Jann Wenner has moxie of god-like proportions.
According to a hot new biography, the legendary publisher was named after Janus, the two-faced god of endings and beginnings. Janus is depicted with one face looking forward, and one looking back. He is the god of passages, transitions, and duality. In retrospect, the choice to name Jann after such a god seems prescient.
When he founded Rolling Stone magazine as a counter-cultural newsletter in 1960s San Francisco, he was looking ahead. Rolling Stone blazed a literary trail. It was the first publication to take rock and roll seriously, not just as the preferred music of the teenyboppers, but as the cultural expression of an entire generation. Rolling Stone not only documented, celebrated and critiqued the music of the day, but it also covered popular culture, politics and more from a rock and roll point of view.
Fifty years on, the empire Wenner helped found has fallen from grace. The magazine which once boasted ground-breaking storytelling was forced to pay out $1.65 million for running with a story that was poorly sourced and filled with falsehoods. Wenner missed out on the digital revolution, and realized too late that he needed to embrace – or at least face – the challenges and opportunities roiling print media. He passed on opportunities to diversify his empire at its zenith and has instead been forced to shop his flagship publication as its influence wanes.
And as the sun sets on Wenner and Rolling Stone, he’s disavowed a biography that he commissioned himself. Rather than a retrospective that highlights his triumphs, Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers is an unvarnished warts and all retrospective of Wenner’s storied career.
Wenner forged his own path from the beginning. He was born into a well-to-do family, and by all accounts was incredibly intelligent. He attended boarding school in Los Angeles. It’s easy to imagine that Jann might have taken a conventional route, and become a high-powered attorney or physician. It’s not even hard to imagine that he would end up in the entertainment business – one of his classmates was Liza Minelli – perhaps as an executive or attorney.
However, Wenner chose an unusual route to influence. He took seriously the still nascent rock and roll movement, something few others at the time saw. His instinct about the reach and impact of the music scene later proved spot-on.
Even as Wenner was breaking new ground and defining a genre, his motivations and methods were suspect. The Rolling Stone offices were a notorious drug den, and Wenner was known to hand out bonuses to staff members in the form of narcotics. He had a reputation for playing favorites, and for holding grudges against people he didn’t like. He allowed some interview subjects to review and approve copy before it went to print, a significant taboo for serious journalists.
Even in his personal life, he was determined to play by his own rules. He and his wife came to a certain agreement with their marriage, and both entertained dalliances over the years. The agreement ended on Christmas Eve in 1994 when Wenner revealed to his long-time wife and business partner that he was leaving her for his boyfriend. The moment was unplanned, and he gave little thought to the consequences for his wife. They remained legally married until 2011, when they finally official divorced and Wenner married his long-time partner.
Throughout his life and career, Wenner has seemed capable of looking in multiple directions at once, depending on what suits him in the moment, in imitation of the mythical Janus.
I am left to wonder what to make of Wenner’s moxie. At times, he appears god-like, shaping culture with a well-timed cover or well-written piece; empowering outsiders with incredible vision – Hunter S. Thompson, Annie Liebowitz, Cameron Crowe, Tom Wolfe and others – and giving them a platform and a voice.
At other times, he appears all too human, acting with gleefully self-centered, hedonistic abandon.
If I had the chance, I would ask him how he explains Janus. How does he reconcile his two faces, the one that looks forward, and the one that looks back? The face that looks out with such command of the world, and the one that focuses on himself so intently?
If you could ask Wenner a question, what would you ask about: his past or his future?