“Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine,” Joe Hagan‘s biography of Jann Wenner, will finally be published next week. The book, which has been in the works for several years, is an extremely detailed account of both Wenner’s life and the life of the magazine, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary amid the news that he is looking to sell it.
Hagan, a magazine writer who covered media, among other things, for publications including New York magazine, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Observer, had interviewed Wenner over the years. After running into each other in a coffee shop in Tivoli, they became friendly and, eventually, Wenner suggested that Hagan write his biography. After some back and forth, the two agreed that, while Wenner would participate and give Hagan access to his archives, it would not be “authorized,” meaning Hagan would be able to maintain journalistic independence.
Hagan got a high-profile, and, with a reported $2 million advance, highly lucrative book deal with the publishing house Alfred A. Knopf. The book, which was heavily embargoed, drew on hundreds of interviews with rock legends, Rolling Stone staffers, counterculture celebrities and the Wenner family. In the course of its publication, the fate of the magazine changed. In addition to the industrywide turmoil, Rolling Stone faced further upheaval as it continues to feel the legal and financial fallout from the 2014 story about rape at the University of Virginia. After selling Wenner Media’s two other titles, Us Weekly and Men’s Journal, Wenner revealed that he was looking for a buyer for his flagship title.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Wenner is reportedly less than pleased with the book, which will go on sale on Oct. 24.
WWD met with Hagan in a coffee shop in the idyllic Hudson Valley town close to where he and Wenner both have homes. It was the same coffee shop, where students and professors from nearby Bard College linger over tea and bowls of grains, where Hagan and Wenner first bumped into each other four years ago.
WWD: How did the book come about?
Joe Hagan: I ran into him [Wenner] at this cafe. He’d invite me over for lunch to his spread over here on the river, which is beautiful. We would just talk about the magazine business. He didn’t really know anyone up here, so I think he would just call me because he had nobody to talk to. After the Steve Jobs book came out, he took me out to lunch at a restaurant nearby, in his Porsche. I had written a few pieces for him, and I thought the lunch was going to be about him wanting to give me a contract at Rolling Stone. I was very reluctant to do that because I liked what I was doing at New York magazine. So in the second half of the lunch, he was like, “Well how about you write a biography of me.” I was gobsmacked by the whole thing. I was sort of terrified.
I had been in the magazine business for almost 20 years and I had known about Jann. He was always seen as this sort of independent pirate on the high seas. “Mercurial” was the word everybody always used about him. So there was a lot of anxiety about what that would mean. And thinking about my own career, I was not going to write an authorized biography. That would just be the worst thing I could imagine, because I had a reputation for doing real stories. But I was excited, so I thought to myself, how could I make this work? So then we started going to Murray’s every weekend to figure out what it would take to write the book. His main thing was that he didn’t want me to write about everybody he had had sex with. I was immediately like, why? He was closeted for many years, until he was in his 40s, and I was like, “I have to be able to tell that story.” So I wrote him a letter and told him no. That made him more aggressive. He finally said, “Write down in a contract what you need and I’ll come back with what I need and we’ll see if we can make it work.” I finally said, “Well, if it has anything to do with Rolling Stone magazine, or any of the magazines, or I can relate it to those things, it has to be in the book. And if you tell me it in the course of any of our interviews, it has to be in the book. Those are the rules.” And he was fine with it.
WWD: What was your biggest concern?
J.H.: My biggest fear was of what happened with the Bill Cosby book. Mark Whitaker was my cautionary tale. I didn’t find anything like that. And I looked. Most of what I discovered is in the book. I reviewed it with him and the one thing he didn’t want in there was the name of the girl he lost his virginity to. Which was a point of honor for him, and I didn’t care. But at one point, I do remember saying, in a semi-comic way, if anything comes out about something like the Cosby stuff, I’m going to kill you. And nothing like that did come up. So all of that was just the drum roll up to the contract, which was worked out by my agent and his lawyer. It was very tightly written.
WWD: Why do you think he was so insistent on having a biography?
J.H.: Because of the 50-year anniversary of Rolling Stone. He thinks like that. He understands strategy. And I think he had been disappointed about the two other biographies, which didn’t pan out. Before I signed, I went to try to find out what happened to those other books. And I realized it basically wasn’t Jann’s fault. I did a lot of due diligence, because I was very paranoid. And that paranoia did not go away for three years.
WWD: Why do you think Jann picked you to write this?
J.H.: I think he asked me to do this because I was up here and he thought I’d be in his orbit, so he’d have some creative control. But I had also written about the media, I’d written about politics, and I’m a huge music fan. It was the trifecta to write about Jann.
WWD: The book hasn’t been published yet but Jann already seems upset. Were you expecting his reaction?
J.H.: It was somewhat predictable that he would have an intense reaction, because any living person who you are writing about would. Especially because he is not really someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about his history, outside of the history he created at Rolling Stone. He doesn’t really think about the finer points of his history in the way that I discovered it through my research. I knew this book was going to be hard for him. Because if you tell the true story, it’s hard.
WWD: What is he upset about?
J.H.: I don’t know why he’s flipping out. It may be because of what people said about him or that it hurts people he knows. Maybe they are all mad at him so he feels obligated to be mad. But this is the hard part about journalism. At some point, your loyalties are to the reader and not to everything you’re writing about. I can’t make him feel better about it, but I do think that he’ll come around. He’s going to be mad. He’s going to be a jerk, possibly. There could be a Scud missile heading my way. But the truth is that I tried to make him come alive in this book. If I’d written the book he’d wanted, it would have been a snooze and nobody would have wanted to read it.
WWD: How much time did you spend with Jann?
J.H.: Dozens and dozens of hours. We would sit on the porch of the hotel here in Tivoli, which is owned by his friend, Brice Marden, who was part of his orbit. All my friends would drive by and see me interviewing Jann. The process, I think, was a lot of fun for him. He got addicted to it and wanted to talk all the time. And he always wanted me to come over and socialize with him, which I stopped doing. As soon as the book was under way, I was like no, I’m a journalist, I am going to do my job.
WWD: Was creating that boundary hard?
J.H.: It was. I would see his husband Matt Nye around town. He was against the book. He knows Jann very well, and he understands who Jann is. Jann is a very complicated guy. He has been brilliant in his life, but he is unvarnished and that’s not always great for him. But I knew that I had to get the real story. This wasn’t something I understood right away, but over the course of doing this, I understood that it was the story of Jann’s relationships. I came to understand that the stories all turned on the relationships that Jann had with major figures like Mick Jagger, Annie Leibovitz, John Lennon. And it was all contentious, because they were about control and money and about the duality of Jann’s personality, which is like he loves you but always defaults to himself and Rolling Stone.
WWD: How do you feel about him now?
J.H.: I have a lot of affection for Jann. I would not have spent this much time on this if I didn’t, on some level, love the guy. He probably won’t get that right now. I told him, when you read this book, you’re going to really not like half of it. And you’re going to love the other half. I told him to go out and do some primal scream therapy and come back.
WWD: How did you go about reporting this?
J.H.: I had to map it out and decide how I was going to do it. I had two-and-a-half years, so I figured I would spend a year or a year and a half reporting, and the rest of the time writing. It worked out roughly that way. I rented a studio nearby and hired a part-time researcher. I had interns from Bard transcribing. I would order 30 or 40 boxes from Jann’s archive at a time to be delivered to the studio. So while I was going through that, I would be interviewing people. Just every day. I was pretty obsessed. I would find books with any reference to Jann. I would comb through used bookstores looking for out of print books about rock.
WWD: Were you starstruck by meeting anyone?
J.H.: I’ve interviewed a lot of powerful people before, so I was in a good position to not be totally impressed. Except in the case of Paul McCartney. I was at his studio in England, and it was really hard to not be a little bit jazzed. He gave me a tour of his studio and showed me all the Beatles instruments and sang songs for me. But also, the interview was good. He told a lot of stories that I had never heard before and he was very candid. He was very angry, he felt like Jann betrayed him over the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I didn’t expect that much confession and context to come out of that interview. Not all the interviews were great. Keith Richards was lame. It was almost like he was reading from a script. I pushed him and pushed him, and at that the very end he gave me some interesting things. Then there were other people who were incredible. Art Garfunkel was just really interesting. I think Bob Dylan recited the answers to his secretary, and she sent them to me. They were fine, but they were weird.
WWD: Was it hard to get Jann’s family to agree to participate?
J.H.: It took a long time to get Jane to talk. Here’s the thing: I knew their marriage was at the core of the book. She wouldn’t talk for a long time. But that’s her way. She’s incredibly nervous, touch and go, coy. It was very difficult to pin her down. But the other thing people said about her was that she was the muse — for Jann, for Hunter Thompson, for Annie Leibovitz. When she went into her drug phase in the early Eighties, you can see that as she was going down, so was the magazine.
WWD: What was the writing part like?
J.H.: It was so fun. I thought it was going to be the worst part, but it was the greatest writing experience of my life.
WWD: What was it that you like about it?
JH: Discovering what the story was about. At the end, and it was a hard-won revelation, it was basically about how we got from John Lennon to [Donald] Trump. Jann was the perfect vehicle to tell that story. He is the cultural history of what happened. Because he was at the wave of the entire post-Sixties culture as it dominated the world. And then we arrive at Trump, who was born the same year as Jann.
WWD: You were with Jann in December 2014 when Rolling Stone made the call to retract its story about the rape at UVA, which had been unraveling for a few weeks before that. What was that like?
J.H.: It was a Friday night. We were scheduled to meet that night. And we were sitting there, talking about Barry Diller and suddenly, he gets this phone call. I knew this was happening, but I was not planning to ask him about it yet. I could tell that he was very agitated. He was smoking, which he wasn’t supposed to be doing. He tried to keep it cool, but I could tell he was upset.
WWD: Toward the end of the book, you mention that Jann broke his hip and had a heart attack this past June. I hadn’t heard anything about that.
J.H.: Nobody knows about that. It wasn’t reported. He was here, playing tennis with his son, Noah, and he fell over and broke his hip and then he had some kind of cardiac event which led him to have a triple bypass operation and all sorts of other stuff. The metaphor of it couldn’t be more stark. As his magazine was going down, he is physically deteriorating. I talked to him the day before he went into the surgery and you could tell mortality was on his mind. It felt like he was telling me things to put in the book.
WWD: What do you think about the sale of Rolling Stone?
J.H.: It doesn’t matter, because it’s over. If Jann isn’t involved, it’s just a brand. But it is crazy timing. But I think even a few years ago, he knew he was heading toward something. He was talking about retirement. He was definitely talking about bowing out and letting Gus [Wenner] take over. But I think the UVA thing and the financial realities have just sort of crunched. I think Gus sort of took the car for a spin and maybe decided that it would be too difficult.
WWD: So you saw this on the horizon?
J.H.: There was definitely an ending coming. I think the 50th anniversary was going to be his victory lap. But I think the UVA thing, that was tough. And I think it took a while for him to absorb it. And then he was giving Gus the last year to figure out if he could take it over, whether he had a vision for it. I think maybe they just got to the point that to be an independent web site was too hard in the world in which there are these huge companies. They hadn’t really built much beyond Rolling Stone. That was Jann’s fault.
WWD: It’s too bad he didn’t take that Hearst deal in 2008.
J.H.: That really was a singular moment in terms of defining who he was. Because really he was a person who was so attached to his magazine. It’s like a phantom limb for him. I mean, who was he without it? I don’t think he wanted to find out.