On the shelf
Like a Rolling Stone: A Memoir
By Jan Wenner
Little, Brown: 592 pages, $35
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Some memoirs are deeply introspective; others amount to winning laps wedged between covers. Jann Wenner’s “Like a Rolling Stone” clearly falls into the second category. The co-founder and former owner and publisher of Rolling Stone — and still his public face even after a raucous goodbye — takes stock of his magazine’s place in history, dropping many names that are admittedly worth dropping (Bruce! Bob! Hello!).
The book is also a source of gossip, befitting a man who also owned Us Weekly for three decades. Mick Jagger and photographer Annie Leibovitz? He says they definitely got together. Those paparazzi photos of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie hanging out in Africa confirming their relationship? He claims Jolie was the tipster.
Above all, Wenner wants you to know that he was on the ground floor of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution. As he explained in a recent video interview with The Times: “The magazine has been a big part of the dialogue, the debate about what we stand for as a generation. We were young people and just grown up. So we understood all that.”
He also knew how to harness and package the power of rock and what it stood for. Ever since founding Rolling Stone in San Francisco with his mentor, Ralph Gleason, in 1967, Wenner had a flair for selling his dream. He commissioned Leibovitz, then a young photographer, to shoot covers that oozed with sexuality. He was friendly – some would say too friendly – with the major record labels advertising on his pages, companies that helped rescue the magazine during an early crisis. After asking for an advance payment against future advertising, he writes, “Gil Friesen of A&M, with whom I formed a strong friendship, Clive Davis and Jac Holzman all came through within days.” Wenner was nothing but a shrewd businessman.
Now, at 76, he’s a retired businessman relaxing in the Montauk home he shares with partner Matt Nye. (Although he has had affairs with men in the past, he was married to Jane Schindelheim until 1994, when he told her he was leaving her for Nye). His son Gus is now CEO of Rolling Stone, which the elder Wenner sold to Penske Media in two parts: 51% in 2017, the remaining 49% in 2020. He has no creative input into the current issue of the magazine.
“I don’t miss it,” Wenner says as he orders a wine spritzer from a servant at his Montauk home. “I miss the camaraderie. I miss the action within the action a bit, but there’s nothing new about it anymore. I mean, I don’t want to read new articles about how the guitarist met the drummer in high school.”
If you’re thinking, “Hey, wasn’t there just a definitive biography of Wenner?” move to the top of rock school. In 2017, Joe Hagan published Sticky Fingers, a detailed and unflattering book on how Wenner bought and sold the counterculture. Hagan’s book is both an indictment and a celebration of the Boomer generation, with Wenner as their patron saint. The journalist interviewed hundreds of people for the book, including extensive conversations with Wenner himself. Although he had given Hagan full access to his archives, Wenner publicly denounced the book and refused to promote it.
“It was so bad,” Wenner says today. “It was a mistake to have chosen this guy as a biographer. But he got a lot of money and a lot of access and ended up doing a pretty mediocre job. It just missed the truth, the core truth, how significant it was, how important it all was, how committed I was to this time, this era, these things.”
Hagan stands by his work. Reached by phone, he says he saw “Sticky Fingers” as a tribute to the magazine created by Wenner.
“I’m very proud of my book and very confident in the story it tells,” says Hagan. “The style and voice were directly inspired by the Rolling Stone that Jann Wenner did. It was a tribute to him and the saddest thing about his reaction was that he didn’t see it. It was a massive journalistic act designed to tell the story of him and this generation and this magazine. I know it hurt his feelings, but how many people has he hurt over the course of 50 years? Was that what mattered or was it journalism?”
A common criticism of Wenner was that he was too good friends with many of the artists Rolling Stone covered. In fact, “Like a Rolling Stone” sometimes reads like a Boomer greatest hits compilation:
“I liked Bob [Dylan]. I thought that despite the awkwardness of my awe, we would be able to work together and find a lasting friendship.”
“I was in New York to accept a National Magazine Award. …I had lunch with William Shawn, editor of the New Yorker, at his regulars’ table in the Algonquin Hotel.”
“Art Garfunkel moved to San Francisco to record his first solo record, and we soon started having a weekly tennis game and a post-game chat fest at the juice bar.”
The book is abounding in photographic evidence – roaring with Sir Paul; sharing a small table with Jackie O.; fishing with Mick; lounging on a couch with Yoko. However, during our interview, Wenner downplays the impact of his friendships.
“As professionals, these are great people making music, making art,” he says. “These are not politicians. These are not people who make tobacco. These are people whose lives revolve around joy and poetry to create art and entertain people. You do not deserve this level or this type of examination or examination. We have never shied away from reviewing anyone [in a way] we thought they should be checked. Luckily for the most part these guys make great records, but we’ve always called it what it is.”
Whether you buy this or not, it’s difficult to begrudge him the trophies on his wall. Before they became books, he published Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. He regularly exhibited the photography of Leibovitz and Richard Avedon. He helped launch the careers of such famous music journalists as Greil Marcus, Jon Landau and Ben Fong-Torres. Rolling Stone has been at the center of the cultural conversation for many years, and Wenner has been at the center of Rolling Stone.
He will not apologize for his life’s work.
“We interviewed every major artist of our time in earnest and in depth,” he says. “We treated their work as important work and we encouraged that work and promoted that work. We have created a place for people to gather, where the work can be supported and made into a cohesive piece.
“What a proud legacy that is.”
The nature of that legacy may remain a matter of debate, but all parties agree it is now firmly in the past.
Vognar is a freelance writer based in Houston.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-09-13/jann-wenner-didnt-like-his-authorized-biography-so-he-wrote-a-memoir Jann Wenner dishes on his new memoir ‘Like a Rolling Stone’