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The Rebirth of CREEM Magazine
by Melissa Ulto

CREEM Magazine, the snot rock reader of the late 70's and early 80's, is rising from the dead. A tenuous mix of the old guard and new blood, most notably the Michigan-based Brian J. Bowe, are resuscitating this iconic zine from its fifteen year rest. Bowe is a 31-year-old journalist who wrote a Master's thesis on the MC5. He freely admits to having a longstanding Detroit music fetish. Now that he's done with college and thesis writing, he is moving on to a new project; the rebirth of CREEM Magazine.

What is this Lazarus-like moment for CREEM Magazine, planned for the summer of 2003? Is it guttersnipes and geriatrics pumping the dead beast of the Boy Howdy brand for a few bucks, picking over the last scraps of viable flesh on the whitened bones left over from the carcinogenic 80's hair band days? Does the ghostly apparition of Lester Bangs hang over the new editors like a jabbering Jacob Marley, warning of the impending doom and disaster? Is the old CREEM model even relevant in a time when e-zines abound, online file sharing continues to grow, and the death knell of the record industry is near and dear?

And does anyone even care about rock and roll anymore? What constitutes rock and roll these days? A simplistic question, yet something that CREEM needs to address as part of its rebirth.

A little history on CREEM includes the icon Boy Howdy and writer Lester Bangs. This legendary rock publication was founded and published by Barry Kramer in 1968, and ran in its original incarnation until 1988. Boy Howdy was a fake brand of beer; a gag used in every issue, bands claiming it was their favorite brew, posing with cans and six-pack of it in photographs. Boy Howdy the icon, a cartoon representation of a beer bottle, embodied the puckish and defiant nature of the magazine's reporting style, exemplified best in the writing of rock critic Lester Bangs. Bangs was the fire CREEM's pants, even though he parted ways with Kramer 1976.

When asked if CREEM will still have the BANG of rock journalism without Lester Bangs, Bowe curtly replied "there were many great writers at CREEM before and after Lester." Great, but who remembers any of them? Granted, there is Dave Marsh (aka the Springsteen worshipper) along with Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, Richard Meltzer, and Nick Tosches. But Lester Bangs, 1949-1982, was the original gonzo journalist. He was a passionate compatriot of Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Richard Hell and The Clash, able to penetrate the obvious and dig deep into the compelling sound of the guitar army. His prose is legendary, breathtaking to read, even today, and full of an integrity in reporting that has ceased to exist in the here and now of rock criticism. Bang's dedication to the raucous root that is rock and roll lives in the history of his methodology - like conducting an interview with Lou Reed that devolved into a two hour screaming match, with Bangs demanding to know if Reed had lost his will to rock.

The Crew

This isn't the first rebirth of CREEM, but in fact, the second, or third, depending on who you talk to. Marvin Scott Jarrett, current publisher of Nylon, was part of Alternative Media, the group to first revive CREEM from 1990 to 1992. CREEM was as much about design as content, winning quite a few Society of Publication Design awards - it was slicker, glossier, in a larger format, resulting in a real high quality looking magazine. The first cover in 1990 featured Billy Idol, followed by Elvis Costello, Metallica, and Chrissy Hynde. When asked about the latest version of CREEM, Jarrett couldn't comment too much on the magazine. "CREEM has a tremendous history as a great brand in the past, but I can't comment on the future because I don't know the people".

Jarrett did mention yet another publisher had purchased CREEM after 1992. No details could be found about that publisher, but suffice to say CREEM closed it doors again in 1994.

And who is the muscle making this meat puppet move these days? Publisher Robert Matheu heads up the current incarnation of CREEM. Involved in other music industry internet projects, Matheu began the move to re-launch CREEM a couple of years ago. Matheu had also been a teen photographer for CREEM in the early 70's. So it was a natural progression for Matheu from personal history to reviving CREEM. He got approval from the few original folks still around, except for a few crusty editors who don't think the music industry deserves another CREEM.

In the beginning of my research about the new CREEM, I came upon their website. There is no mailing address or phone number listed, so I emailed the staff with a request for an interview. Later that day, Ric Siegel, CREEM's "Minister Of Instigations", directed me to the Boy Howdy Yahoo Group. For those unfamiliar with Yahoo Groups, let me explain - these are free bulletin board sites hosted by Yahoo, where users can post messages, images, files, vote on polls and add to a group calendar.

The illustrious Boy Howdy Yahoo Group is the internet's version of the old Legion Hall for CREEM fans and ex-staffers. Yes, the old mammoths of independent rock journalism are huddling around the warming glow of their monitors, awakening a beast, planning the demise of industry creations like N'Sync, chuckling at the last embers of rebellion in the bellies. And as they "stir the embers", they vacillate between toothless annoyance and summoned adolescent hostility, all with a touch of Boy Howdy attitude and soggy wit. My initial questions were mocked and ignored by Siegel, who also acted as the group's moderator. This was no way to conduct an interview. The posts back and forth devolved into mutual ranting. It's was getting ugly and my research was going nowhere.

My sniping with Siegel virtually snapped the collective butts of the CREEM crowd like a wet towel in a high school locker room. Grande Dame Connie Kramer, the widow of Barry Kramer, called for the moderator, while gallant Tony Reay stepped up to finally give me a long awaited quote. Bowe went into damage control mode when he got wind of the skirmish, calling me two weeks into the fray.

My story was looking rather pathetic - "look, old dudes still acting like punk rockers, bitching at a reporter at least 20 years younger". Bowe finally pacified me with limited details about the re-launch of CREEM. They don't have an office yet - this is a "homegrown" effort, he claimed. But there is a website, and they claim to get 500,000 hits per month. The content is sparse, but earnest. Bowe is so far the only writer, and most of the website content is written by him. But they do sell an interesting array of t-shirts and undies under their "CREEM Goodies" section. Hmmm…

Their launch schedule is tenuously set for sometime in the summer of 2003.

Lester Bangs

Getting back to my initial questions, I asked Bowe to describe what the new CREEM would be like. The new CREEM has to "strike the right balance between information, good journalism, good writing and good humor" while recognizing "there are a lot of folks to whom [CREEM] is beholden to". They plan to afford the MC5 a special place in their magazine, since they are so much a part of CREEM's initial vision. CREEM continuously featured staffer's favorite bands, most of who weren't famous yet - Black Sabbath, Kiss and Grand Funk Railroad, to name a few. Bowe claims GFR's output was underappreciated by rock journalism of the day, while CREEM featured them often.

What made CREEM unique back in the day and will those same methods work today, I wondered.

Bowe likes to point out that CREEM was honest, funny, and ballsy, with staffers unafraid to admit they liked Kiss and GFR, "even when those bands were being trashed by the rest of the hip-fascist music press." CREEM respected its readership and didn't "go on a real elitist power trip." Bowe claims "everybody else wrote about rock and roll" while at "CREEM, the writing WAS rock and roll." Right on, brother!

Still, why now, after almost fourteen years?

Tony Reay, the man who brilliantly engaged R. Crumb to illustrate the early CREEM Magazine covers, responded to my questions about the "reincarnation of that lusty lad, Boy Howdy:"

"We don't know if we/they can repeat it, or want to. We do know that they hope, as do we all, for the best and will strive reasonably hard to achieve it. But the social whirl, as you so ably point out is no longer so accepting of hasty, albeit brilliant, words designed to puncture pomposity and reinvent the planet in a much more rainbow hue. It would be difficult to even attempt such a thing in this far more cynical day, and foolish to try. What we/they can do is enlist the aid of virulent and verbose folk as yourself and your compadres to spread the word, and write the word and illustrate, photograph, design, lay out and sell the word, or die trying. Perhaps the halcyon days of the great and powerful Ig[gy Pop] can be no more, but there's a crazy on every block and it would be nice if one of them could start the Quarrymen, or the [Sex] Pistols. In the meantime, keep yer head down, cause as much trouble to the equilibrium as safely possible, dangle your toes in cool springs and don't let these old farts and diehard ruffians get you down. After all, you'll be here soon enough".

Skillful parry, yet no real answer there. Ideologically, it's a nice sentiment, but I still can't forget the way CREEM went from a rocker arsenal against the mainstream to the mainstream itself. And the mention of the Sex Pistols is an odd choice, since they were as much a marketing creation as any boy band today. The Sex Pistols were managed by Malcolm McLaren, the ex-manager of the New York Dolls. McLaren wanted to create a band that was as rebellious and anarchic as the bands saw in New York. How exactly does that differ from the creation of N'Sync and the Backstreet Boys by Orlando über-manager Lou Pearlman?

How is CREEM's history relevant at all to current music journalism? This is the same magazine that became the hair band and pop music rag, folding in 1988, a year that included CREEM covers with mainstream mega-artists like Poison, Madonna, Steve Winwood, David Lee Roth and Rod Stewart. And today there are no universally recognized rock stars that every seventeen year old boy listens to - the music industry is a diluted market, with every trend spawning hundreds of like-marketed bands and a diversity that deters loyalty so completely, not even tax brackets or cultural backgrounds can predict who listens to what. Who will CREEM's audience be? Are they niche, specialty, or concept?

Right now, there is no plan to get the target readership, 13 to 24 year old white males, interested in CREEM. The only people who remember how cool CREEM used to be are much older than that demographic. Bowe does admit to be banking on the CREEM brand to get interest in the magazine. He knows that if the first few issues aren't great, they won't be able to keep their readership - they have to back up the brand with the content. But Bowe is adamant about the CREEM experience not just being about a brand - that "it's an approach we're dedicated to", and "there's a style and a worldview that the publishing world lacks currently".

Worldview? From Detroit? This from an admitted MoTown-phile, who wants "personally focus on Detroit because [he] always seems to focus on Detroit." Bowe feels Detroit doesn't get its deserved recognition as the "cultural capital of the United States." Local publications are "indispensable" for the wealth of scene information, and "national publications can't and shouldn't compete with that." CREEM is aiming to give context and exposure, while also claiming to crew up from all points on the globe. The focus is unclear - is this a hybrid? National and local? This is starting to sound like an AT&T calling plan.

The message is watery, the content is limited, the staff works from home and the plans are vague. Where is CREEM headed? There are no superstars on staff, no superstars on the charts. Is this carte blanche to create anew the hardscrabble rock and roll ruffian scene and the ardent fan-journalist dynamic? Granted, Lester Bangs never lobbed easy questions at even his favorite artists, and no one was interested in (initially) pandering to the record industry. You only have to look at the PR machines of Rolling Stone, Spin and others to realize there is no such thing as rock journalism anymore. Bought and paid for, the major magazines don't dare upset the talent with harder questions, lest they take their dog and pony show to the next 20 publications eager to slap their masthead on the label's PR release.

And music journalists are lazy these days - fact checking is sketchy and it's just so much easier to reword the press release. Graduates of major journalism colleges are more concerned with their benefits and perks than getting the story straight. Journalistic integrity is sacrificed at the feet of unruffled pop stars. Where is the "fuck you, tell me the truth" attitude of yesteryear? Who gets thrown off the tour, banned from the bus, screamed at and feared these days? Music journalism has become part of the industry machine.

Rock and roll - that sounds like something decades removed from music today. It's a myth, and CREEM was part of it. To avoid becoming a pale comparison of that myth, CREEM needs to define what rock and roll is and what their plans are to report on it. The challenge will be to find writers who will ask the hard questions, if even it means lack of access. CREEM has the potential to become the lighthouse of brutal truth, where musicians must go for credible reporting. That means divorcing themselves financially from an industry always eager for another PR outlet. And while music geeks and ardent fans have passionate views to express, make sure the reporting isn't a salivating treatise lacking any objectivity. The original CREEM poked fun, prodded and pulled out the story, while still adoring their favorite bands.

Can CREEM bring back rock journalism? Boy howdy, I'd like to see it happen.

© Melissa Ulto, 2003

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[email protected] | May 2003 | Issue 38
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