Jann Wenner and the World He Made

Publisher’s memoir reveals a private, ambitious guy at the center of everything awesome

Jann Wenner touring an exhibit of photos by Annie Leibovitz at Wexner Center Galleries at Ohio State University, Nov. 9, 2012. (Photo: Kevin Fitzsimons)

It’s not possible to overstate the impact Jann Wenner has had on the world’s pop culture. The nearest comparisons—Tina Brown, Abe Rosenthal, William Shawn and Henry Luce—mostly fail the analogy because they were not really entrepreneurs (Anna Wintour) or perhaps they built great businesses, but were not themselves on the creative side (Rupert Murdoch, Sumner Redstone).

Wenner’s influence as the founder of Rolling Stone and its top editor and guiding force for 50 years (not to mention the creator of Outside, Us, Men’s Journal and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) would have been major if all he had done were to provide a venue for the voices of his generation to shape the culture. But he did so much more. Wenner personally championed the acts he believed in. And because he operated with no real competition—sure, everything from Creem to Spin to Billboard to Crawdaddy to Trouser Press wrote about music, but none for the enormous mainstream audience that Rolling Stone had—he was able to assert which acts mattered.

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To my ears, Mott the Hoople, The Kinks, David Bowie, The Clash and the Ramones are far more important acts than Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon. Maybe if I invented Rolling Stone, history would regard “I Wish I was Your Mother” like it does “Imagine.” (Wenner and I agree on the primacy of Dylan and The Rolling Stones.) But that’s the point. Wenner’s taste-making was so sure-handed that he made it seem inevitable, rather than the confident, forceful opinions of one stoned Baby Boomer from Marin County.

Like a Rolling Stone, the predictably titled but clean and quick-reading memoir of the now-76 former publisher, tells a story from an age when the written word mattered. And that’s one of the revelations of the book—just how strong a role Wenner played in identifying and challenging great writers, editors, photographers and designers.

Annie Leibovitz, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson weren’t just marquee names on the masthead, they were giants who Wenner either discovered or nurtured, as recounted with such love that they feel like siblings not employees. The parade of names can become a bit overwhelming. But it’ll be tough for anyone who values the era, and is curious about how its primary chronicler was put together, to find someone unworthy of inclusion. Charlie Perry, Paul Scanlon, Dotson Rader, Tim Cahill, Chet Flippo. Wenner feels terrible about having to fire Peter Travers and David Fricke when the time comes. Sarah Lazin, Robin Green (who included home baked chocolate chip cookies with her résumé; she had been Stan Lee’s secretary, and was thus a knowledgeable comics insider). Cameron Crowe, Rich Cohen, Matt Taibbi, Jim DeRogatis (Springsteen gave Wenner a hard time about that at the 92nd St. Y). Will Dana, Tom Nawrocki, Rob Sheffield, Bill Tonelli, Alan Light, Charles M. Young, master designer Roger Black, Bill McKibben, Tim Dickinson, Ben Fong-Torres, Michael Hastings, whose electric reporting on Biden, Gen. McChrystal and Afghanistan made his shocking early death all the more painful. Janet Reitman, who wrote the cover story whose photo cast Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a heartthrob and also penned the most nuanced reporting on Scientology. Erik Hedegaard, who had been my introducer to the magazine when he asked at Michael Pollan’s house if I had time to do some fact-checking in Summer 1994.

Wenner Wenner is a journalist, not a diarist, and this is not a particularly introspective book. Admirers will enjoy learning a little more about his childhood, and the only wisps of self-analysis come in the exploration of what it means to have a free spirited mother—“When I read Auntie Mame, it all made sense”—and an emotionally distant father. He presents it as reporting, not whining. Still, there is acknowledgment of early instances of antisemitism—a 9th grade girlfriend ghosts him after he reveals that he’s Jewish—and those alone provide way more insight than I ever got in 45 years of being interested in this guy, reading others’ takes on him, occasionally working for his titles, and more occasionally getting a quote from him. It’s also a more deeply Jewish book than I’d have expected. Though I can’t put my finger on why I had this impression, I hadn’t before thought of Wenner as someone who wore that piece of his identity on his sleeve. Perhaps that’s the natural result of Jewish parents who chose Unitarian Sunday school for the family and packed off their only son to Chadwick boarding school, with its mandatory Sunday worship.

Wenner has acquired the reputation of being stingy in crediting others for the success of Rolling Stone, but here he’s refreshingly generous in praising those who helped build it into a colossus, especially cofounder Ralph Gleason, and his wife Jane Wenner, to whom he was married for over 25 years. He constantly names and even describes lower-level staffers like proofreaders and copy editors, and remembers where they went to college or their job before Rolling Stone. This spirit flies in the face of an earlier biography, and the New York Times review of Wenner’s new memoir oddly paired it with a five-year-old biography that went from authorized to unauthorized. That was a good book, but Wenner’s been a writer and editor for over 50 years. The Times portrays his ultimate reluctance to have someone else tell his story as obstinance and there’s some fun dish over the breakup with the biographer, a tale that goes unmentioned in this book. But reading Like a Rolling Stone, it becomes clear that it’s the most natural thing in the world for someone so high profile, who’s nevertheless been very private about his romantic and family life—a challenge amid a very public and at the time quite shocking midlife journey from bi-sexuality to homosexuality—to tell his own story.

Unsurprisingly, the chapters with the most energy focus on the early days of Rolling Stone. It’s hard to remember at this point, after 40+ years of manufacturing Bruce Springsteen into a product called “Working Class MOR Democrat,” how Jon Landau would nearly commit homicide if the magazine diluted any of his observations about Black artists. Wenner had such a tough time getting Landau under control that he published his own letter to the editor under the pseudonym Kevin Altman, criticizing Landau’s didacticism and bias in favor of soul music. Landau instantly saw through the ruse and began calling Wenner “Kevin.” Salad days.

Wenner overheard a freelance record reviewer named Greil Marcus dissing the quality of the other reviews so Wenner said, “If you’re so fucking smart…” The next thing you know, Marcus was editing the review section and had recruited a murderer’s row of critics like Lenny Kaye, Lester Bangs, J.R. Young and Peter Guralnick. The glorious freedom Wenner has to make decisions with no committees, no investors to appease, infuses the whole enterprise with such spirit, perfectly suited to this art form that the mainstream media was still, in the late 60s, treating as a teenage fad.

The book benefits from lengthy primary quotes. Wenner seems to have retained every letter he ever received, and even somehow has copies of letters he sent. It’s a treat to hear John Lennon in his own words, as he regrets having eviscerated Paul McCartney, or Mick Jagger feeling betrayed after Rolling Stone covered the violence at Altamont. These are priceless historical documents, and add reportorial credibility to Wenner’s recollection of long ago events.

Wenner’s politics defined the mainstream centrist Democrat, epitomized by Clinton-Gore, both of whom he not just endorsed, but considered friends. These were rich white guys from an era when you could straight-facedly claim to value both the environment and your private plane. The eat-the-rich anger that animates today’s Democrats leaves little room for a Democrat like Wenner, who’s happy to condemn guns, and did plenty to advance the cause of legalized drugs, but isn’t about to give up his G5.

People have often criticized and sometimes ridiculed Wenner for holding the point of view that the counterculture reached its peak in the late 60s and that his magazine refused to relinquish the supremacy of that era. But this memoir makes a pretty compelling case. Can the mastheads of today’s magazines compete with Thompson, Wolfe, Leibovitz and literally a couple hundred others, who Wenner personally discovered or recruited? The sad fact is Wenner was probably right. It has been downhill since the era he romanticizes, and considering that viewpoint lame doesn’t mean that it’s wrong.

An exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame displays covers of Rolling Stone throughout its history. (Photo: John Piercy/Flickr)

With Gleason’s demise in 1975 and the magazine’s move to New York City, in 1976, the tale becomes an orgy of name-dropping, an orgy of blow, plus just a regular orgy. Jackie Onassis hosts a party, welcoming the fabulous Wenner couple to the Big Apple. Friendships with Michael Douglas and John Belushi turn into repetitive lists of bold-faced names.

Wenner concedes that as he aged, he left the musical directions to others. He has a funny line about “Pumpkins, Peppers, Jam, Cranberries. The music staff was nearly half my age, and I let them make the choices, as long as my constituency—then a bit out of the action for a while—got major coverage when required.”

Delegation is responsible leadership and it helped keep Rolling Stone vital far longer than the “constituency” coverage that would routinely award five stars to some dinosaur’s 23rd album. Wenner also launches a persuasive rebuttal to another knock that dogged the magazine in its later stages. While there could be no doubt about the magazine’s critical backing of rock’s Black pioneers, Rolling Stone has sometimes been accused of being late and reluctant on hip hop. Wenner objects, calling that the one criticism that “got me the most angry.” He cites the mag’s early-ish coverage of Run DMC, Grandmaster Flash, NWA, LL Cool J and Ice-T.

For as long as I’ve been interested in Wenner’s career, there’s been a vibe about him among the rock cognoscenti. The sophisticated music fan is supposed to roll his eyes at how excited Jann is to be friends with Jackie Onassis or John Kennedy, Jr, or Michael Douglas. That, according to the scolds of music criticism, is what leads to such crimes as Jann awarding five stars to Mick Jagger’s “Goddess in the Doorway,” a journalism breach so serious that the New Yorker wrote an article about it. (Keith Richards’ review was less generous; he called it “Dogshit in the Doorway.”)

Crying about Wenner’s lack of objectivity misses the point. Jann’s excitement at being friends with Yoko Ono and Jackie O is what makes Rolling Stone relatable, rather than distant. What rock fan wouldn’t be excited to know Bob Dylan? What rock fan wouldn’t have his objectivity about Jagger’s solo album compromised if he had the chance to see the Stones perform privately during their rehearsals for Voodoo Lounge? These foibles don’t make Jann Wenner ridiculous. They make him human.

Matt Nye and Jann Wenner at Vanity Fair Party for the 6th Annual Tribeca Film Festival, New York State Supreme Courthouse, April 24, 2007. (Photo: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

To be sure, no one will buy this book for its silky prose, and Wenner’s matter-of-fact “this happened then that happened” style contrasts starkly with the long quotes from works by over-the-top masters of his era, most prominently Hunter S. Thompson. And there are some clunky bits. Wenner writes of his astonishment when Mick’s girlfriend L’Wren Scott hanged herself while Mick was on tour. “Who really knows what’s in the human heart?” But Wenner’s reportorial style, along with his editor’s instinct to back up his observations with contemporaneous sources makes for a very believable recall, and the book moves along briskly because of it.

Wenner’s biggest professional regret seems to be the 2014 publication of “A Rape on Campus,” a lengthy investigative piece that revealed the purported gang rape of a University of Virginia co-ed at a fraternity party as some sort of initiation ritual. The story was discredited and ultimately retracted, and the magazine was sued by several players in the article and either settled or lost at least a couple of them.

While any publication that pursues serious investigative journalism will make mistakes, the incident seemed to drain some of Wenner’s joy for the magazine and the messy business of news gathering. People familiar with Rolling Stone’s brutal fact-checking regimen—Matt Taibbi likened the process to “an IRS audit”—couldn’t understand how it happened.

But I had worked at Rolling Stone as a fact checker 20 years earlier and I kind of did understand how it happened. It is true that the process was intense and rigorous. In the era in which I freelanced there, under punctilious editor Steve Futterman, you had to not only look up the simplest things, but you had to prove you had done so. If someone mentioned “John Lennon” in a story, you had to draw little vertical lines between each of the six letters of his last name. And you went to a large machine that contained photos of every record ever made so that you could check the back of the jacket and properly credit and spell the side players. It was insane.

So how could a story like the University of Virginia gang rape sneak through? At the dawn of the cell phone era, none of these drunk frat boys recorded their triumphant attack? The victim rolled around in the broken glass of the table and emerged without a scratch?

Jann Wenner last week in San Francisco pictured with Book and Film Globe contributor Adam Hirschfelder, who told the publisher ‘very few people have used a media vehicle to change the world.’ Commonwealth Club of California, Sept. 21, 2022. (Photo courtesy Adam Hirschfelder)

The reason this didn’t set off alarm bells was that Rolling Stone by 2014 was the victim of a mindset that had grown particularly calcified. Frat boys = Republicans = power = thugs. So you can bet RS correctly spelled every proper name in “A Rape on Campus.” The only problem was that there had been no rape. The whole story was easily identifiable fiction. Rolling Stone believed it because it wanted it to be true.

The UVA ordeal seemed to sap Wenner of the incredible energy he had applied toward investigative journalism for decades. I remember breaking a small story about one little detail of the episode. Jann telling me what my source had said was “not true” became literally the only words he ever said in public about it. Until this memoir, I believe. By the end of the decade, he sells all the magazines, bowing to the economic realities of the internet and a diminished youth culture. A dumber, less interesting readership has no appetite for great journalism with lavish photography.

But what a run. The childlike joy Wenner derives from this bacchanalia of namedropping can feel overwhelming. Wrapped in that are two truths, equally powerful. First, his genuine delight over Tom Cruise‘s smile, Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize, and Bette Midler’s one-liners (she characterizes the hope many men have that Cruise is gay as “swishful thinking”) is what gave Rolling Stone and Us and Men’s Journal their vitality. For whatever great journalism they do, and Rolling Stones did a hell of a lot, magazines are for enthusiasts. They’re for fans. And Wenner remains one till the very end.

And the second truth, which should be proven by administering a lie detector test to every asshole who knocks Wenner for awarding his pal Mick Jagger five stars for a middling solo work, is whether they wouldn’t act exactly the same way. There aren’t too many grizzled rock critics who wouldn’t let out a girlish yelp if it was their post-heart attack hospital room into which Caroline Kennedy deposited flowers plus a mixtape hand-curated by Bruce Springsteen.

Jann Wenner spoke at an exhibit celebrating the work of Annie Leibovitz. Mershon Auditorium in Columbus, Ohio, November 9, 2012. (Photo: Kevin Fitzsimons)

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Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is the founder of Sea of Reeds Media. He is the former editor in chief of the New York Observer and also founded Green Magazine and covered finance for Esquire magazine for almost 20 years. Ken is the author of several books, including the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Leadership.

One thought on “Jann Wenner and the World He Made

  • October 6, 2022 at 6:28 pm

    I’m no Ben Fong-Torres, but this tour de force is, in itself, worthy of the hey day of Rolling Stone.


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