CREEM wasn't really "America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine."
That's just something it said on the cover.
But that same irreverent spirit that drove the team behind the 'zine to make such an outrageous claim played a key role in making it read like "America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine."
From the time it rolled out of Detroit in 1969, CREEM tapped into the very essence of the music and the culture that surrounded it.
The writing could be brash, irreverent, raw, at times hilarious, often cruel and frequently offensive. It was very much the print equivalent of the bands its writers loved, from Iggy and the Stooges to the MC5.
That's how it managed to outrock the competition.
'It wasn't just a magazine'
In Scott Crawford's documentary, fittingly titled "CREEM: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine," Detroit native Suzi Quatro says, "It wasn't just a magazine. It was a rock magazine with a capital R." (The film is available at virtual cinemas on Friday, Aug. 7.)
If Rolling Stone seemed somewhat desperate to grow the music up, CREEM chose instead to revel in the qualities that tied the music to the soundtrack of the untamed youth.
As Robert Christgau, wearing a Ramones shirt, says, it was very hard for Rolling Stone to admit that punk was happening in New York when the CBGB scene exploded.
"That was not a problem for CREEM," he says. "CREEM was ready for punk. CREEM loved punk."
It didn't hurt that CREEM was spawned in Detroit the same year Michigan was giving rise to proto-punk, with the release of classic debut albums by the Stooges and the MC5.
That meant their offices were pretty much ground zero for a cultural revolution.
And as Alice Cooper, who moved to Detroit in the early '70s recalls, "CREEM was as synonymous with the rock scene as any of those bands were. It was so much a part of our life."
Why CREEM's music writers set the magazine apart
CREEM's most notorious writers were brutally honest.
And by honest, I mean true to how they felt, which could be caustically, if comically, dismissive and quite possibly unfair.
Joan Jett wrote a letter to the editor to tell the guy who trashed the Runaways in explicit sexist language that he had made her cry and that he ought to "come us see us sometime and we'll kick your (expletive) ass in."
As Niagara Detroit of Destroy All Monsters sums it up, "They were gonna tell you truth. And they were gonna be funny about it. Even if they weren't telling you the truth, they were funny about it."
Crawford's documentary celebrates the legacy of CREEM in all its dysfunctional glory, not only addressing but owning all the things about it that would never fly in 2020.
As Jaan Uhelszki sums it up, "It was a boys' magazine" that objectified women to pander to teenage boys.
"Was it offensive?" Uhelszki asks. "Always."
After admitting she had written probably half of the offensive captions, "Am I proud of that? It was the '70s. There weren't the same filters there are now. I mean, kill me."
'Everybody was politically incorrect'
One female journalist, speaking off-camera, says, "Everybody was politically incorrect. No one watched their words. That's what made CREEM so good. I think if you put it through that politically correct filter, you would've lost 60 percent of what made CREEM great."
At the same time, CREEM became a launching pad for many pioneering female journalists, some of whom went on to edit CREEM.
As Ann Powers says, "I think women in rock 'n' roll have always had to be subversive. So many women in the history of rock 'n' roll have stuck the knife to sexism with a smile. And with a little dance."
If that involved some compromise, Powers says, "Their mere presence changed things. And I think when you look at the work, you can feel the subversiveness in it."
How Lester Bangs helped shape the magazine's reputation
The documentary also tells the story of how CREEM became "the people's magazine," as Peter Wolf describes it.
It touches on such key developments as Barry Kramer, the magazine's mercurial publisher, recruiting 19-year-old Dave Marsh from the college paper to be his editor, to the arrival of Uhelszki and the legendary Lester Bangs, who started the same day.
As Kramer's son JJ sums it up, "He assembled this band of misfits that somehow someway went out and created this beautiful music together."
Bangs is a towering figure in the history of CREEM (and music journalism) who brought to the magazine what Greil Marcus recalls as "his wild sense of humor, the lack of respect" and "this wonderful game of mocking everything."
In other words, he left a mark on everything the magazine would come to represent.
It was a volatile environment, with fist fights in the office and typewriters being thrown out the window.
Uhelszki says the most contentious relationship at CREEM was between Marsh and Kramer, which she describes as a game of "fast evil ping pong."
The documentary balances romanticism and humor
The story arc inevitable builds to the untimely deaths of Kramer in 1981 and Bangs a year later. By that point, Marsh had left for Rolling Stone.
It was the end of an era at CREEM. As Kramer's wife, associate publisher Connie Kramer says, "All of the originals were gone."
Connie Kramer sold the rights to CREEM in 1986. After that, she says, "It found a new identity and it became what it became, which in some people's estimation was great but it wasn't the CREEM that we all started."
This leads to a series of nostalgic testimonials romanticizing CREEM and all it meant to those who loved it.
Then, it true CREEM fashion, it ends with an irreverent joke from Marsh.
"Jaan Uhelszki told me that I was Ted Nugent's favorite writer," he says. "And I thought, 'I wonder what he'll think when he learns to read.'"
That's the kind of humor that made CREEM America's greatest rock 'n' roll magazine.
'CREEM: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine' 4.5 stars
Great ★★★★★ Good ★★★★
Fair ★★★ Bad ★★ Bomb ★
Director: Scott Crawford
Starring: Dave Marsh, Jaan Uhelszki, Alice Cooper, Suzi Quatro, Connie Kramer, Michael Stipe.
Rating: Unrated, some profanity, brief nudity.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Review: This CREEM documentary gets to the music magazine's heart