Rock-and-Roll

Joe Hagan has written what promises to be the standard biography of Jann Wenner—standard, because it’s hard to imagine anyone working up the energy to take another stab at it. Fifty years ago, at the age of 21, Wenner founded Rolling Stone magazine, and he’s been editor in chief ever since. Thanks to the anniversary, he has lately been much in the news. Not only has Hagan’s very long biography appeared, but so has a coffee-table book, 50 Years of Rolling Stone, a slab of self-congratulation recounting the magazine’s most celebrated articles and writers, with a not-humble introduction by Wenner. He has made the rounds on the chat shows, morning and evening. HBO, meanwhile, is airing a two-part, four-hour documentary, Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge, produced by Wenner and codirected by the gifted left-wing documentarian Alex Gibney. Altogether it is enough commotion to cause the average consumer of media to rear back and ask: “But why?”

As it happens, there are at least two answers to that question. One is that Wenner possesses superhuman powers of self-promotion. In the journalism business, it is usually the writers who leap onstage to gyrate and shimmy in hopes of pleasing an indifferent public, while their editors keep shyly to the shadows, feigning modesty and smoldering with envy. Not our Jann. He has made himself more famous than all but a handful of his writers; the rest bear on their backs the skid marks from his powder-blue 1963 Porsche 1600-N Cabriolet.

The other answer is this: Wenner was a genuinely great editor, and as with all great editors his magazine was an extension of his ambitions and enthusiasms. Rolling Stone and its founder are worth attending to, if not celebrating, because for two or three decades the magazine served as the most articulate promoter of the 1960s counterculture in all its guises: sexual, political, musical, and artistic. By now, of course, the counterculture has dropped the “counter” and assumed dominance over every significant American institution short of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Wenner’s instincts told him where everybody was headed, whether they knew it or not, and he hopped to the front of the parade. As a result he became not only famous but rich—and not just rich but shamelessly, ostentatiously rich, a man who enjoyed his filthy lucre perhaps a bit too much. (The powder-blue Porsche was just the beginning.)

And many of his early allies, who once considered him a fellow radical, have never forgiven him for it. Hagan, a magazine writer who once interned for Wenner, seems as preoccupied with the ebbs and flows of his subject’s net worth as Wenner is. It’s said that most biographers come to loathe their subjects sooner or later, on the principle that no man is a hero to his valet, and the trick is for them to claw their way back to some measure of toleration, if not affection or respect. Hagan fell into contempt and couldn’t climb out. Aside from an occasional nod to his editorial gifts, the biographer never gives Wenner an even break.

A quick flip through the index shows the story as Hagan wants to tell it.