Rolling Stone / 50 Years Exhibit Retrospective
Get an in-depth look behind the scenes of Rolling Stone’s legacy at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s special exhibition Rolling Stone: 50 years.
In the summer of love, a young Jann Wenner set out to start “sort of a magazine and sort of a newspaper.” The idea was to give music lovers more than what pulpy teen magazines and outdated fan magazines had to offer. Wenner was ambitious—he wanted to cover in depth not only the music of the time but also the culture it shaped, its ripple throughout current events, politics and social attitudes. Fifty years later, Rolling Stone is and remains the standard for music journalism.
After a year of curating and design, the Rock Hall has created an exhibit honoring the fiftieth anniversary of Rolling Stone that features manuscripts, iconic cover images, exclusive interviews and more. The exhibit was shaped by the input of Rolling Stone founder and editor-in-chief Jann Wenner. Spanning three floors of the Rock Hall, the exhibit follows the evolution of the first serious publication to cover rock and roll, which shaped popular culture as much as it reported it.
The first floor of the exhibit replicates the original office of Rolling Stone, including Wenner’s original desk and mail sorter. Beside the office hangs a copy of the first issue of Rolling Stone, a hollow-cheeked John Lennon peering out of the frame. Lennon is in costume for the 1967 black comedy How I Won the War; the image’s confluence of a musical icon, popular culture and controversial political imagery set the tone for the publication’s broad and unflinching approach to music and its role in the world. It also marks the beginning of Lennon’s lifelong relationship with Rolling Stone.
On the other side a wall displays early photos of the office populated by the likes of Annie Leibovitz, Jon Landau and Hunter S. Thompson. A blown-up image of Wenner’s first letter from the editor overlooks the display and acts as a kind of mission statement for the magazine, promising rock fans a publication that would honor the genre with serious journalism.
The following floor takes visitors on a walk through an issue of Rolling Stone come to life, leading them through the Table of Contents, Art & Photography, Album Reviews, etc. It even features iconic advertising campaigns. Scenes from “Perception vs. Reality,” the particularly successful ad campaign run by Rolling Stone, challenge the perception of the magazine’s subscribers as pot-smoking hippies by contrasting the perception of readers vs. the reality with minimal succinct images: a graffiti-scrawled van next to a red sports car, a handful of loose change next to a sleek, black credit card, a blank space next to a bar of soap. Not only did Rolling Stone seek to establish itself as a serious publication that appealed to yuppies, but it also sought to establish rock and roll as a genre that appealed to everyone.
“Short Cuts” follows the appearances of Rolling Stone in popular culture, a testament to the magazine’s role not only as an observer of culture but also as a key actor in its creation. The exhibit is packed with stories that exposed corruption, profiles that made and broke careers and features that became novels and later movies.
“Letters to the Editor” displays a letter from Jann Wenner in which he assigns Tom Wolfe to cover Apollo 17; the feature inspired Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff, which later became an Academy Award-winning film.
Images from “The Runaway General”—the feature that became a book and Netflix original movie and cost General Stanley McChrystal his job—are displayed in the “21st Century Features” section, while the adjacent “20th Century Features” depicts an image of “Malignant Giant: The Nuclear Industry's Terrible Power and How It Silenced Karen Silkwood,” a feature that exposed the murder of a power plant employee threatening to go public with the company’s corrupt practices.
The “Reviews” section includes a quote from a Jon Landau concert review so savage that it drove Eric Clapton to break up Cream.
Of course, it would not be a Rolling Stone exhibit without featuring the magazine’s trademark—the interview. The multifaceted “Interviews” section features multiple artifacts and forms of media.
A running audio tape offers rare footage of Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga, Lin-Manuel Miranda and others from their Rolling Stone interviews, some of which prove to be eerily prescient. “I want my work to be museum-worthy,” says Gaga. She calls her concert an installation, unaware that the words she is currently speaking are an installation as well. Later, Barack Obama comments on the state of journalism and the “fake news” epidemic. “The country receives information from completely different sources. And it’s getting worse,” he says. “We’re moving from curated journalism to Facebook pages.” He later adds, “There’s great work done in Rolling Stone.”
Additionally, a glass display case features reporters’ first drafts, tape recorders and the Annie Leibovitz polaroid of John Lennon and Yoko Ono that would later become the cover of Lennon’s memorial issue and the last professional photograph of him ever taken.
The third and final floor of the exhibit focuses on iconic covers throughout Rolling Stone history. Exhibit attendees first encounter a wall plastered with covers from the Sixties and are guided through the boldest and most memorable covers of subsequent eras, from a moody Jim Morrison to a deified Kanye West.
A loop of exclusive video interviews with Lenny Kravitz, Taylor Swift and Mick Jagger shows the stars as they discuss their first time on the cover of Rolling Stone, their memories a testament to the publication’s enduring power and ability to bring out the music fan in everyone, even musicians who can sell out stadiums.
The exhibit is now open and will run up through April 2018.