Making It Up As We Go Along
Interview With John Morthland

By William Crain

John Morthland, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was an active participant in the mid-wifing of rock writing. He assisted its transition from teen magazine coverage and the occasional uncomprehending daily paper piece to something more vital and alive, which attempted to capture the spirit and concerns of both the music and its avid listeners. John worked as an editor and writer at Rolling Stone in its early incarnation, has freelanced for numerous other publications, and in the early 1970s was an editor at Creem magazine. He was among the first group of rock writers to branch out and write extensively about other genres such as blues, gospel, country and soul. In the early 1980s he authored The Best of Country Music, the first comprehensive guide to C&W. In the past two decades John has successfully made the transition from writing exclusively about music to writing on a wider range of topics for general interest magazines, in particular Texas Monthly, where he is currently a contributing editor.

I visited with John on several occasions this past summer, discussing his experiences in the early days of rock writing, his friendship with some of its other leading lights, the differences between working for Creem and Rolling Stone and his editing of a new anthology of Lester Bangs's writing, due for publication in the summer of 2003.

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William:   Let's talk about how you got started in rock writing, some background on where you were living and what you were doing when you first started.

John:   I was a student at Berkeley, and in my senior year my roommate and best friend took a Poli Sci course, and his T. A. was Langdon Winner. Langdon was best friends with Greil Marcus. They were both Poli Sci grad students at Berkeley and lived a couple of blocks from each other. So I became friends with Langdon through my roommate Darrell, and Langdon came over to the house a couple of times. And that summer of '69 I wound up living in a house up in the Berkeley hills where Langdon lived. An old woman named Mrs. Altrocchi--a widow of an Italian professor at the University--had three of four rooms that she rented out to students and I just needed a place for the summer, and one of Langdon's roommates there was going away for the summer. So I moved in there and Greil lived, literally, up the street a few doors and around the corner. A five minute walk away.

So I met Greil and he had just taken over as Review Editor at Rolling Stone, and I started writing reviews for him. I didn't really know what I was doing but at the time hardly anyone did, 'cause rock writing was pretty new. Some were better than others for sure, but we were all in a lot of ways making it up as we went along. I think some of us were really heavily influenced by the weightier film critics, like Pauline Kael. There were two or three film critics at the time who had a lot of cachet in both popular and academic circles. And I think some of the early rock critics took cues from them, but probably most of us weren't really too influenced by anybody, just making it up as we went along.

William:    Right, actually that's part of what I like about that period. It reminds me in a way of what happened in underground comics. It was out of the limelight and no one was taking it seriously, so there was room for things to develop, and interesting things can happen that probably wouldn't have happened if it had been under more scrutiny because people would have been more self-conscious about what they were doing.

John:    Yeah, you know, you could sort of make your mistakes in print in those days and learn from them. You make your mistakes and you see them and you recognize them as mistakes immediately. And that's something that's hard to do nowadays because there is a certain level of competence required; it's a form now, and it's pretty institutionalized. But that was one of the great things about back then--you really learned by doing it, and by trial and error. You'd make horrible mistakes and embarrass the shit out of yourself, but you learned from it and you didn't do it again.

William:    Prior to your experience meeting Greil and writing these reviews you interviewed the Rolling Stones, right?

John:    Yeah, that was when I was in high school.

William:    This was what, 1965?

John:   Fall of '64.

William:    And so it was the whole band, with Brian and all?

John:    Yeah.

William:    What was that experience like?

John:    Well, you know, I was a 16 or 17 year old kid, it was really odd and exciting.

William:    Was it a press conference?

John:    No, it was backstage at this hall in San Bernardino California, which is where I grew up. Mostly I talked to Keith 'cause he was the big yakker. He really sat down and talked--the others you just sort of caught on the fly. Brian was in and out, flitting all around, and Jagger was sort of unapproachable, but you could get in a few questions. And Wyman and Watts were hanging out talking to the cops about their guns and stuff. [laughs] I was young and na´ve and definitely didn't know what I was doing then. There was nothing but teen fan mags, and the questions that you asked rock stars were the silliest.

William:   favorite color...

John:    favorite color and all that kind of stuff. But it was incredibly exciting and scored me a lot of points with kids at school--and I really needed that.

William:   Where did that interview end up seeing print?

John:   In a local daily. On the weekends they'd have a teen section, it was in there. They were sort of semi-straight interviews but nothing like you'd see today. They were pretty...shallow.

William:    Those early Stones records I love, I've spent quite a bit of time collecting mono copies of those.

John:   Oh, it's incredible stuff, yeah. And just the experience of being at a Stones concert then, and the way they looked and their live show at that time...the level of hysteria was really unprecedented, for me at least. I was too young to have been at the early Elvis shows. I had never seen anything like it, and it was really so exhilarating. And you really identified with the Stones 'cause they were the ones that none of the adults liked. They weren't cute like the Beatles and their music was a lot raunchier. You identified with them and they really played to that. But those shows, you couldn't even hear the band in those days, couldn't hear the music at all. But just watching them was amazing.

William:   So, getting back to Rolling Stone magazine, it was located in San Francisco at the time, right? Were you working in the office there?

John:   It was in San Francisco at the time. It was the summer of '69 when Greil started me off. He was editing the reviews section. I believe my first review actually appeared in the same first issue as Lester's first one. Lester was also brought to the magazine by Greil. If I remember right he had been trying to get in the magazine before Greil, he might have been sending them stuff cold, I don't remember for sure, but I believe Greil was the first to print Lester and it was the same issue where he first printed me. So anyway, near the end of that year they were getting ready to expand and they were looking for someone to come on early the next year, early 1970. And I went in and interviewed with Jann. 'Cause I'd had daily paper experience--limited--and it had been a while, but you know, I'd been writing reviews, and there weren't too many people with any kind of experience that were writing reviews, so Jann was interested, and John Burks, who was the Managing Editor at the time, and really a great one, was interested. So I went in and interviewed with Jann.

William:    What was Jann like in those days?

John:    He was always kind of preoccupied, really intense. You know he made no bones about how ambitious he was or any of that. And at the same time he wanted a real quality product. Shortly after I interviewed with him came the Stones Altamont concert that was the subject of the Gimme Shelter movie. I was there with Langdon and Darrel. So when it was over Jann and Burks and Greil, who was also there, decided they wanted to do a really big thing on it. A kid had been killed.

William:    Was it evident to you at the show that something bad had gone down?

John:    Well, I was way in back, but yeah, word traveled fast and they kept stopping the music and saying, "knock it off." The sound cut out a few times and you couldn't hear well as far back as we were. They were literally just little specks. But by the end of the afternoon people had built fires back where we were and they had thrown all their garbage on it and it just smelled foul. Everybody had been drinking cheap wine and smoking pot and taking whatever else. Even in the back the crowd was getting kind of surly and cranky and just anti-social. So yeah, you could tell it was a bad scene everywhere. There was no violence back where I was. I never saw a Hell's Angel. I knew they were there, I knew that apparently people were getting hurt, but no idea how badly, no idea that they were basically methodically stomping the shit out of people--we didn't have any idea of that. But when I went home, even though we weren't near the action, going home you just felt kind of flat and let down by it all.

William:    So you worked on the cover issue for Rolling Stone?

John:   Yeah, they called me that Monday and asked me if I'd come in for a couple of weeks and work on it. And there was about a dozen people maybe who contributed to it, in various ways. And Burks and I, mainly Burks--who was a great line editor--he shaped it all and I did a lot of after the fact research, phoning around to hospitals and police stations and trying to find out how many were hurt and how bad. You know, just sort of nuts and bolts stuff, and like I said I had worked at a daily before and that was why they wanted me in there, 'cause I knew how do that. I wrote up all my stuff and I helped Burks edit everybody else's stuff into one coherent piece.

William:   Was there already the feeling that this in some ways represented or symbolized the end of the era?

John:    Yeah, to some extent there was, but more than that it was just shocking. It was only a few months after Woodstock, with that vibe and that whole mythology. There was some sense that it was the end of something or the beginning of something but it wasn't real coherently expressed. People were still too close to it at that time to make that kind of sense out of it, there was just a sense that something had gone real real wrong and that things were not what they appeared to be with either the Stones or their audience. I think it took a while for the symbolism of it to take shape.

William:    How do you feel about the Maysles brothers presentation of it in Gimme Shelter?

John:   I like the film.

William:   Yeah I like it too. They obviously edited it to illustrate how these events came about, with the poor planning and all.

John:   There was a real strong tendency at the time, and we at Rolling Stone were guilty of it, to jump on the Stones and blame them for everything. And they certainly did a lot of foolish things, like trying to pull that off on 48 hours notice, and not going on for a long time; they left people hanging for a long, long time before they came on while they waited for it to get dark. Certainly, they contributed an awful lot to creating the atmosphere. But at the same time they were pretty helpless and were sort of revealed as such in a lot of ways--pretty pathetic and impotent. As more time went by and you got a better grasp on events it really became apparent they were a cause of it as much as anybody but they were also completely out of their league and clueless as to what they had conjured up.

William:    So who were the other writers you were meeting at the time? There was Langdon, Greil...

John:   When I started, Greil was not full time, he worked out of his home, came to the meetings, delivered the review section every two weeks. He was a regular at the meetings, did the review section, but he didn't come to the office daily. The editorial staff at the time was Jann, Burks, who had come from Newsweek or somewhere like that, and also had daily paper experience and had written for Downbeat--he was a jazz guy as well as a rocker. He was Managing Editor. A guy named Charlie Perry was the Copy Editor; he's been a food writer at the L.A. Times for years now. And Ben Fong-Torres was already there, he was sort of the staff writer and I became the second staff writer. This Altamont issue turned out to be an audition for me more or less, and after it was done I was told to take a couple of weeks for the Christmas holidays and then start right after Christmas.

William:    Was John Mendelssohn on the staff?

John:   No, Mendelssohn was in L.A. and he was writing for Greil's review section, I don't think he ever wrote anything except reviews for Rolling Stone, I could be wrong. He was another writer that Greil was nurturing. Ben was the other staff writer and he had come on not too long before me. Then, shortly after me, Ed Ward came, he replaced Greil as Reviews Editor. It's hard to remember now. First of all, I think Jon Carroll came--he's now a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. He came to Rolling Stone as a writer, editor, and so did Ed Ward, who had been doing some reviewing and who was in Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. And the other was a guy named John Lombardi who had been at a Philly underground weekly.

William:   When did you first meet Lester?

John:    I first met Lester that summer, very soon after I started writing for Greil in 1969. They brought him up to the Bay Area from San Diego, from El Cajon. 'Cause he was writing for the magazine and they wanted to meet him. So they flew him up and he stayed with Greil part of the time and around the corner with me and Langdon part of the time, he was up there for about five or six days, maybe less. So we hung out then.

William:    First impressions of Lester?

John:   Well, I liked him a lot. He was real nervous, he was very unlike us, we were all sort of San Francisco Bay Area hipsters and he was you know dressed pretty straight and he had pretty short hair and he was like a suburban kid, and pretty shy. People say in retrospect, like in the DeRogatis book, well he might have been on drugs or something he was acting so strangely, but I just thought he was really shy and nervous about being there. He thought maybe he was gonna get hired.

We sat and talked for a long time. We went out and saw, Buddy Guy, if I remember right, and we talked about how much he disliked blues and stuff. He talked a lot about the Velvets, who no one up there liked. I wasn't a big fan, I was a mild fan of theirs. And at that time they had a small group of fanatical fans and everybody else hated them. I was neither, truthfully. I liked them but they weren't the holy grail for me, and most of the other people at Rolling Stone and in rock circles in the Bay Area really hated them. And Lester really loved them, of course, so that set him off immediately.

So my first impressions were that he was this shy nervous guy from Southern California, small town, suburban background. Here he was in the Bay Area amongst this hipster milieu and he was out of place there; out of place somewhat by choice, but he was out of place and he knew it. But he really wanted to write--he talked about writing a lot. He talked all the time about writers: Kerouac, Burroughs. He talked about music all the time. And even then he had a really strong, singular outlook on the world. There was a lot of stuff in the hip world that he didn't buy at all. He was not at all a party line guy and at the same time he wasn't overly hostile to it; sometimes he was but he wasn't always. He was a really interesting guy and really fun to be around.

William:   What was the atmosphere at Rolling Stone like at the time? You get the impression that things would have been pretty informal, but obviously work got done.

John:   Yeah, that's a pretty good description. Like I said, Burks had a lot of professional experience and he knew what he was doing and he knew how to get a magazine out. He was a very good editor, real good at nurturing people and helping shape their copy. So it was real professional but at the same time it got pretty loose. It was work, though, no doubt about it, some of the business people there were pretty straight ahead business types. But for the most part it was loose and the people worked hard and got things done. Pretty self-motivated people. And Burks held it all together, and Charlie Perry as Copy Editor--they were sort of the organization of it really.

William:   I guess everyone was pretty passionate about what they were doing?

John:   Yeah, you know, there was a sense that no one had ever done something like this before and we were all really excited about it. And we all read each other's stuff real enthusiastically and whenever we found a new writer we'd get real excited. 'Cause it was hard to find people who could write and were knowledgeable about music back in those days. It's not that hard anymore. But back then, there just weren't that many of them and any time you found a new one it was exciting, like, what can we find for him to do?

The underground papers at that time had varying degrees of professionalism. Some were really pretty strong and some were really amateurish. Some wanted to remain amateurish--unreadable graphics and stuff like that. Some--the L.A. Free Press and the like--aspired to something really literate and good looking and intelligent. So there was them on the one hand and then straight dailies on the other hand, very few of which even had rock writers at the time. I mean, very few ever covered it at all and when they did it was just a staffer. So we were between those two and we had the savvy about the music and the enthusiasm and the dope smoking anti-establishment bent, and at the same time we had the professionalism of the dailies. We knew we were pretty lucky to be in the position to do that type of work and get paid for it.

William:    What writers were you reading at the time you started? Lester of course came a lot from the Beat angle.

John:   And I did too to some extent, I think we all did. I can't say that they were influences, in terms of emulating, but I read them. They influenced the way I looked at the world, but yeah, the Beats and Norman Mailer, both his fiction and his non-fiction. I read a lot of him. Kesey, although to me Sometimes A Great Notion was so far superior to Cuckoo's Nest which is the book that everyone knows him for.

Like anyone who has basically just gotten out of his parent's house and out on their own, there was just so much to discover then. I mean, I came to Berkeley in 1965 from San Bernardino, California, very insular, Mojave Desert town. Half the stuff I was reading by the early '70s I had never even heard of until I got to Berkeley. And, you know, that included classics. I read a lot of Theodore Dreiser and poets Creeley, Ginsberg. I was reading a lot of nonfiction, mainly political and radical leftist interpretations of American History, everything from Eldridge Cleaver's book to The Peoples History of the United States. I also read a lot of whatever was trendy then, from Siddhartha to drivel like Stranger in a Strange Land. In the early '70s I discovered detective novels. Almost immediately after I got out of college I discovered Raymond Chandler. And I read everything he wrote, which, at that time, a lot of it wasn't in print and you had to scour the used book stores. But you could find it, it hadn't been out of print that long. And I still do read a lot of detective fiction but that started right at the turn of that decade, '70, '71. Also through the '70s and '80s I read every novel and essay I could find by Ishmael Reed. Still do, though there's not as much new stuff out there on a regular basis as there used to be.

William:   Was Crawdaddy! a magazine that you read early on?

John:   Yeah it was. I read it, it was around before Rolling Stone, and I read it, but at the same time it never occurred to me that I could write for it. I didn't really write the way they wrote in Crawdaddy!. It was more long personal, impressionistic, essays. I enjoyed reading that kind of stuff, but it never occurred to me that I could write for it, and it was kind of distant and far away and involved a very small number of people too.

William:   How big a role did the "new journalism" school have stylistically on the beginnings of rock writing? Say in the late '60s: Crawdaddy!, early Rolling Stone?

John:   I think what was called the "new journalism" had a lot more influence on the East Coast writers than on anybody else 'cause that's where most of it was coming from.

William:   Wasn't Christgau in an early new journalism compilation?

John:   Yeah he was. I don't know. It's really hard to draw these distinctions for me, but I think that kind of writing was influential on rock writers but maybe not in an overt way. Again, it goes back to learning how to break the rules but not be just spewing all over the page. Learning how to break the rules effectively, so I think, yeah, in that sense it did influence rock writers, just like certain film critics, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, affected rock writers a lot 'cause in a lot of ways film critics were the closest model for early rock writers.

William:   I guess I was thinking of things like a Nik Cohn piece on Phil Spector I read in a Rolling Stone anthology, one that you had a couple of pieces in as well.

John:   Nik Cohn was a great writer!

William:   Yeah, he's one of my favorites, and the piece I mentioned stylistically reminded me a bit of, say, Tom Wolfe, and not just because of Wolfe's famous piece on Spector.

John:   Sure, Yeah I can see that, I think I met Nik Cohn very briefly maybe once and I have no idea if he would consider himself as being influenced by Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin and that sort of school of journalism. But a lot of times with social cultural stuff you know you have stuff going on all over the place that is somewhat similar but not necessarily aware of each other.

William:   Yeah, I guess what I was trying to get at was how aware y'all were of those writers and what they were doing?

John:   You know, when I started writing in '69 and '70 I was barely aware of it, I knew who Tom Wolfe was, of course, but I'm not sure I actually read him. I think I became aware of him probably around Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, and I liked him but I don't think he influenced me unless in an indirect way, in terms of doing really different stuff that is still accepted as journalism. So they really opened up a lot turf that a lot of people then went into consciously, or not. So, yeah, I do think they opened up that territory and made it easy for rock writers to get taken seriously.

William:   How long did you stay at Rolling Stone?

John:   Less than a year, about 10 months. I think I started in December of 1969 and I was gone by October of 1970.

William:   What were your reasons for leaving?

John:   There was a lot of turmoil at Rolling Stone at the time. The magazine was really split between people that wanted it to have more of an aggressive political tone and to cover a lot more than music and the ones that wanted it to be pretty much strictly a music magazine. And among the latter ranks was the owner, so that's the way it went.

William:    Where did you stand?

John:   I quit, it was a really turbulent time, I'm still not sure who quit and who got fired. A lot of people left in a period of two or three months. A lot of us left, most of us. I left 'cause I didn't like the way the magazine was going and I didn't like the fact that the best writers and thinkers of the magazine and editors were disappearing. Greil left, Burks, Jon Carroll, Ward left a little after me. I don't know the order. Burks and Greil in particular were the two people there that I identified with the most and looked up to the most. Burks was a great editor and Greil had gotten me started there and was an amazing thinker. Probably those two leaving had a lot to do with me deciding to leave but basically I was burnt out on the internal turmoil and not interested in the direction the magazine was heading in.

William:   Where did you go from there?

John:   Nowhere, I freelanced until I went to Creem in 1974. Creem was the upstart, and some of us really dug it, it had all the high energy early '70s Detroit stuff. It was all right there in that publication. And it was in many ways amateurish but it was a wide open place, we could write anything in Creem. So I immediately started freelancing for them, among others. I grew more steady with them over time, I wasn't paid much as a freelancer, but mainly it was just like--Creem at that point was a really cool place. By the early '70s at Rolling Stone the whole '60s underground culture had become more above ground and there was a hierarchy developing in the quote-unquote hip community; you know, the people who had head shops and the people who were roadies that had money, and so there was a hierarchy, particularly in the Bay Area. The backlash set in especially in the Bay Area, with James Taylor and all that, and the people that had been through the '60s started looking for a lot softer music, they were, uh, growing up, at least in some ways.

And Creem meanwhile was this kind of rampaging, kicking, screaming, really insurrectionist thing. And so was the music they championed. Not just the Detroit stuff, but that was obviously the bulk of it with the Stooges and the MC5, and there were bands back then, like the Frut that was a Detroit band. You know, many of them just got one album out on some label, but they were all just so far outside what was then considered FM rock mainstream or AM rock mainstream. And these bands were really high energy and very outside. Creem was getting readers who were younger than us who were into the metal bands. But a lot of people who had been through the '60s and who did not go to James Taylor and Carole King and singer songwriters, that softer rock, for the writers among them Creem was the place to go whether they got paid or not. Also the readers: Creem was political and the left was falling apart all around us at that time but there were still a lot of really political people and Creem originally spoke to them. So it was a complete alternative to Rolling Stone and to everything else. It was definitely anti-establishment, but it was also anti-Rolling Stone and anti-hip aristocracy.

William:   It seemed, in the best sense of the word, more adolescent than Rolling Stone.

John:   And more grass roots. There was a hip aristocracy--you started hearing that term a lot in the early '70s and there was a reason why you did, 'cause one had really formed and Rolling Stone was part of it and if you rejected that then Creem was where you went. But by the time I got there as an Editor in '74 Creem was definitely getting more professional. And that's part of the reason I was brought there to edit, because I had experience, and a lot of it was getting deadlines going and getting typos out--the magazine was notorious for dropping whole lines and paragraphs. At the same time I was trying to not affect the magazine's personality.

William:   And it was published by Barry Kramer right?

John:    Yeah, Barry was the Publisher, Dave Marsh had already gone East. Ben Edmonds left right around the time I arrived. The staff, at the time I got there, was Lester, Jaan Uhelszki, and um, Georgia Christgau, she was a typesetter/writer. When I first visited Creem it was down in the Cass Corridor a really raw part of inner city Detroit. Then they moved out to Walled Lake and lived in a big farmhouse. The staff was so small then, a couple of people drove there everyday, but basically everyone lived at the farmhouse and I visited there too. But by the time I actually went to work there it had moved into offices in Birmingham and the staff was basically living in two houses and a few others were living by themselves. But the bulk of the staff was in two houses in Birmingham.

William:   Your work there was primarily as an Editor by 1974?

John:    Yeah, basically. I was there for about 7 months in all and I wrote about two pieces I think that whole time. I was there to sort of pull it together as an editor and to clean up typos, get on a production schedule, and formalize deadlines more, stuff like that. So I was trying to do that but in a non-heavy handed type of way. Creem wasn't a place you could be a boss: it would never have worked and it wasn't my inclination anyhow. So I worked mainly at that, getting a real solid deadline and production schedule worked out and cleaning up typos and making it look better and read cleaner.

It worked out fine. Contrary to Creem's image maybe, nobody there objected to that, they were all glad to have that. Lester included. Lester was real good at deadlines and took editing well, I don't think he'd ever really been edited before at Creem. And I didn't edit him as heavily as I did most people, but he didn't need as much editing as most people. I edited him probably more than he had been edited by anyone except Greil up to that point. But he welcomed it. He wrote really, really long, and I didn't mind that but I was not adverse to cutting and when I did I'd explain to him why and we'd discuss it, sometimes we'd put it back in.

William:   Was this the period of time when y'all became really close?

John:    Yeah, we became really good friends during that period when I was in Birmingham. We had been friends before that, 'cause at that point I had known him for about five years, but we became really good friends when I was in Birmingham. For one thing there was nothing in Birmingham, except the magazine and the staff people who lived there; you got to know everybody really well.

William:   What was your impression of Barry Kramer?

John:    O.K. Barry was, by the time I got there, really heavily drugged all the time and was pretty nigh impossible. For a long long time when people would say complimentary things about Barry I just wouldn't get it. What I've come to see is that if I had known him earlier there was a time when he was not so totalitarian. He was just impossible. But he wasn't always, I mean he was always very ambitious and always hustling and very aggressive.

William:   So at that time was he very hands on with the magazine?

John:    Yes and No. He'd come in in the afternoon and he would work into the evening after we left. He tried to be hands on and we tried to keep him from being hands on. He was there for staff meetings. He was watching what was going on and he was always pushing for the magazine to get more commercial and everyone was resisting him. And you could resist him up to a point, whereas at Rolling Stone you couldn't, it was gonna happen whether you like it or not. And of course Creem did get more commercial and mainstream and all that but it kept its wild streak much longer than most. But it was a constant struggle with Barry, it really was.

William:   He's passed away, right?

John:   Yes, he died, in the late 70's early 80's. It was a weird OD--he died of nitrous oxide overdose. And I was long gone by then. People either had bitter fallings out with Barry or they just left to get away from him before it came to that.

William:   How would you compare the work environment at Creem to what you had known at Rolling Stone?

John:    It was just a lot looser, in some ways. I mean everyone still took the magazine real seriously and worked real hard to get it out. But it never had the sort of professionalism that Rolling Stone had. Creem always had a lot of typos and stuff. It got better, though, it got a lot better.

A lot of the difference in working at Creem and working at Rolling Stone you can see from the product, which was very different. When I started at Rolling Stone there had never been anything like it, and it was really exciting, I have to say. It had never occurred to me that one could make money writing about music, and really, Rolling Stone was the only place you could at that time, though the other rock mags paid a little. But at Rolling Stone the push was always towards professionalism. When I started at Rolling Stone, for the first three weeks we were in the loft above the printers shop, that was obviously to save money, but shortly after that we moved to an office building and we all had cubicles with doors.

The reason that it was a lot different working there [at Creem] from Rolling Stone is that, like I said, at Rolling Stone we had cubicles and when I got to Creem we had a room for editorial, and we all sat in there. This was the office in Birmingham, Summer of '74. It was just a big open office and there was me and Lester and Jann Uhelszki and Georgia Christgau. And then the art department, this was in an office building over a bookstore, and so down the hall was another office, and the art department was down there and we were separated from the art department. Barry had his own office and a couple of the business people had their own little offices. But we were basically all there in one room all day every day. People would be having conversations when you were trying to type, trying to think. And most of the staff at that point was just living in two or three houses.

It was not like the paper was coming out of one house, like in Walled Lake when literally everyone lived in that house. We had an office, but three or four of us lived in one house and three or four of us lived in another. It was so much more communal than Rolling Stone, and of course that's what Rolling Stone never wanted to be--it was, for a while, out of necessity. And of course Creem did it out of necessity too and later it did become more professional, but maybe a part of it was being in Birmingham as opposed to San Francisco. There was basically nothing to do there except work for Creem and I didn't hardly meet anyone except for Creem people. When I left the office in San Francisco I was friends with some of the Rolling Stone staffers, sometimes we'd go to movies or go to dinner, but at Creem we basically just had each other; when we left the office we went and hung out at one or the others house, and that's all we did. We went to the office and worked at the magazine and we went home and hung out with each other. So it was really different in that way too. And you can see that in the difference between the two magazines. Barry Kramer wanted Creem to be a big money maker but Jann really sought from the beginning to turn Rolling Stone into a totally professional mainstream magazine as it ultimately became--as his and my generation became, like it or not, the mainstream. And there was always a lot of emphasis there on professionalism, though it was not always clear what that meant particularly. But there was always that idea going around there.

It got pretty nasty at Rolling Stone. A lot of things were polarized, the split between politically-oriented and I guess what you would call the culturally-oriented people. A lot of people there considered themselves part of the left, but anyone who worked at Rolling Stone was really disliked by the radical left, almost all of the radical left. And your really hard core political activists felt like Rolling Stone was sucking out the energy of the youth movement, capitalizing on it; the common term at the time was culture vulture. You could think of yourself as being in league with these people but they didn't think of themselves as being in league with you, so it was weird. And that was what that split was about. I was on the more political side. And at a certain point it just got so chaotic there that people just wanted out because it was really just such a drag to come in there. But virtually all of our replacements were experienced journalists who came from dailies, or, like Hunter Thompson, who had already published books.

William:   Was he around the office much?

John:    I met him once. He came in just as I was leaving. And Ralph Gleason had been there. He wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle, a jazz column, and before that he'd been one of the really key jazz writers back East. By the '60s he was really into the rock scene, particularly the more experimental bands. When I first came to the Bay Area in '65 to go to college in Berkeley, Ralph just really blew my mind: I had never read, coming from San Bernardino California, I had never picked up a daily newspaper and read somebody who was saying nice things, complimentary things, about kids who were taking drugs [laughs] and demonstrating. I had never seen anything like that. Ralph put up some of the money and helped Jann start Rolling Stone, and remained. Him and Greil are the two that would come into staff meetings from outside. I don't recall that either kept an office there but they were definitely staffers and definitely integral. So anyway, Ralph, Ben, and Charlie stayed and we were replaced by people with more straight journalist experience.

Onward to part 2 of John Morthland interview