is instructive. Hagan’s biography positions Wenner as a stand-in for the worst stereotypes about the celebrity-journalistic-media complex at large: driven by lust while posing as high-minded, trading on chumminess while also scrutinizing and ridiculing, a merciless friend only to itself. Stereotypes are never fully true, of course. But at a time when the culture’s gatekeepers are being actively reconsidered, Rolling Stone’s 50th anniversary invites less a celebration of an institution than an opportunity to see what needs to change.

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Jann Wenner was born Jan Wenner, named for the two-faced Roman god Janus, the eeriness of which Hagan does not need to over-explain as he weaves together stories of Wenner flattering and then betraying others, often in the name of money. “Nobody has been Jann’s friend straight through,” the music mogul Irving Azoff says in the book. “He’s a difficult friend to keep 100 percent of his time, but once you’re his friend, even if there’s a falling-out, there’s always the makeup.” (Wenner, for his part, calls Azoff “almost a psychopathic liar.”)

The tales of acrimony in Rolling Stone history cut a wide swath through pop culture, but some of the most poignant ones are about Wenner’s most famous staffers feeling ripped off. Hunter S. Thompson ascribed shady motives to Wenner’s handling of his life insurance policy while the writer was on assignment in Vietnam (Wenner insists the payout would have gone to Thompson’s family). Annie Leibovitz’s suspicions of exploitation at Wenner’s hands led her to stage a heist to retrieve her photo negatives from the Rolling Stone offices. Crowe was pressured into temporarily agreeing to give the movie rights for Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Wenner, and told Hagan, “My mistake was shaking Jann’s hand, which I regret to this day.”

Sticky Fingers opens with a betrayal arc of Shakespearian proportions: that between Wenner and John Lennon. In 1970, Lennon and Yoko Ono gave Wenner a sprawling, intimate interview that pushed Rolling Stone into the national consciousness. But then Wenner decided to republish the interview as a book—defying an unambiguous agreement he’d made with Lennon that he wouldn’t do so. Lennon was so furious that he then backed the creation of a rival magazine, SunDance, and the two men never saw each other again. “That was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made,” Wenner said. “I chose money over friendship.”

Amplifying the significance of the falling-out was the fact that Lennon had intrinsically shaped Rolling Stone. His face adorned the front of the inaugural issue. The magazine’s first major brush with profitable scandal was when it published the banned cover of Lennon and Ono’s Two Virgins, featuring the superstar couple naked. And over the years, the bespectacled Beatle litigated the dissolution of the band in the pages of Rolling Stone, drawing Paul McCartney to return fire in the same pages. The drama crystallized the editor’s abiding philosophy: “For Wenner, controversy was the point of any story,” Hagan writes, recounting how the editor made a critic rewrite a review of McCartney’s solo debut to focus on the lyrical barbs against Lennon.

But if Wenner saw the value of playing stars against each other, he also hungered mightily for their approval and, yes, friendship. The trickiness of this dynamic can be seen in his on-again, off-again relationship with Mick Jagger. The Rolling Stones singer in 1968 threatened legal action against the magazine because of its name; Wenner’s personal overtures transformed hostility into a business partnership, with Jagger co-founding the short-lived U.K. edition of Rolling Stone.

This meant that Wenner was initially reluctant to have Rolling Stone harshly examine the band’s complicity in the deadly scandal of the 1969 Altamont Speedway Free Festival (Wenner had helped the Stones book it). But he gave in to his staff’s desires and directed an investigation, calculating that his relationship with Jagger could later be mended. He was correct: Jagger has been on the cover of Rolling Stone 31 times by Hagan’s count, more than any other star. The Stones/Stone alliance has been lucrative for both parties, a fact about which the more famous participant is quite clear-eyed. “The problem with having relationships with people in the press, it’s like politicians in a way,” Jagger told Hagan. “It’s not the trust, or distrust,” he also said. “They have an agenda and you have an agenda. It might not meet.”

If Jagger took a mercenary view of befriending Wenner, Hagan’s book implies Wenner was motivated by yet-baser instincts. “It turned out that he, like me, harbored an adoration of Mick Jagger that was not entirely heterosexual,” Pete Townshend is quoted as saying. Writes Hagan, “What separated Jann Wenner from the other groupies, of course, was Rolling Stone.”

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Print a famous foreskin and the world will beat a path to your door,” Wenner wrote in Rolling Stone after publishing Lennon and Ono’s full forms to wide notice. It is a maxim he has followed devotedly. In 2015, published a gallery entitled “Getting Naked on the Cover of Rolling Stone”; it had 37 entries, spanning such milestones in salaciousness as David Cassidy’s pubic hair to the gruesomely styled thighs of True Blood’s cast. Among Wenner’s more important contributions to pop culture was helping to systematize the consumption of celebrity bodies. Us Weekly, the gossip magazine that fueled the peak paparazzi period of the mid-2000s, was Wenner’s property for three decades.

This legacy stems from Wenner’s early insight that fandom overlapped with lust. He told Hagan that being gay “gave me a good and finer appreciation of the sexuality of the guys up there on the stage, and I could understand that in a way that other people didn’t.” Rolling Stone cheered the sexual awakening of the ’60s—groupies were cover stars, too—but Sticky Fingers, right down to the title, argues that Wenner’s fixation on rock’s sensuality was not quite about social progress.

The book is chockablock with anecdotes of Wenner and his photographers ogling famous bodies. In 1973, Leibovitz plainly equated her desire to capture people on film with a desire to screw them—which, Hagan writes, she often ended up doing. The petty jealousies that typically accompany matters of the flesh thus were factored into the magazine as well. Paul Simon endured years of tepid coverage in Rolling Stone, according to Hagan, due to Simon having slept with the woman Wenner wanted to marry.

If journalistic and carnal curiosity were frequently conflated within the pages of Rolling Stone, lines were crossed behind the scenes as well. The marriage of Jann and Jane Wenner makes for one of the most compelling threads of Sticky Fingers, with Jane an active force in shaping the magazine as well as a semi-tragic figure who answered her husband’s dalliances with her own until he left her for a younger man. The Rolling Stone offices were often havens of drug and sex, presided over by the boss. A staffer who quit after being allegedly hit on by Wenner in 1973 recalls that the editor bragged he had slept with everyone who had worked for him.”

Hagan’s description of Wenner as being “known for his jovial sexual harassment” has made the rounds this past week as Wenner has joined the ranks of famous media men accused of sexual impropriety. As first reported at BuzzFeed, the freelance writer Ben Ryan says that in 2005, Wenner offered him a writing contract if he’d sleep with him. “It was the most pure form of sexual harassment,” Ryan wrote in his diary at the time. Wenner’s response: “I met him 12 years ago and did flirt with him. There was no quid pro quo. He refused my advances, but still went on to have his assignment from Men’s Journal published.”

Explicit quid pro quo or not, to anyone who’s immersed themselves in Hagan’s book, the notion that Wenner might have an ethically dubious take on sex and power is unsurprising. But the fallout from Harvey Weinstein makes Wenner’s story about more than one man’s rapaciousness. Whether the setting is magazine offices or movie sets or recording studios, society is learning how many media men fit the description Art Garfunkel used for Wenner in Sticky Fingers: “He leads with his appetites—I take, I see, I have.”

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Rolling Stone’s initial aim, as laid out in the inaugural issue, was to be for “every person who ‘believes in the magic that can set you free’”: the hippy dream of progress through truth, art, and personal liberation. It’s a high-minded goal that has, in many ways, been met thanks to Wenner’s ambition and eye for talent. The magazine’s legacy really is towering, encompassing the essays of Thompson and Greil Marcus, the photography of Leibovitz and Richard Avedon, and a trove of pivotal interviews and exposés.

The documentary Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge stylishly ticks through many of the milestones, often rooted in the magazine standing somewhere between friend and adversary with respect to its subjects. There was Ben Fong-Torres capturing the lurid dynamic between Ike and Tina Turner in 1971, enraging Ike upon publication. There was Vanessa Grigoriadis analyzing the tragedy of Britney Spears circa 2007 as a sign of celebrity culture’s destructiveness. There was Michael Hastings so charming General Stanley McChrystal that he was able to shockingly complicate the government’s spin on its wars abroad in 2010.

But these achievements are countered by moments when the lust at the heart of Rolling Stone—the pursuit of renown or money or sex—caused great harm. The signal example is the 2014 feature about a gang rape at the University of Virginia that had to be fully retracted, resulting in an expensive defamation suit that helped push Rolling Stone to the sales block. Both Sticky Fingers and Stories From the Edge devote a good amount of time to the scandal, which has become a political symbol of the failings of the media at large. There is no one satisfying answer to what went awry, though turnover in the magazine’s legal department appeared to be a factor in the lack of vetting. The bottom line is that the hunger to publish a juicy story—one that would bolster the magazine’s claim to act in the public interest, in this case on the topic of sexual assault—eclipsed prudence.

Distrust, earned or not, is a small part of why magazines like Rolling Stone have lost their place in even the popular-music ecosystem. A few years back, Drake reacted to Rolling Stone publishing what he claimed was an off-the-record quote by swearing off magazine interviews entirely and declaring the press “evil.” The flap has many precedents in Rolling Stone history, but the internet now gives stars better ways to boycott, and the cultural trend is to see the media as a monolith rather than a constellation. The result is that extremely influential people can avoid answering questions entirely. Taylor Swift, this month, released what will be the biggest-selling album of the year without having said one word to reporters (a fact the cover art flaunts). Donald Trump is running his own version of that strategy in politics, attempting to counteract the media’s checks-and-balances role by fixating on (and fabricating) mistakes.

The revelations after Weinstein are an honest and overdue reckoning for people within the media who have been hurt by its worst actors. It is also, unfortunately, another boon to those who are trying to undermine journalistic institutions. You can now read about the sexual impropriety accusation against Wenner at Breitbart, where the Rolling Stone founder is grouped with 10 other accused predators who, according to the article, demonstrate that “the elite media as a whole is filled with institutional rot and legions of enablers.” That characterization may or may not be made in good faith, but after reading Sticky Fingers, it’s harder to muster the will to argue against it. Wenner’s Rolling Stone remains an achievement, but over five decades, the danger of treating desire as a guiding principle has been made clear.

It has also been made clear by the latest-breaking sexual harassment scandal in journalism: at Vice, a direct spiritual descendent of Rolling Stone, cited in Sticky Fingers by Wenner’s son and editorial protégé Gus as being big competition. “The culture [at Vice] was that if you sleep with your boss, or with your producer, you’ll get more opportunities,” the former staffer Phoebe Barghouty told The Daily Beast. “It created a toxic environment, where men could be abusive, and some women were manipulated into thinking that acquiescing to that abuse was the only way to advance.” Vice’s representatives have responded to the allegations in part by pointing to the “nontraditional workplace agreements” its employees sign. After reading up on the half-century history of Rolling Stone, the irony of that response is obvious. A workplace ruled by the appetites of men is just traditional.