Creem magazine circa the 1970s was the acerbic, smart voice for a rock ’n’ roll generation, with gonzo rock writer Lester Bangs as its poster boy. Diminished by the mid-’80s, Creem limped to its finish line in 1988, leaving the generations since bereft of the monthly’s barbed humor, emphatic points of view, and fearless rock journalism. Of course, by then rock was dead, or dying. Or was it?
Creem is back to answer those questions, thanks to a Fall 2022 reboot of the print edition (now a quarterly) and the website. Could the pub possibly live up to its justifiably hype-filled history in today’s fraught, do-no-harm climate? As the Magic 8 Ball (the non-snortable kind) would say: “Reply hazy, try again.”
Old-school readers of the Detroit-bred Creem are skeptical but hopeful. The June 1 release of the mag’s entire archives online (224 issues, 69,000 photos) reminded music fans that, yes, Creem was as good as its unapologetically self-referential (and reverential) boasting—which sets the bar pretty high for new content under the ethos of honest, heartfelt rock criticism. (Not sure if there actually was an official founding credo, beyond the R. Crumb mascot’s ubiquitous “Boy Howdy!” salutation—but I think of it as Viv Savage’s succinctly stated maxim in Spinal Tap: “Have … a … good … time. All the time.”)
Bangs (who died in 1982) was viewed as the throbbing, bleeding heart of the original Creem, rousing and scabrous in equal measure. His legend got a boost from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s poignantly perfect turn as the rock critic in 2000’s Almost Famous, armed with acid bon mots like “Give me the Guess Who. They’ve got the courage to be drunken buffoons, which makes them poetic.”
Fresh Creem has its north star in OG Creem staffer Jaan Uhelszki as its editor emeritus.
“The difference between now and what we did the first time around; we didn’t know what we were doing then,” explains Uhelszki. “We had no credentials. We all dropped out of college. I was still in high school when I started, you know? We didn’t know anything, so we were making it up.”
One might argue that in this era of likes and clicks and trolls and scrolls, Creem may be betting on the revolutionary idea that the most cynical digital native could be shaken up by—gasp—authentic journalism and humor.
In her editorial role as a rock ’n’ roll guiding light, Uhelszki blesses or disses ideas and copy. Fortunately, the masthead and freelancers both “really do have sick senses of humor. And when they don’t, I just go, ‘nuh-uh, this isn’t Creem,’” she says, speaking from her home in the California desert. “I really am adamant that nothing average should go in Creem.”
That Creem style is fueled by staffers, a couple of whom hail from Vice and Jackass. There’s no doubt that those two outlets—however stupid, funny, controversial, and sometimes cringe-worthy they might be—bring chutzpah and savvy to the party. “I want to be very careful about how I phrase this,” begins Creem CEO John Martin. “Creem will definitely offend people. Creem will offend the right people. Creem will not go out of its way to be egregiously offensive and without humor. It’s not going to be for everyone. I worked at Vice for a long time, right? So I’m pretty attuned to content that can be.…” He pauses. “Off-putting to people. And challenging.”
Martin knows that an older demo might whine that fresh Creem isn’t exactly what they recall from back in the day, i.e., a Creem’s Profile pic of Grace Slick with one breast exposed, or a photo of Ted Nugent with the caption, “I wanna be your dad.” Or the 1977 “Creem Dreem” page, in which the sisters from Heart flipped the script on the monthly feature’s usual female flesh-palooza by pulling grotesque faces and wearing maxi dresses that between the two of them exposed only a single kneecap and a few inches of midriff.
The hoary crowd has memories, but a new version of “offensive” might be enough to blow some millennial minds. “I’m pretty sure there will be people who haven’t seen, let’s call it ‘negativity’ or ‘criticism,’ or ‘shit-talking’—just having fun in a jocular sense—in music journalism. They’ve never seen that because they grew up in the era of likes and clicks,” says Martin.
The staff and freelancers don’t seem to be household names in the rock writer world, but if Creem’s origin story rests in part as a “fuck you” to Rolling Stone (and it does), that’s a role it can try to take on again with fresh voices. Yet, as the rock star of rock journos, the (in)famous Bangs shadow looms large for readers. That said, “No one is the ‘new’ Lester Bangs. Lester Bangs was Lester Bangs,” states Martin. As has been its wont, Creem ’22 seems populated by music and ideas the staff deems cool, be it rock, punk, or stuff for music nerds, like “An oral history of Crazy Horses, the 1972 Osmonds album that secretly rocks.” The first print issue also includes the Viagra Boys, Special Interest, Lydia Lunch, Kurt Vile, Slash, and Uhelszki’s “Questions & Jaanswers” advice column.
And they’ve landed on a terrific idea in an ongoing series, CreemAINS. Exemplified in a piece titled “The Last British Man With Charisma,” by Hannah Ewens, the subtitle, “Lester Bangs hated ‘Exile on Main St.’—was he wrong?” allows for debate about the original review/opinion. The column’s raison d’etre is explained as “Because we like ourselves a little too much, every now and again, we’re going to review past Creem reviews in a series called CreemAINS.”
One might argue that in this era of likes and clicks and trolls and scrolls, Creem may be betting on the revolutionary idea that the most cynical digital native could be shaken up by—gasp—authentic journalism and humor. Martin calls out the “unrelenting, ridiculous positivity” of many music sites, and says Creem intends to bring back “a tone of voice and a backbone,” in contrast to fawning no-opinion pieces designed to be ingratiating to, as Hoffman-as-Bangs called the music industry, “swill merchants.”
“What’s been missing, definitely, over the last two decades, is no one’s really had a good tone of voice, and Creem had that tone. But to be very specific, are we gonna go out of our way to take potshots and be ridiculously offensive? No.”
With National Lampoon (gone since the late ’90s) and MAD magazine (R.I.P. since 2018, when its heyday was long in the rear-view) not even reference points for many of today’s alleged culture vultures, Creem may have to retrain to retain readers. It’s a tough line to walk between smart-offensive and dumb-offensive. Creem at its best managed to do both at once, thanks to the obsessive musical passion and knowledge of the pub’s creators. Uhelszki, who has remained at the top of the game since Creem dreamy articles such as “I Dreamed I Was Onstage with KISS in My Maidenform Bra,” seems to have lost none of her unfettered enthusiasm. “Now, as then, I like mystery in my rock. I like unknowable rock stars. When you’re writing about bands, you’re trying to solve the mystery of who they are,” she says. “Because, on some level, I hold on to the idea that rock stars are different than we are.”
But there’s no kowtowing or kid gloves. Rather, she explains of the real-deals, “They’re tapped into some kind of conduit from the other world. They seem to get information—maybe they get the same information we do, but they process it differently. And I like that idea.”
If Uhelszki stands as a torchbearer, she’s joined by someone she’s known since his birth: Creem chairman J.J. Kramer. As Kramer elucidates in the debut print issue: “My father, Barry Kramer, was Creem’s founder and publisher. In January 1981 (just as Creem was entering its 12th year of print), he died of a drug overdose. He left Creem to me. I was 4 years old.”
The intervening years saw lawsuits related to Creem’s ownership, trademark, and intellectual property, but, not so coincidentally, Kramer is an intellectual property attorney who, in 2017, re-acquired the Creem brand and its archives and who worked tirelessly to make Creem rise.
CEO Martin calls out the success and social media excitement around the Mötley Crüe biopic The Dirt, on Netflix, and the Queen biopic as harbingers of a renewed interest in capital R rock that bodes well for the brand. Additionally, a couple more ’80s rock docs and series, due by year’s end, plus the launch of Almost Famous on Broadway, demonstrate that nostalgia isn’t going away anytime soon. Plus, a spate of bands—including Italian sensations Maneskin, L.A.’s Starcrawler, Brooklyn-born King Princess, and Brit singer Yungblud—bring a ’70s-inspired decadence and openness to bear, while Idles, Suzi Moon, Ezra Furman, The Black Belles, and Horsegirl likewise offer up substance, style, and a je ne sais quoi that’s hard to categorize but easy to worship.
“These signs [that rock is back] are in the air. The last couple of years, people have been locked down, and they want some relief, they want to have a good time,” Martin opines. “Rock and roll is fundamentally about that. It’s sort of this cathartic, collective expression of joy that, whether you’re a heavy metal fan or you’re a singer-songwriter, you’re communing together to have this experience. And that’s why we all do it.
“I feel like if it’s not now, it’s going to be never,” Martin concludes about Creem’s rebirth. “I do think there’s a vibe shift, pendulum swing, and you’re gonna see more rock bands get elevated, and Creem is gonna be part of that.”
Uhelszki, at once reverent and unflinchingly journalistic in her approach, sees herself as a warrior. “When you do this in the old-school way, you’re helping to interpret what [a musician] says, whether it’s lyrics, or it’s something they say, an interview, or something you observe when you’re in their presence.”
But when the lights come up, then comes the late-night toil at the keyboard. “You’re decoding it for the people who you’re writing for. It’s like this funny chain of command, like something holy or otherworldly, or something mysterious or something arcane,” Uhelszki muses. “You try to unravel, and then you disseminate it to the people who are your audience, and their audience, too. I just like that whole close relationship between reader and rock star, being a link in that chain. That’s so satisfying to me.” ❖
Katherine Turman has written for Entertainment Weekly, Spin, Billboard, and other publications, is the author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, and produces the classic rock radio program Nights With Alice Cooper. She lives in Brooklyn.
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