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sticky fingers: the life and times of jann wenner and rolling stone magazine

January 26, 2018

I recently finished reading Sticky Fingers, Joe Hagan’s 2017 biography of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone magazine. Even as a lifelong classic rock fan and Rolling Stone reader (albeit one who started reading full sentences around the time Nirvana was releasing Nevermind) this book gave me a whole new perspective on the era I love so much.

It quickly made me realize that I’d taken Rolling Stone for granted – knowing enough when I started reading it in high school to know that it was the music magazine that put heroes of mine, like Tom Petty and Bob Dylan on the cover, and still wrote about them even in issues with Britney Spears on the cover. Identifying as a reader of Rolling Stone back then helped me to establish what I thought of as my music-lover street cred. I knew that it started in San Francisco, and that the first issue had John Lennon on the cover, and that it was founded by a man named Jann Wenner but I didn’t really dive much deeper.

When the controversy over Hagan’s book began to bubble last year – Wenner himself being displeased with the level of personal detail it revealed, it shot to the top of my book list. Not because of the controversy but because I realized that all these years later I didn’t really know the whole story of the magazine I still subscribe to. Living in Los Angeles this past fall I was able to attend Hagan’s author event at Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard. He gave a great talk and spoke about the immense undertaking of authoring a biography on Wenner. But during the talk it became clear that Wenner was not just the true-blue rock fan I had always just assumed him to be, he is a tremendously powerful and divisive force in the pop culture and media landscape.

Sticky Fingers shows the ways that Rolling Stone helped to shape the mythology around rock & roll. How it, and largely Wenner himself, authored the winner’s history of rock that I grew up learning. This is probably not news to anyone who saw Rolling Stone unfold in real time, but I think for my generation it should be required reading. The Rolling Stone version of rock & roll history is the equivalent of the school textbook version of rock & roll history. Smoothed out edges, clean narratives, clear heroes – that isn’t what the true story of anything looks like but it is the packaged image that Wenner and Rolling Stone have successfully sold into mainstream culture.

Jann Wenner is a fascinating character and the book ultimately grapples with the question a lot of people in his life seemed to have asked themselves over the years – is he really a good guy or a bad guy? Of course no one is simply one or the other, but I think every reader of this book could come away with their own judgement of his particular mix.

I have always loved the “classic rock” era – not just for the incredible music but for the unique political, social, and cultural environment it was born out of. Over the  years I’ve read heaps of histories and biographies but Sticky Fingers illuminated an important corner of this world that I hadn’t fully considered. It’s a book that I’m glad to have on my shelf and one I heartily recommend picking up.

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