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."

When the Cover Says It All

Writers and photographers, like a young art student named Anne Leibovitz, would spend weeks on the road with their subjects, convincing bands like Fleetwood Mac to lay themselves bare.

"They were all sleeping with each other, and exchanging partners," recalled Wenner, "and there were fifteen different love affairs within the group and a lot of switching of beds. And that kind of so represented what was going on, and also was a brilliant solution, you know, to how to do a group cover, one of my favorites."

And the covers are what the magazine is most known for, those moments of vulnerability when artists open themselves up, either deliberately or not. But in the era of micro-managed, PR-savvy artists, these moments are becoming harder to capture.

"It's harder and harder," said Wenner. "I mean, unless the artist really wants to work with you ... we just want something that's sort of honest and real and interesting and provocative."

Despite this, the magazine still managed to collect a robust arrangement of covers in their catalogue, including the famous portrait of John Lennon, captured by Annie Leibovitz hours before his assasination.

"The picture was so powerful we didn't even put a headline on it on that magazine cover," Wenner explained. "I mean, it's the only time I've seen any magazine without a headline. You didn't need to say anything. It said it all. And out of respect to that, you didn't want to do anything to interfere with that image."

That precious distinction lasted until 1995, when Demi Moore appeared without a headline, simply for being famous.

Mainstream Migration

Some saw this as a sign Wenner and the magazine had sold out. Wenner's used to the criticism and has heard it since he moved the magazine to New York in the mid-1970s and became as famous as his subjects.

Kurt Cobain summed it up when he wrote, "Corporate magazines still suck" on a T-shirt worn to Nirvana's first cover shoot for the magazine. He assumed Wenner would airbrush it out. He didn't.

"The fact of the matter is that he was on the cover, so no matter what his protest was, he was going along with it. [Why] would you bother to take out that statement, you know? And it made us, frankly, look bigger," said Wenner.

Wenner defends his mainstream migration as a reflection of America itself. Baby boomers grew up and values changed. Back then, John and Yoko's rear ends caused a stir. Today, rapper Kanye West photographed in a crown of thorns barely registers.

"These days, the most controversial is, why did you put Britney on the cover? She sucks," said Wenner. "But, you know, you can criticize Britney covers, but that is what teenage America looks at and goes 'We want to be like that.' You know, have her morals, her value."

And the opinion of a 61-year-old Wenner is still of utmost importance to kids with guitars and attitudes. The man who has documented the transformation of rock and roll remains remarkably nostalgia-free.

"If I sat here, I could tell you lots of stories but I don't dwell on the past that much," said Wenner. "I'm not sittin' around thinking, 'Oh, wasn't it great back in the day?' My kids always say back in the day to me. 'Dad! back in the day ...' Then I want to hit em!"