Let it Creem 

Just when you thought most music journalism had been purged of the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll that made it so much fun in the first place — that it’s become pure service “journalism” aimed to please publicists and advertisers and not many others — get fucked, drop a pill and think again: The magazine built on Motor City attitude and irreverence is back for its third (or is it fourth? or fifth?) act.

It’s true, Creem magazine is ready to relaunch this month as a full-fledged, content-driven e-zine with long-range plans to publish a print edition. For devotees and media buzzards this ain’t real news: Creem, which began publishing in a Cass Corridor building in 1969, has been reinvented and restarted before. It has, in fact, been a presence on the Web for the last few years. Its slumber was interrupted about five years ago, says current publisher Robert Matheu, by the success of former Creem contributor Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film Almost Famous.

“After the film came out, we intended to start it up again as an archive and began to collect photos and other work,” says Matheu, a former Detroit photographer (and Metro Times contributor) who now lives and works in Los Angeles. “But we always thought there was a younger audience that would support a magazine like Creem driven by more news content.”

Those plans have been exhaustively worked and reworked. But an end to legal tangles this spring has given Creem the green light for teenage kicks one more time.

“It’s been a journey of resurrection and reconnection with people affiliated with the magazine,” says Matheu, whose publishing partners include Los Angeles film producer Chris Carter (Mayor of the Sunset Strip) and J.J. Kramer, the son of Creem co-founder Barry Kramer. “We had the blessing of the Kramer family, but the karma is better since J.J. came on board.”

The son of Creem publishers Connie and Barry Kramer, Jacob J. Kramer was 6 years old when his father died in 1981. Now 30 and a practicing attorney in New York City, Kramer says his involvement in the next phase of the Creem story comes from the heart.

“This is a passionate venture on so many levels,” Kramer says. “I hardly knew my father, but I grew up with the Creem legacy and all that [Barry Kramer] accomplished. Now I’m ready to make my contribution.”

Along with his passion Kramer brings other talents to the partnership: an expertise in copyrights and trademarks, his legal specialties, and an instinct for tight-lipped responses to questions about the price of the purchase agreement between the new Creem team and former owner Arnold Levitt. He deftly calls the sum “confidential … though we think it was a fair deal.”

When asked about the history of the well-documented Creem wildlife, Matheu also went into deflect and redirect mode, choosing to “concentrate on the future, not the past.”

In its prime — roughly the post-hippie, glam-cum-punk and new wave ’70s in its entirety — the magazine’s writers took us into reefer-saturated concert halls, partied with transvestites in seedy hotels and championed such fledgling artists as Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, the J. Geils Band, Mott the Hoople, the New York Dolls and the Clash. Creem writers were journalistic pop stars, expert at participating in the culture they wrote about. Some burned out, others faded away, many are left standing and still producing (including Metro Times columnist Jeffrey Morgan).

Barry Kramer — who co-founded Creem with Tony Reay in 1969 — published the magazine until his death from a drug overdose in 1981. The family sold the business four years later. By the time of its sale, the magazine had already cycled through a series of whirlwind changes that took it from its radical-countercultural roots in Detroit to a farm in then-undeveloped Walled Lake to a suite in pre-posh downtown Birmingham. In the early ’70s, Creem proclaimed on its masthead that it was “America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine” — a call to arms meant to kick the increasingly self-serious Rolling Stone in the balls. It boasted an editorial staff that read like a murderer’s row of rock writers, editors, musicians, photographers and graphic artists: the work of Dave Marsh, Robert Christgau, Georgia Christgau, Richard Meltzer, Robot A. Hull, Wayne Robins, Richard Riegel, Jeffrey Morgan, Richard C. Walls, Rick Johnson, Susan Whitall, Charlie Auringer, Lisa Robinson, Ben Edmonds, Billy Altman, Robert Duncan, Mark Volman, Howard Kaylan, Jaan Uhelszki, Jenny Lens, Pennie Smith, Penny Valentine, Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray, Paul Krassner, Stanley Mouse, Mick Rock, Joe Stevens, Peter Laughner, John Morthland, Nick Tosches, Adny Shernoff, Greg Shaw, Ed Ward, Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, R. Crumb, Crowe and Lester Bangs — whose disembodied, self-immolating yet folksy prose and drug-and-drink bingeing lifestyle perfectly captured Creem’s trash(ed) aesthetic — graced its glossy covers and pale white pages.

In the biography, Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, Chicago Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis talked of Bangs’ cynical take on ’60s political idealism that was apparently dying on the vine in the ’70s.

“When White Panther leader John Sinclair was finally released from jail, Bangs joked that they ought to hold a concert to send him back,” DeRogotis wrote. Now, that’s mean, counterrevolutionary. And funny.

Also in the book is this tasty little slice from former Creem Senior Editor Jaan Uhelszki, who recalled some fireworks between Bangs and Marsh.

“Marsh saw us as foot soldiers in the counterculture revolution and Lester just saw us as bozos on the bus,’’ Uhelszki said. “We used to say Creem was a cross between Mad magazine and Esquire. Marsh and Lester were largely responsible for maintaining that delicate balance between the absurd and the profane.’’

Bangs was 33 when he died of a drug overdose in 1982, eight months after Kramer’s death. Marsh lives in Connecticut and has written two bestselling biographies — Born to Run and Glory Road — on Bruce Springsteen.

Uhelszki, who left Detroit in 1976 and now lives in California, is still writing about music for magazines in the United States and the United Kingdom. She was known at Creem as the “subscription kid,” beginning her career in the circulation department at 15. Uhelszki penned a column called “Confessions of a Film Fox” but is perhaps best known for an inspired bit of participatory journalism called, “I dreamed I was onstage with Kiss in my Maidenform bra.” To do the piece, Uhelszki dressed up in full Kiss costume and makeup and took the stage with the band.

Talking from her home in Berkeley, Uhelszki says she’s of two minds regarding Creem’s latest comeback.

“Much like Joe Strummer, who believed that the Clash should never have reunited, I think (Creem) was very much a product of its times,” Uhelszki says. “I’m not sure you can re-create the conditions that gave birth to it. Creem was the product of a crack in the universe filled with hypercreative, neurotic people. On the other hand, I’m quite fond of both Robert Matheu and (editor) Brian Bowe, and I’d like to see them make it go.”

Bowe, who is a frequent Metro Times contributor, has been editing the online mag from his home in western Michigan. Matheu and Carter are in Los Angeles, Kramer is in New York and another partner, Ken Kulpa, lives in suburban Detroit.

Matheu says if all goes well, Creem might eventually return its editorial offices to Detroit.

“We looked at buildings downtown last summer,” Matheu says. “Detroit is such a big part of the Creem story. If we do it, it has to be more than for nostalgic reasons.”

Kramer says the top priority is to get the next generation of rock kids to open up to the weathered but still punchy Creem style on the Web.

“We’ve been taking baby steps and want to get it right,” Kramer says. “We got our focus and we’re building momentum. I’m here to connect old blood with new blood. It’s something I feel I was born to do.” Go to creemmagazine.com.

Freelance writer Walter Wasacz was a Creem contributor in 1979-80. Send comments to [email protected]

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