Thursday, December 6, 2007

SOUR CREEM

Posted By on Thu, Dec 6, 2007 at 1:16 PM

There were also plenty of smarmy and catty anonymous comments on the New York Observer's website this week, some of them way more immature (and a few just as uninformed) as the ones on webvomit -- which is extra depressing, since I can bet that at least a few of the comments were posted by folks old enough to know better. Anyway, the fireworks are a result of the bad karma surrounding a new CREEM magazine anthology book, America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine (HarperCollins) , which hit the streets last month. The book was compiled by rock photographer (and former Detroiter) Robert Matheu and Brian Bowe, a Holland, MI resident who was a frequent contributor to the Metro Times in the past. There has been a lot of ill will towards Matheu since he acquired the CREEM brand from Arnold Levitt, the last person to own the magazine, and there is now a nasty lawsuit brewing, with Matheu and his business partners on one side, and J.J. Kramer (the son of the late Barry Kramer, who founded the original CREEM in 1969) and his business partner on the other. You can read the two articles in their entirety here and here (though I should point out the writer definitely had one fact wrong; CREEM did not fold in 1985).

I don't have anything to write about all the legal stuff at this point in time -- other than to say that as an attorney, Mr. Kramer should be extra careful who he chooses as his business partners (and I'm definitely not referring to just Matheu here). I'll have plenty to say when I write my own extended piece on this whole sorry mess for the print edition of the paper in early '08. I’m not even going to offer my opinion on the quality of the book or delve into my personal relationships with most of the people involved in this fracas at the moment. Frankly, I'm kinda sick of being in the middle of it all (and this is far from the first time). Nevertheless, as a CREEM editor from 1981 through '87, it's a little hard for me to avoid -- sort of akin to wishing you had different parents. There's no way to escape your past.

The one thing I do feel the need to address at this point, however, is the comment former CREEM editor/current Detroit News scribe Susan Whitall made in the second Observer piece. Interestingly enough, Scott Woods at Rockcritics.com (whom I've never met or spoken to or even corresponded with regarding this subject) picked up on the same quote, astutely observing that "there's an underlying, more interesting battle going on here -- a sideshow to the Matheu vs. the CREEM critics -- that being '70s CREEMsters vs. '80s CREEMsters." And indeed, that line in the sand and "battle" was going on long before I worked at the rag.

Anyway, said Sue: "John Mellencamp? He's in there [the book]. Come on! He's so unCREEM. Also Duran Duran? I mean, what?" As I've already mentioned to Sue, via e-mail, as the writer of that particular Mellencamp piece, I took her comment as a bit of a personal affront.

Now, the truth is if I'd edited the book, that piece would have never been the one I'd have chosen to represent my work there. (I’m much prouder of my first Replacements piece.) Much like J. Kordosh (see his legendary CREEM pieces on Rush and Blackie Lawless), some of my best writing in the mag was done on artists I detested, such as Dokken, Marillion or Albert Goldman. I was also quite unhappy that two quotes from my original piece were cut out of the book itself. They were quotes addressing issues that I brought up in the first several paragraphs of the article, meaning that the two most important quotes in the Mellencamp article were deleted, making it look like I never addressed those issues with the artist. That surely plays into the complaints many have made that some of the copy-editing in the book leaves a lot to be desired.

That said, I'd also like to point out that Mellencamp wasn't always that annoying guy singing that annoying song about America on that annoying TV car commercial. In the '80s, he was a huge American heartland rock 'n' roll star. He was also an immense CREEM aficionado and as a longtime reader of the magazine, he knew virtually everything about the history of the publication. I interviewed him shortly after the first Lester Bangs anthology, Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung, was published, and the very first thing he said to me that day was: "How's that new Lester Bangs book? My assistant is out buying me a copy right now." The first time I saw Mellencamp live, in a small MSU kiva in East Lansing (long before he was a major star), he and his band encored with a kickass, phenomenal cover of "Search & Destroy" by Iggy & The Stooges, a band Mellencamp had discovered in the pages of CREEM. Local critic Terry Lawson wrote a review of the CREEM book in the Detroit Free Press several weeks ago (which also included a fair share of factual errors -- more on that, perhaps, in my upcoming piece), which was headlined "Local voice of blue collar rock." And let's face it: If anyone represented "blue collar rock" in the '80s, it would've been Mellencamp (who Larson also took a potshot at in his column...at least I think he did) and his "I'm an idiot but I know what I like, and where I come from, people like rock 'n' roll" populist philosophy.

Beyond that, however, Mellencamp also gave the world powerhouse drummer Kenny Aronoff (currently with John Fogerty), who later also worked with the very unCREEM-like Don Was, as well as future alt-rock darling Lisa Germano (last time I saw her, she was playing with the Eels). Former CREEM writers (and founders of legendary California band the Angry Samoans) Gregg Turner and Metal Mike Saunders (the latter supposedly first used the term “heavy metal” in the pages of CREEM) started a folk offshoot project in the late ‘80s that they dubbed Sons of Mellencamp. They weren’t being glib or ironic; they both greatly admire Mellencamp’s music of that era to this day. And it was the Sons of Mellencamp who played CREEM’s “Welcome to L.A.” party in 1987. (When Mellencamp sent his “regrets” that he’d be unable to attend the party – thereby missing the opportunity to hang with such attendees as Little Richard and Ozzy Osbourne, among many others – he wrote: “Tell my sons I’m sorry I won’t be there.”)

Most importantly, Mellencamp also orchestrated the last comeback attempt Detroit's Mitch Ryder made, getting him signed to his then-label and producing the Motor City legend's subsequent album in 1983. In case any of the CREEM "old-timers" have forgotten, that would be the same Mitch Ryder who appeared on the ninth cover ever of CREEM Magazine in 1969. Not only that, but that would be the same Mitch Ryder whose band, Detroit, was managed at the time by, um, one Barry Kramer, who (bringing us full circle) was CREEM's publisher and founder. So Mellencamp is "unCREEM"? OK, then...

Finally, on the Mellencamp front, I'd like to point out that John Mellencamp (nee: Cougar) appeared on the cover of CREEM (as an inset) for the first time in December 1980. That story was assigned to writer Richard Riegel by the magazine's then editor-in-chief who just happened to be, um, Susan Whitall. (Mellencamp was so thrilled with that piece, btw, that he invited CREEM writer Riegel to his wedding.) There was another Mellencamp story shortly after that, written by Kordosh, who actually phoned me last night to let me know that Susan Whitall assigned him that article. The next time Mellencamp was on the cover was November 1982 -- he appeared, at then-publisher Connie Kramer’s insistence, dressed in a "WHY DO YOU THINK THEY CALL IT DOPE, ANYWAY?" CREEM T-shirt (the irony of that has never been lost on anyone employed by CREEM at the time). But the editor in charge at the time was still Ms. Whitall. Not only that, but Mellencamp then appeared as the guest of honor at a CREEM party at Birmingham's now-defunct Midtown Café to celebrate that particular issue of the mag. Hell, there's a photo in the book of Mellencamp being hugged by Connie Kramer at that very party! So, how in the hell can these same folks now argue the sentiment, in retrospect, that Mellencamp was "so unCREEM"?

Mellencamp appeared on the cover three more times after that -- all three stories written by yours truly (the reason for this being that Mellencamp was such a big star by this time, he'd only agree to talk to a select group of journalists and I happened to be the one from CREEM). In fact, the last time he was on the cover (in conjunction with his The Lonesome Jubilee album), Kordosh and I had just done an incredible interview with George Harrison. We lobbied hard for the former Beatle to be on the cover... but publisher Levitt vetoed our votes, passing down the edict that Mellencamp would indeed be the cover subject. That point is just to illustrate that, in the '80s, the CREEM editors didn't always have final say as to who went on the cover. (In fact, Rick Johnson's legendary "Duets from Hell" article told a comical but quite realistic version of how those decisions were essentially made by Connie -- referred to as "Fearless Leader" in that Johnson piece.) Hell, I remember Dave DiMartino, Rick Johnson, and myself practically begging Connie to let us put R.E.M. on the cover

and her making us put Robert Plant on that cover instead (although, to be fair, we did get to put R.E.M. on as a smaller cover inset).

Ironically, we often had better luck with Levitt. He didn't fight (well, at least not that much) when we put Robyn Hitchcock on the cover or did that special story on the history of the Velvet Underground.

Now, I can't make any of the same claims for Duran Duran. I hated them then; I hate them now. I will point out, however, that their first appearance on the cover of CREEM – in a piece by Toby Goldstein – was July 1983. That would’ve been only the second issue after Sue’s departure to the News, and while I can’t say this for certain, it seems to me that – given our lead time -- Sue would have had to have been involved in the planning of that story as well. (Toby, after all, was one of her star writers.) Beyond that, I also recall that when Connie placed J.J.’s nanny (yes, that’s right – J.J.’s former nanny, who still continues to occasionally haunt me via e-mail to this day) in our editorial department after Sue’s departure, what that gal seemed to be most interested in, music-wise, was Duran Duran (well, maybe the Police as well). And she definitely had Connie’s ear at the time. ‘Nuff said.

So, the point of this screed (since maybe two or three readers will find this of any real interest) is simply to point out that while everyone is entitled to their own opinion, no one is entitled to rewrite history -- and that includes Robert Matheu, the Bush Administration or the former CREEMsters who are accusing Matheu of doing the same.

More by Bill Holdship

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