Rock & Roll Comic Book

Wherein our reporter suggests that beyond the tastelessness and excess of “America’s only rock and roll magazine,” may lurk something of socially redeeming value.

Feb 22, 1984 at 4:00 am
click to enlarge DiMartino and Holdship. - Larry Kaplan
Larry Kaplan
DiMartino and Holdship.
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In a recent Village Voice piece (“Rock and Rollercoaster,” Feb. 7, 1984), Voice senior editor Robert Christgau rounds up some seemingly disparate elements of pop music culture to sound the count for rock and roll as a significant socio-political/youth-movement force. Although certain warrior types may want to crucify Christgau for his conclusions (thank God for their loyalist hearts and intentions), the man is to be commended for his tenacity, as his piece is painstakingly researched, informed by a perpetually tested personal commitment, and devoid of prophetic, finger-pointing pomposity. However, for Christgau and other “serious” pop music journalists, rock and roll’s cultural disintegration is hardly apocalyptic. Pop culture is certainly multifarious and rich enough, especially in its elements nurtured by and dependent upon rock and roll, to keep its artists, journalists and fans foaming at the mouth for a long, long time.

All this is just fine for us over-the-hill types who dumped our air-guitar chops and piss-on-the-Pentagon aspirations long ago. For a massive part of young America, though, there is still a demand for a perversely traditional kick from rock and roll, even if that kick feeds primarily upon overstated orgasmic fantasies and ritual bombast, rather than cultural “substance.” Like us old folks, this youth depends on its, uh, passions. Number One with the youngsters is Detroit’s own Creem, “America’s Only Rock and Roll Magazine.”

All Growled Up

Anyone who even occasionally browses newsstands must be at least marginally aware of Creem. The rag has been gracing (?) the market for 15 years now, ever since local media hustler Barry Kramer founded the journal as a low-budget affair out of the Cass Corridor. Kramer envisioned Creem to be a medium for the then-burgeoning craft of rock criticism, and he succeeded in helping establish the careers of the late, great Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, and a host of other significant scribes. Kramer also created a ticket for his acute business and twisted media senses, as Creem quickly evolved into a big-bucks concern and a showcase for rock and roll journalistic wildness, no mean feat. Subsequent to his death in 1980, Kramer’s wife Connie assumed the publishing helm and has helped steer Creem to even greater economic gain.

Buckaroos, however, do not guarantee respectable journalistic content, and Creem has certainly lurched through the years in that sense. In the early days, Bangs, Marsh, and their cohorts established a loose school of rock and roll writing in which literate, poignant criticism was mated with a lust for outrage that resulted in a style perfectly suited to the music it served. Endemic to that outrage were the political and social forces at work in the late ’60s and early ’70s. As things chilled in those arenas in the mid-‘70s, Creem was left with a mag-dog tradition that was all growled up with nothing to bite, especially in terms of the music it fed upon.

The late ’70s brought about the inevitable punk explosion, which produced life-giving fresh fodder for journalistic rudeness. This, unfortunately, left Creem with a problem. As means for survival, Creem had earlier turned to covering limp, glitter-rock types and associated heavy metal species, in service of kids a sub-generation removed from the political and social madness that fueled Creem’s earlier rantings. Creem had, out of necessity, established a primarily teen-age constituency that couldn’t care less about the subsequent significance of the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. Those who wanted substantial information concerning punk and its descendants could like elsewhere, to Christgau and other “serious” journalists. Creem was forced to cater to the rock star syndrome, and its innate shalloweness, which earned the rag a “comic book” rep that still haunts it to this day.

Sensory Warfare

Anyone who picks up a copy of Creem these days can easily understand the “comic book” tag. You’re first smacked with the audacious, loud cover, which screams with excitement (however smart-assed) over this month’s coverage of Van Halen, AC/DC, Kiss, Motorhead, ad nauseum. Inside, you get a careening barrage of full-color merchandise ads and photos to accompany the stories on the aforementioned geeks, all delivered with Hustler-pinup subtley. As for sexual balance, you get women all right, basically T&A city, leg, leg, leg, all over the damned place. Granted, some of these women receive print due to their music. But all, in essence, are there as artillery for the sensory warfare that is Creem’s look. If this ain’t stupid and cheap enough for you, you get loads of gossip (“Kiss and Tell”), more gossip (“Film Fox”), coverage of other garbage (“Creemedia”), and enough patently offensive verbiage, via Creem’s legendary photo captions, to insure no one gets out unscathed.

If the above were the entire scam, one could certainly question the Metro Times, with its orientation toward Detroit success stories, as being an appropriate forum for investigation. Okay, the punch line: Creem aren’t all they’re repped to be. I freely admit to being addicted to the damned rag myself, and it ain’t because, as some may assume, that I crave the “features” listed above. It’s primarily because there’s a vital, critical intelligence and sardonic humor at work there, at odds with the rock star bullshit Creem depends on for sustenance. Per month, the reader concerned with “serious” pop journalism can easly come up with enough “substance” to raise questions concerning the validity of this “comic book” curse.

Calling a Moron a Moron

I recently met with Creem editor-in-chief Dave DiMartino and senior editor Bill Holdship to raise such questions. Nice fellows, these guys, 30-ish, normal-at-odds with the “morons” they cover for a living and, as I’d expected, both possessed of an intelligence and critical acumen that could raise hellish conflicts with what they do for cash.

DiMartino: “In a business sense, there is no conflict. I’m a professional, and as such I deliver a product that suits the needs of our readers and publisher. I suffer absolutely no conflict over the direction of the magazine. But I feel that I can speak for our staff as a whole in saying that we have a legitimate desire to include material that transcends the supposed scope of Creem. We’re increasingly successful in doing so, a fact that has been noted several times recently in the ‘serious’ press, and I’m proud of that. But, foremost, we gotta meet the needs of the kids.”

Holdship: “This conflict arose when Lester Bangs left the magazine a few years ago. What Creem was left with was a bunch of people who inherited Lester’s sense of humor but not his passion for the music. This basically caused Creem’s downfall and led to the ‘comic book’ image. We’ve been trying, over the last couple of years, to clean this up. But it’s still a struggle.”

C’mon, gents. Are you really trying to be more responsible aesthetically, or are you just treading water?

DiMartino, forcefully: “I’m responsible to no one but Connie Kramer and myself, and our sales justify my handling of those responsibilities. But, for Christ’s sake, we’re adults, and we know there are others like yourself who read Creem. So we make sure to include features that mean something to people like us.” Given that, do you guys consciously try to service the more “serious” reader? “As a service, we’re probably most concerned with getting to some kid in Iowa who doesn’t have access to the information you and I do,” says Holdship. “We’ll give the kids the goods he’s tossed his couple of bucks for, and, with any luck, maybe he’ll pick up some of the stuff outside teen crap. But basically we try to servide him, and everybody else, with entertainment. That’s what we’re paid for.” Adds DiMartino belligerently: “We provide our greatest service by calling a moron a moron. We don’t kiss ass. There’s far too much of that garbage already in the teen press and, especially, in the ‘serious’ press.”

Whoa! Do we have an issue of low-brow reaction here? “Sure do, on both professional and personal level,” replies DiMartino, warming up. “So many of these so-called ‘serious’ writers suck up like crazy to their editors or publishers or to this week’s rage or some pathetic soapbox aesthetic. They fall into this trap of people who write well but who have a sick perspective on music, as opposed to the kind of writers we try to publish, who may not be as gifted technically but who honestly love the music. The ‘serious; papers are chock-full of self-conscious ego-flashing, Nietzshe quotes in reference to some rock and roll record, that sort of trash.” Holdship expands: “The pretentiousness I get out of the ‘serious’ press bugs the hell out of me. That kind of classroom elitism has nothing to do with rock and roll. Ultimately, it’s negative and destructive. We try to function as an alternative to that vain, bullshit attitude.”

Facing Facts

Obviously, we have quite a journalistic polarity here. Could this have a lot to do with target readerships or, more specifically, with the ages of those readerships? “Sure,” replies DiMartino. “Let’s face the facts. Though I can’t state this categorically, I’m certain Duran Duran, Boy George or Van Halen can’t mean the same thing to these kids that, say, the Beatles meant to us, or what people like Lou Reed or T-Bone Burnett may mean to us now. This culture has drastically changed since Creem’s early days, and we can’t be harping on some aesthetic that made sense then but has no place now. Then, there was the rock and roll ‘us versus them’ ethic. I take exception to that having any bearing on anything now. As Christgau pointed out in that Voice piece, rock and roll culture has dissolved into the mainstream. Rebellion as a barometer is meaningless there. We’re often attacked for our politics, but I feel we’re more correct in a populist sense than the serious journals. We try to give the readers what they want, not what we think they should want.”

With this sense of reader-dictated priorities in mind, it’s easy to predict, and regretfully understand, Creem’s relationship to black music. “This was a real problem,” confirms Holdship. “We had two black covers last year, and we’ve followed up with as much as we feel we can get away with. The drag is, with every effort we make, here comes the hate mail. Still, we’re working to appease ourselves there. We have a black issue coming up, which we’re hopeful about. We’re gonna keep plugging.”

In retrospect, I feel frustrated wit the series of conflicts DiMartino, Holdship and I discussed. Granted, Creem leaves itself wide open to criticisms for its tastelessness and excess. But, ultimately, for me, Creem redeems itself through the enthusiasm, competence and wit of such staffers as Laura Fissenger, Rock Johnson, John (Amore) Kordash, DiMartino, and Holdship. Such monthly features as “Letter from Birtain,” the “Christgau Consumer Guide” (reprinted from the Voice), the extensively researched “Rock ’n’ Roll News” and a plethora of musician-oriented articles, most notably the column “Extension Cords,” all add up to a package that beats the “comic book” curse. Here’s hoping that the pointless gulf separating Creem and the “serious” journals can in due time be bridged, and that this amorphous mass called “pop culture” can be courted and criticized evenly, and with good humor, by all involved.