From the moment Bill Haley started rocking around the clock, through Elvis and his scandalizing pelvis, past the Beatles, the Stones and their invading countrymen, and up to San Francisco’s Summer of Love, rock and roll music transformed America in 12 short years. Picture in your mind a typical 1957 teenager and a 1967 teenager. I am willing to bet that the “before and after images” are drastically different. For many of us coming of age in the “after” portion of that time period, the music did more than reflect the changing times. Instead, the music forced society to change.
The anti-war protests of the 1960’s, the disillusionment of the 1970’s, the greed of the 1980’s, the counter culture of the 1990’s were all fueled by soundtracks. In the immortal words of Nora Roberts “[Rock and Roll is] a fist shaken at age.” 53 years ago this week, we found a way to document and understand the enormous impact a new art form was wreaking on the world with the initial publication of Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone magazine.
My outlet of choice for reading, if not always acquiring, the magazine was the Sound Warehouse record store on San Pedro Avenue in San Antonio. Matt Petersen and I made the stop on many Saturdays in the late 1970s, perhaps in connection with visits to the Olmos Theatre or San Pedro putt-putt. Neither then nor now would that particular strip of San Pedro be confused with Hollywood and Vine, Haight-Ashbury or Fifth Avenue. One of the genius things that Jann Wenner saw early on was that there were millions of Steve Howens and Matt Petersens who wanted to share what was happening in those more romantic and adventurous locales.
Rolling Stone quickly became the cultural Rosetta Stone helping translate the language of youth for those desiring fluency. Wenner accurately described the magazine as not just about music but as writing directed to “…the attitudes and things music embraced.” That portfolio meant that Rolling Stone was a natural argument generator. The discussion could just as easily be about drugs, crime, poverty, or religion as about the new U2 album.
Particularly in the early days, stellar writing informed that discussion.. The original “Fear and Loathing“ story from Hunter S. Thompson; the serialization of Tom Wolfe’s first Bonfire of the Vanities draft, the brilliant satire of P.J. O’Rourke and the incisive musical criticisms of Lester Bangs all graced the weekly’s pages. The images, often contributed by the magazine’s newly discovered photographer Annie Leibovitz, could be even more spectacular. The magazine pushed and pulled us; it said out loud the things we thought about in our rooms.
That a 24-year old Cal U dropout was able to pull off that sort of feat remains one of the more impressive media achievements of the last century. Wenner was energetic, ambitious and more than a bit bezerk. Emotionally abandoned by his parents, confused by his sexual orientation. and strident in his views, Wenner should have had a hard time finding his place in the world. But all of Wenner’s faults paled next to his enormous drive and will. Whether it was writing, money or graphics he needed, Wenner cajoled, argued or bullied his way into getting whatever he required. So on this day 53 years ago, the presses spun out issue Number 1 with John Lennon on the cover and a roach clip attached to the first page.
Wenner sold his remaining interest in the magazine three years ago. Ironically, the founder of a magazine dedicated to reporting on change and attuned to youth, Wenner believed that Rolling Stone’s long form reporting and dependence on images insulated the magazine from the storm the internet brought to publishing. He failed to leverage the astonishing archive of Rolling Stone material through digital access and eventually he succumbed to a world ruled by 1’s and 0’s.
The successor owners still publish the physical magazine even as they transition to digital. I went to my local Barnes and Noble today to buy a copy for old time’s sake. The section of the magazine rack dedicated to music offered a “special edition,” ranking the 100 greatest guitarists of all time and obviously repackaged to take advantage of Eddie Van Halen’s recent death. That guitar ranking sold for $14.95, the cost of a book and too much for me. But the regular edition was not available. The manager could not explain why; he said they usually had a few copies and they never sold their full allotment.
Time has marched on and Rolling Stone is something different now. I do not know if there is more or less to rage about than there was in the late 60’s, although the idea of making roach clips widely available probably does not strike anyone as subversive. I could not tell you who put out new music last month or what it means to the world; my soundtrack evolves slowly these days.
I do know that I miss the feel of that cheap paper in my hands, the smell of teen spirit it emitted and the promise of change that the magazine provided. The only thing that will make me feel better is spinning both sides of Born to Run at full volume. My 60-year old self just might do that tonight.