New York, Greenwich Village, May 1978: Local hero Lou Reed is doped up real good tonight onstage at the Bottom Line, fuming like an alleyway dumpster fire.
A sold-out crowd has come to see the village idiot self-immolate—and so did Lou, because he’s probably so high he is watching himself yammer and yip non-sequiturs and nonsense from the venue’s ceilings.
The infamous four-day residency survives, just barely, on his critically-panned, politically-incorrect Take No Prisoners album—the musical equivalent of a leather strap-on floating in an East River storm drain. Because he always felt a bit cockier playing at home field, all subtlety is abandoned on the record, which is to say that everything goes right and wrong at the same time. The backing band—a mocking impersonation of Bruce Springsteen that descends quickly into burlesque—adds to this comedic paradox since it’s the only thing that sounds halfway decent on Take No Prisoners. On most songs, Lou’s voice crumbles under the weight of his own misery, scuttling to each lyric/rant like a lost, deranged subway rat; then, his voice will suddenly puke up some claggy yowl at the chorus, the same way a drunk uncle might belch out some wacky political opinions at before passing out on the couch.
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Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll Magazine is available to stream here!
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In fact, Lou was particularly opinionated himself one night when he performed a zonked-out rendition of “Walk On the Wild Side.” Just shy under sixteen-minutes, the song, if you can call it that, is a strangely moving spiel on shit he hates that scowls like Lenny Bruce and free-associates like Allen Ginsberg. About halfway through, he really starts to take no prisoners, which includes music journalists like the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau:
Critics. What does Robert Christgau do in bed? I mean, is he a toe fucker? Man, anal retentive, A Consumer’s Guide to Rock, what a moron: ‘A Study’ by, y’know, Robert Christgau. Nice little boxes: B-PLUS. Can you imagine working for a fucking year, and you get a B+ from some asshole in The Village Voice?
At the time, Lou’s disdain for critics was almost as well known as his music. Though equally as infamous in was music critic Lester Bangs’ disdain for Lou’s career after the Velvet Underground, a band he deeply admired as an angsty teen. In a March 1975 issue of Creem magazine, Bangs wrote a gonzo-style interview profile called “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves,” in which he takes a sharpened stake and jabs it with surgical precision in Lou’s coagulated heart, calling him “a completely depraved pervert and pathetic death dwarf and everything else you want to think he is. On top of that, he’s a liar, a wasted talent, an artist continually in flux, and a huckster selling pounds of his own flesh. A panderer living off the dumbbell nihilism of a seventies generation that doesn’t have the energy to commit suicide.” Ouch!—but in the next sentence over, Bangs vacillates, confessing his love: “[Lou] was the guy that gave dignity and poetry and rock ‘n’ roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide…Lou Reed is my own hero principally because he stands for all the most fucked up things that I could ever possibly conceive of.” When no one less saw or heard Reed’s sarcasm, Bangs caught it creeping around the backstreet corner—and that perceptibility made him both a truth-teller and one hell of an inconvenient, irritating, and unbearable bastard for any musician at the mercy of his album reviews.
Bangs made a career out of destroying the things he loved, but he wasn’t launching nuclear codes for the sake of being a contrarian asshole. He sought to be, as New Yorker writer Maria Bustillos wrote, a “reliable guide who wouldn’t lie to us, infantilize us, or sugar-coat anything, however flabby and wild-eyed they might be.” When it came to writing about Lou, or any other musician/album/concert/thing for that matter, Bangs, as a truth-teller first and foremost, wanted to not only convey the totality of whatever he was writing about but to also correct the delusions of everyday people; thus bringing them to a state of consciousness where they saw through the bullshit, the lies, the false promises that ultimately kept them too comfortable, too complicit, and too ignorant. The same ethos is practiced by filmmaker Scott Crawford in his latest documentary, Creem: America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine. As a result, Crawford, with the help of producers J.J. Kramer and Jaan Uhelskzi, takes viewers on a musical and spiritual voyage that rumbles with rock ‘n’ roll’s rhythms, rescuing from oblivion one of the greatest and tragic stories in music journalism history.
Clocking in at a short hour and fifteen minutes, Creem: America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine does a solid job at packing in enough exposition without the narrative feeling too sparse. While a longer run time could have helped flush out some of the film’s sociological theses, what helps propel this combustive story that it is mostly told through the words of those who were there, the people who were either profoundly affected by its wild, rude, and unpredictable prose, or wrote them themselves. Legends such as Mitch Ryder, Paul Stanley, Joan Jett, Cameron Crowe, Suzi Quattro, and Alice Cooper each share how Creem touched them, inspired them, or totally fucked them over with a bad review. But despite the varying degrees of affection and hate for the mag, there is one sentiment that rings through all of their interviews: there was nothing like it, and there probably never will be anything like it again.
While many of us millennials and zoomers can’t remember a time when alt-weeklies were ripe for plucking on every street corner, this film, in large part, is an attempt at showing the world why print editorials like Creem magazine were vital to the expansion of American youth consciousness. Jumpstarted by the late publisher Barry Kramer in a shitty, old office on a super sketchy street in Detriot, Creem was a “fuck-you” rebuttal of the more polished, pretentious Rolling Stone. Beyond back-of-the-class antics, rhetorical cheap shots, and straight-up toilet humor, the writers of Creem magazine, particularly editor Dave Marsh and his progressive fervor, aimed fastidiously at societal pathogens: the Vietnam War, Nixon, police brutality, and all other sorts of cultural watershed that we sadly seem to not have had taken any notes from in the last sixty years. This is sort of subversive edge resonated deeply with its readership, especially suburban boys trapped in conservative pockets where reading Playboy was akin to a great sin. Bangs and Marsh were once one of those oppressed kids too. This might be why their writings at Creem were so critical, forceful, and self-reflexive: they wanted to be the wise men to liberate the half-grown minds, aching for moral and cultural guidance, of teens they saw themselves in.
Perhaps Creem’s greatest superpower was that it was utterly shameless. Written by “convicts and outlaws” that were quarreling incessantly, Creem operated like a pirate ship under constant mutiny—and aboard were Viking-plunderers, besieging the world of music, culture, and politics without a care in the world if their office burned down with the careers they set aflame. There were other great publications and writers out there, but no one else dared to be so irreverent as them, and it was that very attitude that created such a strong readership community around the magazine. “Creem Magazine was our Facebook, it was our social media,” comments musician Wayne Kramer, one of the magazine’s early devotees. Though it is hard to imagine a writer like Bangs existing today because after all, he wrote prose that would today be akin to jumping out of a plane naked without a parachute on. Neither can the “last great rock critic” Dan Ozzi, who wrote that “if a fatal combination of Valium and NyQuil hadn’t prematurely ended Bangs’ career, I imagine Twitter would have.” The same goes for some of the magazine’s female writers, including producer of the film and co-founder of Creem, Jane Uhelszki. While Creem magazine helped break the career of many aspiring female journalists, the culture at the office was still a total boys club. Uhelszki herself was tasked with writing many of the editorial’s photo captions, which ranged from subtle jeering to outrageous misogyny. But these were the times as Uhelszki suggests: “It was a boys’ magazine; it was meant for teenage boys. Was it offensive? It was the ’70s. There weren’t the same filters there are now. Kill me.”
If you work in a madhouse for a little too long, you might, as writer Hilton Als said in a recent Instagram post, “get so acclimated to the pain horror and insanity that you don’t realize until reason enters and care enters what torture has done to your body mind and sense of hope.” Eventually, Lester Bangs tried to escape that den of insanity, leaving in the late ’70s to freelance in New York City. He even attended A.A. meetings, ironically alongside Lou Reed. But his drug-fueled death in 1982 and Barry Kramer’s the year before are eerily reminiscent of the rockstars they covered, revealing how complicated, like the truth, Creem’s history is and the counterculture it documented.
In a collection of Bangs’ essays, Psychotic Reactions, and Carburetor Dung, editor Griel Marcus defines his friend as a moralist, someone who attempted to “understand what is important, and to communicate that understanding to others in a form that somehow obligates the readers as much as it entertains.” He later continues that the collection was “not a summary or a representative selection, but an attempt to make a picture of a man creating a view of the world, practicing it, facing its consequences and trying to move on…this book is not a record of what Lester Bangs wrote: it is, finally, my attempt to record what he wrote was about, and what it was worth.” Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine achieves a similar triumph: going beyond just explaining what happened, but actually trying to make some sense of an unfinished story, why it matters—now, then, and in the future—and why you, the audience, should give a damn about it in the first place.