Scott Crawford’s widely-acclaimed documentary film CREEM: America’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll Magazine has brought renewed attention, even reverence, to the magazine, which ceased publication in 1989. In addition to the film, a 50th anniversary commemorative issue is in the works. We examine the history and legacy of a magazine that shaped/warped the PKM universe, and we talk with JJ Kramer, son of the original publisher Barry Kramer, who has wrested control of the CREEM archive and brand. Boy howdy!
For the twenty years of its existence (1969-89), CREEM magazine lived and died by its credo: “America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine.” That, of course, was a bit of an exaggeration. It was not the ONLY magazine devoted to rock ‘n’ roll, but for a large swatch of unwashed, alienated and twisted American youth (myself included), it was the only magazine that mattered.
Sure, there was Crawdaddy, Circus, Greg Shaw’s Who Put theBOMP, Ira Robbins’ Trouser Press (“America’s Only British Rock Magazine”) and a few other teen-beat-type rags. And there was the big daddy of them all, Rolling Stone. But CREEM was not from either coast; it was from the Midwest. It had a chip on its shoulder as big at that arch in St. Louis and an attitude to match the wide-open spaces of flyover country.
The magazine began as a sort of anti-Rolling Stone, at least in the attitude of the writers (many of whom also freelanced for Rolling Stone and the other aforementioned publications). However, once Rolling Stone drifted off the rock & roll beat into Hollywood and celebrities and ads for upscale bourbon., CREEM became its antidote. The key was that the magazine’s perspective was the same as that of the serious rock fan. It did not treat rock musicians as “stars” or deities but only as conduits of the life-giving elixir of rock ‘n’ roll, and if they failed to deliver, CREEM was there to mercilessly mock them. In that sense, it was like the MAD magazine of rock ‘n’ roll.
The magazine served as an irreverent forum for Lester Bangs (who did his best writing there), Richard Meltzer, Nick Tosches, Jaan Uhelszki, Rick Johnson, Billy Altman, Trixie A. Balm, Penny Valentine, Ben Edmonds, Dave Marsh and The Mad Peck, among many others committed to saving rock & roll from death by strangulation by the corporate music industry. (Rob Tyner, Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Peter Laughner and Charles Bukowski also had CREEM bylines). At its best, CREEM’s journalistic approach captured the anarchic, liberating feeling of rock & roll in words. Consider this passage by the late Lester Bangs, excerpted from a long, undisciplined, largely fictional, and madly brilliant review-cum-essay that was ostensibly about the Count Five (a psychedelic garage band whose one hit was “Psychotic Reaction”) but touched on larger themes:
“So perhaps the truest autobiography I could ever write, and I know this holds as well for many other people, would take place largely at record counters, jukeboxes, pushing forward in the driver’s seat while AM walloped you on, alone under headphones with vast scenic bridges and angelic choirs in the brain through insomniac post-midnights, or just to sit at leisure stoned or not in the vast benign lap of America, slapping on sides and feeling good.”
Obviously, rock journalism crossed some kind of threshold with Bangs. He turned record reviewing into an art form or literature. He also wrote hilarious epics that mocked musical pretense and celebrated rock at its most primitive. His 10,000-word masterpieces about Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, and Lou Reed would run unedited in CREEM. That same spirit infused, and enthused, the magazine’s other contributors.
That may explain why fifty years after its founding—one-half of a century!—people are still fascinated by the magazine’s story. Last year at SXSW in Austin, the documentary film Boy Howdy! The Story of CREEM, directed by Scott Crawford, received its festival premiere. During the festival, Jaan Uhelzski, a former CREEM writer and editor, and Wayne Kramer, the MC5 guitarist, were interviewed together by an earnest young hipster affiliated with SXSW. Uhelzski was a producer and writer for Boy Howdy! and Kramer assembled the film’s soundtrack. They were at SXSW to promote the film [now retitled Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine and made available for streaming on August 7]. A clip of that interview session is available online and worth watching.
Not only is the interview interesting, it’s also instructive, offering a dramatic social contrast between two distinctively different generations. The contrast has little to do with the obvious age differences between Jaan & Wayne and the young, respectful hipster. It was more like watching two articulate and dignified visitors, diplomats really, from another planet—call it Creem Planet or Sixties Planet—reaching out to another species, Slickus hipsterius, to bridge some cosmic gap in time and space.
The interviewer seemed to be thinking, “Wow, there really was a time when rock ‘n’ roll mattered.”
Indeed, the Stooges, MC5, Dictators, Dolls, Count Five, the 13th Floor Elevators, Crabby Appleton (yes, Crabby Appleton!) were just as important (if not more so) to CREEM writers as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Lou Reed or David Bowie.
“Go Back,” Crabby Appleton on American Bandstand, May 1970:
The key to CREEM was that pure “gonzo” spirit and its unpredictable contents. For example, that hilarious Juke Box Jury feature with Flo & Eddie, the cartoon record reviews by The Mad Peck, the iconoclastic photo captions, the free-form letters page. One particular article (besides all of Lester Bangs’ work, which later appeared in his Carburetor Dung collection) stands out to me: Charles Bukowski offering his firsthand account of a Rolling Stones concert in L.A. That was the kind of thing you could not find anywhere else.
Originally, but only briefly, based in Detroit, CREEM debuted March 5, 1969. At the start it was headquartered at a record store (Full Circle) and head shop/bookstore (Mixed Media) owned by Barry Kramer. One of Kramer’s employees, Tony Reay, was a British blues obsessive and talked Kramer into starting a magazine devoted to the music few others were covering (and, in tribute to his favorite band, Reay intentionally misspelled “Creem”). Its underground cred was further enhanced when Robert Crumb agreed to design the Boy Howdy! logo, which was on the masthead from Issue # 2 to the end of the run.
The one thing Detroit can boast about, besides the auto industry of its heyday, is its role in America’s musical history. Between the boogie woogie and blues shouters starting in the 1920s (Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith) and the country and Delta blues of John Lee Hooker and other Black artists who migrated North to work in the auto plants, and the jazz scene in the 1940s at the Paradise Theatre, followed by the R&B of Fortune Records and Motown/Tamla, the garage rock of MC5, Mitch Ryder, Frost, psychedelia centered at the Grande Ballroom, Detroit added substance and rawness to our collective jukebox. And, from that fertile oil- and grease-soaked soil grew CREEM.
Barry Kramer helmed the magazine until his death in 1981. Barry’s son, JJ Kramer, a lawyer specializing in intellectual property and copyright law who was all of 4 years old when his dad died, has now assumed responsibility for its rich legacy. After years of legal wrangling, JJ has acquired the CREEM brand and all of its archives. Among his first projects was Boy Howdy! (now called CREEM: America’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll Magazine). His staff has also assembled a 50th anniversary commemorative issue of the magazine that will soon be on sale.
PKM spoke with JJ Kramer about CREEM, its history, legacy and future.
PKM: What was it like growing up in the shadow of the premiere rock & roll magazine in America, if not the world?
JJ Kramer: I think I was too young to truly appreciate the gravity of it all. My dad died when I was 4 years old and the mag was sold off when I was around 9. So, while I certainly knew that not rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t everyone’s family business – I’m not sure it really hit home until I was an adult.
PKM: Do you have any memories of that head shop your father, Barry Kramer, owned and where the magazine began? Or any of the group houses/offices in Walled Lake or Birmingham, Michigan?
JJ Kramer: CREEM started in ‘69 and I was born in ‘76. So, the head shop and Walled Lake were before my time. However, I do have memories of running around in the Birmingham offices bothering all of the writers and admin staff. I also remember being at a few of the infamous CREEM holiday parties and my Mom telling the babysitter to take me home early…
PKM: How much control did (or could) your father wield over such an anarchic scene as existed in the offices of Creem, much less the content of the magazine? Or was that part of his genius—knowing that to try to control it would destroy what was great about the magazine?
JJ Kramer: I think that was part of his genius. As I say in the film, he liked to create chaos and then attempt to control it (or at least corral it). I view him as part mad scientist, part psych student. I think he enjoyed seeing what would happen when mixing personalities that were in many ways diametrically opposed, such as Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs. The journalistic equivalent of tossing Mentos into Diet Coke.
PKM: Since so much of the Detroit area has been decimated by a long economic decline, I was wondering if the building where the head shop was located is still there? If so, has the city of Detroit considered putting up a plaque at that site? If not, shame on Detroit!
JJ Kramer: Unfortunately, that building in Detroit was leveled long ago. That said, the city of Birmingham hung a banner outside of CREEM’s old offices. The landlord of the building put the kabosh on a plaque; I think they were still scarred from having CREEM as former tenants.
PKM: From my perspective, CREEM was a godsend. I would get each issue and treat it as I would a brand new album I’d been coveting: before actually opening (or playing) it, I would look at the cover, dip into the contents randomly, sort of put off diving deep into it because I wanted to savor the experience. In other words, fans of the magazine had a more intimate relationship with CREEM, like it was a monthly letter from a friend, or a group of friends. Is that how your father (and you, for that matter) perceived the audience for CREEM?
JJ Kramer: Absolutely. What distinguished CREEM from other rock rags was that true sense of community. The readers of CREEM felt like the writers were talking to them, not at them. And that was a two-way street – the readers could directly engage with the writers in the letters section and man-oh-man, did that lead to some gems. In many ways, CREEM was social media before that was part of the vernacular.
PKM: Not everyone was charmed or gladdened by their notices in CREEM, but that irreverence toward rock stars (not treating them as deities) was a healthy thing. Have you heard any stories about bands or musical artist who were particularly aggrieved by their manhandling and mangling by CREEM writers?
JJ Kramer: I don’t know on this one. Maybe I can connect you with Jaan U on this? I know there were DEFINITELY some artists with bruised egos – but she will have the firsthand knowledge.
PKM: When and how did you become personally involved with the magazine?
JJ Kramer: Well, to be honest, I didn’t have much choice – I was born into this craziness. What’s that saying? You can pick your friends but not your CREEM family? In any event, my dad left CREEM to me when he passed away. Unfortunately, I was only 4 at the time and, despite my mom’s best efforts to step in and keep the mag afloat until I came of age, the mag was sold off in the late ‘80s. Once I entered into adulthood, I started thinking about how I could get involved, and in the early 2000s I set forth on a mission to regain the rights. Fortunately, my background as an intellectual property lawyer really came in handy as I was able to use my skill-set to reassemble the CREEM puzzle. It didn’t come without its challenges – physically, emotionally, and financially – but I’m thrilled to say that my company now owns 100% of all things CREEM.
PKM: Tell me a bit about the anniversary issue of the magazine that’s in the works. Is it a sort of “best of”? Will it have any new, original content?
JJ Kramer: Yes, this issue will be positioned as a commemorative, best-of, issue. The vast majority will be legacy content, but we’ve also invited some former editors/writers to pen some new material to weave into the mag. We’ve also brought on an incredible art director to give the layout some new energy.
PKM: Now that the legal battles are over and you’ve acquired the CREEM brand and archives, what’s in store for the future?
JJ Kramer: Aside from the commemorative issue, we’re planning to digitize the entire archive (something that fans have been pining for). We’ve also received a ton of interest around the doc and the possibility of adapting it into a scripted TV show or feature film. We’re also developing other concepts that leverage the mag’s rich history, archives, and cast of characters. One huge takeaway from making this film was that there are countless CREEM stories that didn’t fit into the narrative that still need to be told – and we’re excited about pulling those threads and seeing where they lead.