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Book Preview: Jann Wenner’s Rock ’n’ Roll Memoir

The founder and longtime editor of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine shares stories about Mick, Bono, Bruce and other legends 

Bono, Jann Wenner, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen
Bono, Jann, Mick and Bruce at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary concert, 2009
Mark Seliger

Jann Wenner’s new memoir Like a Rolling Stone (Sept. 13) takes readers through his heady years as editor and publisher of Rolling Stone, the most influential music and pop culture publication of its era. He describes its founding in 1967, hiring the then-unknown photographer Annie Leibovitz, and his friendships (and, often, wild partying) with many of the legendary figures featured in the magazine — John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Mick Jagger, Bono and more.

Enjoy some highlights, excerpted from Like a Rolling Stone, below.

Pete Townshend

Jann Wenner and Pete Townsend; Bob Dylan on a 1978 cover of Rolling Stone
Jann in 1971 with the Who’s Pete Townshend, who became a contributing writer; Bob Dylan on Rolling Stone’s cover, 1978
Jim Marshall Photography LLC; Annie Leibovitz

The Who were headlining for the hippies at the Fillmore and Pete suggested we meet at my house, after his last show. He arrived at 2 a.m., not ready to wind down. Pete loves to talk, he loves to think, and he loves to ramble about his many strong opinions, which often contradict one another. We talked about his guitar smashing: when he started it and why, how he felt while doing it and after it was over. We mostly talked about the history of the Who and their future. Pete said: “We have been talking about doing an opera called Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Boy, and the hero is played by the Who. We want to create the feeling that when you listen to the music you can actually become aware of the boy. He sees things as vibrations, which we translate as music. The boy elevates and finds something incredible.”

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Pete told me later that this was the first time he had articulated the concept for Tommy. I took him to the airport the next day. He asked if I had spiked his orange juice with acid the night before. I hadn’t. It was pure Pete.

He became a pen pal. “The big drag about The Who is that they always lean so heavily on their history,” he wrote. “Anything slightly daring throws everyone into panics. I feel I can put a time limit on how much longer we’ll be together. I give it 18 months.”

Bob Dylan

I met with Bob at the Stanhope Hotel on East 81st Street and Fifth Avenue. He was clean-cut, neatly dressed and carried a book bag. He came alone; this was in those less fraught early days without PR people. His answers were simple and direct. If Bob didn’t want to answer, he wasn’t evasive, but he would just stay silent until I felt completely awkward and moved on.

“Well, Jann,” he said. “I’ll tell ya, I was on the road for almost five years. It wore me down. I was on drugs, a lot of things. A lot of things just to keep going. And I don’t want to live that way anymore. I’m just waiting for a better time.”

Like a Rolling Stone - a memoir, Jann S. Wenner
Little, Brown and Company /Photo by Annie Liebovitz

“Do you think you’ve played any role in the change of popular music in the last four years?”

“I hope not.”

“Well, a lot of people say you have.”

“Well, you know, I’m not one to argue. I don’t want to make anyone worry about it, but boy, if I could ease someone’s mind, I’d be the first one to do it. I want to lighten every load. Straighten out every burden. I don’t want anybody to be hung up … especially over me or anything I do.”

Mick Jagger

mick jagger and jann wenner on a sailboat
Wenner sailing with Mick Jagger in Mustique, 1985
Camilla and Earl McGrath Foundation and Face to Face: The Photographs of Camilla McGrath, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2020

I first met Mick Jagger when I was 22 and he was 25. It was in July 1968. Jane and I were on our honeymoon, poolside with the Steve Miller Band, at a hotel in Hollywood. Mick was in town remixing Beggars Banquet with Glyn Johns, who was also producing Steve’s record. Mick had a soft handshake and a soft voice; he was wearing a dress shirt with pressed trousers, definitely not a rock star outfit. But a rock star he surely was. He made me feel comfortable right away.

I sat at the mixing board between Glyn and Mick, and suddenly out of this supersonic sound system came “Street Fighting Man.” They played it again and again as they mixed it, stunning on first listen, absolutely incredible as the song became more familiar. They also worked on “No Expectations.” Then Mick stopped the mixing and told me he had finished one more, and would I like to hear it? It was “Sympathy for the Devil.” The final take had been done the day after Bobby Kennedy had been gunned down, and Mick added the lines, “I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’ After all, it was you and me.”

Mick took me in his red Cadillac convertible to the house he had rented in Beverly Hills, where he had the test pressing of a new record to play for me that had knocked him out. It was the first time I heard Music From Big Pink (the debut album by the Band). We spent a long time talking about music and so many other things. It was a great start to a friendship.

Annie Leibovitz

Leibovitz in 1973 / 1981 RS Annie Leibovitz cover of John and Yoko
Annie Leibovitz in 1973; cover of John and Yoko
Jann Wenner Archives; Annie Liebovitz

Annie Leibovitz would barrel into the office, 6 feet tall, wild hair, still in her early 20s, with the energy and enthusiasm to do anything we asked. She had been a painting major and bought her first camera two years earlier. A military brat, she was the third of six children, her father a career Air Force officer, her mom a dance instructor. No one could have imagined the light within.

Her first cover shoot, in 1970, was Grace Slick. The inside portrait of Grace and Paul Kantner in bed, playing with their new baby, China, foreshadowed Annie’s trademark reportorial style: finding a casual, personal moment that had the power of unexpected intimacy. Another thing Annie brought us was the emergence of a feminine energy and point of view in what was an all-male shop.

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Then she had a rookie home run with John Lennon. She’d begged for the chance to shoot him and Yoko, and agreed that I would own the negatives. Deal! When I met her at the San Francisco airport, she was carrying nearly a hundred pounds of equipment. She turned down my offer to help. Yoko told her that she and John were so impressed that I had let someone like her — she was still in school — shoot them; they were used to the most famous photographers in the world.

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It was just one frame — I saw it immediately. John is thinking. It’s very private. There is no mask. It’s a mystery. She had been using one of her cameras to take a light-meter reading; he gave her a quick look, and in that moment, she snapped the shutter for the aperture test. It was an accident, a simple twist of fate. She eventually developed a feel for covers and the special sauce that made a premeditated image simple and compelling; she would shoot 142 covers as chief photographer for Rolling Stone.

Bill Clinton

Wenner with Bill Clinton in 2000;  Wenner’s daughter, India Rose, and her godfather, Bono, 2016
Wenner with Bill Clinton in 2000; Wenner’s daughter, India Rose, and her godfather, Bono, 2016
The Presidential Archives; Jann Wenner Archives

Clinton was incredibly knowledgeable about the complexities of policymaking. I loved his language about not being able to get stuff done “lickety-split,” or that defense cuts were making Europe “nervous as a cat.” My job was to take the measure of the man emotionally and morally. His response: “All the old rules are still the ones that count. I feel better every night when I go home if I have done what I think is right.”

As Clinton was on his way out, our national affairs editor, Bill Greider, asked one more question. He said a guy who had some minor role in the Clinton campaign had called him that morning. He was now very disappointed and told Greider he should “ask Clinton what he’s willing to stand up for and die on.” Suddenly, the president was one foot from Greider, his face red and his voice rising in a furious rebuke. “I have fought more damn battles here for more things than any president in 20 years, and not gotten one damn bit of credit from the liberal knee-jerk press, and I am sick and tired of it, and you can put that in your damn article. I have fought and fought and fought and fought. I get up here every day, and I work till late at night on everything from national security to family leave to the budget to the crime bill. If you convince them I don’t have any conviction, that’s fine, but it’s a damn lie. It’s a lie.”

Clinton started to walk away. I was speechless. Greider didn’t flinch. Clinton turned back to him, still mad as hell: “That’s why they always win. This administration is killing itself every day. You hold us to an impossible standard and never give us any credit when we are moving forward. We have fought our guts out for them and the bad guys win, because they have no objective other than to win.”

Bono

Bono and his family had moved around the corner from us on Central Park West. We could wave at each other from our terraces. He was usually out on some nighttime mission, but he was early to rise, and we’d breakfast at each other’s place or have afternoon tea with [his wife] Ali and my partner, Matt. I don’t believe that Bono, unlike Bruce [Springsteen], had been shy for a minute of his life. I can talk a blue streak, but Bono can talk a Category 4 storm. 

If he was coming over for a family meal, he arrived with an armload of presents, a rapscallion uncle. His inborn charm and Irish showmanship dazzled. We would settle in for a few hours to catch up on our crusades, the families. B, which is what I called him, was also a world-class first-name dropper … Bill, Barack, Angela (Merkel), Condi (Rice). I always felt as much respect and curiosity from him as I felt for him. We were becoming good friends and were both out to change the world. He had his band, and I had my magazine. We saw it as all one.

David Bowie

 Barack Obama Rolling Stone cover, 2008/ Wenner with son Noah, flanked by David Bowie and Iman, 2005
Barack Obama cover, 2008; Wenner with son Noah, flanked by David Bowie and Iman, 2005
Peter Yang; Jann Wenner Archives

David and I had a book club, and we would send each other reports on our latest reading. He turned me on to contemporary fiction. We debated Churchill. He liked to exercise his intellect and humor and delighted in crossing swords with elegant repartee. If whatever at hand was something new, avant-garde or forward-looking, David liked it. He turned me on to bands like Arcade Fire and TV on the Radio. He dismissed the Stones as retro. He turned me down when I begged him to come in person to accept his Hall of Fame induction. It meant nothing to him. The nicest guy, a gentleman from an earlier century. It just didn’t seem right to lose him.

Barack Obama

I went back to the White House to interview Obama. His reelection campaign was shaping up to be a showdown with the new Republican Tea Party. He was still talking reason and hope. Before the interview I gave him a few pairs of socks, since he had commented on mine last time we met. One pair was salmon colored with pink squares, and the other had black and pink stripes. He handed them to an aide and said, “These may have to be second-term socks.”

Mick had just performed at the White House, and Obama had been in New York singing impromptu with Al Green at the Apollo, so he enjoyed telling those stories. When I left, Hillary Clinton was sitting in a chair outside the Oval Office waiting for us to finish. It was kind of pinch-me time.

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen with Wenner’s son Jude, 2016
Bruce Springsteen with Wenner’s son Jude, 2016
Jann Wenner Archives

Down in Jersey one late afternoon, we were having drinks around the outdoor fire with Patti and Bruce, who was throwing me some shade about not having gone on his European tour that summer. Why didn’t Matt and I come see him in Brazil in a few weeks?

When we got to the hotel in São Paulo, Bruce’s manager, Jon Landau, was waiting for us. The show that night was an hour across São Paulo at a campus gymnasium. Bruce was a giant international star, but not in Latin America.

The next day we went to Rio and checked in to the Copacabana Hotel. It was a day off, so Bruce took us to a prettier, less crowded beach. We bought a lot of drinks in freshly opened coconuts and emptied a few bottles of tanning oil. Bruce was in great shape. He said one night onstage a few months earlier he looked up at his screen projection and saw “the fat Elvis.” Now he was buff, wearing tight T-shirts.

We had been followed by some paparazzi, who shot Bruce and me walking on the beach. By the time we picked up our towels and went for lunch, there was a message from the office. They emailed pictures of us on the beach, which had just been sent from a photo agency. Obviously, I hadn’t had any warning to suck up the gut. I showed Bruce, who said, “You can’t go anywhere these days. The minute you go anywhere, you are everywhere.”

Excerpted from Like a Rolling Stone by Jann Wenner. Copyright © 2022. Available from Little, Brown, an imprint of Hachette Book Group Inc.

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membership-card-w-shadow-192x134

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Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.