CREEM magazine started with little more than an attitude, a love of the best and most barbaric rock & roll, and a staff of true believers. It became the number two consumer music magazine to Rolling Stone but had a more profound impact on everything that we believe is cool today. A new film by Scott Crawford, Bow Howdy: The Story of CREEM Magazine, gets the story exactly right. Filmmaker-musician Brendan Toller speaks with Crawford about the film, and some of the characters who held court at CREEM, like Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, co-producer and co-writer Jaan Uhelszki, and Wayne Kramer (who scored the film).
Shadows of Knight’s “G-L-O-R-I-A” blares as black-and-white footage erupts on the screen of CREEM Magazine Headquarters. Publisher Barry Kramer asks a longhaired man what he does in the offices. “I sell dope downstairs,” he responds. Dave Marsh asks for more “beer-beer” and Ronnie Crueger flatly exclaims “Welcome to CREEM, I hope you enjoy the tour.”
Yes, Scott Crawford’s Bow Howdy: The Story of CREEM Magazine is burning up film festivals coast to coast, continent to continent. And if there’s any justice in this cruel, cruel world, this tour-de-force will be tearing down every movie theater, television and streaming device in no time.
Trailer for Boy Howdy:
The feature documentary chronicles the raw soul and bubbling irreverence of America’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll Magazine, tracing the shape-shifting late-60’s beginnings of Barry Kramer’s Mixed Media record store to rocketing 70’s maturation as the number two consumer music magazine to Rolling Stone—but forever number one in our hearts.
Boy Howdy proves this notion with a staggering list of subjects, including: Michael Stipe, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Wayne Kramer, Suzi Quatro, Pat Carney, Ted Nugent, Lenny Kaye, Peter Wolf, Cameron Crowe, Mitch Ryder, John Sinclair, Joan Jett and our very own Resident ‘nobody-sez-punk-because-of-Dave-Marsh’ Punk, Legs McNeil. The soundtrack (clearly gathered from CREEM tag sale 45s – hey, someone had to get more six-packs of Boy Howdy beer) catapults the party with still-undersung heroes: the Stooges, Sonic Rendezvous Band, Bob Seger System, Pleasure Seekers, Flamin’ Groovies and the Replacements. Brother Wayne Kramer provides the seamless original score.
Like the best documentaries, Boy Howdy is rich and dense. There’s the story of wildman & wild-couple, publisher Barry Kramer and wife Connie Kramer, who were able to wrangle and squeeze genius out of CREEM’s reprobates (read: Lester Bangs & co.). The story of Detroit’s freakscene of men and women coming together in the seedy underbelly of the Motor City, rallying under a DIY-ethos to create something wild and beautiful. And, of course, the story of the late-60’s rock writer gang who helped rattle and elevate the art of rock ‘n’ roll and establish new forms of expression under the aegis of ‘rock journalism.’ In other words, Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael are to film what Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus are to rock ‘n’ roll, and Boy Howdy is the rock writer’s film.
In a day and age where more people are writing (uh, on their phones) AND simultaneously becoming illiterate at an alarming pace, it’s almost inconceivable to think that Lester Bangs once did his thing on stage with the J Geils Band – banging away at the typewriter before a sacrificial smash. Today, what can a 150-word capsule album review or “grade” REALLY do?! Dozens of artificially-energized Joan Didions did their thing employing a critical eye and an ear to push and pull the artists and audiences of the day.
Scott Crawford and his co-creators also detail when those pens turned to utter destruction and sexism. One scene recounts Rick Johnson’s jaw-dropping Runaways review, “These bitches suck… Their only hope for crawling out of the mung heap is making those sperms wag their tails…These pussies have no place playing puck rock…” Joan and the Runaways stormed CREEM’s offices looking for Rick Johnson who was likely cowering under his desk. Joan and the Runaways penned back, “Since you seem to know that girls are sissies, come see us sometime and we’ll kick your fucking ass in.” Amen.
Far from their Rolling Stone rivals, CREEM embodied and favored real, raw, simple rock ‘n’ roll. As Paul Stanley (of all people) puts it, “Rolling Stone became a culture magazine driven by someone who wanted to be at society events.” While Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner was getting outfitted for seersucker suits and claiming that James Taylor was the future of rock ‘n’ roll, CREEM staff was breaking off the volume knob, sparking joints and letting the codeine cup runneth over.
As we endure the 50th anniversary of 1969, corporations and commercialists posing as artists eulogize and whitewash packaged junk for baby-boomers to fawn over yesteryear. The exception is made for few pieces that critically investigate, reexamine unsung revolutions and perspectives that point to our future. Filmmaker Scott Crawford, executive producer JJ Kramer (son of the late publisher Barry Kramer), co-producer and co-writer (and former CREEM writer) Jaan Uhelszki and editor Patrick Wright have done the latter.
CREEM was America’s Only Rock N Roll Magazine and Boy Howdy is the World’s Only Rock N Roll Magazine film. Boy Howdy carefully traces the origins, attitudes and politics for the torch to be passed beyond the sterile, algorithm- and selfie-obsessed, #TLDR, designer-drug-addled banality of our times. Because what is life if not to “make something out of the ugliest part of the universe,” as Dave Marsh brilliantly put it circa ’71. Cuz NOBODY WHO WRITES FOR THIS RAG’S GOT ANYTHING YOU AIN’T GOT.
We recently caught up with filmmaker Scott Crawford:
PKM: You started out writing zines. How did rock ‘n’ roll come into your life? Take us through…
Scott Crawford: When I was a teenage kid, I was really into comic books. It’s funny, but somehow comic books always seem to be the pathway to other geeky things like music. Once I got a little older I started hearing these different bands coming from my friend’s sister who was playing Minor Threat, Dead Kennedys, and Scream. It was like WHAT THE HELL?! I had NO CLUE what this was. It was just so foreign, alien and kind of scary, but in a really cool way. She brought me up in her bedroom one afternoon and said “Let me give you a lesson, you need to know what’s cool and what’s not,” and just sat me down and played me the first Scream album, Minor Threat’s Out of Step and the first Dead Kennedy’s record. After that I was just sold. I don’t know exactly what it was that resonated with me other than just being your typical kind of outcast kid. Being one of those kids, not unlike my own kids, where when they discover something that they really like they become completely immersed in whatever that might be. In my case it was punk rock. I learned everything I could, I read every fanzine—back then the only outlets for information were fanzines.
CREEM was America’s Only Rock N Roll Magazine and Boy Howdy is the World’s Only Rock N Roll Magazine film.
PKM: What fanzines did you read?
Scott Crawford: There were tons, but my favorite was Flipside fanzine and then I also read Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll. Kind of staples of that period. There were a lot of other ones as well including local DC ones. I kept reading about Lester Bangs through these zines. I kept thinking ‘Who is this guy Lester Bangs?’ At that point Lester had recently died. A lot of people were referencing Lester and then of course a lot of writers were referencing CREEM. And so, just being one of those kids that needed to know everything. My dad and I used to go to newsstands every weekend to look at magazines. I’d read his magazines he’d read mine—it was just what we did on the weekends. At one of the newsstands there was a big box of old CREEMs that had never sold. 50 cents apiece or something. So, I bought a ton of those, read and connected the dots. It all made sense—it was like a history lesson for me, you know? It got to the point where I was just so obsessed with getting more information that I started to create my own fanzine, which I did for four years.
PKM: What was the goal of Metrozine?
Scott Crawford: Well, I was pretty young so my musical knowledge–
PKM: How young?
Scott Crawford: I put out the first issue when I was 12.
PKM: Oh, damn!
Scott Crawford: It was xeroxed and it was, I believe, 16 pages and the main interview was with Ian MacKaye. It’s kind of ironic that the first interview I ever did was with Ian and then 30 years later I interviewed him for Salad Days. It happened to be a really good time to interview Ian because Minor Threat had just broken up and he had a lot to say. Metrozine turned out to be DC-centric at first and then as I got older my worldview became larger than just DC. I interviewed folks like Husker Du and the Dead Kennedys, Articles of Faith—a lot of those hardcore bands from back in the day.
PKM: What did you get out of Lester’s writing? It’s a pretty formative rock ‘n’ roll experience for anyone who reads him…
Scott Crawford: I never came close, nor will I ever come close to writing that good, but what I learned from reading his stuff is—when you’re young you kind of love and think everything’s great. Every record that comes out is the greatest record ever because you just have no sense of history, or reference points, or just a sense that ‘Hey, this is really derivative, you know?’ What I learned from Lester is that you can love the music and still not necessarily like the record. Being honest about something is really coming from a place of love for the music, the artist and wanting the artist to do better. There were plenty of Lester reviews where that was NOT the case, but that was my kind of takeaway. Lester’s writing really gave me a license to be critical.
PKM: I assume that’s where the title of Blurt magazine came from?
Scott Crawford: It is! I did a magazine called HARP for 8 years and what I wanted it to be was an American MOJO. I know that’s lofty. As the magazine evolved, I tried to include a lot more historical stuff, a lot more punk rock. At the time there was another magazine called Paste that came after me that was focusing on what became Dad Rock. I wanted to have a little bit more attitude. I think HARP got there and I made my fair share of mistakes. But with Blurt what I was trying to do was take that model and amp up the attitude and really focus more on the independent bands, you know, what was bubbling under. Then it was 2008, the year that magazines died. What was it? The movie 1991: The Year Punk Broke. Haha, well, 2008: the year magazines broke. It was Blurt, No Depression, Blender, Vibe in-print we all went under. I continued to work as an art director for a number of different magazines in a freelance capacity and then realized that I wanted to get back to storytelling.
I had the fortune of working with so many of the CREEM writers over the years. Specifically, Jaan Uhelszki who served as my senior editor at HARP and I just heard so many great stories about CREEM. I had my own curiosities and my own set of questions. It was always in my head that CREEM would make a hell of a great movie, but I felt like I needed to make Salad Days first. Salad Days is a movie about the DC punk scene in the 1980s, the pre-grunge era and the kind of effect that what happened here was not just regional, it really did explode beyond DC. In a lot of ways there are parallels between the two films because CREEM started as a regional magazine and then became something totally different and influenced countless writers, musicians, artists etc. As Salad Days was still playing in theaters, I reached out to JJ Kramer, the son of the late publisher of CREEM Barry Kramer, and said ‘Hey, what do you think of telling this story?’ JJ had been approached by many different people, but we hit it off and went full bore after that. Almost a four-year process.
PKM: What do you think the function of rock writing is?
Scott Crawford: I feel like if you can’t describe an album in a way that persuades or dissuades someone from purchasing an album then you really haven’t done your job. Scott Kempner from the Dictators says in the film, “They were passionate about the music to the point that they were so open to what the music was offering that it transported them. They were able to report back in a way that I could feel that, and I just craved that.”
She brought me up in her bedroom one afternoon and said “Let me give you a lesson, you need to know what’s cool and what’s not,” and just sat me down and played me the first Scream album, Minor Threat’s Out of Step and the first Dead Kennedy’s record.
PKM: What are some of your favorite films?
Sandinista – Alex Cox
The Mayor of Sunset Strip – George Hickenlooper
The Devil and Daniel Johnston – Jeff Feuerzeig
Crumb – Terry Twigoff
You’re Going to Miss Me – Kevin McAlester
Ring of Fire – The Emile Griffith Story – Dan Klores & Ron Berger
Roger & Me – Michael Moore
I Am Not Your Negro– Raoul Peck
Wild Wild Country – Maclain Way, Chaplan Way
The Last Waltz – Martin Scorsese
PKM: It’s different for every filmmaker, but what was the day-to-day working routine – what was collaboration like?
Scott Crawford: It was really an intense 24/7 process, especially within the last year. The editor Patrick Wright, the producer JJ Kramer, and the associate producer Jaan Uhelszki and I we were all talking on a daily basis about the story. It really came down to each and every word in the film. Everyone came together and contributed in a meaningful way.
PKM: What was it like working with Wayne Kramer on score? Would you send him clips? How was it even approached in the beginning?
Scott Crawford: Well, first off, it was an honor to work with Wayne. He’s someone that I’ve admired and looked up to my entire life. Just to be in the same room with him while he’s watching the film was a real honor and he’s just been a joy to work with. I’d let Wayne know this is the sound we’re going for like ‘OK, we need like a Foghat “Slow Ride” vibe here,’ and boom he’d nail it, knock it out of the ballpark every time. Working with Wayne was a highlight of my life.
PKM: You usually dread hearing the sound-a-likes in a film, but the sound is really seamless between score and soundtrack. Dave Marsh is so ON in the interview that you did…
Scott Crawford: I love Dave. Dave is so articulate and passionate. The film would not have been as strong without Dave in there and he just really helped paint a picture of what it was like to launch the magazine, all the struggles and the combative environment that existed. Dave is a contrarian and Dave is not someone that suffers fools. CREEM is a subject that he feels very strongly about and, I don’t want to speak for him, but it’s one that he probably has mixed feelings about. I wanted to show the ups and downs, the imperfections of running a rock ‘n’ roll magazine. Dave does a brilliant job of that. The fact that he cares so deeply about the music and the legacy of CREEM really comes through.
If you can’t describe an album in a way that persuades or dissuades someone from purchasing an album then you really haven’t done your job.
PKM: Where did the early CREEM archival footage come from?
Scott Crawford: It was taken from a local PBS affiliate in Detroit. It was a half-hour piece from 1971 that they did and PBS was nice enough to let us use it. JJ Kramer had it already as part of the family archives. Again, it’s just one of those elements of the film, without it, you would not get the same sense of who these people were.
PKM: There is an inherent political tone to CREEM. At one point in the film, Dave Marsh says, “Even in rock n roll, it had come to pass that there was a stuffy way of dealing with people, and I thought part of your job as a human being was to oppose that. And if it meant you bled a little for it, so what? Because there’s some other kid whose gonna read this thing and be freed by it.” Do you think that—because I consider my work this way—do you think your work is political?
Scott Crawford: Yeah, without sounding too pretentious, absolutely. It’s part of my DNA. I used to write editorials at HARP and I’d get death threats from people because I would make it political. As a writer or filmmaker, your choice of projects helps to illustrate how you feel about any given particular situation—mine is always the underdog. CREEM was this underdog magazine against all odds in the Midwest. In the beginning, it had this sort of no hierarchy, communal aspect. It was very DIY despite the fact they were the number two music consumer magazine to Rolling Stone. The same way that DC had no music industry infrastructure, you had to create it.
PKM: It’s really inspiring because you do detail how CREEM just grew up from nothing.
Scott Crawford: Not only did it grow from nothing, it grew through the power of just how goddamned good the music was – it spoke for itself. After a while people just go ‘Shit, this is great music I don’t know where it’s from. Oh, it’s from DC? Detroit? Oh, wow.’ I’m always interested in the backdrop, the environmental aspect of these stories. In the case of DC, what’s the effect of having the U.S. Capitol and White House in your backyard? In the case of CREEM, what role did the fact that you were in fucking Detroit which had a great music scene, but didn’t have the cachet of the coasts, whether it was LA, San Francisco or New York City — you had to create something from nothing. I think there’s a certain power, a certain chip on the shoulder kind of thing that just makes you want to prove to the world, or even just prove to your neighbors that you can do this and you don’t need and industry to do it—we’ll create our own industry.
PKM: Cities are very prevalent in your films talk about that…
Scott Crawford: I love the fact that both Salad Days and Bow Howdy, where they began were in the worst parts of town. The reason that they were able to flourish, or grow, or evolve, in a way without a lot of outside interreference or distraction was they were parts of the city that were ignored or abandoned. In the case of DC, DC is a federal town so there’s a huge federal workforce. From 9 to 5, DC was packed, but as soon at the 5 o’clock bell went off – it was like the Flintstones, the city emptied out. I remember going to these places and they were fucking shitholes because no one lived down there. They were businesses and industrial parts of the city. I think Henry Rollins says in Salad Days, ‘It was kind of like this adventure. I’ll explore this part of the city while everyone else is sleeping,’ and that’s kind of the case with CREEM. CREEM started on Cass Avenue, which was pretty close to Wayne State University, but not an affluent part of town. Because of that, you had artists like the MC5 and Iggy, you were able to get away with things that you couldn’t get away with anywhere else. Because no one was paying attention.
PKM: The secret to great rock ‘n’ roll…
Scott Crawford: I think so too. I always think of things in terms of gentrification. I always wonder where are those places? And I’m not so naïve to think that they don’t exist. I’m always curious as to where those places are now. Two of my favorite clubs as a kid – one is a Starbucks and the other is a J Crew. Um, in the case of Cass Ave, it’s a different part of town than it was 30 years ago and gentrification is a whole other entirely different conversation, but it does fascinate me and it’s interesting to see just where geography and economics plays a part in making art.