By Norman Knight
I still have some old Rolling Stone magazines. I have the issue with John Lennon lying in a fetal position next to Yoko Ono on the cover. That photo that was taken by Annie Leibovitz just a week before he was shot to death outside his apartment.
I also have the two-part series of interviews with John and Yoko conducted back in 1970 by the magazine’s owner and co-founder Jann Wenner. Those particular issues were done back when the magazine still was folded in the tabloid-sized format. Likely they are collectors’ items.
It is possible that collectors will be looking for other issues of Rolling Stone in the near future. Recently, a musician friend sent me a link to a New York Times article reporting that the magazine is in the process of being sold.
Annie Leibovitz made a name for herself at Rolling Stone with her photos of rock stars. The careers of writers Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson also benefited from being published in Rolling Stone. Wenner has expressed confidence in the future of the publication under new ownership. Then again, what else can he say?
I remember when I decided some decades ago not to renew my subscription to Rolling Stone. Among my fellow musicians and music-loving friends, a decision not to renew was a topic of conversation. It was something one announced in a wistful, ah-fleeting-youth sort of way. Another passage into adulthood. The fact that we felt we had to make the statement said something about how important the magazine had been in our lives.
In the years after I left Rolling Stone behind, I found myself reading about it rather than reading it. Extreme political stances, controversial covers including one featuring a tousle-headed Boston Marathon bomber done up like a rock star, and a debunked article of a gang rape at the University of Virginia (“fake news,” anyone?) made me realize Rolling Stone and I had not much in common anymore. Most of all, I was no longer interested in the music they were talking about.
But there was a time when Rolling Stone meant something to me. In my younger years it was a useful counter-culture tool. That was when being “counter-culture” was a way to define someone or something. What does the label mean these days? Not sure, but if you had asked me and my friends back in 1970 we would have said it was about trying to make a life counter to the existing dominant American culture which we decided was all about materialism and striving for the wrong kind of success.
To us, the counterculture was an ideal that seemed to be about simplicity, about small groups whether they were moving to the country to start communes or establishing crash pads in the city. “Small is Beautiful” was a popular book back then. Counterculture meant mostly young people (but not always), it meant “hippies” (a label invented by the media), it meant dropping out of the “straight” world. Counterculture meant trying to live according to a different ethos, one not based on possessions or power, but on small, livable communities working together. And, as corny as it sounds, it was about love.
Of course, lots of things were working against that effort to form a counterculture including, I think, human nature. Even so, some people tried to make it happen, and Rolling Stone worked much like an alternate media. But like the hippies who got “real” jobs and started striving for the American Dream, over time Rolling Stone became a publishing enterprise worth millions. (Wenner claimed he once turned down $500 million for the magazine.) That’s a lot of materialism.
Thinking about Rolling Stone makes me think of youthful idealism as a perhaps naive but necessary part of life. May there always be those who dream of a counterculture whether it works or not.
Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.