Jann Wenner’s Back Pages: Memoirs of a Rolling Stone Groupie

A Memoir
By Jann S. Wenner
Little, Brown & Co. $35 list; $17.50 at Target and on Amazon at review date.

Jann Wenner’s adult life has been one long rock and roll fantasy camp. The ambitious college dropout started a wee magazine called Rolling Stone in 1967, and — yada-yada — ended up hanging with his idols for the next half-century.

“Hanging” is an understatement. Wenner once hosted Bob Dylan at his Idaho home where they discussed real estate, investments, and their kids’ trust funds; he was serenaded by Mick Jagger during one of their sailing expeditions to the tropics; he rode motorbikes with Billy Joel; had a book club with David Bowie; and is embedded into the family lives of the Springsteens and the Bonos. He even got to be interviewed by me a few times, and I was always grateful for his bons mots.

Jann Wenner
Jann Wenner, at repose. Photo: Annie Leibovitz

The details — sans moi — are presented across 554 pages of his imaginatively titled memoir, Like a Rolling Stone. As the man behind the world’s foremost bible of pop culture, Wenner is a veritable literary icon, up there with the Harold Ross’ and Henry Luces. Most readers will savor the elegant prose and the proliferation of easily digestible block paragraphs. You could call them, err, random notes.

All the triumphs — including the Altamont post mortem, Charles Manson, the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the Karen Silkwood murder, the first mainstream coverage of AIDS, the downfall of Gen. McChrystal — are detailed vigorously. Wenner is philosophical about the magazine’s occasional — but eventually catastrophic — failings, and adds a healthy dose of self-effacement to his own exploits. He is proud of his hires and discoveries, some of whom became boldfaced names in their own right, including Annie Leibovitz, Cameron Crowe, Mark Seliger, and Ben Fong-Torres. The book would probably be about five percent shorter without Hunter S. Thompson, the unreadable “gonzo” journalist whom Wenner adored. The book is padded with many pages of verbatim excerpts from Thompson’s articles, allowing me to finish it more quickly.

As one does in such an exalted position, Wenner outdrinks and outdrugs the hardiest of his peers. An unintentionally humorous recollection details his difficulties trying to persuade advertisers that “we weren’t about hard drugs and group sex.” And the award-winning, deep reporting on a wide range of social issues certainly bears him out. But the next paragraph begins, “I was at last trying to curtail my drug abuse,” specifically cocaine.

If you’re looking for truly disgraceful behavior, seek out the unauthorized bios, John Draper’s Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History and Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine. Wenner’s own memoir is rather vanilla by comparison. You might even call it a cover-up, a crime that would be quickly exposed by Rolling Stone‘s hard-nosed investigators.

And if you’re a political groupie, as Wenner is, you’ll be thrilled by his encounters with left-wing politicians and like-minded movers and shakers. His last big contribution to Rolling Stone, after he had sold it and was painfully shoved aside, was a cover story on Greta Thunberg. How many trees died for her? (And did St. Greta rip him a new one for destroying her planet with his beloved Gulfstream jets even as his magazine railed against global warming?)

Pumpkins, Peppers, Jam, Cranberries
When it comes to music, Wenner’s memoir inevitably focuses on encounters with his classic rock heroes. By the mid-1990s, he admits that he had lost interest in new music, which he distills to a list of food items: “Pumpkins, Peppers, Jam, Cranberries.” By my rough count, Jagger is the musician with the most mentions in the book, followed by Dylan and John Lennon. Paul McCartney is far behind, although Wenner’s knees go wobbly in Sir Macca’s presence.

Wenner loved to mix in high society. Michael Douglas was his partner in crime, set up by Kirk Douglas who was worried that his boy was lonely. Jackie Onassis was a good friend — as was her ill-fated son John, at least until John started a magazine against Wenner’s well-meaning advice. Yoko Ono is also a close confidante, but she once accused Wenner of falling under McCartney’s spell, even though Rolling Stone was generally pro-Lennon at McCartney’s expense. Wenner calls Yoko a “hard-ass,” which she might consider a term of endearment.

There’s no doubting Wenner’s opinion of Paul Simon — great musician, but “a cold man.” Kurt Cobain appeared on the cover wearing a t-shirt that read “Corporate Magazines still Suck.” Wenner saw through his phoniness: “Talk about troubled souls,” he writes. David Geffen is someone who “had a way of making you feel bad because you weren’t as rich as he is.” Julian Assange is evidently “an asshole.”

The strongest parts of the book are the tributes to fallen comrades, even to the aforementioned Hunter Thompson. Lennon, John Belushi, Ahmet Ertegun, Ken Kesey and others are sent off in fine style. The deaths of his parents are related poignantly. His mother was difficult, and Wenner recalls that he and his sisters “voted her off the island” when deciding it was time to pull the plug on her. A tougher read is Wenner’s own health battles in more recent years — heart attack, back surgeries, diabetes, and broken femur all culminating in a scrotum the size of a cauliflower, which impressed his BFF Bette Midler.

But Wenner never lost his good looks, as Leibovitz’s comfy, contemporary cover shot attests. It’s a pity Rolling Stone did not age as well as he did, a victim of rapacious Big Tech and Wenner’s lousy management. But it was a fun trip.

NOTE: If you liked this review, try my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles, available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com

Dean Goodman