In 1971 music critic legend Lester Bangs hailed Detroit’s musical influence, calling the city “rock’s only hope” having moved there to take the reigns as Editor of Creem magazine, the irreverent and sardonic rock music bible founded in Detroit by the late Barry Kramer. As the self-assigned voice of ‘punk’, a term coined within the magazine’s pages in 1971 by critic Dave Marsh, Creem represented a brave new world of independent zine publishing. “It was my kind of dysfunctional place,” explains Jaan Uhelszki, Senior Editor of Creem during the 70s.
Now comes a new Kickstarter-funded documentary tracing Creem’s iconic history. Directed by Scott Crawford – a onetime music magazine editor/publisher inspired by CREEM to write about music and culture – Boy Howdy! The Story of CREEM Magazine is the brainchild of producer and now Creem CEO and owner J.J. Kramer (Barry Kramer’s son); it’s a story he’s wanted to tell his entire life, and thanks to contributors from around the globe, his wish is finally realised.
We caught up with CREEM’s former Senior Editor Uhelszki to dig deep in the magazine’s archives. From Grace Slick’s exposed left breast to Kramer dumping a full trash can over Iggy’s head, this trailblazing magazine has unheard stories that are finally being unleashed.
Alex James Taylor: When did you start working at Creem?
Jaan Uhelszki: I was working at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, where all the major British bands would play – The Yardbirds, Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Jethro Tull, as well as local stars MC5, the Stooges, Alice Cooper, and an ever rotating cast of tremendous local bands. I was the Coca-Cola girl there and my job was not only to dispense soft drinks, give them to the visiting dignitaries/bands, but most importantly make sure no one dosed the drinks with LSD. Creem Magazine had a kiosk right next to the bar where I worked, where they sold the magazine. I used to tell the people who staffed the booth that they could have a never-ending supply of drinks, if they would let me work for the mag.
Grande Ballroom’s owner, Russ Gibb, was a minority stockholder in Creem, so I thought that it would be a natural transition for me to get a job with the magazine. I believed I had the right credentials – I knew band statistics like they were batting averages for the American League (I could tell you what band Peter Green played in before Fleetwood Mac, the original members of King Crimson, and all the neck sizes of the Beatles) –not to mention all those sodas I had distributed into the very hands of all those rock gods
I first started working for them in mid-1970, unofficially. I convinced them to let me start up a Creem t-shirt business. I managed a small boutique at a nearby mall and I had a friend whose dad owned a silk screen printing business. From him I was able to get white short sleeve shirts cheaply and he gave me an incredible deal on the printing. I sold the shirts in my store and didn’t take a cut, and the rest we sold through mail order. I did it so they would hire me as a writer. But nope, my entrepreneurial skills landed me a job as “The Subscription Kid.” I managed the subscription department and oversaw the record stores and head shops that sold the magazine, and wrote reviews at night. For a very long time.
AJT: And what was the team at Creem when you joined?
JU: When I joined none of us had titles, just a staff box with our names in alphabetical order: we lived in a commune, we were very egalitarian. It was Dave Marsh (editor), Charles Auringer (photo/art director), Barry Kramer (publisher) Ric Siegel (associate publisher), Roberta Cruger (assistant to the publisher), Lester Bangs (record review editor), Ben Edmonds (assistant editor), Jaan Uhelszki (subscription kid/circulation manager).
“It was where The Who rehearsed and debuted Tommy, where the then called Psychedelic Stooges played their second public gig, in their “space angel phase,” where Iggy performed in a long white christening robe with his face completely whitened, wearing a chrome headdress constructed from iron and starched strips of Reynolds Wrap.”
AJT:What drew you to the magazine?
JU: Creem used to run an ad that said, “Do It. This is just to say we want you! That should’ve been obvious all along, of course, but just in case it isn’t here’s the deal: NOBODY WHO WRITES FOR THIS RAG’S GOT ANYTHING YOU AINT GOT, at least in the way of credentials. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be sending us your stuff…Sure, we don’t pay much, but then who else do ya know who’ll publish you? We really will…ask any of our dozens of satisfied customers….Whaddya got to lose? Whaddya got.”
But more than that, they had an irreverent spirit and didn’t take themselves or the bands too seriously. It was my kind of dysfunctional place.
AJT: How long were you there for?
JU: Six years – moving from subscriptions, to assistant editor, movie editor, features editor, to senior editor (co-senior editor with Lester).
AJT: What was the feeling in Detroit when you started working on Creem? Did it feel like something special was happening in Detroit, did you feel at the heart of something?
JU: Yes, it felt like something extraordinary was happening. Mostly centered around the aforementioned Grande Ballroom, the Motor City’s answer to the Fillmore East and West. It was a very hip spot, and sooner or later all the major rock acts played there. It was where The Who rehearsed and debuted Tommy, where the then called Psychedelic Stooges played their second public gig, in their “space angel phase,” where Iggy performed in a long white christening robe with his face completely whitened, wearing a chrome headdress constructed from iron and starched strips of Reynolds Wrap. It was where the MC5’s recorded their debut album Kick Out the Jams, and dropped the “MF” bomb that was heard around the world, and where a young (and oddly shy) Rod Stewart hid behind the amps as the singer of the Jeff Beck Band. And that’s just the tip of that proverbial iceberg.
The Alice Cooper Band rented a house on the outskirts of Detroit and Bob Ezrin moved in, and produced the two albums that would launch their career. The Who played my high school, and Iggy played a rival school. Teen age girls used to follow Mitch Ryder around the local shopping mall, and years later Kiss all but moved into the city, writing Detroit Rock City.
I remember thinking that I was probably watching musical history in the making while I worked at the Grande (and later when I was at Creem) and I wanted to remember everything. Even the ill founded and very violent Love-In in April 1967 that MC5 played, which turned into a full scale riot, where police on horseback bashed in hippies heads. I had to hideout in a gas station and called my dad to come and pick me up. Wayne Kramer used to say “The Summer of Love never made it to Detroit.” Things like that make me want to agree. It’s currently fashionable to say, “If you remember the ‘60s, you weren’t there,” but back then I wanted both to remember and record them. Luckily there were like-minded people like Lester Bangs, Ben Edmonds, Dave Marsh, Roberta Cruger and Charley Auringer who thought the same thing.
Leslie Brown Alexander, Jaan Uhelszki, and Connie Kramer with Leslie West. Photo by Charlie Auringer
AJT: When you were at Creem there was a pretty legendary editorial team, with you included. Do you have any funny stories from that time working with Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, etc.
JU: Lester and l stuffed the ballot box in Creem’s annual reader’s poll. The first time we did it we rolled on the floor, shrieking with laughter at our ingenious entries, wondering why we should have treated this particular event with any more reverence than anything else we did. (Could that be why both Lester and I were in the top three of the critics of the year for five years running?) Ben Edmonds, the managing editor, tried to stop us, but we were too far gone in our revelry, and we knew that he was more concerned that we didn’t expunge his own votes than with the impropriety of it all. It was that kind of place.
Debbie Harry, Creem magazine, 1976 Photo by Chris Stein
“We were all part of the same thing when we started the magazine. Working for the same side. Access was never an issue. Bands just would show up at our offices. One time Iggy was visiting and Barry Kramer dumped a full trash can over his head.”
AJT: So, Boy Howdy! The Story of CREEM Magazine is being made. How did you get involved in this documentary project?
JU: I was in Detroit visiting my parents. I had remained friends with Connie Kramer (Barry Kramer’s wife) and we were having breakfast one morning. Connie mentioned that her son, J.J. Kramer, who was a lawyer in Ohio, wanted to return to Detroit and pick up where his father left off, and get involved in some sort of media venture. She wasn’t sure that was the right move for him since he was a very successful lawyer. I had worked at Harp Magazine for six years, and the editor Scott Crawford had always wanted to make a documentary about Creem. He had just finished Salad Days, his doc on the D.C. punk scene. I thought putting the two of them together would accomplish two goals.
AJT: Was it hard to track people down or do you keep in contact with most of them??
JU: I had kept in touch with most of the writers/contributors. We were always a close group. The fraternity of outsiders.
3729 Cass Ave., the Detroit Creem office circa 1969–70. Creem was on the second floor. Barry’s apartment and Mitch Ryder’s band practice space were on the third floor, and staff apartments’ in an addition in back. And prositutes worked the street out front with Mitch Ryder’s music blasting. Photo by Charlie Auringer
AJT: Creem was known for slating quite a lot of bands, did this ever backfire on you? Did any musicians get mad at you guys?
JU: All the time. But it was more a right of passage. You knew if you were agreeing to an interview with us, you were bound to be insulted. Grace Slick always felt she was manipulated into showing her breast for a Creem profile by Lester Bangs (she wasn’t). The Small Faces hated something Dave Marsh wrote and when we went to see them Dave sent in a copy of Creem, ten minutes later they threw it out, ripped to shreds. Lou Reed’s famous fights with Lester were legendary, he later told me that Lester took advantage of him when he was at a low point. One night Lester and I went to a dinner for Slade and we started ribbing them about something, and that turned into a full out food fight. But it wasn’t so much malicious as it was just bratty. We never put musicians on pedestals. We were all part of the same thing when we started the magazine. Working for the same side. Access was never an issue. Bands just would show up at our offices. One time Iggy was visiting and Barry Kramer dumped a full trash can over his head.
Lester Bangs with Bruce Springsteen. Photo by Charles Auringer.
AJT: Do you have a favourite CREEM cover you worked on?
JU: Every single one was always accompanied by a massive argument. Typewriters flew, light tables smashed. We were an outspoken bunch. Not a cover, but I loved the time we had lured Mountain guitarist Leslie West to a White Castle fast food restaurant where he laid on the linoleum and Connie Kramer, her assistant Leslie Brown and I covered West in hamburgers. I swear I don’t remember what the story was about but I will always remember those hundreds of greasy burgers. The Iggy Pop shoot with him sitting on the floor with a stack of 45s was memorable.
Creem April 1974
Find out more about Boy Howdy! The Story of CREEM Magazine here.