Capturing the messy upheaval of the ’70s just as rock was re-inventing itself, Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine explores the publication’s humble beginnings in post-riot Detroit, follows its upward trajectory from underground paper to national powerhouse, then bears witness to its imminent demise following the tragic and untimely deaths of its visionary publisher, Barry Kramer, and its most famous alum and genius clown prince, Lester Bangs, a year later. Fifty years after publishing its first issue, “America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine” remains a seditious spirit in music and culture.
What We Thought:
The heyday of Creem Magazine was a bit before my time. Its final publication was in 1989, but its prime years were the 1970s after being founded in 1969. Even though I’ve never read an issue of the magazine, I was familiar with its legacy and thoroughly enjoyed this documentary about it.
Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine reminded me a lot of another documentary I really enjoyed, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon. Both are about a group of ragtag, no idea what they’re doing individuals trying to change the world. Creem was about music especially music from Detroit in its early years. Different individuals would come in and want to take it in different directions like politics, but at its core, it was simply about music. Bands like The Stooges and MC5, that other magazines would ignore, got coverage and press for the first time. Over time it got to a point that big named artists would want their albums reviewed in the magazine and would want to see the place when in town.
It also influenced future musicians. The documentary is full of musicians who were fans of the magazine, guys like Chad Smith of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kirk Hammett of Metallica, Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam, Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and more. For a lot of artists who came from the midwest or felt like outcasts, they got to read about other outcasts and be inspired by them.
The magazine was also known for its personalities which would also be its downfall. If you’ve seen Almost Famous, it’s a semi-autobiographical look at Cameron Crowe’s early life. In it is a character called Lester Bangs portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The real Bangs got his start at Creem and riled up its readers, staff and musicians. Considered one of the best rock critics of all-time, his personality clashed with others at the magazine. Dave Marsh wanted the magazine to get into politics more. Its founder Barry Kramer just wanted a cool thing about music. With drugs, booze, fame and big personalities, it all has to come crashing down at some point.
Even if you’ve never read a copy of the magazine or even heard of it, Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine is still a solid documentary. Its legacy is in those who grew up reading it, being inspired by it and wanted to get into music or even writing because of it. It’s every bit as important as Rolling Stone, National Lampoon or even Playboy for a certain generation. I really dug the flick.