August 07, 2020

Boy Howdy! It's Another CREEM Documentary Review


My first Boy Howdy T-shirt arrived when my CREEM subscription began in May 1980. After decades of abuse it had to be mothballed as a beloved relic. Miraculously, in December 2016 I got a new version for donating to a KickStarter campaign for a proposed CREEM documentary.


After a wait of forever, the documentary is here! Donators received a private link for an advance screening in March 2020, so I started the COVID-19 quarantine watching it on my laptop with the ability to pause, reflect and rewind to absorb even more details. That pause function was crucial for the exacting achievement of finding my name in the 15-mile long closing credits:

Surely that list of donors also coincides with old subscription lists. It felt good to see the names of so many people who shared this passion, because back in the day it always felt like it was me and the CREEM staff (and letter writers) against the world. That’s an outsider theory the documentary makes crystal clear, so it’s a relief to know I wasn’t over-dramatizing a neurotic complex, but more like I understood the finer point: “Gabba gabba, one of us!”


At one point in the film, Michael Stipe recounts the first time seeing CREEM, which for him was the January 1972 issue with Alice Cooper as Santa Claus on the cover. Later in high school, he found CREEM again and crushed hard on a Patti Smith photo. His most important takeaway: "I was trying to find my gang. I wasn't going to find them in high school. I found them in CREEM magazine."

 Stipe got to the heart of how important it is to find your people. The only members of my tribe were the names on the CREEM masthead for a solid 5 years or so. It took the post-high school life expansion to find folks with a similar musical mindset, and those who specifically had their brains branded by CREEM remain my most cherished friends.


Since a running theme of the documentary is people sharing their “CREEM changed my life” origin story, and I chipped in to the slush fund, I’m slapping my reel onto their film projector.


CREEM Nostalgia Wax: It began in December 1979…

It was a late Sunday afternoon on a cold, gray day in early December when Mom picks me up from an overnight at my best friend’s house and we make a stop at the nearby Majik Market. Something in their tiny newsstand caught my eye. It’s Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick on the cover of a magazine! 


I violently grab it, go to the table of contents, and there’s the most gorgeous picture of Tom Petersson ever! I didn’t need to investigate any further, I (well, OK, Mom) simply bought it.


On our short drive home, I devoured the entire Cheap Trick article, stopping only to ask Mom, “What does ‘r’n’r’ stand for?” She did not know (“Rest and relaxation, like in the military?”) and it would take a few days for me to figure out it was an abbreviation for Rock ‘n’ Roll. Duh.

I was also deeply intrigued and perplexed by the photo cutlines. It was a new sensation to giggle uncomfortably at photo captions, especially in comparison to the lame or descriptive ones in my teenybopper and fashion magazines. And then that reading-in-a-car-headache ended my first taste of CREEM.

The next day, I played hooky from school so I could dissect this new cell under the microscope. There were insightful articles about bands I’d barely heard of (The Records), just getting familiar with (The B-52s, The Clash) and already liked (The Kinks). There were 7 pages of in-depth record reviews (hey, they like the new Zeppelin as much as I do!), plus some capsule record, TV and movie reviews, and both rock & roll and Hollywood gossip columns. 66-pages of useful and trivial information starting with outrageous readers’ letters and ending with “Backstage,” a whole page devoted to nothing but photos (look, Nick Gilder!) with those whacky captions.

My kidnapped mind was captivated. As I read the issue from cover to cover for the second time, I wondered how I’d missed seeing this magazine before. I was already reading Hit Parader and Circus on a regular basis and would scan an issue of Rolling Stone to assess its usefulness before buying. All of these magazines were on the newsstands I visited on a weekly basis, but why had I never seen CREEM on those racks?

A flashback to the summer of 1978…

My best friend’s cool Aunt Carla was temporarily staying with them. To us, Carla was Rhoda and it was fascinating to watch a corner of the basement where we regularly set up our tween Barbie village be transformed by her exotic adult things.

There was pot-smoking paraphernalia on Carla’s dresser, and piles of her impressive drawings of Paul McCartney and Rod Stewart. There was this small stack of CREEM magazines by her bed. The name made me assume it was porno, but if so, why is David Bowie on the cover?

Turns out it was a rock magazine, and there was an article about Patti Smith whom I’d been loving all summer long “Because the Night.” Turns out she’s also a poet? Huh. Cool.

I grab another issue (May 1978) that flips open to some cat named Elvis who looks like Buddy Holly. What the 1950s confusion hell?! I wanted to dive deeper into that pile of magazines but was pulled away for more age-appropriate playtime.

16 months later, CREEM found me yet again, and from now until the end of time we shan’t ever part. I was raised to be a magazine junkie so was well-versed on the various formats, but this was unlike any magazine I’d encountered. And compared to other music magazines – fuhgeddaboudit!


Other rock rags had taught me to be deadly serious about the opinion-based facts of rock. Initially assuming CREEM was the same, when that photo caption said Tom Petersson would show you his groceries, I was jealous that a reporter got to go shopping with him!  When the “CREEM’s Profiles” said Mitch Ryder’s “LAST ACCOMPLISHMENT:” was “staying awake for two encores,” I worried about his health, and why I had I never seen Boy Howdy! Beer at the supermarket?


It took a couple of issues to lock into the CREEM state of mind, and it’s now in my DNA. The allure was their complete irreverence. When music was your lifeline, this kind of irony, sarcasm and goofiness seemed a better way to deal with being a rock & roll junkie.


Other rock magazines were writing serious articles and reviews about bands on the labels that had bought advertisements, and the reverence within those interviews felt like going to church on Sunday. CREEM also had record label ads but somehow felt free to take the piss out of any band that irritated them. Even when the staff adored an act their ribs were poked, and if the idol could take the ribbing, that made them even cooler. Both sides being in on the joke was powerful medicine, and rock writers being the equal of the rock stars was mind-blowing.


CREEM was like a sexy, educational MAD magazine. Every issue was snorting soda out the nose funny while pointing me in the direction of music that I was glad to have spent purloined money on most of the time (no matter how much they pushed Southside Johnny or Ted Nugent, I just couldn’t with that).

CREEM found me at precisely the right moment. I was 14 and completely booze and drug-free, a clean and unadulterated vessel waiting to be filled up, allowing CREEM to cement its hold on the very fiber of my being. It was my first drug and warped just as many brain cells.


Previously, I’d wallowed joyously in the mindless, shallow end of pop music and culture, but with the arrival of puberty and an expanding curiosity of “serious music,” I was nearing the moment of turning into a humorless, overly self-conscious “rawk” geek. Blessedly there came the “Bozos on the bus” honking their horns, spraying the seltzer and saving me from a life path that would surely have led to Zappa.


I gladly let the CREEM writers become my barometer of taste. They didn’t care about mega-selling chart action or critical reputations; it was about who delivered the goods. Sure, they covered some popular bands, but 7 times out of 10 it was to take the wind out of their sails and see how they reacted to being forced to walk the plank.


The best example of mega-selling being ship ahoy: Van Halen.

The best example of mega-selling being buried at sea: Rush.

J. Kordosh’s instantly-legendary article Rush: But Why Are They In Such Hurry? from the June 1981 issue remains the #1 rock artifact that cracks me up every time (#2 being the Styx VH1 Behind the Music episode). I’ve long had a love/hate relationship with Rush. I’m fortunate to have seen them on their final tour. Yet when Neil Peart tragically died to soon, I immediately went to this article for a memorial roast to laugh my tits off. For the 28th time.


Geddy Lee being pissed off at CREEM was a delicious layer of inside-baseball with my adopted dysfunctional family. He was reacting to this Eleganza article from the October 1980 issue:

This was the time period when disco had been killed as New Wave was making inroads onto the pop charts while classic rock was threatened by both genres. For some of us, it was a glorious time in music because everything was available with a short spin of the radio dial. This is exactly the time period Richard Linklater celebrated in the 2016 film Everybody Wants Some! But for some folks this abundance of musical variety turned into a musical war amusingly reflected in CREEM readers’ mail.


Oh, man, there has never been a letter section like it, and only (CREEM sans music) Spy magazine came close. The passionate and insane voices of CREEM readers fed the editorial staff (thus proving you can make a meal from roadkill) and taking their cues from us rather than record company ad money is what made the magazine so unique for so long. 


From 1979-1980, readers were constantly squabbling about (to summarize) Pink Floyd vs. The Clash, so CREEM fanned the flames with a cover like this:

They brought the war to a head with that Eleganza article, a debate between Janie Jones and Geddy Lee Roth. The Geddy Lee missed the finer points of satire (his first time reading CREEM, perhaps?) and conveyed his snit through their publicist, thus handing CREEM the very fact they needed to prove their musical point. The whole thing was chum to sharks, and I often wonder if Geddy taking part in SCTV’s Bob & Doug McKenzie’s “Take Off“ single a year later was a way for him to acclimate to this thing they call a sense of humor.


So yeah, that’s a small example of the CREEM rabbit hole, eh?


CREEM’s pet bands were those who seldom sold the amount of records equal to their talent and/or influence: Iggy Pop (whom they introduced me to and thank you!) Lou Reed, The Replacements, The Ramones or Dwight Twilley. But they also “got” and highlighted the pleasures of mega-sellers like Van Halen, Kiss, Led Zeppelin or Queen.  They treated their favorites as if they were the most popular band on the planet, giving years of early coverage to Blondie, Cheap Trick, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and R.E.M. When these bands finally “made the big time,” they monitored them with a jaundiced eye and called crap if or when it happened.

Like Webster’s Dictionary, CREEM expanded my vocabulary of real words and made-up words - like “eelfingers” (see above and thank you Rick Johnson) - that so perfectly summed up my feelings that I use them as a shorthand to this day. CREEM was the embodiment of “Reading is FUNdamental!”


Equal Opportunity CREEM


One aspect of CREEM that I never considered until the documentary spelled it out was their unique female voice.

As Jaan Uhelszki points out in the film (above), half of the staff were women, and that both women and men were shown naked in the pages. It was (for a time) ladies who wrote those notorious photo captions. Paging through my archives, turns out it was Penny Valentine who first introduced me to Pretenders in the April 1980 issue and Susan Whitall who wrote the Pretenders cover article 4 months later. Meaning, the ladies on staff were just as crucial to my education as the men but doing so naturally rather than calling it out as an E.R.A. pat on the head, which is how the rest of the music industry treated any appearance of a female in any capacity.


During an era when radio stations admitted they would only play one female act per hour, CREEM was equal opportunity with regular coverage of male and female artists in every issue, including the coveted cover spot and The CREEM Dreem.

Additionally, every color of the rainbow flag was part of their content. Acts such as Divine (above in the May 1981 issue), Jayne (previously Wayne) County, Sylvester, Tom Robinson and Soft Cell were always in regular rotation for their work rather than their orientation, which was acknowledged but not exploited. And while avoiding outing them, the persuasion of front men like Freddie Mercury and Rob Halford were humorously winked at in a manner that must not have offended them because (unlike Rush) Queen and Judas Priest repeatedly came back to CREEM to talk up the next album.

But let’s not misconstrue any of the above as virtuous diversity initiatives. There were no sacred idols within CREEM’s pages. It was incessant equal opportunity trashing of everyone and themselves. Seen through today’s lens, some of this content posted herein makes me wince. Then I think about Doug Stanhope’s 2007 This Generation Sucks bit, and hoist a shot to the decadent past of a “bunch of old fucks.” As with everything in history and culture, we need the parameters of context and intent to decide which hill to pass out on.


In one sense, CREEM was inadvertently nurturing me to be open and accepting of the full spectrum of life's rich banquet, the equal opportunity of respect and harassment without turning it into a “spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down” afterschool special. They were a bunch of dirtbags whose punk-ass brand of inclusiveness was so natural that I didn’t put any of these pieces together until the staffers pointed it out in the documentary.


The Boy Howdy! Finishing School

I was a CREEM subscriber from early 1980 until the last issue, November 1988, arrived in the mail. During that time - and beyond – I’ve gathered as many back issues as possible. The collection became so large I had to stash them in banker’s boxes that I still carry from place to place. They are schoolbooks, a reference library that in this Wikipedia age contains much musical knowledge yet to be digitized.


The magazine also influenced the course of my life. Here is a (trying to be brief) outline:


Since 3rd grade, I was an obsessive typist writing short stories, entertainment observations and transcribing Casey Kasem Top 40 lists. By junior high, CREEM transformed those two habits into “publishing” my own fanzine, Ear Candy. This was 6 issues for an audience of 2 where I shared opinions on records I bought and typed out portions of CREEM articles to make them shorter. While not original, it did give me detailed insight into the cadence, punctuation and editing of rock journalism.


The next step was having a letter published in CREEM. Turns out that was not a personal dubious achievement, because in the documentary Thurston Moore mentions the thrill of having his letter published in CREEM. Neither of us is mentioning how many times we submitted letters before getting the nod. I finally made the cut in the June 1988 issue: 

When Tom Petersson shockingly showed up onstage with Cheap Trick at the Westport Playhouse in St. Louis in January 1988 my second thought was to let CREEM know. Because I knew they’d care, and even though it took them 4 months to publish what was now old news, they validated my belief of the importance of this matter.


4 months after this music journalism milestone, I submitted unsolicited concert reviews and photos of Ramones and The Church shows I’d seen at Mississippi Nights to the locally produced/nationally distributed Jet Lag magazine. Days later I got the phone call that they wanted to publish them.


By the time CREEM published their last issue in November 1988, I was a Jet Lag editor. What this meant was that along with interviewing bands that came into town, writing articles and record reviews, I was doing all the typesetting and layout and getting the issues off to the printer. Eventually, I became the publisher and co-owner. Parts of the Jet Lag saga are documented by myself here and by Thomas Crone here.


This misspent industriousness was solely the fault of all those years of drowning in CREEM. And since they no longer existed, I blatantly stole their entire concept to turn Jet Lag into CREEM 2.0.

From their issues in the late 1970s, I cloned most every layout element because, hey, if it worked before, it’ll work again. The 3 or so people on-staff who knew exactly what I was doing jumped in and indulged their own CREEM dreams, so it was a shameless mimeograph. Turns out, though, there was an untapped market of music nerds missing CREEM and would tell us so as they bought more ads and subscriptions.

More record company ads meant more pages, so there was room to stretch out and write think pieces and feature the work of local artists as stand-alone cartoons, centerfolds and article illustrations. An example of a think piece with local art is my Bubble Metal article shown above, which was also a loving homage to CREEM writer Rick Johnson, who died in 2006 at the age of 55.


In 1992, Bill Holdship (editor from 1980-1987) was editor for a weekly entertainment rag (that I blieve was LA New Times). One of our west coast writers sent a copy of the latest Jet Lag to Holdship, figuring that since we were such a CREEM rip-off he might get a kick out of it. He did get a kick and wrote a short, kind blurb in the paper that acknowledged our CREEM spirit and thumbs up for the content. He gave us his blessing!! I cried tears of joy!! And almost immediately lost the newspaper, thus depriving myself of re-reading it once a week till the day I die.


I need to interrupt this Dear Diary moment… Namechecking the influence that Rick Johnson, J. Kordosh (who passed in 2017Dave DiMartino, Holdship, etc. had on my life brings up an important question…


What’s Missing from the CREEM Documentary?

 You mean besides the curious and conspicuous absence of Iggy Pop as a talking head?


What’s missing from this documentary is the staff that ran CREEM from 1977 - 1988, and that part of the story.


Rick Johnson gets a shout-out for his altercations with Joan Jett (who is in the doc) over his continual trashing of The Runaways in 1977.  Aside from that, the people at the helm of CREEM’s peaks sales years of 1978 and 1979 are footnotes, and most everything that happened to the magazine after founder and publisher Barry Kramer died in 1981 is swept into a 3-minute dust pile.

One of the documentary’s producers is J.J. Kramer, who lost his father, Barry, when he was 4 years old. So, the emotional pull of this documentary is a man learning about the father he never got the chance to truly know. From that angle, it works beautifully and movingly.


But the vast majority of the people on staff at the time of J.J.’s birth and onward are largely overlooked. The film cultivates the narrative that nothing really mattered after the departure of Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Jaan Uhelszki by 1976, and Barry’s untimely passing was the official end.  Yet Barry’s widow (and J.J.’s mother), Connie, retained control of CREEM until selling the rights in 1986, so the magazine was still very much a part of their life for 5 years after Barry’s death. The documentary focusing only on the first 45% of the magazine’s history is curious and frustrating.

Without fail, the time period a person regularly read CREEM is when they think CREEM was at its peak. This means the magazine was at its editorial peak for almost 20 years, because CREEM was always a reliable and dedicated alternative to the mainstream music press. Whoever was at the helm, it remained unwavering in its iconoclastic viewpoints and bruised integrity as the audience switched from Baby Boomers to Gen X, from radio to MTV, from vinyl to CD.


Instead, the documentary unwittingly reveals a line drawn in the sand between when it was relevant and when it supposedly wasn’t. Turns out that long before the documentary was a twinkle in J.J.’s eye the cultural battle between 70s vs 80s CREEM staffers had begun.


There’s a fascinating view of the internal CREEM rancor from a January 2008 2-part article by Bill Holdship. Part 1 outlines a 2001 South By Southwest panel where the majority bashed on anything that happened at CREEM after Dave Marsh left, as Holdship sat there. Part 2 outlines the ever-shifting CREEM ownership rights that further solidified the Hatfield vs. the McCoy drama.

Holdship seems used to the arrogance of CREEM’s first wave believing that after they left the magazine no longer mattered, and he makes a valid counterargument with:


“It wasn't the early era of CREEM that Kurt Cobain told RIP Magazine he was reading as a kid. For some perspective, one only need ask the Replacements, Robyn Hitchcock, R.E.M., the Cure or Van Halen, among numerous others, how important CREEM was to them in the '80s. Billy Altman, the magazine's New York editor for more than a decade, has frequently pointed out that CREEM had its highest circulation in 1978 and '79 — when, quite appropriately, the Ramones and KISS were battling it out in the poll as the readers' favorite band — and it surely took a few years after that for the numbers to significantly fall (although MTV, the era of the mainstream superstar and the super-publicist, and the new rah! rah! rah!-isms of the mainstream rock press certainly didn't help).


“Still, every generation does have its own opportunity, and as (2001 SXSW) moderator (Jim) DeRogatis claimed during the panel and suggested in his Bangs biography: "I became obsessed with CREEM by reading your and DiMartino and Johnson and Kordosh's CREEM because I wasn't reading CREEM when I was 6 years old and those other guys started it. CREEM was great, I think, through 1988."


It’s worth noting that Holdship appears to be the only staffer who still gets along with all staffers of any era. Also of note is that Susan Whitall - a delightful part of the Boy Howdy! documentary -  joined Holdship for a CREEM retrospective podcast interview in 2016.


Whitall feels like a key component between the 2 sides because she was with CREEM from 1975 – 1983. She was part of the mentorship and passing of the torch from the first wave to the second wave, and in retrospect, her voice and guidance is what made that middle period still so compelling and readable to this day.


So, I’m wondering if her thoughts about the middle period of CREEM was left on the cutting room floor? Because the incoming newbies of 1976-80 had grownup reading CREEM and completely understood and bled for its aesthetic and world view so was a crucial part of carrying the banner through to 1988. Or was that even addressed at all?

In an August 6, 2020 Bob Lefsetz podcast interview, Jaan Uhelszki mentions that because there was so much historical material they had to make an editorial decision to focus on the story of the founders.

Considering that J.J. Kramer recently said, “I view the documentary as very much the beginning, not the end,” I hope that means there’s a part 2 of the CREEM story because there's so much more to tell.


Boy Howdy! Not So Attractive But a Great Personality


That I’ve just spent too many paragraphs picking apart the people behind the curtain throws a klieg light on why CREEM mattered: It had a sustained and vibrant personality for the entire run.


Without having to apply much effort, readers became fascinated with the reprobates producing the magazine just as much as the content, and is there another music magazine that pulled that off for any meaningful length of time, much less even tried or cared about that?


CREEM mattered because the fans became writers and were equal to the musicians.

CREEM never talked at us, they talked with us, and that’s the edge that no other music magazine could, or bothered to, achieve. Because they listened to us and cared about getting worthy music into our ears (as opposed to honoring record company advertising dollars or the egos of musicians), CREEM earned trust and respect.


As a music nerd, I had subscriptions to and/or regularly read all the rock publications, and it was apparent that they wanted to be:
a: the voice of authority
b: too cool for the room
c: making bank on what was popular at the moment
d: trying combinations of the above to stay financially viable


Whereas CREEM always remained the equivalent of hanging out in the basement with your friends while copping a buzz, listening to records and shooting the shit. It’s about having a good time and bonding over what is temporary relief from a dreary world. That’s rock & roll. That’s why CREEM truly was “America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine.”


Dig into the documentary for a glimpse of why that mattered.


insidersrock said...

A really great take on Creem and the film. The early years (and especially Lester Bangs) was the seminal influence on my writing style.

As a young teen, I once wrote a long letter to Bangs patiently explaining why I believed he was wrong about a recent review. He sent me back a short note saying "It must be easy to be such a dumbass when you live in Indiana."

Bill Holdship said...

Thank you so much for writing this, Toby. Best retrospective I've read. I was looking for you on facebook but it doesn't look like you are there anymore. But thanks again. said...

Bill, you made my day, month, possibly year. THANK YOU!
And yes, I fled Facebook in early 2020. See: fascism. But you still found me, so FB is not the only way to hear such nice words from a literary mentor.
Thanks again!