October 19, 1997
Rolling Stone, Venerable at 30. Still No Moss

When Rolling Stone magazine turns 30 this month, it will be in the same situation as many of its early readers: once a 1960’s rebel and iconoclast, now a comfortable, businesslike part of the mainstream.

That metamorphosis infuriates some readers – where’s the rock-and-roll spirit?, they rage – and provokes regular accusations, often from equally comfortable boomer-age media critics, that the magazine has sold out to the ideals the music once stood for. From other quarters comes the complaint that Rolling Stone has long been slow on the uptake, mired in baby-boomer tastes and often ignoring or misjudging new developments. Yet those who respect it, hate it or mock it all accept a premise that Rolling Stone has cultivated over the last 30 years: it is the preeminent journal of popular music and the culture around it.

It is also a force in that culture, something demonstrated as early as 1973, when Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show sang “The Cover of Rolling Stone” (and were soon rewarded with the cover line “What’s-Their-Names Make the Cover”). Rolling Stone may not set the agenda for coverage within music journalism – plenty of magazines, not to mention MTV News, patrol the fringes more diligently – but in many quarters, coverage in Rolling Stone certifies that mainstream attention will be paid.

In the long run, Rolling Stone’s story has echoed the music it covers, adapting – or selling out – in exactly the same ways. The magazine started out casual and small-scale. Back in 1967, the avant-jazz band leader Sun Ra and the revolution-mongering rockers the MC5 each had cover stories, and Rolling Stone was steeped in the flavor of its hometown, San Francisco.

But, by the early 1970’s, Rolling Stone had moved out of the underground and into a celebrity culture of superstars and national hits. It switched from newsprint to glossy paper; its headquarters moved to New York. And like the music, it gradually became intertwined with movies, television and what the advertisers call “life style marketing,” all of which relegate music to a role as scene-setting accessory. Music appears in its pages more often as a facet of show business, less as a disruption or agent of transformation. In the magazine as in the music, the politics have leached away.

The entertainment business treats the magazine as a promotional tool and image burnisher, more ally than adversary or watch dog. And the promotion has clout because readers are encouraged to see the magazine as a guide to what’s hip, using its imprimatur as the Good Housekeeping seal of rock: more tasteful than daring.

Rolling Stone is an artifact of the late 1960’s, when baby boomers began to insist that their music was not mere entertainment. Songwriters were moving beyond boy-meets-girl into abstruse, visionary and sometimes pretentious realms; listeners argued to their English teachers that rock was every bit as profound as classical music and poetry. In the press, popular music had long been covered as a business and a frivolous teen-age diversion, but boomers believed in it as an art form.

Ralph Gleason, the San Francisco music critic who shaped the early Rolling Stone, wanted the magazine to do with musicians what Paris Review interviews did with authors: to talk to them about their professional and artistic lives and ideas. “He said, ‘Nobody’s asking any of these people anything like this,’ ” Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone’s founder, editor and publisher, said in an interview. “Nobody’s taking them seriously. We can become the magazine of record for this.” Soon enough, with Rolling Stone’s help and example, performers were rechristened as recording artists (as in “Virgin recording artists the Spice Girls”).

Rolling Stone wasn’t the first magazine to take rock seriously – the more hippieish and now long-gone Crawdaddy got there first – but it was the one that survived and thrived. Rolling Stone’s circulation has risen continuously; it now sells 1.2 million copies of each issue, mostly to subscribers. The magazine’s median-age reader has held steady at age 28; men outnumber women more than two to one. And ever since it began marking anniversaries, back in 1977, Rolling Stone has taken on a dual mission: following what’s new while instructing its younger readers in rock’s history.

That history is an orderly one, with chains of influence and successions of great figures, positing a golden age in the boomers’ halcyon 1960’s. It is set out in the magazine, which regularly reminds readers of the achievements of Jimi Hendrix or Phil Ochs, and in the books published by Rolling Stone Press: histories, biographies, album guides and encyclopedias (including the ones for which I was the contributing editor). It is also enshrined in Cleveland’s Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame, which Wenner pushed hard to build.

In hindsight, the magazine’s own coverage has been skewed toward white male singer-songwriters who suit the rock-hero archetype: Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, U2. Such performers were idealized versions of the magazine’s main audience. They also fitted the tastes of its writers, which tended to favor literary-minded songwriters with larger-than-life personalities, not pop technicians or anonymous dance-music operatives or street kids.

Rolling Stone was quick to recognize punk rock (which traded heroes for anti-heroes), but slower and more ambivalent about 1970s funk, heavy metal, dance music and hip-hop, which have turned out to be significant influences on the 1990’s. Lately, as rock’s center has collapsed, the magazine is still sorting out which subgenres and subcultures to certify; magazines from Spin (alternative rock) to the Source (hip-hop) have claimed market niches in areas where Rolling Stone has been slow. Perhaps to atone in part for its male-dominated past, the magazine’s 30th anniversary issue will feature women in rock, coinciding with a Rolling Stone Press/Random House book on the same topic.

Rolling Stone’s effect on music is harder to measure than its effect on journalism, which has been immense. Rolling Stone has employed and nurtured countless music journalists (including this one, on the staff during 1979); it has also set a respectful tone, whether or not it’s always warranted, for coverage of popular music. Even Random Notes, the magazine’s column of gossip and one-liners, has kept its barbs gentle.

From the beginning, Rolling Stone has given its feature writers the luxury of length. That could result in meticulously researched screeds about trivial performers or, in past eras, in paragraph upon paragraph of rock stars nattering on about dimly reasoned philosophies of life. But stories that stretch to thousands of words, which are growing rarer in all areas of journalism, have also let loose remarkable prose stylists, notably Hunter S. Thompson, the bloodshot-eyed instigator of gonzo journalism. It also allowed space to explore unlikely questions. A recent article on the Wallflowers, for instance, matched Bob Dylan’s children to the biblical figures who share their names.

Following through on the New Journalism of the 1960’s Esquire, Rolling Stone also changed the nature of celebrity journalism. Its photographers, particularly Annie Leibovitz, perfected a kind of staged but informal shot that could be more revealing than standard portraits. And before rock fell in line with show-business publicity machines, Rolling Stone’s writers hung out with bands day and night: sharing drugs, checking out groupies, seeing the musicians literally and figuratively unbuttoned. That kind of access is now routinely sought and expected; stars can never again be distant, airbrushed figures.

Rolling Stone has had its share of bad calls and slanted stories. When Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder turned down an interview, the magazine instead published an assiduously reported hatchet job condemning him for being popular and melodramatic in high school, and for hanging out with musicians and promoting himself in his 20’s. Usually, however, when Rolling Stone does get around to covering something, it gets its facts straight and delivers them professionally.

I wouldn’t want Rolling Stone to be the only chronicle of popular culture or, even more unlikely, the only guide to what’s hip. There are times I’ve tossed it across the room or found entire issues empty. The magazine’s reviews are only as reliable as the individual writers, and too many of them fail to find any larger ideas in the music. But while it’s far from perfect, Rolling Stone is now the institution it set out to be: not always spectacular, not always comprehensive, just earnest and dependable. Those aren’t rock-and-roll virtues, but for journalism they do the job.