Maybe we should start with that subtitle: “America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine.” [Clears throat at the volume of a jet engine.] Scott Crawford’s documentary on the estimable, invaluable 1970s music rag does stoop to mention another U.S. publication that was covering rock stars and the counterculture scene, one that kicked off the year before Detroit record-store owner Barry Kramer decided to begin publishing his own take. Creem‘s existence, in fact, was partially a reactive fuck-you to the very entity you’re reading right now, as one of the film’s talking heads admits — even the name, a riff on the Clapton/Baker/Bruce power trio that Kramer loved, doubled as a flipped bird to Jann Wenner naming his labor of love after the Rolling Stones. That “America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine” quip? It was the slogan that ran above the name on every issue. Shots fired, in other words.
But while the two outlets considered each other competition, they would end up sharing writers and cover subjects over the years, as well as complimenting each other’s sensibilities. Rolling Stone was a coastal dispatch from the hippie front lines of San Francisco, with an eye toward becoming a bellwether for bigger cultural reporting from the start. Creem was a Motor City creation that gravitated toward a grittier, up-from-the-gutters approach, prizing irreverence in its writing and a reverence for the Stooges, the MC5, and Alice Cooper over the Beatles, the Stones, and Neil Young.
“Buying Creem was a little bit like buying Playboy,” actor Jeff Daniels says in the doc — a dirty mag for a certain kind of rock-music lover, complete with a (clothed) “mate of the month.” Even the mascot, an R. Crumb rendering of a bottle of cream named “Boy Howdy,” came off like a grinning note from the underground. And as Crawford and Co. consistently emphasize, that subtitle was only partially a diss. Maybe Creem‘s editorial staff thought they were the only game in town worth your buck. But the movie makes the case that it wasn’t just a magazine about music. It was also the reflection of people who infused their own sense of what the sex, drugs, and you-know-what lifestyle meant into their prose and purpose, a “rock ‘n’ roll magazine” that acted more like the wild, crazy rock & roll bands the staff wrote about.
And it came complete with its own Lennon and McCartney. Kramer plucked a bug-eyed, 19-year-old college-radio DJ named Dave Marsh and made him editor-in-chief; the reasoning, he said, was that the kid had played the Who’s “Can’t Explain” 23 times in a row on his show. (Marsh declares the story to be total and utter bullshit, but hey, when the legend becomes fact.…) He set the tone that immediately helped distinguish Creem from other magazines and is one of several folks credited with coining the term “punk rock.” The yin to his yang was Lester Bangs, a SoCal native and fired Rolling Stone critic who moved to Detroit after he started freelancing for Creem. These fanatics had taste, they had a sensibility, and they could write the hell out a music review. There were legends in those days.
Add in Kramer, and you had three alpha males jockeying for supremacy, occasionally (literally) butting heads and pushing each other to do more out-there work. The situation became even more pronounced when Kramer decided to move the staff onto a 100-acre farm in rural Walled Lake, Michigan, for an experiment in communal living. (Spoiler: It did not go well.) And while everyone indulged in the choice refreshments and illicit recreational distractions of the day, it was the publisher who would end up going deepest down the rabbit hole. Yet, somehow, all of these outcasts came together as a dysfunctional family that bonded over the new freedoms, four chords, and the truth. They knew their readers. It was a magazine made by misfits, for misfits.
Some of those misfits, naturally, would become famous. In addition to ex-staffers and masthead superstars, the documentary piles on testimonies from musicians, actors, filmmakers, designers, and other creative types who either grew up on the mag or were featured in its sticky pages. Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament talks about growing up in Montana and becoming enamored with the faraway world Creem presented in its pages. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith remembers seeing the publication’s address was only a few zip codes away from where he lived, loitering outside the office for a few minutes, and then happening to run into Alice Cooper (!) leaving the building. Michael Stipe recounts falling in love with Patti Smith after seeing her in Creem while he was in detention hall. Joan Jett reads aloud her angry letter to the writer who declared “these bitches suck” in a piece on the Runaways, in which she threatened to kick his ass. Peter Wolf waxes about the time that Bangs had written a dismissive take on the J. Geils Band, which resulted in the His Lesterness bringing a typewriter onstage during a show and penning a review of the concert-in-progress; it ended with the scribe smashing the typewriter onstage, because rock & roll, dude!
The anecdotes fly fast and furious, as Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine charts the rise and the fall of its subject: They came, they saw, they kicked ass, they burned out, they faded away. There’s sentimentality and there’s romanticizing a lost age. There’s also mourning, especially in regard to Kramer and Bangs becoming casualties of the lifestyle they chronicled — to see Marsh still angry with his Music Critic Superstar peer/foil for “dying when he didn’t have to die” and for all of the writing he blew off “because he had to get to the bar” is to feel a lump form in your throat. Ditto Kramer’s wife and son (the latter is a producer on the film) talking about missing the late publisher to this day. Grainy black-and-white footage of the twentysomething staff bump up against the same folks now recounting their glory days, with the occasional animation bits turning this into a poppy memento mori.
But it also captures the inherent contradictions of the influential rag, and it doesn’t soft-peddle the era’s woozy, wobbly experimentation that could sometimes result in three lurches forward, two stumbles back. Creem was an institution that prized integrity over commercialism yet ran pictures of rock stars with cars and had its own beer brand. It was aimed at an audience of pubescent boys for whom a combination of bands ‘n’ boobies was the stuff of teenage daydreams, yet it also gave female writers like Lisa Robinson, Roberta Krueger, and the great Jaan Uhelszki (also a co-producer) both perches and careers. It took on, to quote author Ann Powers, “the genderfuckery of rock & roll” headfirst, yet it could also be incredibly sexist and Neanderthal in its boys’-club rock-crit attitudes. The doc gives you all of that, too. Mostly, it’s a testament to a storied legacy that may be gone but deserves to never be forgotten. In a perfect scenario, you’d watch the film (now playing on VOD) and then be immediately taken to a curated archive of greatest-hits articles. Not all of the bands on Creem‘s covers have stood the test of time. The writing, however, remains as vital, as immediate, and as live-wire as the day it was bled out on to the page.