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20 Years Later--and Still on a Roll

October 18, 1987|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — It was 1967, the era of LSD, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Lyndon Johnson, the war in Vietnam, a time of possibilities.

Here was a bold idea, thought the UC Berkeley dropout and aspiring postman, 21-year-old Jann Wenner: Why not a magazine "not just about music, but also about the things and attitudes that the music embraces"?

Optimistically, the former Daily Californian reporter created and printed 40,000 copies of the publication he called Rolling Stone, named for the song by Muddy Waters and the song by Bob Dylan. At 25 cents a copy, he hoped to recoup $7,500 he had borrowed from his mother, his stepmother and his future mother-in-law to start a magazine, as he put it, for "every person who 'believes in the magic that can set you free.' "

The dedicatory issue of Nov. 9, 1967, sold only 4,000 copies. But what it did unleash--with its 24 pages, a breaking story on the resignation of the program director of a local radio station and a message from editor Wenner that featured two undeleted expletives (shocking stuff 20 years ago)--was a publishing force that has become both a beacon and a mirror of American culture these last 20 years.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary with a sparkling 300-page commemorative issue that hits the stands Monday, Rolling Stone now boasts a biweekly circulation of 1.1 million (with readership estimated at 7.3 million), annual sales that last year exceeded $41 million, and 125 full-time employees occupying three floors of swank Fifth Avenue office space, just opposite the Plaza Hotel. Were Rolling Stone to go on the market, industry analysts say, it would command a price in the range of $100-$150 million.

The numbers are impressive, proof that advertisers and a huge number of readers still believe in the magic. But it is the tradition of daring prose, distinctive photojournalism and unconventional reporting that has won Rolling Stone its reputation as a cultural measuring rod.

Followers fondly acknowledge the influence Rolling Stone carried for a pre-AIDS generation raised on love-ins, sit-ins and turn-ons, even though some charge the periodical today has deserted them, metamorphosed into an excessively slick music magazine, weak on the gutsy substance that once distinguished it.

"It really was an astonishing combination of innovation and quality," UC Berkeley journalism professor David Littlejohn said of the magazine that, with its brash disregard for editorial convention, conceived the wildly irreverent genre and jargon known as Gonzo Journalism.

"It gave a unique and respectable rallying point for people of all ages who were discontented with many aspects of the Establishment," said Littlejohn, an analyst of the role of the media in culture. In a time of social upheaval, he continued, "it was like a base you could run to when you were confused and concerned."

Wenner, not known for his modesty, wears such praise as comfortably as he sports his custom-made monogrammed striped shirts. High above Fifth Avenue he sips seltzer water in an office the size of many New York apartments.

Rolling Stone, he said, stands as "the repository, the written record of our time."

Conceived as a rock magazine with socio-political overtones, Rolling Stone "literally became the bible for those being initiated voluntarily into the alternative system," said bicoastal rock impresario Bill Graham, a frequent target on the pages of the publication.

For "some 16- or 17-year-old who left Iowa to go to San Francisco," Graham added, the magazine "became the literature of that large mass."

Baron Wolman, a Bay Area photographer whose work appeared in the debut issue, recalled that, "They were the first to really identify the surface manifestations of something that was going on in the heads of the people."

What the founding coterie of Rolling Stone realized, said Wolman, now 50, was that "the music was a metaphor for the changing attitudes. You could look at the lyrics and figure out what people were thinking about."

They were thinking about music, certainly, as is shown through either back issues of the biweekly magazine or a glance at Friendly Press' $24.95, book-length 20th-anniversary Rolling Stone retrospective, "What a Long Strange Trip It's Been." The pages of both, in fact, look like rock 'n' roll's printed answer to "The Hit Parade." They thought, too, about fashion, styles of the Beatle wives, Tom Wolfe on funky chic. They thought about issues: drugs, sex, blood banks, farm workers, the CIA, Karen Silkwood. Science and medicine: recombinant DNA; later, AIDS. Personalities and their problems: Charles Manson, Patty Hearst, John and Yoko, John Belushi, Roxanne Pulitzer.

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