First Office of Creem – Cass Avenue, Detroit, MI
The first cover of Creem, dated March 1, 1969, and an explanatory article inside, captured the publication’s initially wholehearted embrace of the counterculture as a fully alternative movement. From the gaping mouth of a hippie-like figure, the word ‘Creem’ curled upward like a prayer. The mysterious cover figure appeared again inside the magazine, next to an article that identified it as a Tarot-card illustration of the ‘Fool at Zero.’ In a quintessentially earnest counterculture maneuver, this anonymous article connected the ‘Fool’ with notions of spirituality, artistic creativity, and utopian hopes for a more egalitarian and humane society. At the same time, the author suggested that such a world could be created by the technologies of mass-consumer culture–if only those technologies could be put to better uses. ‘We have come to a spiritual awakening,’ the article claimed, ‘that makes us not only aware of the science and technology at our disposal but the ability and innate wisdom to use them through creative energy and beauty for a brotherhood of light through universal love.’ According to the article, the cover figure ‘symbolizes the warm, colorful creative energy of universal cultural activities.
Creem picked up on punk rock (which many claim the magazine, and especially Bangs, helped to conceptualize if not invent) and New Wave movements early on. Creem gave massive exposure to artists like Lou Reed, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Blondie and The New York Dolls years before the mainstream press. In the 1980s, it also led the pack on coverage of such upcoming rock icons as R.E.M., The Replacements, The Smiths and The Cure, among numerous others. It was also among the first to sing the praises of metal acts like Motörhead, Kiss, Judas Priest, and Van Halen. Kurt Cobain once stated to RIP Magazine that he had first learned about punk rock from reading Creem as an adolescent.
When Creem began, many words saw the light of ink that perhaps were not in the best fashioned grammar, or even good enough English to deserve print in any other vehicle…but what they said needed to be written and read and that was enough reason.
Barry Kramer–Creem’s Publisher from 1969-81 never had any interest in publishing a local magazine, and abandoned the original concept early on. The acts whose pictures and names had filled the paper for the first few issues found it hard to get ink pretty rapidly. The fact that society moved in the same direction as that which Creem had initially followed was largely happenstance–the same thing was happening in Cleveland and Boston and DC. The difference is that those magazines continued to focus on local issues and people, whereas Creem moved directly towards regional and then national distribution and advertising dollars.
Said Tony Reay; I lived in Detroit during the period of time that you discuss…I went to 20 Grand with Fleetwood Mac when we were the only white faces in the crowd. I shopped on Plum street from the hippies, ate popcorn at the teen clubs and high school dances that financed Seger’s career and more importantly provided the Five and every other Michigan band with a place to develop chops and a stage act. I drove to the clubs in Ann Arbor, Ypsi, Lansing, Wyandotte, Dearborn Heights–and I helped put together the festivals and M.C.’d many of the ballroom nights. I did radio, television and wrote for three different outlets before I started Creem. Long before there was an upstairs office on Cass Avenue there was a basement office, and I can tell you categorically that of the five elements named in the title of your piece, only one of them existed in the all-white, middle class angst-ridden teen world that your article, mainly through Dave’s quotes, describes… and I’m not proud to say that it was Creem. “for a little while, the paper served the entire community: the music, the artists, and the consumers (mass and otherwise). And that, dear friends, is why Creem magazine paid for its initial print run on newsstand sales alone…and probably could have continued to do so”.
“What Creem became is important, a national kick in the ass for individuality and irreverence, and a training ground for some of the most expressive music writing that has ever been created. It is unlikely that such a beast could be created today, and that is testament, in truth, to only one man–Barry Kramer–and he ain’t here to do it again”.
CREEM became a national magazine during those days, when they figured out how to provide circulation on a greater scale than just around the metro Detroit area. Arrogantly proclaiming itself “America’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll Magazine” on its masthead, the geographical separation from the rest of the music industry worked in CREEM’s favor and added to the irreverence the editors and writers had towards not only music, but themselves. It purportedly was a “so, you think you’re so great?” punch at Rolling Stone magazine, which had become much more self-serious, and was branching out into politics, movies, and other topics. “CREEM had a personality, calling people’s bluff, it’s priceless tone, which was its personality,” said Dave DiMartino, who was editor from Aug. 1979 to Oct. 1986. He is now music editor for Yahoo. “It was the best publication in America at the time in the music industry because they established a relationship between the readers and the musicians and the music they were doing. CREEM established a real bond and created a community with common interests, which back then was very rare. A lot of artists would talk to me about riding their bikes to the 7-11 to get the latest issue of CREEM and a Slurpee. In those days, if you wanted to find out what was happening in music, you had to read a magazine. For many, it was CREEM.”1.
With all this talent under one banner, Creem really covered the cultural bases. It did in-depth articles on the hottest bands, and star interviews, of course. But there were also penetrating book reviews, record reviews, movie reviews, and “think” pieces. In its later years, two of the more fun features were the one-page Creem profile and Creem Dream. Dave Marsh called the ’80s version of the magazine — which employed me as an editor — “just a comic book” during a panel at the 2000 South by Southwest music conference, I didn’t think it was an insult at the time. And maybe it really wasn’t intended as such. Even so, numerous people approached me after the panel and suggested that I should be offended; every one of them agreed that what they loved about CREEM in the ’80s was that it was like a comic book. And, indeed, fellow ’80s editors John Kordosh and Dave DiMartino had even once put together a David Lee Roth comic strip. An artist calling himself “the Mad Peck” drew record reviews as comic strips (written with the always fabulous Robot A. Hull) that graced the pages from the early days on. Hell, Stan Lee’s Spiderman was on the cover of one of the early issues. And the magazine’s Boy Howdy! mascot had been created by R. Crumb, the world’s most famous underground cartoonist.
The funny thing is, in the ’80s, we editors were all just happy to be part of what we thought was a singular legacy; we all grew up as CREEM fans who’d bought into that communal spirit nonsense that rock ‘n’ roll once seemed to represent. It wasn’t always fun to work at CREEM in those days, but we were always proud to be part of that Detroit legacy. Perhaps Jaan Uhelszki, a former self-described “CREEM subscription kid” who was senior editor by the time she left the magazine in 1976, described this schism of philosophies best in Jim DeRogatis’ Lester Bangs biography, Let It Blurt, when she said: “Marsh saw us as foot soldiers in the counterculture revolution and Lester just saw us as bozos on the bus. 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”. So, it still stings a bit when you read comments from ’70s staff members like the one recently published in the New York Observer that CREEM in the ’80s just didn’t have “the genius” that it had in the ’70s … even though that’s probably right. CREEM didn’t have the same genius in the ’80s … mainly because, as far as I’m concerned, Lester Bangs was the only real genius to ever pass through CREEM.
Now, the combination of all those assorted talents that original owner-publisher Barry Kramer (and, in the case of freelancers, the editors) allowed to flourish there may have made the genius all that grander and stronger. But again, Bangs was the creative-genius-in-residence. Many have thrived in his shadow and limelight ever since, especially in the wake of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous film.
The part that Creem played on both a local and national stage was, sadly, largely ignored. The axis of Creem, Jeep’s booking and management agency, and the Grande ballroom had far reaching and permanent effects in Michigan, the Eastern seaboard, and eventually the national music biz stage–and the journey from the beginning to that point is what the MHR piece missed. In the same way that it would be foolish to say that Rolling Stone magazine “created” the San Francisco sound, it is equally fatuous to suggest that Creem was instrumental in the development of the Michigan culture or its music and art. It might be a case of “which came first, the chicken or the chick…” but the egg was already there–and would have probably hatched anyway.
Kramer ruled over his motley crew with a mixture of brilliance, moodiness, arrogance and an impudent, flippant sense of humor which took no captors.1. “I loved Barry,” said Roach. “He could be kind of temperamental, but he could be very kind. He knew I had had a rough childhood, and we’d have editorial meetings, and spit would fly. Then he’d get very quiet and come over and kiss me on the forehead. That was Barry.1. “Other days, he’d be very moody. He would call people to his desk and ask them what they were doing there,” she said, with a touch of humor and admiration in her voice. “You have to be insane—or have a touch of borderline insanity—to have the balls to do this and create what he created. There as a great respect for him. We had job to do, we were a good team, and we did it well. We were all committed to Barry and his vision, and the approach to music that he had. We were all dedicated to music, and primarily rock ‘n’ roll. We weren’t Rolling Stone, which veered off into some other areas. And we were glad of that. Barry, and therefore CREEM, took an irreverent look at rock ‘n’ roll. He loved music, and he didn’t want to clutter up the book with politics. The whole purpose of doing what we were doing, from his point, was to pay homage to the artists he admired and the music he loved.” 1 So it should be noted that Barry Kramer was also frequently described as a hustler and big talker. On that SXSW CREEM panel, when DeRogatis suggested “it was hard to tell if Barry was lying” in regards to sales figures, someone responded: “It wasn’t hard to tell when Barry was lying. His lips were moving.”
DiMartino said that his only complaint was that he was too hands on. “He knew what the right elements were for the magazine at that point. The right elements were a combination of knowledge of the music, a real love of it, almost a romantic attachment to all kinds of music. There was great humor at work. And then there was the strangeness of the time. We were working with the biggest stars in music at the time who were wearing weird clothes and big puffy hair.1.
Roach came to CREEM from a totally different world; she had just returned from 10 years of working in New York City in publishing at Conde’ Nast, working at Mademoiselle and Glamour magazines.1. “I had never heard of CREEM magazine. I was into Cheryl Tiegs and all these models,” she recalled. “It was quite a culture shock, a total mind blower, working there. The first thing Barry asked me was ‘what do you drink?’ I said, ‘Dewar’s Scotch White Label.’ The next day, there was a bottle for me on my desk, as well as everyone else’s favorite drink on theirs. However, we never partook until it was deadline and we were working late into the night.”1.
Roach recalled that she had quite a learning curve coming to work for this hard-core rock magazine after the more genteel and ladylike mags she had been working at in New York.1. “The first concert I was sent out to cover was an opening act at the Royal Oak Music Theater. It was Joan Armatrading (a British jazz/pop singer), who I had never heard of. Then I asked my sister if she wanted to stay and see the main act, who I was also unfamiliar with. It was Billy Joel. He was just magnificent.”1.
Roach said, looking back, the magazine business was the same, even if the environments were strikingly different. “It was quite a learning curve, but publishing is publishing, word count is word count; it all comes out in the wash. What’s so funny now, is that when I came home (then), people were so impressed that I had worked in New York at fashion magazines.1.
“These days, they’re pretty unimpressed by that. They’re way more impressed by CREEM.” For Roach, the magic ended when Barry Kramer died of a drug overdose in 1981. “It was fun—how could you not have fun—it was rock n’ roll! Too bad he fucked it up.”1.
Barry’s wife Connie tried to hold it together, but as she said, “I came from the publishing side, the marketing end.” She gives all her kudos to Susan Whitall for keeping CREEM the strong editorial magazine it remained, although she said, “There was no CREEM for me after Barry died.”1. Iconic writer Lester Bangs, who was immortalized in the movie Almost Famous by former CREEM writer Cameron Crowe and was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, died nine months after Kramer, also of a drug overdose. He had had a rift with the editors over editing, and died broke. Today, some question the brilliance of his writing, but as Holdship pointed out, just as Elvis’ brilliance has to be seen in the context of his time, so should Bangs’. 1. “He was one of my idols as a kid,” said Holdship. “I never met him, but nobody would still be talking about CREEM magazine today without him. But he was a druggie and an alchie for a long, long time.” Holdship referred to him as a “walking Physician Desk Reference.” 1.
More on Lester:
(December 13, 1948-April 30, 1982)
Born in Escondido, California
Birth name was Leslie Bangs
Rock critic for Rolling Stone, Creem, the Village Voice, Penthouse and Playboy
Writings collected in ‘Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung’ (1988) and ‘Main Lines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste’ (2003)
Recorded the album ‘Jook Savages on the Brazos’ (1980)
Portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in ‘Almost Famous’ (2000)
Why he might be annoying
He was fired from Rolling Stone for being ‘disrespectful to musicians.’
He commented, ‘For a while every story seemed like, Lester Bangs gets drunk an insults another pop star.’
He CAPITALIZED PARTS of his reviews. (Just like a random MESSAGE BOARD RANT!)
He called himself ‘Last of the white niggers.’
He died by overdosing on the painkiller Darvon and the tranquilizer Valium.
Why he might not be annoying
When he was nine, his alcoholic father died in a house fire.
When he was 11, a middle-aged man coerced him into having sex in exchange for comic books and gum.
He said, ‘Everybody comes from a fucked-up family. I’m a living example of not using that as an excuse.’
His first published piece was a review that he sent to Rolling Stone with the note, ‘You’d better print this or give me the reason why not!’ Cameron Crowe considered him a mentor.
The point here is that when people try to paint those early years as some sort of ethical golden era … well, all I know is that I heard the last time Barry’s ex-wife Connie Kramer — who ran the magazine after Barry’s death — spotted Lester, who was visiting Detroit from New York City, and hugged him from behind, Bangs reportedly rebuffed her in no uncertain terms. There was obviously resentment there, as well there probably should’ve been. After all, Bangs died in near poverty in 1982 and … well, I’ll say again: Without Bangs, nobody would still be talking about CREEM Magazine in 2008.
After Bangs moved to New York. is when he saw the published version of what would be his final piece ever (though no one knew it at the time) for CREEM — a Grace Slick feature that had been edited and cut to his dissatisfaction. It’d be the final straw that kept him from writing for the magazine again. Not that CREEM didn’t try to get him in later years. The Detroit-based Richard C. Walls, one of CREEM’s finest scribes and the only one to appear in both the very first 1969 and very last 1988 issue, once told me and DiMartino that Lester liked what we were doing in the magazine. Billy Altman heard the same about his record reviews section. But despite requests, Bangs refused to ever write for CREEM again.
Lou Reed once told Lester in a CREEM interview that he liked sticking his fist in a jar of Dippity Do hair gel because it felt like a vagina (though vagina wasn’t the word he used). And one of the funniest captions I recall from the early CREEM was a photo of Bob Dylan looking at some hot strippers in a burlesque show from a balcony, with the words underneath: “And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard …” 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 Salon.com: “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.
Lester Bangs reviews Yoko Ono’s book, Fly, and can’t resist opining on her vocal stylings: “Yoko Ono couldn’t carry a tune in a briefcase.” Back in 1994 I received a C-90 cassette which contained a rare interview with Lester Bangs a friend of his did with Lester in 1980. I transcribed side one of the tape & published it a fanzine I used to publish called Loser Friendly (Vol 2 1995) The interview was conducted on the 13th of May 1980 by then 3RRR staffer Sue Mathews a year and a half before Bangs’ death in 1982. As far as I am aware, Part 2 has never been published. When I saw ‘Almost Famous’ I was in awe of Phillip Seymour Hoffman for nailing the part of Lester Bangs. He sounded just like that that C-90 interview tape I owned. Not many interviews exist with Lester & not many used open ended questions that Lester was able to elaborate about the music biz. For historical relevance I have included this here, please quote and use often.
Bangs is mentioned in the 1988 R.E.M. hit “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”.
Bangs is mentioned again in the Dillinger Four song “Our Science Is Tight”.
Bangs is mentioned as a comparison to the writer Anthony Thornton on the back of Thornton’s book ‘The Libertines Bound Together’. The quote by Pete Doherty on Thornton’s biography is simply ‘Anthony Thornton is a better writer than Lester Bangs’
Bangs is also mentioned in the 1981 Ramones track “It’s Not My Place (In the 9 to 5 World)” from the album Pleasant Dreams.
Long Island punk rock band Ghost of Lester Bangs are named after the critic.
Science fiction author Bruce Sterling’s story Dori Bangs (published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, 1989) was inspired by Bangs (along with the underground comic book artist Dori Seda). Sterling speculates on what Bangs might have done had he lived longer.
Bangs is depicted by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film Almost Famous (2000), in which a budding music journalist idolizes him. Bangs acts as a guide and a critic of what Rock and Roll has become by the time of the film.
The Buzzcocks’s song Lester Sands (Buzzcocks turn it up) is actually referring to him, dismissing Bangs’ criticism as a “drop in the ocean”.
Baltimore punks The Slumlords recorded a track entitled “Lester Bangs” on their 2006 CD entitled “On The Stremph”. Lyricist Jeff Perlin sings “Lester Bangs be glad you’re dead, cause all this sh*t we’re being fed…” in a song that focuses on today’s phony, convoluted music industry.
Song about Bangs by (Horseshoe) “Lester Bangs” from the album “King of the World” chorus, “I hate you almost as much, as I hate me.”
Bob Seger wrote and recorded a yet-unreleased song about the critic titled “Lester Knew.”
Notorious for applying the term “white nigger” (which originated in Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay ”The White Negro”) as a euphemism for a punk, or more specifically a white social miscreant with questionable or objectionable outward idiosyncrasies, and radical beliefs deemed unacceptable by the status quo. (Conversely, the term now has a different connotation, as “white nigger” or wigger is used to describe a white individual infatuated with the hip-hop lifestyle). He often referred to himself as the “last of the white niggers,” and a famous photograph of Bangs shows him wearing a t-shirt bearing this title.1.
As popular as he was when he was alive, his work has become even more influential in the wake of his death, which has led to the publication of two anthologies of his writing.
Some of Lester’s infamous Quotes:
“…I’ll admit in front that I have a special affinity for things that don’t quite fit into any given demarcated category, partly because I’m one of those perennial misfits myself by choice as well as fate or whatever. By profession, I am categorized as a rock critic. I’ll accept that, especially since the whole notion that someone has a ‘career’ instead of just doing whatever you feel like doing at any given time has always amused me when it didn’t make me wanna vomit. O.K., I’m a rock critic. I also write and record music. I write poetry, fiction, straight journalism, unstraight journalism, beatnik drivel, mortifying love letters, death threats to white jazz critics signed ‘The Mau Maus of East Harlem,’ and once a year my own obituary (latest entry: ‘He was promising…’). The point is that I have no idea what kind of a writer I am, except that I do know that I’m good and lots of people read whatever it is I do, and I like it that way.” (Lester Bangs, “An Instant Fan’s Inspired Notes: You Gotta Listen,” 1980) “…I’m really schizophrenic about that, because on the one hand I would say, yes there is, there’s something inherently, even violent about it, it’s wild and raw and all this. On the other hand, the fact is that ‘Sugar Sugar’ is great Rock ‘n’ Roll, and there’s nothing rebellious about that at all. I mean that’s right from the belly and heart of capitalism…” (Lester Bangs in 1980 on the rebellious nature of rock ‘n’ roll. Taken from a 1980 interview)
“What this book demands from a reader is a willingness to accept that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews.” (Greil Marcus, editor of the first Bangs anthology Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, on the second anthology, Mainlines, Blood Feats and Bad Taste. Taken from the cover of the paperback original.)
“Look at it this way: there are many here among us for whom the life force is best represented by the livid twitching of one tortured nerve, or even a full-scale anxiety attack. I do not subscribe to this point of view 100%, but I understand it, have lived it. Thus the shriek, the caterwaul, the chainsaw gnarlgnashing, the yowl and the whizz that decapitates may be reheard by the adventurous or emotionally damaged as mellifluous bursts of unarguable affirmation.” (Lester Bangs, “A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise”, 1980)
“I’ll probably never produce a masterpiece, but so what? I feel I have a Sound aborning, which is my own, and that Sound if erratic is still my greatest pride, because I would rather write like a dancer shaking my ass to boogaloo inside my head, and perhaps reach only readers who like to use books to shake their asses, than to be or write for the man cloistered in a closet somewhere reading Aeschylus while this stupefying world careens crazily past his waxy windows toward its last raving sooty feedback pirouette.” (Lester Bangs, “A Quick Trip Through My Adolescence,” 1968)
The best interview of Lester is at the back of this article.
The offices moved across the street to plusher offices in the former Continental Market building, where today there is a Chase Bank, Max & Erma’s, Schubot Jewellers and South Bar. She kept it going for four years, and then sold it to Arnold Levitt. Levitt eventually moved the magazine to Los Angeles in 1987, with Kordosh and Holdship moving with the magazine. It ceased to publish in 1989. 1 “Connie did as best as she could, but she had a hard time of it,” said Holdship. ” I used to have a band, and she came and heard it, and we played ’99 Tears,’ and we were always close after that.”1.
“The era of CREEM, when CREEM was in Birmingham, was the greatest time of the magazine,” said former editor John Kordosh, who now lives in Simi Valley, CA, working once again as a chemist, his original career. “When we were there, we captured the gestalt of rock music. We were funnier, and more professional. It was the best journalism CREEM produced.”
Kurt Cobain once stated to RIP Magazine that he had first learned about punk rock, which CREEM coined, from reading CREEM as an adolescent. The magazine was known for giving exposure to artists like Lou Reed, David Bowie, The Clash, Blondie, Roxy Music, The New York Dolls, R.E.M., The Cure, The Smiths, Kiss, Judas Priest, Van Halen, Motörhead, and others before the mainstream press touted them. For some perspective, one only need ask the Replacements, Robyn Hitchcock, R.E.M., the Cure or Van Halen, among numerous others, how important CREEM was to them in the ’80s. Billy Altman, the magazine’s New York editor for more than a decade, has frequently pointed out that CREEM had its highest circulation in 1978 and ’79 — when, quite appropriately, the Ramones and KISS were battling it out in the poll as the readers’ favorite band — and it surely took a few years after that for the numbers to significantly fall (although MTV, the era of the mainstream superstar and the super-publicist, and the new rah! rah! rah!-isms of the mainstream rock press certainly didn’t help). DiMartino noted this was in the relatively quieter days before MTV came on the music scene, and changed music, and the dissemination of both music and information about the artists, forever.
“There was so much more reverence towards music and musicians then,” agreed former co-editor Bill Holdship, who worked for the magazine, first as a freelancer beginning in 1980, and then as an editor from 1981 until its demise in 1988. He later became Metro Times’ music critic until the summer of 2010. “I grew up reading it and loving it. I studied magazine journalism at Michigan State University, and when I started at CREEM, I thought I never wanted to work anywhere else.” Holdship said the key to CREEM’s long-term success lay in its sarcastic tone and in its humorous approach not only towards the music, but towards the musicians themselves.1. “We were more irreverent and funny towards the artists. We made as much fun of ourselves as anyone else, which is the only way to do it without being an asshole,” he said. “It was a combination of irreverence, smarminess and irony, which other magazines may have tried, but they were always lame. Most others make fun of others at the expense of others. CREEM was hey, we’re just a bunch of drunken buffoons, so we can make fun of you, too.”
John Kordosh, who was co-editor with Holdship from 1981 to 1988, agrees. “At its core, we were all into the humor aspect. I thought it should be the funniest magazine in America. My favorite thing to do in the magazine was to write the irreverent captions, which often had no relevance to the photos. But we really had a fairly good reputation as a music magazine. All of the musicians knew CREEM, and they wanted to be in it. In those days, we didn’t have a huge subscription base, but kids got it at newsstands. There were limited resources for musicians to reach their audience—don’t forget, this predates MTV. We enjoyed a certain cache’, along with Circus and Rolling Stone.” Kordosh said the decade of the ’80s, before they moved to L.A., when the magazine was under his, DiMartino and Holdship’s care, may have been its best. It certainly was its most profitable, with its highest newsstand and subscription sales.1.
“We had, and I give all credit to Dave DiMartino and Bill, a professional approach to putting out a magazine,” he said. “There were journalistic ethics, a love of music, and we, as a staff, knew how to behave appropriately. It was still pretty freewheeling, but it wasn’t as crazed. It was still loose and fun and rock’n'roll. We were able to convey to the reader our love of rock music with a total irreverence. I believe what we produced was a real worthwhile effort and phenomenon for readers. “For example, the music we covered wasn’t music we necessarily liked or listened to,” he continued. “We’d have Billy Idol or Madonna on the cover, and we hated their music. There was a lot of winking at the reader, and the hip readers got it.
Our irreverence said, we’re not really into this crap, but here’s your Billy Idol story, because if you’re a national magazine, you just have to do it. It’s what gave CREEM a real nationally-recognizable approach. Something else about CREEM, wherever the editors had a voice, such as on the contents page, captions, letters to the editor, it would be freaking hilarious. The back page was called Back Stage; it was six pictures with six captions. It’s some of the funniest shit I’ve ever read in my life. Then you’d read a story, and it wouldn’t be quite as reflective as that voice.
CREEM developed this editorial voice that hipper readers recognized.” Dave Marsh called the ’80s version of the magazine — which employed me as an editor — “just a comic book” during a panel at the 2000 South by Southwest music conference, I didn’t think it was an insult at the time. And maybe it really wasn’t intended as such. Even so, numerous people approached me after the panel and suggested that I should be offended; every one of them agreed that what they loved about CREEM in the ’80s was that it was like a comic book. ’80s editors John Kordosh and Dave DiMartino had even once put together a David Lee Roth comic strip. An artist calling himself “the Mad Peck” drew record reviews as comic strips (written with the always fabulous Robot A. Hull) that graced the pages from the early days on. Hell, Stan Lee’s Spiderman was on the cover of one of the early issues. A recurring character, Binky, was a constant figure in captions, that Kordosh said was a hook and a wink throughout each issue.1.
Then they moved out to L.A. and lost their vibe. 1 Arnold Levitt, who had bought the magazine from Connie Kramer, moved it, thinking that it would place the editors and writers in closer proximity to the musicians.1. “Connie sold it to save it. She had been there since the Cass Corridor days,” said Holdship. “But Levitt came from the publishing side, and while he was a friend, he did not know the music business, and had no innate feel for music. It was the end of the chain.” “The move to L.A. was bad for the magazine. There’s too much competition in L.A. Like Iggy Pop said, ‘You’re in the belly of the beast,’” said Matheu. “When they (musicians) were in Detroit playing, they had nothing else to do but deal with the editors of CREEM magazine. Once MTV came along, bands didn’t need CREEM anymore.” With the rise of MTV came public relations firms demanding access to certain writers, photographers and editors, insisting upon seeing questions first, making stars, and up-and-coming stars, look good, demanding, and receiving, control.
“The industry changed,” said DiMartino. “Once upon a time, I was impressed with CREEM’s status to get anyone. It’s the kind of fame that comes regularly to anyone right now.” The last issue was published in 1989, although Robert Matheu and investors bought the name and rights to CREEM around 2000, and attempted a website, which ultimately shut down. He did publish a coffee table book about CREEM, which has proven to be controversial amongst some former staffers. It features dozens and dozens of photographs, some excerpts of articles, and memories.1.
“CREEM set the tone for my career as a photographer, and for my taste for music,” Matheu said. “The book was from my perspective. The book is a celebration of the CREEM people who came before me, and who I worked with.” There has been acrimony from the time Matheu first licensed the CREEM brand in 2000. On one side, the loudest voices are Detroit-based writer Sue Whitall and Marsh. Whitall was the person who first brought Matheu to CREEM as a freelance photographer in 1978 and was initially far more enthusiastic about him reviving CREEM than I was. And Marsh has complained from day one that Matheu only wants to sell T-shirts. Then there’s Matheu and his CREEM Media partners (and several early CREEM veterans) on the other side. Matheu didn’t exactly go out of his way not to alienate Whitall and Marsh early on.
It was rather foolish, as a businessman buying CREEM magazine, for Matheu to piss off Dave Marsh and Sue Whitall. But then, things were done and said on the part of the new CREEM Media since 2000 that frequently made me angry. None of that anger, however, had to do with the fact I was talking to anyone who’d listen about licensing CREEM and turning it into a Web site as early as 1996. But then my Los Angeles home burned down in 1997, turning me into a Hollywood nomad for quite a few years after, and that, as they say, was that.
But the early pre-Bangs CREEM appeared — at least to these eyes — to have a different, more serious spin on that high-energy spirit that was uniquely Detroit. The humor (at least the really funny humor) and the absurd captions didn’t really blossom until the arrival of Bangs, who did most of his best stuff in CREEM. Marsh claims he invented the really funny stuff, but John Kordosh once argued in an interview: “Dave Marsh taking credit for CREEM’s zany captions is like Orville Wright taking credit for the lunar landing.”
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.
How is CREEM’s history relevant at all to current music journalism? This is the same magazine that became the hair band and pop music rag, folding in 1988, a year that included CREEM covers with mainstream mega-artists like Poison, Madonna, Steve Winwood, David Lee Roth and Rod Stewart. And today there are no universally recognized rock stars that every seventeen year old boy listens to – the music industry is a diluted market, with every trend spawning hundreds of like-marketed bands and a diversity that deters loyalty so completely, not even tax brackets or cultural backgrounds can predict who listens to what. Who will CREEM’s audience be? Are they niche, specialty, or concept?
Kramer had a real sense of humor, and the magazine reported that it killed him. Allegedly, he died in a car with a friend from over inhalation of nitrous oxide (laughing gas). In 1982, it was sold to another company in Los Angeles. It continued to be a fine magazine, , but was never quite the same again. In 1988, Creem ceased publication. It was revived for about 18 months by a new company, Alternative Media, in August of 1990. Over the years, Creem put out scores of special issues and spinoffs, including: Creem Close-Up, Creem Presents, Creem Special Edition, and Creem Rock Shots. Creem — 1968-88 and 1990-94
I must admit that it has been a tremendously gratifying experience in researching CREEM’s history. It brought me back to my youth, resurrecting fond memories that may had been lost forever in the depths of my memory. I was born in Detroit (yes, a baby boomer) and grew up in a city less than 2 miles from Detroit. I am one of the fortunate who have had the pleasure of “living the dream”. Growing up with the fruits of the Motor City, all of the wonderful automobiles, full employment. Lest we not forget the muscle cars from the 60′s and early 70′s . Free love (we will leave that one right there). Rock n Roll, yes the beloved music from the 50′s through the 80′s. It had the beat, a tempo, it said the things we thought needed to be said. I began reading CREEM sometime in 1971, after a friend suggested that I read his copy. I found it to be right on the mark for the time, it glorified Rock n Roll, it was written in a way that kept one’s attention. CREEM had a diverse content and great humor, if you could read between the lines. Of all the editorial staff, I feel a connection with Lester Bangs. I wish I could have met him. I could feel what he wrote, we thought alike.
We had our own Haight-Ashbury right here in Detroit, it was called Plum Street, a hippie hang out with a number of “head shops”. The true hippie culture really didn’t last long, the drugs and communal life just didn’t work. There was Woodstock, Kent State, LBJ (hey hey LBJ, how many did you kill today). President Johnson decided not to run for reelection because of the war. My Grandmother offered to pay for me to go to Canada so I would not be drafted and sent to Vietnam, I politely declined. Fortunately, I drew a high lottery number, 336.
We had Timothy Leery, and John Sinclair, LSD, cocaine, marijuana and heroin. Along with a plethora of other “designer drugs”. There were Rock n Roll songs to go along with all of it. The Rolling Stones and the Hell’s Angels, 1967 riots, 1968 Tigers world series, 1969 landing on the moon.
On November 23 1963 President John F Kennedy was Assassinated during a visit to Dallas TX. More than any other, I consider that to be the shot heard ’round the world. I was young then, but it was still quite a shock to even a grade schooler. Everything changed after that, the country would never be the same again. We lost our perception of innocence.
We got through it ALL without cell phones, ipads, PC’s, internet, facebook, twitter and all the rest. We built the most powerful military and economy the world has ever seen. Me & CREEM were there for all of it.
It’s been 23 years since CREEM ceased publishing. The Birmingham Theater has been renovated, and the dentist who shared office space is no longer there, either. The Continental Market is but a memory for those who used to hang at Olga’s when Olga and her kids served the real original and salad. But CREEM persists in the memories of those who devoured it as readers, for the musicians feature.1.