Documentary Review: Creem – “America’s Only Rock and Roll Magazine.”

 

A year before Creem launched, Rolling Stone launched. Both publications grabbed their name from British bands. Dave Marsh called Detroit as the ugliest part of the universe, and many boundary pushing musicians emanated therefrom. It was a perfect breeding ground for “America’s Only Rock and Roll Magazine.”

With an impressive array of talking heads and vintage footage, the filmmakers have put together a delightful glimpse into the birth of an unlikely chronicler of the nascent music scene.

Alice Cooper talks about the rock bands affectionately checking out the Motown acts. Michael Stipe was in detention when he saw his first issue, smitten with Patti Smith. Peter Wolf, Mitch Ryder, Ted Nugent, Don Was and Cameron Crowe jump in with perspectives. Not often will you see those names in the same sentence, which says much about Creem.

The stills pulled from the magazine’s archives are excellent, including shots of artists like Led Zeppelin poring over the latest issue. The style is the opposite of the slow, languorous style of Ken Burns. Instead of slowly panning across a still photo, the crisp editing here jumps quickly, often evoking flipping through the pages of the magazine.

Barry Kramer was the irascible publisher who “assembled a band of misfits” who somehow got the issues to press. Lester Bangs leaves San Diego to join the band, er…staff, bringing his unique take on the burgeoning rock and roll scene.

The volatile issue of women in rock and roll is addressed, with apologies to the era of the 70s and acknowledging the subversiveness of the women writers and editors. Political incorrectness and irreverence were the watchwords, and that is what established the magazine’s eventual legacy.

Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau became contributing editors, cutting their teeth en route to becoming deans of music writers.

Chad (Red Hot Chili Peppers) Smith could not believe that Creem moved offices within biking distance of his house in suburban Detroit. Rock stars would begin visiting their offices, an indicator of the magazine’s growing clout.

The Boy Howdy character was a perfect reflection of the magazine’s irreverence. R. Crumb created the character, and it grew in infamy.

Invariably, Creem ran headlong into Rolling Stone. The former emanated from blue collar origins and the latter was created by Jann Wenner of the leisure class. Hence, punk and metal were covered first in Creem and only reluctantly later by Rolling Stone.

As is too often the case when the topic is rock and roll in those decades, drugs and death take their toll. The survivors attempt to soldier on. Like Rolling Stone, Creem shifted HQ to another city, but finally ceased operations in 1989.

If only measured by the seemingly endless list of Kickstarter supporters in the end credits, Creem’s influence is wide and deep.

Creem’s legacy is undisputed; this film captures the spirit and anarchy of the magazine with a loving smile.


Brad Auerbach has been covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.

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