No one is quite sure exactly what the spark was that lit the fires of imagination in wildcatting Detroit impresario and hippie businessman Barry Kramer, 26, to start his own rock magazine. He was already a partner in an ambitious management company-cum-booking agency that was guiding the fortunes of soon-to-be Michigan rock behemoths Alice Cooper, Bob Seger, and Ted Nugent.
When that wasn’t keeping him busy, Kramer also ran a small, well-curated record outlet called Full Circle and a head shop called Mixed Media, two stores that became counterculture hubs for hipsters like Zap Comic artist R. Crumb, who offered to draw something in exchange for a small pittance (Kramer took him up on the offer and gave him $50 for a picture of a demented milk bottle, which is how the iconic Boy Howdy! logo was born.)
Friends insist that the inspiration for CREEM came when in 1967 Kramer visited London’s Carnaby Street, where along with snakeskin boots he picked up music papers like NME and Melody Maker, which came out on a weekly basis. But more likely, it all came together when Kramer hired English expat, blues fan and occasional scribe Tony Reay in the summer of 1968 to work at Full Circle.
Rakish, with straight dark hair that fell into his angular face, Reay looked more like an errant member of Moby Grape than a record store clerk. Opinionated and passionate about the homegrown Michigan band scene, he convinced Kramer one night when they were closing the store that they should start a local music magazine in this music town. In a moment of weed inspiration, they laughed themselves silly, deciding to call it CREEM, after Eric Clapton’s power trio Cream, and one of Reay’s favorite bands, both an homage and a nose-thumb for the fledgling Rolling Stone, which had been in business for little over a year. It was launched on March 1, 1969, the very same day that the Doors’ Jim Morrison exposed himself in front of 12,000 surly fans at the Dinner Key Auditorium in Coconut Grove, Florida. It seemed to be an augury.
Like Reay, the first staffers came from Kramer’s employees at his stores — Bob Stark and Resa Jannett became a contributing editor and calendar editor respectively — and customers, such as jazz writer Richard C. Walls, who has the distinction of being in the first issue of the magazine and the last.
The rest were roommates and friends that he pressed into duty: Dan Carlisle, a DJ at a local FM station who lived in the same house as Kramer, along with photographer Charlie Auringer, who become the photo and art director until the final issue.
MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer said that the Summer of Love never made it to Detroit. And for the most part, he was right.
Most of the coverage in those early issues consisted of concert and record reviews, and a stinging and scintillatingly accurate gossip column written by Reay under the nom de plume of Ice Alexander. There were also a number of guerilla interviews with bands that the writers would comer after a show at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, blagging their way backstage to grill such exalted personages as Spencer Davis, Jeff Beck, and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson.
By the end of 1969, along with local stores and venues, national record companies started advertising. About this time, Kramer started making plans to improve distribution and expand the magazine from its 28 pages. He brought in his childhood pal Richard Siegel, who had helped create a “strike” newspaper during a labor dispute with the newspaper guild in the mid-1960s that had stopped the distribution of Detroit’s two dailies. The two of them started plotting to go national.
This ambitious plan was at odds with Reay’s idea of a local cultural rag/underground newspaper that served the community, which was why he exited the magazine and was replaced with the equally mercurial Dave Marsh. Tightly wound and a nascent member of John Sinclair’s radical White Panther party, he was on the courthouse steps when Sinclair, Detroit’s unofficial King of the Hippies, was sentenced for 10 years for two marijuana cigarettes.
Marsh, a former high school journalist who’d written a few things for the Wayne State college newspaper, later said he basically “talked my way into CREEM” — first asking to rent a room at the headquarters and then later to write for the magazine. But his timing was impeccable, given Reay’s exit.
MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer said that the Summer of Love never made it to Detroit. And for the most part, he was right. The gritty reality of life in the Motor City at the butt end of the ‘60s had more to do with steering columns than love beads, and in the aftermath of the riots that raged through the city for five toxic days in July 1967 — ranked as one of the deadliest civil disturbances in the United States, requiring the National Guard and the United States Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to subdue seething violence and destruction that resulted in 43 deaths -it was a place that had more to do with hate than love.
Even the music that streamed out of the ballrooms, teen clubs and the tinny AM radios in Detroit wasn’t a soundtrack to any kind of hippie frippery or innocent notions of peace and love, like those gentle pacific sounds wafting out of California on phantasmagoric clouds of hashish smoke and enlightenment. Nope. It was the bellicose buzz of the auto plants that was replicated in the primitive music and sex yodels of Iggy and the Stooges or the choleric vitriol of the mighty MC5, with their war whoop of “Kick out the jams, motherfucker,” a phrase that was more insult than threat. It was the urban despair and heartache of Motown’s best: the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and the Miracles. Or it was onetime teen idol Mitch Ryder demanding that you “Sock It To Me, Baby,” a ham-fisted euphemism for ardor in this rather uncouth town, a place full of piss and bad attitude, with very little patience for platitudes or bromides.
The city was as much an element in the success and character of CREEM magazine as any of the sainted writers who sat in front of an IBM Selectric. Detroit was a place whose unofficial motto was “Make Me”; its creed, “Abuse is Love”; and where there were no rules, regulations, statutes or imperatives that a native could happily follow. The only rules Detroiters didn’t break were the ones they cooked up themselves, making it the perfect birthing place for a publication that was inventing new ways of writing about music, culture and in the early years, politics that were unlike what any other publication had done before. It was a smart mix of erudition and impertinence, irreverence and respect, bald truth-telling and mockery, executed with fearless bravado.
Friends insist that the inspiration for CREEM came when Kramer visited Carnaby Street in 1967.
It borrowed some of the tenets of New Journalism, a relatively new literary movement in March 1969 when CREEM began, embraced by Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, and Gay Talese, in which reporters immersed themselves in their stories, often appearing as character in the pieces, their impressions and actions carrying equal valance as the celebrity they were interviewing. It was completely at odds with traditional journalism, when the writer was invisible, the use of the personal pronoun verboten and the reporting objective.
From the very first, the CREEM staff made journalism a contact sport, attempting to wrestle some of the biggest stars off their pedestals on Mt. Olympus, then giving readers the play-by-play of the affrays — as with Lester Bangs’ infamous dust-ups with Lou Reed — all the while making it feel as if you not only were watching a movie but were in the movie. The writers were determined to relay every scintilla of recklessness, excitement and chaos they witnessed. Which over the years was a lot.
Reading CREEM, you were always out on the front lines — or at least backstage — with this plucky group of writers, who showed up without degrees, portfolio or any real experience, all of them finding their way there like the characters in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, needing to come together to understand why they were sculpting their mashed potatoes into replicas of Devil Tower while obsessed by a five-note musical sequence. “We didn’t even really like each other,” former Editor-in-Chief Ben Edmonds once commented. “We had nothing in common. But we all had the same dream.”
A dream that was emboldened by a small solicitation ad that would appear in the early issues:
“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 AIN’T GOT, at least in the way of credentials. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be sending us your stuff: fiction, reviews, features, cartoons, stuff about film, ecology, books or whatever you have in mind that we might be able to use. 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?”
It’s really how all the early staff was assembled, from the day the slight and stunning Sandra Stretke would come to the office at night after her “straight” job ended to work as an assistant to Kramer, never an easy or enviable task. She had an uncanny way of keeping everybody in line — except for the time during a party for Rod Stewart and the Faces when she and Ronnie Wood hid in a closet when things got too rowdy. Ben Edmonds, who looked like a surfer from a Gidget movie with his white-blond hair, droll humor and snotty Boston accent, came down from Ann Arbor, where he had been sniffing around the MC5’s house, to become one of our first editors. Roberta Cruger, a former Catholic schoolgirl with a wicked laugh and even more wicked ambitions, became our first movie editor.
My first introduction to this clan was in October 1970, when I was hired as the Subscription Kid, not as a writer, as I’d hoped. That would take another year and a half — but that very first story turned out to be a cover story.
I arrived the same day as Lester Bangs, who showed up from El Cajon, California, in his three-piece Prince of Wales suit and shiny brown shoes carrying a suitcase held together with rope to do a cover story on Alice Cooper. He felt so at home, he decided to stay. Although what I remember most about that day was his saying he had never seen so many ugly people gathered in one place. Maybe he just decided to emigrate to offset the averages, but whatever the enticement, Barry Kramer made him an offer and he returned three months later, joining the ranks as the Record Review Editor, a position that Dave Marsh had held but recently abandoned to become Editor-in-Chief.
Bangs was better suited to the position anyway, because he actually liked music. David always took it a little too seriously — I don’t think rock music was ever just entertainment to him; instead, it had vast social and didactic powers. I think Marsh saw us as cultural arbitrators who were busy defining the pop aesthetic. Lester used to like to quote the Firesign Theater and say we were all just “bozos on the bus.” He once told a reporter that CREEM was “a raspberry in the face of culture, and in a sense a raspberry in the face of itself.” Which was as confusing as it was accurate.
As for those Encounters of the Third Kind? Actual contact with rock stars? Well, it boiled down to thinking if we could ensnare rock stars, if only for a little while, we could extract their secrets of how they were able to hear things that we could not. How they received their truths, what pipeline they were plugged into. We wanted to do that too, to extract a little of that mystery. In short, to decode what they only hinted at in their lyrics. Lester Bangs once mused, “Don’t ask me why I obsessively look to rock ‘n’ roll bands for some kind of model for a better society. I guess it’s just that I glimpsed something beautiful in a flashbulb moment once and, perhaps mistaking it for prophecy, have been seeking its fulfillment ever since.” We all were.