Ben Franklin, that quotable Founding Father, said that an autobiography generally reveals nothing bad about its author except his memory.
In Jann Wenner’s new book, it might be more a case of selective memory, which I guess is Frankin’s point.
Wenner is a co-founder and longtime publisher of Rolling Stone, a magazine that Bruce Springsteen said changed his life. I can’t say it changed my life but it made it a lot more fun.
I fell in love with Rolling Stone in its early years while a student at Ball State. Here was this big biweekly newspaper, started in 1967, that gave us page-after-page stories about our favorite rock bands — Cameron Crowe going on and on about the Allman Brothers or Ben Fong-Torres interviewing Bob Dylan.
Random Notes would report that Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell were living together but also, more importantly, that Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were about to tour. There were album reviews, politics, investigative pieces and, not the least, the classifieds, where not only were the for-sale items tantalizing but so too the personal notes. That’s where one college roommate finally tracked down a lost friend.
RS introduced or enhanced the careers of writers and photographers like Hunter S. Thompson, Jon Landau, Dave Marsh, Joe Klein, Annie Leibovitz, Greil Marcus and Richard Avedon.
Crawdaddy and Creem were fine, but lacked the charm and personality of Rolling Stone. Its cover was the zenith of rock-and-roll.
So, anyway, back to Wenner’s book, “Like A Rolling Stone: A Memoir.” It was published last month, seemingly as a rebuttal to Joe Hagan’s 2017 book, “Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine.”
Wenner actually had asked Hagan to write his biography and gave him access to a massive amount of information, but Wenner was pissed when he read Hagan’s 547-pager, calling it “deeply flawed and tawdry.”
So now we have Wenner’s 592-page memoir casting bright light on his career. It’s an entertaining read but not as satisfying as Hagan’s “Sticky Fingers,” which offers a more balanced account of both Wenner and Rolling Stone; one with both applause and criticism.
That said, Wenner’s book is full of fascinating anecdotes, particularly when he writes about how he and San Francisco jazz critic Ralph Gleason started RS on a dream and a shoestring budget. The publication’s unlikely growth could be attributed in large part to Wenner’s ability to attract top talent and capitalize on an untapped market: young readers, mostly Boomers, starved for stories about what mattered to them.
Also enlightening is how the magazine reacted to breaking stories, such as John Lennon’s death; the Patty Hearst saga, where RS learns the inside story of where Patty was hiding; the tragedy at Altamont, and the joy of Woodstock.
Rolling Stone was at the forefront of New Journalism. Cover stories ran as long as 10,000 words with the authors often part of the story. Other stories appeared as serials, such as Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of Vanities,” published in serial form in RS before it was released as a book.
Wenner is honest about his excessive drug use and sexuality. Both before and during his marriage to Jane, who was an important business partner, Wenner was active sexually with men. He eventually left his wife for a man and now shares three children with his ex-wife and three with his husband, Matt Nye.
Far too much of his book, however, is devoted to name-dropping, albeit big names. There are stretches where Wenner only jumps from one famous friendship to another — sailing with Mick Jagger, lunching with Jackie Onassis, tea with Bono, holidays with Yoko Ono, tennis with Art Garfunkel.
What stands out in Hagan’s book is old-fashioned reporting. Whereas Wenner explains how he talked a subject into an interview, Hagan reveals how those subjects — often Wenner’s friends — were given special treatment.
For a cover piece about Wenner’s buddy Michael Douglas and the film “The China Syndrome,” Douglas is permitted to make changes in the story before it goes to press, a journalistic sin. And when reviewer Greil Marcus ripped Dylan’s “Self Portrait” album (“What is this shit?”), an angry Wenner ordered a positive review that was published later.
“Sticky Fingers” also voices Rolling Stone staffers’ unflattering opinions of Wenner’s motives and tactics, like forcing out co-founder Gleason, who had become critical of the commercialization of the magazine.
Wenner sold RS in 2017 (although his son Gus remains the CEO). He had realized his vision — as reported by Hagan — of creating a publication that in writing about rock and roll and an anti-establishment culture would nonetheless “be recognized by the establishment … we wanted to be heard; wanted the music to be heard, we wanted to change things.”
He succeeded — and you have at least two strong options to read all about it.