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

February 20, 2018 by Nantucket Book Festival

Joe Hagan was watching at the sun setting over Nantucket Sound, cocktail in hand, from the deck of a Cliff Road home. It was the final gathering of the 2017 Nantucket Book Festival weekend—a much anticipated dinner hosted by Mary Haft, the President of the Board of Directors of the Nantucket Book Foundation and co-founder of the Book Festival.

Hagan, the husband of author Samantha Hunt, was accompanying his wife to the festival, where her much acclaimed novel Mr. Splitfoot was a featured book.

I had seen them both, mostly hand in hand, at various author readings. I knew he was a journalist, having recognized his name from by-lines to articles in New York Magazine. Interested in talking with him, I walked over and introduced myself, then asked what he was working on.

“I just finished a pretty big project, actually, an autobiography of Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone Magazine,” he said.

A big project indeed.

Hagan’s Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine is a detailed, thoroughly researched 507-page journalistic narrative that wends its way through seven decades of music, music business, politics of the times, and personalities - the Beatles, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, Elton John, The Who, The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, Joni Mitchell, The Talking Heads, Bruce Springsteen, Prince - an endless list of Americas top music industry movers and shakers.

Hagan spent dozens of hours personally interviewing Wenner, plus he had access to 500 boxes of notes, pictures, postcards, recordings, and correspondence Wenner stored in an underground vault for safekeeping during the Three Mile Island meltdown. The result is a fascinating, in-depth look into an era that changed America.

Rolling Stone Magazine was considered The Counterculture Bible of the Baby Boomers. Its humble beginnings took place in a San Francisco loft in the fall of 1967—the brilliant creation of a precocious, privileged twenty-one-year-old Berkeley dropout -- a social climber with lofty ideas, who succeeded in creating a magazine that represented an unparalleled sense of what the 1960s meant to a generation.

Hagan met Wenner and his family by happenstance in 2013 at a diner in a small town in New York State, where Joe had recently moved with his wife and kids. They struck up a conversation, and being a good neighbor, Jann invited the Hagans to his son’s birthday party that weekend.

“He had an unbelievably beautiful estate on the river—big house, gorgeous property. Annie Leibovitz was there with her kids, Jann’s sister and her kids, and Jann, his wife, and their many kids, and Matt [Nye]―his now husband―and an exotic animal handler who was there with a big blue macaw. I thought, this is surreal. I just had scrambled eggs with this guy and here I am. It was other worldly, and I became completely and instantly fascinated with him.”

Over the next two summers, Wenner invited Joe over to his house for lunch several times. They’d talk about journalism, the magazine business, politics, and kids. Eventually, Jann asked to see Joe’s work. Impressed by a piece he’d written on Karl Rove for New York Magazine, he decided to assign Joe a couple of Rolling Stone magazine pieces (Hagan had been an intern at the magazine years prior.)

In the fall of 2013, Wenner had already begun talking to Hagan about leaving New York Magazine and working for Rolling Stone.

“I really didn’t want to leave New York, and finally realizing this, Jann said, ‘Well, how about writing my biography?’ I was floored. I felt like he dropped a bomb in my lap.

“I knew that two previous books, by Lewis McAdams and Rich Cohen, hadn’t worked out. MacAdams spent five years writing his book, interviewed hundreds of people, wrote entire chapters, and the whole thing blew up because Jann hated it. Jann has thrown a few writers under the bus in his day. I didn’t want to be one of them. ”

In order to protect himself, before he even began writing it, Hagan drew some lines in the sand.

“I told him I would not do it as an authorized book. He said that was fine, except he wanted have some control over what I wrote about who he had sex with.

“I needed carte blanche to his archives, and the authority to write what I needed to write and told him he could not read it until it was in galley, and I stood my ground until he gave me what I wanted.”

Did he?

“Well, he did, but still, the one thing he was most concerned about was his sex life. The caveate was that I was able to write anything about it if it related to Rolling Stone or any of his other magazines and anything that he told me about it on the record. But I also knew Jann was a very frank guy, and I knew this was a huge opportunity for me.”

In the end, Wenner dismissed Hagan’s book as well, but this time, the book was already at the presses. After reading a prepublication galley of Sticky Fingers, Wenner was livid and denied Hagan access to their co-headlined panel discussion that same night at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York. They haven’t spoken since.

Rolling Stone celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, but at age 71, Wenner is selling. The sale plans were devised by Mr. Wenner’s 27-year-old son, Gus who has cut back Wenner Media, Rolling Stone’s parent company, in response to financial pressures. The Wenners recently sold the company’s other two magazines, Us Weekly and Men’s Journal.

Sticky Fingers is a long and fascinating read, so I suggest you start in now, before the Book Festival. Joe Hagan’s author reading will be top on your list to attend.

By Ryder Ziebarth