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Creem proved to be a rock magazine heavyweight

Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News

Dave Marsh once described what might happen if we dared to hold a reunion of Creem Magazine staffers. “We’d need to have an ambulance and a police car parked outside.” Yes — with the motors running.

“Creem: America’s Only Rock Magazine,” directed by Scott Crawford, a film about the rock journal that burst out of a Cass Corridor head shop in the heady, hippie days of 1969, finally gets a Virtual Cinema (and limited theatrical) release Friday. 

The film features worthies such as Alice Cooper, Peter Wolf, Michael Stipe of R.E.M., filmmaker (and former Creem writer) Cameron Crowe, Joan Jett, Jeff Daniels, Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kirk Hammett of Metallica and others, along with a number of Creem editors and writers.

Sue Whitall at her desk at Creem magazine in 1977.

It may seem impossible that a magazine produced in the flyover zone with a two-month lead time was the best way to find out what rock stars were doing in the 1970s; that a publication sold out of the trunk of our publisher’s car on Cass would become the No. 2 rock magazine to Rolling Stone. But it happened.

Review: Detroit mag gets its due in 'Creem: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine'

R.E.M.’s Stipe is particularly effective when he explains how Creem was a cultural lifeline for him as a lonely, alienated kid, struggling with his “queerness and otherness,” looking for a like-minded tribe. “What world is this?” he wondered, as he gazed at a Creem image of Patti Smith leaning against a wall.

Full disclosure: I became an editor at Creem in 1975, then overall editor in 1978. (I left for The Detroit News in 1983), and I’m an associate producer on the film. I conducted interviews with Peter Wolf, Suzi and Patti Quatro, Mitch Ryder and others, and provided photos and research.

Creem staff circa 1976

My Creem colleague Jaan Uhelszki, who in sisterly solidarity gave me my first writing assignment in 1975, is co-producer on the film with JJ Kramer (she also co-wrote it, with Crawford).

The main narrative follows producer Kramer’s search for his father, Creem publisher Barry Kramer, who died in 1981 at 37 when JJ was four. (JJ’s mother is Connie Kramer, who was associate publisher).

Barry isn’t as well-known to readers as Creem’s stable of writers, but there would be no Creem without him. The Mumford High School grad was a hippie businessman and sometime Wayne State University student (Monteith) who ran the Mixed Media head shop, and took over a rock magazine that one of his clerks, Tony Reay, started. Reay intended Creem to be a serious rock journal, but under Barry it went in a much more freewheeling direction with irreverent humor a constant.

Creem acquired national distribution in 1971, and suddenly it wasn’t just a Motor City phenomenon anymore.

JJ grew up to become an intellectual property lawyer, and he painstakingly regained control of the magazine in recent years (it was sold in 1986 and moved to California, before shutting down in 1989).

I remembered JJ as a toddler, so it was interesting years later, to find myself interviewing Ryder with JJ at my elbow, watching and listening.

When Ryder described how Barry was sitting on his own father’s lap when he suffered a heart attack and died, I could hear JJ suppressing a sob. He’d never heard that story before.

JJ wanted to know everything about his father, no matter how unflattering.

Barry was whip smart, but he always partied hard, and his accidental overdose -- after a (for him) normal night of doing too many substances -- looms over the film. I was editor then, and remember the gloom and panic when he died. Cameron Crowe called from California offering help getting our current issue out. (“What are you offering, to come in and proofread?” I asked. “If you need it,” he said).

Both Dave DiMartino and I talk in the film about how Barry gave women editors prominence at the magazine. This just wasn’t done at the time — or for that matter, now. (Typically, Barry told me I was “too young and too female” for the top editor job — then he gave it to me). That I could walk into the office in 1975 and see a slim, dark-haired woman (Jaan) telling Lester Bangs and other editors to shut the hell up, was empowering.

Along with the father/son narrative, the film focuses sharply on the very early days on Cass Avenue, and Walled Lake (Creem moved to Birmingham in 1973).

It speeds up after Bangs’ 1977 departure, skipping over the late 1970s entirely and going to Barry’s death in 1981. That compression is frustrating, as those years were the most successful, and our national distribution, via Curtis, was at its peak – over 200,000 a month, paid (not pass around).

One fan of that era who was spying on us was Smith of the Chili Peppers, who describes riding his bike from his home in Bloomfield Hills down to our Woodward Avenue office, where he saw David Bowie and Alice Cooper, in full stage garb, coming out the door (err, can you say, “astral projection”?).

Creem made its reputation on the quality of the writing, and I wish writers and editors such as Rick Johnson, Nick Tosches, Robot A. Hull, Ben Edmonds, John Morthland, Ed Ward and John Kordosh were remembered.

There’s Richard Pinkston IV’s story, for example. He was one of our few black writers, just 15 and a rock-crazy Detroit kid when he rode his bike to Cass Ave. to see what these “suburban” hippies were up to. He wrote for Creem almost up to the end.

The writers will get more attention in a commemorative edition of Creem that will be available in November, with possibly more issues to follow.

Most of us were career journalists, deadly serious about what we were doing, no matter how untethered and wild the writing seemed. That includes Bangs, whose work ethic should be talked about as much as his excesses.

But film is a visual medium, and Crawford has used animated images (by Scott Gordon) well to convey the fun we had stringing words together -- like the time Lester Bangs went onstage with the J. Geils Band, or Jaan Uhelszki’s foray onstage masquerading as a mysteriously pretty, girly member of Kiss.

Another bright spot is Marsh, who unleashes cranky outbursts with impeccable comic timing. You don’t have to know the parties involved to laugh at his retort to Uhelszki, when she suggests that he had a radio show on WDET.

“No!” Marsh shouts. “Who was there at WDET who would put me on the radio, and risk their (expletive) license?” He is yelling and laughing at the same time. As one does.

I wish there were more identifying captions on the old film clips and photos. I think it’s funnier if you know that the long-haired hippie in the cluttered Cass Ave. office who quips “I sell dope,” is singer Mitch Ryder (well, now you do).

Former editor Robert Duncan does voice-overs for parts of the film to great effect. And when he describes finding Lester dead in his New York apartment, it still feels raw.

Even if it’s too short, at an hour and 15 minutes, to include all the high points, “Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine” takes the viewer on a funhouse ride through the wild world of 1970’s rock journalism, and reminds everybody of a time when a scrappy Detroit original punched well above its weight.

'Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine'

 a film by Scott Crawford

Virtual Cinema: Detroit Institute of Arts, Cinema Detroit, Michigan Theater, Historic Howell Theater, starting Aug. 7. Get tickets.