Sunday, August 16, 2020

Creem Magazine and Why I'm Here

The documentary Creem: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine was made available for streaming online on Friday evening, August 7. When I heard about it, I made a point to block out some time that evening (I wasn't working the closing shift!) to watch it, even if it meant only viewing it on a laptop screen. 

Many things have come together throughout my life to send me on the path (dubious or otherwise) where I am now. When it comes to being a music writer, Creem planted that seed. I started reading it regularly in 1980, after occasionally skimming it at the newsstand, wondering what was up with all those ridiculous captions beneath the photos. (The only one I can recall from that time is a picture of the Knack's Doug Feiger looking pained as he sang into the mic. The caption? "I gotta pee!!" It was juvenile even to my 12-year old mind but still kind of funny but.....what was going on here? And the claim that they were America's ONLY rock 'n' roll magazine - how can they say that? What about Circus and Rolling Stone? I had a lot learn.

The first issue I bought had the Pretenders were on the cover. I'm pretty sure there was also an article about Public Image Ltd., in the same issue, which shocked me because of all the f-bombs in it. Sure, I had seen such language in Circus Magazine but still. Now that I think about it, one of the photo captions in the Pretenders article still resides in the memory banks - a photo of Chrissie Hynde onstage, playing guitar had the caption, "The E chord that rocked the nation?" They weren't all laugh riots.

As I continued buying Creem it soon became clear that reverence and irreverence could sit side by side in music journalism. Some album reviews indicated that the performers were really onto something, tapping into elements that elevated rock music to a higher, literate level, like a review of Sparks' A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing that I discovered nearly two decades after the fact in a borrowed '70s issue. If a band was full of crap, reviewers weren't afraid to let the band have it either. That summer of 1980 Pretenders issue had a review of a Journey album that, if my timing is right, was probably Departure. The reviewer tore it apart, saying something about the only thing written on his notepad consisted of the word "Sucko" scribbled on every page. 

Let's back up a second. That issue came out 40 years ago. I haven't looked at it in over 30 years. (It's still at my mom's house, I believe.) But it's still relatively fresh and preserved in my brain. Maybe that says something about my brain's m.o. but it says even more about Creem. They wrote the manual on modern journalism, although if you asked anyone at the time (except perhaps Dave Marsh), they probably wouldn't lay claim to such a feat. You might get insight into Rick Wakeman's head in Circus or an in-depth analysis of John Lennon in Rolling Stone but Creem wrote in a way that you could relate to personally. Further - in examining my long sentences in this piece, I think Creem proved that run-ons aren't a bad thing. 

A few other things about the record reviews. That section proved that a review didn't have to be a straight up and down description and analysis of a record. It could be done in metaphor or parable. Or it could be done in a cartoon, as Robot A. Hull did in several issues. When Black Flag came out with Damaged in 1982, it was the lead review in that issue. The reviewer might not have gotten it (that I can't recall for sure) but the space and the photo of the band was remarkable. They also gave a good space to Joy Division's Still in tandem with New Order's Movement. The visual description of the JD album helped me get a grasp on this music that I was hearing for the first time with no reference points. Whoever wrote it said that one might think that a Joy Division concert would be the band surrounded by a bunch of hooded monks, seated and crying. (Remember, on these shores in 1982 there were few photos and no album info about the band). But what a surprise it was to hear people cheering and whooping for them, and to hear Ian Curtis laugh and quip, "You ought to hear our version of 'Louie Louie," after they slaughtered "Sister Ray." Finally, the reviews in Creem motivated me to buy the Smiths' debut album and the Dream Syndicate's The Days of Wine and Roses.

By the time I jumped onto the Creem bandwagon, the early heyday was winding down, from what I gathered from the documentary Creem: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine. Within a year, founder Barry Kramer would be dead. I missed out on Lester Bangs' prime writing, catching up on it years later with the infamous collection of articles Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. By 1982 he had left us too. 

Watching the documentary, it seems amazing that these people were able to get anything done on a regular basis. They would spar over everything little thing, it seems. And truth be told, many of them seemed like assholes. Creative ones, but assholes nonetheless. It's sort of interesting to wonder where ego stopped and work ethic took over. But it did. One of the most poignant moments comes when Dave Marsh reflects on Bangs' death, which he's still angry about today. He says that Bangs was writing constantly, often only for himself, and the reason Marsh is still pissed that Bangs had so much more to put out there. 

One of the more refreshing things about the documentary is that it doesn't just focus on the dudes of the magazine, like Kramer, Marsh and Bangs, though they're the ones who are most often remembered. Writer Jann Uhelszki and Kramer's widow Connie do a lot of the story telling. They reflect on how what might have been simply "irreverent" back then can be seen as "politically incorrect" or just plain tasteless by 21st century standards. They don't dismiss it as "those were different times" but they make it clear that it was different mindframe then. Confession: I did hang several of the pin-up style "Creem Dreem" photos in my room as a young teen, but more than just thinking they were hot, I thought Rachel Sweet, Tina Turner, Wendy O. Williams and Poison Ivy Rohrschach were also cool musicians who someday (especially in the case of Rachel), I thought I might meet. 

The years that I read Creem religiously are pretty much glossed over in the documentary. No mention is made of writer J. Kordosh or Eduoard "The Dauph" Dauphin (who a quick Google search just revealed was the pen name of Edward Kelleher), the latter who wrote a column called Eleganza and did a really good job of starting in one place, going off on a major tangent only to reinforce the idea he first proposed - something that I later noticed in the work of Magnet columnist Phil Sheridan. I suppose you can't get everything in there. Luckily there's no mention of the late '80s sub-magazine Creem Rock Shots which put image over substance in a move that smacked of desperation (and also included several photos printed in reverse). 

The point is driven home in the documentary that Creem writers had the attitude that they were just as much a star as anyone they wrote about, which might have been presumptuous but has a great level of truth to it. That attitude also fueled fanzines in the wake of punk rock, fanzine being a "magazine made by fans." As if to reinforce this blurring of stars and writers, I discovered while fact-checking this blog entry that I actually have one degree of separation from the documentary itself. Director Scott Crawford launched Blurt the (now online) music magazine that followed his magazine Harp. I contributed to both of them, dealing more with Fred Mills than Crawford, but still I think we might have exchanged an email or two. 

The inspiration continues.

Don't miss the documentary.

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