Review of Sticky Fingers by Joe Hagan


"Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine" by Joe Hagan

This is a thoroughly enjoyable set of stories circling around rock & roll characters: their last gasps and their last gropes. Despite being captivated all 500 pages, I hate it. In some ways, I want to burn my copy and never look back. I think if you ever wanted to crush the seeming importance of rock and roll, this novel could do it.

I kept a list of questions while this waxed both poetic and apologetic. Based on a count of post-it notes, there are about 30 questions left unanswered and at one point my post-its fell under my bed and I was too lazy to pick them up until I also threw the book on the ground in rage.

This biography gets so many things right. It's a riveting network of musical characters, power, royalty, and capitalism. But given that this starts in the middle, post-Beatles and ignores many of the origin stories, musicians are mentioned 200 pages ago and not involved until 200 pages later. It's like Leo Tolstoy is recreating War & Peace with the history of rock music.

Seemingly tangental at first is Jann Wenner's closeted homosexuality. Which transgresses between exploratory, creepy, and downright predatory. As a fanboy and owing the start of his career to Jann Wenner, Joe Hagan spends a lot of time reading homosexuality into the idealism & sexualized masculinity that seemingly started the magazine to every decision Wenner would make. I found this extended interpretation uncomfortable.

For a man who profited off the slaughter or suicide of musicians and politicians, the magazine (and probably all related media) has an unsettlingly social climbing relationship with the shooting of John Lennon & John Kennedy and suicide of Hunter S. Thompson. Not to mention the numerous band breakups, career endings, and drug overdoses that extend into the outer reaches of a network centered around Jann Wenner.

In the end, only two pages directly discuss the depiction, inclusion, and influence of female artists at Rolling Stone magazine. Sandwiched into a brief discussion of the movie Almost Famous based on Cameron Crowe's coverage of Led Zeppelin for Rolling Stone. Without drawing attention to it, we realize that the fictional staff writer quipping about not being okay with the band referring to women as “chicks” is actually a quote about Rolling Stone’s portrayal of women by rock writer Ellen Willis (who refused to write for the magazine for several years) calling it “viciously anti-woman” (1970). “Rolling Stone habitually refers to women as chicks and treats us as chicks, i.e. interchangeable cute fucking machines.” ... “What they want is more bread and circuses; I like to have fun too, but what I really want is an end to my oppression.” At the end of the two pages, this position seems to be dismissed by the biographer.

The ultimate question, given media mogul similarity to William Randolph Hearst, is what his ‘rosebud’ might be. In the last few pages, Jann Wenner is hospitalized and believes he is dying. Bruce Springsteen delivers a mixed tape for him. I’m not convinced he’s ever played that tape or cared about the last 50 years of rock and roll history which, unfortunately, he helped define.