If Rolling Stone aspired (after somewhat “underground” beginnings) to be the Rolls Royce of rock magazines, CREEM was by contrast the Volkwagen band-van: pungent with reefer, speed sweat, and last night’s groupie action. The hubris that had it self-dubbed “America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine” was strictly of a working-class, sex-drugs-and-you-know-what variety that ridiculed all upscaling pretensions, musical or otherwise. Scott Crawford’s documentary, originally titles “Boy Howdy! The Story of CREEM Magazine,” is a brief, careening survey through the publication’s two-decade life and times, filled with colorful personalities and commentary. Vintage rock fans will be in (cough) high heaven.
The director’s prior feature was 2014’s “Salad Days,” a history of the influential Washington, D.C., hardcore punk scene. While this sophomore effort numbers late CREEM publisher Barry Kramer’s surviving ex-wife and son among its producers, it provides a similarly critical overview of another enterprise whose creativity largely sprang from the volatility of the personalities involved.
Starting as a regional publication, and forever kicking against the coastal biases of the music industry and entertainment media, CREEM launched in a 1969 Detroit already shaken by racial strife and “white flight.” Kramer’s co-founder Tony Reay hoped for an erudite blues-rock forum (hence the monicker nod to then-supergroup Cream). Within a few issues he was out, and in hiring new editor Dave Marsh, Kramer found a sparring partner more in tune with his own goals. Which were to create a mag both populist and subversive, something whose possession was what locally-raised actor Jeff Daniels calls akin to “buying Playboy — you didn’t want your parents to see either one of them.”
Working in a space over a record store-cum-headshop in a “decrepit” inner-city neighborhood before a disastrous two-year move to their own rural “commune,” the staff were “all a little crazy,” with Kramer (whom one person here muses may have been bipolar) hardly a stabilizing influence. His clashes with Marsh finally drove the latter to greener pastures, i.e. Rolling Stone. A longer, in many ways defining resident was Lester Bangs, whose gonzo writings pushed even this mag’s envelope in terms of brilliant insight mixed with juvenile impudence often tipping into straight-up insult. While their vehicle often poked fun at hedonistic rock-star excesses, both Kramer and Bangs would burn their candles at both ends to premature demises by the early 1980s.
CREEM’s outrageousness had a sort of permanently-adolescent-male tenor, and was largely aimed at that audience, with no end of sexist japery clinching the deal. (“It was the ’70s, so sue me,” shrugs one female ex-contributor here.) But it also provided foot-in-door opportunity to a lot of women journalists, who in turn mentored others. In addition, its shameless testosterone-driven character meant it was an early embracer of metal and punk music — two realms that stodgy Rolling Stone shunned until its grudging acceptance itself seemed old-fogeyish. The Detroit acts it stubbornly championed, like MC5 and The Stooges, in many ways anticipated those genres, which were themselves as anti-aspirational as the magazine itself.
When Kramer died in 1981, Connie Kramer wanted it to keep it going as a “legacy” for their son JJ, but CREEM ran out of steam at decade’s end. Still, it’s fondly remembered by many here, from critics and contributors to stars of its heyday (Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent), as well as future members of R.E.M., Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam and more, whose rock dreams were fueled by its non-parentally-approved pages.
In addition to the plethora of latter-day talking-head interviews, Crawford’s very lively package incorporates crude old office videotapes, musical performance snippets, and some simple animation. If anything, “Boy Howdy!” (named after CREEM’s R. Crumb-designed “mascot” figure) is too brisk, not even reaching the 70-minute mark before its final credits. While “Salad Days” mined its subject a little too exhaustively, one gets the sense here that Crawford has barely scratched the surface in terms of outlandish vintage “I’m with the band” (or with Lester Bangs) stories, for starters.
Still, it’s always good to leave ‘em wanting more, and this compact, well-crafted documentary will no doubt make viewers comb eBay and garage sale print stacks for all the old CREEM issues they can find.