Rolling Stone magazine made its debut in 1967 just as the Beatles, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd, Cream, the Byrds, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Velvet Underground, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and many other acts released major albums.
Since that time, the magazine has provided cultural criticism that touches upon music, politics, film and television. Many of its writers became key voices (and critics) of their generation.
Rolling Stone/50 Years, a new exhibit that opens on Friday, May 5, at the Rock Hall, celebrates the magazine’s half-century mark. Divided into several sections, the exhibit starts with a recreation of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner’s desk. The magazine’s first office sat above its printing press on Brannan St. in San Francisco.
The Rock Hall exhibit includes Wenner's original desk and mail sorter from that office. The debut issue of Rolling Stone hit newsstands the week of November 9, 1967, and the cover price of the first issue was 25 cents. The 21-year-old Wenner had borrowed $7,500 from family and friends to launch the magazine, and the building’s owner gave him free loft space if Wenner agreed to use his printing service. A photo of the office shows what it looked like at the time.
“The mail sorter was in the office for years, and we’ve recreated the rest of the office,” says Karen Herman, the Rock Hall's vice president of collections and curatorial affairs, who walked us through the exhibit earlier today. “The round table was in one of the meeting offices in the current offices in New York, but the mail sorter came from storage. A copy of the first edition of the magazine was on the wall too. It includes a picture of John Lennon in his acting debut.”
Wenner chose the cover image of Lennon wearing a World War II military outfit in Richard Lester’s film How I Won the War from a pile of publicity stills. Wenner once explained his decision, saying, “It was two days before press and we didn't know what to put on the front page. It was the best thing we had. But it's defining, since it encompasses music, movies and politics. That was a fortuitous accident. But it began our lifelong association with John."
One of the magazine’s first hand-drawn logos also hangs on the wall as does the “cease and desist” letter that Rolling Stones’ manager Allen Klein sent to the magazine for using the name “for your own commercial benefit.” Wenner explained the idea behind the magazine’s name in his editor’s note that appeared in the first issue: “The name of it is Rolling Stone which comes from an old saying, ‘A rolling stone gathers no moss.’ Muddy Waters used the name for a song he wrote. The Rolling Stones took their name from Muddy's song.”
“Jann and Mick would actually become friends and one of the things you see at the end of the exhibit is a videotaped interview with Mick,” says Herman.
As part of one early promotion, Rolling Stone offered a roach clip as a free gift with a paid subscription. Bob Kingsbury, the guy who became the magazine’s art director, made the clips by hand. The exhibit includes one of the original clips.
The exhibit's intro panel includes one of the exhibit's only items of clothing — a suit that comedian Steve Martin wore on the February 18, 1982 cover. Martin’s rented tuxedo was painted to mimic an Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline painting.
“The suit had been hanging in the Rolling Stone offices,” explains Herman. “It’s such a great piece.”
A letters to the editor section — the section of the magazine was originally called “Correspondence, Love Letters & Advice” — includes raves from fans and comments from celebs. It includes letters from John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Allen Ginsburg, David Mamet, Sting, Michael Stipe and then-CIA Director George Herbert Walker Bush.
After reading David Felton’s article, “Charles Manson: The Incredible Story of the Most Dangerous Man Alive,” in the June 25, 1970 issue, Manson wrote a letter offering to answer questions in exchange for a Rolling Stone subscription. That letter is part of the exhibit as a telegram from Jagger denying Wenner’s request for an interview about the Altamont Speedway Free Festival at which concertgoer Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by one of the Hell’s Angels providing security.
The exhibit also includes a series of profanity-laden letters that gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, a frequent contributor to the magazine, sent to Wenner.
“There were so many amazing letters from Hunter S. Thompson, that it made it hard to choose which ones to display,” says Herman as she points out one letter in which Thompson berates Wenner for interfering with his “work” by sending one of his friends to stay with him.
Rolling Stone became famous for its long form interviews. In one famous interview, John Lennon disputed the myth of the Beatles. In another, Marvin Gaye explained the personal transformation that led to the artistic breakthrough of his album What’s Going On. Tina Turner documented her abuse at the hands of her husband Ike. The exhibit includes a section devoted to these famous interviews as well as interviews with Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and Madonna.
A video treatment allows viewers to hear audio clips from the interviews and then see how they materialized on the printed page. In David Fricke’s Rolling Stone interview with Nirvana lead singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain, the late singer talks about feeling “optimistic” about his life. In another, Who guitarist Pete Townshend discusses the reasons why he started smashing guitars.
In a section devoted to various magazine covers, the exhibit features a slew of covers from the last 50 years. They’re displayed in chronological order, so viewers can see how the times have changed.
"When you look at the covers, you can see how the visual elements changed but at the same time there is still an energy there that carries all the way through and you can see some of the same people," says Herman.
In one famous photo/cover from 1980, a naked John Lennon hugs a clothed Yoko Ono. The exhibit includes the Polaroid that Annie Leibovitz conducted prior to shooting what would turn out to be among the last photos ever taken of Lennon before he was assassinated.
Ultimately, the exhibit captures the power of rock criticism. After critic Jon Landau trashed two Cream concerts, Eric Clapton broke the group up, famously saying, “The ring of truth just knocked me backward. I was in a restaurant and I fainted.” Visitors can read clips of that review as well as pieces by writers such as Ira Robbins, Paul Evans, Kurt Loder and Lester Bangs.
“You can see the clunky tape recorders that writers used to use, and then editor’s notes on the rough drafts,” says Herman, adding that the materials came from Rolling Stone's extensive archives. “You can see things that are crossed out in the notes. It also shows the work that goes into writing. Everyone thinks you just do an interview and it magically appears. The exhibit shows that’s not how it really works. There’s a lot of work and inspiration involved.”