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A Style Is Born: Ten Years of Rolling Stone

The rock & roll way of knowledge

Rolling Stone Magazine, Avedon, Tom Hayden

Percussionist Ollie Brown relaxes on the plane with a copy of Rolling Stone magazine during the Rolling Stones Tour of the Americas, 1975

Christopher Simon Sykes/Hulton Archive/Getty

What can a poor boy do but sing in a rockroll band?
— THE ROLLING STONES

Q: What are you rebelling against?
A: Whaddya got?
— Reply originally attributed to ELVIS which, if he didn’t say, he meant to

Taken at once, ten years of rock & roll as reported by ROLLING STONE is too big a pill to swallow. I sat up all last night rereading 248 issues: John Lennon on the cover of No. 1 and Elvis on the cover of No. 248. Everything that has gone on in between came back in a tidal wave of memories almost too overwhelming to sort out. The past ten years should have taken thirty to pass, so abrupt and lasting were the developments; and during that time rock & roll became irretrievably intertwined with almost everything happening in this country.

I will never forget the first glimpse I got of ROLLING STONE. I was in the Navy and my buddies and I had discovered dope and RS at about the same time: We sat out on the fantail of a Navy destroyer, smoking and reading the first issue and marveling that finally there was a magazine which covered everything we were interested in. I wrote Jann Wenner a letter gushing over that, and damn him if he didn’t keep it. He hired me anyway and he still hauls that letter out now and then to keep me in line. I was sincere, though; RS was, as Ralph Gleason once said, like a “letter from home.” A transitory home, a home for the soul, a storehouse of everything meaningful to me. Music was and still is the starting point (proving the old analogy that what you like to listen to forms the soundtrack to your life) but that encompasses one hell of a lot. That’s the reason for ROLLING STONE’s existence.

RS has — from the first — covered events and personalities that are not always a purist’s idea of rock & roll. What the purists forget is that “rock & roll” means much more than just the music. Anyone who ever took those words to heart knows that; knows that there are books and movies and people and events and attitudes that matter more to a rock & roll way of life than do many records that are labeled rock & roll. Jack Kerouac was rock & roll; Bobby Rydell was not. Tom Robbins is rock & roll; Andy Gibb is not. Star Wars is rock & roll; A Star Is Born is not.

One of the times I was proudest of RS was that week in October of 1975 when Bruce Springsteen was simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek, while Patty Hearst graced the cover of ROLLING STONE. That’s not to denigrate Springsteen’s talent but that week ROLLING STONE had the story that mattered. That story meant and said more about what was happening in America than those two Springsteen biographies; said more about the strange undercurrents that fuel America. (“Everything you want they got right here in the U.S.A.,” sang Chuck Berry, and he was right on target.)

Ten years of ROLLING STONE is the best history of the past ten years in America that I can think of. Consider the mix of early RS “rock & roll” cover stories: Sun Ra, the underground press, drug use in the armed services, Elvis, the MC5, Zabriskie Point, Altamont, rock groupies, Abbie Hoffman and the Chicago trial, Nudie, Jean-Luc Godard, Miles Davis, Sly Stone, Chuck Berry, Captain Beefheart. That mix has continued: Gene Autry, Dan Ellsberg, Nicholas Johnson, Senator Sam Ervin, Charles Manson, OJ Simpson, Muhammad Ali, Stones, Dylan, Beatles, Elton John and Johnny Rotten.

At this very minute, I can hear two other typewriters rattling away: Carl Bernstein is in the next office writing about the CIA and next door to him John Swenson is hammering out a story on a near breakup of the Beach Boys. Both stories mean a great deal here, and that kind of mixture of subjects under the umbrella of rock & roll is exactly what ROLLING STONE is about.

One of our best issues was “Let It Bleed,” exhaustive coverage of the disastrous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. Equally important, however, to the rock & roll audience was the “Most Dangerous Man Alive” issue: the first thorough story on Charles Manson. Those two issues won us the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism National Magazine Award: Rock & roll journalism was finally recognized by the outside world. (Only three years earlier, in 1968, street vendors were arrested for selling the issue with John and Yoko nude on the cover.)

The growth of rock & roll journalism, which paralleled the growth of rock & roll, is a fascinating subject in itself (in fact, I even wrote my master’s thesis on it). Nowhere has it been practiced better than in ROLLING STONE, whether it be Hunter Thompson (whose own prose style reads like the sound of rock ranting and raving) or Jon Landau patiently explaining things. Or Woodstock, which is a good case in point. The daily newspapers and wire services — which are conditioned to rely upon “official sources” — reported that the festival was a total disaster. Greil Marcus came back with excellent on-the-scene coverage for RS, which proved that it was not anything like a disaster. Nowhere have I seen better proof that “official” reporting is not necessarily truthful. The regular press felt that the chief of police of Bethel, New York, was the authority to consult; ROLLING STONE went into the field.

If there was any one guideline to rock & roll journalism, it was written by Bob Dylan: “Don’t follow leaders.”

Ten years of rock & roll history as covered by ROLLING STONE is exactly as I lived and remember the past ten years: a lot of Fifties hangover, a brief spurt of authentic Sixties identity, a long Sixties hangover, followed by a great leap into uncertainty.

In the beginning much of the coverage was just like the music: mostly confident and cocksure of new directions; sometimes screwy and off-base. But it was sincere, nonetheless, and proudly unobjective. How can you be objective about something that matters so much to you?

I mean, we once ran a story by John Lennon with the headline: “Have We All Forgotten What Vibes Are?” That seems very quaint and precious now, but you must remember the context. Those were strange and wonderful times. I remember once, in 1975, when John Rockwell of The New York Times, Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times and I got into an all-night Rolling Stones rehearsal. About five in the morning our eyelids were falling down and one of us — never mind which one — said maybe we should go get some rest. All of a sudden we all looked at each other and an unspoken thought passed among us: These are the Stones and we are here and what fools we would be to leave. Quaint and precious but, Jack, that is rock & roll.

Strange and wonderful times. Record companies were actually taking out full-page ads that said “Peace Now” (Vanguard) and “The Man Can’t Bust Our Music” (Columbia). Rock groups (along with vast numbers of ordinary citizens) were getting busted left and right for this and that, mostly marijuana.

We were going to compile a “Fingerprint File” of prominent arrests as recorded in ROLLING STONE, but the list would run for pages. Here’s a partial list, detailing part of 1969 and 1970: Jim Morrison, Paul Kantner, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison (again), Duane Allman, Jimi Hendrix, Carl Wilson, Reverend C.L. Franklin (Aretha’s father), Aretha, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Mick Jagger, Grateful Dead, Tim Leary, Janis Joplin (again), Levi Stubbs (of the Four Tops), Country Joe, Joe South, Jim Morrison (thrice, now), Peter Yarrow, Keith Moon, Marty Balin, George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix (again), Jack Casady, Paul Kantner (again), Mick Jagger (again), MC5, Tim Leary (getting repetitive), Miss Mercy of the GTOs (anyone could qualify).

One of the biggest stories in our first issue detailed a Grateful Dead marijuana bust: “The Good Ole Grateful Dead had gotten it. Eight narcotics agents, followed by a dozen reporters and television crews, raided the Dead’s house at 710 Ashbury Street on October 2nd [1967] . . . ROLLING STONE didn’t leave. We adjourned to the porch to take a few pictures of one of the most beautiful bands in the world.” If that sounds overly hippie-ish, remember again the context. Remember too how the Dead bust would have been treated by the “straight” press (“Acid-Rockers Arrested for Narcotics”) and the “underground” press (“Pigs in Amerika Declare War on Us”). There was a thin line in those days between “us” and “them.” ROLLING STONE was that thin line; not a line of equivocation but rather a line of reason.

Also from RS No. 1: “Friday, October 6th, was a perfect and beautiful day in the Haight-Ashbury, the kind of day it was for January’s Human Be-In, the same clear, warm and perfumed day which graced the Summer Solstice. Yet the event of a week and a half ago was not an unfettered celebration, but an almost desperate reaffirmation in a troubled time. The day was set to mark the “Death of the Hippie and the Birth of the Free Man.” This, of course, at a time when Time and all the dailies were still flooding the Haight-Ashbury with reporters who sent back dispatches about Beautiful Hippies.

Rock & roll was responsible for all that and for a style of life that came to express itself in headlines and slogans and catch-words. The following (courtesy ROLLING STONE’s coverage): Hassle! Shuck! Aquarius! Beautiful! Bummer! Uptight! Paranoia! Bad Trip! Busts! The Man! Us vs. Them! Narcs! Festivals! Stoned. Righteous! Kick Out the Jams! New Stones LP! Beatles Get Back! Woodstock Nation. Easy Rider! We Blew It. Altamont! Liberation! Oppression! Hash? Acid? Grass? Yer Sign? Groovy! Vibes. Mellow! War Is Over! Dylan’s Back! Fillmore! Hendrix! Janis! Doors! Light My Fire! Hype? Brian! I Hear You! White Rabbit! Whipping Post! Consciousness III! Power to the People! Freak-Out! Peace! Brothers and Sisters! Chicks! Dudes! Spades! Tripping! Balling! Rapping! Getting It Together! Heavy! Ecology! Rip-Off! Revolutionary Motherfucker Armed Love. Smack. Far Out. Laid Back.

RS actually had a popular section called “Dope Pages” (some sample headlines were “A Lot More Smack on the Scene,” “Zig Zag Bail Bonds: ‘Heads Are Loyal,'” “Country Joe at Natural High”) and that was part of rock & roll, too. When John Lennon got a haircut in 1970, RS straightfacedly covered that — the headline was “John, Yoko, Kyoko Get Trimmed” and the picture caption read “It didn’t matter. Long hair is only a symbolic thing.”

When Art Linkletter’s daughter jumped out of a window to her death and Art made a spectacle of himself by running around saying she was a victim of LSD, our headline for our story read: “Kids Do the Darndest Things.” Cruel and vicious? Maybe, but that’s rock & roll, too.

We also ran along note advocating Molotov cocktail attacks against speed dealers, complete with assembly instructions. For some reason, we ran a story with this headline: “Bonzo Dog Band Runs, Fucks Self.” Nothing was too unimportant to be covered: the fact that Capitol Records once hired eight temporary workers to take razor blades and scratch the words “Big fucking deal” off 100,000 copies of Sons of Champlin albums was just as important as Janis Joplin’s infamous quote when she lost her Newsweek cover to Eisenhower when he died. (“Fourteen heart attacks and he had to die in my week. In my week.”) When Jim Morrison, as he was wont to do, let himself hang out in public, our headline was “Morrison’s Penis Is Indecent.” We once gave Yoko Ono the “Screaming Yellow Zonker Award.” Our current lawyers would have been having coronaries left and right in those days.

When Brian Jones died, Greil Marcus wrote the best obituary I have ever read. It included this passage: “I woke up to hear that Brian Jones was dead and not more than a ripple of sorrow passed through the room. It was time for it, there was just nothing left for him to do. Become a Rolling Stone and die.” You would never read anything like that in a New York Times obit, because it would be thought unnecessary irreverence toward the dead. Marcus was reverent, though, because he was truthful. Rock & roll obituaries (a new literary form that unfortunately had to be practiced too often, rock & roll on the road being as tough a way of life as there is) were at least truthful in ROLLING STONE: no postmortem cosmetics.

Just part of covering rock & roll: covering the survivors and the victims. The survivors make more money than you or I will ever dream of. The victims, well, they are just the victims. In the end, the victims say more about the nature of rock & roll than the survivors. The real rock & rollers live with an intensity that is frightening. No room in rock & roll for burning with hard, gemlike flames or burning the candle at both ends. Better a blow torch or, best yet, a flame thrower. Jim Morrison, before he flamed out, penned the epitaph for rock & roll: “We want the world and we want it now . . . now . . . NOW!”

In This Article: Coverwall, Rolling Stone

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