A new documentary out now recalls the highs and lows of Creem magazine, founded in 1969 by Detroit record-shop owner Barry Kramer. “America’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll Magazine,” was named after the English rock band Cream, a not-so-unintentional poke at the more widely respected rival Rolling Stone.
Creem was an intentionally rude, foul-mouthed, hotel-room-trashing social delinquent yet irrepressible puppy of a magazine. Mainstream music publications tried hard to ignore it and raised eyebrows every time Creem came around. While Rolling Stone embodied the elitism of the Coasts (East and West), Creem was pure Detroit, operated by the sons and daughters of auto workers. The gritty city itself, with its youthful energy represented by Motown, hard rock, and punk, more or less co-stars in the film.
Creem was the anti-Rolling Stone – as actor Jeff Daniels notes in the film, “buying Creem was a little but like buying Playboy, you didn’t want your parents to see either one of them.” Michael Stipe of REM recalled a time when his grandmother saw a photo of Alice Cooper on the cover and proclaimed, “he’s gonna burn in hell.” Needless to say, Stipe’s curiosity was piqued.
The zine was mainly known for its provocative music writing. The content was certainly political but Creem wasn’t about politics per se – it was, as the masthead suggested “America’s Rock and Roll Magazine,” and it epitomized the heart and soul of the genre. It also chronicled the rise of punk, a form initially rejected by Rolling Stone, and was the first to use the term “punk rock.”
What made Creem stand out was its cast of writers, led by the legendary Dave Marsh, who was plucked from a college radio station after allegedly playing the Who’s “I Can’t Explain” 23 times in row. Then there was the notorious Lester Bangs, celebrated in the 2001 Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous. Bangs literally invented his own style of music criticism, once writing a review onstage at a J. Geils Band show, joyfully smashing his typewriter like a guitar at the end of the concert. That was the Creem aesthetic.
Although misogynistic behavior was part of the fabric of rock and roll in those days, the magazine hired several female staffers, including former Senior Editor Jann Uhelszki, who co-authored the documentary. Her perspective is critical – she makes no excuses, and provides meaningful context. And then there’s the Joan Jett “episode” … (you’ll have to rent the film for that one).
Many of these writers weren’t easy people to deal with – drug and alcohol abuse, untreated mental illness and self-destruction got the most of a few, including Bangs. In addition to many former staffers, the film presents an impressive cast of fans including Chad Smith, Suzi Quatro, Kirk Hammet, Ted Nugent, Mitch Ryder, and Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of Kiss.
Creem as it was could never survive today’s media world; in fact, many of the writers were fired from other publications. (Although it certainly could find a comfortable corner of the Internet to hang out.) What the magazine did offer, was an inside look at the spirit of rock and roll journalism, a moment now confined to history.
Be warned, if you watch it, there’s some content that might offend, and a ton f-bombs. The film captures the purity of time and place, while revealing a compelling story. Rating this one is a bit tough … 4/5 for serious fans of rock and roll, 3/5 for the rest of ya. Make up your own mind and screen it here.