When I was a teenage rock ‘n’ roll fiend growing up in the rural suburbs of Nashville at the dawn of the 1970s, Creem magazine was literally my doorway to the world of music. Launched in Detroit in 1969 by publisher Barry Kramer and editor Tony Reay, the rag’s ‘Blue Collar’ irreverence appealed to my ‘Rust Belt’ upbringing, and writers like Dave Marsh, Lester Bangs, Jaan Uhelszki, Richard Meltzer, Jeffrey Morgan and others provided my education in rock music. By the mid-‘70s, Creem was shuffling close to a quarter-million copies a month out the door, second only to Rolling Stone among music zines at the time.
The rag’s editorial focus, unfettered by advertiser manipulation or the desires of the recording industry, meant that they could – and did – write about artists like the New York Dolls, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Blondie long before they were discovered by more mainstream publications. When a second generation of writers and editors came along in the 1980s, including Dave DiMartino, Susan Whithall, Rick Johnson, Bill Holdship, and John Kordosh, Creem introduced readers to artists like the Replacements and R.E.M. From 1969 through 1989, Creem magazine was an integral part of American popular culture.
21st Century Creem
The magazine struggled in the years after Barry Kramer’s death in 1981, and although the staff published some good work during the decade, ownership changed hands, Creem moved to the West Coast and, by 1989, it was kaput (the less said about a short-lived and dismal 1990 NYC-based version of the rag, the better). Long story short, there was plenty of litigation, and various hijinks ensued before Barry’s son (and heir to the Creem throne) J.J. Kramer gained ownership of the magazine. A documentary film about the early days, Creem: American’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine, was released in 2019 to rave reviews.
As inevitably as the sun rises in the east, Creem magazine itself was resurrected in 2022 as a quarterly, subscription-only “lifestyle” publication which resembles the original rag not a whit. Kramer brought in professional magazine wranglers from the executive suites of Vice magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and Rolling Stone to publish the new 21st century Creem; Jaan Uhelszki was hired as Editor-At-Large to provide a link to the zine’s notorious past. A website was thrown together, tee-shirts featuring the magazine’s classic, Robert Crumb-designed mascot “Boy Howdy” were screen-printed and put out for sale, and a weekly email newsletter primed the pump for a print version of the magazine.
Creem In Print
When subscriptions became available for a Creem print version, I swallowed hard and coughed up the ridiculous sum of $80 for four quarterly issues. I’m halfway through my one-year Creem subscription and, so far I am not moved. With the third issue of the new Creem about to be published, I thought it the right time to review what they’d done so far, and it ain’t pretty. The current iteration of the zine has little of the wit or irreverence that made the original publication a rock ‘n’ roll media legend. None of the current crop of writers has jumped off the page, grabbed me by the ears, and poked at my eyeballs with a number 2 pencil to make me pay attention.
The rag’s physical size – an unwieldy 10.5”x13.5” – provides a lot of space for editorial content, which is squandered by the over-use of full-page photographs and illustrations. It’s a pet peeve of mine when magazines overly rely on pages of photos to fill up space – I perceive it as a lack of creative vigor – and the second issue of the reborn Creem sitting on my desk right now features roughly 40 mondo-sized pages of photos, or nearly 1/3 of the issue’s 128 pages. An otherwise interesting twelve-page story on the tragic final days of singer/songwriter David Berman (Silver Jews, Purple Mountains) is littered by six full pages of unnecessarily large photos and a seventh introductory page that add little of value beyond the story’s other four smaller photos.
An Awkward, Oversized Print Format
This is a minor cavil, perhaps, but photo galleries like “Be Our Guest” or the glut of pix embedded in the barely-there story “Freak On A Leash,” for example, are the print equivalent of website slideshows, which went out of style a decade ago. Admittedly, the awkward, oversized print format allows for some fantastic full-color photo reproduction, and the zine’s overall graphic design is reasonably contemporary, efficient, and yet exciting. The publication relies too often on illustrations to accompany the stories – three of the issue’s dozen features offer bad artwork to open the story, others over-utilize photos.
As for the editorial content, it hasn’t been all that compelling over the first two issues. Number two has an interesting story on how the CIA stole $5 million from classic rockers Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the aforementioned story on Berman serves its purpose, if providing little insight into the artist’s work or the lifelong depression that led to his suicide. Three pages of Justin Borucki’s original tintype photography of heavy metal musicians is at least three pages too few, considering its uniqueness and stark imagery. They could have taken pages away from illustrations and featured more of Borucki’s work. “Complacence Rock,” an article on wannabe billionaire rock stars, is a nifty bit of social commentary, but otherwise much of the content is hipster posturing and disposable trifles.
The Reverend’s Bottom Line
Unless the next two issues of my Creem sub really knock me down and drag me to the record store, it’s unlikely that I’ll be re-subscribing. At the cost of a double sawbuck per issue, there’s too little bang for too many bucks. When I cough up $12 for a copy of Third Man Records’ Maggot Brain zine, there’s usually three or four articles of interest, and something about an obscure artist that makes me spend my money on. With shipping, a copy of Ugly Things cost me nearly $20 for the zine and another $100 for the records I buy after reading the issue.
Personally, that’s my benchmark for a music magazine – does it tell me something new about artists I’m already familiar with, and does it introduce me to artists I didn’t already know, getting me excited about new music I’ve yet to hear. I realize that you can never go back to the old daze [sic], and I’m probably an old man shaking his fist at the clouds. If you dig the “new” Creem, go for it – I won’t judge you – but I’m afraid that they’re no longer singing for me, so I’ll look for my cheap thrills elsewhere… (www.creem.com)
Full Disclosure: My first editor and mentor “Ranger” Rick Johnson got me into the pages of Creem in the early 1980s, and I sold them a handful of humorous reviews of books, TV shows, and such for the “Media Cool” section. The zine went bankrupt owing me something like $15 and I got legal paperwork for years afterwards as a legit creditor. I promise that this outstanding debt did nothing to color my impressions of the magazine’s new incarnation.