In late 1967, Mick Jagger stopped at a newsstand and saw a new magazine whose name made him do a double take. "Quite surprised, really," he joked in an interview about Rolling Stone with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "Didn't know we had a magazine at that time, but you never know."
The name of the magazine was a nod not just to the Rolling Stones but also to Muddy Waters' "Rollin' Stone" and Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," as well as the aphorism "a rolling stone gathers no moss." But one of the Stones' lawyers, clearly not as amused as Jagger, sent a cease-and-desist letter to founder and editor Jann S. Wenner, accusing the magazine of copyright violation. Wenner never considered changing the name. "We said, 'Show us some evidence the group wants us to stop,'" he remembers. "We never heard back."
It was an odd start to an association between the band and the magazine that would endure for decades. For 50 years, Rolling Stone has intensely covered "the World's Greatest Rock & Roll Band." Its writers would watch the Stones rehearse and record, spend months on the road chronicling extravagant tours, engage in moments of verbal jousting, and conduct interviews that probed the group's music and its sometimes fragile internal dynamic. "We were contemporaries and simpatico," Wenner says. "They embodied the spirit of what we believed in, and we wholeheartedly supported them." The Stones wound up on the cover of Rolling Stone 30 times. In turn, the magazine became a place for the bandmates to explain themselves and their songs, and, sometimes, send messages to one another.
For Wenner, who first saw the group in concert at California's San Jose Civic Auditorium in 1965, the Stones were a revelatory experience. "They were the spirit of rock & roll and rebellion," says Wenner. "They were tough and loud. You were just mesmerized." From the start, the Stones were equally intrigued by a magazine that sought to honor and examine rock & roll's history and cultural significance. "For a genre of music to be taken seriously, there are several things that have to happen," Jagger said. "One of them is that there has to be a body of criticism by educated writers. They can write about the genre and thus give it some sort of gravitas and history. It was the beginnings of a historical context, and Rolling Stone and Jann Wenner started that. Rolling Stone helped bring rock & roll forward as more of an intellectual art form than just an ephemeral one."
The relationship between the band and the magazine had its share of give-and-take. Writing about 1967's Their Satanic Majesties Request, critic Jon Landau said the Stones were suffering from "an identity crisis of the first order." In response to the review, Charlie Watts sent a handwritten letter saying, "The rest of us will I'm sure try for the next one." (The magazine printed the entire letter.)
In 1968, Wenner flew to Los Angeles to watch Jagger mix Beggars Banquet, and wrote a definitive cover story previewing the new album and, with it, the Stones' move back to tough, bluesy rock & roll. That same year, Jagger sat with Jonathan Cott for the first of many cover-story interviews, talking about the band's early days, records, and the blues. In 1969, Jagger and Wenner announced they would together be launching a British edition of Rolling Stone, which lasted less than a year. "Mick went off to make Ned Kelly, so no one was in charge and we shut it down, but it was fun for a while," says Wenner.
Yet Jagger was infuriated by Rolling Stone's take-no-prisoners reporting of the tragic Altamont Speedway concert in December 1969, which partly put the blame on the Stones' organization for the deaths and chaos at the show. "Rightly or wrongly, we no longer trust you to quote us fully or in context," Jagger wrote in a telegram to Wenner in February 1970. Recalls Wenner, "Mick felt it was unfair, but we did what we as journalists had to do, and I thought Mick would understand. And as the years passed, he did."
Whenever the band would hit the road for one of its extensive tours, Rolling Stone was there to cover the around-the-clock rock & roll carnival. "We covered their tours as if they were presidential campaigns," says Wenner. "If the tour was four months long, we'd assign someone to travel with them for four months. No one does that anymore. No one would allow it anymore."
In 1971, writer Robert Greenfield spent time with Keith Richards and the band in the South of France while they were making Exile on Main Street. The result was a 10,000-word interview, the most in-depth Richards had ever done. Greenfield later spent more than a month on the road with the Stones in 1972, flying on the band's private plane and watching Richards toss back tequila sunrises for breakfast (and toss a TV out a hotel window). "When you got off the plane there were eight or 10 limos waiting to take you to the hotel," Greenfield recalls. "They were like an invading army. Everybody who read Rolling Stone wanted to know what had happened in the two weeks since the last issue."
Keeping up with the Stones wasn't easy. In 1981, Kurt Loder watched as Richards unscrewed the top of a shark's-tooth necklace and poured out lines of coke that, to Loder, resembled "ground diamonds." Loder partook and soon blacked out. When he awoke, he was somehow onstage during rehearsals and picked up one of Richards' guitars. "I dropped it to the floor," he says. "Then I had to be led away by somebody to surely become a figure of mockery in Rolling Stones circles from that point on."
Yet the bond between the Stones and the magazine never eroded. Jagger and Richards continued to give revelatory interviews that reflected their individual personalities. Richards was open to discussing anything, including his issues with Jagger's solo career (and what he called Jagger's "jerk-off band"). Jagger was usually more guarded. Asked by Mikal Gilmore about Richards' biting 2010 memoir, Life, Jagger respectfully declined to discuss it. "In his unwillingness to talk about it, it was plain that he was genuinely offended by it," says Gilmore. "But Jagger feels that caution is the better part of dignity."
At certain moments – like when Richards cracked "Mick is welcome, I'm sure he'll turn up" to writer Patrick Doyle in 2011 when discussing rehearsals for a possible tour – it felt as if Jagger and Richards were speaking to each other by way of the magazine. "They knew the other person was reading it," says Wenner.
Jagger generally has little patience for lengthy interviews, but he made one big exception for the magazine in 1994. "No one had ever really done a long interview with him," Wenner says. "I said, 'As a matter of history, we should do this.' He agreed to it instantly."
Conducted over the course of nearly a year, in several cities, the 20,000-word conversation, in a December 1995 issue, remains the most wide-ranging overview Jagger has given, touching on the creation of some of the Stones' biggest songs, his thoughts on Richards' drug problems ("I've never really talked to Keith about this stuff"), the Beatles, Altamont and his business savvy. "It was a good interview," Jagger said. "We covered a lot of ground. I always teased Jann that he was the richest journalist that I'd ever interviewed [with]. Wherever I was, he would turn up in his plane and basically keep the engine running while he did the interview for an hour and get back on it again."
By the time writer Brian Hiatt sat with the band in late 2016 for the magazine's most recent cover story, it was clear Jagger and Richards had come to a détente. "I love the man," Richards said. "That doesn't mean I can't get pissed off occasionally. … It's amazing we're both alive. I celebrate Mick's life. He's always five months older than me!" Hiatt and Jagger bonded over their mutual love of blues harmonica, which made Hiatt realize a key to connecting with Jagger in interviews: "People have trouble acting normal around him, so the more relaxed you are, the better off you are."
Wenner's urging, Jagger took part in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
25th-anniversary concerts in New York in 2009, joining U2 and the Black Eyed
Peas for a fiery version of "Gimme Shelter" that Wenner calls "a
great highlight" of the connection between magazine and band. "They've
traveled the same long road we've traveled," says Wenner. "Now we're
all grown adults, still firing away." Jagger, for one, agreed: "You
know, we've been living alongside each other for all this time, and it's a
rather wonderful thing that we've both been going, and keep on going, for so