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Like Pushing a Rubber Giraffe Through a Keyhole...
Creem Magazine's Founding Editor Responds to Michael Kramer's History of "America's Only Rock'n'Roll Magazine"

By Tony Reay

[Editor's note: Following last week's posting of Can't Forget the Motor City, I contacted--at Michael Kramer's suggestion--Tony Reay, the Founder and original Editor of Creem, about his thoughts on Michael's piece; it seems he had already delivered an "off-the-cuff" spiel of sorts at an online Creem forum. A brief flurry of e-mails went back and forth between the three of us, and Tony--who's also known as Ice Alexander--agreed to let me publish excerpts from his letters as well as his original comments from the Creem forum.]

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Tuesday, January 14, 2003 2:01 PM

Hiya Scott,

HHHhhmmmmm...lemme see now, do I really want to open up this canoworms again? I was asked basically the same question about publication of this purported "rant" in the Creem forum. Firstly, let me say that I wrote the response to Michael's piece in the same frame of mind that I (and Lester and Dave and Greil and assuredly every other writer and editor that Creem ever had/has) wrote most other stuff in: top of the head--seat of the pants--emotions on the sleeve--damn the torpedoes kinda thing. And I really never intended it to reach a mass audience, even a small mass audience.

I asked the Creem forum guys if they would publish an amended version of the so-called rant, perhaps in a selfish attempt to make myself look less vicious and heartless for picking on an accredited and learned scholar with actual real credentials. They agreed, and it gave me an opportunity to attempt to clarify my position--i.e., that this particular slant wouldn't read right if Hemingway and Hunter collaborated on it. Any attempt to shed rational and concise white light on the chaos that was the early Michigan rock scene (phase two) is doomed: pointless, impossible, unworthy and ultimately about as possible as pushing a rubber giraffe thru a keyhole. Such a venture is rendered even further afield from success by the fact that we all have differing memories of the times (and, of course, some of the major players are giggling from above at our feeble efforts).

The story of Creem and its times, tempos and tantrums can only be properly told in something at least akin to it's own style--because otherwise too much falls between the cracks. It was, is, and continues to be an issue of perspective and which angle you view it from. I can put it most simply by drawing your memory back to those silly key chain fobs that had kinda 3D pictures on them: one picture if you hold the fob one way, another entirely different picture if you simply tilt the fob. While we who were there might see different pictures, Michael's fundamental flaw was to describe the fob as seen from the side--undeniably accurate, from a semi sociological standpoint but ultimately without context (follow that?? Jeez--I gotta quit these weird tangents..)

Having said all that...if you find a place (and a reason) to print the same addendum/response that appeared in the Creem forum--or this response to your request--then I guess I bow to your editorship. The full content [of the Creem forum post] follows...

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Dear Mr. Howdy et al.,

In corresponding recently with Doctor Robert about my reactions to the piece in MHR I offered my "off the cuff" reactions to Mr. Kramer's writing, and its place in our lives. He sent ol' Boy Howdy a copy (with my O.K.). The significant part of the rant went as follows:

"This MHR piece just plain sucks...Sorry if he's some like real good buddy of yours...(he assures me that the last name is strictly coincidental) but, regardless of the subject matter and its almost mythically inaccurate retelling, just the piece itself stinks. I mean the actual writing of it. I cannot imagine how such a disconnected, hyperbolic cross-talked chunk of drivel got accepted by such a supposed learned organization...." And so on, and so forth.

Along a few days later I went to the Creem forum to post a request to track down...well, never mind all that...and I found this tantalizing tease concerning the MHR piece:

"Ice, our founding Editor, has some particularly harsh criticism that I'm sure you'll enjoy reading if he allows..." So here, I suppose, is my "allows."

All those years ago I had an elephantful of excuses for "harshness" (harsh: rough or grating to the senses; stern, severe or cruel) not the least of which was shock value. It was, in fact, the style that became the tradition of Creem and now, in historia, it's apparent raison d'Ítre. I'm not sure that what I said in response to this learned tome was "harsh" per se--although clearly by the Collins English Dictionary definition quoted above, it would seem to have been the very textbook example. The issue becomes muddied by the existence of context. I should have thought it would have been obvious that my written reaction was:
a. Not for public consumption;
b. Neither thought out nor pored over at any great length;
and
c. Largely powered and fuelled by emotion and the reactionary angst of a tormented artist.

Do I care if such a hasty and arguably overbearing set of dismissive words get a broader audience? Hmmm, hard to say, really. My temptation is to say "sure" except for the fact that I really would rather not be deliberately unkind for no reason at all, save for brandishing a selfish pen...and Mr. Kramer, for all his glaringly obvious flaws is probably a good, kind person and worked quite hard on his dissertation.

Maybe some of my hesitation is an awareness that possibly much of my vitriol is left over from the days when one would naturally resent any attempt on the part of the "straight" media to dissect "our" work or attitudes (might be a little before y'all's time). I have tried, for a little while, to rationalize that my objections are purely editorial--that any writer worthy of the muse should have instinctively understood that the title alone, "Can't Forget the Motor City: Creem Magazine, Rock Music, Detroit Identity, Mass Consumerism, and the Counterculture" suggested an attempt to jam a square flaming bandana into the round neck of a Bud bottle full of gasoline. To have actually set out in search of data to fulfill such a foolhardy and reckless (and ultimately pointless) mission simply confirms the suspicion that the lofty ideals of the MHR simply did not lend themselves to what should have been responsible and severe (harsh) editing. Someone in charge should have taken young Michael aside and said, "Ya missed it kid..."

It is clear to me that Michael, like so many of our young appreciaters, didn't grasp the context that allowed Creem to flourish--didn't understand how little color (of all kinds--race to Day-Glo) there was in the world of the printed word back in the mid2late '60s. McLuhanism notwithstanding, even the existing radical broadsheets were still precariously balanced on the cusp of good journalism...or plunging headlong into the morass of political rhetoric.

So, in an editorial sense, my conscience is clear. Even if Mr. Kramer's aims, ideals and words were absolutely flawless, the project itself is unnecessary to the point of insult. I am reminded of those ads for new color televisions--particularly those which tout digital pictures. They show them, with examples of the picture quality on analog television--so that you can watch them on the very same substandard tube that they're trying to get you to give up...

On the other hand, there's the personal issues. I did correspond with our young author at some length. Most of what I told him was ignored--and, in fact, appeared to have been almost willfully relegated to the realm of seeming unimportance. So maybe my feelings were hurt.

When Creem began, many words saw the light of ink that perhaps were not in the best fashioned grammar, or even good enough English to deserve print in any other vehicle...but what they said needed to be written and read and that was enough reason.

At the end of the long and rainy day, Mr. Kramer's piece, and certainly the context in which it is printed, might just as well have been delivered from another planet, given the connection that the phrases and paragraphs held to the social and historic reality.

I do grant that one shouldn't have to write like Lester or Dave to write about Lester or Dave but one should at least be able to display a connection with the style and content of either to comment on it. I, personally, liked Dave's writing (for the most part...), and found Lester's a tad OTT for my own tastes (generally), but I did understand how both of them got to where they stood when they commented on the view.

I think that's where Michael missed it: about Creem, about Michigan rock'n'roll...and maybe, ultimately, about his view of the context.

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Thursday, January 16, 2003 5:18 PM

Rant NOT About Michael Kramer

Y'know guys, somewhere along the line the heading "rant about Michael Kramer" got attached to this series of e-mails [I'm to blame for this--ed.]. Let me please correct this mis-focus. I have never had a rant about Michael Kramer. I suppose it's a testament to my limited skills as a writer that I have not managed to explain to either of you in full enough detail exactly what my problem was with this well-meant project. Both of you, but particularly you, Michael, have spent enough time and effort as to deserve my best try, so here goes.

Firstly, the setting strikes me as wrong for the subject matter. A historical review of something like Creem tends to grant it a degree of importance beyond its aims...and beyond its achievements--at least as far as Michigan is concerned. If you wanted to write a lengthy sociological study on the sociopolitical effects of rock journalism circa '65-85 on a national level, then I'm right there with ya. But, despite what many may tell ya, Creem magazine's importance to Michigan was truly short lived. Barry [Kramer--Creem's Publisher from 1969-81--and no relation to Michael] never had any interest in publishing a local magazine, and abandoned the original concept almost immediately after my early departure, save for a few ideas that were already in the mill. The acts whose pictures and names had filled the paper for the first few issues found it hard to get ink pretty rapidly. The fact that society moved in the same direction as that which Creem had initially followed was largely happenstance--the same thing was happening in Cleveland and Boston and DC (where I also wrote and edited shortly after I left Creem). The difference is that those magazines continued to focus on local issues and people, whereas Creem moved directly towards regional and then national distribution and advertising dollars.

So, trying to make this an homage in the context of Michigan history is about the same as trying to make a Toyota museum in Allen Park just 'cos cars started in Detroit.

Secondly, there are some pretty glaring inaccuracies which tend to make the author look like he's trying to make the facts fit the theory. For example:

"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.'

I am that anonymous author, so let me tell ya what you read...

During the heyday of the Beatles "Apple" business, their office building, John's piano, and an entire line of clothing were designed and hand-painted by a quartet of Dutch folk who had been befriended by Paul and John. (These same folk also painted one of Clapton's guitars.) Their swirling rainbows of colors and moons, stars and planets, were de rigueur in the late '60s and everyone caught on to their art and artsyness. Mercury Records, in Chicago, through a distribution deal, released an album by this well-connected but musically inept foursome. It was entitled after the name that they had chosen for themselves: "The Fool." They sounded a lot like a basic Hare Krishna /Ashram kinda thing--pleasant enough and certainly representative of several musical focus points of the era. The article was largely filled with quotes from their own (and Mercury's) press release. The re-use of the cover graphic was simply to fill the space above the article. There was NO connection between the two elements.

Now, having said that, let it suffice that there are quite a few other such misconceptions that you drew regarding the early magazine...and such misconceptions allowed you to make deductions that eventually came to be correct, but the suggestion that such aims were deliberate from the onset is simply not true. Now that you know the real story of the Fool review/article/hype, perhaps you can see why the article seemed to be reading way too much into what was truthfully too little. On the other hand, the actual reality of the part that Creem played on both a local and national stage was, sadly, largely ignored. The axis of Creem, Jeep's booking and management agency, and the Grande ballroom had far reaching and permanent effects in Michigan, the Eastern seaboard, and eventually the national music biz stage--and the journey from the beginning to that point is what the MHR piece missed. In the same way that it would be foolish to say that Rolling Stone magazine "created" the San Francisco sound, it is equally fatuous to suggest that Creem was instrumental in the development of the Michigan culture or its music and art. It might be a case of "which came first, the chicken or the chick..." but the egg was already there--and would have probably hatched anyway.

Another quote:

"In Crumb's work, Creem celebrated a hyper-eroticization of mass culture that embraced the un-transcendent and tacky rather than the 'spiritual awakening' of 'creative energy and beauty' that the 'Fool at Zero' issue advocated."

Mr. Crumb needed money for a clap shot. I offered him $50 for a cover drawing (Barry fought hard to reduce it to $30). Zap comix were just beginning to get national distribution in head shops across the country and he had just done the Janis/Big Brother cover for Columbia. I paid the money just for the use of his name...I didn't care if he drew monkeys in a barrel--and actually, neither I nor Barry were that impressed with the results.

I really don't want to bore you or appear nitpicky by going through the essay point by point, but you can probably understand that since your original conclusions about the early magazine being somehow reflected in your misperception of the Fool review were so far off base, the fact that you continue to use those misconceptions as reference points to follow the progress of the mag just made the trail colder and colder.

And another thing...There is a very common perception that Detroit--and Michigan--Rock/roll is all dirt and grime and MC5, and that legend has become reality through the fact that such a scenario was pivotal in the lives of the two major initial editors (Dave and Lester). The simple fact is that Creem was designed to specifically break such typecasting. Detroit in '68 was home to the Misty Wizards and other fine examples of the still flourishing Detroit folk scene--a scene only recently abandoned by Joni Mitchell. The jazz (modern, experimental and swing) scene was in fine shape and music of color held court from Motown to the Roostertail and many a bar/lounge in between. By the founding of Creem, we attempted to simply stir this pot, and the already successful careers of Wagner, Seger, Nugent, Morgan, et al. were far more popular and well supported than those of the Five, the Frut and Iggy's boys. While the soon-to-be punksters took the headlines, they didn't sell that many tickets, save through outrage and curiosity.

Hindsight is frequently 20/20 but only when afforded a clear view.

I suppose there is one other troubling issue that I find almost unforgivable given the title "Creem Magazine, Rock Music, Detroit Identity, Mass Consumerism, and the Counterculture." I have read and re-read your article--and then I went back and read some old Creem issues, many of which came long after my time.

I lived in Detroit during the period of time that you discuss...I went to 20 Grand with Fleetwood Mac when we were the only white faces in the crowd. I shopped on Plum street from the hippies, ate popcorn at the teen clubs and high school dances that financed Seger's career and more importantly provided the Five and every other Michigan band with a place to develop chops and a stage act. I drove to the clubs in Ann Arbor, Ypsi, Lansing, Wyandotte, Dearborn Heights--and I helped put together the festivals and M.C.'d many of the ballroom nights. I did radio, television and wrote for three different outlets before I started Creem. Long before there was an upstairs office on Cass Avenue there was a basement office, and I can tell you categorically that of the five elements named in the title of your piece, only one of them existed in the all-white, middle class angst-ridden teen world that your article, mainly through Dave's quotes, describes... and I'm not proud to say that it was Creem.

There is not a suggestion in your piece that any of the elements of your title had anything to do with reality as it was. Save for the mention of the single word "riots" in the first paragraph, the piece completely ignores the race issue...an issue that was fundamental to the very core of any discussion of rock music, Detroit, identity, mass consumerism, or the counterculture--particularly during that era. Hell, Dave was in college for chrissakes--I don't think he'd ever been to a black club in his life when he began writing for Creem.

(READ CLEARLY...I am not, in any sense, casting doubts on Dave's love of, allegiance to, or appreciation for Black music--then or now.)

While Barry's motives for moving on up and out towards the bright national spotlight were clear and well defined, the editorial motive had more to do with an essential discomfort with the entirety of the multi and cross cultural Detroit scene. It was o.k. as a concept, as it stood, but the reality of it was, I believe, disquieting to many of Creem's younger early staff.

The great shame is that, for a little while, the paper served the entire community: the music, the artists, and the consumers (mass and otherwise). And that, dear friends, is why Creem magazine paid for its initial print run on newsstand sales alone...and probably could have continued to do so.

It's not that you got it wrong, Michael--it's just that you only got a part of it right--and that wasn't the part that answers your title.

I could probably go on and on about this--this small part of my life from so long ago. It shouldn't matter that it be right, it shouldn't matter how it got to be what it was, but you're both right about one thing: for different reasons, perhaps, to each of us, it does matter.

What Creem became is important, a national kick in the ass for individuality and irreverence, and a training ground for some of the most expressive music writing that has ever been created. It is unlikely that such a beast could be created today, and that is testament, in truth, to only one man--Barry Kramer--and he ain't here to do it again.

The best pens Creem ever had were there almost from the beginning, the arts and graphics were Charlie Auringer's baby from day one and a half...but the idea that anyone, even a recent transplant from Limeyland, could simply decide to put out a magazine, round up a few pals, and have it go on to national success and, most importantly, survive the test of time...now that, that could still be done today. Different, maybe, but still effective. A conduit to unite various segments of a geographical, gender, ethnic, class, cultural and age panorama by simply not ignoring anyone and treating all as necessary to the whole. It would work today just like it worked then, before it became simply another--albeit successful--magazine and cultural icon for an age gone by.

I suppose I have taken up enough of your time, gentlemen, and your attentions. I shall try to lay low from now on and let y'all get on with your industry. I just wanted to say my piece and apologize for any suggestion of anger or jealousy with the good Mr. Kramer and his hard work.

Thank you for your time and your efforts.

Regards
Tony