After 40 Years, Magazine Still 'Rolling' Forward

In 1967, a serious John Lennon was featured on Rolling Stone magazine's first cover as "The Working Class Hero." A 1996 cover featuring a nude Jennifer Aniston sold the most issues.

But somewhere between an anti-war "Beatle" and a bare-bottomed "Friend," the cover of Rolling Stone magazine became the highest denomination of celebrity currency.

"To be on it is to be recognized, is to make it," said guitarist John Mayer, "especially in a world where every week, something that used to mean 'making it' kinda goes extinct."

"It's the Bible, you know," said Willie Nelson, the country music icon. "If you want to know what's being said on the streets, Rolling Stone tells you the truth. I've always believed everything, or almost everything, I read in there."

'Nobody Was Writing About Rock and Roll'

It's been 40 years since the magazine first hit the racks, and Jann Wenner is still the man who decides what goes into the magazine and on its cover. "You've got Bob Dylan, Snoop Dogg, Borat, Christina Aguilera and George Bush: Worst President in History ..." Wenner said, flipping through the assortment of covers.

Wenner was the product of a privileged and broken home when he borrowed $7,500 from his in-laws, stole a list of record company contacts from a radio station, and started a magazine in a San Francisco warehouse. There was no plan B.

"I didn't even have a plan A," said Wenner. "I mean, we were 20, I was 21, it was volunteers. It was '67. We had no idea. I had no background in publishing, no business plan. Nobody was writing about rock and roll at the time. I mean, nobody took it seriously. It was a bunch of noise, something that kids did. The Beatles were for teenage girls that screamed at concerts."

'Gonzo Journalism'

But Wenner took it very seriously, and sought talent who would redefine the form. The likes of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson filled pages with a radical new form of "gonzo journalism."

"Hunter, he used to put a bunch of lighter fluid in his mouth," said Wenner, "and then light a match and blow it out, and it would create this huge fireball and he was just like, 'Oh, my God' and fall down, and he would just love freaking everybody out and telling jokes and terrifying people. And I always thought, well, that's the writer and editor at work ... there's the relationship."

With rock and roll laying a soundtrack to America's upheaval, the magazine covered civil rights, Vietnam and Watergate with a liberal lean that persists today.

"Rolling Stone really stands for something and is not afraid to make its point of view known, whether it's about, you know, music or movies or things happening in popular culture or politics," said Wenner."

But at its soul, it has always been a music magazine. And among early subscribers were the musicians themselves. One of the magazine's first fan letters came from Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts.

Wenner recalls an incident when Eric Clapton read a bad review of his work with Cream, and the guitar god went into a funk and broke up the band. "He said, 'They're right, what we're doing is a bunch of crap, I have to go do something authentic and honest.'"

That influence led to access, a music journalist's best friend. This access was most recently portrayed in Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical film "Almost Famous."

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