The Creem Team: The editorial staff in the Detroit Offices in the 1970s, includes: Eric “Air Wreck” Genheimer (left of desk); reviews editor Lester Bangs (right of desk), Susan Whitall (center); Charles Auringer, art director (white pants, black t-shirt), Bearry and Connie Kramer (right back corner) JoAnn Uhelszki (striped shirt, Jaan’s sister) (Photo: Courtesy of Shore Fire Media)
Between 1969 and the mid-’80s, when rock ’n’ roll in its many permutations was exploding, there was arguably no more resonant a collective voice chronicling the culture than Creem. At once brash, smart, puerile and rebellious, the Detroit-based publication reveled in, and perhaps leaned a little too far into, the rock ‘n’ roll dream, with its irreverent middle finger fully extended at “the man,” the political establishment, music that sucked and the mainstream rock press.
The seminal music magazine’s rise and fall is detailed extensively in a just released documentary “Creem: America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine”—the subtitle was the publication’s cheeky and hubris-filled tagline, which at times it lived up to. It’s a fascinating doc co-written and directed by Scott Crawford, a music writer and editor who helmed Harp (and who also directed the worthy 2014 doc “Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC 1980-90″) and is co-produced by original Creem staffer Jaan Uhelszki, who co-wrote the film, and JJ Kramer, son of the magazine’s late co-founder Barry Kramer – all of whom appear in the documentary.
Poster for “Creem: The Only Rock’N’Roll Magazine,” released on Aug. 7 2020.
The caliber of writing talent that made its way into Creem is a veritable Hall of Fame of music scribes who helped smash the envelope of what music criticism could be (keeping in mind some of the writing wasn’t nearly as inclusive or diverse as it thankfully is today). This included such talents as Nick Tosches, Greil Marcus, Nick Kent, Sylvie Simmons, Dave Marsh, Uhelszki, Chuck Eddy, Susan Whitall, Richard Meltzer, Cameron Crowe, Billy Altman, Robert Christgau, Dave DiMartino, Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith, Richard C. Walls, Robert Duncan, Bill Holdship, J. Kordosh, Simon Frith, Charlie Gillett, Craig S. Karpel and, of course, the critic inextricably bound to Creem, Lester Bangs, i.e. “America’s Greatest Rock Critic.” Bangs lived hard and wrote often long, breathless, brilliant and passionate prose developed at Creem.
“You may think it’s more kicks than pricks being a hotshot jivescamming rock magazinero, but contrary to conventional wisdom it ain’t all glitz and gravy,” wrote Bangs in his first-person narrative “My Night of Ecstasy with The J. Geils Band” in Creem’s August 1974 issue. “Sure, you get the free albums, junkets, punkettes and tee-shirts, but you also have to exercise a modicum of creativity now and then – i.e. thinking up new story ideas – which sometimes necessitates engaging in actual work.”
Rocking The Smith-Corona: Lester Bangs typing on stage with Peter Wolf of The J. Geils Band in 1974 at Cobo Hall. (Photo by Charlie Auringer/Shore Fire)
An illustration by the great R. Crumb gracing the cover of the second issue of Creem in 1969. (Courtesy Shore Fire)
By its second issue, legendary illustrator R. Crumb wondered into the store offering the mag’s famed “Boy Howdy!” logo in exchange for $50, reportedly needed for medical expenses. The cheeky moniker subsequently featured prominently on T-shirts and fake beer cans was photographed with such luminaries as John Lennon, Keith Richards, Grace Slick, Blondie and others. As something of a barometer of cool for those in the know, the “Boy Howdy!” t-shirt merch sales helped support the magazine, which Uhelszki sold more than a thousand of through her day job at a jeans boutique and through her little sister.
Detroit, with its amazing stew of music scenes, was Creem‘s North Star. The industrialized working-class city of 4 million was a mecca for blues, hard rock, soul, funk, punk and later electronic music like nowhere else. Here, bands kicking out the hard jams included the MC5 (the group’s Wayne Kramer appears in and scored the documentary), The Stooges, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, Bob Seger, Iggy Pop and Mitch Ryder, all among the Motor City madmen who made their way into the pages of the publication.
But Detroit was also a city where blues greats like Son House and John Lee Hooker had lived. It’s also where Pharoah Sanders’ band could jam with the guys from the MC5, as Don Was recounts incredulously in the doc. In Creem, too, P-Funk’s George Clinton appeared with a trash truck for its “Stars Cars” page. In fact, one of Uhelszki’s earliest assignments was covering Smokey Robinson’s departure from the Miracles. Both Detroit-based journalist Scott Sterling and musician Suzi Quatro noted that when you performed in Detroit you had to “bring it” or you would get booed off the stage.
Reay soon left over creative differences with Kramer and was replaced by Dave Marsh, a 19-year-old politically-minded Wayne State student who was allegedly fired from his college radio station for playing The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” 23 times in a row (never a bad thing). He’d later be credited with the first usage of the term “punk rock” (much to Legs McNeil’s chagrin). The following year, in 1970, Bangs moved from California to Detroit to helm the reviews section.
Down On The Street: Barry Kramer, Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs on the steps of Creem’s Cass Corridor offices in downtown Detroit. A robbery in 1971 prompted the office to move to a farm in Walled Lake, a rural suburb. (Shore Fire)
Much of the doc focuses on the push-pull power trio dynamics between Kramer, Marsh and Bangs, whose outsized personalities could, at times, be volatile, brilliant, domineering and clashing, with Kramer’s ex-wife Connie and Uhelszki giving the play-by-play. A number of stars turn out to testify to Creem’s profound influence, including Alice Cooper, KISS’ Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, Joan Jett, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, Cameron Crowe, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith and, of course, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.
Keith Richards in the cheeky Creem Profile, a send-up of Dewar’s Profile ad campaign, featured musicians posing with Boy Howdy! fake beer. (Shore Fire)
While the magazine’s circulation climbed in 1976 to over 210,000, second only to Rolling Stone, according to an excellent New York Times profile by Detroit native Mike Rubin, the eighties weren’t kind to Creem. Barry Kramer overdosed on nitrous oxide in 1981 and Bangs followed, due to an accidental painkiller overdose in 1982 after moving to New York in 1976. Marsh had decamped there a few years earlier. The magazine eventually sold to an investor in 1986, who moved it to Los Angeles before it ceased publication in 1989.
Live performances figure subtly throughout the film, with a short clip of the MC5 playing at Wayne State’s Tartar Field and unidentified other snippets, but it’s not nearly enough. “It would have made the price of making a documentary exorbitant, getting the rights to it all,” Uhelszki candidly told Pollstar when asked about the live scene during Creem’s heyday. “We had a lot more footage. We had the Pleasure Seekers, which was Suzi Quatro’s sister’s band and we took that out. We had The Rationals, which was an A-Square band that was a booking agency as well.”
The documentary also featured a photo of Ryder performing on the third floor of the magazine’s dilapidated Cass Corridor headquarters. Uhelszki explained Kramer actually had an agency, Kramer Day, that booked and managed Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, who used the space to practice. “Mitch Ryder was really aligned with us,” she says. “Every-thing we did, every party we had, Mitch Ryder would be there. He and Barry were really close. They were the same age and they were part of our creation myth. There’s that one scene where [Ryder] says, ‘He’s a dope dealer, he was everything.’ He was like our star. Aretha Franklin had ‘Respect’ and I think it was either ‘Sock It To Me Baby’ or ‘Devil with a Blue Dress On’ in 1967 were one and two on the charts – he was such a big deal in my formative years.”
As a teenager, before landing her Creem gig, Uhelszki worked for two years at The Grande Ballroom, a Moroccan-style dance hall built in the ‘20s with a capacity of roughly 1,800 that was an epicenter of Detroit’s music scene. “I was hired as a Coca-Cola girl,” Uhelszki explains, “which meant my most important job was not only to put soda in paper cups, but to watch the crowd like a hawk to make sure no one would dose them. It was the late ‘60s and people were dosing other people with LSD. I had to keep watch to make sure someone didn’t do it – people tried all the time, by the way.”
Don’t Drink The Coca-Cola: The MC5 in Oct. 1968 recording “Kick Out The Jams” live at The Grande Ballroom on October 30/31, 1968 in Detroit, Michigan. (Leni Sinclair/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)
Uhelszki credits The Grande with changing her life. “I think everything I am is because of that job,” she says, “I had a real appreciation for the music. I saw Arthur Brown, that was amazing. I saw Janice Joplin a couple of times. I saw Creedence Clearwater, Sly & the Family Stone, Led Zeppelin all three days. I was so moved by Led Zeppelin that I took my break and went and stood in the back of the stage and put my elbows on Jimmy Page’s amp and just stared. I don’t even play an instrument, but live shows just got me. “The MC5 played there all the time,” Uhelszki continues. “The Stooges’ first show in Detroit was there. Everyone came through there, all the local bands. But then we started getting mostly English bands like Savoy Brown and Peter Green played there, early Fleetwood Mac, King Crimson. It opened in 1966. So from 1966 to 1970 I used to go all the time.”
One of the film’s best live moments sees Uhelszki dressed up in full makeup and on stage with KISS. “I did it because there was an article in Esquire by a writer named Blair Sabol and she had written a story about going on stage with The Ikettes,” the music journalist remembers. “Connie Kramer read the piece and pushed it over to me and goes, ‘You think you could do this?’ And I go. ‘Oh, yeah, I could do this.’ It’s kind of that whole George Plimpton idea going to the Detroit Lions. I read that book and loved that.” The result: the August 1975 Creem story, “I Dreamed I Was Onstage with KISS in My Maidenform Bra.”
As for Detroit’s early club scene, Uhelszki name-checks a chain owned by Bob Seger’s manager. “There was a series of clubs run by Punch Andrews who still manages Bob to this day,” she says. “They were called the Hideout clubs and he had three of them and that’s where all the local bands, who seemed like they all got album deals, cut their teeth. That was our version of CBGBs, but it was in the late ‘60s.”
Detroit Rock City: Jann Ulhesky rocking onstage with Kiss’ Paul Stanley in 1975 for a Creem feature story inspired by an Esquire story. (photo: Barry Levine/Shore Fire)
Uhelszki is also well familiar with Detroit’s pre-consolidation promoters. “Russ Gibb was the guy who owned The Grande Ballroom and booked it,” she says. “Later on there was Bob Bageris of Bamboo Productions, he was kind of a dashing gangster and he took over after the whole Russ Gibb thing fell apart. Then there was John Sinclair [the MC5’s manager for a time] who was actually involved with the king of the hippies, a man named Pete Andrews, and they would do festivals like the Blues and Jazz Festival. And there was a guy named Tom Wright who worked for Russ Gibb at The Grande and he did the Goose Lake Festival. There were a lot of competing people.”
Creem also helped pioneer the art of embedding writers on tours. “We would go on the road with the band for like three or four cities,” says Uhelszki, who toured with Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers Band and Steve Miller, among others. “The best part about being on tour is you get to see artists in the act of being themselves, you get the whole picture of who they are. It really informed the way I write. I would see facial expressions or how someone reacted to something.”
While the nearly-forgotten practice offered up incredibly candid and detailed profiles, it could also present numerous difficulties. Uhelszki discussed the darkness she felt on Led Zeppelin’s last tour in 1977 and cited someone stealing the “tour doctor’s” Quaaludes as a contributing factor. Her time with the Allman Brothers, too, a band she loved, was perhaps even more fraught. “It was right before that whole controversy where, to save his skin, Gregg Allman had ratted on Scooter, his tour manager, and nobody liked each other,” she says. “It took my photographer so long to get them to pose in pictures together. Dickey Betts wouldn’t talk to me. … Gregg Allman wouldn’t let me tape him. I’d have to dash to the bathroom to take notes – he must have thought I was doing drugs or had a bladder problem.”
On Deadline: Creem’s Charles Auringer, Lester Bangs, Ric Siegel, Jaan Uhelszki, Dave Marsh at their Walled Lake offices in Feb. 1973 (Photo: Richard Lee/Detroit Free Press/Shore Fire)
All of which begs the question: Did Uhelszki ever see any shows with Lester Bangs? “We went all the time,” she says. “I’m going to say we didn’t have any friends except each other because we kept such crazy hours. We would all get in the office around noon and we probably didn’t leave the office until 3 a.m., which doesn’t leave any time for going out and having any civilian friends or anyone who wasn’t on the staff. We would always go almost en masse. I remember going to Humble Pie at Cobo Hall. I was there to cheer [Lester] on for the J. Geils show. Every time Lou Reed played, he made it a group effort because not only do we go see Lou with him, we’d have to witness those awkward aggressive interviews with him. [Bangs did a series of in-depth interviews with Reed.] Most of the shows were at Cobo Arena because that was the main place the big bands we covered played. It was either Ford Auditorium, Cobo Hall or Olympia, which was the hockey arena, and it fell out of use over the years. So Cobo Hall during the golden years of Creem with our main venue.”
Uhelszki, who still writes for Uncut, Classic Rock in the UK, Relix and ToneAudio, when asked what she missed most about her days at Creem, answers unhesitatingly: “I miss all the people – you know that the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts. We were far bigger than each of us individually, like a brain trust that is sparking off one another and actually supporting each other even though we didn’t always agree. It was just that whole camaraderie and that we were in it together.”