The rise and fall of the rock mag that mattered

Almost Famous was probably the big bang that finally pushed it over the top. Doesn't matter that director Cameron Crowe — a former CREEM and Rolling Stone journalist whose semiautobiographical screenplay won an Oscar — presented a fairly Disney-ized portrait of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle of that era. It generally takes a sanitized sweetener to reach the mainstream, and, after Almost Famous, one could refer to both the late Lester Bangs and, by association, CREEM Magazine as "legendary" without fear of being ridiculed.

Jim DeRogatis — whose 2000 Let It Blurt biography of the, um, legendary rock critic got the ball rolling when it was published to much fanfare several months before the film debuted — moderated a panel about CREEM at the 2001 South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, which, by many accounts, was the most anticipated and popular of the entire festival. DeRogatis mentioned an interview he'd recently done with Marianne Faithfull during which all she wanted to discuss was how much she loved Lester Bangs (who got the biggest ovation of the panel when his image appeared on a video screen). Bangs' closest high school friend later told DeRogatis that he'd watched Faithfull on The Ed Sullivan Show with Lester in 1964 and marveled in retrospect: "If you'd have told us that in the future, there'd be a book and a movie about Lester, and that the girl on TV singing 'As Tears Go By' would be talking about him in interviews, we'd have thought you were mad."

Just more proof that life truly is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans, as someone else so eloquently put it. Despite any qualms one might have about Crowe's film, Philip Seymour Hoffman did a wonderful job portraying at least one endearing aspect of the complicated Bangs persona — namely, "the kind mentor," a role Bangs served to many fledgling writers over the years. Even if Bangs' work — which currently fills two published anthologies, neither of which have gone out of print — should someday seem too antiquated for modern tastes, Almost Famous guarantees that, thanks to celluloid, Lester Bangs (and, by association, CREEM magazine) is now immortal.

Of course, CREEM was considered "legendary" by many of us long before the Crowe film; some of us knew it was "legendary," if only subconsciously, when we were first reading it as kids. And that legendary status doesn't just hinge on those facets that are now cemented to the legend, such as the now-famous underground cartoonist R. Crumb's Boy Howdy! logo and covers. Or critic "Metal" Mike Saunders' first use of the term "heavy metal" and co-founding editor Dave Marsh coining the term "punk rock" in its pages. Or Kurt Cobain telling an interviewer at the height of Nirvana's fame that he'd learned everything he knew about punk rock from reading CREEM magazine as a kid.

No, you knew "America's Only Rock 'N' Roll Magazine" — as it so modestly termed itself almost from the beginning — was "legendary" because the first time you picked it up, it was like absolutely nothing you'd ever experienced before. What you found in its pages was you ... if you were at all interested in what was becoming known as "rock culture." Rolling Stone, which began in San Francisco two years before CREEM, latched onto the hippie counterculture that was taking shape in its own back yard. The culture that CREEM celebrated, however, was a totally different one — it was loud, crude and obnoxious, championing the music and the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll lifestyle that fit those criteria. James Taylor or Crosby, Stills & Nash would've never made it onto a cover of CREEM, just as the Stooges or Lou Reed — some of CREEM's earliest cover subjects — never made the cover of Rolling Stone back then. As Bangs himself once described the aesthetic: "Grossness is the true criterion for rock 'n' roll. The cruder the clang and grind, the more fun."

Maybe you'd sensed a similar sense of community in rock 'n' roll music itself and the communal spirit that seemed to be part of pre-corporate rock radio. Even Gloria Stavers' 16 magazine offered an early glimpse in the mid-'60s, despite its teenybop orientation. But in CREEM, one could find actual words and photos that alerted you to the fact others shared the same unique rock 'n' roll universe (which included much more than just music) that you previously thought was exclusively your own.

"Don't ask me why I obsessively look to rock 'n' roll bands for some kind of model for a better society," Bangs wrote. "I guess it's just that I glimpsed something beautiful in a flashbulb moment once, and perhaps mistaking it for prophecy, have been seeking its fulfillment ever since."

Some have claimed that Bangs' best writing reads and feels like great rock 'n' roll music, and that was frequently true of the entire magazine as well. CREEM set the ball in motion for the truism that junk culture and the trash aesthetic can also be brilliant art. As he often argued: "The first mistake of art is to assume that it's serious."

Many believe to this day that Bangs and CREEM conceptualized, if not invented, what would eventually become the punk rock explosion, celebrating Detroit revolutionary John Sinclair's concept of a "Guitar Army" and offering a window into the future. "Every great work of art has two faces," Bangs once suggested, "one toward its own time and one toward the future, toward eternity."

CREEM, of course, was a uniquely Detroit institution, as important to the city's musical legacy as the MC5, the Stooges, the White Stripes or any other rock 'n' roll institution you care to name.

The magazine has recently resurfaced in the media limelight due to the publication of a new, extremely controversial anthology book, compiled by former Detroiter Robert Matheu (who first licensed and then bought the rights to the magazine last year) and Brian J. Bowe (a Michigan-based writer and journalism instructor who served as editor of Matheu's CREEM Web site for several years). A few old staffers, including Dave Marsh, are extremely upset about the book, while the ownership of the brand name is currently a matter of litigation and bad feelings. However, in the middle of all the squabbling, writer Scott Woods astutely observed on his popular Web site that there appeared to be an "underlying, more interesting battle going on here, a sideshow to [the book] vs. the CREEM critics — that being '70s CREEMsters vs. '80s CREEMsters."

And, indeed, a large community of rock aficionados — some of them not even born when CREEM was in its initial early '70s heyday — have been all over various Web sites, taking opposing sides and arguing among themselves over the life, death and strange resurrection of a rock 'n' roll landmark.


CREEM was founded in the winter of 1969 by Barry Kramer, a Wayne State University student and entrepreneur who ran a hip Detroit record store called Full Circle, as well as Mixed Media, the city's first head shop and alternative book store (which reportedly employed a young Gilda Radner, among others). Kramer — who briefly hosted a WABX radio show — was also trying his hand at concert promotion and later managed Mitch Ryder's post-Detroit Wheels band, Detroit, among several other groups. Legend has it that when a local radical "underground" newspaper rejected a review Kramer had written of the Incredible String Band (the same group he'd disastrously booked into Ford Auditorium), he decided to start his own publication.

Tony Reay, a British expatriate who worked as a clerk in Kramer's record store, became the first editor, naming the magazine — which was originally his idea — after his favorite band. Charlie Auringer, later a Metro Times art director, signed on as the new publication's photo editor and designer (following a brief stint by Robin Sommers). Dave Marsh, who once described himself as "a skinny 19-year-old suffering from overexposure to LSD and the MC5, with absolutely no prospects," joined the staff in the summer of that same year. The first issue of the magazine was only distributed in Detroit and nearby communities, originally taking the form of what are considered "zines" today. Kramer soon made a deal with a New York-based distributor, which sent the magazine direct to retailers (although a majority of those retailers turned out to be porn shops, which picked up the magazine due to its strange name; it frequently sat beside Al Goldstein's Screw on many newsstands).

It would eventually evolve, within a relatively short two years, from something that resembled a newspaper into a glossy, color-filled magazine; it was a rapid evolution after newsstands alerted Kramer that the newspaper format — even quarter-folded as it now was — wouldn't fit on newsstands. After Kramer signed a deal with the national magazine distributor Curtis Circulation, with Richard Siegel, one of his hippie buddies (who also wrote and shot photos for CREEM) in place as circulation director, the magazine would explode on the national scene.

The first office was in the Cass Corridor, specifically 3729 Cass Ave. It remained on Cass for the next two years, before moving to a 120-acre farm that Kramer purchased in Walled Lake at 13 Mile and Haggerty roads. The move came after a group of gangsters, brandishing automatic weapons, had stormed and robbed the Cass offices, and Kramer determined that the area was no longer safe for his staff. The move also came shortly after 23-year-old Bangs — who'd recently been fired from Rolling Stone's record reviews department by publisher Jann Wenner for "disrespecting musicians" after a hatchet job on Canned Heat — arrived in Detroit from his native California in late 1971. The writer originally came to town to do an Alice Cooper story, ended up loving the city (once calling it "rock's only hope") and stayed five years.

The magazine thrived during those Walled Lake years, where all the staff lived communally on the farm in one big house. That isn't to say there weren't major volatile blowups in those early days. In fact, some of the legendary stories make the squabbling going on between former staffers today seem tame by comparison. Bangs and Marsh got into a fistfight so bad one day that Marsh ended up with a gash in his head. Seems the tidier Marsh, tired of Lester's dog pooping everywhere, placed the dung on Bangs' typewriter. Strangely, their relationship was much better from that day forward. There are also stories of physical spats between Bangs and Kramer.

CREEM would eventually settle into swank editorial offices in downtown Birmingham, which certainly spelled success in those years (which included several different editorial lineups) before its 1987 move to Los Angeles — six years after Kramer's death from a nitrous oxide overdose on Jan. 29, 1981. Bangs, who left the magazine in 1976 and never wrote for it again, died in near poverty at age 33 about a year later from an accidental Darvon overdose in New York City on April 30, 1982. The move to California, following the sale of CREEM to Los Angeles businessman Arnold Levitt (who kept the publication in Detroit for 18 months after purchasing it) would result in the magazine's demise following years of bleeding money, bad drugs, mismanagement and, ultimately, dwindling readership in changing economic and cultural times.


On my "official" MySpace page there's an ancient photo of the long-gone Higby's Drugstore in downtown Bad Axe, which was where, on its relatively small newsstand, I first discovered CREEM in the early '70s. I vividly remember leafing through its pages one afternoon after school, especially enthralled by a feature article on Alice Cooper, who'd only just recently released Love It to Death. I bought it, rode my bike home as fast as I could, and devoured every single word inside as though they were revelations from on high. From then on, I waited for CREEM every month the way one awaits a trusted friend. And it would remain a trusted "friend" throughout my high school and college days.

You see, the world was a much smaller (or larger, depending on how you view it) place then. You could spend years looking for a specific record in those pre-Internet days ... and I often did. But I was able to read about the New York Dolls, Roxy Music, Television, the Ramones and, hell, even the Velvet Underground in CREEM before I ever heard a note of music by any of them, before many of them had even released a note of music. One could read the work of a brilliant New Jersey-based writer-poet named Patti Smith in the pages of CREEM years before she released a life-changing album called Horses. This was an era before every daily newspaper had a pop music critic. There was no such thing as Entertainment Tonight, and even if there had been, it certainly wouldn't have been covering badass proto-punk rock bands.

No, the only way a fan could know what, say, David Bowie or Lou Reed were doing at any particular time in those days was by buying the records, going to the concerts, or reading CREEM (or, somewhat later, looking at the photos in the NYC-based Rock Scene magazine). In fact, the magazine became so pertinent to some of those artists' careers that when I saw Reed at Detroit's Masonic Auditorium on his peroxided-hair, painted-black-fingernails Sally Can't Dance tour in 1975, I recall him saying only two things from the stage the entire night: "Shut the fuck up and let me dance!" and "Take a walk on the wild side, Lester Bangs!" Without Bangs, Reed (and many of the aforementioned artists) would've never have had a career ... or, at least, certainly not the same career.

When Bangs was at his peak, CREEM was one of the funniest publications ever, as hilarious as anything that ever appeared in National Lampoon. Irreverent? Oh, yes. And then some. But while it skewered and made fun of everyone and everything, it also consistently ridiculed itself (an element seemingly lost on so many "irreverent" and "humorous" hipper-than-thou publications and Web sites of recent times). High-energy, sometimes crude, and often in your face? Oh, yes. But with a heart. Always with an extremely huge heart.

Bangs' style has often been compared to the Beat writers (if the Beats were moralists with even greater senses of idealism) and described as gonzo journalism; imagine an even funnier Hunter S. Thompson with a sweet side and obsessed with music. But what he came up with was all his own, not to mention a major influence on hundreds, if not thousands, of often lame imitators over the past four decades. "If you give people the license to be as outrageous as they want in absolutely any fashion they can dream up," he'd later write, "they'll be creative about it and do something good besides." He was describing the then-blossoming punk rock scene, but he could have just as easily been describing his career at CREEM.

If you do a Google search on Bangs' name, you'll find numerous quotes and morsels of wisdom and outrage. For instance, this lead to a Helen Reddy review (an album he reviewed positively): "All men are weasels. The only use they have for women is to get their rocks off, and half the time the only reason they want to do that is to prove something. Which is why all women hold them in such utter contempt." You might get some sense of his extreme honesty and sensitivity in such statements as "Lou Reed is my hero principally because he stands for all the most fucked-up things I could ever possibly conceive of. Which probably only shows the limits of my imagination."

But reading Lester and experiencing his magic is a cumulative effect. It can't — and shouldn't — be taken out of context. Perhaps writer Andrew Leonard said it best when writing about Bangs for "To pull out a sentence or a phrase here and there ... is to do an injustice to the whole. [Lester's] sentences pile on top of each other, the attention wanders frenetically ... To read his essays is to lose your breath; it's like hanging on for dear life as the toboggan hurtles downhill — you don't really know where it's headed and you've lost all ability to steer, but the adrenaline rush from the experience is enough, the racing heart is its own reward." Leonard ultimately concludes that if he was still alive today, "Lester would have the best blog of all time ... because Lester's blog would be essential to our cultural sanity."

No faint praise, but Bangs would probably be quite amused by some of the loftier intellectual claims made for the magazine and his writing in recent times. An article in the Toronto Globe & Mail several years ago compared the ideas floating around the early CREEM to Dorothy Parker and the other writers who frequented the famed Algonquin Roundtable in the '20s and '30s. Billy Altman — who served as CREEM's New York (and records review) editor for a little more than a decade, beginning after Bangs' 1976 departure — has heard people compare CREEM to the New Yorker magazine, although the only real similarity was that both publications gave writers the freedom to write about whatever they wanted, in the way they wanted. Interestingly, it was in the pages of the New Yorker that late, great music writer Ellen Willis came up with one of the most apt descriptions of the CREEM I read as a kid when she wrote: "Unlike Rolling Stone, which is a bastion of San Francisco counter-culture rock-as-art orthodoxy, CREEM is committed to a pop aesthetic. It speaks to fans who consciously value rock as an expression of urban teenage culture.'' In that sense, then, New Yorker founder Harold Ross and Barry Kramer were kindred spirits. And if any real genius, beyond marketing, can be ascribed to the latter, it would be his knack for discovering young creative talent and allowing it to flourish.

Despite all that young talent, however, Lester Bangs was the first name I memorized when I started reading CREEM. His writing voice spoke to me directly, immediately, often almost touching something in my soul. It would be years before I realized that the voice was doing the same thing to thousands of others — and those sparks helped kick off a revolution in popular culture that would eventually come to captivate millions (many of whom had never even heard the name "Lester Bangs" when they were drawn into the culture that he'd helped to create).

He turned me and so many others on to tons of music that we may not have experienced otherwise. And his touch eventually ended up all over the magazine, from the response to readers in the letters section to those famously hilarious photo captions, which first took root during Lester's brilliant reign.


So, it was a great honor and the fulfillment of an early life's ambition to become part of CREEM's history when I joined the magazine's editorial department in 1981. I was equally thrilled when I got to be the youngest (for a change) former CREEM editor to appear on DeRogatis's aforementioned 2000 CREEM panel. It struck me as a bit sad, however, that I appeared to be the only one on the panel still talking to every other member of the panel at the time ... or at least the only one who wasn't still mad at another panelist about something that had happened in the past. Well, maybe John Morthland — the esteemed music journalist who jumped from Rolling Stone to CREEM in the early '70s — wasn't carrying any personal grudges either. Morthland, who's frequently credited with bringing some editorial professionalism and structure to the magazine upon his arrival, was honest enough to admit during the panel that "some of my very worst writing was in CREEM as well as some of my very best" — something I believe is true about the writing in general in CREEM during every era of the magazine. Perhaps the continued respect former staffers have for him, not to mention his abject honesty, guaranteed he was still getting along with everyone.

But aside from that, current Detroit News scribe Susan Whitall — who essentially hired me as an editor at CREEM and who, despite several major disagreements over the years, I still considered a friend — wasn't on good terms with Ed Ward, who I'd first met, along with Marsh and renowned critic Greil Marcus, at the University of Memphis' first academic Elvis conference and symposium in 1982. (I later visited Ward for a week's vacation in Austin, Texas, after which he tried to get me to take his rock critic job at the Austin American-Statesman newspaper, unfortunately only weeks after I'd moved to L.A. with CREEM.) For as long as I've known both of them, Dave Marsh — who befriended me via mail after seeing a college paper review I'd written of his first book, and continued to encourage me by mail long before I met him in Memphis — hasn't gotten along with the aforementioned Altman, another longtime friend (who I agreed to share my microphone with on the panel when he asked to join at the last minute). And so it went.

I've always liked and respected fellow panelist Ben Edmonds, an early '70s CREEM editor whom I'd first met when Kramer's ex-wife Connie (who ran the magazine for four years after his death) briefly brought him to Birmingham from L.A. to serve as an editorial "consultant" right before the magazine folded for the first time in 1985. Not long after his arrival, however, CREEM filed for bankruptcy and was sold to Levitt, a New Jersey-born, L.A.-based publishing businessman (and reportedly a friend of Connie's family) who was formerly the business manager of Larry Flynt Publications. And I've always had "tons of love" (to use her parlance) for Jaan Uhelszki, another early CREEM editor, who's had an almost maternal relationship with me over the years to the point that she'd joke "This is your mother talking" when we'd talk on the phone in the '90s.

So, I was obviously thrilled to be in the presence of all these folks, together for the first time in many years as a group. After all, a few of those names had once come close to replacing the superheroes and cartoon characters whose comic books I'd been buying at Higby's in those grade school years before discovering CREEM. I'd certainly considered all of them spiritual friends even before I'd actually met any of them in person. On the panel, I was basically saying the same things about what the magazine meant to me as a kid as I've written here, and had just gotten to the part about how funny the magazine was ... when Marsh, who'd already had his say as the first panelist to speak that afternoon (and spoke long enough, albeit with always interesting info, that Altman was mumbling something to the effect of "Is he going to let anybody else speak?" under his breath) interrupted me by stating: "With all due respect, by the time Bill got there, the magazine had become just a comic book."

Next week, part two: An examination of the new controversial CREEM book and the battle over the magazine's legacy.

Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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