CREEM: America’s Only Rock and Roll Magazine

Boy howdy!

(2019) Music Documentary (GreenwichDave Marsh, Cameron Crowe, Connie Kramer, Alice Cooper, Don Was, John Holmstrom, Rob Stark, Chad Smith, Dave DiMartino, Jaan Uhelszki, Greil Marcus, Ben Fong-Torres, Robert Christgau, Wayne Kramer, Jeff Daniels, Peter Wolf, Ann Powers, Michael Stipe, Suzi Quatro, Jeff Ament, Kirk Hannett, Gene Simmons, Dan Carlisle, JJ Kramer, Joan Jett. Directed by Scott Crawford

2020 Florida Film Festival

The late, lamented CREEM magazine billed itself as “America’s only rock and roll magazine.” On the face of it, that wasn’t true at all – after all, there was Rolling Stone, Circus, Maximum Rock and Roll, Trouser Press and literally thousands of fanzines that covered the subject, some in many ways better than CREEM ever did. But irf you look at the tag line differently, CREEM could certainly lay claim to being America’s only rock and roll magazine. They were a magazine with a subversive rock and roll attitude and no other magazine or fanzine really could lay claim to that.

I grew up reading CREEM (as well as Trouser Press, but don’t tell anyone). CREEM always had a knack for covering bands that I wanted to hear – bands that Rolling Stone would routinely dismiss in favor of covering the dinosaurs they had always covered. In fact, in the Rolling Stone review of this film, the reviewer sniffs “It was a magazine written by misfits for misfits” which is why Rolling Stone has become absolutely clueless about what rock and roll is. In fact, one of the many commentators during the film notes “One of the most important things that CREEM ever did was to demystify celebrity, demystify rock and roll.” Rolling Stone always has and continues to do to this very day the very opposite.

=The writers were at the center of what made CREEM great – it was their irreverence, their ballsy refusal to fawn over their subjects, their talent for encapsulating the era and the music in a 300-word review. I can tell you from first-hand experience that nobody ever becomes a rock critic with the expectation of getting rich. If you do, you are going to end up bitter and disappointed, a wage slave at pennies per word. Why you do become a rock critic is an absolute, all-consuming passion for the art form. You may not be able to play any of the four chords that are basic to the genre, but by God and by gumbo, you know greatness when you hear it. CREEM publisher Barry Kramer, a former head shop proprietor who founded the magazine in 1969, got that.

CREEM had an advantage over other music publications in that they were far from the glittering centers of the industry. Founded in Detroit, they became a part of the Detroit scene and championed bands like Iggy and the Stooges, MC5 and transplant Alice Cooper (and yes, Ted Nugent as well, although former editor Dave Marsh gets the last word in about the Nuge when informed that Nugent considered him his favorite rock critic, retorts “I wonder if he’ll feel the same way when he learns how to read”). They had an outsider’s sensibility and an outsider’s freedom from fealty, able to say exactly what they wanted to say without fear of reprisals. They weren’t getting invited to the parties anyway.

Instead, they had their own party and it would be costly. Among their number was perhaps the most influential rock critic ever, and likely the best – Lester Bangs, who was something of an inspiration to me during my rock critic days. I never wrote in his style – Bangs wasn’t above trashing sacred cows like Lou Reed just for the sake of trashing them – but I respected his talent, and his ability to describe what you would hear if you put needle to vinyl. He had a legendary feud with Marsh while the two of them worked together, and came to blows on at least one occasion.

While CREEM did give a lot of female writers their start (including the legendary Jaan Uhelszki), it was very much a product of its times and there was a great deal of misogyny and what we would now call them on the carpet for in these more woke times. Uhelszki shrugs “It was the ‘70s. Kill me.” Still, Joan Jett reads a letter she wrote to the magazine in response to a blistering review of the Runways first album which was titled “These bitches suck” and only gets worse from there.

The movie is a rapid-fire blink-and-you-missed-it series of vignettes, interviews, animations and archival footage. This is very much a movie you’d be well-advised to have your finger on the pause button for. At a mere 68 minutes, it feels like it runs out of time before it runs out of material; the film basically ends with the untimely deaths of Kramer in 1981 and Bangs a year later, nor does it cover the resurrection of the mag in the mid-90s. Still, for those who lived through the era and read CREEM cover to cover every month, as I did, this is nostalgia you simply can’t miss. If you didn’t, it’s a decent introduction to the era, although you may scratch your head and wonder why everyone raves about the writing, little of which is displayed and all of that which is tends to be illustrations of the work that the writers (if they are still living) are probably a little bit embarrassed by. CREEM had influence decades later, especially with the snarky English music rags like NME and Melody Maker who were often snarky for its own sake. CREEM could be like that, but they also could turn you on to music that would change your life. We could all use a little more CREEM in our lives these days.

REASONS TO SEE: Brings back memories of their essential rock and roll coverage. Captures nicely the irreverence of the magazine.
REASONS TO AVOID: Ends abruptly with the deaths of Barry Kramer and Lester Bangs, even though the magazine continued for nearly a decade afterwards.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s all kinds of profanity and rude gestures as well as drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following the death of Barry Kramer, the magazine went through a number of different hands; by the 21st century there were legal disputes as to the ownership of the CREEM name and archives. By 2017 the litigation had been settled with JJ Kramer (son of Barry and Connie) taking control of the brand.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 96’% positive reviews, Metacritic: 66/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead


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