The Cover of the Rolling Stone
In 1972, the band Dr. Hook and His Medicine Show reached number six on the Billboard charts with the tongue-in-cheek ditty “The Cover of the Rolling Stone.” The lyrics, written by Shel Silverstein, included, “We got all the friends that money can buy so we never have to be alone. And we keep getting richer, but we can’t get our picture on the cover of the ‘Rolling Stone.’”
There was a time rock musicians knew they really made it when they saw their face on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. It was the ultimate tribute from what was considered the be-all and end-all of rock stardom. Life Magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, and the New Yorker were for the old folks. Young America had their own literary tome which reflected their music and their lifestyles in a newspaper format which broke from the glossy mainstream magazine format. Like their generation, it was rough, unpolished, and ready to demand its place in the world under its own terms.
Founded in 1967 by Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone’s timing was perfect. Its first lead article was about the Monterey Pop Festival, the seminal event which led to Woodstock, Altamont, Watkins Glen, and the age of outdoor music festivals which we still enjoy today. By reporting on politics, music, and the lifestyles of America’s counterculture, Rolling Stone quickly became the voice of America’s youth. It spoke to them and for them.
The magazine was virulently antiwar, constantly criticizing the government, the military-industrial complex, and most especially haranguing LBJ and Tricky Dick Nixon to get us out of Viet Nam. The government, particularly under Nixon, viewed the magazine as seditious. In 1968, I was in an Army electronics school at Ft. Gordon, GA. Many of the guys in my class, myself included, were required to qualify for a security clearance because of the type of material we would eventually be handling. We had a shakedown inspection one night which meant company NCO’s and officers came into the barracks, unannounced, and searched everyone’s wall and foot lockers for “contraband.” There were a number of things that qualified as contraband including illegal drugs, alcohol, and, much to the surprise of one of my roommates, Rolling Stone magazine. Two copies were found in his wall locker. He lost his clearance, was transferred out, and was forced to endure whatever the Army decided to do with him for the next three and half years. Even at that early stage, Rolling Stone had become a recognized anti-establishment voice that was actually feared by the establishment.
With cutting edge journalists such as Cameron Crowe, PJ O’Rouke, Patti Smith, and Joe Esterzhas, Rolling Stone became the launch pad for some of the most widely read writers and journalists in modern US history. Hunter Thompson first published his most famous writings, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in the magazine. The magazine’s coverage of the Patty Hearst abduction and subsequent trials begrudgingly earned them the respect of the American news media.
In 1977, Wenner decided to move his headquarters from San Francisco to New York, stating that San Francisco has become “a cultural backwater.” In 1980, the magazine went from a tabloid newspaper publication to a glossy four color, large format magazine. By the mid 80’s, Rolling Stone’s readers were aging. Music was still important, but other issues, such as jobs and family life, were taking precedence. Rolling Stone needed to attract new readers. Management at the magazine determined that they could appeal to a younger audience with stories about movies and TV shows, and their stars. The magazine began to change its editorial format and by the early 90’s morphed into a full entertainment periodical.
After the year 2000, the scrappy investigative side of Rolling Stone resurfaced. In a series of hard hitting articles by Michael Hastings and Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone exposed the causes of the 2009 Recession and how companies like Goldman Sachs were responsible. In 2010, it exposed fraud in the way the Florida judicial system dealt with home foreclosures. Also in 2010, after an interview with the magazine in which he criticized the Obama administration, General Stanley McChrystal, commander of Allied forces in Afghanistan, was forced to resign. In 2012, one of its reporters became an expert witness in the LIBOR (London Interbank Offered Rate) hearings, investigating how the banks contributed to what almost became the total collapse of the global economic structure.
In 2014, the magazine published a story about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia. In its typical, no holds barred investigative format, the article outlined a nightmare scenario. The rape was reported to have taken place during a party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. The article went on to tell a tale of the university ignoring the woman’s claim, about the privileged frat boys not being punished for such a heinous attack, and how everyone fell down on the job. There was, however, one problem. It was all bogus. There was not one shred of evidence to confirm the woman’s story. The woman lied. It eventually came to light that there were huge problems with Rolling Stone’s editorial department. The magazine was found to have done no real fact checking. The reporter didn’t interview anyone involved with the case except for the accuser. An independent investigation told them their editorial processes were completely unprofessional. They are now being sued for $7.5 million by the college official responsible for investigating rape claims on the campus. And more lawsuits may well be on the way.
How the mighty have fallen.
Over the years, Rolling Stone has been accused of losing touch with their original charter: music. They’ve been called old fogeys for promoting the music and artists of interest to their original 60’s readers. During their heyday in the 70’s, Led Zeppelin was constantly trashed or ignored by the magazine which eventually named the band one of the best rock groups ever in 2006. They were criticized for ignoring rap, hip hop, and metal music while the audience for those genres exploded around them. They were told they were too teeny-bopperish because of feature articles they ran about Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, and Miley Cyrus as those performers were just beginning their runs. Even when it’s right, the magazine comes under criticism.
And, now it’s my turn. Kim Kardashian on the cover of Rolling Stone! Blasphemy! She is not a performer. She is not a contributor. She is nothing more an empty media creation with a lot of money. Period. She is married to Klownye, an offensive and shameless talentless self-promoter, who has the audacity to call himself a musician and the “Greatest Rock Performer in the World.” And yet, she’s on the cover of Rolling Stone.
There may be several possible justifications for this. Maybe the magazine’s readership has dropped so much that this is a last ditch effort to steal readers from People, Entertainment Weekly, and the National Enquirer. Perhaps Jann Wenner has gone totally old timer’s and is no longer in his right mind. Or maybe he was smoking something funny, given to him by Klownye, at the staff meeting where it was agreed to put Kim on the cover.
Whatever the case may be, I can guarantee one thing. Rolling Stone magazine has gotten the last money they will ever get from my pocket. Through contraband shake down inspections, fundamental philosophical changes, moving from West Coast to East Coast, and format revisions from hippie counterculture tabloid to a slick Madison Avenue format, I continued to read Rolling Stone. Maybe not every month, but I didn’t miss very many issues. And that all ended last week when I picked up the most recent copy only to immediately return it to the rack after seeing who was on the cover. An abrupt end to an almost four decade relationship.
To sum it up in music terms, I am reminded of the song “For the Love of Money.”
In my mind, and my life, Rolling Stone magazine is no longer relevant.