It was impossible not to chuckle the first time I saw Rolling Stone magazine. It was on different paper back then (those so inclined could have used it to roll their own) and cost only a quarter. The four-letter words were plentiful, the outrageous opinions even more so, and there was a whole page devoted to getting high.
Connoisseurship of a lot of things was traditional in American magazines, but that was definitely a first.
It was born 30 years ago. 1967. Summer of love, all that hoo-ha. ("If you're going to San Francisco/Be sure to wear/Some flowers in your hair.") Five thousand copies of the first issue were printed. There were only seven pages of advertising.
A good issue now weighs in as thick as a Hartford phone book, much of it chichi advertising. Rolling Stone hasn't been just a magazine for a few decades -- it has been an empire and a brand name for boomer attitudes and consumerism, in the same way that Playboy is a brand name for male horniness and acquisitiveness.
And now Rolling Stone magazine is 30. Newsstands are littered with its younger siblings -- Spin, Vibe, the Source, all of them grabbing successive demographic waves by the neck, throwing their music and references on the cover and getting a big chunk of a publishing pie that, before Rolling Stone, no one knew existed.
And if shoved against the wall, the creators of all of them pay tribute to Rolling Stone as their ancestral inventor.
It's lovely that Hillary Rodham Clinton was 50 on Sunday. I hope she and Chelsea and Bill had a dandy celebration. But without Rolling Stone, there's a good chance they'd never have known what to do with their lives in '70s Arkansas. It's even possible they'd never have heard of Joni Mitchell or Judy Collins, in which case Chelsea might have been named Tennille -- or Cher. (For those who live in the back, Chelsea's name comes from Judy Collins' record of Joni Mitchell's song "Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning . . . ")
I think Rolling Stone may be simultaneously the single most underrated and overroasted cultural institution in America. It let boomer bombast and countercultural tumult loose on an unsuspecting publishing world.
The first chance it got, it went into book publishing and plastered its name on everything it could. It's still doing it, and God help us, most of its products are rather impressive -- not just Rolling Stone books of photographs and Rolling Stone encyclopedias of rock, but just about everything else short of the Rolling Stone Book of Cellulite Removal. (Why not put Keith Richards and Iggy Pop on the cover of that one?)
Over the years, its inventor, Jann Wenner, has become a cultural grandee. He even became a walking, talking "random note" when he ditched his marriage of long standing for a male fashion-world functionary. (We can now see that Wenner's essential "counterness" may well have been more than cultural, despite all of his Hearstian empire building.)
For decades now, Rolling Stone hasn't looked or read like an endpaper with brains; it has been more like a combination of Time and Esquire. It does a cursory and bad job now of reviewing records, which used to be one of its defining purposes. (No matter; others now do it better.) But it covers politics, movies and even TV now in very readable and influential ways.
All of this is a long way from some of the slavering maniacs, gonzo guerrillas and self-
exiled scholars who once filled its pages -- Hunster S. Thompson, Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Ed Ward, Nick Tosches, Richard Meltzer, Jonathan Cott, Richard Kostelanetz, Greil Marcus and, long before he ever gave the movie world "Basic Instinct" and "Showgirls," Joe Eszterhas. (God help Wenner -- and the rest of us.)
I wish Wenner had had enough patience (or courage) not to banish jazz and classical music coverage. There were, after all, always musicians who could easily have fit into Rolling Stone's scheme of generational scruffiness. That goes for literary coverage, too. But of all the current American empires I can think of, Wenner's is one of the few that may be as well-deserved as it is salutary.
It's a happy anniversary, and not just for him, either.