Monday, June 17, 2019

Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine

Sticky Fingers by Joe Hagan
“Those bastards broke up Cream?!”

Yes, a negative Rolling Stone review that included the words “blues clich├ęs” made Eric Clapton faint, then ditch Cream in 1968. “I was in a restaurant and I fainted. After I woke up, I immediately decided that it was the end of the band,” Clapton is quoted as saying in the book (there was no word on how high you have to be to pass out over a bad review).

At this point, I stopped reading and excitedly told my Clapton-loving husband the tale. To which he exclaimed, “Those bastards broke up Cream?!” I was delighted at how ticked off he was, especially since the band broke up before either of us was born. It’s those delectable tidbits culled from four decades of Rolling Stone covering the music world (and Hollywood and politics) that make this book a fascinating read.

Author Joe Hagan did an incredible amount of research here and pulled it together masterfully. Most of the delightfully juicy bits hail from the ’60s and ’70s, where you get an eyeful about John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Annie Leibovitz, Hunter S. Thompson, and so many others from the glory days of living – and covering – the rock & roll lifestyle. The latter half of the book’s subtitle, The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, is what drew me in. I’m not hugely interested in Jann Wenner (pronounced, as the book tells us, “Yahn”) or about the business wheeling, dealing, and failures that made and almost unmade the magazine dozens of times over. I honestly didn’t remember even knowing his name, though I must have seen or heard it over the years. But Rolling Stone itself, that carried an aura of cool for me as a kid (even though, by the time I was reading it in the ’80s, the sheen was already fading).

I still have my 1984 issue featuring Duran Duran on the cover, stuffed in a cabinet with other mementos from the days when I first fixated on music (it shares a shelf with stacks of 45s that haven’t been played in decades – that’s record singles on actual vinyl for you youngsters out there). We still get every Rolling Stone issue (most going unread), thanks to some cheap lifetime subscription offer my husband signed up for long before we met.

The parts about Wenner’s business deals and backstabbing can be boring to wade through at times (unless you love that sort of thing, in which case, score!). However, there’s so much more here; I made a couple hundred highlights in my ebook.

To whet your appetite, here’s a sample of the stories that put my highlighting finger to use:

  • John Lennon and Yoko Ono at one time lived in the mansion from The Beverly Hillbillies.
  • Hunter S. Thompson showed up late to a party at a billionaire’s Palm Springs home and convinced everyone to take a mystery drug. “I don’t know what it is, who knows, it might be poison, but I think we should all take it tonight,” he told the billionaire. AND THEY TOOK IT! Meanwhile, Thompson abstained (a rarity for him) so he could enjoy watching everyone else trip (it was probably acid, at least that’s what he told Jane Wenner, Jann’s wife).
  • Annie Leibovitz, the famed photographer whose brilliant work for many years created captivating portraits for Rolling Stone’s covers, knew how to create an intimacy with her subjects, to even convince them to undress for photos (she often undressed to shoot them, too). She reportedly had liaisons with many of her cover subjects as well, including a tryst with Jagger on a beach, in addition to affairs with both Jane and Jann Wenner, who also were both enjoying other lovers (hey, it was the ’70s, and apparently people were having loads of sex. And drugs – so many drugs).
  • Leibovitz also staged a heist to recover years of her negatives from a greedy Wenner at one point. She overdosed on drugs more than once, with her dealers dropping her off in front of a hospital and speeding off (once Jane Wenner saved her life by bribing a doctor to treat Leibovitz right away as the photographer’s skin turned purple where she laid, dumped on a gurney in a hospital hallway). Also, the famous final photograph of a naked John Lennon wrapped around a clothed Yoko Ono was taken by Leibovitz only hours before Lennon was killed by crazed fan.
  • There are also stories here and there about Cameron Crowe’s early days writing for Rolling Stone as a teen (which he drew on heavily for the film “Almost Famous”). And about how in Crowe's interview with Jackson Browne that editor Ben Fong-Torres felt needed beefing up, Fong-Torres went out himself for more details. At which time he entered Browne’s home while the rocker was at the store, and proceeded to go through the entire house, including the bedroom. Fong-Torres described contents of rooms, and he printed lyrics from an unfinished song he’d found in Browne’s notebook, which he’d shamelessly rifled through. “I felt so violated. Like, I’m going to kill this guy. I’m gonna walk to San Francisco and walk across the fucking floor and deck this motherfucker,” Browne is quoted as saying. This is not a guy known as a badass of rock. He’s known for penning songs like Doctor My Eyes and Lawyers in Love. Yet RS drove him to a murderous rage. Good stuff.

There’s so much more about so many people, and of course, loads more about Jann Wenner, his many affairs with both men and women, his excesses, his grudges, his tantrums. Some of that is interesting even if, like me, Wenner himself wasn’t on your radar before this book. If you followed his career at all before now, I’m sure it’s even more fascinating.

The real gem, though, is learning more about this magazine that so captured a feeling and a culture, all revolving around rock & roll, and treated it as a serious topic worthy of newsprint. It took things that young people cared about and reported on them as something worthwhile at a time when that wasn’t common.

Bruce Springsteen recalled the magazine as a “lifeline” for a small-town teen in a band like himself when he bought the first issue in November 1967.

“You can’t explain to someone today how unique and essential those things were to the fiber of your being in those days,” Springsteen stated in the book. “They were the only validating pieces of writing that somebody else out there was thinking about rock music the way you were.”

There you have it, that’s the legacy. That’s what made Rolling Stone so special, and that’s what makes this book so appealing.

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