Rolling Stone at 50: 10 Best Items at 50-Year Exhibition at Rock Hall - Rolling Stone
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10 Must-See Items Inside Rolling Stone’s 50th Anniversary Exhibition

‘Rolling Stone: 50 Years’ offers a unique glimpse of the magazine’s history in a new exhibition at Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum

Inside the Rolling Stone Rock Hall 50th Anniversary exhibit

'Rolling Stone: 50 Years' offers a unique glimpse of the magazine's history in a new exhibition at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.

Rob Mueller / Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Fifty years ago, a 21-year-old Berkeley College dropout and journalist named Jann Wenner was cobbling together a new kind of magazine that, in his words, would take rock music seriously. The first issue of Rolling Stone appeared in print on November 9th, 1967. Over the next 50 years, more than a thousand issues (and counting) would follow. 

Rolling Stone is not just about music, but about the things and attitudes music embraces,” said Wenner at the time. Now celebrating its golden anniversary, the magazine is one of the few continuously-running chronicles of pop culture, politics, film, art in American history. 

Rolling Stone: 50 Years is a special exhibition at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, Ohio open now through the end of 2017. The three-floor display includes a miscellany of items from hand-penned notes from Hunter S. Thompson to Charles Manson (requesting a subscription from jail), audio files, rare photos and interview transcripts from rock stars to presidents. Here, some highlights (and stories) from the vast exhibition.

Inside the Rolling Stone Rock Hall 50th Anniversary exhibit

First Issue of ‘Rolling Stone’

The first issue of Rolling Stone appeared on November 9th, 1967, and it cost 25 cents. The decision to put John Lennon on the cover for his role in How I Won the War was hastily made just two days before going to press, but in retrospect, Wenner felt the image was prophetic.

“It was the last piece of the puzzle for the issue,” Wenner recalled at the exhibition opening. “It was a defining cover, because it encompassed music, movies and politics … And John was on the cover so many times after that.”

Further into the exhibition, another iconic photograph of Lennon appears. The photo, a test-shot polaroid of Lennon lithe and naked – with Yoko Ono’s face cradled in his arms – was taken by Annie Liebovitz for their Rolling Stone cover shoot, just hours before he was killed on December 8th, 1980. The little square image is the only existing artifact from that shoot. 

Inside the Rolling Stone Rock Hall 50th Anniversary exhibit

Grace Slick’s Letter to the Editor

Rolling Stone‘s album reviews section quickly became as important – and controversial – as the covers. Early on, the editors received a handwritten note from one particularly concerned reader: Grace Slick. Jefferson Airplane’s legendary contralto opined about why the magazine must resist the “big beat of capitalism” when deciding what records to cover. The underlining message? Don’t sell out. 

Despite Slick’s veil of caprice – “think about it sweet thing,” she writes – her letter proved Wenner’s early hypothesis about the magazine: rock music, its makers and fans alike, demanded to be taken seriously. And thus, they were fervent about the editors maintaining the core voice and direction of the product that began as a paean to American counterculture. 

Inside the Rolling Stone Rock Hall 50th Anniversary exhibit

Rob Mueller / Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Interview With Pete Townshend in 1968

On August 12th, 1968, the magazine was less than a year old, and Jann Wenner interviewed the Who guitarist Pete Townshend while the band was playing a series of shows at San Francisco’s Fillmore West at the end of their expansive North American tour. “Magic Bus” was their big, new song. 

After an exhaustingly long stretch of shows, it was clear Townshend, the fearsome guitar-smasher, was eager to get back into the studio. Less than a month after speaking with Wenner, the Who would begin recording Tommy, their landmark rock opera, and complete it in March. Inklings of that record emerge in this interview, and Townshend also spoke about the genesis of destroying his guitar onstage, which heightened the music’s urgency, danger – and most importantly – ensured the Who always have an audience. 

Inside the Rolling Stone Rock Hall 50th Anniversary exhibit

Rob Mueller / Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Charles Manson: Murderer, Cult Leader, ‘Rolling Stone’ Subscriber

When Charles Manson wrote to Rolling Stone in January 1972, as far as he knew, he would be dead within a year. The California death penalty was three months away from becoming ruled unconstitutional. Manson was sentenced to death after receiving numerous counts of first-degree murder. 

“If you would be so kind and send me a subscription to your paper, I will be happy to answer any questions you may wish to ask,” Manson wrote in tidy cursive script. “The questions should be simple, short and to the point, answers will be the same for I am simple, short and to the point. You may print what I say that you wish, I will consider a subscription fair exchange.” 

Rolling Stone‘s David Felton, who cowrote the original 1970 profile on Manson, wrote back the following month, granting the inmate a year’s subscription to the magazine. He also informed him that the recent Manson Issue was a “best seller.” Felton, who would later win a National Magazine Award for his five-part study of the serial killer and cult leader, is itself a fascinating artifact of how Rolling Stone‘s editors were analyzing and evaluating the significance of the Manson family murders in real time. 

Felton asked Manson about the chance and “desirability” of different families coming together (like the Manson and the Lyman family, about which he had recently written a cover story). Felton called Manson the “famous apocalyptic visionary of this generation.” “I assume therefore, there is much you could tell our readers.”

Two months after Felton’s letter, the California death penalty was repealed. Manson was eventually re-sentenced to life in prison. The notorious killer continues to be an eerie, complex Rolling Stone subject. In 2013, writer Erik Hedegaard revisited Manson, who at age 80, was as chilling and verbose as ever. 

“I’m the devil,” he said. “You didn’t know that?” 

Listen to original audio from Hedegaard’s 2013 interview with Manson below:

Inside the Rolling Stone Rock Hall 50th Anniversary exhibit

Rob Mueller / Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Tape Recorders Behind Iconic Interviews

In the 2000 movie Almost Famous, director and screenwriter Cameron Crowe condensed his wild, formative experiences writing for Rolling Stone in the Seventies. None of it could have happened without his inanimate companion: the tape recorder.

“There’s no way to be surreptitious with that,” Cameron says, referencing the machine pictured here. “There was no built-in mic so you had to hold the mic out. You had to get used to the fact that in every interview there was going to be this clunky machine sitting between you and the interviewee.  It was a workout to carry it around, it was dropped, rolled over, had a ridiculously short battery life … but it also gave as much as it received.”

Crowe used that interview as a reporter for his high school newspaper and his first Rolling Stone cover story (which, uniquely to Crowe, occurred around the same time). “[The Allmans] hadn’t done an interview with [Rolling Stone] because there was a bad cover story wherein [Grover Lewis] talked about them doing coke. The group was famously really upset, because the writer did coke too, but didn’t mention that fact in the story. So the magazine’s relationship with the band was bad. Duane Allman had also just died in motorcycle accident. I’d written about [the Allmans] before for a local underground paper. I just kept interviewing everyone I could get my hands on. Ultimately, the band accepted me and called me to come on the road with them. When that happened, my Rolling Stone editor said it was going to be a cover.

The tape recorder and I cracked the Allmans’ fears of Rolling Stone and that was my first cover story. Next was Jackson Browne [laughs],” he said. 

Crowe purchased the audiocassette recorder at a local Sears with money he earned working at a record store kiosk in San Diego. “I got fired for not being able to work the cash machine,” he admits. To its right is a much smaller  contemporary model belonging to Rolling Stone senior writer Andy Greene

“I got it while I was still an intern in 2004,” Greene says. He used it for his firsts big interviews, which included sitting in a hotel room with Peter Gabriel, a phoner with Willie Nelson and meeting David Crosby backstage. Greene says that tape recorder was used for “hundreds” of interviews after that between 2004 and 2007. But one in particular stands out as a favorite: “Neil Young, in a van, leaving a Crosby Stills Nash & Young show in 2006.” 

Inside the Rolling Stone Rock Hall 50th Anniversary exhibit

Theo Wenner for Rolling Stone

Taylor Swift on Her ‘Rolling Stone’ Covers

Taylor Swift shot her first Rolling Stone cover in 2008 at age 19. The focus of the interview was on the imminent flood of mainstream acknowledgement: her first Grammy Award nomination. A month after press time, the award was hers. 

The pop star’s first cover was shot by Peggy Sirota, and the close up the teenage singer-songwriter with her acoustic guitar, her wild, frizzy locks obscuring her stare. “They really just captured where I was in that moment,” Swift recently told the Rock Hall museum for the exhibition. 

Swift now has 10 Grammy Awards out of 29 total nominations and has appeared on three RS covers. She is the youngest person (and first woman) in history to win Album of the Year more than once as the main credited artist.

Hunter S. Thompson’s Dispatches

This flighty, frank, six-page screed Hunter S. Thompson wrote to Jann Wenner from Woody Creek, Colorado, his Western respite, is one of dozens just like it he sent over the years. In this selection, the gonzo journalism pioneer is rambling about, among other things that are hard to parse, “the hassle over the ‘stolen’ typewriter was unsettling.” 

Thompson’s first story for Rolling Stone, “The Battle of Aspen” published October 1st, 1970, was – in his words – “a rambling discussion (with rude slogans) of Freak Power in the Rockies.” At the time, Thompson was the “Freak Power” candidate in the race for Sheriff of Aspen, Colorado. Thompson didn’t become sheriff. But that piece marked the beginning of his groundbreaking political writing career at Rolling Stone

In 1971, Rolling Stone published the first serialization of Thompson’s historic work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. A year later, he wrote Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, which emblematized Richard Nixon as the “dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character.”

At the exhibition opening, Wenner spoke about the writers, like Thompson, he’s edited over the last half-century. “Giving the right idea to the right writers is what will inspire them to do great work.”

Inside the Rolling Stone Rock Hall 50th Anniversary exhibit

Rob Mueller / Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

President Obama: Notes for Exit Interview

Over the last decade, former president Barack Obama had 10 Rolling Stone cover stories. But his last, published November 29th, 2016, was undoubtedly the most crucial. The original notes from that conversation with Jann Wenner are pictured above.

In the introduction, Wenner patly explained he expected Obama to cancel the interview. It was the morning after Donald Trump’s unexpected win. As the crossed-out questions show (“What did you think watching the results come in? Happy? Were you ever worried that Trump might actually win?) Wenner – like the rest of the world – was anticipating a very different morning. 

But Obama kept Wenner’s appointment. What proceeded would become a vital, unvarnished guidepost for how Democrats must proceed under an incoming Trump administration and Republican-dominated government. 

“You really have to scrap everything and come up with new questions,” Wenner said of his approach to interviewing Obama over the years. “The hardest thing is anticipating what you’re going to ask next because he can change topics so quickly. Also, you always have to know what your last question is going to be.” 

Below is an excerpt from the interview in which Obama anticipates the “fake news” controversy and issues facing media outlets including Rolling Stone. Read the entire interview here

The challenge is, the technology is moving so fast that it’s less an issue of traditional media losing money. The New York Times is still making money. NPR is doing well. Yeah, it’s a nonprofit, but it has a growing audience. The problem is segmentation. We were talking about the issue of a divided country. Good journalism continues to this day. There’s great work done in Rolling Stone. The challenge is people are getting a hundred different visions of the world from a hundred different outlets or a thousand different outlets, and that is ramping up divisions. It’s making people exaggerate or say what’s most controversial or peddling in the most vicious of insults or lies, because that attracts eyeballs. And if we are gonna solve that, it’s not going to be simply an issue of subsidizing or propping up traditional media; it’s going to be figuring out how do we organize in a virtual world the same way we organize in the physical world. We have to come up with new models.

Inside the Rolling Stone Rock Hall 50th Anniversary exhibit

Rob Mueller / Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Jann Wenner Visits His ‘Original Office’

“It was a wonderful feeling,” Wenner says. “I recalled lots of happy and fun memories. I sat back, closed my eyes and went back into time.”

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