Amongst our Southern literature, children’s books, fantasy and sci fi, essays on world religions, and art books, we have a single magazine on our shelves: the Tenth Anniversary issue of Rolling Stone magazine from December 15, 1977. My parents saved it for me through the years because they know I love Annie Leibovitz, and the issue features a fifty page spread of photographs from her first ten years shooting for Rolling Stone. My husband and I have moved the large format issue from Florida to Minnesota to Virginia – for more than seven years, it sat on our shelf – and the time never felt right to open it.
And then came Mad Men. My husband and I are binging on the show right now. (warning: spoilers below!)
We’re in season five, when Roger Sterling eats acid with Timothy Leary,
the firm tries (unsuccessfully) to sign the Rolling Stones for a campaign,
and the gap between Don Draper and the emerging generation widens as the Beatles grow in popularity, and the youth of the 1960s follow dreams of purpose and fulfillment rather than dreams of indoor plumbing. Last week, we watched an episode that had one of the most powerful uses of music I have ever experienced in a television show (besides the “final five” sequence of Battlestar Gallactica when they played “All Along the Watchtower.” Awesome.). It was a pivotal episode, in which Don was portrayed as no longer a young, hot-shot creative ad exec, but a middle aged man who was losing touch with what is going on with his wife and staff’s generation. His young wife perceived this disconnect, and so on her way to acting lessons, to fulfill her dreams of becoming an actress, she left him with the Beatles Revolver album to help bring him up to speed. He placed it on the turntable, put needle to vinyl, and our living room filled with the entrancing final song of Revolver, “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
The montage was potent as it proceeded through a series of scenes of the younger generation in Don’s life as they followed their bliss – Peggy and Stan smoked weed while they worked, Pete watched a lover slip away, and Megan meditated in her acting class – until Don, disinterested, scratched the needle off the record, our den went silent, and Don walked out of the room to go to bed. To me, It was one of the most brilliant sequences of the show to date, and as listening to (good) music from that era often does, it made me ache with nostalgia for a time I never knew.
The following morning, after I dug through our CDs to find the Revolver album, I saw the Rolling Stone issue on our shelf, and the time finally felt right to look at it. Before I even got to the Annie Leibovitz spread, I was struck by the letters to the editor. Especially the one from angry parents who wrote, “My 14 year old boy subscribes to your magazine, Rolling Stone. On the front cover and inside the magazine were nude pictures of that Lennon man (?) and his ugly girlfriend.”
I got a chuckle out of that one, but there were also letters from John and Yoko, Timothy Leary, George Bush, Joseph Heller (author of Catch-22), Dan Rather, Woody Allen, and Joan Didion. What blew my mind was not just that they had written letters to a magazine (does that still happen – celebrities writing letters to the editors of rock and roll magazines?), but that they were current at the time the magazine I held in my hand was printed. They were current when “that Lennon man” was alive, and George Bush was director of the CIA, and Joan Didion was pioneering New Journalism, or what we now call creative nonfiction. This physical magazine I pulled off our shelf after watching Mad Men, this printed material, the yellowed pages of which I turned as I sat on the carpet of our finished basement in 2013, it was there in 1977. It was exposed to 1977 air, printed with 1977 ink on 1977 paper, when Jimmy Carter was president, and I was three years old.
What struck me most about the issue, aside from the fact that I was holding a piece of history, was that Rolling Stone was once young. Timothy Leary wrote to the nascent magazine in 1969, “Thank you for the beautiful thing you have done with Rolling Stone… Keep growing, it’s beautiful to watch you do it.” I’ve never known a time when Rolling Stone didn’t exist, and here, this issue of RS on its tenth birthday, was proof that it was once a child. That it was just a baby during the period portrayed by Mad Men. When I read Timothy Leary’s words of encouragement to the young magazine, it hit me that Rolling Stone, at one time, was an emerging journal, like the ones I might submit my writing to today.
I leafed through the Leibovitz spread, with shots we’ve seen a million times of Jerry Garcia lying on his back on a beach; Keith Richards passed out; OJ Simpson in his Buffalo Bills uniform; Salvador Dali ear to ear with Alice Cooper; Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, shirtless and stoned; Brian Wilson in a blue bathrobe, his surfboard under his arm. I thought, this all really happened, and these photos were fresh when this magazine came out.
I loved reading commentary from Annie herself about “playing” with her subjects in order to get shots, like when she bought Linda Ronstadt $60 red underwear for a shoot and was scared about how Ronstadt might react, or when she shared her experiences of a subject, like that “Brian [Wilson] seems to be on acid all the time.” You don’t see those notes when one of her iconic photos is used in a nostalgia piece on Jerry Garcia, or you find her portrait of Dali and Alice Cooper on a poster in a head shop.
But my favorite part of the magazine, and not just because we’re watching Mad Men, was the advertising.
There are a couple of cigarette ads (including Vantage and the Marlboro man), a few car ads (Volkswagen rabbit, Toyota Celica, Le Car from Renault), liquor ads (Seagrams 7, Two Finger Tequila, Southern Comfort, and Gordons Gin, complete with 51 gin cocktail recipes), and my favorites, full page pieces for albums that were new at the time, like “‘Boston 2.’ On Epic Records and Tapes,” David Bowie’s “Heroes,” and Queen’s “News of the World,” all new releases in 1977, when this copy of Rolling Stone went to press. The remainder of the issue is full of ads for turntables, cassette players, speakers, headphones, and reel to reel recorders. Even better than the merchandise, though, are the sales pitches, like this one: “Now you can have something in common with FM stations. This Technics turntable.” Because radio stations once played vinyl records. !. I also loved Sharp Eye’s line, “It ends the hit and miss method of finding songs on tape.” Remember those days? When we listened to cassettes and there was no easy way to advance to the next song?
And that final ad, the yellow page with the checklist? We had that record cleaner. I remember when I was young, a 1980s adolescent exploring the music of the 60s and 70s, I’d squirt a drop from that tiny red bottle onto my parents’ vinyl records (Mom had every Beatles album, Dad had all the Rolling Stones) and using the discwasher with the velvety pad and the wooden grip, I’d run with the grain of the records’ grooves, wiping “microdust” with each swipe. The vinyl would shine black when I was done. I’d pluck a dust ball off the turntable’s needle, place the record on the spindle, turn it up loud with the big silver knob, and lie back with my eyes closed, my hands behind my head, to listen to Pink Floyd, or Queen, or any one of the surprises contained inside those mysterious album covers.
On Mad Men, there’s scorn towards the advertising world from the counterculture who consider themselves enlightened, and superior, and anti-establishment. They look down their noses on consumerism and the shallow jingles that ad agencies churn out, favoring the high culture of theater or beat poetry. But I have to say, as I leafed through this Rolling Stone, the ads are what gave me a real glimpse into 1977. Unlike iconic photographs by Annie Leibovitz, or fiction by Hunter S. Thompson, advertising is fleeting. The ads were the details that showed what daily life was like for regular people – what they wore, how they combed their hair, what they were buying that year (discwashers!). Because they are ephemeral (and, we like to think, culturally unimportant), we forget about advertisements as they update to the newest product, the latest campaign. But more than anything else about the issue, when I saw those reel to reel recorders, and all those record players, it was the ads – those snapshots in time – that brought back memories. They are what dated the magazine. It was not only the letters from John and Yoko, or the timeless photographs of ’60s and ’70s rock and roll icons, but also the ads, penned by Mad Men era creative teams, with shallow one-liners and feathered hair, that revealed the culture of 1977.