20 Years of Rolling Stone:
What a Long, Strange Trip it’s Been
Introduction by Jann S. Wenner
Friendly Press: 1987
To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Rolling Stone, we undertook this book, along with special issues of the magazine, in an effort to understand two decades in the social, cultural and political history of America, which, however provocative and powerful in our imagination, have not yet been thoughtfully—often not even accurately—accounted for.
The pieces in this book form an impressionistic chronology that attempts to suggest some of the ideas and events of the last twenty years and the experiences of a generation. This collection is not meant to be the best of Rolling Stone; many excellent Rolling Stone writers and articles could not be included. Rather, this anthology is intended to convey the passage of time and a sense of recent history.
For reasons of space and sometimes readability (in-depth reporting beyond the call of duty was an indulgence of our earlier years), the articles that are included in this anthology have been carefully trimmed. We also took advantage of hindsight to correct some factual errors and smooth out the rougher edges of deadline writing and editing. Otherwise, these articles appear the way they were.
From the very outset of the magazine in 1967, we made a point of commissioning serious, comprehensive interviews with musicians and artists, much as The Paris Review had done with writers. In 1970, John Lennon was bursting to tell the truth about the Beatles, who had until then been sealed off from the public; he spoke without restraint. It was the agonized, feet-of-clay brilliance of John Lennon; it was history being made. Several years after my interview with Pete Townshend, he told me that it was during the course of our talks that he first fully formulated the concept for “Tommy.”
Jonathan Cott, one of Rolling Stone’s most prolific and catholic interviewers, was on the masthead of our first issue; we knew each other as students in Berkeley. Jonathan did our first interview with Mick Jagger, in 1968, and his interview with Jagger a decade later is perhaps one of the best ever done with rock’s most disarming and evasive artist. In 1968 Jonathan also did the first Rolling Stone interview with John Lennon, and in 1980 he did the last.
Jerry Hopkins was operating a head shop in Los Angeles in 1968, when he saw an ad in Rolling Stone soliciting new writers. He submitted an article on Jim Morrison and soon became a full-time Rolling Stone correspondent. Joe Eszterhas was a star reporter for The Cleveland Plain-Dealer in 1968, when he first visited the Rolling Stone offices to buy some back issues. Joe recalls having had the distinct feeling that he was perceived as an undercover narcotics agent by the staff. A few years later, he joined our staff and wrote many reports on undercover narcotics operations.
In 1974 Howard Kohn, a young refugee from a stunning career with The Detroit Free Press, was hired by Rolling Stone editor David Felton to write a series on the Karen Silkwood case. David, another fugitive from big-time daily journalism (at The Los Angeles Times), had been hired to cover the Charles Manson case, for which we won our first National Magazine Award. During the course of the Silkwood assignment, Howard developed an inside line on Patty Hearst. The kidnapped heiress had eluded a massive national manhunt, but Rolling Stone went to press with the exclusive tale of her year on the lam the very week she was caught. Featured as the lead on the three network newscasts and on page one of nearly every newspaper in the United States, it turned out to be the biggest scoop in Rolling Stone’s history.
The first time I met Hunter S. Thompson, he arrived in my office, two hours late, wearing a curly, bubble-style wig and carrying a six-pack of beer in one hand and his leather satchel stuffed with notebooks, newspapers, tape recorders, booze, et cetera, in the other. He was wearing the wig because he had shaved his head during his bid to become sheriff of Pitkin County Colorado. The story of that campaign, “Freak Power in the Rockies,” was his first piece in Rolling Stone, and we never quite stopped. Hunter began writing “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” in the basement of my home in San Francisco. In 1971 he became our full-time correspondent and moved to Washington, DC, to cover the 1972 presidential election. Hunter’s work in Rolling Stone became legend; it changed things for everyone. Hunter became an extraordinary and celebrated literary figure, Rolling Stone became a meaningful voice in national affairs, and political reporting and writing were forever restyled and reshaped. It was one of those rare, fated, supercharged collaborations.
In early 1968 Charles Perry became Rolling Stone’s first salaried employee, at twenty-five dollars a week. Charlie, an expert in Near Eastern languages and cuisine, became the unlikely guardian of the spirit of irony and hipness that was the soul of Rolling Stone. Later on, he was entrusted with the responsibility of telling the story of the Haight-Ashbury. “From Eternity to Here,” which Charlie later published as a book (“The Haight-Ashbury: A History”), sprang from an idea suggested to me by Hunter, and it now stands as the truth about those times.
In 1971 we succeeded in enlisting Tom Wolfe to cover the last Apollo flights. His articles appeared in a four-part series titled “Post Orbital Remorse: The Brotherhood of the Right Stuff.” (“The Right Stuff” was Tom’s phrase; I added “The Brotherhood”) Tom’s reports were filed in the then-typical Rolling Stone style: last-minute deadlines, with manuscripts transmitted by telecopier (“the mojo wire,” as Hunter dubbed it). How proud we were: Tom Wolfe in Rolling Stone. And “The Right Stuff” turned out to be a classic. Twelve years later, we collaborated on another major work, “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” a full-length novel serialized in Rolling Stone over an entire year.
Annie Leibovitz came to Rolling Stone in 1969, when she was an art-school student; Bob Kingsbury, the magazine’s first great art director, had spotted her. For ten years as our staff photographer, she dominated the look and feel of Rolling Stone. She was a member of an inner circle of talents at the magazine who found their own identities while shaping Rolling Stone’s. Her last assignment for Rolling Stone turned out to be the last photo sessions with John Lennon. The power of Annie’s gift and John Lennon’s statement in those portraits should be compared to the portrait they made a decade earlier, on the first assignment Annie did for Rolling Stone.
In 1975 I took Annie to lunch with Dick Avedon at his studio in New York. In looking for ideas and directions for Annie and Rolling Stone, I had been following Avedon’s work. Avedon, who I feel is America’s greatest living photographer, had also learned and polished his craft at a magazine. Soon after, Dick took our assignment to do portraits of the 1976 presidential candidates and reformulated it into portraits of the entire power structure of America. They were published in a single issue and titled “The Family.”
I have shared the editing of Rolling Stone with many people over the years. (Brant Mewborn, a longtime editor at Rolling Stone, was my associate on this book. Thanks also to Friendly Press’s Stu Waldman and Marty Goldstein.) During the first years in San Francisco, Paul Scanlon, a great editor, was my right arm, sharing the responsibility for all our major feature writers. Running the music coverage during that same period was Ben Fong-Torres. In New York, four very strong editors have played big roles in overseeing some of our best work: Jim Henke, Terry McDonnell, Susan Murcko and Robert Wallace.
No look back at Rolling Stone would be accurate without remembering Ralph J. Gleason. As a columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle, Gleason put his reputation as one of America’s premier jazz critics on the line to take a stand on behalf of rock & roll. He was an adviser and mentor to many of the key figures on the budding San Francisco rock-music scene. Among the people he took under his wing was myself, then a nineteen-year-old student at the University of California at Berkeley. The name Rolling Stone came directly from the essay he wrote titled “Like a Rolling Stone,” in The American Scholar.
“All the News That Fits” has been Rolling Stone’s slogan throughout the years. It is meant to suggest that Rolling Stone’s mission is defined on its own terms and that those terms are honest and simple. They have to do with always digging for the truth, insisting on accuracy in writing and reporting—in the belief that laziness in executing this duty is the cause for a lack of confidence in the press at large—and above all, not shrinking from saying what we think and telling it like it is.