Capturing lightning in a bottle is not half as hard as folks make it out to be. You just have to find the right combination of brains, vision, full hearts, piss with the vinegar, money, stimulants of all sorts of variety, testicular AND ovular fortitude, and a way with words that makes the eyes stop, pop, and simmer!
Shit. Okay, never mind, ’cause true lightning in a bottle only happens when the blue moon shines over the just-oh-so-right port o’storm and that particular rocketship came in the form of Creem Magazine. Revisionist corporate rag history would dictate that Rolling Stone was the ultimate grand poobah but Crawdaddy came first, way back in 1966. The idea of any publication dedicated to a wild-haired, infant genre like rock & roll was undoubtedly viewed as an out-of-bounds thing. The beauty is that anytime one has big cultural tide hot-shifting-action, you’re going to get some strong creative seeds planted and tilled and harvested. Crawdaddy was the first daddy but Creem was the ultimate cool step parent. They were the magazine that would let you drink from their beer while your mother is in the kitchen, skip school, and watch an R-rated movie whenever your dad is out bowling with his work friends. In contrast, Rolling Stone was that one horrible teacher you had who tried to be hip by awkwardly throwing in a swear word or talking about how Don Henley was a rock & roll prophet. Any moment of cool that mag ever had was akin to being blessed with a kickass substitute teacher that you wish would replace the lame sick one.
Creem sadly shuffled off the current periodical mortal coil back in the late 1980s, but the legacy lives on in the hearts of true counter-cultural (not that Time LifeTM “Groovin” breed) writers, musicians, and lovers, as well as in the excellent 2019 documentary, Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine! This tight seventy-five minute film not only tells the story of how Creem came to exist, but it’s impact upon American culture.
Unlike many talking-head type documentaries, especially any centered on rock & roll or especially punk, there’s an authenticity at spark here. It’s less ego-driven than many of its film brethren, sporting a narrative that is mercifully devoid of any noticeable revisionist history or manipulated personal agendas. There is a mighty good reason for this since it features one of Creem’s earliest and best writers as one of the two scribes behind the film, Jaan Uhelszki. If her name is attached, then you know you’re in good hands. On top of that, alongside Jaan in writing duties is Scott Crawford, who also was behind directorial duties. Crawford’s debut film was the hugely acclaimed 2014 documentary on the Washington DC 1980s punk scene, Salad Days, so the pedigree is right.
Most importantly, the film zeroes on the crux of why Creem was both vital and truly needed in the 1970s landscape. Here was a periodical with strong writers, like Uhelszki, Dave Marsh, Lester “I Love You” Bangs, and many others, minus any of the pretensions or starry-eyed-rock-star-fuckery of their peers. This was a rock mag that not only celebrated hard and punk rock when both infant forms were sneered at in favor of old daddies like Bob Dylan or old-gross-coke-daddies The Eagles (minus Joe Walsh, because I can’t in my heart of hearts hate on that man). The film, accurately, points the finger at how classist the field was (and is.)
It’s easy and needed to always talk about and examine the various ingrown bigotries nestled, all WASP-like, in every country and culture. But from the nearest ocean to the furthest sea, classism is the biggest villain that plagues. Rolling Stone was like Playboy. Glossy with the occasional great writer featured, including some Creem alumni like Marsh and most famously Bangs (who was fired for being honest and not kissing record company tocks), and fully respectable for the more continental adults in your life to read. All of the above are candy-coated constructs with little filling to help play up to the status quo’s wants. (Never their needs.) Hustler, meanwhile, was crude, irreverent, subversive, at times gleefully offensive, much like Creem. Rolling Stone and Playboy played up more to the middle-upper classes while the Creem and Hustler was for the working to poor classes. Guess which creation one gets more respect? (Such a ghastly word, right?)
It’s not just about music or skin mags, though. Hard rock, metal, and punk were genres that emerged out of working-class and disenfranchised roots. Creem was one of the few magazines that not only covered these bands but as an entity, also emerged out of similar circumstances. While West Coast hippies were basking in the Summer of Love and good vibes, the industrial city of Detroit in the 1960s was dealing with high crime and riots. Bands like The Stooges and the MC5 were not going to form in a place like Haight-Ashbury and a magazine like Creem could not have emerged on either side of the Coast. Not LA and not even from New York City, but midwest America USA, which is one of the things that made Creem so special. It was a touchstone for all the misfits that didn’t fit in at school or at work and most definitely not at church who didn’t necessarily live in NYC or LA. Being a misfit in a metropolis is hard, but try being one in Nowhereseville, USA.
Speaking of misfits, the fact that this documentary on a magazine whose heyday was in the 1970s features so many women, a number of whom were an integral part of Creem, is impressive and more than a bit telling about how progressive they were. Now, much like its more illicit sibling in arms, no one is going to confuse Creem with Our Bodies Our Selves, but given that Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner once said that women can’t write, Creem was more accidentally feminist than the majority of magazines back then. (or now!) The film nails this minus any revisionist “Me Too” pandering. (Note that I’m not denigrating the movement at all, but more other documentaries and articles that awkwardly shoe-horn it in whenever feminism gets brought up.) Truth may be dead, if it ever breathed a breath to begin with, but the crew here do an admirable job of keeping the tenor of things properly adjusted.
The non-Creem associates that appear throughout are a mix of musicians, other writers, and actors. The two formers make complete sense, with both categories including figures like Gene Simmons, Ted Nugent, Peter Wolf, Joan Jett, Lenny Kaye, and Ben Fong-Torres. The latter inexplicably features Jeff Daniels?!? Daniels is a wonderful actor but it’s hilariously jarring to see the star of Purple Rose of Cairo and Arachnophobia as a talking head next to guys like Kirk Hammett. Also, there must be something in the air since this is the second documentary I have written about this year that has lacked the ultimate talking head in everything from VH1’s I Love the 80’s Strikes Back to my personal favorite, American Sandwich: The Story of the Grilled Cheese, Mr. Henry Rollins. I have nothing against the cat and he can be a great asset in other films, but it’s nice to have some fresher faces and voices at play.
Creem: America’s Only Rock & Roll Magazine is a gut-right paen to not only the periodical or music, but the intrepid souls that had the moxie and the heart to create something new that did the most revolutionary thing any writer can do: talking with their readers. Not to them or at them, but as one of them. Respect is a quality that is earned and never should be given in this life. Creem, its writers (except for Christgau), and this documentary have all earned our respect.