I was excited to see a book in one of my bargain book catalogs the other day, and although I have plenty to read (I think I could stay occupied for the next year), I just couldn't resist this one. It's a retrospective look at Creem, which billed itself as America's Only Rock 'N' Roll Magazine.
"But wait," you ask. "What about Rolling Stone? What about Circus? What about Rock Scene?" All decent mags, and I subscribed to Rolling Stone for quite a few years, and bought many issues of the latter two. Rock Scene was not as nicely produced and seemed to be mostly about the New York scene, Circus sort of toed the record company line when it came to reviews of bands and their records, and Rolling Stone was (and is) as much about politics as it was about rock and roll.
Creem was all about the bands and their music. Nothing else. You'd never see a cover story on a political candidate, and no mention of an election or a campaign. (Although they were a perverse bunch, so today I could see them writing a brief comment about how they'd screw Sarah Palin. And I don't mean just that they'd say they would...they'd probably go into detail of how.) This magazine was immersed in rock and roll and had no pretensions to be anything but that. They were also very much a Midwestern mag, with a fondness for straight-up rock with no bull. As a band or performer, you could have a gimmick (like Alice Cooper and his early goth), but if you didn't rock, you weren't worth their time.
Creem was born in Detroit in 1969, and finally stopped publishing in 1988. I started reading in the late seventies through the early eighties, which was prime time for punk and new wave. Creem was at the forefront of that particular movement, but had always been ahead of its time, especially when it came to promoting local artists like the MC5, Mitch Ryder, the Amboy Dukes (and their guitarist, Ted Nugent), and Iggy and the Stooges, who are generally considered the progenitors of punk rock. Their coverage of the New York punk scene, especially, was fantastic--immediate, exciting, dynamic--and when the Sex Pistols and the Clash burst on the British punk scene and then the American, the writers of Creem were immediate proponents and rabid fans. For a high school girl stuck in the Midwest, it took me to another place and another lifestyle...I was never a full-fledged punk, but I think I caught a little of the attitude from reading this rag.
The writers were some of the best and craziest you can imagine, including the late great Lester Bangs, who said, "music is about feeling, passion, love, anger, joy, fear, hope, lust, emotion delivered in its most powerful and direct in whatever form." And just because the writers loved you, didn't mean you got a pass for a crummy record. They loved the Detroit band MC5, and lauded them as the next big thing with their debut album, but generally agreed that their second album fell flat, and that they left their musical roots behind in the name of record company sales. Most of the writers were able to capture a feeling and an attitude that I've never seen since. Consider this passage from Barry Kramer's (one of the head honchos of the mag for many years) account of traveling with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels on a southern tour in 1970:
The Copa was run by what must have been the hottest chick in Alabama thirty years ago. She was, also, incidentally the chief of police's sister. She kept barging in what was called the dressing room, to catch a glimpse of some young buns and say, "I sure wish I was about ten years younger." We'd drawn twice as many "members" as the room could hold; by the time Strawberry Alarm Clock finished their set, the room was filled with beer-swillers, backs to the walls and standing atop one another. Mini-skirted waitresses scurried about, hustling drinks, tips and customers. The back door hung open and the under-age teeny boppers of this good Alabama town hung about to catch a glimpse of the rock 'n' roll stars, performing on a stage barely big enough to accommodate Arnold Stang, let alone seven musicians, plus instruments. The whole sweaty scene was conceived by Faulkner, produced by Fellini and cast by Russ Meyer. Your average Southern teetotaler gets drunker than most any other being on the planet; the ones that drink know how to be really obscene and obnoxious.
Beautifully written. The writers of Creem seemed to treat us readers as fellow collaborators, not talk down to us as pathetic and ridiculous fans. They seemed to understand that you can be a fan and still want to learn about the music, too, and to realize that not all of us could go to shows like that (especially those of us who were in small towns and underage). Their descriptive powers, their ability to bring the performances to us, were able to take us there, if only vicariously.
The photographers played a big part in that, too, and Creem's photos were glossy and bright and candid. Whether it was Creem's Profiles (like the old Dewar's Profiles, but touting the fictional Boy Howdy! beer), the Creem Dreem (people like Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, or a side view of a naked Martin Mull), Stars Cars, or Backstage, these were often shots that we'd never see anywhere else.
Not everyone was a fan, though. I still remember getting home from school one day and seeing the new issue laying on my bed. When I opened it up and started to read, I saw that my Mom had gone through with a red pen and underlined all the bad words! Bless her heart, she was trying to keep me from being corrupted...but at that point, I think it was already too late. I think Mom knows I turned out okay, despite the magazine’s influence!
The dust jacket of this book is a montage of covers throughout the years, and I still remember so many of them: the Police standing in front of a height grid, like they were in a police lineup; the Nuge raising a couple of guitars up, one in each hand; a grinning Mick Jagger; Debbie Harry the Cars REM Springsteen and so many others. I'm thoroughly enjoying reading some of the pieces I read years ago, and it makes me appreciate that I was around during Creem's heyday and able to enjoy so many wonderful writers and photographers. I also had a Boy Howdy! tank top for many years, but I think it eventually wore out, and is long gone. What do you think the odds are that I'll be ordering a Boy Howdy! T-shirt before too long? Hint: better than the 50-1 odds of the Derby winner, Mine That Bird!
Do any of my rock and roll peeps remember Creem? Especially those of you from its birthplace, Detroit? Did anyone else here besides me read this magazine?