"Can't Forget the Motor City"
Creem Magazine, Rock Music, Detroit Identity, Mass Consumerism, and the Counterculture

By Michael J. Kramer

[Editor's note: This is an excerpt from a much longer paper originally published in The Michigan Historical Review, Fall 2002 (Volume 28, No. 2). We reprint it here with the permission of the author and the publisher. The copyrighted Creem content is reproduced with permission from Creem Media, Inc.]

Creem's first issues appeared in the spring of 1969, at a point when the direction of the country's youthful counterculture seemed uncertain. The country was reeling from the assassinations, riots, and conflicts over the Vietnam War that dominated 1968. [1]  In this confusing situation, many young Americans turned to the counterculture as perhaps a viable alternative not only to the newly elected government of Richard Nixon, but also to the entire mainstream American way of life. Ironically, at the same time the rock music so closely associated with the counterculture was booming in the very commercial economy that the movement dismissed as an alienating failure linked to the "Bomb," the "military-industrial complex," the war in Vietnam, and all that was wrong with the United States. Caught between the pull of a radical politics that rejected the society in which they were coming of age and the allure of that same society's commercial life, the founders of Creem attempted to negotiate the complex contradictions of politics and culture in a mass-consumer setting.

The magazine may not have moved young Americans out of the circumscribed politics of mass consumerism, but in its admittedly compromised position as a commodity itself, the magazine presented modes of analysis from within the consumer system's massive, entangling circuitry. And Creem suggested that young Americans, if they were aware of how this larger system worked, might be able to sort out from the manipulative and alienating aspects the components of consumer culture that gave them authentic pleasures, new understandings, and even modes of political empowerment.

For Creem writers the counterculture seemed to exist in this interplay of commercialized expression and political meaning, and so the question of whether to adopt a countercultural identity while remaining engaged in the world of consumerism became a central, ongoing issue. The magazine never abandoned its engagement with popular music as a product in the consumer marketplace, but Creem did use its sense of being from Detroit to change its stance toward the counterculture. At first the magazine simply identified with the counterculture as a social movement. Quickly, however, Creem began criticizing and satirizing the counterculture's inability to separate itself entirely from consumer life. This self-conscious analysis, often full of irony, did not mean the magazine was abandoning the possibility of transforming American society. Rather, Creem sought to pursue social transformation via another route--by giving readers humor as a tool to help them understand their own predicament, and their potential power, as individuals embedded in a mass culture.

The first cover of Creem, dated March 1, 1969, and an explanatory article inside captured the publication's initially wholehearted embrace of the counterculture as a fully alternative movement. From the gaping mouth of a hippie-like figure, the word "Creem" curled upward like a prayer. The mysterious cover figure appeared again inside the magazine, next to an article that identified it as a Tarot-card illustration of the "Fool at Zero." In a quintessentially earnest counterculture maneuver, this anonymous article connected the "Fool" with notions of spirituality, artistic creativity, and utopian hopes for a more egalitarian and humane society. At the same time, the author suggested that such a world could be created by the technologies of mass-consumer culture--if only those technologies could be put to better uses. "We have come to a spiritual awakening," the article claimed, "that makes us not only aware of the science and technology at our disposal but the ability and innate wisdom to use them through creative energy and beauty for a brotherhood of light through universal love." According to the article, the cover figure "symbolizes the warm, colorful creative energy of universal cultural activities."

Like this cover figure, Creem magazine at first sought to express the "creative energy" that the counterculture might realize. Years later, a 1975 article about Creem in the Detroit News quoted Barry Kramer's claim that the magazine's title was "just a meaningless, irreverent name" that "came from the attitude of those of us who started it." But the magazine only gradually adopted that irreverent approach toward rock and the counterculture. [2]  Creem's name probably derived from sincere enthusiasm for a rock group, Eric Clapton's Cream, and seems to have been chosen by Tony Reay. [3] Despite the influence of British bands such as Cream, and Englishman Tony Reay's short stint as editor in the spring of 1969, the local counterculture dominated Creem's agenda. The magazine focused on much more than just rock music. Published from a loft on Cass Avenue near Wayne State University, Creem sought to embrace a broad range of local cultural activities, featuring original poetry, cultural commentary, jazz criticism, concert listings, and even a classical-music column. In an editorial in the first issue of Creem, Barry Kramer wrote, "This paper is devoted to media with the emphasis on music and the people that live it--you." Kramer declared that "Detroit is home to many creative artists...There are those who would like to exploit this market. Sell its soul. We won't let this happen. Creem will help build a more cohesive community." [4]

The early issues of Creem sought to celebrate "creativity" and to help construct an egalitarian counterculture in Detroit, one that had room for all to express their opinions and sense of self. An early Creem piece about free jazz by Richard C. Walls reflected this philosophy, going so far as to describe the supposedly passive act of listening to music as actively creative: "Listening subjectively to free form music is in itself a creative art," Walls reasoned. [5]  Creem would maintain its interest in the active creativeness involved in listening to and appreciating popular music, but the magazine would soon alter its early earnestness.

Even in Creem's first issues, a sharper-edged approach to popular culture surfaced. On the second cover of Creem, a figure created by underground comic artist Robert Crumb replaced the first issue's sincere "Fool at Zero." [6]  This second cover, which was full of silly sexual innuendo playing on the name Creem, featured a "Mr. Dream Whip" aerosol can smiling at the viewer as he pleasured young ladies with "gloops" of whipped cream. "Wow!" "Me Next, Mr. Dream Whip!" and "Whew!" they cried out as horrified parents looked on in disgust in the background, save for one man lurking close to the ground who giggled, "Tee hee." The figure of "Mr. Dream Whip," along with another Crumb creation that became Creem's mascot, the "Boy Howdy!" beer can (which Crumb in fact intended to be a milk bottle), represented a more trashy attitude at Creem, an ostensibly anticountercultural engagement with--rather than rejection of--everyday life among the aerosol containers and beer cans of mass consumerism. In Crumb's work, Creem celebrated a hypereroticization of mass culture that embraced the untranscendent and tacky rather than the "spiritual awakening" of "creative energy and beauty" that the "Fool at Zero" issue advocated.

As the publication matured--growing from a local countercultural tabloid to a national, glossy, rock-music magazine--it would move between the countercultural sincerity of the "Fool at Zero" and the ridiculous, Mad-magazine-like verve of Crumb's "Mr. Dream Whip." Creem would seek to succeed commercially while creating a voice for those who felt part of the counterculture, yet who were distrustful of its more extreme efforts to disengage from mainstream American life. In doing so, Creem introduced a politics of heightened self-awareness to readers immersed in the alternately numbing and electrifying currents of mass-consumer culture. Itself doomed to become a piece of trash in the unrelenting flow of consumption, Creem pursued an aesthetics and politics of trashiness.

This trashiness was linked to Detroit. In their March 1970 editorial "The Michigan Scene Today," Barry Kramer, "Deday" LaRene, and Dave Marsh wrote: "It was rock and roll music which first drew us out of our intellectual covens and suburban shells" because "life in Detroit is profoundly anti-intellectual" since its "institutions are industrial and businesslike." This setting, according to the editorial, gave birth to a youth culture defined not by visions of gentle harmony, but by a more tough-minded, realistic sensibility. "What we've made ourselves is as real as the foul breath of the Ford plant or the scum in the Detroit River," Kramer, LaRene, and Marsh declared, connecting Detroit to a "rock and roll culture" centered not around the "warm, colorful creative energy of universal cultural activities" that the "Fool at Zero" embodied, but to a "lifestyle" that "like the music, is na´ve, crude, adolescent, simple, and simplistic." As he continued to write for Creem, Dave Marsh especially focused on "industrial and businesslike" Detroit as a site that offered a special understanding of life within America's commercial culture.

In sharp-edged articles, reviews, and columns, Marsh repeatedly circled back to the lingering, unfulfilled mission of the youth counterculture of the 1960s by examining his own experiences as a Detroit youth. "Maybe it's that I cut my teeth on the MC5," he wrote in a 1971 article about the band, "or that I am possessed by the peculiar Motor City aesthetic, but I'd go see that [mid-1960s] brand of the MC5 even if the Rolling Stones were across the street. Nothing I've ever experienced has been nearly comparable and it may be a long time coming before we all have the collective spirit to do it again." [7]  Looking back in 1985, Marsh explained how important the MC5--for him the quintessential Detroit band--was in shaping his sense of the utopian possibilities of the local counterculture: "So powerfully did the MC5's music unite its listeners that leaving those 1968 and 1969 shows, one literally felt that anything, even that implausible set of White Panther slogans, could come to pass." Remembering that sense of promise, Marsh argued:

In that sense, the MC5, with their Bacchanalian orgy of high energy sound, was a truer reflection of the positive spirit of the counterculture than the laid-back Apollonians of Haight- Ashbury ever could have been. And from the glimmerings of that confused babble, from the evidence of its hints of success, one could begin to construct an aesthetic and perhaps even a program that proposed how rock culture could fit into society as something more significant than a diversion. You could say that the very idea is crazy, but not if you were a part of those shows--which weren't concerts or dances but something more spectacular and fulfilling. [8]

As he moved from his intense local experiences of the counterculture to examine it on a national level, however, Marsh critiqued the movement and its political failures far more than he praised it. He became especially intrigued and troubled by what Rolling Stone writer David Felton had termed the psychedelic "acid fascism" of religious cultists and political ideologues such as Charles Manson and Mel Lyman. [9]  In a 1972 column, Marsh wrote that the "human principles on which [the counterculture] began are being avoided and shirked." As the 1970s progressed, suddenly "everyone was aware that the alternative culture we had been building was as sick as the culture it was supposedly an alternative to" [10].  But while Felton and other writers associated with Rolling Stone rejected the counterculture for an older tradition of muckraking and investigative reporting, Marsh clung to the idea that countercultural dreams were worthy, if compromised, ones.

Marsh argued that the absurdities of Detroit provided an especially provocative place from which to observe the strengths and weaknesses of the alternative youth culture. And like the MC5, other area bands exemplified this notion to Marsh: "To understand and truly appreciate the Frut," he wrote in a 1971 article, "as with any highly localized phenomenon, you've got to understand the nature of the region from which they come--Detroit and Ann Arbor and their environs." Having grown up there, Marsh insisted, "It's all filthy. I grew up as far from Detroit (though due north) as the Frut, and the foundry grit on the windowsills is my earliest memory. That foundry dust, vile as it is, eats away at not only aluminum siding and automobile finishes but also at the very heart of those who must live in it." [11]

To Marsh, surviving the area's polluted and desperate environment paradoxically liberated one to draw energy from an absurdist point of view, a way of perceiving the world as susceptible to being turned upside down and hence always up for grabs. In December 1970, writing in his regular column "Looney Toons," Marsh articulated this view in terms of his own magazine. Emphasizing the topsy-turvy sensibility Detroit could foster, Marsh declared, "Creem is the magazine of rock as high comedy and low art, of bizarre as normalcy." But this approach might "not make much sense unless you live up in Motown too." [12]  Writing whimsically--but also seriously--about bands such as the Frut as possessing a "Rockicrucian Spirit" that "had the power to liberate the entire mental/physical complex (being) into a pinnacle of transcendent and quintessentially aboriginal energy," Marsh felt that Detroit was an especially potent site for this powerful force. In Detroit, the music "had to be hard and high energy, too, because the very nature of the city was, and is, dead-set against the Rockicrucian Spirit, and all its implications." For Marsh, the Motor City "was as anti-metaphysical as the cars that are so aptly its symbol," but because of this gritty setting, it produced a powerful sensibility that moved between realism and idealism in the search for both countercultural and commercial success. [13]

The rock music that resulted, then, was especially meaningful when considering both the successes and the shortcomings of the counterculture. "The Frut are a dream band," Marsh believed, "and their dream is in many ways our dream--to cure it all by just rockin' on out." But--and this was a pivotal move on Marsh's part--the Frut represented not just the hopes of the counterculture, but its problems as well. There were "deficiencies of that attitude, one that we've all held at one time or another," Marsh noted of the Frut's "Rockicrucian" impulses. [14]  Marsh's articles offered only a beginning outline either of how his contemporaries thought that "rockin' on out" could "cure it all" or of the "deficiencies of that attitude." But Marsh's ambivalence did help to position Creem as a publication that was not just a cheerleader for simple countercultural solutions to mainstream American social ills. Instead, he saw the magazine as a self-critical journal acutely cognizant of the tricky intertwining of countercultural desires and mass-consumer experiences.

This consciousness of the interaction between the counterculture and mass-consumer culture proved increasingly important to Creem when it completed its switch from a local, newsprint tabloid to a nationally distributed, glossy magazine. [15]  The magazine's changing slogans displayed its expanding self-identity. In its first issue the publication had declared, "Creem Magazine Is Detroit." But soon it advertised itself as "Michigan's Music Paper." By the magazine's second year, it was "The Midwest's Music Magazine." Finally, in August of 1972, Creem audaciously announced itself as "America's Only Rock and Roll Magazine," despite its obvious competitor, the more successful and more famous Rolling Stone. [16]

These slogan changes suggest that Creem wanted to transform its self-fashioned local identity embodying the Motor City's "Rockicrucian Spirit" into a more widely applicable style of irreverence. The magazine that started out as an embodiment of Detroit did not abandon its sense of place so much as generalize "Detroitness" into a more broadly imagined critical approach to the counterculture and commercial culture. Thus, as Detroit crumbled, Creem used the city's decay to erect an aesthetic and political stance that could function on the national level.

If Dave Marsh represented Creem's self-fashioned relationship to Detroit, Lester Bangs embodied the increasingly irreverent attitude that arose from that perspective. Bangs strove to articulate how the counterculture's utopian political dreams surfaced within the everyday life of mass consumerism, not outside it. Bangs arrived at Creem in 1971 from southern California, at which point he had already decided that in terms of the dream of transforming American life, "the only real hope is Detroit." [17]  For Bangs, this was because Detroit offered the best example of a music culture that had struggled with countercultural ambitions from within mass consumerism. The result, Bangs believed, was that in the Motor City, "the fatuity rate is incredibly is the cosmic vibration rate; people tend to have horse sense, which is refreshing, and know what's important; even more than that they know what's absolutely crucial and what's a gaudy ball of gauze." [18]  Building on this Detroit-derived vision of Creem as a magazine realistic about contemporary American life but unwilling to give up on "what's absolutely crucial," Bangs unfolded his vision of a countercultural ethos that could arise out of rock music. His vision positioned rock as neither Art with a capital A, nor Politics with a capital P, but as a trashy consumer commodity whose impermanent and derivative sounds could, out of a seeming superficiality, make the kinetic, life-affirming, and joyful energies of creative expression widely available for both individual and communal use.

Above all else, Bangs urged his readers to hear rock as a music whose serious message was to resist immobilization by seriousness. Responding both to political radicals who dismissed all of rock as utterly tainted by the workings of capitalism and to a record industry that increasingly marketed certain rock musicians as highbrow artists and artistic geniuses, Bangs argued that within the most shallow and seemingly foolish levels of mass-consumer culture lurked a deep, enlivening sense of personal and collective power. However, this power for self and group liberation could only be grasped and used if appraised on the sly, wrapped in a joke, and approached irreverently. In articles and reviews Bangs laid out Creem's aesthetics and politics of trash. He examined how within mass consumerism what seemed most foolish in fact held the key to social transformation, while what seemed most serious wound up pacifying listeners, preventing them from grasping the tools consumerism made available for their own countercultural transformations.

As a cultural critic, Bangs set out to explain how the trashiest depths of mass-consumer culture--rather than straightforward politics or serious-minded rock "art"--could yield important insights about the state of American life. First, he turned away entirely from politics in the traditional sense, depicting the "Party" that most deserved his generation's membership as a festive gathering. Bangs felt that "this Party's collective ambition was simple...Jive and rave and kick 'em out 'cross the decades and only stop for the final Bomb or some technological maelstrom of sonic bliss sucking the cities away at last." [19]  For Bangs, this sort of "Party" provided the most meaningful program during a time of bankrupt public institutions and the ongoing threat of annihilation by the technologies of the Cold War.

In breathless, swerving, and funny sentences that seemed to sweep a reader up in their propulsive energy, Bangs explained how his "Party" presented the most viable political avenue for young Americans coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, "because the Party was the one thing we had in our lives to grab onto." This "Party's" platform--to "jive and rave and kick 'em out 'cross the decades"--was "the one thing we could truly believe in and depend on, a loony tune fountain of youth and vitality that was keeping us alive as much as any medicine we'd ever take or all the fresh air in Big Sur..." Without breaking stride, Bangs theorized why his "Party" offered an agenda superior to the "medicine" of mind-altering drugs or the back-to-nature countercultural ideas associated with a location such as Big Sur. The "Party," he proclaimed, "sustained us without engulfing us and gave us a nexus of metaphor through which we could refract less infinitely extensible concerns and learn a little bit about ourselves and what was going on without even, incredibly enough, getting pretentious about it." [20]

The counterculture's growing pretentiousness troubled Bangs. He not only viewed more conventional forms of elective politics--or even other kinds of anticonsumerist countercultural politics put forth in the 1960s--as flawed, but also he felt that the gravity with which rock fans were investing the music was problematic. In the late 1960s, Bangs noted, "American kids began in progressively larger numbers to take themselves with the utmost seriousness, both as individuals and as a vaguely and mystically defined mass class." In the process, they began to make rock "the soundtrack for our personal and collective narcissistic psychodramas." [21]  What had begun as rock's ability to spark revelations out of the tawdry revelry of popular music had, for Bangs, become bogged down in attempts to treat rock as high-minded philosophy, as a music bearing a serious message, and in attempts to ignore the music's mundane existence as the stuff of mass consumerism.

As a critic, Bangs sought to combat the commercialization and the pretensions of the counterculture with piercing critiques that expressed, paradoxically, a commitment to the radical ethos of the counterculture. In a 1973 review of an album by the Rowan Brothers, Bangs used one recording to make a larger point about the marketing of the counterculture as a serious, but alarmingly passive, way of living. "This record scares me," Bangs declared. "What [the Rowan Brothers] do, by some means unknown to me, is to project a lifestyle. And some lifestyle it is, too. Vegetarian, disengaged, 'spiritual,' and--most importantly--easy. It's a lifestyle that takes no effort to live, that contains no pain, demands nothing, and returns everything...Even death doesn't matter." [22]  For Bangs, the Rowan Brothers represented the larger threat that commercial interests were repackaging the counterculture for mass consumption as a set of "lifestyle" choices leading to disengagement from the problems and possibilities of real life.

Bangs's goal was to suggest the alternative ways in which rock music engaged, enlivened, and even empowered the typical young American. Writing of the Rowan Brothers's message of rock as "vegetarian, disengaged, 'spiritual,' and--most importantly--easy," Bangs pointed out, "Of course it's a lie." To Bangs, it was "the same kind of lie--adapted to the times, of course--that brought...sixteen-year-olds to Haight Street in 1967." In his irreverent way, Bangs concluded, "Do an old codger a favor, kids, and don't buy the Rowan Brothers' record. And do yourself a favor and don't buy what the Rowan Brothers are selling...They want you to think that they can sell it, when in fact they can't because it's free. You just have to pay a little more for it than they did, but that's okay too, because you'll get to keep it long after the Rowan Brothers have been forgotten." [23]

In this review, Bangs stressed that the utopian politics of the counterculture--the idea of revivifying American society based on more liberating, just, egalitarian, and energizing principles--was inherently worthwhile. But this vision could be realized only if young Americans grasped the energy of rock as a "Party" lodged in the belly of mass consumerism, not as a cultural retreat from the dominant economic and social systems of American life. Fortunately for Bangs, there were rock bands whose music propelled this countercultural "Party" onward--with all its irreverent foolishness intact. In an extended 1970 essay with the tellingly absurd title, "Of Pop and Pies and Fun, a Program for Mass Liberation in the Form of a Stooges Review, or, Who's the Fool?" Bangs explored the ways in which the Stooges--a Detroit band dismissed by many in the national counterculture because of the members' seeming incompetence as musicians and their wild, desperate, often self-destructive stage antics--were the truth-tellers that the Rowan Brothers were not.

Bangs admired the Stooges as fools who leveled the hierarchy of rock stars and mere fans, puncturing along the way the manufactured myths of rock as serious art-making and rock performers as artistic geniuses. The Stooges's lead singer, Iggy Pop (born James Osterberg), was simply "a nice sensitive American boy growing up amid a thicket of some of the worst personal, interpersonal, and national confusion we've seen." Bangs did not define this "thicket" of "confusion" in more detail, but he seems to have viewed Iggy Pop as an individual caught up in the alienating desperation and absurdity of an America that was defined increasingly by a mass-consumer system proffering mostly meaningless goods and images to citizens stranded in suburban wastelands. Iggy was, Bangs explained, "a pre-eminently American kid, singing songs about growing up in America, about being hung up lotsa the time (as who hasn't been?), about confusion and doubt and uncertainty, about inertia and boredom and suburban pubescent darkness." [24]

Responding not to some great artistic calling or to any fully developed political agenda, but simply to the urge to feel alive and to matter, Iggy Pop and the Stooges made a music that, for Bangs, took the energy and electricity that powered the trashy, shallow sectors of mass-consumer life and transformed them into a joyous, vital force. In doing so, the group represented to the Creem critic all the countercultural problems of his day--and perhaps also the true countercultural solution to what Bangs deemed the "absurdity and desperation of the times":

Well, a lot of changes have gone down since Hip first hit the heartland. There's a new culture shaping up, and while it's certainly an improvement on the repressive society now nervously aging, there is a strong element of sickness in our new, amorphous institutions. The cure bears viruses of its own. The Stooges carry a strong element of sickness in their music, a crazed, quaking uncertainty, an errant foolishness that effectively mirrors the absurdity and desperation of the times, but I believe that they also carry a strong element of cure, a post-derangement sanity. And I also believe that their music is as important as the product of any rock group working today, although you better never call it art or you may wind up with a deluxe pie in the face. What it is, instead, is what rock and roll at heart is and always has been, beneath the stylistic distortions the last few years have wrought. The Stooges are not for the ages--nothing created now is--but they are most implicitly for today and tomorrow and the traditions of two decades of beautifully bopping, manic, simplistic jive. [25]

Bangs included the Stooges in the rock phenomenon he and others termed "Third Generation," which included bands coming of age after the first roar of rock and roll with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and others in the 1950s and the second wave of British invasion and American garage-rock bands in the 1960s. For Bangs, these "Third Generation" groups raised the spectre of young Americans combining parody and appreciation in one joyous fell swoop that resuscitated the counterculture's utopian dreams from within mass-consumer society. For rock's power, he wrote, had "to do with growing up, perhaps absurd but with all the pop and pap and creature comforts, in white suburbia, and responding to this situation with as much frustration and vigor as our idiomatic ancestors got out of being physically, visibly repressed." Rock bands of the "Third Generation" might be "about as original as a Detroit compact car, but it makes no difference at all," Bangs declared, linking their experiences metaphorically to Creem's Detroit locale. [26]

For Bangs, the music of bands such as the Stooges parlayed the trashy din of rock's mass-consumable form into an insistence that lives embedded in the deepest layers of America's commodity culture were worthwhile. In doing so, the group was a truer incarnation of the 1960s countercultural movement than "the new social systems the Panthers and Yips are cookin' up" or "the fact that I took acid four days ago and everything is smooth with no hang-ups." [27]  With irreverent exuberance, Bangs prescribed the counterculture's proper relationship to mass consumption, declaring that rock music was "nothing but a Wham-O toy to bash around as you please in the nursery, it's nothing but a goddam Bonusburger so just gobble the stupid thing and burp and go for the next one tomorrow; and don't worry about the fact that it's a joke and a mistake and a bunch of foolishness...because it's the strongest, most resilient, most invincible Superjoke in history, nothing could possibly destroy it ever, and the reason for that is precisely that it is a joke, mistake, foolishness...What's truest is that you cannot enslave a fool." [28]

Lester Bangs played the fool himself through an exaggerated writing style that combined unruly wit with heartfelt commitment. While doing so he alerted readers to particular examples of rock music that, to him, functioned like "Bonusburgers" burped up from the depths of mass-consumer society as "invincible Superjokes" able to overcome all efforts to depersonalize individuals or communities. These were the musicians and songs of his "Party," providing "one answer [for] how to manage leisure in a society cannibalized by it." [29]  Building on the Detroit identity writers such as Dave Marsh had created for Creem, Bangs led the magazine to what we might call a refined vision of unrefinement--a critique of both mass consumerism's alienations and the counterculture's failure to address them honestly and effectively. Encouraged by Bangs as editor, many other Creem contributors followed his lead in seeking out meaning within their experiences of rock as part of everyday life. Nowhere, however, did the peculiar countercultural vision of Bangs and Creem emerge more fully than in the magazine's letters section.

Though they did not always agree with him, Creem's readers responded passionately to Bangs's effort to use the "invincible Superjoke" of trashy rock music for countercultural liberation. The magazine's letters section became a place for readers either to affirm or to dispute Bangs's interpretation of music, politics, and consumer life. Indeed, we might think of Creem's letters section as a kind of "public sphere" in which critics and readers interacted as equal citizens communicating about the problems and possibilities rock music posed. [30]  By encouraging readers to engage the magazine's writers on an equal footing, the letters section not only allowed for sharing of opinions, but also it came to embody in literary form the counterculture's utopian dream of increased egalitarianism, freer self-expression, and more vital group experience.

Many readers wrote in to thank Creem for providing them with a magazine that captured--or helped them discover--the secret power of rock-as-trash. "My brother found a copy of Creem at the dump," wrote William Bridges of New Orleans in an enthusiastic 1973 missive that Creem editors titled "Found Art." Perhaps joking about how Creem reached him, but also appreciative of its trashy origins, Bridges continued, "So he brought it home and gave it to me, and I read it, Man it was the groovest [sic] magazine I read in years. Keep up the good work." [31]  Another letter writer, Mike Corbett of Salinas, California, adopted Lester Bangs's mixture of lighthearted mockery and earnest appreciation, writing, "To Alan Neister, regarding his review of the Moody Blues: What kind of man writes record reviews for Creem? The kind that gets his education from comic books, his bell-bottoms from Woolworth's, and his religion from Black Sabbath." [32]  Even as he poked fun at Neister, Corbett seemed playfully to recognize the funny sort of insight the critic had gleaned from lowbrow mass culture.

Battiste Everett-Wells of "Tumbleweed Connection," Michigan, adopted Lester Bangs's exaggerated style to distinguish Creem from other rock publications: "In the end, someone said 'Let there be Creem' and low and above, there wallowing in the muck and mire of Crawdaddy!, Rolling Stone and aforementioned charlatans of yore, there appeared Creem, brilliant as a new born hermaphrodite and without shame to rule the land that was without and the places that were within each of us [where] a little flower grows." [33]  Both a satirical spoof and an earnest compliment, Everett-Wells's letter sought to join with Bangs and others at Creem in relishing the joys of playing the fool.

Other letters recognized the ways rock music could be vital, but they also raised questions about the music's relationship both to countercultural ideals of egalitarianism and to the evils of mass consumerism. One remarkable letter examined rock's relationship to women and its implications for gender politics. That a letter like this could appear alongside sillier missives is a testament to the complex ways in which Creem became a "public sphere" that had room for both the humorous and the serious. In her letter, Laura Liben of New York City commented:

The words and aspects of the music are forever "putting women in their place," and that very energy is the power behind the message, sucking us in as it oppresses us, much more completely than, say a Chanel perfume ad in Vogue magazine would. How many times have I happily snapped my fingers and danced along with hundreds of other women and men to "Look at that Stupid Girl" or "You Better Shop Around?" Not that the Stones and Miracles don't create beautiful music (they are two of my favorite groups, which is a flip-out in a way), but who can deny how the put-downs to women have affected us all?...Even as the music brings us in touch with our own vitality and life energy, at the same time it oppresses us...[with] a disease so deeply embedded in our society that rock music is going to have to go through many changes before it can act as a truly revolutionary force to help change rather than perpetuate this system. [34]

Liben's connection of gender in rock music to both the countercultural aim of putting listeners "in touch with our own vitality and life energy" and the music's complicity with a larger commercial "system" represented by Chanel perfume ads was an example of Creem's ability--despite its own increasingly compromised position as a national magazine vying for commercial success--to provide an imaginative space for explorations of the thorny relationship between the counterculture and mass consumerism. [35]

Still other letters criticized Creem, some gently, some harshly, while recognizing its attempt to forge an irreverent counter-countercultural aesthetic and politics. "Your October & November issues showed up here in L.A. awhile ago and I found them a gassy contrast to some of the stuff which has been going down in That Other magazine of late," wrote Len Bailes, referring to Rolling Stone. "You guys seem to be mildly hung up on the r&r critic as artiste trip too, but at least you've got a sense of humor about it." [36]  Another letter writer, David M. Lewark from San Francisco, but previously a "resident of Mishawka, Ind., 1949-1971," sarcastically dismissed Creem for its Detroit-fashioned distrust of more idealistic wings of the counterculture. "I feel you should be commended for the excellent way you portray and promote the typically cynical, unenlightened attitude toward life that is so widespread in the people of the Midwest," Lewark sneered. [37]

Creem's letters section offered a glimpse of the magazine's vision--articulated by Dave Marsh in terms of Detroit and by Lester Bangs more broadly--of a countercultural politics that made everyday life matter even at the trashiest levels of mass-consumer society. Even before readers got to the profiles of preening rock stars, photographs of scantily clad groupies, columns of manufactured entertainment news items, silly cartoons, or flashy advertisements, they encountered in the letters to Creem a spirited debate that used the materials of popular culture for powerful ends: to present a wide range of self identities; to affirm or contest various communal boundaries and definitions; to struggle with the problems of equality; and to seek out what it meant to live in 1960's and 1970's America.

Michael J. Kramer is a doctoral student in history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Read former Creem editor Tony Reay's response to this article.