Rolling Stone founder’s biography filled with juicy gossip, grudges and confessions

Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine tells the life story of the man who helped shape a generation.

Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner handpicked Joe Hagan, pictured, to write his biography.

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Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner handpicked Joe Hagan, pictured, to write his biography.

If you want to understand how the rebellious kids of ’60s counterculture became the indulgent boomers of today, look to Rolling Stone and its co-founder and publisher Jann Wenner. For journalist Joe Hagan, Wenner represents the hubris of that generation, putting the “'me' in the ‘me decade.’ ”

“His desires were their desires in uncut form,” says Hagan, author of Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine. More than a rock biography, the 560-page tome covers broad ground as a cultural and media analysis, and as a study of ridiculous egos. Wenner, with his obsessive need for control, handpicked Hagan to write the book, introducing the New York journalist to hundreds of sources like Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and Annie Leibowitz. Hagan ensured Wenner couldn’t read the manuscript until after it was completed, but it’s clear the media mogul assumed Sticky Fingers would stand as a celebratory hagiography. Wenner’s formidable achievements are all there, but sandwiched between confessions, grudges, painful moments and juicy gossip. (In a statement, Wenner called Sticky Fingers “deeply flawed and tawdry.”)

“Jann has a powerful self-image that competes with some of the things that are in the book,” says Hagan. “He’s at this stage in his life, it’s the 50th anniversary of the magazine, it’s a tough time for him to have to reckon with this, I get that. I devoted myself to making this a great book, and I disagree with his assessment of it.”

Hagan speculates that Wenner, who didn’t come out publicly until the ’90s, is upset that details of his intimate life were exposed. “That Jann was in the closet for 27 years was the unknown factor in the history of Rolling Stone,” says Hagan, who didn’t pry into Wenner’s affairs to be salacious, but rather to decode what readers have consumed over five decades. “His world view, including his sexuality, informed what was going to be on the cover. The image of the sexualized rock star was something Jann was really tuned into.”

Beyond the interviews, Wenner also gave Hagan access to his archive, housed in a Catskills storage facility. That’s where he read an old letter from the Rolling Stones demanding that Wenner change the magazine’s name or face legal action, which Hagan says reflects the power-struggle subtext of Wenner and Jagger’s relationship. But the most intriguing person to emerge in the book is Wenner’s former wife, Jane, whose appeal, according to Hagan, was key to Wenner’s success. It took Hagan more than a year to convince the interview-shy Jane to speak about a partnership that was celebrated publicly, but privately was a source of misery. “The marriage ended up being the emotional core of the book,” says Hagan. “It wasn’t all a big party. Underneath, there was a lot of darkness and suffering, just like life.”

Sticky Fingers’s novelistic, character-driven structure owes a lot to another darkly nostalgic story of the era. Hagan, who was influenced by the television show Mad Men, also observed parallels between Wenner and Mad Men’s enigmatic ad man, Don Draper. “My central character is Draper-like in that he’s conflicted, and you don’t like him a lot of the time,” says Hagan. “But sometimes, you’re hoping for him.”

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