Every rock magazine likes to believe it is the centre of its culture, but Creem really was. It wasn’t just a magazine that covered rock music, or whose writers lived up to the cliches of the rock’n’roll lifestyle. It was a magazine with rock’n’roll in the very fabric of its building.
“Creem had this three-storey building downtown in a bad neighbourhood,” Johnny Badanjek, drummer of the band Detroit, told me last year. “In the back were all the writers – there’d be Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs and Ed Ward. And we were on the third floor. We practised at noon, but I’d come up at 11 in the morning and Dave Marsh [Creem’s editor] kept shouting, ‘Damn it, Bee! I want to sleep in!’ I guess I was like the alarm clock.”
Launched in Detroit in 1969, Creem lasted 20 years and was obnoxious, excoriating, judgmental and could be racist, sexist and homophobic. It was also funny, unafraid of reputations and a clearing house for writers whose names echoed down generations of music writing. And it was, very much, a Detroit thing.
“It should be noted that Creem was a midwestern endeavour,” says the film director Cameron Crowe, who wrote for the magazine as a teenager. “They weren’t from LA or New York, and that was a great part of the spirit: you weren’t under the glare that people were on the coasts. You were just rocking out.” And rocking out was what Creem did: just as Detroit itself prized high-energy, high-volume rock, so did Creem (its pages are claimed to be the first to have used “punk rock” and “heavy metal” to describe music).
“It had to do with the Detroit sensibility,” says JJ Kramer, son of Creem founder Barry Kramer, who is relaunching the magazine on 1 June. “Blue collar, no bullshit, won’t suffer fools gladly. I don’t think it was the same on the coasts. Creem was not taking anything too seriously: that was the distinguishing factor.”
And through the 70s, especially, it was unique – part comic, part champion of the appalling, part provocation. For Jaan Uhelszki, one of its star writers back then, its high point came between 1973 and 1976. Before then, under Marsh’s editorship, it had tried to meld music and politics. “But after that, the idiots were in charge,” she says triumphantly, picking out some of her favourite pieces from the era, notably “Alice Cooper’s alcohol cookbook” (Cooper was later treated for alcoholism) and Charles Bukowski writing about the Rolling Stones. “My favourite ever piece. Creem wasn’t just about the show. It was about everything that led up to the show. It was about everything being a music fan was.”
But Creem was a product of its time. Why relaunch it? “It’s in my blood,” says Kramer, who is also associate general counsel and head of intellectual property at the clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch. “It’s something I’ve been chasing my entire life. My dad started Creem in 1969 and published it until he passed away in 1981, when he left it to me at four years old. I was chairman of my own magazine. At that time, Creem ran into hardships and folded. But for me, there was always something of a connection from me to my father, who I didn’t know all that well. I was always chasing it and finding a way to preserve his legacy and put my own stamp on it. It’s been my entire adult life, putting this back together and getting to this point.”
Creem’s return is two-part. First is a quarterly print magazine, mainly compiled by new writers, though Uhelszki will be a contributor. The second – a boon for lovers of the history of music and magazines – is the digitisation of its archive, which is being presented online for the first time: all the original issues, in their original designs.
A flick through the back catalogue reveals a magazine that would be impossible to recreate today. It’s not just that you would be unlikely to be able to assemble such a team of writers – Charles Bukowski, Nick Tosches, Greil Marcus, Patti Smith, Richard Meltzer and scores more, in addition to the regulars – but the bounds of taste would not permit it.
It wasn’t just that Creem spoke to rock stars in a way that they would not tolerate today – Lester Bangs’s series of interviews with his hero Lou Reed were an object lesson in confrontation – but that they spoke about everything with unabashed irreverence. On the one hand that created a spirit of community. “Artists loved Creem,” Crowe says. “Because it had a spirit and it was inclusive. Even today there’s that sense that to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame you have to be friends with all the right guys. Creem wasn’t like that. Creem gave you more ground-level excitement about music, where Rolling Stone felt like college.”
As the documentary Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine – produced by Kramer and Uhelszki – makes plain, that meant anything went. What happened when Lester Bangs brought his dog in the office? It crapped on the floor. So what did the furious Dave Marsh do with the excrement? Put it on Bangs’s typewriter. Drugs were rife. Sex was rife. Everything was rife. But the anything-goes attitude meant copy made it to print that should not have done so, even in the 1970s. You don’t have to look hard to find examples: opening the February 1973 edition at random, there’s a feature on the 10 worst restaurants in America, awash with racial stereotypes and offensive language.
“There are things in the archive that weren’t cool in the 70s and are not cool now,” Kramer says. “But any brand that has a legacy has this discussion when presenting this legacy. Do you do it in its entirety? Do you scrub it? I made the decision to present it in its entirety, because we have to accept this shit was not cool. Today’s Creem will talk about music the way people think about it today.”
“There wasn’t awareness,” Uhelszki says. “When I say these were unenlightened times, in Detroit people were using the N-word regularly. Everybody was inappropriate, and you can’t dial back history – that’s what music looked like at that time. What the archive needs is a disclaimer.” What Uhelszki particularly noticed going through the archives was the casual homophobia (“There was constant innuendo about male stars being gay”), but she also points out that Creem – certainly by the standards of a rock magazine in the 1970s – was “very pro-women”: female writers were a big part of the magazine, and female artists were championed.
Will Creem thrive this time? Kramer says so, but then he would, wouldn’t he? But the original Creem existed because both the magazine and rock music represented the counterculture. That’s not true any longer; many would argue rock these days is a spent force, and launching a magazine devoted to it is a fool’s errand. Not Kramer. “We’ve got momentum,” he says. “The documentary was incredibly well received. People were asking me all the time: ‘Are you bringing the magazine back?’ That combination of legacy and momentum will distinguish us.”