The act of referring to itself as “America’s only rock ’n’ roll magazine” at the turn of the 1970s was Creem’s grimy middle finger to Rolling Stone, the leading music-based periodical of the day. Where the edgy Creem was based in blue-collar Detroit, the smug, taste-making Rolling Stone was coastal and something other than anti-establishment. As a former editor says in Scott Crawford’s lively oral history of the maverick monthly that lasted from 1969 to 1989, Creem was not about rock ’n’ roll per se, it was more like a “rock ’n’ roll band putting out a magazine.”
That is not mere simile. As we learn in Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine, the spirited rock journal was a part of the culture it audaciously covered. Hardcore partier and rock-critic provocateur Lester Bangs once hauled a typewriter onstage to write a review of a J. Geils Band concert in real time. As well, Creem writer Jaan Uhelszki once wore Kiss greasepaint to appear live with that costumed quartet. In short, Creem’s inspired publisher Barry Kramer and his writers, editors and staff members not only wrote rock ’n’ roll, they lived it.
(And, in the cases of Kramer and Bangs, who both tragically died young, died by it.)
The documentary opened last week for virtual cinema and arrives to video on demand on Aug. 28. Uhelszki not only co-wrote and helped produce the film, but is (along with former writer-editor and rock-music moralist Dave Marsh) one of its most vibrant voices.
Creem’s wild ride began in 1969, a tumultuous era in modern American history, with its crash-pad office space situated in a particularly rugged area of Detroit. After Marsh was robbed in a nearby laundromat, Creem moved to a farm outside the city – “white flight to the boonies,” as one staffer put it.
After a chaotic and communal couple of years in the countryside, Creem moved to the fashionable Detroit suburb of Birmingham, where the underground vibe gave way to something more corporate, complete with cubicles and job descriptions.
Mind you, the party-people environment didn’t change. In fact, as the magazine got bigger but with no corresponding growth in staff, the drug use became less recreational and more a necessity to deal with the pressure and pace. “We made beautiful words out of sheer terror and codeine,” says Uhelszki.
The magazine died in 1989, with no real replacement. Its legacy is its seditious (if politically incorrect) spirit and a relentlessly irreverent edge, qualities distinctly lacking in current pop music criticism. Where Creem gleefully demystified celebrities, today’s Rolling Stone fawns over pop pap and slavishly worships polished legacy acts – no surprise from a publication that, in 1971, swore James Taylor was the Next Big Thing.
There’s a telling archival scene in which Marsh tosses LPs out of Creem’s third-floor window onto the sidewalk, shouting down to Kramer that the albums were all hits. “But they all can’t be good,” Kramer yells upward. “You wouldn’t have a magazine.”
You wouldn’t. And we don’t.
Three more recommended music documentaries:
Laurel Canyon – A Place in Time: Alison Ellwood’s two-part docuseries for the American cable network Epix begins with sun-saturated images, the sound of the Turtles’s Happy Together and shots of Michelle Phillips dancing, David Crosby rolling a joint, Joni Mitchell strumming a guitar and Jim Morrison riding a bike shirtless. Hash and hope in the air, that’s the hillside L.A. hippie hood remembered in an artful, reverential oral history that includes the insights of not just musicians but Canyon photographers Nurit Wilde and Henry Diltz. Director Ellwood’s work is superior to 2018′s baffling Echo in the Canyon feature doc on the same subject. Available on VOD.
Miss Americana: Just because this backstage vérité is a glimpse behind the curtain, it doesn’t mean the Taylor Swift doc isn’t un-orchestrated. But just because the doc is stage-managed doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching. Reminiscent of the 2017 Netflix film Gaga: Five Foot Two, Lana Wilson’s Miss Americana is revealing in the drama it chooses to portray. The pop queen cuddles with a kitty, cries under pressure – “I’m tired … sometimes it’s like, it just gets loud” – and wears a mirror-ball dress. All lights shine on her. On Netflix.
The Go-Go’s: The iconic eighties pop group were all about hooks and pop-punk spirit. Same with this compelling enough Showtime doc on the girls who weren’t lying when they sang that they had the beat in 1981. It’s a classic rise and fall story told conventionally and honestly about the sexism the band faced and the creative and personal tensions among the members. They had the beat, until they didn’t. Available on VOD.
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