The other day, Jann Wenner was talking about his generation. To him, the common notion that millennials and generation Zers have beefs with baby boomers like him – from their assumptions about the primacy of their music to their culpability in climate change – doesn’t fly.
“I see no evidence of it,” the Rolling Stone magazine founder said. “Millennials are as up on music of the 60s and the Beatles and the Stones as they are on what’s current. And the responsibility for failing to deal with the climate crisis lays squarely with the carbon industry and the oil companies and the politicians who have taken their money, not with baby boomers.”
Views like that might strike certain younger people as the reason they coined the phrase “OK, boomer” to begin with. But, then, boomer has been something of a brand for Wenner for more than half a century now, and an extremely successful one at that. Though he never called himself a spokesperson for his generation – the very idea of it makes him blanch – Wenner has played a large role in both reflecting its truths and advancing its mythology. In fact, his desire to re-assert his commitment to the issues and history of his demographic was one reason he decided to write a new 554-page memoir titled – what else? – Like a Rolling Stone. “I wanted to show what the spirit and the purpose and the nature of the baby boom was,” he said.
Along the way, he also wanted to tout a track record he established with Rolling Stone magazine that made it one of the most resonant, and admired, publishing ventures of the 20th century. In the process, it also established him as one of the industry’s stariest, and most controversial, figures. As it turns out, controversy also had a major hand in inspiring his book.
Five years ago, another book was published about Wenner, titled Sticky Fingers by journalist Joe Hagan, that, at times, presented a withering portrait of its subject. While it acknowledged Wenner’s breathtaking run of accomplishments, it also painted him as a self-involved fanboy who betrayed good friends and used his magazine as much as a personal passport to the high life as a vehicle for editorial innovation and creativity. Unfortunately for Wenner, in contracting that book he gave Hagan final say over its contents, leaving one of publishing’s most influential figures powerless to challenge its point of view. “I went into it with full faith, wanting to trust and be an open book and tell a story,” Wenner said. “I believed there was integrity there. I was mistaken.”
Wenner said his first reaction after he read Hagan’s book was “to be sick to my stomach. All this money and time and effort had been put into something that turned out to be so badly written and inaccurate and prurient. I didn’t know he was that nasty spirited.”
Given such an experience, some will inevitably see Wenner’s book as a sanitized corrective to the earlier one. Indeed, his tome does stress more of his professional triumphs than his personal peccadilloes. But it also offers many candid observations, clear-eyed assessments, and entertaining disclosures about the long and storied history of the magazine. As well, there is frank information about his personal life, from his fraught relationship with his mother to his life as a gay man who didn’t fully accept that identity until he was middle-aged.
Wenner talked at length about all of it by Zoom from his beach house in Montauk, Long Island. Looking tanned and rested, he spoke with boyish enthusiasm and speed, answering even more challenging questions with fast, if not always easy to parse, answers.
Born in New York 76 years ago, Wenner grew up in San Rafael, California, just outside San Francisco on a stretch of his family nicknamed Rainbow Road. His parents divorced when he was 11 and, while he describes his father in the book as “a good-hearted, generous man”, he wrote far less flattering things about this mother. He describes her as an extreme narcissist, at one point comparing her to Donald Trump, perhaps his least favorite public figure. When she was on her deathbed and he was giving her a last kiss, his mother’s final words to him were “get your filthy hands off of me”. Yet, when asked about her in our interview, Wenner said “I admired my mother. As a child, I don’t know if she was so narcissistic. It was only after college that she kind of … I don’t know…” at which point his voice trailed off.
Asked how he thinks her behavior may have affected him growing up, he said he believes it gave him the mantra to “go out and get what you want. Go out to the fullest.”
That’s certainly what he did in 1967 when he started Rolling Stone in San Francisco, where a major rock scene was erupting. With $7,500 he borrowed from family members and from his future wife, Jane Schindelheim, he set out to create a publication that would treat rock’n’roll with a reverence it had never previously received. The result struck a nerve pretty quickly, aided by incisive and highly informed interviews with rock stars like Mick Jagger and Pete Townshend. The magazine earned further traction through provocative features, such as a spread on the then-new phenomenon of rock groupies and the use of a previously banned naked photo of John and Yoko on the cover. The latter drew pearl-clutching reactions from the mainstream press, which helped the issue sell so well that Wenner later equipped, “print a famous foreskin and the world will beat a path to your door.”
The image was revolutionary not only because it featured the most worshiped superstar of its utterly exposed day but also because it projected not sexuality but purity. “John had a fairly average body and his wife is fairly average. So, this was their way of saying ‘we’re all the same,”’ Wenner said. “It was saying ‘don’t be ashamed of your bodies.’ The cover line was from Genesis: ‘They were naked and unafraid.’”
In that vein, Wenner was confident enough to print stories in the magazine that ran as long as 10,000 words in the early days. “It made us different,” he said, though he now allows that, “some [stories] went on too long.”
Wenner believes some of the magazine’s early record reviews haven’t aged well either, including scorched-earth takedowns of the early Led Zeppelin albums, as well as an assessment of the debut by the Jimi Hendrix Experience that sniffed at “the poor quality of the songs and the inanity of the lyrics”.
“Some of the reviews were just insuferably nasty,” Wenner said. “Frankly, that’s why I got rid of Lester Bangs. No doubt he was a good stylist, but he would ridicule somebody’s work for no reason other than it was a good riff for him.”
In the magazine’s early days, Wenner developed a close relationship with music industry titans like Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun and, at one point, took funds from Columbia’s Clive Davis to help keep his venture afloat. Did he ever worry that such things would compromise the magazine’s content? “I was confident that I could resist that,” he said. “And people like Clive were sophisticated enough to know that our value to them was dependent on us being honest with the reader.”
Similarly, Wenner’s growing friendship with Mick Jagger didn’t stop Rolling Stone from running brutally honest coverage of the Stones’ disaster at Altamont. “We had no choice but to go with the real story,” he said.
As time went on and Wenner became buddies with stars like Bruce Springsteen and Bono, however, things got a little murkier. In the book, he writes about how he and Bono would wave at each other from their balconies overlooking Central Park West. “I won’t deny [adding] the extra half star in a record review now and then,” Wenner said. “My enthusiasm may have been overwhelming, but so what? It was all positive for everybody.”
Eventually, though, it had a perceived consequence. As the magazine became more and more successful, older readers would periodically say it had “sold out”. “That was everybody’s obsession,” Wenner said. “The person who put it best was Timothy Leary, who said, ‘our concern is not that “he’s going to be too commercial” but that “he’s not going to be commercial” enough!” He was saying to me, ‘You have a role to play that’s very important.’”
To that point, the track record of important stories the magazine published over the years is staggering, from the supercharged writing of Hunter Thompson, to uncovering the scandal about Karen Silkwood, to getting the scoop of the century with the inside story on Patty Hearst’s whereabouts when even the FBI hadn’t a clue where she was.
Throughout all those triumphs, and his ever-growing public profile, Wenner managed to keep his sexuality largely unknown. In the book, he writes about covert sexual encounters he had with men dating back to boarding school in the 1950s, a time when such things were almost universally demonized. His wife had limited of that part of his life for decades. Wenner himself didn’t fully accept his sexuality until he was nearing 50, inspired by his relationship with the fashion designer Matt Nye. Yet, he reports little struggle with that aspect of his life in all the decades before. “I wasn’t looking to come out of the closet,” he said. “It created some tensions, but I was just fine. I was raising young kids. I had a family. I had no reason to rock any boats.”
When he discusses the subject in our interview, it’s impossible to tell whether Wenner is downplaying certain emotions he experienced or if he is simply an expert compartmentalizer. Like many highly effective people, he comes off less as man of reflection than one of action, a trait that can lead to inconsistencies in his stated attitudes. At one point in our conversation, he called coming out “a great release. I just felt so much better.” At another, he said that he might not have come out at all were it not for the fact that he fell in love with Nye. It angers him still that their relationship was “outed” by a story in the Wall Street Journal. “I don’t think it was justifiable,” he said. “The only reason they did it was for sensation. It was unpleasant because I was trying to navigate the resolution with my wife and other people in my circle.”
Today, with six children in his family (three of them adopted with Nye), Wenner said that being gay is just “part of who I am. I identify more as a father.”
Since selling his share in Rolling Stone five years ago, he has had a lot more time to concentrate on that paternal role. Perhaps the most emotional part of the book covers his separation from the magazine and the many factors that led up to it. One factor, he said, was “the uphill struggle against the internet, which meant that running the magazine was “no longer an exuberant, groundbreaking thing,” he said. “It was ‘how do we save money?’”
More, he burned out on the music. “It just got so repetitious for me,” he said. “I didn’t want to read one more profile of a musician.”
One of the last straws was the controversy that came after the magazine ran a story about a gang-rape at the University of Virginia that hadn’t occurred. He believes part of what led to the magazine’s insufficient rigor in checking the woman’s story stemmed from “sympathy for the victim. It meant that we should not press too hard,” he said. “Take her word, not put her through any further stress and humiliation.”
Some time after he sold the magazine to Jay Penske – a media mogul he describes in the book as “a good-looking man with a terrible haircut” – Wenner stopped reading Rolling Stone. “It’s not really about stuff I’m that interested it,” he said.
Instead, he has been catching up on reading novels, traveling, and raising his three younger children. While he has experienced some serious health scares over the last few years, he said he’s well on the mend. “I have my bad back and my bad leg,” he allowed, “but I’m feeling fine.”
More, he is luxuriating in finally having the chance to celebrate his legacy in his own words. Assessing his legacy with Rolling Stone, he said, “the track record is great. People could bitch, but we did the right thing.”