Rolling Stone’s legendary cofounder, editor, and publisher Jann Wenner had been fairly quiet, publicly at least, in the few years since Joe Hagan signed on to write his biography.
Well, no longer.
As Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine nears its October 24 publication date, Wenner has made it quite clear: He does not like Joe Hagan’s book.
Wenner’s response is not a surprise. Sticky Fingers, meticulously researched and reported, is the result of hundreds of interviews, not only with famed musicians and actors, but friends, business associates, and employees of Wenner going back decades. And oftentimes, what they’ve said is deeply critical. Two pages into the prologue, Wenner is likened to a “boy vampire” and, according to his own staff, a “starfucker.” (With good reason, as the next 500 pages makes clear.)
Hagan and I recently talked about these on-the-record insults, as well as his legal agreement with Wenner, getting good material out of celebrities, and the future of Rolling Stone. (In the interest of disclosure, we were colleagues at The New York Observer, pre-Jared Kushner.)
In the afterward, you write of Jann Wenner: “He wanted the right to review the most deeply personal matters, namely his sex life.” Well?
He never reviewed any of the book. I created a memo, which went beyond what I was legally obligated to do for him, where I said, basically, Here are all the instances in the book where it’s mentioned that you’re having sex with somebody.
It was part of the dance we had been doing. We had an agreement at the very beginning of this whole thing about how this was going to go down. It was a long, protracted negotiation that, for me, was all about keeping my independence as a biographer.
How did you get to that point? You first truly got to know Wenner as neighbors, more or less, in Tivoli, New York.
In 2013, he invited me and my wife and kids to his house for his son’s birthday party. He had an unbelievably beautiful, palatial spread on the river. And I get down there and Annie Leibovitz is there with her kids. There’s Jann and his many kids, and Matt [Nye]―his now husband―and an exotic animal handler who was there with a big blue macaw. And his sister Kate and her husband. That was the whole party, and us. It was like, I just met the guy, and here I am.
I remember being in the pool, looking at him. Jann had poured us all a glass of rosé, so there were glasses on the little tables around the pool. I was fascinated with him. Like, who is this guy? This lavish display of wealth and taste was just all very impressive. My inner Tom Wolfe was just going whoa. I’ll never forget seeing him go from table to table, consolidating everybody’s rosé into his glass and then drinking it. That was a moment for me when I was like, That is really fascinating. My first thought was he was not a refined, sophisticated guy. He’s a man of appetites. A ruffian.
Later on, his kids had a giant water balloon fight, and there were these little rubber nubs left over from the balloons, lying all over the place. Jann was going around, meticulously picking up each and every one of these little leftover nubs from the exploded balloons and putting them in his pocket. I became fascinated with him. It was just interesting to see these kinds of behaviors from somebody of his status and stature.
I understand Jann, I think, in some ways that he doesn’t even understand himself. But I knew I had to write a book that would make him live on the page. And this is the life he lived. Even his own sister, Merlyn, said she didn’t know how Jann would deal with the book, because part of his story is that he didn’t always treat people right.
Then what happened?
Over the next two summers, he invited me over to his house for lunch a few times. We’d talk about journalism, the magazine business, or politics. Then he got interested in my writing, and I sent him my profile of Karl Rove and this piece I did on Nina Simone, which he loved. Jann forwarded it to Bette Midler and she replied, Oh, I read it and I loved it, and then he sent me back her reply. Of course, I liked that. Then he assigned me a couple of Rolling Stone magazine pieces.
In the fall of 2013, he was sort of pressuring me to come to Rolling Stone full-time as a political correspondent. I was reluctant, mainly because I loved New York and I felt a lot of freedom there. He comes to my house and picks me up in this Porsche and we go driving up to this restaurant in Rhinebeck. And it’s exciting to be courted by this huge magazine figure—whom I had met in the past, by the way, but I didn’t know him.
During that lunch, he could see that I was hemming and hawing about coming to Rolling Stone. Then he pivots. “Well how about writing my biography?” he says. I was like, That’s a big bomb to drop, and I have to think about that one.
I had asked him about it previously. Oh, are you going to write a memoir? Because he was always telling me these rock-and-roll stories. He said he’d tried in the past and it didn’t work out. I said, “Well, let me think about it, Jann,” and then I spent a couple days thinking about it, and I was very nervous. I found that the two previous books, by Lewis McAdams and the Rich Cohen, hadn’t worked out. MacAdams spent five years on a book, interviewed tons of people and wrote chapters, and the whole thing imploded. And I knew who Jann Wenner was, just from being in the magazine business. If you’re in the magazine business, what are the associations of Jann Wenner? Mercurial. That’s the word everybody uses about him and he’s known as kind of a pirate; a guy that threw a few people overboard in his time.
How did you protect yourself?
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 thought, Well, that’s weird. I also worried, I told Jann, about whether he could be frank about negative information. “If I come at you with negative things, I need to know that you can handle it,” I said. He has a healthy self-confidence. So I suggested to Jann that I come to his office at Rolling Stone, armed with a memo, and present him with some negative things that I’ve heard about him, just see how he’d react.
I read Robert Draper’s book, Rolling Stone: The Uncensored History, which has some classic Wenner anecdotes in it. Sitting in his office, I kept asking, Is this true? Is this true? He got just irritated that I was bringing it up, as if he didn’t know that was the premise of the entire meeting. So I came away from that meeting a bit disheartened. I sent him a letter that said, I can’t do this. I think you’re looking for somebody who can write an authorized book with you, and I think you should write that book, and it will be great. But I don’t want to write that book because I need carte blanche.
Was he upset? His wooing had failed.
He didn’t like that, because I was telling him no. And so, for the next two or three weekends, we met for coffee and hashed it out. He was pressuring me. First, Well, why can’t you do an authorized book? Then, Okay, don’t do it authorized, but just agree to let me have control over one aspect of the book. I said, “Well, why do you want that kind of control?” I was very paranoid about that. Immediately I thought, what’s he hiding? I mean, if you’re a reporter, that’s your next thought, right? Also, he was closeted for most of his life while running this famous magazine that’s about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. How could you not explore that? He’s like, Well, I’d be willing to explore all that. I just don’t want you to name names. I said, “Does that mean you had relations with people who are on the cover? With famous people?” I said, “If it turns out you had sex with Michael Douglas, I got to be able to write that you had sex with Michael Douglas, because he’s on the cover three times.”
I was just confronting him with this stuff. We had this very frank, open conversation. I said, “Jann, did you have sex with Michael Douglas?” “No,” he says. “Did you have sex with John Travolta?” “No.” Because there were rumors that had flown around, so I had nothing to lose by being open and straight with him.
Jann Wenner and Michael Douglas attend a dinner for the 26th annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at The Waldorf=Astoria on March 14, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage)
I gather you made this all legal.
Finally, we had a meeting where Jann agreed that we’d draw up a contract, so I could have the assurances I needed to do the book. Between my lawyer and Jann’s lawyer, we started working on it.
There were two legal caveats. First, there was the sex. I said, “Jann, if I discover anything that has any relationship to the business of Rolling Stone, I have to be able to write about it.” That’s a big footprint, because there was a lot of overlap between his sex life and the business of the magazine. I had to explore every aspect of Jann’s sexual life, if for no other reason than to give myself comfort that I wasn’t missing something, or there wasn’t something that he was covering up. I always looked at Mark Whitaker’s Bill Cosby book as this cautionary tale.
The second caveat was, if he said anything to me on the record, it stayed on the record. That turned out to be a very large loophole because most people―Jann’s not alone in this―tend to just tell you everything anyway after you’ve talked for awhile. So we signed on the dotted line.
I heard you had a 50-page proposal.
I had to write a sample chapter. So I pulled up a bunch of stuff from Jann’s archive. The first thing I thought to write about was John Lennon, who was on Rolling Stone’s first cover. And there’s all these assorted letters and they’re all amazing and you can’t believe you’re looking at them. They’re sort of historical and tactfully organized, and he’s got them all in plastic. Telegrams and postcards and drawings and photographs.
At first, I didn’t know what to make of it. It seemed like just random trivia to me. But as I started piecing it together, this whole story emerged that Jann had this kind of hand-in-glove operation with Lennon in the late ’60s. Then Jann got this massive interview with Lennon, and then published it as a book against Lennon’s will and betrayed him. This was all in there in the archive.
I went to interview Jann about this. We were sitting by a fireplace, and Matt Nye kept coming in to serve us coffee. It was just sort of a ridiculous tableau. He said, “Yeah, that was a mistake I made. I regret doing that.” I thought, now we’re getting somewhere. This is an interesting story. These kinds of stories could make a great book.
I mean, this was great timing. It’s the only way it could have happened. And I have to say: my caution was probably a leverage point for me, because I think Jann knew he didn’t have many more bullets in the chamber, in terms of getting writers to write his book. He did like that I lived near him, because he thought that was sort of an element of control for him. There was always an underlying current of You’re in my orbit by living near me and of course you wouldn’t do anything to upset me.
You seemed to talk to everybody. Did Wenner push his friends to cooperate?
He would tell everybody, Don’t hold back. Tell him everything. He started this whole process with a lot of enthusiasm and gusto. There was almost a thread of therapy about it. This is the moment. With the anniversary coming up, he was basically starting to plan to check out, to become, like, editor emeritus. I didn’t know at the time, and I’m not even sure he did, either, that that would mean selling the magazine.
In giving all these people permission to talk, he was shooting the moon. Jann is a person who is not reflective, okay? He’s not a person that’s spent much time thinking about his life in a therapeutic or psychological way. In some ways, coming to talk to me and going through history was his weekend hobby. He loved hearing from me what people had said about him. He enjoyed the whole feedback loop.
Your sources are so forthcoming. It’s unusual to read anything, much less a biography, where people as famous as Dylan and McCartney openly mock the subject of the book.
I was constantly bowled over by people’s unprovoked interest in telling me a story. Including Mick Jagger. I would say, What did you think about when Rolling Stone first came out and had a name like your band? This is the very beginning of the interview. He says, “But the better question is, why did he have to call it that? Why did he think that was a good name?” He just went on this whole monologue about it. I thought, Oh, he had something on his mind. After Mick had said his piece about that, you could see he basically lost interest in the interview. He was just, like, That was what I wanted to say.
Some of these people had things they had been wanting to say or that they wanted to be known. Paul McCartney, I barely had to ask the guy a question. He just went on these big, long tears about his feelings about the Beatles breakup and where Jann Wenner fit into all that. And also the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame thing. I barely asked him about it and he was just letting it be known.
We were at this stage in all of these men’s history where they have nothing to lose. They had strong feelings about how Jann had treated them through the years, to good and bad effect.
With Dylan, that was just a weird interview. Basically, he recited these answers to his secretary, and they were sent to me.
You mean you didn’t interview him in person?
Well, they didn’t want that to be known, but fuck it. You know? That’s the truth. They sent me all these answers and they were weird and kind of like―what’s the word? Parsimonious.
Interviewing famous people is hard because they lean on canned stories.
Yeah, and here’s what I will say about that: The subject of Jann Wenner is one that nobody ever asks about. Everybody asks them about, Oh, tell me about the Beatles breakup. Now, change the question to, Tell me about Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone‘s place in the Beatles breakup. Tell me about his relationship to John Lennon and how that made you feel when Rolling Stone published that interview and then what was your posture towards Jann after that? Of course he had a lot to say about that. He went very deep into the Beatles history and I was just kind of gobsmacked by the whole thing.
It’s a shame that Wenner dislikes the book because my takeaway was he’d been a much better editor than I ever thought. He was a genius about hiring people.
That was Jann’s big thing; he could recognize people who were super ambitious, but who had one foot in and one foot out of the culture they were covering. He recognized you could take these broken toys from the Los Angeles Times, like David Felton who were going to be doing lots of nitrous oxide, taking acid, but who were brilliant journalists. That guy. He’ll be perfect for us. We just have to make him work. Same with Hunter and all these guys. You know, they have incredible talent but they’re unwieldy, right? That was perfect for the culture they were covering.
One subtle thread in the book is the whiteness of Rolling Stone. [Advertising director] Claeys Bahrenburg said, “He would no more put a black person on the cover than a man on the moon. The reality is that black people don’t sell.” It was a really white magazine.
Totally. (Rolling Stone cofounder) Ralph Gleason took Jann to task for that in the TV documentary from 1973. He’s on camera saying there’s not enough black people in this magazine. Of course, he was the big jazz critic and friends with Duke Ellington and all these people. But by then, Jann was like, Okay, old man, whatever you say. He wasn’t taking it seriously.
That’s rock and roll, man. Rock and roll’s a white culture. From the Rolling Stones covering Howlin’ Wolf, there was always like a vampiric relationship between the white rock and rollers and the black people who inspired all their music. Jann was just an expression of that. I mean, Jann didn’t invent that. He just reflected what was going on in the culture.
He was helping create it, too, but he was creating it in partnership with the white rock and rollers themselves. The same criticism, by the way, went to MTV early on before they got religion with Michael Jackson and hip-hop, right? When Michael Jackson was going to be the big pop star at MTV, Jann was like, “No, that’s not for us.” He actually told CBS that black artists didn’t sell. That said, he did end up publishing a Jackson cover in February 1983. I made a mistake in the book and wrote that Wenner didn’t publish one. My fact checker caught the error and it will be corrected in subsequent printings.
What was your favorite find, as far as hidden files, transcripts, and photos?
There was a former publisher, Joe Armstrong, who broke up with Jann in 1977 and, to this day, grouses about it. Joe was very concerned with having his place in this history. At first, I was like, Well, so is everybody. That’s one thing you contend with in a biography; people come at you and demand to be in the book because they’re so important. In Joe’s case, it turned out to be true. He really reinvented Rolling Stone‘s relationship with the advertising community in the ’70s and gave them a huge leg up in the major categories, as they would say―alcohol, tobacco, cars. He really sold Rolling Stone on Madison Avenue. Joe sent me just all these files he’d kept over the years. A lot of them I did not find in Jann’s archives, let’s put it that way.
Then there was Robert Sam Anson. Sam Anson interviewed Jann in 1976, with the caveat that Jann would get to edit the interview and cut things he didn’t want in the story Sam Anson was writing for New Times. Well, in this collection of research that Joe Armstrong sent me was the full, unedited transcript of Jann’s Sam Anson interview. Jann had crossed out a lot of things, but I could see exactly what he had crossed out. It was the unvarnished story that Jann was telling, at the height of his success. That was some very rich material.
One of the wilder aspects of the book was the section about Danny Fields’s 1971 recording of 16-year-old Tony Pinck, and Pinck’s discussion of his affair with Wenner. Did you listen it?
I have it. I listened to the entire thing. It was not in Wenner’s archive. For a while, Jann acted like he didn’t know what I was talking about, but I know that he knows what I was talking about. It was not something he was hoping I’d find. The truth is, Danny Fields told me about it. Danny had a ton of these tapes, most of which he donated to Yale University. But this tape was not in that collection. “That’s the one tape I never had,” and he says, “Tony still has it.” He tells me Tony is a chef down in Miami, and I should call him. Jann had already told me about the existence of Tony, that he’d had an affair with him and it had caused a wrinkle in his marriage.
It showed the danger that Jann was in as a guy who was trying to live in the closet. I thought, that’s very important because Jann was afraid of being exposed, and probably rightly so.
I called up Tony and he was great, just a really funny, gracious guy. Had amazing tales of being in the center of that whole scene at Max’s Kansas City in the late ’60s, early ’70s. Tony and I met and became friends. And then I said, “Tony, do you have this tape?” Yeah, I got it. I said, “Well, can you transfer it to a CD and send it to me?” Sure.
I was so grateful. The tape had all this sordid stuff on it, which I decided not to put in the book. It’s kind of gross. What was interesting was all the other stuff on the tape, the gossiping and the stories about Jann being at parties the ambience of that time. When I listened to that tape, I was like, This is what I want the book to feel like. I want the book to feel like you’re there, with J. Geils playing in the background. This is a really important little moment. It showed the danger that Jann was in as a guy who was trying to live in the closet. I thought, that’s very important because Jann was afraid of being exposed, and probably rightly so. Not only did his wife know, but it would have hurt him as the editor of Rolling Stone. It just would have, and everybody knows that. The Tony Pinck tape was fantastically great gossip, but it was also culturally relevant and important to the story.
Co-founder and publisher of Rolling Stone Jann Wenner attends the grand opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ANNEX NYC on December 2, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)
What was the most difficult interview to get?
Jane [Wenner]. It was not difficult in the moment of interviewing her. It was difficult in the lead-up to it, because it was so nerve-wracking that I had to go to her with this material. I knew it was going to be painful. She dragged her feet and hemmed and hawed for a year and a half before she’d give me an interview. She was so nervous about the whole thing. She’d never spoken with anybody. I challenge you to go find a quote from her anywhere outside of this book. I valued the time I had with her because she was very candid and funny. I knew how important it was to get her in the book. I always wanted so badly to get her to “come to Jesus” on this thing and tell me what really happened. To a large degree, she did.
Interviewing Jann was hard, too, because getting him to be frank about things took some time. When I first started talking to him about Hunter Thompson, he got totally pissed off because I was reciting [negative] things that Hunter had said about him. That’s not how Jann wanted to remember their relationship. Then he would claim that all these things were just a big joke and Hunter didn’t mean any of it. But you’d look at some of these lines and you’d be like, I don’t know, it kind of seems like he did mean it. Jann had trouble with that. But you have to do that as a journalist. You have to go to them and say, “Hey, I’ve got some difficult things to relay to you.”
You seem to interview every rung of the economic and celebrity ladder. In the same chapter where you talk to Art Garfunkel, you also talk to the foreman at Garrett Press.
I knew going into this that I needed to keep Jann at the center of the book, as the main guy, but the story had to be told from every perspective. You had to do a 360-degree around him. And there’s two ways in which Jann could be seen in action in his life―how he treated people below him and how he treated people above him. He had a very different relationship with people who were famous and rich than he did with people who worked in the mailroom. It was interesting to try to build a narrative around all those different perspectives.
It didn’t matter who was telling it. If it was a good story, and it pushed the narrative forward, that was all that mattered to me. When rock stars could push it forward, great, but I wasn’t going to put in a rock star quote that was just a piece of shit [quote] that didn’t say anything.
How did you resolve significant disagreements among the participants regarding details of a story? For instance, when Annie Leibovitz overdosed; depending on whom you ask, either Jane or Jann saved her life.
In that case, and in other instances too, I had Jann and Jane saying their piece, putting ther quotes side by side. You know, Jann and Jane have never talked to each other about any of this stuff. They didn’t live like that. They never had conversations about who did what when. I thought there was an opportunity to have them tell their own sides of the story at various moments in the book, and have it be kind of a dramatic moment in which they have to confront each other in real time.
It was important for history and for them. Finally, after all these years, you tell your side, you tell your side, and let’s see where we land. It’s not an attempt to mediate it or resolve it, of course, because God knows I’m not going to be able to find out who got Annie Leibovitz off the gurney.
Did Knopf’s in-house counsel remove anything from the book?
Almost nothing. There was a lot of pushback, a lot of kind of flagging of things to say, Maybe we should couch this differently. Because, you know, the famous word alleged. But most of it stayed in. I wasn’t going to put anything in this book that I didn’t feel secure about.
The most contentious anecdote was about Mick Jagger overdosing. There was a lot of worry about making that claim, and Mick wanted it taken out. Jann called me, trying to get it taken out. But I had it dead-to-rights, with three in-the-room sources. I just was like, No. It’s a real anecdote. It really turns the lens on history to show that it wasn’t just Keith Richards who was the fuckup in the Rolling Stones.
Anyway, there were things like that that took some work to get everybody comfortable. There was even an instance in which I had the libel lawyer call and have conversations with my source so that he could get comfortable. That was my decision. I said, “Listen, why don’t I set up a conference call between you guys so you can talk about her version of the story? And if you feel comfortable with her then you’ll understand why I’m comfortable with her.”
How many sources did that happen with?
Just one. You want to know who?
(Rolling Stone managing editor) Harriet Fier. Because Jann was very irritated with the stories she was telling and he kept saying she was a fabulist. So I went to double-check her stories with other people, and there was one where that wasn’t possible, since she was the only person who knew about it. I said, “Well, let’s have her talk to the lawyer, and we’ll just kind of interrogate her.” And we did. She was very open to it and she didn’t have anything to hide. She stood by it.
Given that most people talked to you, why did Paul Simon, Richard Gere, and Matt Nye decline?
With Richard Gere, I have no idea, though one could draw their own conclusions that there’s some things he doesn’t want to―well, maybe he doesn’t have a relationship with Jann anymore. With Paul Simon, I can tell you very specifically. He said no early on. Then I started to talk to one of his managers and it came back to me, through Jann, that Paul might cooperate if I would agree to cut out the part about where he tries to run off with Jann’s wife. I said, “No, not worth it.” So Paul Simon was going to say some things that I don’t care about. It just seemed like I already had the best thing, if you know what I mean.
Matt Nye was an interesting situation. He didn’t want Jann to do this book. He did give me an interview, and then the next day asked that I rescind the entire thing. At first I was like, “No way. I’m not going to do that. Too late.” But after a while I realized, well, what do I really need from him? He didn’t tell me anything interesting in the interview anyway. He was incredibly cautious and nervous. I know Matt a little bit from just being in the same town and seeing him around. I understood who he was already. I could do a little profile on him without the interview.
Jann Wenner and Matt Nye during a 2007 party at The Boathouse in New York’s Central Park.
Where were Wenner’s documents kept?
His archive is managed by Iron Mountain. It’s essentially a storage company. They have a gigantic sort of vault inside of a mountain in the Catskills. There’s a big gate around it, and you have to go up and give up your cell phone and sign your life away. Then they take you on a golf cart into the middle of this gigantic cave―literally, with dripping wet walls. Then there’s a whole office complex where they’ll bring out boxes and stick you in a conference room so you can go through them.
At first, that’s what I was doing. I was driving up into the Catskills and signing the dotted line to look at the documents. I would bring a scanner with me under my arm. This became very tedious and time-consuming. Whoa, I thought, I got to do something different. So I rented a studio near where I live, and I just started having the boxes delivered. And I would keep them for, like, two or three months at a time.
Wenner saved all these documents, even before he was famous. Seemed he always knew he’d be famous, which is maybe why he saved everything, but he didn’t know the precise story the documents would tell.
He had no idea. He would always joke, “Oh, I should have vetted this stuff before I let you in there.” But the truth is, he had vetted it a little bit. He knew where some of the bodies were buried, and he took them out. Because later on I got the bodies from other people, if you know what I mean. Documents and stuff that other people had hung onto. Like his letter to Francis Ford Coppola, where Jann was dressing him down for trying to publish a magazine that he thought was shit. That wasn’t in Jann’s archive. I went to the Francis Ford Coppola folder and there was nothing like that in there.
A lot of the work was figuring out how things fit into the mosaic. Creating the mosaic was the story-writing process.
The sections about Joe Armstrong and [financial officer] Jim Dunning’s editorial intrusion were fascinating. To me, it seems hopelessly corrupt, but at the time, were people upset about it?
Well, Harriet Fier complained about it. She was pissed off. She was always mad at Joe Armstrong. The whole invention of Outside magazine pissed off Harriet because she’s like, “Why are we letting the advertisers make a magazine?” Then Jann’s like, “Well if you don’t like it, why don’t you work on it?” As a result, she went to work for Outside.
It was the ’70s, you know? The whole magazine world was fast and loose. There were these ideas about separation of church and state, but it wasn’t always working out that way. There was a whole memo I found about Oh, when you go to meet with all the distributors, don’t forget to put the cash in their packages. It was just like buttering of palms to make things happen.
I went to Jann with this, and he denied it. “Oh no, nothing like that happened.” Stuff like that did happen. I mean, Jann was letting people vet their own interviews. That didn’t just go on just in the ’60s and ’70s. That happened with Bono, in 2005. Jann had an anything-I-say-goes attitude about his magazine. He held his principles until he felt like they didn’t have to be held.
Did you have a model for Sticky Fingers?
A couple of books that I love were David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street, which took just a few years of Dylan’s life with Joan Baez, Mimi Fariña, and Richard Fariña, and turned it into this beautiful little set piece about those years in the ‘60s. By the way, Bob Dylan’s people hate that book because he comes off as this kind of super ambitious, mean guy. Which he was. And I just loved that book because it’s so finely wrought in terms of the lives of these four people.
A book that everybody hates was Albert Goldman’s The Lives of John Lennon. When it came out, it was considered this scurrilous book, and everybody hated it. Yoko Ono said she almost killed herself when she read it. Rolling Stone attacked it. But it is a ripping good yarn. If you read that book, you may not like it, and you may find there were some things wrong with it, but he interviewed 1,000 people. I defy anybody to read the first chapter of that book and not think it’s amazing. I’ll probably get flack for even giving any props to that book.
I also loved reading Joan Didion and Eve Babitz. They gave me such a feeling for how you could write in a dry way, but have a kind of irreverent vibe under it. I read them constantly.
So, Wenner seems to genuinely hate your book.
I think so. As you know from being in the business and from talking to reporters, there’s a very difficult moment in the process when you have to pivot away from your subject and write the book that you know is true.
I like Jann. I have an affection for him, enough to write 500 pages about him. I understand Jann, I think, in some ways that he doesn’t even understand himself. But I knew I had to write a book that would make him live on the page. And this is the life he lived. Even his own sister, Merlyn, said she didn’t know how Jann would deal with the book, because part of his story is that he didn’t always treat people right. I had to contend with that and make him contend with it, to some degree.
Seems to me Wenner rarely treated people right, and yet it didn’t really matter.
No, but you know he had enough sort of charm and power that it kept people on his side, and some people felt loyal to him because their careers had been made by him. Even if they didn’t like him, they stuck with him. I’ll give you a perfect example: Ben Fong-Torres read the book, loved it, and agreed to be the interlocutor at my book event in San Francisco this fall. Then he told Jann, and Jann asked him to cancel it. Ben canceled it. That’s what you’re dealing with here. For Ben, I felt that was cowardly, but I understood it. I mean, you’re talking about almost 50 years of history between them. But let the record show that Ben loved the book, okay?
Do you have any idea what’s going to happen with Rolling Stone?
I really don’t, and nobody does. But I don’t think it matters. That’s my answer. I don’t think it matters what happens after this because it’s a brand now and it will be treated as a brand. And somebody will maybe reinvent it to do something interesting, but it’s going to necessarily become a niche in somebody else’s portfolio. I definitely don’t believe that Jann Wenner and Gus Wenner are going to be accoutrements to the purchase. I just don’t see anybody wanting to buy them as well as the magazine. Because why would you buy the people that weren’t able to keep it alive?
Jann is the spirit of the magazine, but what they will be buying is not the spirit. They’re going to be buying the brand. On some level that’s kind of sad, and I hope that Jann does find somebody who’s willing to keep up the spirit that he started. But it’s hard for me to imagine who that would be and why they would bother to do that because it’s always been about Jann’s social calendar. It’s about his world. His worldview, his cosmology, and you can’t buy that.