Jann Wenner isn’t a rock star, but he has spent a lifetime with them as founding editor and publisher of Rolling Stone magazine and a co-founder of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. So no surprise that his autobiography, Like a Rolling Stone: A Memoir, moves to the same rhythm as the last two Hall of Famer books I read: Keith Richards’s Life and Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.
They all start out fast and fun, with a beat you can dance to. From the precocious early years to 10,000 hours mastering the craft, the impoverished struggle, brutal rejections presaging the Big Break, followed by the prodigious flow of creativity amply rewarded with fame, fortune, and groupies, then the crash from on high that eventually levels off into some form of equilibrium until the set list closes not with death but something worse: They become bourgeois. Bruce goes into therapy. Keith whiles away his twilight years frying up bangers and mash at his Sussex estate. Jann buys himself a private jet. The stone stops rolling. Moss gathers. That’s not to say there aren’t still plenty of Greatest Hits along the way.
Jann Simon Wenner was born in New York in 1946 to secular Jewish parents, Sim and Edward Wenner, who moved to the Bay Area when he was a boy and divorced soon after. His father was a “Mad Men-era pipe smoker” with a gift for making money, his mother a creative free spirit who nurtured her son’s interest in writing, which he cultivated at the Orange County boarding school where his parents parked him once they split. That was also when he added the extra “n” to his first name (pronounced yann) and generally enjoyed his life has a happy bad boy. And while he says there was no “openly homosexual culture” at the school, he makes it clear that stuff was going on among teachers, teachers and students, students and other students—the sort of illicit behavior a character in the movie Withnail & I calls “sensitive crimes in a punt with a chap named Norman.”
I mention this because Wenner’s convoluted relationship with his homosexuality is a major through line of the book. When he got to Berkeley to attend college, the first thing he noticed was that “the girls were pretty.” He squired San Francisco debutantes around in a 1954 Jaguar XK120—a very flash ride—and would soon marry a gorgeous New Yorker named Jane Schindelheim, a Jewish American Princess the San Francisco gossip columnist Herb Caen dubbed “Bloomindale’s by the Bay.” At the same time, Wenner eluded the draft by confessing to “homosexual ideation.”
More on the vicissitudes of his sexuality later. The reality of these early years, and probably his entire life, is that Jann Wenner’s number-one focus wasn’t sex, but Jann Wenner. That and the magazine he founded at 21 with $7,500 in seed money that he would grow into a media empire worth hundreds of millions.
Rolling Stone debuted in 1967 as a tabloid-sized biweekly that took its name from an old Muddy Waters blues song (as did both the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan’s most famous anthem). It was conceived to service the Haight-Ashbury counterculture Wenner was bell-bottom deep in. He was dropping vast quantities of LSD and hanging out with Neal Cassady, who was a character in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road before he became the driver of Ken Kesey’s Magic Bus. Wenner dabbled in the radical movements fomenting around him, but he assessed Yippie agitators Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman as “hustlers.”
So while drugs and politics would suffuse Rolling Stone, Wenner made its focus his first love: rock and roll. It’s clear from his account of the late ’60s and early ’70s that Wenner was no hippie. He was a businessman, like his father: “I liked structure, organization, and leadership.” His writers wore jeans and T-shirts, but he favored three-piece suits. He had an instinct for packaging and marketing the revolution.
To sell subscriptions, he offered readers two mail-in coupons: one to purchase a year’s subscription for $10; the other said simply, “Rolling Stone sucks.” His founding partner was Ralph J. Gleason, a respected San Francisco Chronicle music columnist, co-founder of the Monterey Jazz Festival and éminence grise to rock and jazz musicians and writers alike. Gleason, who was almost 30 years older than Wenner, didn’t drink anybody’s Kool-Aid, inveighing against violence by “so-called revolutionaries” and schooling revered rock guitarist Mike Bloomfield to stop pretending to be black.
A great magazine editor, like the best college or pro sports coaches, has to build a great team to win. Among the first Rolling Stone recruits were Lester Bangs (the Johnny Rotten of rock writers), the photographer Annie Liebovitz (still a 20-year-old art student), and Joe Eszterhas (a loose cannon from the Cleveland Plain Dealer who carried a buck knife and went on to make millions in Hollywood). But probably Wenner’s best and most famous/infamous hire was the Kentucky-born author of Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga: Hunter S. Thompson.
Like Tom Wolfe, Thompson was a protean, prolific practitioner of a new style of reportage labeled New Journalism. And like Wolfe with his bespoke white suits and spats, Thompson spent almost as much time curating his own image as a drug-fueled “gonzo” iconoclast as he did covering his subjects. His book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas started as free-form rantings he sent Wenner via the “mojo wire” (his portable fax machine). Wenner assigned Thompson to the National Affairs Desk, which led to Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. He was viciously anti-establishment but could talk to Nixon about football and forged an Odd Couple rapport with Pat Buchanan.
Thompson’s agent also represented Wolfe, whom Wenner poached from New York to turn his wry, cyclopic eye on NASA for an epic piece that would become The Right Stuff. They became lifelong friends, despite Wolfe’s politics being notably to the right of Rolling Stone’s. Wenner reached across the aisle again for someone as funny as Thompson and as politically incorrect as Wolfe, in the form of P.J. O’Rourke, whose first piece, “Lessons in Modern Manners,” hilariously detailed the etiquette of “Aspen indoor lift lines” (i.e., cocaine). Imagine a liberal editor today giving free rein to a right-wing humorist.
Wenner’s opinions of people were never particularly political. He calls R.W. “Johnny” Apple of the New York Times “a stuffed shirt” but likes the Wall Street Journal’s editor, Norman Pearlstine (“who knew more about rock and roll than most of our staff”). And upon meeting Time’s longtime managing editor, Henry Grunwald, he gushes like a starstruck fan. Later, in his boys-with-toys years, he goes on a Wild Hogs cross-country motorcycle trip with a crew of Harley-riding rich guys that includes Woody Johnson, the billionaire whom Donald Trump would appoint to the Court of St. James’s.
In 1977, Rolling Stone relocated from San Francisco to New York, a move Wenner associates with another life-changing event: meeting Jacqueline Onassis. In New York, he writes, “ambition was the sustenance that was necessary for staying alive.” It was also where the ad money was—revenue Rolling Stone was now rolling in. For a compulsive climber like Wenner, New York society was a mountain even more worthy of ascent than the Rushmore of rock royalty.
The book shamelessly drops names from the beginning—but they’re legit names to drop, Wenner having been an early confidant of Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Pete Townsend… The list goes on. And on. But once he gets to New York, it’s all “Christmases with Jackie” and the time she invited him over to watch Uri Geller (the Israeli psychic) bend a spoon—the inanity of which encounter seems lost on him. His stock in trade became gossip, not journalism. Hunter Thompson called him on his new priorities, claiming to have received an issue of Newsweek with a “photo of Caroline Kennedy rolling Jann through the door of Elaine’s in a custom built, cut-glass dolly from Neiman Marcus.” Wenner’s life changed. “Two weeks on a yacht is heady stuff and you soon get spoiled,” he confesses. “There would be no turning back.”
Though he claims not to have been into the Studio 54 scene in the late 1970s, he cops to massive drug abuse—“my year of living desultorily”—that he now regrets. “It was a waste of money, energy, and precious time.” He appeared, as himself, in terrible movies such as Perfect and began to run with the “Gay Mafia”—David Geffen, Barry Diller. And yet when Richard Gere asked whether he was a made man in that velvet mafia, Wenner’s official answer was still no. He was married to Jane. They had three sons. He was in the closet. Until he wasn’t. He finally admitted his affair with designer Matt Nye, got divorced, and started a new family that produced yet more children. At his 60th birthday, the actor Michael Douglas said his old friend hadn’t changed much since their halcyon youth in the streets of San Francisco. He’d just become “richer and gayer.”
Once Rolling Stone’s circulation hit 1 million, there was enough in the till for Wenner to throw down on a Gulfstream II. No turning back indeed. Mick Jagger announced Wenner’s arrival at a Stones concert, shouting: “Here he comes! Straight from his private jet, it’s Jann Wenner. The world’s most expensive journalist.”
Incredibly, the really big money was still to come. Wenner Media added Men’s Journal to its portfolio and a puckish People competitor called Us, which he boasts “found the very ganglion of American culture.” It went from monthly to weekly, and in its best year Us pulled in a whopping $62 million. By contrast, when I was at Newsweek, we considered ourselves lucky to eke out $10 million. Wenner hung a couple of Légers in their new offices on Sixth Avenue to adorn “my gilded life.”
If you can deal with the Tourettic name-dropping (so-and-so “turned out to be Robert De Niro’s first cousin”), Wenner’s writing is surprisingly lively. He takes the time to ID his writers with pithy thumbnails. One wore glasses with “lenses so thick his eyes appeared to be swimming.” Cameron Crowe (who wrote the article immortalized in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High) was, at 17, “the oldest looking young man I had ever seen.” But the book’s 576 pages start to get skimmable as Wenner’s life turns into litany of star-studded victory laps—Rolling Stone’s 50th anniversary, Wenner’s 70th birthday—and obits: Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Jerry Garcia, and his own mother, whose dying words to her son were “Get your filthy hands off me.” He hands the online division over to his son, Gus, while he goes under the knife for a bum ticker. It’s all pretty bleak stuff, and boring: “The dog sleeps at my feet.” Yeah, he’s not the only one.
All empires have an expiration date. The Internet loomed. And the magazine that had won its share of National Magazine Awards went down in disgrace over a made-up story about a University of Virginia student claiming to have been gang-raped at a frat party. Managing Editor Will Dana (a friend and neighbor of mine at the time) was eventually fired, and in 2017, Wenner sold the controlling interest in Rolling Stone, now shrunken in size and reputation, to the automobile heir Jay Penske. That same year he sold Men’s Journal and Us to the supermarket tabloid king and Trump apologist David Pecker. Ah, Boomers. Tune in, turn on, sell out. If Wenner made his name giving voice to his generation, he ended up that way too—an old, smug fatcat who’s anything but rock-and-roll.
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