Rolling Stone at 50: Making the First Issue

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First issue of ‘Rolling Stone’ was published November 9th, 1967 and featured John Lennon.

~~~~

In early 1967, a young law-firm employee named Angie Kucherenko came home to her apartment in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and found her roommate’s boyfriend, a 21-year-old Berkeley dropout named Jann Wenner, sprawled on the couch and strumming an acoustic guitar. He had a big idea he couldn’t wait to share. “He sat up, put the guitar aside and said, ‘I want to start a rock & roll magazine,'” Kucherenko remembers. “I said, ‘Rock & roll? Isn’t that a passing phase?'”

Not to Wenner. For him, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and local bands like the Grateful Dead were hugely important cultural figures who deserved an outlet that took them seriously. “There was nothing called rock journalism as a profession,” Wenner says. “If you picked up Billboard, you might get a sense of the music business, but you wouldn’t keep it as part of your regular diet if you were interested in rock & roll.”

A well-established local newspaper columnist happened to share Wenner’s passion: Ralph J. Gleason of the San Francisco Chronicle. The pipe-smoking 48-year-old had been writing about jazz for decades, but he’d begun devoting space to artists like Dylan and the Dead. In October 1965, Wenner was taking in a concert at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, put on by local promoters the Family Dog, when he approached Gleason. “He said, ‘I know who you are,'” says Wenner. “He’d been reading what I was writing in [Berkeley’s student newspaper] The Daily Cal. We really hit it off, and I became a regular visitor to his house. His whole family took me in.”

Despite the nearly 30-year age gap, Gleason and Wenner grew close. “Unlike every other jazz critic, he had this great sense of humor,” says Wenner. “He was the original pothead. He loved Lenny Bruce and politics. He had an open mind and an open ear. 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?'”

First issue of ‘Rolling Stone’ was published November 9th, 1967 and featured John Lennon.

By early 1967, San Francisco had become the hot center of the counterculture. At the Human Be-In on January 14th, tens of thousands descended on Golden Gate Park to drop acid and dance to the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Big Brother and the Holding Company. “Bands were flooding the area,” says Kucherenko. “Jann was very, very enthusiastic. None of us could put our fingers on it, but there was a pulsing energy.”

Wenner began envisioning a magazine to chronicle the rapidly growing rock scene, and he enlisted Gleason as his partner. The pair tossed around names like the Electric Typewriter and New Times before settling on Rolling Stone. The inspiration came from an essay Gleason wrote in The American Scholar titled “Like a Rolling Stone,” after the Dylan song. His subject: the significance of rock and the wisdom of youth.

Despite having a great title, a smart concept and a partner with a huge Rolodex, Wenner didn’t have a cent to get his magazine off the ground. “When he approached me about being the staff photographer, I said, ‘That sounds like fun, tell me more,'” recalls Baron Wolman. “He said, ‘Well, first of all, do you have $10,000 you’d like to invest?'” Wolman did not. But he came up with an idea that he’d work in exchange for stock in the company and the rights to his photographs, a deal that paid dividends in the years and decades to come.

Wenner put together a small group of investors, including the parents of his soon-to-be wife, Jane Schindelheim; his own parents; Gleason; and Joan Roos, a college buddy (who happened to be a first cousin of a young actor named Robert De Niro). Together they gave Wenner $7,500. He and his staff moved into a loft at 746 Brannan Street that would give them free loft space if they used the owner’s printing services. It was time to start work on the first issue.

In September 1967, Wenner walked up the wooden stairs of the printing press into a loft with a tiny staff of mostly volunteers that included Kucherenko, Schindelheim, art director John Williams and Michael Lydon, a former Newsweek and Esquire writer. “It was dusty, and there was hardly anything up there at all,” says Lydon. “I had a feeling that this was a tabula rasa, a clean slate. This wasn’t a bunch of kids that started a newspaper. It was Jann Wenner getting the people around him to realize his dream.”

~~~  FINISH  ~~~

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