The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jann Wenner’s memoir chronicles the lifestyles of the rich and famous

Jann Wenner and Bruce Springsteen pose together backstage before discussing the Rolling Stone magazine co-founder’s new memoir, “Like a Rolling Stone,” at in New York on Sept. 13. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Like a Rolling Stone” is a no-brainer title for the new memoir of Jann Wenner, who co-founded Rolling Stone magazine in 1967 and ran it (to varying degrees) for half a century. Though they’d occasionally tease each other about ownership of the appellation, both Wenner and one of the most oft-mentioned of his famous friends, Mick Jagger, cribbed it from others: Wenner and co-founder Ralph J. Gleason got the name from Bob Dylan. Jagger and his co-founder, Keith Richards, took it from Muddy Waters.

Wenner might just as accurately have called his doorstop of a book “I Am Very Rich, and All My Friends Are Extremely Famous,” or perhaps “If You Want Something Done Right, Do It Yourself.” It comes five years after the publication of Joe Hagan’s “Sticky Fingers” (now that’s a title stolen from Mick and Keef), a years-in-the-making authorized Wenner biography that became unauthorized the moment Hagan showed Wenner his manuscript.

Sign up for the Book World newsletter

“Deeply flawed and tawdry,” was Wenner’s review. But this is the man who gave Dylan’s 1979 Christian album, “Slow Train Coming,” a five-star notice in Rolling Stone — an ancient error for which he chides himself on Page 246 — so his critical judgment is hardly infallible. Twenty-two years and 150 pages later, Wenner stands by his five-star rave of Jagger’s guest-star-packed “solo” album “Goddess in the Doorway.” That’s what we would nowadays call a hot take, or possibly just a wrong one.

By then the knock that Rolling Stone was in the thrall of the stars it covered, and particularly of its editor’s boomer contemporaries, was widely shared. (Or, as Wenner puts it, “a cliche.”) And sure, it seems silly to ding the guy whose second biggest accomplishment in journalism was founding Us Weekly for being star-struck to the point of myopia, but the fact is that choosing a page of “Like a Rolling Stone” at random will likely serve up at least one howler of a name-drop. Let’s try Page 275, the book’s midpoint: “Richard Gere and his Brazilian girlfriend, Sylvia Martins, a painter and free spirit, were our standing houseguests for the summer.” Winner!

The alternate universe of celebrity magazines

That Wenner demonstrated great vision when he created, at age 21, a publication that treated rock and politics as subjects equally deserving of serious examination is undeniable. So is his eye for talent. His book is at its most thrilling when Wenner recalls discovering and/or significantly boosting Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Annie Leibovitz, Mark Seliger, William Greider, Greil Marcus and other writers and photographers whose work in Rolling Stone made their careers. He also praises less famous staffers who made major contributions, like art director Fred Woodward and longtime editor Ben Fong-Torres. (“I suggested he either pick Fong or Torres as his professional name, or no one would believe he was real. He did not take the advice.”)

But as the Rolling Stone trades San Francisco (and pot) for New York (and cocaine), and its leader graduates from visionary kid to jet-setter, the book increasingly recalls Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 biopic “Elvis,” a frantically paced 160-minute film that dutifully visits the stations of Presley’s career while still feeling like a trailer for a more substantial feature to come. Wenner’s prose is similarly impatient, alighting in spurts of two or three hundred words before leaping ahead to some unrelated subject.

You wonder if it’s a literary choice, indicative of the whirlwind Wenner lived in, that so few events are given a time stamp. Almost nothing that happened in the generation between the murder of John Lennon on Dec. 8, 1980, and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, warrants a date. For example, he briefly mentions his disappointment at Vice President Al Gore’s nail-biter loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 election, after he’d personally interviewed Gore and endorsed his candidacy. Three pages later, he’s watching the twin towers fall. In between, he’s conducting the RS “exit interview” with President Bill Clinton and cutting a rug with Catherine Zeta-Jones (“a professional dancer”) at her wedding to his BFF Michael Douglas, no part of it feeling any more significant than another.

10 books to read in September

Wenner may have meant to write an ink-stained history of a hugely important publication, but what he’s ended up with is an account of the largely frictionless life that extravagant wealth enables, and the obliviousness it breeds. Again and again, he credits himself for running urgent stories on “the climate emergency” and for coverage critical of the me-first agenda that became GOP orthodoxy with the election of Ronald Reagan, even as he talks about how much he loved his private Gulfstream jet. When the stress all gets to be too much, he retreats to his Sun Valley, Idaho, encampment, or to his seaside house in the Hamptons, or to the smaller house in the Hamptons he moved into after separating from his wife, or to a private beach in Greece.

So many of Wenner’s subjects cry out for more reflection than he is inclined to grant them. He could’ve written an entire book about spending nearly 30 years as a gay man (in his own description) in a heterosexual marriage before leaving his ex-wife, Jane Schindelheim, for his current husband, Matt Nye, in 1995. Or what about the fact that he was a not-yet-out gay man in charge of arguably the most influential magazine in America, living and working in New York City, when the AIDS epidemic hit? He proudly cites reporter David Black’s award-winning two-part RS feature “The Plague Years” as “the first major national piece on AIDS that I knew of outside of medical journals.” But he offers no personal recollection of what it was like to live through that crisis from his distinct vantage point.

Some of Wenner’s famous friendships were seminal: It’s fascinating to learn that he and Jagger were partners in a short-lived attempt to launch a British edition of Rolling Stone in the late ’60s, or that Wenner’s landmark 1970 interview with John Lennon begot a friendship wherein Lennon would send him letters with the “W” in Wenner replaced with a doodle of butt cheeks. (Okay, yes, that revelation is worth the price of the book.)

14 ways to get out of a reading slump

Others just seem opportunistic, like his late-blooming bromances with Bono and Bruce Springsteen, each of whom supplied gushing blurbs for the back cover. U2 and Springsteen benefited from decades of glowing coverage in Rolling Stone. (Jon Landau, who has managed Springsteen since 1975, was one of the magazine’s star writers until he quit to work for the Boss.) But neither act rates any significant discussion until long after they’d become international stadium-fillers. If Wenner was at all curious about these artists before they were too famous to fly commercial, there’s no evidence of that here. In fact, he confesses to feeling insufficiently steeped in U2’s music to interview Bono in 2005, more than 20 years after U2 had been hailed as the “Band of the ’80s” on the cover of his own magazine.

For all the things Wenner saw, it seems he didn’t witness much.

correction

An earlier version of this article referenced Jann S. Wenner’s review of Bob Dylan’s 1981 Christian album “Shot of Love.” The review was of Dylan’s 1979 album “Slow Train Coming.” This article has been corrected.

Chris Klimek works for Smithsonian magazine and is co-host of the podcast “A Degree Absolute!”

Like a Rolling Stone

A Memoir

By Jann S. Wenner

Little, Brown. 572 pp. $35

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Loading...