'Rolling Stone' at 50: Jann Wenner is one unhappy baby boomer

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Jann Wenner

Rolling Stone magazine just turned 50 years old, and baby boomers aren’t about to let you forget it. HBO premieres the first half of a four-hour documentary, Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge, on Monday night. There’s also a brand-new biography of Stone founding editor and publisher Jann Wenner called Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, by Joe Hagan. And this past weekend, CBS Sunday Morning — TV’s boomer program of choice — interviewed a miserable-looking Wenner, who called the biography “bulls***.”

The HBO documentary does its best work early on, chronicling the birth of the magazine in 1967 and its earliest subjects and editors. Stories from the Edge — an urgent-sounding but meaningless title, by the way — explains who co-founder Ralph J. Gleason was and interviews key early contributors such as editors Charles Perry, Ben Fong-Torres, and the great critic Greil Marcus. The documentary spends a disproportionate amount of time on the subject of rock band groupies, specifically Cynthia Plaster Caster, but this is understandable — I mean, if you’ve got vintage film of a woman making casts of rock stars’ penises, you’ve got to put that into an HBO documentary, right?

Stories from the Edge loses its edge once its celebrity writers take over the focus. Does anyone really need to hear once again what a gonzo nut case Hunter S. Thompson was, or witness Wenner’s own groupie fascination with Tom Wolfe in all his white-suited dandyhood? You’d do much better to read Hagan’s Wenner biography, which is completely enthralling over 500-plus pages. Hagan’s achievement is to convince you that Wenner really was a kind of genius: He had a very clear vision of Rolling Stone right from the very start, and it was Wenner’s combination of countercultural coverage wrapped in a shrewdly capitalistic publication that was unique.

Wenner tapped Hagan to write this book, gave him many hours of interviews, and contacted big names like Mick Jagger and Bono to cooperate with the biographer. It was when Hagan completed his labor that Wenner decided he hated the biography — his chief objections seem to be that there’s too much about his bisexual history and cocaine-tooting drug use. In the CBS Sunday Morning interview, Wenner complained that Hagan’s book doesn’t capture “the joy of what we did and… how important it was” — which is, actually, exactly what Sticky Fingers does.

The biography also arrives at the perfect time: at the precise moment when it’s become clear that the influence of Rolling Stone — on music and culture, on publishing and the media — isn’t going to quite survive Wenner’s life. Wenner, now 71, has put the magazine up for sale, and has stepped away from the day-to-day operations, handing those over to his clueless-but-confident son Gus. The HBO documentary and Hagan’s book now seem like only slightly premature obituaries for the magazine they celebrate.

Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge airs Monday and Tuesday at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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