Jaan Uhelszki – Creem Rising to the Top
Creem Rising to the Top
By Jay S. Jacobs
“America’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll Magazine.”
That’s a pretty brash statement. A little defiant. Perhaps even a touch naïve. That’s why the catchphrase fit the legendary rock mag Creem – the magazine was proudly all of those things.
Born in Detroit in the late 60s, Creem took a bunch of people who knew nothing about running a magazine, let their passions and their quirkiness loose, and became the bible of rock and roll nerds all around the country for well over a decade. Run by a businessman named Barry Kramer – who had his share of demons but was passionate about the magazine – it became a home for such legendary rock journalists and editors as Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Ben Edmonds, Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, Chuck Eddy and many more.
The magazine became legend. Interviews could be quirky and argumentative. Reviews were brutally frank and often barely touched on the music. Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, cars, and the fictional “Boy Howdy” beer ruled the day. Rock stars would just pop in because they wanted to party with the Creem staff. For a while, the magazine even became something of a commune, with the entire staff living in a Michigan farmhouse.
However, little over a decade later, Kramer and Bangs were both dead and Creem had somewhat lost its way. It continued on with different owners and different viewpoints, switching to New Wave and Heavy Metal before finally closing its doors in 1989. (It was briefly rebooted with new management as a glossy mag in the early 90s.)
Jaan Uhelszki was at the magazine from the start – one of the women in the boy’s club and writer of some of the magazine’s most iconic stories. She even got the members of her favorite band – KISS – to allow her to put on makeup and go up on stage with them and write about the experience.
In recent years, JJ Kramer – who was only four when his father Barry died – fulfilled his lifelong ambition of regaining the rights to his father’s magazine. He got together with documentary filmmaker Scott Crawford and Uhelszki to make a movie celebrating the crazy life of Creem – the kind of story which probably could not happen in the current world.
Creem had only had one abiding rule: “We are a rock 'n' roll magazine, with all that that implies. Our culture is a rock 'n' roll culture. We are rock 'n' roll people.”
About a week before Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll Magazine was about to be released on Video on Demand, we caught up with Uhelszki to look back at Creem’s crazy glory days.
I really enjoyed the film. I particularly looking forward to it the movie because I wrote some stories for Creem towards the end, after you were gone, I believe…
Oh no, I was still there. It was a different entity.
In the 90s when it was rebooted as a glossy for a short time?
Yeah, me too.
Great. So, you were still there. That's cool.
Except that wasn't really Creem. It's like they changed the licensing. I did a cover story called “Look Back in Anger” about the Creem years. I loved Chris Nadler. He was such a great editor. That's a great guy to work with. That wasn't Creem. It was just funny that it still has legs back then. It was such a hard thing to let go of…
I know. I was like too young to be there in the glory days like you. At least I got in at some point in the Creem history.
I know. Well, if we do it again then you know what? Look us up…
Definitely. What was it like to look back at the early days of Creem after all this time?
I wrote half the movie – Scott [Crawford] and I – and produced it. I've been thinking about it for years. Most everything that I am this incarnation – because I’m still a music journalist – [it] all started there. That curious way of writing, putting yourself in the story. What struck me the most was that even though we didn't know what we were doing, and we weren't so much breaking rules as making new rules. The writing was really good.
It certainly was…
I was unprepared for that, because sometimes you look at things with revisionist eyes. You go back to your elementary school and you go, “Oh my god, that's so much smaller than it seemed.” Objects in the rearview mirror were actually bigger than I remembered. I think now I'm much more of a sophisticated reader and writer. Some of the things I read by Greil Marcus, or Dave Marsh, or Ben Edmonds, or even things that I wrote that I thought I hated the time, just really sang,
And of course, Lester Bangs…
Lester was so much more than the buffoon cartoon character he's often portrayed as. There's some of his pieces that had such shrewd analysis. So again, as an adult, I was wowed. When you're in the middle of [working on a magazine] – or you run your own website – sometimes you don't have time to just stop and go, “Wow, we really did this.”
One of the most interesting things in the movie was at the beginning, pretty much nobody really had any kind of background in this stuff. You guys were just getting into it and flying by the seat of your pants. Do you think that that added to the spontaneity and the free spirit of the magazine?
I've got a friend of mine who used to be a Guitar World editor, Brad Tolinski. He says about Detroit, “Detroit isn’t New York and it's not LA. We try to mimic what they do, always, culturally. We get it wrong, but in the getting it wrong there's a genius and originality and imagination. Doing things, a little askew.” I think that Creem has a benefit of that. Or maybe we were victimized by that. But we absolutely had no clue.
That can be a good thing.
You know what we were? We were crazy fans. I would stand at the A&P [an old grocery chain] waiting for the shipment of 16 magazines to come. Even with a teen magazine, I just always so entranced in the lives of rock stars – the Beatles, or even teen idols. Lester read jazz magazines. We were just crazy consumers. Thing that KISS used to say, “KISS isn’t much different than their fans.” We weren't any different from our readers. We were the same.
That was one thing that I loved about Creem. They’d go for some really avant garde artists, but they'd also love the big, commercial artists. In the documentary, they just did a quick shot of this one cover that I had forgotten that was funny, but it's actually kind of cool, too. It was like, “John Denver is God. Bruce Springsteen is Not God.”
Oh yeah. (laughs)
They were open to just about anything. They had some very, cutting edge things but they also had some more middle of the road things too. Did you think that added to the whole feeling of the magazine?
What it was is everybody had a favorite. We all didn't like the same music. You really had to just defend it or write something. It wasn't like “we can't possibly write about that.” I remember Ben Edmonds loved Alice Cooper and Todd Rundgren. I loved KISS. Dave Marsh liked African American artists.
That diversity showed in the magazine.
We didn’t have to sell it. All we had to do is write it, really. There was a lot of freedom of expression. In the very beginning, we could do whatever we wanted, because we weren't really making a lot of money. (laughs) We were just taking a lot of chances. It was great. I've never had that kind of freedom. Never again in my life. I always look at that as the standard. What you're trying to do is get to a situation where you can actually have your voice heard and really, unabashedly love somebody, or unabashedly hate somebody.
You mentioned your love for KISS. One of your most famous articles was when you got to go on stage with KISS and write about it. What was that experience like? And how did that inform your writing about musicians afterwards?
I was so shocked that I could pull it off, that they actually said yes to this harebrained idea. You go on the road with bands and you see them. You think you're seeing them in the act of being themselves but there's nothing like sitting in front of a makeup mirror for an hour and 45 minutes with four guys. It's like you’re at a gossip-fest. Everybody really did let their hair down. I really saw human moments. I felt like one of them. They let me in the way that no other band did at the time.
That must have been an eye-opener.
Then what happened was when I was on stage with them, I understood how addictive the crowd is. There's a powerful energy that comes from a crowd that hits you like a blast of heat. When you hear about like old hair bands, or people going past what you think is their prime, if you feel that for one song, and understand it, what do you think it's like having your whole career that way and having that stop? It's really hard to give up. I was much more empathetic to why musicians do what they do.
The film also talks about how rock stars with just pop in at the Creem offices with no advance notice or anything. What were some of your favorite experiences?
The Dictators came over and just took it over. Rod Stewart and the Faces came for a party and it was so raucous that I remember Barry Kramer's assistant Sandra Stretke – she's in the film, she's a blonde with a long ponytail – she and Rod Stewart hid under a table, because it just got too nuts. I love Mitch Ryder because he was my childhood hero. He was actually managed by Barry Kramer, so a guy when I was a kid who I followed around outdoor shopping malls because he was like, you know, “Devil with the Blue Dress On.” (laughs) He was in the office all the time. They practiced on the floor above us.
KISS came in that famous moment where… I think it's not in this version of the movie, but our director convinced them to take a photo without their makeup on. This was when they were taking great pains to conceal their identity. Somehow – I mean, I know exactly how it was – this photo got out and picked up everywhere. It was stolen from my apartment by my one of my sister’s friends. That was a big hoo-ha. I thought that Paul Stanley wasn't going to be in the film because he's still mad about that, even though it happened, like, oh my god, 1975.
Well he did appear in the film.
You just really didn't know who [would] come. I wasn't there for the Runaways. I'd already left. I was living in Los Angeles, but that was pretty seminal. I remember Joan Jett telling me about it afterwards. She was so proud of it. That's really her brand. She really is that tough chick.
Obviously, Barry and Lester no longer around to talk about the experience, but it seems like the film got most of the other people of note to discuss the magazine. What was it like to see how they turned out? Have you been keeping in touch with them?
You mean, all the people who worked for Creem?
Oh yeah, we're really a tight group. A lot of them have passed on. I was one of the youngest people, and I'm well into… please don't put my age, although they could add it to the numbers. (laughs) A lot of people have gone on to the other world. But the rest of us we really were like in a war together. It was very hard charged.
Yes, that can forge some real bonds.
It was when you think of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. The tension that comes out of that relationship ends up in really good songwriting. It was that same kind of creative tension and argumentation. Just big personalities all the time. Either you were part of that, or you witnessed it. We all keep in touch. Susan Whitall, I've known since the day she came into the door and we're still really close. Dave DiMartino, Bill Holdship, Lenny Kaye, so many of them. Yeah, we are close.
Were there any people that you would have liked to interview that the film couldn't get?
Most of the people who passed on. There were people that we covered. A lot of people passed away while we were doing it. Ben Edmonds, who was an editor while I was there, he came a little before me. Just people that we've covered. We wanted to get Ian Hunter because he was such a big part of our myth. He used to be a really close friend of Lester Bangs. Sometimes you'd come into the office and he'd be asleep on a sofa next to Lester's desk. But it was just logistics.
I think we got [mostly] everybody we wanted to. We wanted Patti Smith. But you know, Patti Smith is bigger than Patti Smith was then. It was schedule and how she spends her time these days. I think probably she was the one that got away for me. Me personally.
Several of the writers, particularly the women writers, noted they know that they Creem could be brash, even a little bit mean sometimes. The world has changed so much with political correctness and everything. Do you ever look back on things that you did back then or the Creem did and then wonder how you guys got away with it?
I know I said that movie, “I wrote half of the captions, so kill me.” I rather regret that I said that. I was being a little defensive. I don't think were gratuitous on the sexism or gratuitously mean. What we were was funny. We wouldn't put something in just for the wow factor, the shock factor, of sex. It had to be funny. It's like that Roger Rabbit, quote: “It’s only a joke if It's funny.” It was only used If it was funny. If it wasn't, then it wouldn't go into the magazine.
That makes sense.
Despite what some have said we really weren't a skin magazine, although we got racked that way for a long time in 7-Elevens. I don't feel like anything was really mean spirited. It was ironic. It might have been retaliation. In some cases, if someone got a bad review it was because we so loved them and you're disappointed. It was some kind of inverse rule where I would actually be harsher on somebody I'm a massive fan of when they will release an album which I think it's not up to their talent level.
You know they can do better.
I know Lester was that way. I think that's the genesis of all his Lou Reed problems. He was so mad at Lou Reed because the Velvets [The Velvet Underground] were his Beatles. Once Lou left and went on his own and was releasing albums, like Berlin, I'm not sure which one really peeved Lester. He would just goad them and try to have them defend those art statements, although the one he loved so much was Metal Machine Music. He used to play it in the office over and over and over. And he had the controls of the record player, which was above his desk, so we couldn't get him to take it off. That was torture.
Yes, I know that feeling. I once worked in a record store. And they wound play the same albums repeatedly and you just wanted to go “aughh!”
(laughs) I know, right?
Metal Machine Music while it's interesting, it's not the type of thing I think you want to listen to on a regular basis.
Oh no. Exactly.
Were there any new things that you learned about Creem in the making of the film that you didn't know back then or hadn't heard over the years?
No, I was pretty much there from 1970 and within contact to almost the bitter end, so nothing surprising. Really the only thing that surprised me was I thought we were faking it for so long and I realized we weren't. I didn't have an appreciation for the years after Barry died and Dave DiMartino was the editor and Bill Holdship. I had gone back to school. I took about seven good years off to raise a daughter and go back to college. I didn't really read Creem then. I wasn't going to an Elvis Costello concert. I was listening to mom rock. (laughs)
A whole different lifestyle.
Going back into the archives to pull things, I read a lot of stories that were just as good as the early stuff. I know that it often gets criticized that after Lester and I and Ben Edmonds and Dave Marsh left, it really had lost luster. That’s not really true. I think that they were just as funny. A different kind of sense of humor, but it's just as good and just as funny. Up until the end, up until it was sold and moved to Los Angeles, I thought it was a really excellent magazine. It was a different beast. They should have even changed the name when it went to LA. Maybe even the Carnegie Publishing [era] was probably better. That was a revelation for me because you get a little snobby about your own era.
Well, like I said, I was in the later era. That was not even mentioned in the movie, which was right. I totally get that. Even the New Wave/Metal middle 80s section was just sort of mentioned in two or three sentences and that was about it. Why did you guys decide that you wanted to really hone down on that one era?
That’s considered the golden era, when all the people who broke out of there became bigger. That that was kind of the incubation tank, where we all were just getting started. That's when the sales started skyrocketing. We were the number two magazine, behind Rolling Stone. Given that [the film] was Kickstarter funded, we didn't have a lot of money to tell our story.
Yes, that’s always a concern.