The magazine that inspired Rolling Stone

The 50th anniversary of Rolling Stone magazine has arrived, and not without fanfare. Joe Hagan’s biography of co-founder Jann Wenner appeared in October to stellar reviews, and earlier this month, HBO aired Alex Gibney’s documentary film about the magazine’s history. Wenner’s announcement that he was planning to sell his company’s stake in Rolling Stone also prompted a flurry of retrospective tributes.

Conceived during the Summer of Love in 1967, Rolling Stone was always a creature of the San Francisco counterculture. From the outset, the magazine touted Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and other San Francisco bands. Well before that, co-founder Ralph J. Gleason was featuring the Haight-Ashbury’s vibrant music scene in his San Francisco Chronicle column.

But Rolling Stone’s identity can also be traced to two other sources: Berkeley’s culture of dissent and Ramparts magazine, the legendary San Francisco muckraker.

The Berkeley influence was strong and direct. The magazine’s early staff writers were steeped in Berkeley’s ardent campus activism, and their views on politics, drugs and music informed the magazine’s coverage. Wenner wrote a music column for the student newspaper and covered the free speech movement for a local radio station. Even more significant for Wenner, perhaps, was the example of Gleason, who combined an impressive body of music criticism with public support for student activists. Wenner spent hours at Gleason’s Berkeley home, soaking up his insights on music and journalism.

Rolling Stone’s Berkeley roots were important, but the Ramparts influence ran even deeper. Ramparts was by no means a hippie magazine, but its rebellious spirit, flair for publicity and professional design would all leave their mark on Wenner and Gleason’s fledgling magazine.

A bomb in every issue

Founded in 1962 as a Catholic literary quarterly, Ramparts initially ran articles by Thomas Merton, John Howard Griffin and other Catholic intellectuals. But when a young Warren Hinckle became editor in 1964, he converted Ramparts into a monthly, shifted its focus to politics and hired Dugald Stermer as art director.

Hinckle also recruited Robert Scheer, a former graduate student at UC Berkeley’s Center for Chinese Studies, to write about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Scheer and his colleagues challenged U.S. government pronouncements about the war and routinely lampooned the mainstream media’s Vietnam coverage.

Once Hinckle, Stermer and Scheer joined forces, Ramparts achieved liftoff. It adopted a cutting-edge design, forged links to the Black Panther Party, exposed CIA activities and published the diaries of Che Guevara and staff writer Eldridge Cleaver.

A Ramparts photo-essay, “The Children of Vietnam,” persuaded Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak out against the war, and the title of a Time magazine article about Ramparts, “A Bomb in Every Issue,” described the muckraker’s explosive impact. In 1966, Ramparts earned the George Polk Award for excellence in magazine journalism, and its circulation climbed to almost 250,000.

From left to right: Ramparts magazine editor Warren Hinckle, assistant managing editor Sol Stern and writer Robert Scheer. AP Photo
Ramparts also became a seedbed for Rolling Stone. Gleason, who was a contributing editor at Ramparts, secured a job for Wenner at the magazine’s spinoff newspaper, the Sunday Ramparts. While there, Wenner picked up layout ideas from Stermer and encountered the work of Hunter S. Thompson, whose bestselling book about the Hells Angels appeared in 1967. Wenner also learned the value of showmanship from the free-spending Hinckle, who frequently echoed playwright George M. Cohan’s motto “Whatever you do, kid, always serve it with a little dressing.”