JANN WENNER & ME: A Preview of a Biography by Joe Hagan

In June of 1966 a 22-year-old American called Jann Wenner turned up at Melody Maker’s offices on Fleet Street to look up jazz expert Max Jones whose name had been given to him by Ralph Gleason, the jazz critic on the San Francisco Chronicle. He brought with him a review he’d written of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, which MM declined to publish, but he hung around the MM offices for a while observing its staff at work. 
“He was astonished to see a working newsroom populated  with reporters smoking cigarettes and talking shop,” writes Joe Hagan in Sticky Fingers: The Life & Times of Jann Wenner, a just-published biography of the founder of Rolling Stone magazine. A few pages later we learn that in the spring of the following year Wenner, now back in San Francisco, approached Gleason with an idea. “[He said] how about a magazine,” recounted Gleason, “like the Melody Maker and Musical Express but an American one that would be different and better and cover not just the records and the music but the whole culture.”
Thus was born Rolling Stone whose founder, it is implied, was not only inspired to launch his magazine by his visit to MM but based his editorial philosophy on it as well. And that’s not all. The first issue, which rolled off the presses on October 18, 1967, contained several stories lifted from MM, rewritten by early staffer Susan Lydon. 
Unfortunately I was unaware of all this when I met Jann Wenner on two occasions while I worked for MM in New York between 1973 and 1977. The first was at Rolling Stone’s 1975 Christmas Party, held in an office building on the Upper East Side. Wenner, an irredeemable social climber, was in the company of Caroline Kennedy, daughter of JFK and Jackie, to whom I was also introduced, but neither showed much interest in me which wasn’t really surprising and after a few seconds chat they drifted away. On the second occasion I was in the company of Peter Rudge, manager at large who at that time was involved with The Who and The Rolling Stones. If I remember rightly Peter and I had dined together in a restaurant in which Wenner was also a customer that night, and when he spotted Peter he joined us for coffee and then invited us back to his fancy apartment which was located nearby. Once there we attacked his booze with gusto and hoovered up his top quality cocaine. Wenner tried to glean information from Rudge on activities and/or inner secrets of the Stones and Who. Rudge, canny as ever, resisted but did so with sufficient tact to ensure that Wenner remained convinced Rudge knew more than he was letting on. 
I kept my own counsel during their exchange, though at one point Wenner quizzed me about MM and seemed surprised that it could afford to maintain a full-time New York correspondent. “We do sell about 200,000 copies a week,” I pointed out. “It’s 96 pages and plenty of advertising, too much in my opinion.” Wenner seemed impressed though the concept of ‘too much advertising’ was probably foreign to him. I thought for a moment that because I was clearly on good terms with Rudge he might offer me a job, but he didn’t. In hindsight, he struck me as the kind if person who often made promises on the spur of the moment and forgot about them soon afterwards, so if he had offered me a job and I'd turned up at Rolling Stone’s offices the following day it’s likely he wouldn’t have known why I was there or even recognised me. 
Thereafter my opinions of Jann Wenner were formed by others, invariably writers who’d come into conflict with him and his autocratic ways, chief among them Timothy White whose superb biography of Bob Marley, Catch A Fire, I published while at Omnibus Press. Timothy, who went on to edit Billboard, America’s premier music industry trade magazine, was not a fan. 
I long ago ceased to pay any attention to Rolling Stone which nowadays is insufferably bland, at least as far as its music coverage is concerned. “If it’s popular it must be good,” seems to be its mantra, an attitude that has infected pretty much the entire music press everywhere, and a far cry from ‘my day’, which I suppose brings me into line with the old bores in blazers and regimental ties sipping G&Ts in their Golf Club bars, for which I apologise. 
But back to Sticky Fingers whose author, Joe Hagan, has evidently fallen out with Wenner following publication of the book. It seems that what he’s written is not what Wenner anticipated, always a good sign and reason to buy a book. From what I can glean from the internet Wenner doesn’t like it because there’s too much about his sex life, which involves both women and men, deriding it as gossipy but Penguin Random House in America (Canongate in the UK) know what sells and a man of Wenner’s experience of the media ought to realise this. 
I haven’t finished reading the book yet and when I do I’ll review it properly here, but those mentions of Melody Maker in the first 100 pages that I have read seemed worthy of a Random Note in themselves and, of course, made me smile, and I have a feeling I’ll be smiling a lot more as I devour its pages in the coming week.


Richard said...

Looking forward to it. A pedantic point: the first issue of Rolling Stone is dated November 9th 1967.

Chris Charlesworth said...

Oct 18 was when it came off the press, at least according to the book. All magazines have a different date on the front than the day it was actually printed. CC