Come take a trip with me into the past….you are going back to February 1973, New York City….you have been on a walk to meet your man
…on the way back…
… you find yourself walking past a newsstand in the East Village, and decide to pick up a carton of Marlboro Lights, a pack of gum, and a Baby Ruth bar to go with your little glassine envelope of sin, when your eyes are drawn to a cartoon rendering of Chuck Berry on the front of a rock and roll magazine called Creem. You give the scuzzy balding man who is lazily thumbing through a copy of Penthouse your $4.90 and he pushes your purchases towards you in a plain paper bag, offering no protection against the New York wintery weather, so you shove the lot inside your black leather jacket, and pull your newsboy hat down over your eyes. It is freezing cold outside, and inside your brownstone SRO walk up it is not much warmer. By the time you get inside to try and defrost your hands over a cup of Nescafe instant coffee, your Baby Ruth is melted, but if you are lucky your cigarettes and copy of Creem are intact.
Creem was THE great American Rock and Roll magazine, home of Lester Bangs, it made Rolling Stone look like something only your older brothers and sisters read about The Beatles in. Unlike the rest of the cultured world it was not based in New York or Los Angeles, and instead existed first in downtown Detroit until a nasty little scene with an armed robber made that an unattractive proposition, then it moved out to a bucolic compound in Walled Lake Michigan. Its most famous doyenne, Lester Bangs, despite being in Detroit for Creem and the punk scene remained forever incontrovertibly a New York City man, despite his Californian roots, and Michigan workplace, to the New York day he died, even when he was wearing his Detroit Sucks tee shirt…in fact especially when wearing his Detroit Sucks tee he was New York to the dirty rotten core. We all know Detroit sucked, it just took a Californian-New Yorker contradiction like Lester to have the balls to say it to their faces. The whole point was that it sucked, that was the whole point of punk: they sucked and they didn’t care they sucked. The fact that the mag’s offices and crew were not based where the main action (and artists who might get angry) were, meant they were a lot freer to be irreverent and crazy and try things they otherwise might have felt too inhibited to try. It was a crazily successful formula, even if the whole enterprise was somewhat incestuous stuck together on a rural property in Michigan.
I do not know what adventures my particular copy of Creem, February 1973 has gone through, but it looks as if it has not been opened, read, seen, or traveled anywhere other than the printing press and someone’s home before it fell into my grubby paws. It smells like old paper, minus the weird used book scents of cheap aftershave, tobacco, weed or booze, and is absolutely pristine. It obviously did not fall into the hands of a nefarious rock and roller who pulled its pages opened and appreciated it like it should be, it is in far too pristine a condition for that kinda trip. Well, finally this old mag has found its way into the right hands, the time traveler it was meant to belong to – me. The glory years of rock and roll, with Lester Bangs leading the forward charge at Creem is a beautiful sight to behold. It is in turns reactionary and visionary, insane and sensible, full of fluff which matured into vignettes of 70s scuzzball life, and solid heavy Creem of the crop writing. In short, it is a marvel of the 20th century. It is everything pop culture should endeavor to be. We should be entertained, challenged and messed around with, not coddled and steered towards safe waters.
It is currently sitting next to me on the bed, staring up at me like a relic or a time traveler, blinking at 2023 and wondering what cancelling means. I have to pat its yellowed pages and reassure this 1970s rock and roll refugee that I won’t let the nasty social media types tear it apart. In Creem’s heyday ‘cancelled’ merely meant that there was nothing to be delivered, but now, it is something darker, something more malign, something more silent and deadly to all the freedom and the creativity that Creem contained. Boy Howdy, this Creem is spicy stuff. Even I was insulted and outraged at various points. Anything went, even outright unkindness. These guys and gals said what they wanted to, how they wanted to, and if ya didn’t like it, well you could go read Rolling Stone with your hippy sister. Those were different times like Lou sang in Sweet Jane, the poets of Creem studied nothing except the direction of the wind and if you rolled your eyes at their escapades…oh well…and you know what, I think we were all better for it.
Take the restaurant interviews on page 32. Harmless enough a topic, Robot A Hull and Brian H Cullman tackle the worst places to eat in the USA. It quickly falls into racial jibes, however, especially when they review Taisei Gardens of Providence R.I., and that is not cool, and is not funny either. Hey at least I know that Brian Cullman and Robot are a racist pieces of shit, peddling anti Japanese jibes, bullying waitresses with racial slurs and making up vaguely Asian sounding jibber jabber menu item names up thinking they are clever, but in the end sounding like the asshole bozos they were. All I know is if these bozos called a member of my Japanese family that slur, we would be having at least a few words with each other. That said, I would rather know who someone is and treat them accordingly than they hide behind a veneer of politeness not saying what they mean. I would rather know the substance of a person, the nature of a man, than that man be held back from letting me know they are a racist dangerous asshole only restrained by the Fear of Cancelling. I like being made to feel, even if that feeling is pure fury, and I knew when something as innocuous as a meant-to-be-funny restaurant review ended up making my blood boil I was in for a good time in 1973. I mean, say the food was bad, sure, but to bully a Japanese woman with those words….what total dicks. Good use of capital letters, ASSHOLES, shows ya really mean it. I guess when ya can’t be eloquent you can at least be offensive….I would rather real offensiveness than fake politeness.
I didn’t know what I would be getting inside the magazine when I opened it. I could only see the front cover on the hipster shopping site I found it languishing on, so all I knew was there was something on somewhat obscure Leslie West, of the pioneering hard rock band, Mountain. His band played at Woodstock, but never made it truly into the public consciousness. Leslie and Mountain were a mere footnote to the main attraction of February 1973 – namely a whole lotta Johnny B Goode with Mr. Rock and Roll himself.
The front cover is a disturbing, fairly good natured, but somehow unpleasant toothy caricature of Chuck Berry by Sanford Hoffman, a freelance illustrator based in New York city. I can’t pinpoint anything other than the fact it makes me feel uncomfortable to make me go so far as to say it is overtly racist towards the grandfather of Rock and Roll, but yet still I am uncomfortable never the less. I almost didn’t buy it because of the cover, but it was cheap, and I am a sucker for rock and roll history, so here we are! Chuck is swathed in psychedelia that I am sure breaks all kinds of boundaries of good taste at the very least, which is combined with a glowingly flattering headline declaring that ‘Chuck Berry’s Back on Top’. I forgot that he ever was anywhere else. Chuck is so revered that he does not have to share his cover with anyone. Just as it should be. Chuck Berry IS rock and roll and Robert Christgau’s affectionate piece on the great man himself, proclaiming Chuck a better lyricist than Bob Dylan, and truly appreciating the man for the seminal genius that he was wiped away the bad taste of the cover art, if not the restaurant reviews.
America’s self-proclaimed Rock and Roll Magazine has been defunct since 1989, it held on for dear life throughout the dire ’80s, and bailed just before music got interesting again for a while in the 1990s. Figures. They were always a bunch of glorious losers. If they had just held on a year or so they would have had better material to play with again.
Opening the magazine, with my imaginary 1973 Babe Ruth bar and an even more longingly imaginary forbidden cigarette, I found an advert for Lou Reed’s ‘new’ album, Transformer. I rushed to find the review, only to find that whilst Walk on the Wild Side was given some love by Robot A Hull, a regular contributor to Creem magazine who became a contributing editor between 1973 to 1986, the review was not particularly enthusiastic. Imagine getting Transformer to review and then damning it with faint praise! My cheeks are burning with embarrassment for him, but if the man didn’t dig it, the man didn’t really dig it, I guess. Robot writes, “Well, of course there are songs you are gonna want to skip”, and though he notices it has ‘so many good lines thrown at ya’, he is scathing over the show tune influences that Bowie brought to the mix, totally missing the Berlin Burlesque cool of the endeavor, and finally declared the album, ‘grows on ya’. In his final summation Robot, who clearly thought he was too kool for skool, begrudgingly admits that the album is ‘great’ and it has something that ‘sets it apart’ from the other ‘platters’ out there. It was a meatheaded review, with a total lack of intelligence and insight, however at least what it lacked in incisiveness, it made up for with style. I came here for Lester Bangs damnnit, and got an inferior Lester Bangs impersonator, Boy Howdy… and I am infuriated that Les did not do the review. Fewer junk drugs more work, Lester! Robot was a wannabe, a mean spirited oaf without the skill and talent of Bangs to go alongside it. I guess Les couldn’t write the entire magazine, and sure there are other writers who had great and intelligent things to say, but the Transformer review was a total disappointment.
The Creem magazine new release rankings only gave Transformer a C plus, and rated various things no one has listened to since February 1973 far higher; including a fawning rave review of The Divine Miss M by Bette Midler, an album which was pure schlock. To rate Bette higher than Lou in American’s Best Rock and Roll Magazine is beyond bizarre. 1973 is making me nervous. Perhaps Dave Marsh and Robbie Cruger who loved Miss M’s show tunes should have got the Transformer gig, and Robot been left stranded with Bette Midler. That might have worked! It is strange how things in the rear view mirror gain some relativity, sometimes reducing in size, sometimes getting larger, adjusting in the light of hindsight and the coldness of objectivity.
All I can think is that Creem had some kinda vendetta against Lou Reed already at this point, because Transformer was so clearly an instant classic, that this harsh review seems churlish to say the least. Lester not tackling the review was verging on the sacrilegious, a distain that only the true fan can pretend to hold for their heroes and heroines and maintain with any kind of veracity or dignity.
The letters were always a highlight of any magazine, and Creem attracted some real freaks. This issue had a letter from one young Patti Smith. She had not yet released an album, nor put together any coherent songs. Her performance at Max’s Kansas City in the fall of 1973 shows just where she was at, with fragments of a dozen different songs masquerading as poetry at her fingertips, a not yet au fait with backing up his strange friend and singer, Lenny Kaye doing odd things on his guitar, and things that will be songs, in fact will be iconic moments, being barked stonedly and drunkenly into the microphone, attacked as if they were pieces of meat to the carrion crow.
Patti was not quite Patti Smith yet, she was proto-Patti, and Proto-Patti was writing to Creem. Proto-Patti was on one of her ‘scream of consciousness’ kicks, already working on her persona, grafting at her act, trying out her skills with the sound and meaning of words. She is grateful for Richard Meltzer who was the first critic to take rock music on as a serious art form, and she was also defensive of Dylan, and hostile towards Bangs. Lester’s dog, who she claims to love, was infamously incontinent, and Lester charmingly defiant. It would take more than a raging proto-Patti to disturb Bangs. It is a charming mini portrait of the artist as a young high drunk freak with a “headful of ideas that are driving her insane”*, to quote the object of her affections. I have never seen this letter anywhere before. It is more honest than anything she has written since 1978. It is more honest than Just Kids, more real than M Train, and holds so much promise of her greatness to come. Lester knew it, despite the fact that up to now Proto-Patti had yet to produce an album or even a coherent song he acknowledged her. Success was a couple of years in the future yet for Patti Smith. That is why he playfully replied to her, and established the wires of connection between the two of them via good ole fashioned pen and paper and the pages of Creem magazine. Lester had a nose for talent….unlike Robot.
You can’t stay in these glorious days of ’73 for too long. They are too precious to waste. We will stub out this Marlboro light and save the rest for another day to read together and take that trip back to New York City and a time where Patti Smith loved Dylan and called Lester a ‘pigfucker’ to prove it, and still got published in Creem..and don’t you dare stick gum between the pages…in 2023 there is a faded old rock and roller who will need to see this shit come alive once again…
* Maggie’s Farm, Bob Dylan