May 11, 2007 — -- 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."
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."
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."