They say if you remember the ’60s, you really weren’t there. Well, if you’re not trying to forget the ’80s, you definitely weren’t paying attention. Creem magazine barely even made it into “The Sixties”—the first issue hit the stands in March 1969, with 28 black-and-white newsprint pages and a center-spread map noting all the counter-culture goodies available in the monthly’s hometown of Detroit, including record stores, book stores, music venues, coffee shops, poster emporiums, and outlets such as the Monkey Boutique: “It has an Indian atmosphere—a Taj Mahal entrance, raga music, and beautiful Indian clothes. Primarily it contains innumerable hip accessories—incense, water pipes, candles, strobes, leather goods, and jewelry.” Oh yeah!—who needed New York, L.A., or London? Obviously, by the end of that turbulent decade, Motor City had found something besides Motown Records to toot some horn about.
That first issue set some important precedents, as Creem sought to separate itself from more established publications on the coasts—Rolling Stone, in San Francisco, and any number of periodicals in New York (such as the Village Voice), which were starting to cover rock music with more seriousness and extended column inches. Creem No. 1 featured this snippet of text in a large blank box:
This was to have been an interview with Procol Harum, but they wanted us to pay $5.00 for the privilege.
Maybe next time.
Gazing from our era of “fake news” and “lamestream media” attacks on the press, one can heartily applaud such journalistic ethics from half a century ago. And also wonder, slightly agog, why the management of Procol Harum—the English band whose 1967 mega-hit, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” has sold over 10,000,000 copies to date—was content to shake down a fledgling rock rag for a measly $40.36 in 2022 dollars. Elsewhere in that inaugural issue, the editors proved their bona fides by talking with “Tom Wilson, who has the reputation, given to him by people who know what they are talking about, of being the best independent record producer in the business.” Since Wilson worked with everyone from Sun Ra to Simon and Garfunkel, producing such seminal albums as Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’ and The Velvet Underground & Nico, it was clear Creem’s editors were cognizant that the best groups were only as good as their behind-the-scenes talent.
It’s fascinating to scroll through the Creem archive and watch—as ads and profits grow—the addition of color printing, ever more elaborate photo layouts, and increasingly imaginative graphics, including, for the male-skewing readership, buxom women from the unbridled id of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, who also created the mag’s anthropomorphized beer bottle mascot, Boy Howdy. One bottom-line-enhancing full-page ad, in the August 1969 issue, announced, “WOODSTOCK MUSIC & ART FAIR presents AN AQUARIAN EXPOSITION in WALLKILL, N.Y. 3 DAYS OF PEACE & MUSIC. All programs subject to change without notice.” More than two dozen acts were on the bill, including Joan Baez, Ravi Shankar, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, The Band, Janis, Jimi—seven bucks for one day or $18.00 for all three, which turned out to be a cheap entrée into the history books for a multitude of heads, hippies, and revelers of all stripes.
Lester, like the very best of friends, was always honest with you.
Wedged between those mistily remembered ’60s and the oblivious ’80s, we were—as a particularly cynical repackaging of Rolling Stones material was titled—Sucking in the Seventies. The Stones, in fact, loom over Creem’s heyday like the massive inflatable penis prop used during their 1975 American tour, no doubt partly due to the fact that writer and editor Lester Bangs was a passionate fan.
If the Stones were, by critical and popular decree, and even their own announcements from the stage, “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World,” Bangs likewise crowns the rock writer heap. He died in New York City in 1982, at age 33, when I was in college in Baltimore, so I never met him. Still, I know an editor who knew him and have heard the occasional story, which makes me feel like I was an acquaintance or maybe even a friend of Lester’s—solely a tribute to the intimacy of his writing, not to any insights of my own.
Lester, like the very best of friends, was always honest with you. Here he is in an August 1972 review of the band he reveres: “This is at once the worst studio album the Stones have ever made, and the most maddeningly inconsistent and strangely depressing release of their career. I have been listening to it night and day since it arrived, trying to get at what’s wrong with it besides the inferior musical quality of some of the songs.… The first time I listened to it I became utterly depressed.… It’s just a mass of admittedly scalding gruel beaded with Stones cliches … everybody gets tired (or old—a possibility that must be rather chilling for a Rolling Stone) … this is trash without the hard edge of fury and humor and grossness that trash excels at.” Then, he allows a glimmer of hope—“it must be admitted that there are moments on this album where the murk clears slightly.…”—before concluding, “It’s all so strange, I almost wish the record hadn’t come out, so we wouldn’t have to confront the decay of the Rolling Stones.” Indeed, Mick and Keith were 29 years old by the time the band released Exile on Main St.
The years in the previous decade during which these seminal rock writers and editors sweated over the facts, historical perspectives, and passion embedded in Creem’s prose are felt in the ’80s like a child’s face reflects a parent’s.
Then, like the joy that comes with reuniting after a breakup, Lester relives his love affair with the lads, in the January 1973 Creem: “My heroes ever since I got my first look at Mick’s leer way back in ’64: the decadent bad-ass princes we’ll never put down or lose! I saw them in 1964 on their second American tour, and in ’65 twice. The second time in December, I cried because I thought they’d turned away from the True Faith of Pure R & B and sold out to the crass commercialism of rock…. I said ‘Fuck it! Fuck them! Who needs ’em?’ And went staggering erratically in the general direction of Skid Row, dropping tears big as cantaloupes.” Lester and his girlfriend had been having their own troubles, and when she realized why the waterworks, she exploded: “Here I thought it was all because you loved me, when it’s really because you’re mad at the goddamned Rolling Stones.” As the article continues, the girlfriend goes the way of all memories, but Lester has to admit that he has wronged the Stones: “Exile On Main St. is the great step forward, an amplification of the tough insights of ‘Gimme Shelter’ and ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want.’ A brilliant projection of the nerve-torn nights that follow all the arrogant celebrations of self-demolition, a work of love and fear and humanity.”
Bangs’s writing, like the greatest music of any genre, happened in the moment. He sought to explain the sounds coming off stages and turntables by seeking the hearts and liver and lights and souls of the performers. December 1970: “The Stooges are probably the first name group to actually form before they even knew how to play. This is possibly the ultimate rock ’n’ roll story, because rock is mainly about beginnings, about youth and uncertainty and growing through and out of them.” March 1971: “Gazing across pop music’s stale horizons, past all the cynical ineptitude, pseudo-intellectual solemnity, neurotic regression and dismal deadends for great bands, there is one figure who stands above the murk forging an art at once adventurous and human: Don Van Vliet, known to a culture he’s making anachronistic as Captain Beefheart.” And in 1975: “Who else but Lou Reed would get himself fat as a pig, then hire the most cretinous band of teenage cortical cavities he could find to tote around the country on an all-time death drag tour? Who else would doze his way back over the pond in a giant secobarbital capsule and labor for months … to puke up Berlin, a gargantuan slab of maggoty rancor that may well be the most depressed album ever made?”
Me, I loved Berlin. And also Lou—as did Lester, the critic who praised the near-universally reviled Metal Machine Music thusly, “I take it about once a day, like vitamins.” Which is why he agonized in ink whenever he felt his musical heroes were letting him down. Lester was the friend you’d disagree with but would let rant because he was so damn sincere, so goddamned earnest. A standup guy who would threaten to punch you during an argument but would never let anyone else take a swing at you. And when Lester was calling out an act he despised—even if you’d been to a half dozen of their concerts and had all their albums—you’d read right along with him because he was so much fun: “Jethro Tull consolidated their position by tightening up their stage act. Their drawing power increased by geometric leaps every time they toured the states, and it wasn’t only the music. The crucial element, the focal point was Ian Anderson, wild-eyed waiscoattail whipping dervish who played long, violent, echo-chambered flute solos as if he were boxing with the instrument—the Eric Clapton of wind.” A classic Bangs two-fer—I winced at his assessment of Tull’s stagecraft trumping their music, yet loved his takedown of showboat Clapton. But in that 1973 article—“Jethro Tull in Vietnam”—Lester was all resplendent spleen, flying off the rails after he listens to a Folkways recording of traditional music from the people about whom President Nixon once said, “We’ll bomb those bastards right off the earth.” In that raw political clime, Lester rages at what he viewed as overblown, even manipulative, music from Tull, a band he decided had gone so far as to rip off musical motifs—uncredited—from Vietnamese history. Lester set out to bring “this bunch of Limey creeps” to righteous ruination: “I got Warner Brothers Records to fly me to Saigon, just to get this whole thing sorted out, scooped straight from the horse’s mouth.…” He gains an audience with corrupt South Vietnamese President Thieu, who’s hanging out with Idi Amin, crazed dictator of Uganda. When asked about Jethro Tull, Thieu tells Lester, “I don’t like them because you are right. They do sound like Vietnamese folk music, and I’m no folkie! I despise that jerky, over-rhythmic, open-ended clatter. Give me progressive jazz anytime—Peanuts Hucko, ‘Big’ Tiny Little—and I am happy. A man must move with the times, and the times demand bop: how can a man in my position say that bop is wrong?” Lester’s article made about as much sense as Tull’s lyrics, but you could enjoy the sheer ardor of both.
By the 1980s, Bangs had moved on and Creem was living La Vida ’80s by wittily skewering the era’s frantic decadence with such pseudo-sophisticated features as “Creem’s Profiles (Pronounced ‘Boy Howdy!’),” which ran down the stats of the act of the moment—or, in this case, from June 1982, an artist for the ages:
HOME: Blue Heaven.
AGE: Mannish boy.
HOBBIES: Taking care of little red roosters, getting all shook up, getting about as ready as any man can be, the blues.
LAST BOOK READ: Those Guys Stole My Music by Mick Jagger & Eric Burdon.
LAST ACCOMPLISHMENT: Writing one song that gave the world’s greatest rock band its name, the world’s greatest rock poet a song, and a national rock magazine its title.
QUOTE: “Got my mojo working … but it just don’t work on you!”
PROFILE: Making like a rollin’ stone, Muddy left his Mississippi home for the windy city and home of the blues. The rest is, as they say, musical history. Every time Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter or a host of others plug into the blues, they owe a debt to the first and the last of the great Chicago blues legends.
BEER: Boy Howdy!
Bangs had died shortly before that item appeared, but the years in the previous decade during which he and Dave Marsh and Greil Marcus and Susan Whitall and Jaan Uhelszki and other seminal rock writers and editors had sweated over the facts, historical perspectives, and passion embedded in Creem’s prose are felt in the ’80s like a child’s face reflects a parent’s. The garish covers from the Reagan years—Bono’s mullet on the May 1986 cover flows like Liberace’s cape—enticed kids to part with the trickle-down pittances burning away in their cargo shorts in order to luxuriate in fervid essays explicating how “Joan Jett Is a Very Nice Girl: The Public Vindication of an Ex-Runaway ,” and to embark on such fanciful flights as “Thinking of Babylon, Dreaming of Prince .” In 1984, reviewer Jeff Nesin struggled with his aural enjoyment of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., despite how “‘down, down, down’ the songs are. Not quite Nebraska’s acoustic meditations on mass murder, but it is all ‘Dead End Street’ with no ‘Waterloo Sunset.’” Not that lyrics about down-and-out Vietnam vets ever stopped the Gipper from blasting the title song at rallies during his 1984 re-election bid.
Maybe a decade that cynical outstripped even Creem’s ability to speak truth to record execs. The magazine ended with the November 1988 issue, a few months before Reagan’s second term rode off into the sunset.
Perhaps Creem’s archive, overflowing as it is with profound desires to do right by its readers, can remind us that journalism, even if just about rock music, needs always to go for the jugular—that’s the quickest way to the heart. ❖
Both Creem‘s archives and its newly launched quarterly print publication can be found at creem.com.