With their latest documentary, Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge, directors Alex Gibney and Blair Foster stitch together old performance footage, recordings from interviews with artists (Ice-T) and Presidents (Bill Clinton), and readings from some of the magazine’s most important stories, with the likes of Johnny Depp subbing in for Hunter S. Thompson. Instead of following the magazine’s activities year by year, the narrative is dictated by big stories: The film jumps from one big scoop to the next, skipping from Hunter S. Thompson on George McGovern in 1972 to an important article about Patty Hearst three years later. Here’s ten things we learned from the movie.
1. Rolling Stone was founded to honor a neglected art form.
Though it’s hard to imagine now, when Jann Wenner started Rolling Stone in 1967, few publications bothered to treat popular music seriously. “Rock & roll is a particular form [of music] that’s changed tremendously, has changed, keeps changing,” a young Wenner declares in a TV interview. “There was no publication that covered it the way it should be covered, that treated it the way it deserved to be treated.”
2. The magazine got an early boost by publishing a naked photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
In 1968, John Lennon and Yoko Ono decided to strip for the artwork that appeared on their Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins album. Lennon saw the cover as a way of hitting back against the constant scrutiny that accompanied his fame. “People are always looking at people like me trying to see some secret,” he explained. “What do they do? Do they go to the bathroom? Do they eat? We just said, ‘here.'”
The cover was promptly banned, and Rolling Stone saw an opportunity, writing to Lennon to ask to publish the original cover in its full glory. “It was really first the time we had gotten any kind of attention,” Wenner remembered. “The San Francisco Chronicle ran an article which was headlined, ‘Nude Beatle Perils S.F.’ I concluded from all this, if you print a famous foreskin, the world will beat a path to your door.”
3. Rolling Stone allowed writers to go long.
Lamenting the declining attention spans of readers is commonplace in the Twitter age, but it is hardly a new phenomenon. “In an era in which young people were supposed to have shorter attention spans, [Rolling Stone] started running articles that were endless — I wrote some of ’em myself,” says Tom Wolfe, who began to write for the magazine in the Seventies. Rolling Stone went on to publish serialized chapters — at least 5,500 words a piece — of his work The Bonfire of the Vanities.
“With Rolling Stone, I was given the room and the range to really stomp on the terra, as Lord Buckley said,” adds Hunter S. Thompson. “Very few places would give you that.”
4. Thompson helped established the magazine as an important political voice.
Thompson’s coverage of the Richard Nixon reelection campaign in 1972 broke away from stodgy, by-the-book political journalism. “We are really just a nation of 220 million used-car salesmen, with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else who makes us uncomfortable,” he wrote. “How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?” Thompson’s work was later anthologized as Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail ’72.
Thompson’s writing didn’t always come freely, but Rolling Stone provided the support necessary for Thompson to finish his assignments. “I’m not an easy person to deal with in terms of deadlines,” Thompson admits. “When I didn’t show up for three or four days, they decided to do the only logical thing: One afternoon, they showed up at my door with no warning and loaded about 40 pounds of supplies into my room. Two cases of Mexican beer, four quarts of gin, dozens of grapefruits, and enough speed to alter the outcome of about six Super Bowls.”
5. Rock is dead… in 1974.
Just as readers’ attention spans were already under fire in the Seventies, rock was declared comatose less than a decade after Rolling Stone‘s founding. “Rock is far more popular than ever before, but it appears to have much less social impact,” magazine writer Jon Dolan declares in 1974. “It’s broader than it was ten years ago, making unprecedented use of country, jazz and straight pop, and yet, to my ears, it sounds ever more homogenous. Rock’s single biggest lack today is a failure of imagination.”
“Rock & roll no longer sets you free; it’s muzak now,” adds reporter/author Robert Sam Anson. “It’s no longer threatening. It’s no longer revolutionary. It’s just a big, billion-dollar industry.”
6. Covering the Patty Hearst story elevated Rolling Stone into the national conversation.
All eyes were on Patty Hearst — kidnapped granddaughter of rich publisher William Randolph Hearst, who then joined the cause of her kidnappers, the Symbionese Liberation Army — in the early Seventies. “The story was so widely covered it was like a circus; it was like O.J. Simpson before O.J. Simpson,” a voiceover notes. “But the mainstream media didn’t have her side of the story until Rolling Stone found a source, someone named Jack Scott.”
Scott, a writer hoping to pen a book on the SLA, ended up helping Hearst escape the authorities; when Hearst was later taken into custody, Rolling Stone were the experts. “It was the Patty Hearst stories that put the magazine over the top,” Stories From the Edge asserts, “and after that Rolling Stone increasingly got publicity for its articles.”
7. Cultural coverage led some to accuse Rolling Stone of abandoning music.
Thompson and Wenner did not always get along, but Thompson returned to the fold in the early Eighties to cover the sordid divorce proceedings of Palm Beach publishing magnate Herbert Pulitzer Jr. and his wife Roxanne. “It was during that period that we were winning doing cultural coverage,” a voiceover explains. “People would complain that we were abandoning the music, but that was bullshit — we were covering the culture.”
That being said, as the music scene became increasingly fragmented, the act of covering it became more complicated: “There was no musical center to the Eighties as there had been during the Fifties and Sixties. Music had split off into a lot of fields and different mainstreams. We were trying to persuade the magazine to give coverage to the Talking Heads or a lead review to Joy Division.”
8. Rolling Stone was once banned from Walmart.
Walmart removed all rock magazines from its shelves after Jimmy Swaggart — a prominent evangelist with a large television following, as well as the cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis — condemned the publications “as pornography, pure and simple.” “They’re the only pornography that’s printed for children and distributed to children and distributed by family outlets,” Swaggart added. Then at the height of his powers, the preacher was later defrocked when it was discovered that he regularly sought the services of prostitutes.
9. There was some debate within the magazine about how to cover hip-hop.
Throughout Stories From the Edge, younger writers get into fights with the previous generation over editorial priorities. In the first part of the documentary, Camerone Crowe remembers picking up assignments on bands like Deep Purple because older writers didn’t care about the group. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, a similar debate played out over the coverage of rap.
“I remember being at Rolling Stone and being kind of being furious when Nirvana broke,” Alan Light complains. “‘God damn it, you all want a rock band so bad! Here’s one and they have one big song, and they get the cover of the magazine, and I can’t get Public Enemy on the cover of the magazine after three or four world-changing records.'”
10. Covering the first Clinton campaign was disillusioning.
Rolling Stone‘s political team had high hopes for Bill Clinton, the first baby-boomer to run for president, and the first Democrat to sit in the White House after a 12-year drought. “Jann was in love with the Clintons; Hunter was also quite thrilled, and he gave Clinton a couple of high quality French saxophone reeds,” the magazine’s William Greider remembers.
But during an interview with Clinton in Arkansas, their opinions began to change. “Hunter had his own list of questions about gun laws but also drug laws,” Greider remembers. “Clinton wanted that interview to make it very clear he was not your standard brand liberal who was for smoking dope. Hunter was so offended, he gets up from the table, he came back in about 15 minutes with a tall drink, and he never asked another question. It was like, ‘Interview was over for me — you showed me who you really are.'”
“I had the same optimism that was widely shared about the Clinton potential,” Greider adds. “My one regret was I was slow in saying in print what I saw happening in Washington. Clinton was essentially abandoning organized labor and working people. It happened literally in the first year of the administration. And that was a sort of double-cross of the values he expressed as a young candidate.”