“Rock stars are not our friends!” The wild story of CREEM magazine, America’s countercultural bible

'Boy Howdy: The Story of CREEM' tells the story of the US magazine which reported rock'n'roll from the trenches for 20 years

“You’d go up these rickety stairs and it was like a crash pad: everything was dirty, there were stacks of papers, records, cigarette ashes,” CREEM co-founding editor Jaan Uhelszki says about the newsroom of “America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine”.

“You basically had to find a little place where you could work in peace. There was this crazy, bristling manic energy in the office with larger-than-life characters.”

This month, a new documentary film Boy Howdy: The Story of CREEM takes a gritty, in-depth look at the legendary Detroit magazine and the bunch of misfits that made it all possible. During the two decades of its existence, the magazine ripped apart convention with its groundbreaking participatory journalism, running pivotal and often controversial interviews with the likes of Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Alice Cooper and many more.

Whether it was infamous journalists like the late Lester Bangs punching away at his typewriter while onstage with artists, or the aforementioned Uhelszki appearing onstage with KISS in full make-up, there were many moments that came to embody this iconic publication. “I think we were as rock as the rock stars,” Uhelszki reasons. “We were really like a band, we had the same strange dynamic. I think it’s because we operated on similar terms: we didn’t put rock stars on pedestals. I think we were showing rock and roll from the trenches: we were in it, we lived it, we went on the road with bands for two weeks at a time, we got close to them. We didn’t try to pretty it up, we were just really a mirror reflecting back what rock was at that time.”

Ahead of next week’s UK premiere of Boy Howdy at the Raindance Film Festival in London (September 19-20), director Scott Crawford, music supervisor Kevin Moyer and former CREEM writer Uhelszki talk NME through some of the magazine’s most definitive moments.

Lester Bangs sets the music journalist archetype

CREEM was defined by the people who ran it — the writers were rock stars in their own right. Lester Bangs, who was portrayed in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film Almost Famous by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, is perhaps the most famous name to have worked at the magazine. Uhelszki started in the office on the same day as Lester, and she explains what made him such a star character.“We immediately bonded and saw something in each other. He would rile up rock stars perfectly. Lester was the kind of guy who said the truest things in jest, he was a charming clown — but there was this huge intelligence behind it; he would just elicit the greatest responses out of people.

“What really got me though was that we would work crazy hours — if we were lucky, we’d leave at two or three in the morning — Lester would be on the phone after all that, he’d be calling people up who’d written him letters, or writers who were trying to get into CREEM. He’d give advice long into the night,” she recalls. “Lester was so untamed, he was so self-taught about every single thing. Lester and I used to have this football chant: before either of us would go off on an interview, we’d go: ‘Rock stars are not our friends! Rock stars are not our friends!’ Both of us thought you couldn’t be a good journalist if you were palling around with rock stars. So that’s always stuck in my head: that’s the way to do it, not to get too close.”

Lou Reed versus Lester Bangs

Bangs had an infamous love/hate relationship with the late, great Lou Reed. “They had a mutual admiration matched with mutual torment,” Moyer explains. “There are interviews where they are literally insulting each other straight to each other’s face. But even with all the venom spewed, Lester loved Lou. He even eventually wrote an article for CREEM about the widely disparaged ‘Metal Machine Music’ album that he titled ‘The Greatest Album Ever Made’.”

Uhelszki adds: “I interviewed Lou Reed in 2005 and he said, ‘If Lester loved me so much, then why did he have to attack me every day? It wasn’t like I didn’t have problems of my own back then.’ They were just combative times. Lester was the kind of guy who said the truest things in jest: he was a charming clown, but there was this huge intelligence behind it and he would just elicit the greatest responses out of people. We ended up having a food fight with the members of Slade because he told them they were a poppy little hit band and they took offence.”

Going undercover with KISS

Perhaps the finest music gonzo journalism moment in existence occurred when Uhelszki ended up being in the show she was writing about when she appeared on-stage with KISS in full make-up. She recalls the affair vividly: “The promotions team were trying to market KISS so aggressively: they would send us gifts, they’d wine and dine us, they had all of this promotional stuff. So I phoned promotions and said I would love to do this story on KISS but I would like to be part of the band. He tried to talk me out of it and didn’t know what I meant. I said: ‘No, I want to be a part of KISS’. He called me back at the end of the day and said: ‘OK, we can do it — as long as you promise not to call them a glam band.’

KISS

“Anyway, a week later, they roll into town and I go to the soundcheck to get the lay of the land,” she continues. “I’d met the guys before but I wanted to be able to let them know that I wanted to do this and see if they had any tips. Nobody had told them that I was going to do this, so it was kind of awkward — I had to convince them, too. Honestly, until the day I did it, I thought: Can I really do this? Anyway, they really treated me like one of the guys. They showed me the moves on what to do, it was one of those crazy moments where I got inside what it was like. I understood why people are so addicted to the stage: there were 5000 kids there but there was this palatable power, this energy that you get back from the audience.”

Onstage music journalism with the J. Geils Band

Reportedly inspired by the boredom of a pre-show interview with J. Geils, Lester Bangs was invited to perform with the band at their huge Cobo Arena show in Detroit. He ended up on-stage punching out a piece on a Smith Corona typewriter complete with a microphone, before destroying it at the end of the show in true rock and roll style. The moment went down in rock journalism folklore, and Uhelszki recalls it well.

“I remember he got invited and just said, ‘Sure, I’ll do that.’ I remember the big-talking, big personality Lester was scared shitless before he went on. I was standing at the side of the stage at Cobo Arena and honestly, he was shaking in his boots, it was really a sweet moment. Lester was charmed by them and I think they were always charmed by him. For some reason, I think J. Geils really tickled Lester and he never wrote a bad word about him. For Lester, it was a really pivotal moment. I think it really affected him, that power of feeling what a rock star feels. It was one of those moments that shifted his consciousness.”

Educating Kurt Cobain

Melvins guitarist Roger ‘Buzz’ Osborne reportedly taught Kurt Cobain about punk by loaning him records and old copies of CREEM. Cobain often credited reading the magazine as his introduction to punk rock and underground music in general, once telling Billboard: “I was about 12. But I did follow it through CREEM magazine, wishing I could be there. I was getting into punk in the early ’80s through hardcore.”

Moyer enthuses: “I mean, when you have one of the most iconic artists in recent music using your magazine as a punk textbook and guide, that’s saying something. Lester Bangs was one of Kurt’s favourite writers.”

Led Zeppelin break the walls down – literally

“I was reading old CREEM magazines that we found in my friends garage, and I remember the tales of debauchery detailed in the pages long before it was common newsprint fodder,” Moyer recalls. “This was before the internet and cable TV and TMZ — all you had was a few corporate-controlled networks and radio stations. So reading this stuff, the rock’n’roll excesses and behaviours, was something different, something you couldn’t really find elsewhere — like someone in the film says, reading CREEM felt like something you weren’t supposed to be doing as a kid, you didn’t want your parents to find out.

“Often the CREEM writers themselves gave it to the artists as rough as the artists gave it to their own hotel rooms on tour: remember the days of smashed TVs flying out windows?  I think it was Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin who smashed through the wall of Jaan’s hotel room when she was sleeping and announced himself as the ‘Prince of Peace’ and that he was ‘ready for his interview’. She toured with Led Zeppelin for a week and only then was she given interview access. CREEM was bold enough to put it in print — and this from a band who was notoriously wary of the press.”

Coining the term punk rock

CREEM‘s in-depth coverage of proto-punk outfits like the Stooges and MC5 was there from the very beginning,” Scott Crawford, the director of the new documentary, explains. “As such, it’s no surprise that CREEM‘s editor Dave Marsh is often credited with coining the term ‘punk rock’ when reviewing a Question Mark & The Mysterians LP. As seen in the film, it’s a point that not everyone agrees with. Regardless, CREEM‘s aesthetic from day one was about as ‘punk’ as it gets.”

Starting political revolutions

CREEM famously published an article written by letter from prison by the former manager of the MC5. “John Sinclair hung out with John Lennon and Yoko Ono and founded [far-left, anti-racist, white American political collective] White Panther Party,” Moyer says. “He was serving time on a drug bust, skewering the very artists he used to represent. The MC5 were a huge part of the Detroit music scene, just as CREEM magazine was too. I know that falling out hurt Wayne Kramer of the MC5, who also scored our film, when John wrote to him saying: ‘You guys wanted to be bigger than The Beatles, but I wanted you to be bigger than Chairman Mao’. And they weren’t invited to perform at his benefit gig. MC5 then signed with Danny Fields, but I think they’ve since made up. Regardless, not only was the music that the MC5 made together, in partnership with John, fuel onto fire musically, but it was also a big moment or intersection between rock’n’roll and revolution.”

Facing the wrath of Joan Jett

These days any musician wishing to storm into an office to complain about a review would find themselves halted at security, asked for a pass and most likely asked to leave. Back then, though, times were different. “An angry Joan Jett famously showed up at CREEM headquarters and threatened to kick the magazine boys asses after they gave her band a bad review,” Moyer recalls.

Getting comix legend R. Crumb on board

“In 1969, underground comic artist R.Crumb was paid fifty dollars to create a CREEM logo,” Crawford explains. “The result was the iconic ‘Boy Howdy’ character that became synonymous with the magazine and its merchandise. CREEM‘s editor at the time befriended Crumb when he walked into the head shop that publisher Barry Kramer ran at the time.”

Boy Howdy is at the Raindance Film Festival in London (September 19-20)