I purchased my first ever copy of Rolling Stone when I was 15 years old in 1989. That issue featured a stylish black-and-white photo of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on the cover during the period of the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels album and tour. I remember feeling excited to get the magazine off the rack at my newsstand. As a teenager, I recognized that reading an issue of Rolling Stone was a rite of passage, like flipping through the pages of Playboy or listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon for the first time. You weren’t just buying a magazine—you were buying a piece of the hipness and cool that told people you were serious about music and culture.
Others probably had a similar experience if Rolling Stone served as their initiation into music and in some ways adulthood. Years before the advent of MTV and the Internet, Rolling Stone, which debuted in November 1967, was the preeminent source for music news. It provided a gateway into the lives of musicians with a thoughtful and serious perspective as opposed to depicting them as idols in a teen magazine—its early in-depth profiles spanned the length of a New Yorker feature.
More than just covering music, Rolling Stone explores the politics and culture of the times with a predominantly progressive and liberal point of view, resulting in extraordinary high-quality journalism. Rolling Stone is also known for its striking photography, often taking its musical and political subjects out of their comfort zones. If you are a music star or any other type of celebrity in entertainment, politics, or activism, being featured in Rolling Stone is an indication that you have “arrived” in the American consciousness.
This year marks the magazine’s golden anniversary—aptly sharing the same milestone as the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. For that celebration comes 50 Years of Rolling Stone, a large and lavish coffee table-style book chronicling the magazine’s history. The nearly 300-page volume features the behind-the-scenes stories and excerpts of Rolling Stones’ famous articles and interviews, as well as numerous photographs of the celebrities and notable people that defined their respective eras. (Disclosure: I have previously contributed to the publication.)
Based out of San Francisco, the epicenter of the countercultural movement in the late ‘60s, Rolling Stone was the brainchild of a young Berkeley College dropout named Jann Wenner. In his introduction to this book, Wenner writes about the origins of his “little biweekly newspaper”: “I thought rock and roll needed a voice—a journalistic voice, a critical voice, an insider’s voice, an evangelical voice—to represent how serious and important the music and musical culture had become, in addition to all its manifest entertainment value; a place where fans could talk to one another, get praise, advice, feedback; someplace we could shout, ‘Hail, hail rock and roll, deliver us from the days of old.’”
Organized chapter-wise by decade, 50 Years of Rolling Stone highlights the biggest names and stories that the magazine chronicled. For the ‘60s section, there’s an interview with the Who’s Pete Townshend juxtaposed with Greil Marcus’ reporting from the Woodstock festival, along with stories about the groupie subculture and student unrest across the country. The ‘70s was a high watermark period for Rolling Stone, not just for the legendary artists it covered (Wenner’s 1970 interview with John Lennon following the break-up of the Beatles immediately comes to mind), but also for its sharp political-minded and investigative journalism—examples of the latter include stories about nuclear whistleblower Karen Silkwood and kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst. The magazine also elevated the profile of the iconoclastic gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson, whose classic work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, first appeared in Rolling Stone.
By the time the ‘80s arrived, with MTV becoming a dominant medium in the music industry, Rolling Stone was still keeping up with the times, although its focus turned more celebrity-oriented, a pattern that would continue through the subsequent decades. In addition to documenting the rise of such stars as Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Guns ‘N Roses, Rolling Stone tackled pressing topics, including the AIDS epidemic. During that decade, the magazine published the writings of Tom Wolfe in serial form that would later form the basis of his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. The photography of Annie Leibovitz for Rolling Stone produced some of the most unforgettable celebrity images, such her famous portrait of John Lennon in an embrace with Yoko Ono, taken hours before his murder in December 1980.
The last 25 years saw the magazine balancing between coverage of heritage artists (among them Bob Dylan, Bono, Mick Jagger) and the younger newer pop stars (i.e., Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift), while still documenting political affairs and topical issues such as global warming. Even as Rolling Stone was navigating through changing tastes, new technologies, and especially competition online from the likes of other music sites.
For longtime readers of Rolling Stone, some of the material from this new compendium will certainly be familiar. But it’s the non-music reporting that is sure to provide some moments of, “Wow, I did not know they covered that.” For example, Eric Schlosser’s two-part article on the fast food industry later evolved into the popular book Fast Food Nation. The magazine’s coverage of mandatory minimum jail sentences strikes at the unfairness of the injustice of America’s penal system. In addition to the journalism, the photography in 50 Years of Rolling Stone is a visual sight to behold, giving the reader sensory overload of striking and sumptuous images: Jimi Hendrix kneeling on the floor in front of his burning guitar at the Monterey Pop festival; Meryl Streep stretching her face, painted in pantomime makeup, with her hands; and Barack Obama sitting on a rock in scenic Alaska.
It’s easy to take Rolling Stone for granted because it has been such a cultural institution with a unique cachet similar to that of other longtime venerable publications as The New Yorker and The New York Times. This sumptuous-looking book reaffirms that despite the ever-changing trends and tastes, Rolling Stone has stayed true to its mission of covering popular music in a thoughtful yet entertaining manner, and how music, politics, and culture intertwine to shape our society. “All the news that fits”, indeed.
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