The Life-Changing Magic of ‘Creem’ Magazine
Filmmaker Scott Crawford on the publication that set the soundtrack for a generation of misfits.
To say Creem changed lives is not an exaggeration. Popular and populist, reverential of good music and irreverent about absolutely everything else, Creem was a touchstone for a generation of rockers, punks, misfits, and freaks growing up in 1970s America. Self-critically straddling mainstream and counterculture and always conscious of its Detroit roots, Creem was a paragon of authenticity to its readers. For Scott Crawford, a writer and filmmaker based in DC, as for legions of others, the music he discovered in Creem as a teenager “became my soundtrack.”
Along with J. J. Kramer, the son of late Creem publisher Barry Kramer, Crawford is now telling the story of “America’s only rock ’n’ roll magazine.” Through interviews with former Creem staffers and musicians like Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, Thurston Moore, and Cherie Currie, his documentary will chronicle the publication from its founding in 1969 to Kramer’s untimely death in 1981 and the magazine’s closure several years later.
Here, Crawford tells us what Creem has meant to him and others he’s interviewed, and shares a few of the articles by larger-than-life Creem critic Lester Bangs that have stuck with him all these years.
“I was a fanzine geek as a kid, in the early to mid-80s. My best friend’s older sister was into punk rock. I’d always hear it when I went over to his house, which was constantly, and I got sucked in. There were three indie record stores in my area, and my friend and I would go to each one every weekend and listen to new stuff.
For me, it was that pivotal time when you’re kind of angry but you don’t know why. I was looking for my tribe, and I found it through punk rock. And once I discovered something that I was really interested in and passionate about, I was on a mission to find out everything I could about it. So I was reading a lot of zines and fanzines, and I discovered Lester Bangs, who was an editor at Creem. Discovering him led me to start reading Creem and making my own fanzine.
My dad and I would go to the newsstand pretty much every weekend. That’s where I found issues of Creem. There was this fifty-cent box in the back of the store that had all these old back issues. I found a lot of old issues of Creem from the ’70s and early ’80s in there, and my dad would buy me a bunch at a time.
Reading those old issues of Creem was like a history lesson. I wanted to figure out where punk rock came from, so I would go back and read reviews of Lou Reed or David Bowie or Iggy Pop. It allowed me to know what was worth buying and what wasn’t. That music became my soundtrack.
Creem’s writers, to me, are almost as interesting as the artists they covered. The way they talked about the music put you right in the moment with them. And if they didn’t like something — well, I don’t think anyone was better at dissecting and sometimes destroying records. So many amazing writers got their start at Creem: Patti Smith, Cameron Crowe, Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh.
Lester Bangs’ writing is — and he would hate me for saying this — it was poetic in a way that’s hard to define. His writing could be hilarious, but it was also personal, and it always came from a place of love for the music. It wasn’t like he was out there trying to destroy someone’s art. It was because he cared. It wasn’t unusual for him to write a thousand-word record review, which would be unheard of now. The way he writes is unlike anyone else. It’s a little like reading Hunter S. Thompson — I think the term “gonzo” has been applied to Lester’s writing.
Creem’s writers really didn’t suffer fools. These guys were anti-authority, anti-establishment. They had this almost blue-collar, working-class Detroit aesthetic. Think of them as the bratty younger brother to Rolling Stone.
A lot of the Creem writers have said to me since that they had this sort of “us vs. them” mentality when they were publishing Creem — not just against Rolling Stone, but against the status quo and the mainstream in general. Yes, they covered a lot of the mainstream artists, but they did it in a refreshing, honest way. And they covered all kinds of music that was not being covered in a lot of the other mainstream magazines.
Alice Cooper has a hit song that mentions Creem [‘Detroit City’]. When I was interviewing him for the documentary, I asked him, “How important was Creem to you earlier in your career? Everyone wanted to be in Rolling Stone because it was the highest circulation magazine. So, by comparison, what did it mean to be in Creem?” And he said, “It meant everything.”
Lester trashed Alice Cooper’s first album, but later on they became close. Lester came to really like a lot of Alice Cooper’s catalog and wrote several stories about him.
John Varvatos, the fashion designer, was around twelve or thirteen when he first started reading Creem in the early ’70s. He said there was no other magazine that captured the spirit and the energy of the music. He said the writing put you there, put you in the moment. That’s not an easy thing to do.
Wayne Kramer [of MC5] said the same sort of thing. He said something like, “Creem were friends. They were part of our tribe.”
There was a respect for Creem that maybe you didn’t get with some of the other magazines. They were so honest, they were so passionate about the music that a thumbs-up from Creem was a big deal. There was a credibility that came from being in Creem. A lot of the artists I talked to said that. They said it was really a musician’s magazine. And this was in the early ’70s, remember — there wasn’t that much being written about rock ’n’ roll. It was all new then. They were all making up their own rules. I think that’s why it resonated with so many of these artists.”
Out of the Mouth of Bangs: Three Articles by Lester Bangs
“Despite the blitzkrieg nature of their sound, Black Sabbath are moralists. Like Bob Dylan, like William Burroughs, like most artists trying to deal with a serious present situation in an honest way. They are not on the same level of profundity, perhaps; they are certainly much less articulate, subject to the ephemerality of rock, but they are a band with a conscience who have looked around them and taken it upon themselves to reflect the chaos in a way that they see as positive. By now they’ve taken some tentative steps toward offering alternatives.”
“You sit yourself down, and sure enough you become aware pretty fast that there’s this vaguely unpleasant fat man sitting over there with a table full of people including his blonde bride. Pretty soon he comes over to join you and the tic becomes focused too sharply for comfort. It’s not just that Lou Reed doesn’t look like a rock ’n’ roll star any more. His face has a nursing-home pallor, and the fat girdles his sides. He drinks double Johnnie Walker Blacks all afternoon, his hands shake constantly and when he lifts his glass to drink he has to bend his head as though he couldn’t possibly get it to his mouth otherwise. As he gets drunker, his left eyeball begins to slide out of sync.”
“Charisma. Lou’s been slipping of late, but for those who remember and understand the Myth, the Legend — i.e., he was an emblem of absolute negativism — MMM has more charisma than a cage full of porcupines has quills.
All landlords are mealymouthed bastards who would let the ruins of Pompeii fall on your four-poster before they’d lift a finger. They deserve whatever they get, and MMM is the all-time guaranteed lease breaker. Every tenant in America should own a copy of this album. Forearmed!”
Boy Howdy! The Story of CREEM Magazine is live on Kickstarter until Aug. 5.