"Creem: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine" documents how the Detroit-born publication rose to the top
Creem magazine was the 1970s dirty rock 'n' roll branch of The New Journalism practiced in the 1960s by Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and others. The magazine's salty, raunchy prose and passion-first stance helped crack the egg of music journalism, scrambling it into a form that had as much attitude as the music Creem was covering.
Creem: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine is a new documentary by Scott Crawford -- director of the essential Salad Days chronicling the D.C. punk scene he grew up with -- that captures the mag's spirit of chaos, tracing Creem's rise and fall with open-eyed honesty.
Started in 1969 from Detroit's Cass Corridor, Creem spent 20 of its 30 years publishing out of Michigan and helped launch the careers of influential music journos Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, documentary co-producer Jaan Uhelszki, and more. The Creem documentary treats Bangs, Marsh, and cantankerous publisher Barry Kramer as the heart of this dysfunctional band of misfits, many of whom not only covered rock 'n' roll but also lived the lifestyle. Kramer and his wife, Connie, were no exception, and the film's co-producer JJ Kramer deals with his parents' issues with grace during his on-camera interviews.
Before he became a documentary filmmaker, Crawford published numerous fanzines and magazines, including the well-known indie/roots/rock mag Harp, which was influenced by Creem and featured many of its writers. Crawford and I worked for the same company that took over publishing Harp for a few years, and I caught up with Crawford about his latest movie, which is currently available to stream at the Michigan Theater's virtual cinema. This chat was edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did you first discover Creem?
A: I was a punk rock kid at 12, 13 years old and I was one of those kids that was always into collecting things, whether it was bottle caps, or Star Wars cards, or whatever. Whatever I was into, I was all in and I had to find out everything there was to know about that particular thing. Once I discovered punk rock, I couldn't wrap my head around what this thing was other than that I loved it and that I could relate to it. I loved the energy. It spoke to me in a weird way. And to find out more in the early '80s, mid-'80s, there was no internet, so the only way to find out information was to read fanzines. And there were dozens of fanzines at the time, but the ones that I really liked were called Flipside and Maximumrocknroll. I read them every month. I waited for them each month at the record stores and would buy them, and then I bought all the back issues that all the record stores had. And so in reading them, there were numerous references to Lester Bangs and to Creem and proto-punk and Iggy and The MC5. And it was like, “What is all this?”
My father and I, one weekend went to a used bookstore and in the back of the store, there was a box of old magazines, music magazines and I said, “Oh my God, this is Creem. This is the magazine that I keep hearing about.” And they were the ones from the '70s, so it was the heyday. And I opened one up and immediately I see pictures of [a mostly naked woman], and I was like, "Really?" It was like a raunchy magazine. I mean, when you're 12 or 13 it's raunchy, you know? Not by today's standards. It was kind of almost like this magazine, "Ooh, I don't want my parents to see this." But the writing was unbelievable. It's like nothing I'd ever read before. And that's not to suggest that I understood what I was reading necessarily, it was just like this is a whole new language. This is a whole new way of talking about music and I need to understand this better.
So I looked for Lester's byline, which then led me to this sort of history lesson about you know, whether it was Lou Reed or The Runaways or The Dead Boys or all these bands he wrote about. So, Creem immediately had a real effect on me. ... They had this Do It Yourself attitude, like, “Hey, you know we're doing it you can do it, too. You want to write for us? Send us your samples.” Or, “You want to start a magazine? Start a magazine.”
And so between reading that and then seeing fanzines, I really started to understand the DIY aesthetic and the concept of it. That's what made me start a fanzine when I was a kid. In addition to Flipside and Maximumrocknroll, Creem sent me on a life trajectory.
Q: How did Creem influence you as the publisher of Harp?
A: I would buy back issues of Creem all the time to help inform me. When I was doing Harp, I just felt like, “I'm just doing the same thing. This isn't exciting. It's not interesting. ... It's not working, I need to do something different.” ... So I was constantly reading old issues of Creem and you'll kind of see a shift midway through Harp where I kind of just took the gloves off and that was because of Creem.
Q: When did you decide you wanted to do a documentary on Creem?
A: I heard all the stories about Creem because I worked with so many of the writers for Harp. So, I always kind of had the film idea in the back of mind, just like I did with Salad Days, having lived through those experiences and knowing all the stories and knowing all the places to go. I knew with Creem, this was something special. ... With Creem, those guys -- I'm not this type of person -- but those guys would fight about whether the latest Black Sabbath album was any good. And when I say fight, I mean they would come to blows. I remember hearing about that and just being like, “That’s just ridiculous, man.” It is, but it came from a place of passion. It came from a place of like, "We love this music so much and we expect more," or less, or whatever it was of this artist. And to them, it was worth literally, physically fighting over. That's how important that music was to them.
Q: Was there any reticence from the Creem folks to relive that era?
A: I think it took a while. When you're making a film like this, and you're talking to people that were there, firsthand, they lived through it, they might not have had the best experience. I'm not speaking about any one person; I'm just saying, generally speaking, you may not have had the best experience, or they may have reservations, or they may have feelings that they haven't really resolved yet. I think you have to let them know, “This is the narrative, this is the arc, this is the story I'm trying to tell” and make them comfortable with that and stay true to that. I think then folks are willing to come on board, but it certainly takes time and patience. You let them know that, “Hey, I'm going to do the story justice and I'm going to do it honestly.”
And to JJ Kramer, the producer of the film, I asked him very early on what's off limits? And he said, “Nothing. Nothing's off-limits.” And I said, “OK, because this really needs to be a warts and all kind of film.” And he was completely on board. There are things in there that, frankly, were uncomfortable to film -- but they're in the film, and they made it thanks to JJ and his mother’s credit. They allowed it. The last thing I wanted to do was make some fluff piece about what a great magazine Creem was, which it was, but certainly it had its issues.
Q: The way the Creem folks tell their stories in the documentary about the chaos of the magazine, it doesn't feel like there's a lot of bitterness and anger -- no one seemed pissed off about their experience. Maybe that’s because they also remember the passion behind it and maybe for years they compartmentalize the bad stuff. But as you grow up and you think back, you're able to realize that humans can have two emotions about something at the same time. You have to become more mature and more articulate to accept that. People may have complained about Barry Kramer and his weird ways, but no one seemed like they hated Barry Kramer.
A: I think you nailed it. I think you're right. And I think that because at the end of it, no matter what Barry might have done, there was a respect for him. And although he may not have felt that at the time for some of these writers, he respected them. But he constantly tested them and that was due to some of his own insecurities and his own issues, but if you were loyal to him, he was sure was as a button pusher. I don't personally know how well I would have done in that environment.
But I thought about this a lot. Why would you put up with this shit? Right? Why would anyone put up with this shit? Well, it comes back to one thing: It's the love of the music. And the fact that a lot of these people were, as they say in the film, outcasts and whatever. This was their outlet. This was like their main thing, like, “I can't do anything like, this is what I'm born to do. This is what I meant to do. And so I'm going to put up with all of this drama and I'm going to put up with all this ‘abuse’ because I'm still able to write about the things that I love." And to Barry's credit, he never would interfere as the publisher, whatever you wrote. For example, if the back cover was a BTO label ad -- they bought a full-page, spent a lot of money on it -- and one of the writers trashed the record in the ad, Barry wasn't about to say anything. He gave the writers complete freedom. I'm sure there were some, like, “Oh my God, what are we going to do?” But at the end of the day, he gave them that freedom and there are not too many publishers who would do that. If a writer at Rolling Stone would give an album a D- and that album would have been the back cover, well, Jann Wenner would have gone in 24 hours before it hit the press and change it to an A+.
Q: Barry comes off as such a tragic figure in the movie; they keep referring to his insecurities. And his wife did all the same drink-and-drugs stuff, too. But you were working with their son, and I'm assuming he may have known of his father's issues, but in discovering home movies and digging all through the Creem archives, it must have become something like a 3D image of his dad since he died when JJ was four years old.
A: I think it was therapeutic for him. We talked about that before we even began the film. It was a way for him to understand his father better through learning about him through other artists that knew him like Mitch Ryder and so many other folks. It was incredibly emotional for him. I don't want to speak for him, but it was incredibly emotional. I think for him to hear some of what he heard, I think even some of what his mother said, I think was was difficult to hear. But again, to their credit, they just put it all out there. I hope that this serves as a way for JJ to know his father in a way that he didn't know before and understand him better.
Q: JJ had the Creem archives at his house, but had he gone through them? Was he aware of what was in there before starting on the film?
A: No. He had some of that stuff. I found the footage of his father in the film where it’s a few months before his father passes away. I found that pretty late into making the film. That was hard to watch. It was hard for him to watch. It was hard for his mom to watch. But it made it into the film. There's some of the black and white footage of Lester with Robert Duncan and some of the other people there in the Creem offices that was found. He found that in the middle of some tape of a movie that had been recorded off TV -- and smack dab in the middle of the movie there are two minutes of black and white footage because someone from Creem had bought a black and white a video camera. And he'd never seen it before. It's like finding sunken treasure or something. You've got your film, you think you're done, and all of a sudden you come across this gold nugget that just transforms the story or, at the very least, adds color to it in a way that you had not anticipated. That was the case with this.
Q: You said Creem had such a Detroit feeling that it could have only come from here, not a coastal city where most of the publishing industry resides. Why is it that you think it had that sensibility?
A: I think there's a lot of theories there. I asked that question to a lot of the people that were there in the beginning, longtime Detroiters, and I think there's a work ethic in Detroit, I think there's a pride that comes from living there. There's a sense of like, “We're gonna make this our own. We own this. This is this ours, this is special, and we're protective of this, but you know what? We're gonna show the world.” I think Ted Nugent may have said it, but I don't know if it made it in the film, but if you could make it in Detroit, you could make it anywhere. There was a high expectation in Detroit that was different probably than any other city. Because you had Motown, which raised the bar already. I mean, if you've got Smokey Robinson in your backyard playing shit, and you’ve got Iggy and you've got the MC5 and Alice Cooper -- they all raised the bar. I think bands that came through there, they knew that, they knew they had to really give it everything they have. I think that comes from Detroit having a sense of pride and of history and knowing they weren't going to put up with anything that was less than extraordinary.
Q: When you were putting together Salad Days, it was you and Jim Saah basically mostly doing the editing. For this one, you were working with Patrick Wright, who brought such a different sensibility. What do you feel his contributions were and how he perhaps brought a more artistic vision to the editing process.
A: I can't say enough about Patrick. He won an Academy Award a couple of years ago. He really wasn't that familiar with Creem. But I sent him a very rough edit of the entire film and we talked about it. It's an interesting relationship that you develop with an editor, and we butted heads a few times, but in the best possible way. He stuck to his guns and in the end, I think he was right. He stripped down the story to these three players, Barry, Lester, and, Dave, and we kind of use the band metaphor, which is funny because Cameron Crowe says that later in the film as a band metaphor -- this was the band. We use that as our way to drive the story forward, but it always had to come back to Creem, it had to keep coming back to those three guys.
Q: Even though Creem often veered into straight-up misogyny, the magazine had a lot of women on staff -- some of whom were responsible for the sometimes tasteless prose.
A: I really wanted to explore women's roles in the magazine because I can't think of another magazine at that point that had as many women writers involved as Creem. I thought it was an interesting juxtaposition with this politically incorrect magazine. I mean, let's face it, it was basically written for boys -- young boys, teen men. But it was written by a ton of women writers, and this was the '70s, so it was a really interesting thing -- how those two things reconcile themselves.
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.