August 20, 2007
The Origins of Rolling Stone
By Stephanie M. Lee, The Daily Californian
It was official: The young man would leave UC Berkeley. The year was 1966, and his entire being swelled with a desire to be elsewhere. The cries of the Free Speech Movement rang loud and clear in his ears. But loudest and clearest of all was a new force called rock ‘n’ roll.
A year later, his name surfaced in a new Bay Area periodical. “We have begun a new publication reflecting what we see are the changes related to rock and roll,” he wrote by way of introduction. The day before, he was 21-year-old college drop-out Jann Wenner. Now, he was the co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine.
Forty years later, Rolling Stone continues to report exhaustively on music and politics, and has become a monumental force in pop culture. Virtually every significant rock artist has graced the magazine’s cover, from the Beatles to Bob Dylan to Madonna. It has launched dozens of renowned writers and photographers, including Hunter S. Thompson, Annie Leibovitz and Cameron Crowe.
It has spawned at least one movie, Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” and even a song, “On the Cover of Rolling Stone.” With it, Wenner too has come a long way. His company, Wenner Media LLC, owns two other successful magazines, US Weekly and Men’s Journal, and racked up $33 million in sales last year, according to the financial firm Hoover’s.
In the beginning, Rolling Stone emerged from Berkeley and San Francisco, where a blossoming music scene and counterculture moved Wenner to turn on, tune in, drop out and most importantly, write it all down.
But he got his start as a cultural commentator at UC Berkeley.
Harvard University rejected Wenner, so in 1964, when he finished boarding school in Los Angeles, he enrolled at his second and only option.
“It was big, beautiful, exciting, a gorgeous campus,” he says. “It was in its glory days.”
Studious and hard-working, Wenner says he planned to major in English and minor in political science.
Outside class, the dark-haired, baby-faced student penned rock ‘n’ roll musings for The Daily Californian starting in 1966. He called himself “Mr. Jones” and named the column “Something’s Happening,” swiping a line from Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man.”
“The real act of getting people loose, person to person contact and mass community is the role of rock and roll music,” Wenner wrote on Feb. 10, 1966. “When the music stops and it becomes a drag, leave.”
UC Berkeley student Greil Marcus noticed his column. A mutual friend had introduced them two years ago, at Wenner’s apartment on Channing Way and Warring Street. “It was very unusual to find somebody who had an apartment as a freshman—very exotic,” Marcus says. Wenner says he had zero interest in dorm life after boarding school; he later resided on LeConte and Carlton streets.
Upon entering the room, “here was this guy playing records and seeming very cool,” Marcus says of Wenner. “We got along.”
By 1966, Wenner realized that his excitement about music and the recent Free Speech Movement were drowning out school. He experimented with LSD, played rhythm guitar in a local band, The Helping Hand-Outs, and was mesmerized by the Free Speech Movement; friends say he held Mario Savio in the utmost regard.
After withdrawing sophomore year, he wrote for Ramparts, a leftist magazine headquartered in San Francisco. Then he befriended Ralph Gleason, a jazz critic for The San Francisco Chronicle whom Wenner calls his mentor.
“Together we came up with the idea of a rock ‘n’ roll magazine,” Wenner says. “There was nothing around in the U.S. like it.” Partly inspired by a Muddy Waters single of the same name, he and Gleason titled the project “Rolling Stone.”
In April 1967, Wenner met photographer Baron Wolman at a rock ‘n’ roll conference at Mills College in Oakland.
He agreed to be the chief photographer in exchange for company stock and ownership of his pictures—though there was no salary. “It just seemed like a lot of fun,” says Wolman, who went on to shoot some of the era’s most iconic photos of stars like Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. “You started something up because you believed in it. There wasn’t anything talking about music the way we were listening to music.”
Two months later, Wenner was in Monterey, Calif., at the Monterey Pop Festival. The weekend-long concert, widely regarded as the start of the hippie movement, featured Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. In the press section was Newsweek reporter Michael Lydon, whose work impressed Wenner.
Over coffee, Wenner asked him to be Rolling Stone’s managing editor. “I had numerous years of reporting and fully professional journalism experience under my belt, which was relatively rare,” Lydon says. “He wanted somebody to be his sort of anchor.”
He was drawn to Rolling Stone for the same reasons many of the first staff members were: a break from the establishment, creativity, innovation. “I was not so happy with Newsweek, which was sort of boring,” he says. “Young people were doing all this exciting stuff. … We started working right away.”
Rolling Stone’s first office was located above its printing press, on Brannan and 7th streets in San Francisco. The newsroom was cramped and noisy, but rent-free. Though the dozen employees didn’t have much, Wenner insisted on professionalism from the get-go, Lydon says: “He always wanted to have a woman answering the telephones—he thought that was classy.”
Staff worked nights and weekends to crank out the first issue. It hit newsstands on Nov. 9, 1967, printed on 11-by-17 black and white newsprint with John Lennon staring coolly from the cover. It cost a quarter. That day, Lydon recalls, the phones began to ring.
Dozens of “hippie rags” crowded the Bay Area, says former Rolling Stone reporter David Weir, among them Ramparts, Rags and Weir’s own SunDance. Beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg had debuted “Howl” at the Six Gallery, hippies roamed Golden Gate Park, and Jerry Garcia inhabited the Haight-Ashbury. San Francisco was a magnet for young, creative minds from all over the country.
“There was a very sympathetic printer base here,” Weir says. “New York was too establishment—no real alternative press yet, very expensive and hostile to what we were doing. … (San Francisco) was also a very cheap town. You could start up a magazine from a car.”
But almost all of the magazines went bankrupt—except Rolling Stone, which Weir says survived thanks to Wenner’s financial savvy. “Jann had recognized early on that the magazine business wasn’t just about content, it was about advertising,” he says. “He was way ahead of the rest of us.”
What’s more, readers and colleagues say, Wenner covered rock ‘n’ roll with both passion and professionalism.
Rolling Stone instantly excited UC Berkeley journalism professor David Littlejohn. “The writing was a whole new kind of writing I’d never seen before,” he says. “It combined the best of classical prose with street language. They wrote with the goal of catching much more authenticity, the wholeness of the scene, than anyone could do with The New Yorker or The Atlantic.”
Marcus noticed his former classmate’s work, too. “Just by looking at it, this was Jann’s paper,” he says. “The design, the taste, the whole sense of professionalism.”
By 1968, Marcus was studying political science as a UC Berkeley graduate student. “(I was) very busy,” he says, “and bored to death.” Gleason referred him to Wenner, who in turn hired him as Rolling Stone’s first record-reviews editor.
That year, Wenner also named UC Berkeley alumnus Jonathan Cott as European editor. Cott would do Lennon’s first solo interview, as well as his last before his death in 1980.
Rolling Stone and UC Berkeley often revolved around each other. In May 1970, when the campus shut down following anti-Vietnam War protests, Littlejohn decided to teach his cultural reporting course on his lawn. That week’s guest speaker was Wenner.
A dozen journalism students sat waiting when a chauffeured, chocolate brown Mercedes rolled into Littlejohn’s driveway. Wenner rose from the back seat, energetic and self-assured. As he discussed Rolling Stone, the class took notes. The drop-out had become the teacher.
Next month, former staff members will gather in San Francisco to karaoke, picnic and reminisce about the years up to 1977, when Wenner moved the offices to New York City.
Reunion organizers say Wenner is invited, though he has not yet said whether he will attend. “Given who will likely show up,” former contributor Ed Ward wrote in an e-mail, “he might get lynched.”
Some former employees cite memories of Wenner’s hot temper. “Pretty much everybody eventually got fired,” says Weir, who was let go when the magazine moved east. “As long as you were hot in his book, you were a hero, but then when you hadn’t done anything for him lately...”
“I really think he deserves what he’s gotten, even though he’s built it on the backs of a lot people,” he adds. “He’s still the one who did it.”
Those who helped build Rolling Stone say it is more than a magazine for them. It is a movement, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, an idea that worked and a sound unlike anything heard before.
“Along comes Rolling Stone and it just says to you, ‘This is the place to be,’ ” Fong-Torres says. “Now your fellow writers and editors are your peers, your age or even younger. You can remove that tie or sports coat or business suit–––—freedom. Once you read Rolling Stone, you knew how important it was, and to be part of it was just an amazing thing.”