Jann Wenner doesn't like the way a new biography of him turned out. He's called the book “deeply flawed and tawdry.”
Maybe that's because that's a pretty good description of Wenner's life, which the author, Joe Hagan, explores in great (sometimes too great) detail, and with apparent honesty and allegiance to the truth. That's quite a bit more than Wenner's magazine did when it committed egregious journalistic sins in 2014's “A Rape on Campus,” the debunked story of a gang rape at the University of Virginia.
Hagan, once a Rolling Stone intern, portrays Wenner – who co-founded Rolling Stone in 1967 – as a driven visionary: wildly ambitious, conflicted, arrogant and insecure. Although he is sometimes tough on Wenner, Hagan is more than fair. Ultimately, he seems to agree with former Rolling Stone editor Will Dana that Wenner, torn between the virtues and vices of his generation, is “51 percent good.”
He tells, for example, of Wenner's journalistic leadership in covering that nightmare of craven stupidity and violent death that was the Altamont Free Concert in northern California. On Dec. 6, 1969 (less than four months after Woodstock's peace, love and hallucinogens in bucolic Upstate New York), the Rolling Stones played a set including “Sympathy for the Devil” as a Hells Angels member fatally stabbed a fan who approached the stage with a gun. (By some accounts, the Stones had hired the bikers as security and paid them with $500 worth of beer.) It was one of four deaths that night, the others accidental.
For Wenner, then 23, this was a make-or-break moment.
“If Rolling Stone was a professional newspaper about rock 'n' roll, the moment of truth was nigh,” as Hagan tells it. Until that point, Wenner had been something of a dilettante publisher, and the publication he had started with music critic Ralph Gleason was mostly a worshipful fanzine. He glorified the icons of rock, especially the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, profited from exalting them in his pages and lived to rub elbows with them in person.
Wenner had no wish to cross Mick Jagger, whose reputation was at stake in the Altamont disaster. But under pressure from more journalistically minded colleagues, Wenner rose to the occasion. He summoned his editors: “We're gonna cover this story from top to bottom and we're going to lay the blame.”
A high point – one of many. There would be low points, too, none worse than the journalistic debacle of the U-Va. rape expose. The story disintegrated (after Washington Post reporting found it largely baseless), and three libel suits followed.
The great Wenner, though, was clueless, both before and after publication – he had “read the story and thought it was great,” as Hagan tells it. In fact, the way the magazine handled it represented an utter failure of journalistic standards and practices. And when U-Va. associate dean Nicole Eramo's suit came to trial, Wenner made things even worse as he addressed her directly: “I'm very, very sorry. Believe me, I've suffered as much as you have.”
“It turned out to be a costly line,” writes Hagan. A federal jury awarded $3 million in damages.
The shameful chapter was especially painful because the magazine had done so much daring and much-imitated journalism – not only Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo adventures on the campaign trail but also Michael Hastings' unveiling of U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal's demeaning comments about then-Vice President Joe Biden, and Matt Taibbi's blistering takedowns of the banking industry after the financial meltdown a decade ago.
Just last month, Wenner, 71, said he would sell his controlling share of Rolling Stone, thus ending the era that began in a San Francisco loft in the fall of 1967 when the first issue came off the presses – the brainchild of this precocious 21-year-old Berkeley dropout with bell-bottom pants and a big idea. And an unparalleled sense of what the 1960s meant to a generation.
Hagan, now a contributing editor of New York magazine, had Wenner's full cooperation – and had in fact been invited to take on the project. But Hagan, to his credit, approached the book not as a rose-tinted “authorized biography” but as a serious work of narrative journalism. As such, it largely succeeds, wending its way through the decades, the music and the personalities – from singer Marianne Faithfull and photographer Annie Leibovitz to Bruce Springsteen and, of course, the Beatles and the Stones.
Along the way, Wenner's character – ever self-interested, ever calculating – comes under the microscope. So does his personal life, as he struggled to hide his homosexuality for many years, partly through a lengthy marriage to a woman. His own drug use, and that of Rolling Stone's contributors, is part of the story, hardly a surprise given the era.
Yet earlier this month, Hagan's invitation to appear on stage with Wenner at a November event in Manhattan was withdrawn, and the New York Post described the mogul as “fuming” over what he read, saying that the book dwelled too much on drug use and his sexuality.
Whatever his flaws, Wenner emerges here as a major cultural influence because of his brilliant creation: a publication that changed journalism and captured the zeitgeist.
“At one time,” Hagan writes, picking up a copy of 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.”
The Age of Aquarius has long passed, and Rolling Stone is no longer revolutionary – or nearly as relevant as in its heyday. But Hagan not only helps us understand how terribly much it seemed to matter, once upon a time. He also, through his nuanced portrait of Wenner, shows us how thoroughly the publication reflected its founder, warts and all.
Margaret Sullivan is the media columnist for the Washington Post.