Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Creem Movie | Lefsetz Letter


I needed to own Alice Cooper’s Alcohol Cookbook.

I grew up in the marijuana era. But when I went to college in 1970, Vermont changed its drinking law to coincide with other rights in the state, which meant you could imbibe when you were 18.

I spent winter term smoking dope. Watching the zilch drip. Listening to “Idlewild South” and “Layla.”

But in April I turned 18.

But really, my freshman year all I consumed was Boone’s Farm. You know, the apple wine. The Grateful Dead, most notably Pigpen, were famous for consuming Thunderbird, which tasted even worse, but it was fortified…so alkies could get their hit just that much faster.

Kind of like malt liquor. It does it quicker. And by sophomore year, Miller Malt Liquor was a staple, as well as Jack Daniel’s and Michelob on the weekends.

We drank in our dorm rooms. But more famously we drank at the Alibi, a bar overhanging the river that cut through town, where beer was fifteen cents before six, and a quarter thereafter. It was a clubhouse, a malt shop, and at first we only went on Friday and Saturday, but then Thursday became part of the routine…and you knew the hard core because they’d be there Sunday or Monday, like you, eventually.

Drinking was fun. Marijuana relaxed people and put them to sleep. Alcohol enlivened them.

And when I went to Jackson Hole to ski after finishing my senior thesis, I went to the famous Cowboy Bar, which still exists. I’d met a guy living in his van. I allowed him to shower in my hotel room, a hostel, but this late in the season I was the only person in this room that accommodated four. He said he’d been a sommelier at some hotel restaurant in Maryland. We went to dinner, and he said Chateauneuf-du-Pape would go well with our meal. And it did. Then we got in his tan Ford Econoline and ventured into Jackson, from Teton Village, to the bar where the seats were made out of saddles, and this newfound friend insisted I drink a Golden Cadillac.

Once I got properly tanked up, the right record came over the speakers and I strode to the dance floor. There were only two people on it. Girls. We were grooving, having a good time, and then all of a sudden a cowboy came over and threw me to the floor and my buddy came to rescue me and we ran out to his van and…

It wouldn’t start.

But then it did, and we drove under a million stars back to Teton Village. He told me to pick a cassette, I opened the case and found Bonnie Raitt’s “Takin My Time.” I fast-forwarded to “I Feel The Same.”


You didn’t immediately subscribe to a magazine, you bought a few issues, determined whether you liked it. And so many were fly by night operations, too often appealing to the reader as opposed to having a singular voice.

But “Creem” passed the test. But I subscribed after the issue with Alice Cooper’s Alcohol Cookbook.

I ended up buying it at a record store next to the Bitter End, I needed to own it, because one of the drinks Alice Cooper cooked…was a Golden Cadillac.


Irreverence. That was the essence of “Creem.” Something lost to the sands of time, not only “Creem,” but this attitude, this way of looking at the world. Today everything is so serious. It’s all about money. No one is satiated by a prank, too many people are worried about pissing others off, assuming they have any status, because if you don’t, it’s open season. The world has completely changed.

Now if I wanted to embrace the “Creem” spirit I’d trash this movie.

And the truth is at the beginning it’s pure hagiography. You’d think Detroit ruled the music scene and “Creem” was known by all and was always great, all of which was untrue. Sure, there were a number of acts from Detroit, but “Creem” never made it to the top tier, it was always fighting for recognition, at the same time self-satisfied in its efforts. Which appears to be the outlook of its publisher, Barry Kramer, according to this film. Then again, someone who stays up for days and is manic…like the movie says, they might be bipolar. Today everybody’s got a diagnosis, but in the seventies there was no spectrum, a psychiatrist was for loonies, you let your freak flag fly, and people accepted you, when they didn’t abhor and avoid you.

So the best thing about this movie is the people. They’re lost in the era. They may be forty-odd years older, but they’re still wearing the same clothes, they’re still worried about their image, their rock cred. They sacrificed their entire lives to rock and roll.

And rock and roll doesn’t pay unless you’re on stage, or attached to those who are, but in the seventies, you’d do anything to become a member of the circus.

Today it’s all about income inequality. Elites. When a new venture is formed, you expect it to be Ivy League graduates or dropouts. State schools are perceived as diploma mills. You just can’t compete with the coddled with opportunities. But somehow, this ragtag band of writers in Michigan established a national reputation, with the stars driving to their office, to meet them, and what more can you want?

For a long time, you’re wondering why Chad Smith is even in this movie, he’s too young. But it turns out he lived five miles away, and he rode his bike down to Birmingham, and Alice Cooper was stepping out the door. You have no idea unless you were there, not only teens, but twentysomethings, were enthralled by rock stars. As for Cooper, he ruled the charts, everyone with ears knew “School’s Out.”

So Barry Kramer got his cash from owning head shops. Through the eighties, a lot of startup capital in the music industry came from dealing dope. Can you say Doc McGhee? And if you can make it in dope, believe me you can be a rock manager. Everybody was self-styled, self-educated, flying by the seat of their pants, making it up as they went, there were no rules, no course of education, they were building it, and it was fun.

Dave Marsh came from WAYNE STATE! Not even the U of M, never mind Michigan State. And when you see him at nineteen, skinny, with hair…you’re not so scared, but this was a guy with a legendary attitude, he built his rep.

Dave was the editor. As far as everybody else? They were nobodies from nowhere. Who just needed to get closer to the sound. Mostly from the environs, although Lester Bangs journeyed from SoCal. They thought they could do it, and they did. Her school newspaper did not allow Jann Uhelszki to write, but “Creem” did, and her first article…was genius.

Give a person a chance, someone with desire, and you don’t know what they’ll come up with. When people need it that bad, they deliver. You can’t even get a chance today.

So Lester Bangs writes his truth and causes trouble, as he drinks too much and pisses people off. He had to die to get a rep out of rock, but the truth is he too wanted to be a star. And ultimately, Cameron Crowe made him one.

As for everybody else?

That’s the movie I want to see. What have they been doing for the past thirty-odd years, how have they been staying alive? These are people who did it with no insurance, sans graduate degrees, their only professionalism was in rock and roll.

And life is hard and getting harder every day. You can’t get by on minimum wage, and the older you get, the more you need health insurance. The road is littered with deceased rock writers, they’re listed at the end of this film, even Robert Palmer, the writer, not the singer, ended up broke and dying, and he’d been the critic for the “New York Times”!


Once again, it’s cool to see the stars. But it’s even cooler to see the people you just know the names of. They’re real, they can talk. Some with heavy accents. Some evidence smarts, but few evidence education.

But the building blocks were different back then. “Creem” was on a mission. To get its voice heard. To have an impact on the world. To not sell out. To be known for its identity more than its monetary worth.

No one would do this today, no one would trek to Detroit and work for nothing as a rock writer. Today everybody is on a journey. Oftentimes planned long before they enter the working world. And if you’re not going somewhere, you’re going nowhere, which is why everybody gets a college degree, to prove they deserve a look, even if it’s for a gig as an assistant.

Our society has changed. It has lost its soul. For the past twenty years it’s been all about technology, the breakthroughs of the nerds. Tools built for creators. Now it’s about how those tools are being used, and to what degree they should be controlled. We’re living in a Tower of Babel society where there are no facts, never mind agreement.

But there were plenty of facts back in the seventies. And either you believed in them or you didn’t. And if you didn’t… There were categories of that. How far out there were you willing to go? As a writer, as a musician, as a person.

And everybody was locked into their own little world. You couldn’t go online and find like-minded people. You stuck out like a sore thumb in your neighborhood, but there were these people in Detroit, putting out a magazine, who were on the same wavelength. That’s one of the things that stunned me when I moved to L.A. At Middlebury College, I stuck out, I was the guy with the record collection, who challenged precepts, who just didn’t put my nose to the grindstone unthinkingly. But in L.A., I found a zillion people just like me!


Now when you’re an outsider, you need badges of identity.

For me, it was not only that issue with the Alcohol Cookbook, but…

The t-shirts. I had two. Wore them everywhere. Back when you never saw a single other person wearing one. Sure, the people in this movie were part of the club, but its acolytes were loners out in the hinterlands. And I wore them until literally they were nothing more than shreds. But I kept them, until very recently, when I moved.

That ethos is gone.

I don’t want to be one of those people buying a leather jacket at a Stones show, buying a vintage t-shirt at the retail store. Not everybody could dedicate their life to rock, you had to be in the know, you had to go to the show to get that merch, which was never sold anywhere else ever again.


Now the challenge of life is living. Anybody can O.D. What would the perception of Lester Bangs be if he were still alive today?

Bangs was a contrarian. He wrote a review of Alice Cooper’s “Killer” that was so over the top, I had to buy the album to see if it was true, I was willing to waste the $3.50.

And when I dropped the needle in the groove, Alice Cooper talked about a girl being under his wheels. What? And the dead babies were priceless, believe me, the straight world could not handle that, when they ultimately became aware of it. Mind-blowingly, today the controls, the consternation, comes from the left, not the right, from the young, not the old, you must be woke, you must adhere to a code of conduct, you must warn people if you trigger them, and irrelevant of whether that’s right, it’s certainly no fun.

Rock and roll was serious, but it was also fun. Going to the show, getting high, meeting new people, getting closer and resonating with the music. However big it was, rock and roll was the other. Well, at least until corporate rock, which killed the business, allowing disco to slip in, before the whole industry cratered.

As did “Creem.” There was too much KISS. KISS was never credible, they did not deserve the ink. Was “Creem” now for little brothers? Maybe even sisters?

Oh, being 2020, this movie goes on about the sexism of the era. But what is curious is the women say they were fine with it. And I don’t want to excuse it, but rock stars were gods. Everybody wanted to get closer. And most of the performers being men, women had a distinct advantage. And the scene didn’t work without women. You could not sell arenas unless women were fans. And many of the musicians were only in bands to meet women. And this does not excuse the sexism, but…

This is a dicey subject. They’re tearing down statues, can one even write about groupies without acknowledging their abuse at the hands of the rock stars themselves? Must one decry the era’s dearth of female stars, female executives? They even find a token black person to be in this movie. And I’ve got no problem with that, but “Creem” was as white as they come. Today its readers would be white nationalist Trump fans.

Then again, “Creem” couldn’t exist today.


If you’re young, unless you’re a student of the era, I doubt you have a desire to see this movie.

And if you’re old, and were not living for rock, you’re probably not interested either.

But if you were there, if you ever read the magazine…

The film is imperfect. Ultimately the arc becomes discernible, whereas at first you’re not sure where it’s going. And on one hand it’s the story of Barry Kramer, and on the other it’s the story of Lester Bangs, but what it truly is…

Is the story of us.

Sure, the records still exist. The stars who haven’t died have gotten plastic surgery to tour. But we, the audience, on the other side of the lights, we don’t look so good. And if you worked for “Creem,” you can’t afford plastic surgery. And how you looked was secondary to your clothes, your personal style, anyway. It was about what was inside, what you were into, what you believed in.

And if you were there, you’ll see yourself in this movie.

And you’ll marvel what a long strange trip it’s been.

And you’ll wonder…was it worth it to sacrifice your life for rock and roll?



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