In 1967, rock ’n’ roll was flourishing, the hippie movement was happening and pop sensations (such as the Beatles) had gone from being perceived as teen heartthrobs to experimental artists. But the old guard that controlled and wrote for newspapers and magazines still appeared to regard rock music as an inconvenient fad.
Trade papers, like Billboard, covered younger band’s sales and popularity, but rarely dug deeper into the significance of the music. Self-published fanzines were lovingly devoted to their favorite musicians, but rarely lasted more than a handful of issues. Aspiring journalist Jann Wenner saw an opportunity.
The New York native had moved west to attend the University of California, Berkeley, where he wrote for the student newspaper. While writing for The Daily Californian in 1965, he struck up a friendship with Ralph J. Gleason, the San Francisco Chronicle’s jazz writer who was nearly 30 years his senior. Unlike many other jazz aficionados, Gleason appreciated rock, Bob Dylan and soul singers. He soon became Wenner’s mentor.
“He loved Lenny Bruce and politics. He had an open mind and an open ear,” Wenner recalled. “He revered the rock poets, but he always had perspective, which was the name of his column: ‘Perspectives.’ I’d be like, ‘Jerry Garcia is the greatest guitarist in the world!’ He’d say, ‘But, Jann, have you heard of Wes Montgomery?’”
A couple of years after their first meeting, during which time Wenner had dropped out of college, the 21-year-old rock fan told Gleason about his big idea: a rock ’n’ roll magazine that would explore all aspects of the music, but also hold itself to high journalistic standards. Gleason was intrigued and they started to think about magazine names – the Electric Typewriter, the New Times and, eventually, Rolling Stone. Although Wenner would later write in the first issue that the name was a reference to the Muddy Waters tune and the famous rock band and the Dylan song, the latter was the real inspiration.The pair had an idea, a name and two writers (themselves), but no money or staff to begin. Wenner borrowed money from family, as well as his future wife’s parents, and enlisted the help of volunteers. Those who wouldn’t work for free, such as photographer Baron Wolman, received stock and retained the rights to their contributions.
In the fall of 1967, Rolling Stone began operating out of a loft at 746 Brannan Street in San Francisco, a space Wenner had secured by promising to use the owner’s downstairs printing press. A staff that included Wenner’s girlfriend Jane Schindelheim, her roommate Angie Kucherenko, art director John Williams and professional journalist Michael Lydon was small, but dedicated. Many early articles would be credited to RS Editors or not carry a byline at all. “We didn’t put our names on everything,” Lydon said, “because that would have showed how few people were working for the paper.”
However, Lydon did have his name on the first issue’s big page-one story, a piece investigating some missing profits from that year’s Monterey International Pop Music Festival. The cover, which looked more like a newspaper in the early going, also featured pieces about local band Jefferson Airplane and local pop/rock radio station KFRC. It was a very California-centric first issue.
That is, with the exception of the element that everyone remembers about the first Rolling Stone cover. Just a couple days before printing, Wenner selected a photo of John Lennon, a promotional shot from the Richard Lester film How I Won the War, which was hitting U.S. theaters at the same time the magazine was introducing itself. “It was the last piece of the puzzle for the issue,” Wenner said at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Exhibit highlighting 50 years of Rolling Stone. “It was a defining cover, because it encompassed music, movies and politics .