Rebirth of CREEM Magazine
by Melissa Ulto
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
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.
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
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"
Their launch schedule is tenuously set for sometime in
the summer of 2003.
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?
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
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