The Rise and Fall of Rolling Stone
What happened when Jann Wenner traded the hippie dream for pop-star friends and luxury
When I got to Rolling Stone, the party was over. I turned up just in time to see a cigarette floating in the last cocktail of the night. It was 1993, and I was in my mid-20s. I went on the road with the Rolling Stones, but they were cranky and old, bickering with reporters who called them the Strolling Bones. I hung out with Hunter S. Thompson in Woody Creek, Colorado, but he’d hurt his back and broken his leg and seemed ancient, drugged, and boozy, lost in a visionary delirium. Rolling Stone, co-founded by Jann Wenner in 1967, had chronicled Woodstock and Altamont and everything else, but now appeared to have just one story left to tell—its own.
Wenner asked me to write that story, which would also be his autobiography, given the entwinement of his life and the life of his magazine. I would be a ghost. I said no, because how do you capture the voice of a person who stammers and vents, follows tangents, does not seem to know his own mind, loves but does not always appear to like himself?
The project continued without me, first with one ghostwriter, then with two, then with at least one ghostwriter and an editor, before it landed in the ditch where I came across it 15 or so years later. Wenner’s agent said the book was finished but needed punching up—would I do that? I said yes. The “manuscript” I was sent turned out to be a few chapters that took Wenner into high school. I backed out again. Wenner approached me a third time. Now I was to be not his ghost but his biographer. We met at the 21 Club in Manhattan. I had a list of conditions. I wanted freedom, feeling that his need for control was what had wrecked the previous attempts. To my surprise, he agreed. I wrote a proposal, which was submitted to publishers. I was offered more money than I had ever seen. I imagined it in a stack, or else in a briefcase, handed to me on a park bench. When Wenner learned the terms of the deal, he backed out. I won’t go into the unpleasant particulars. Suffice it to say that the problem lay in whether he would be portrayed as he saw himself, or as he was seen by others.
I was relieved. The thought of spending years tangled in the details of his life, his neuroses, was almost more than I could bear. The money had fogged my mind for a moment. I have one artifact of that experience, a picture taken by my wife minutes after my agent called to say “They’ve countered the counteroffer” as the bidding for the book intensified. I’m riding the carousel in Central Park, grinning. Coming across the photo now, I think, Look at that fool! He believes himself to be a millionaire.
Wenner’s story has now, at long last, been written. The job was done by Joe Hagan of New York magazine, who had the luck to be living next to Wenner in the Hudson Valley when Wenner went looking once again. Hagan called me not long after Wenner made his pitch. I had become a cautionary tale. Could the book be written, he asked, and was it worth doing? It would be tough, I told him, but what a subject, if handled correctly. Jann Wenner, after all, is more than a magazine editor. He’s a personification of the Baby Boom generation, with its outsize sway—for good and ill—over American culture as we have known it for half a century. (The advice Hagan got from his subject was rather different from mine: “At one point, Wenner suggested I look to a 2013 biography of Woodrow Wilson as the ideal model for this one.”)
Hagan has written a barn burner, fast and funny and gossip-filled (he names names) and also big—so big that it can stand as a case study of the entire era. The Boomers’ experience was Wenner’s experience, and it all showed up in his magazine, and now shows up here: the Beatles and the Stones; hallucinogens and cocaine; sex, sanctioned and illicit, open and hidden (Wenner lived a closeted life until he was nearly 50); politics and protests, the war; the lifestyles of the ever more rich and famous; infirmity and old age.
It’s the book I could never have written. I know too little and sympathize too much. I like Wenner, and Hagan is remorseless. In his very first pages, he describes the young Wenner as a “little barbarian whose lust for money, drugs, and sex threatened to outpace his razor intellect and turn him into Augustus Gloop falling into the chocolate river of the 1960s.” He characterizes Rolling Stone as an “expression of Wenner’s pursuit of fame and power,” a magazine more than occasionally at the mercy of its editor’s “unembarrassed appetite for stardom and excess [which] made him an object of scorn and parody.” He sums up the biography he has written as a “parable of the age of narcissism.”
Consider Hagan’s title: Sticky Fingers. It invokes a classic Stones album, but is also a term linked to masturbators and thieves. The irony is hard to miss. In his need to establish his legacy, Wenner created precisely the outcome he was trying to avoid—a truly free, deeply critical, microscopically detailed examination of every fuckup and flaw, as well as the many feats, of his existence. He’s lost control of his narrative.
Sticky Fingers reads like a Rolling Stone article—the story of a one-of-a-kind publication and the man who, for a time, was “the most important magazine editor in America,” told in the magazine’s own turbocharged voice. (Like me, Hagan has been a contributing editor to the magazine.) Rolling Stone was founded with $7,500, mostly borrowed, by Wenner, a 21-year-old Berkeley dropout with at least one great idea, that of “shepherding the generational plotlines of the 1960s into a rambling biweekly serial of rock-and-roll news.” It started as a small hippie publication—John Lennon was on the first cover—but quickly caught the zeitgeist. Within half a decade, the magazine’s cover had become the most sought-after real estate in rock and roll.
Some of the most important early work was done not by Wenner, a New Yorker by birth who’d been sent to boarding school in Los Angeles, but by his wife, Jane. Also a New Yorker, she grew up in Stuyvesant Town. She attended the High School of Music & Art in Harlem, where “she wore black turtlenecks, smoked skinny joints, and drew moody portraits in charcoal and pencil evoking her inner torpor.” Jane’s parents put up much of the magazine’s seed money, and Jane’s taste was key in shaping Rolling Stone. And it was Jane who, with her cool affect, won the trust of rockers, photographers, and writers who would prove crucial to its takeoff. Hagan’s book is as much the story of a stormy marriage as the story of a magazine.
Two insights, along with a rare gift for spotting and seducing talent, fueled Wenner’s stunning success. First, he understood that rock and roll was a culture as much as an art form. His magazine’s goal was not just to listen to music but to look at the world through the lens of that music. Second, he understood, deep down, that this culture—peace and love and the rest—was a business. Rolling Stone was designed to sell a product to advertisers. That product was the attention, and even the loyalty, of the masses of teenagers who might be withering about their bourgeois parents but were willing to spend. Some of Rolling Stone’s contributors and readers later accused Wenner of selling out, but you can’t sell out what’s always been for sale.
The magazine took the teenage nation mainstream—not just the bands but the belief system, with its heroes (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards), martyrs (John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix), and saints (Lester Bangs, Hunter Thompson). But once the magazine became a hit, it was changed by the very culture it had helped create. As newsstand sales rose, Wenner became hungry for still more newsstand sales. By the mid-’70s, the focus of Rolling Stone had shifted from what the editors determined to be the best in pop culture to what was measurably the biggest. The magazine that once launched bands began devoting more attention to established stars. That’s how you attract a mass audience, trade up from cheap paper to glossier pages, move from San Francisco to Manhattan.
In the process, the magazine itself became a kind of celebrity. It stood for something. It was a symbol of what the kids were up to and how they were turning into their own kind of bourgeoisie. In following them, Rolling Stone was merely doing what great magazines have always done—accommodating taste, which in this case meant accepting the fact that rock and roll had faded. Its stars did not move the needle the way they used to. Actors began appearing on the cover, and comedians. More interesting, the magazine figured out how to sell itself—how to market the sensibility that emerged in the eccentric, insanely long, deeply reported pieces that had come to be its staple: Tom Wolfe on the astronauts (“Post-Orbital Remorse,” 1973), Joe Eszterhas on a semi-demonic Evel Knievel (“King of the Goons,” 1974), Howard Kohn and David Weir on the Patty Hearst kidnapping (“Tania’s World,” 1975).
Rolling Stone was a crucible of the New Journalism, as many of its writers veered away from traditional objectivity to experiment with the techniques of fiction—reportorial immersion, extended dialogue, shifting perspectives, immediacy of voice, structural variety. Of course, the most famous of these pieces were written by the writer who came to personify the magazine: the inimitable Thompson, the inventor of gonzo journalism, which he described to me as “learning to fly as you’re falling.”
Thompson first met Wenner at the magazine’s San Francisco office in the summer of 1970. Thompson, 33, was “wearing a red Bermuda shirt and knee-high athletic socks, a pair of shades locked on his nose and a wig cocked unevenly on his head,” Hagan writes. “He mumble-grumbled like a character actor from a Bogart movie, an FDR cigarette holder clenched in his jaw as he pulled one strange artifact after another from a leather satchel under his arm: flashlights, whiskey, corkscrews, flares.” As for Thompson’s view: “Asked years later of his impression of Wenner in that first meeting, Thompson snickered and said, ‘A troll of some kind.’ ”
Wenner did not discover Thompson. Three years earlier, Thompson had published his first and best book, Hell’s Angels. That famous voice—“monster steed with a fiery anus, flat out through the eye of a beer can and up your daughter’s leg”—spoke on the opening page. His breakthrough magazine article, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” had appeared in Scanlan’s in June 1970. But Wenner did give the writer—the ultimate unreliable narrator, using inebriation to bring a touch of magical realism to his reporting—column inches to burn. “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” published in November 1971, was the high point.
That story—“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold”—is Rolling Stone as millions came to know it: an all-seeing, bloodshot eye. The no-holds-barred style perfectly captured the mood of the ’70s—young but already looking back, living in retrospect, hungover. A worldview as much as a voice, that style let Rolling Stone wander the planet yet remain true. Thompson on the campaign trail, Thompson at the Super Bowl—the magazine suddenly had a way to describe everything. This mode was the key to becoming, as Hagan puts it, “the most adventurous and ambitious newspaper-cum-magazine of the 1970s.”
Thompson’s success probably made his struggle with Wenner through the 1980s and ’90s inevitable. It was a clash familiar to just about every Rolling Stone veteran who’d seen Wenner, having become a celebrity himself, trade the hippie dream for pop-star friends and luxury. Wenner needed and loved Thompson, but seemed to resent the attention showered on him. For millions, it was Thompson, not Wenner, who represented Rolling Stone.
As the ’70s turned into the ’80s, then the ’90s, the magazine changed in ways that Thompson could not help but notice and disdain. It went all in for Madison Avenue glitz and celebrated the wealth that marked the Boomers’ ascent into the establishment. The magazine’s own “Perception/Reality” ad campaign of the ’80s touted its transformation, with a bearded hippie, an old Jimi Hendrix cover, and a peace symbol (perception) juxtaposed with a yuppie, a recent Bill Murray cover, and a Mercedes-Benz trademark (reality). Kurt Cobain spoke for many when he showed up to a Rolling Stone cover shoot in 1992 wearing a T-shirt that said corporate magazines still suck.
Meanwhile, Thompson was out there, holding down his own little fort, trapped in the persona he’d perfected for the magazine. Of the dozens of poignant rise-and-fall stories that Hagan slips into his larger epic, none is more heartbreaking than that of Thompson, whose articles, filed more and more infrequently, became less and less intelligible. In the fall of 2004, when Rolling Stone seemed as fat and profitable as it had ever been, Wenner sent me to profile Thompson. Hagan says Wenner had in mind a takedown, and that is what Thompson appeared to think, but it’s not true. The sense I got from Wenner was that he wanted Thompson’s voice in the magazine, and if Thompson wouldn’t file a story, then Wenner would have me interview him.
But Thompson was a mess when I showed up. I lingered in his house for days, mostly waiting for him to wake up. He’d appear in the kitchen each evening around 5, then begin drinking and taking pills, reaching a window of clarity between 3 and 4 a.m. He knew he owed Rolling Stone a story—he had missed so many deadlines over the years—and he spent a lot of time trying to get me to write it for him. And he spent hours trashing Wenner. Thompson ranted about what he’d done for the magazine and what the magazine hadn’t done for him. Thompson killed himself on February 20, 2005; he’d ordered that his remains be cremated and blown out of a cannon.
Rolling Stone has been a perfect mirror. We watched it mature from hippie fun to moneymaking machine—from peace and love to cash and fame. But in the past decade, its founder, who surfed the zeitgeist for generations, has finally been overtaken by the internet wave. By the last chapters of Sticky Fingers, Wenner has become a somber figure, wounded by scandals—the story about the University of Virginia rape that probably never happened; the farce of sending Sean Penn to interview El Chapo in Mexico. Now in its 50th year, the print magazine is a shell of its former self. On the digital side, operated by Wenner’s son Gus, revenue grows apace. Over the years, Wenner has fielded many offers to buy Rolling Stone, including one apparently in the neighborhood of half a billion dollars. In 2016, he sold a 49 percent stake in Rolling Stone to a Singapore-based music-technology company for a reported $40 million. In September, the Wenners put the remainder up for sale. “Publishing is a completely different industry than what it was,” Gus told The New York Times. “The trends go in one direction, and we are very aware of that.”
Where did it all lead us? For Hagan, finishing up his work as Donald Trump arrived on the political scene, Rolling Stone’s legacy is glaringly clear. “At one time, holding Rolling Stone was like holding a piece of hot shrapnel from the cultural explosion of the 1960s while it still glowed with feeling and meaning,” he writes.
An entire identity was coiled inside [the magazine’s] logo, the promise of never-ending provocation, never-ending progress. The rock-and-roll story lit the way. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. But those visions had morphed into the Me Decade, and the Me Decade had turned into Me Decades, and finally the falcon could no longer hear the falconer, not even in the pages of Rolling Stone.
Our culture has been determined by our technology. The electric guitar gave us rock and roll, which gave us Rolling Stone, a magazine remade again and again as its founder went from outside to inside, from grasping to rich, following not just fame but his own interests, which turned out to be shared by millions. Then the magazine was blown away by the next turn in technology. Rock and roll was deep and strange, which is why Rolling Stone was deep and strange. Social media are vast and shallow, which is why the magazine of my youth has gone the way of The Saturday Evening Post.
And yet, as much as I admire Hagan’s book, something is missing—the infectious charm of Wenner; his gleeful, here-goes, let’s-hope-we-don’t-get-shot zeal for adventure. You won’t come away with any sense of how much fun he could be in his heyday, how contagious his enthusiasm was, how important his loyalty could be. A writer needs to feel the freedom to look stupid, even to make a fool of himself, in order to do the kind of work he has always imagined but never before quite pulled off. Wenner let us feel that. Personality is what made him a one-of-a-kind leader, and it’s not here. Wenner’s pen and language weren’t what defined him as an editor. It was his vision and energy that attracted the best talent and inspired such memorable work.
A funny thing happens when a part of your life becomes official history. No matter how good that history is, the writer can’t help getting a crucial aspect wrong. All the facts might be correct, but the spirit is lost. The effect is like a body without a soul. Everything we read about the past is bound to be incomplete because, though we might know what unfolded, we can never really know how the experience felt. The story that gets pieced together takes the place of the memory, then becomes the memory. Because this book is so good, its portrait of Jann Wenner will stick in our heads. History is not what happened, but what remains when everything else is forgotten.
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