'He De-Friended Me on Instagram': Joe Hagan Discusses Controversial Bio of 'Rolling Stone' Co-Founder Jann Wenner
The season’s most sensational book on the media -- Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine -- is also the juiciest music read in ages.
Author Joe Hagan, an accomplished journalist who has written for Billboard, was granted full access to Wenner – who co-founded and has edited Rolling Stone throughout its 50-year history — and his meticulously kept archives for the book, out Oct. 27. He also interviewed dozens of artists and industry machers, including Paul McCartney, U2 frontman Bono, Mick& Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and his manager Jon Landau and mogul David Geffen, who share stories of Wenner and his rarefied circle’s clashes and excesses through the drug- and sex-drenched decades.
On the eve of the book's publication, Billboard spoke to Hagan about his candid conversations with rock's A-list, Wenner's negative reaction to the finished biography and the parallels between Wenner and Donald Trump.
How many interviews did you conduct for this book and how long did it take to write?
Four years. I did 250 all together and about 20 of them were musicians.
A lot of major rock artists talked to you. Did Wenner ask them to speak to you?
Jann would prompt them. He wanted them to talk for the book. And he was very forthright about saying he wanted them to tell the whole story. I remember feeling that these weren't going to be very interesting interviews. I assumed that they were going to give soft hagiographic versions of history, like you often find in biographies... but it turns out nobody’s ever asked these artists to talk about their coverage in Rolling Stone.
Some very famous artists gave you some really candid quotes.
It turns out that many of them had long and very complicated relationships with Jann, and, in some cases, they were very eager to unload. The most shocking to me was my interview with Paul McCartney. He was a fount of all these stories and grievances. The same with Jackson Browne. They were people who, on the surface, would still gladhand with Jann and have a picture taken with him.
Let's get back to that. You recount a story where Paul helped bring John Lennon and Yoko Ono back together after his "Lost Weekend" period. I've never read that anywhere.
I'm part of all these Facebook news groups with Beatles junkies, and somebody mentioned that McCartney may have discussed this once with David Frost in, like, 1990. But it's not commonly known. And I must say that it was a real lucky break for me, because when I interviewed [McCartney], I had brought an image of a Polaroid photo that I describe in the book.
This is the "Palm Sunday" photo that Lennon sends to Wenner that reads, "How do you sleep???!!!"
Yes, and it prompted McCartney. He was like "Oh, let me tell you all about this whole scene. I remember it well." And it turned out that the story foreshadows Lennon returning to New York. I’m sitting there with Paul McCartney, and he's telling me this. My jaw was hanging.
When you refer to McCartney's "grievances," he felt that Rolling Stone turned John Lennon into a “martyr” after his murder and, in the process, overshadowed McCartney’s own achievements.
It was always his contention that Jann and Yoko basically collaborated to turn Lennon into the Christ figure. Even before the interview, I'd heard that Jann and Paul didn't get along, partly because Jann was influenced by Yoko. And, Yoko and Paul are not the best of pals. I’ve got to tell you, going into some of these interviews, I was thinking, "This all happened in the '60s and they’re over it by now." But you know what? They never get over it.
McCartney also was hurt that he was asked to induct John Lennon into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but then wasn't inducted himself until two years later, despite what he thought was a promise that he'd get the nod the following year. Do you think that it was deliberate or an oversight?
Jann’s argument is that he really doesn’t have control over it -- and that if Paul thought that he had made that deal, it was a misunderstanding on Paul’s part. I didn't do an investigative report there. I'll leave that to another reporter who wants to resolve that for all time.
To me the real takeaway is that everybody believes Jann has his thumb on the scale when it comes to who gets into the Hall of Fame. And that Jann doesn't go out of his way to disabuse people of that. The biggest red flag, I suppose, is that many people campaign to Jann for their artist to get into the Hall of Fame, because they believe that if Jann would like that artist to be in the Hall of Fame, it will happen.
You also spoke to Mick Jagger, who comes off looking like the smartest guy in the room. He uses the similarity of Rolling Stone’s name to his band’s as legal leverage over Wenner.
Absolutely. And that’s why he and Jann got along: They were pragmatists. I go back to the quote that Pete Townshend gave me about coming of age surrounded by people lost in drugs and political rhetoric and realizing that, if they play this right, they’ll come out on top -- “standing on a pile of corpses, perhaps, but having survived.” I found that to be an amazing insight and totally true.
And then there’s Keith Richards on Mick Jagger. What’s the comparison Richards makes between Jagger and Wenner?
He said that they were both fishermen. There's a quote in the book where he says, "Once Mick gets a hook in, he’s not going to let it go." He also said of Jann and Mick: “They’re both very guarded creatures. You wonder if there’s anything worth guarding.” He said they’re not his kind of people -- that he doesn’t want to hang out with guys like this.
In terms of the artists you interviewed, who else surprised you?
Art Garfunkel. He was very frank about who Jann was, and some of the things that Jann did. David Geffen, too. He’s not a rock star, but he says exactly what’s on his mind. At the same time, he’s also a little terrifying. Perhaps to give me a little bit of a fright, he told me the entire backstory of his experience with Tom King, his own biographer.
King died suddenly at a very young age -- he was in his late 30s.
Yes, he described being informed that Tom King had died and how happy he was about that. And I was like, Wow, that’s truly frightening. Can we move on to another subject? But I really appreciated his frankness.
For a magazine that celebrated rock-and-roll culture, I was surprised at how often Wenner feuded with some of its biggest stars. He loved John Lennon, but didn't think twice about turning his Rolling Stone interviews with Lennon into a book -- against the former Beatle's wishes. As you point out, they never spoke again, and this was not an isolated case.
He would bite the hand that fed him. But it was also a sign that he truly believed that he had the power. He had the barrel of ink that was always going to give him the de facto leverage, that he needed to do whatever he wanted. This was what people said again and again to me in interviews. And in a way that kind of unpredictable chaos made Rolling Stone interesting. That's one of the reasons it was a great magazine in the '70s. It really did stir the pot.
You begin the book with a scene of John Lennon weeping as he watches Paul McCartney singing in the Let It Be documentary, and later, you point out that Wenner's bright shining moment as the editor of Rolling Stone was the issue after Lennon was murdered. Why is he so important to Sticky Fingers?
You see the distance Jann had traveled from the beginning of his magazine to that moment in history, December 1980, when Lennon was killed. At the inception of Rolling Stone, Jann made its reputation and business on the image of John Lennon, and on Lennon’s fame. He personally worshipped The Beatles and Lennon. His subsequent betrayal of Lennon is the essential blueprint of Jann’s nature. And that set the template for so many of Jann’s relationships.
But later, when Lennon dies, there's a sense that Jann recognizes he needs to make things right... that there's karma, and he needs to re-balance. He creates this iconic issue around Lennon’s death, and then he befriends Yoko.
Did Wenner ever try to put the brakes on you, or resist cooperating?
No, he never tried to stop me, but he did push very hard to try to get me to let him read the book before I submitted it. And I just said, "I can’t do it."
It's been reported that Wenner does not like Sticky Fingers. Has he told you why?
No. He’s gone radio silent. He de-friended me on Instagram. That’s the most I can say. Through the grapevine, I've heard that he thinks it’s salacious. And he hates the title. He doesn’t like the sexual stuff.
Very early in the book, you delve into Wenner being secretly gay before coming out in the '90s. Why was that important to the storyline?
The contradiction of Jann’s life is that he was mastering a hetero rock and roll world while a closeted gay man. And that defined a lot. Jann had a great power to compartmentalize. He could live life as a straight man while being gay secretly. He could be a righteous magazine editor while also collecting the cash as the publisher. He could, as you said, be friends with somebody one day, then stick a knife in them the next.
There was a binary aspect of his personality -- which, as I point out in the book, is built right into his name. His mother wrote in his baby book that his name was a reference to the mythological figure Janus. "Two-headed,' she wrote. "Gatekeeper of heaven." When I saw that it blew my mind.
After spending so much time with Wenner, did you still like him once you were finished with the book?
I have a great affection for Jann. But the thing that I felt like I could do for him is make an accurate mirror of his life. Whether he can bear to look at it is not my cross to bear. I did my job.
You were supposed to moderate a discussion with him about Rolling Stone here in New York, but were disinvited after he read the book. How did you find out about it?
I heard about it through my publisher. The Rolling Stone publicist called Knopf and said, "Hey, he’s off the bill." And I figured, "Well, there it is." There’s his response.
I sent Jann the book about a month ago, because I wanted to give him time to digest it. And maybe this is hubris, but I'm confident that he will one day come around to this book. I didn't spend this much of my life writing a 500-page book, and tossing and turning every night because I hate him. He lived an amazing, gigantic, crazy, book-worthy life. When the title of the book was revealed, he was really upset. I said, "Jann, I wanted this book to feel as alive on the page as the life you lived. If it’s not exciting, then it’s not your life."
You draw a pretty direct comparison between Wenner and Donald Trump. How did you arrive at that?
I was in the back half of this book during the election, and I really wasn’t thinking about the connection. But people started calling me out of the blue -- including friends of Jann. One in particular, who I don’t want to name, said, "I've got to tell you. I’ve been watching Trump on TV, and every time I see him or hear something he says, I’m like, 'God, it sounds just like Jann.'" And when more than one person tells you something unprompted, you are forced to think, "Well, I’ve got to look at that."
What was your conclusion?
As I wrote in the book, the two most successful magazines of the 1970s were People and Rolling Stone, and they both did something similar: They reinvented celebrity for the new age. And over the years, fame and celebrity -- super-powered by the Internet, of course -- have become completely decoupled from ideas, idealism or anything that Rolling Stone once represented in the '70s.
And look at Us Weekly, which Jann made a huge pile of money on. Us Weekly is the template for modern fame, and for Trump. Fame is power. It’s not like Donald Trump has any ideas. He’s just a fame monster. And fame is a thing that Jann understood. He helped invent it. He crafted some of the precepts that we think of as fame today. I’m not saying that Jann is responsible for Donald Trump -- but there is a cultural rhyming here. And I felt like I had to point that out.
Throughout the book, you cite album reviews of what are now considered classics by Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, McCartney and other major artists that were panned by Rolling Stone's critics. I thought it was interesting that, in a number of cases, they didn't get it right.
It wasn’t about being right. It was about being controversial or having a strong opinion. The legacy of some of these reviews is not very good, but it made the readers want to argue with them. That’s why the letters column was so great in Rolling Stone in the '70s. People would write in, and they were just so pissed off. And of course, Jann loved that. He lived and breathed that kind of controversy. Of course, he eventually started to hate all these critics, because they were messing things up with his friends.
All of the great magazines of the 20th century were extensions of the people who ran them. Can Rolling Stone survive without Jann Wenner?
It's just my belief, but no. Rolling Stone is Jann. It’s almost like a phantom limb.
Is there anybody out there in the mold of Jann Wenner who has been able to stay on top of the culture in the wake of the digital revolution?
I don’t think so. The key here is that magazines and the whole print medium engendered cultural gatekeepers, and the Internet destroyed their power. One of the more fascinating discoveries for me when I was writing this book was the exchange that Jann has with Mick Jagger about the Internet. They’re talking about AOL and Compuserve, and Jagger says, "You can get all of this gossip in these newsgroups." And Jann says, "You mean anybody can write from their little offices, saying, 'I hate this fuck...?' Shit, that's dangerous."
He recognized that it wasn't good for him and Rolling Stone. It wasn’t good for any of the print gatekeepers, because the Internet transferred all of the power and leverage to the Facebooks and the Googles of the world. The content providers are no longer the culture-makers. It's the people who shape how information is traded.