For over four decades, Rolling Stone Magazine has remained one of the nation’s most respected pop culture periodicals of all time. From its emergence in the late 1960s, this magazine expressed an alternative outlook on music as a legitimate form of analysis. Its famous and infamous interviews with some the most iconic musicians like Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Jim Morrison as well other influential personas like presidents, spiritual leaders, actors, cartoonists, and other significant characters (though always relating it back to music) have reshaped the way we think about in the face of American cultural history and music. These icons have opened up to Rolling Stone (RS) and revealed some of their most intimate, sacred, ambitious, or embarrassing, experiences they have faced.
Robert Draper has chronicled one of the most in depth historical trajectories and behind the scenes of what Rolling Stone as an institution, and the people that run it, is. His book Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History claims that RS defined and revolutionized rock & roll as a legitimate genre to be taken seriously, furthermore than the youth rebel’s and counterculture’s music. Draper declares, “Instead of defining rock & roll, or deifying it, Rolling Stone covered it – a truly revolutionary idea. Its writers interviewed Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton with the sense of purpose a Time reporter would bring to an interview with Henry Kissinger. Musicians were worthy news figures, proclaimed Rolling Stone, and their music was worthy of analysis” (1990, 8). From its featured stories, questions and answers, breaking news, presidential scandal stories, special editions, music and movie previews, and revolutionary covers, have all served a purpose in keeping RS at the forefront of music lovers’ top list.
Despite today’s RS’ raging financial and capitalistic success, it is interesting to become aware that when the RS emerged, it began as a countercultural response to the mainstream production of music entertainment of the time. RS was gave an alternative voice to rock & roll music, to its musicians, and to the hippy youth populations.
Because RS has produced over a thousand magazines since its emergence, it is quite difficult to look at all covers and analyze certain patterns in history. This would require an extensive analysis. Another that was considered looking at the covers in chunks, according to their corresponding decade. In other words carrying four case studies and looking at a group of covers to analyze. But even with this approach, the four decade case studies method was too ambitious for the purpose of this project. While still carrying out a similar approach, the time period of focus is much narrower. To understand the context of which RS appeared, this project examines the front page covers of the first two decades of this biweekly periodical – starting with the first issue of John Lennon in 1967 and completing the cycle of another Lennon issue with then wife, Yoko Ono, in 1981. Specifically, I select some of the most influential, memorial, cynical, idealistic, controversial, and marketed covers within the timeline of study, while explaining the social, political and cultural climate of the time being.
During the mid 1960s, Jann Wenner, future co-founder of Rolling Stone was an undergraduate student at UC, Berkeley. To be a student on this campus at this time meant getting easily exposed to the social and political discomforts of the nation. Mario Savio was preaching free speech and civil rights, and the Free Speech Movement was taking large effect. As a whole, the US counterculture movement was just about to hit its climax. It was during a time of large student demonstrations, civil liberties and anti-war sentiments, women’s liberation and Black power movements. The nation’s youth had abandoned the medium, television, which had been the most influential in promoting to a large degree, escapism with prime time shows as the fantastic family sitcoms and such. As a young man in his early twenties, Jann Wenner was in the middle of the increasing radical youth politicizations. Rock music and its icons, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Pete Townshend, and others, were the spokespeople for the youth.
As stated in Draper’s book, Rolling Stone Magazine, Wenner was much more concerned about establishing a medium that represented the youth culture, or entrepreneurship, than to protesting on campus grounds. One acquaintance of Wenner at that time even said that his main reason for developing RS was that so he could meet his hero, John Lennon (34). Despite of this being true or not, RS became much more than a magazine about celebrity or rock musician gossip or even simple platonic visions of music with hardly any meaning, but a cultural force which captured the counterculture for what it really was, a legitimate expression of why these youths were so captivated by rock & roll, and a voice to these rock icons who ‘authentically’ express themselves and what the meaning of music had to them, and its audiences. Consequently, Wenner dropped out of UC, Berkeley and went on becoming the co-founder, publisher, and editor of RS in October of 1967, along with the other co-founder, Ralph Gleason. All it took was collecting $7,500, and the printing press begun to roll.
Even though the first issue of RS is not necessarily one of the most memorable covers, it sets the platform for the rest of the issues to come in terms of their style. As stated before, Jann Wenner did in fact idolize John Lennon. After gathering the RS staff and preparing all other aspects for the launching of the first issue, Wenner had written a review of John Lennon’s film ‘How I Won the War.’ A still shot of Lennon in this film would en up setting the front page cover.
Wenner’s review about Lennon’s film mysteriously declared, “It’s all pointless because that’s the point of the film” (Draper 68). By having a strong activator of anti-war sentiment music hero suited up in war garnish would bring a sense of irony but also the message of ‘pointlessness’, towards the war that is. I feel it is safe to say that this is what both Lennon and his biggest fan, Wenner, were striving for. On the second issue, Tina Turner made the cover, and on the third it would be the Beatles and the rest of the ‘Magical Mystery Tour.’ It was not until a year later, the first anniversary issue, that John Lennon would make the front page cover again. This time he was with his then wife Yoko Ono and both of them would appear naked. This issue also carried the first interview with Lennon. Lennon and Ono’s self-portraits were taken in their London flat intended for the cover of their album Two Virgins. Jann Wenner says in Rolling Stones 1,000 Covers that this cover was their first sellout issue. He continues, “Although it may seem tame from today’s perspective, the idea of someone so famous and so physically average standing stark naked for all the world to see was quite extraordinary – shocking, to be sure, but above all revolutionary and moving” (2006, 6). According to Draper, Wenner was very skeptical about making this photo on the front page cover where Gleason insisted they would do so (1990, 80). Any way it went, it captured the sexual revolution in its humane form without making nudity vulgar and exotic, but a part of human nature.
Two years later Rolling Stone as a whole was “generally accepted as the most authoritative rock & roll magazine in the land” (Draper: 1990, 6). Draper states, “None of this would have been possible without a few key individuals; acidheads, anarchists, commune dwellers, social lepers and parentless long-hairs who loved music and feared the morning sunlight. Having this said, Rolling Stone is a distinctly capitalist triumph” (ibid). Although for most of the late 1960s, much of the spirit was of spreading peace and love, expanding ones consciousness with psychedelics, and being in solidarity and unifying with other hippy music lovers. RS did capture the attention of all these free loving hippy youths and other radicals. However, one good thing must eventually reach a turning point.
Idealism to Cynicism
“Conceived during San Francisco’s Summer of Love, Rolling Stone championed a new pantheon of heroes – the Beatles, Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix – until its loving gaze was distracted by the marching, charging feet of National Guardsmen on college campuses. Then the magazine deepened with hot blood,” Draper says (7). The free loving ideals of San Francisco’s Height-Ashbury, festivals in Woodstock, and other monumental spaces of hippy rituals would reach a climax by the very late 1960s. It turned into spaces of more intense riots, harder choices of drugs among the youth (no more marijuana or LSD dropping), the beginnings of mechanized music, and definitely the end of the preachment of peace and love.
By this time, the glorification of the summer of love and related ideals had to shift with the sociopolitical reality that was now troubling the nation. “[RS 30] This issue marked the first special issue devoted to a political topic, in this case the social movements and unrest prevalent in the late Sixties” (Wenner: 2006, 18). Contributors if this issue included Black Panther Minister of Education George Mason Murray and Berkeley Free Speech Movement (FSM) leader Michael Rossman. Even so to carry a cover displaying police brutality on a bleeding young man marked a turning point to the magazine’s representation. Even though back in the early stages of FSM Wenner would not physically participate in the protests, a periodical that distributed the ideals of the affected generation would prove to be very effective.
As for Jim Morrison making the cover, it does put the focus of a musician. But, what is interesting about this particular issue is that Jim Morrison is at the focus when as a matter of fact the first land on the moon had landed six days before. This piece was released in July 26th, 1969. The issue after this one features Bran Jones on the cover headlining “Sympathy for the Devil.” What is actually remarkable about this specific moment in time is that all forms of major press, magazines and television programming were broadcasting and featuring Neil Armstrong walking on the moon and planting the American flag on its surface. However, RS would include an astronaut at a later issue in 1973.
Furthermore, RS headlines “Rock, Teargas and Festivals,” again bringing some sort of revolt into the mind of the gazer. This selection of front cover does take on an underground, controversial, and anti-mainstream focus. This is so especially with Morrison headlining in press coverage. His Miami incident and trial did blow out of proportion in popular press for his use of profanity, public indecent exposure (which was never proven but charged guilty), and for provoking a riot.
On the Rolling Stone Interview book, with introduction by Jann Wenner, he again clarifies that not only musicians were the muses or those worthy to make the cover. However, there have been moments of high coverage about certain extreme conservative political groups, peaks of spirituality, and mad and cynical situations. As RS has interviews with some of the most incredible, crazy, and mad people, it grants to look in deeper than what official outlets of communication would report. It strives to look inside the mind of the individuals and why they make the decisions they make.
With this in mind, it is quite eerie to look at this cover and making Charles Manson look as if he is hopeful. Or even give the viewer some sort of sympathetic feeling about this image. Plus, that big yellow circle seems as if he is looking towards the sun. David Felton, who conducted Manson’s interview would later state, “Jann Wenner…suggested that I do a story on Charles Manson. None of the editors liked the idea, including myself, but Jann figured there was a story there” (2006, 31).
Because the obsession with murders, killings, riots and death were a huge aspect of what consumers were buying, these next three issues below also proved to be big sellers. Wenner states, Wenner states, “Another of our early lessons in publishing was that death sells. When Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix died within weeks of each
other, our staff placed simple, classic portraits on the cover, with type stating just the artist’s name and dates of birth and death. There was nothing more to say” (2006, 8).
Furthermore, he states, “That began a form of tribute that we’ve followed ever since. When somebody in the magazine’s purview dies, the cover is created with dignity and respect, and the coverage inside is exhaustive, sometimes highly personal and in many cases brilliant” (2006, 10). It was also important to include these tribute covers of three of the late and iconic rock stars of all time. Despite their drug related premature deaths, all at the age of 27, they did change the face of rock & roll. Draper says, “The great guitarist Jimi Hendrix suffocated in his vomit and died. Less than three weeks later, on October 4, Janis Joplin was found in her bed, lips bleeding, four dollars and fifty cents clutched in her hand – death by heroin. Now back in the office, Jann assembled an issue as fine[ly]…put together, with beautiful photos of Joplin by Jim Marshall and several comprehensive articles about the fallen singer” (133-4).
Another ongoing series of publications in RS would stress former president, Richard Nixon. Draper highlights again another dimension into the transitory decade of 60s to 70s. Then “Came a crooked President and a crooked new decade, and Rolling Stone stopped talking about love and revolution. New Morality met head-on with New Reality. From 1970 until 1977, no magazine in America was as honest or as imaginative…Greater truths were its aim…from Nixon, the FBI and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to Woodstock, Charles Manson and the Symbionese Liberation Army” (Draper: 1990, 7). So as this whole spotlight of cynical individuals was featured in RS, it was subsequently what was being favored in America, in terms of consuming the spectacle.
“Political activists pronounced them the New Left. Establishment journalists labeled them ‘hippies.’ Richard Nixon called them ‘bums’”, emphasizes Draper (6).
Continuing, Richard Nixon was the “First the President announced that the United States would withdraw some 150,000 troops from Vietnam within a year’s time. Two weeks hence, he informed a bewildered nation of an ‘incursion’ by 8,000 U.S. ground troops into another country, Cambodia. That same day, April 30, he referred to student protestors as ‘bums.’ Four days and fifty rounds of ammunition later, four students lay dead on the campus of Kent State” (130).
“Like much of America, the Rolling Stone staff monitored Watergate with awe and curiosity, viewing the Senate hearings on the television set by Jann’s office…” (Draper 224). Yes, America had this obsession with the mad. Nixon had although become aware that his every action was being monitored, especially with the Watergate scandal, these illustrations and portrait say so much during the process of his impeachment. Issue #144 displays a melting, or deteriorating, depiction of Nixon, right after being caught red handed by the whole nation. Issue #152 gives liberty a shove and the cold shoulder. It was as if Ms. Liberty had been his ‘bitch’, with her skanky outfit and revealing body parts, and is rejecting her, or rejecting America. Issue 169 was done in a ridiculous timeline, according to Draper, but chief executive photographer, Annie Leibovitz, captured precisely the moment in that photo shoot of former President Nixon – a mad and cynical, yet almost feel sympathetic, and confusion look of mixed emotions.
The last examination of RS covers ends with another naked picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono; to start and end with Lennon. As we have examined their nakedness in RS issue # 22, and what it would represent at the time of the free spirit hippy movement, sexual revolution, and its humaneness, this cover proved to actually be RS’ most remembered cover of all time. This photo is indeed the cover of the Rolling Stone 1,000 Covers.
Despite Lennon’s display of affection for Yoko Ono, the story behind this photo and its release date says more. On December 8, 1980, Annie Leibovitz had a photo shoot with John Lennon for this above issue, promising him he would make the cover. After she had initially tried to get a picture with just Lennon alone, which is what RS wanted, Lennon insisted that both he and Yoko Ono be on the cover. Leibovitz then tried to re-create something like the kissing scene from the Double Fantasy album cover, a picture that she loved. She had John remove his clothes and curl up next to Yoko. Leibovitz recalls, “What is interesting is she said she'd take her top off and I said, 'Leave everything on' — not really preconceiving the picture at all. Then he curled up next to her and it was very, very strong. You couldn't help but feel that she was cold and he looked like he was clinging on to her. I think it was amazing to look at the first Polaroid and they were both very excited. John said, “You've captured our relationship exactly. Promise me it'll be on the cover. I looked him in the eye and we shook on it.” Leibovitz was the last person to professionally photograph Lennon—he was shot and killed by Mark David Chapman five hours later.
Today, Rolling Stone has successfully been produced every two weeks since its fist issue on November of 1967. Although, the story does not end here, but for the purpose of this project, all good things must come to an end. There is much to say about issues of later decades, from the 1980s, they frequently take on a different relation of how the artist, or subject, of focus is depicted in these covers. It has habitually defined the celebrity the way it is depicted in RS. Whether Lindsey Lohan throws up her arms with an open mouth expression showing she’s ‘wild’, or whether it is Eminem’s close up facial expression of apathy mixed with anger. However, this is another project to be further looked into.
Even in more contemporary issues, nostalgia is a reoccurring theme that keeps appearing; functioning as a brand to be marketed. Most noticeably, reminiscing on the sixties and seventies with special. Either praising a certain musician, band or other iconic figure, or even the cultural affiliations associated with that moment, such as the 1968 summer of love, the 1970s and the drug culture and heavy rock & roll, to even the 1950s and the beginning of rock, and so on.
On commodification, the images on the front cover of the RS magazine can function as a form of advertisement, as it is this gaze that appeals to the mass audience which persuades them to purchase the magazine. Even though the specific covers of focus contributed to the social and cultural happenings of the given time, the aesthetic of the images also served intentional purpose for the consumption of the masses. This intentionality has taken the form as polished, brushed up, or controversial. Like Turner would point out, “For the popular press [and] the fanzines…, the defining qualities of the celebrity are both natural and magical: journalists, feature writers and publicists speak of their ‘presence’, their ‘star quality’, and their ‘charisma’ (8). We have seen that there is definitely some mysticism, cynicism, and magic to these covers. And “Celebrity is routinely treated as a domain of irrationality, its appeal explained through metaphors of magic (charisma) or pathology (delusion)” (136). Though, for those who were featured at the cover of the RS meant that they were at the pinnacle of the media industry, and a representation of the relevance being portrayed at that time. These images can definitely be abstracted from their specific historical, cultural and industrial contexts.
On the other hand, we have in fact seen RS from an idealistic point of view as well. Honoring the nostalgia of the 1960s, but that is exactly what these covers wanted to portray in the first place. Not the nostalgia, but the magic involved in the free spirited movements. As we saw that chaos and madness hit the next decade, RS also strove to narrate what was important to its audiences. In fact, today RS claims to be “the most influential magazine in pop culture,” (the subtitle of Rolling Stones 1,000 Covers). By judging the magazine by its cover, and looking at the social, cultural, and political relevance, we have seen that RS played a defining role in shaping both its mass market and that specific countercultural demographic that was unreachable by other outlets of communication in the time of its emergence. The RS covers responded to the social and cultural occurrences of the time, and how these covers also mirrored culture and society which led it to become on of the most influential magazines of all time. Sometimes we can judge a book, or a magazine, by its cover.