Ripping back the curtain on legendary rock rag CREEM Magazine’s wild and disruptive newsroom, populated by a dysfunctional band of unruly outsiders who weren’t all that different from the artists they covered. A Coda Cornerstone Collection.
Ripping back the curtain on legendary rock rag CREEM Magazine’s wild and disruptive newsroom, populated by a dysfunctional band of unruly outsiders who weren’t all that different from the artists they covered. A Coda Cornerstone Collection.
Editor’s note: Jaan Uhelszki’s groundbreaking career as a rock critic began in the early days of Creem magazine in Detroit. What follows are some of Jaan’s memories of that chaotic era — from encounters with rock stars applying makeup to her partners-in-mischief friendship with Lester Bangs.
No one is quite sure when the lightbulb went off that inspired maverick impresario and freewheeling businessman Barry Kramer to start his own rock magazine. It wasn’t as if this slight, sharp-witted and sharper-tongued 26-year-old former pre-med student, with his expensive sculpted haircuts and fast motorcycles, had much time on his hands. He was the co-owner of a small booking agency-cum-management company that helped shape the performing fortunes of soon-to-be rock giants Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, Mitch Ryder and Bob Seger by booking them into the multitude of small clubs, fraternities and ballrooms around Detroit. Run out of an architecturally imposing 1924 three-story building, wedged uncomfortably next to a barber shop and down from a tawdry specialty store called Unique Boutique, it was across the street from an all-night laundromat. There, a cadre of tired-looking hookers and minor drug dealers would take over the street once the sun was down, establishing a scene that was singularly unnerving anytime anyone had to venture out late at night. Which was often.
The building had seen far better days, once as a hat manufactory and more recently a bank, but as shabby as the insides were, Kramer’s office retained a sense of haughty grandeur — an anomaly in the rundown building — with its wood-paneled walls, crown molding, and ornate and fussy wainscoting. There was a pneumatic barber chair that was given pride of place in what was obviously the bank president’s suite — although the bank’s giant black safe was kept in a back closet by the bathroom and was something, try as we might, we could never crack. Somehow that seemed important and metaphoric.
Behind the office façade was a warren of bedrooms, and a kitchen that was painted black. It was home to a wolf pack of arty college dropouts, the governor of Michigan’s woefully addicted son and a vicious German shepherd. Part crash-pad, part post-hippie salon, the cavernous top floor served as the rehearsal place for one-time hit-making teen idol Mitch Ryder and his band Detroit, which added to the continuous din of sound that ricocheted off the nearly 50-year-old plaster walls and competed with any sort of conversation that fell below 60 decibels.
The building was located on the outer edges of Wayne State University on Cass Avenue. Three-and-a-half miles north of downtown Detroit, it was a short two-mile jog to Hitsville USA, Motown’s world headquarters. Set just across campus from the former dentist’s office the MC5 called home, above the Committee to End the War in Vietnam, it was at the center of the Motor City’s still-raging counterculture.
The two stores became a hub for out-of-town ‘heads’ to stop by.
By day, Kramer ran a small, well-curated record store called Full Circle right down the street. It was the kind of place where the long version of “Light My Fire” by the Doors and Love’s first album were on constant repeat. It sold records you couldn’t get anywhere else in town — the Track Records import of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Smash Hits,” or the Yardbirds’ “Yardbirds” a.k.a. “Roger the Engineer,” the U.K. version of the truncated album known in the U.S. as “Over Under Sideways Down.” Kramer was also the proprietor of a head shop called Mixed Media a few doors away, a place that sold incense, rolling papers, glass pipes, tarot cards and the tomes that flower children read: “Trout Fishing In America,” “Siddhartha,” “On the Road” and “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” The two stores became a hub for out-of-town “heads” to stop by — for one, Zap Comix artist R. Crumb, who offered to draw something in exchange for a small pittance to finance a shot at a nearby clinic for his virulent case of gonorrhea. Kramer took him up on the offer and gave him $50 for a picture of a demented milk bottle. That’s how the Boy Howdy logo was born and in a sense, Creem magazine itself.
Friends insisted that the inspiration for the magazine really came when Kramer visited London’s Carnaby Street in 1967, when along with snakeskin boots and a new Jaguar, he picked up music papers such as NME and Melody Maker that came out weekly. But it all came together when Kramer hired English expat and blues fan Tony Reay in the summer of 1968 to work at Full Circle. Opinionated and passionate about the Michigan band scene, Reay persuaded Kramer one night when they were closing the store that they should start a local music magazine in this music town. In a moment of weed inspiration, they laughed themselves silly, deciding to call it Creem, after Eric Clapton’s power trio Cream, one of Reay’s favorite bands: both an homage and a nose thumb to the fledgling Rolling Stone, which had been in business for little over a year.
Like Reay, the first staffers came from Kramer’s employees at his stores, along with customers, such as jazz writer Richard Walls, who has the distinction of being in the first issue of the magazine and the very last, 20 years later. The rest were roommates and friends he pressed into duty, among them Dan Carlisle, a DJ at the freeform rock station WABX who lived in the same house as Kramer, and photographer Charlie Auringer, who was responsible for almost every picture that ended up in the pages of Creem, and who hung up his Nikon to become the photo and art director until the final issue. Robin Sommers, who did some of the layouts for the early issues, was a friend of Kramer’s. He was notorious at the time for creating the “Fuck Hudson’s” ad that the MC5 took out in the local Detroit papers when the department store refused to carry its debut album, “Kick Out the Jams,” because of the title song’s intro: “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers.” The early Creemsters — as they were wont to call themselves — firmly aligned themselves with the White Panthers anti-racist party headed up by the MC5 and its manager, John Sinclair.
Concert and record reviews comprised most of the coverage in those early issues. There was even a classical editor and a cooking column. Guerrilla interviews appeared with whatever bands the writers could corner after a show at the Cobo Hall or Olympia Stadium, blagging their way backstage to grill such exalted personages as Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, Spencer Davis and Jeff Beck. By the third issue, ads were being offered gratis to musicians and artists, but by the end of 1969, along with local stores and venues, national record companies started advertising. About this time, Kramer started making plans to secure better distribution and expand the magazine from its original 28 pages. He brought in his childhood pal Richard Siegel, who had helped create a strike newspaper during a labor dispute with the newspaper guild in the mid-1960s that stopped the distribution of Detroit’s two dailies. The two of them started plotting.
Kramer’s ambitious plan was at odds with Reay’s idea of a local underground newspaper that served the community. With two massive personalities — always a job requirement at Creem — there was an inevitable parting of the ways. Reay would always be the erudite yin to Kramer’s more entrepreneurial yang, which was why the mercurial and flamboyant Reay and his oversized man purse, stuffed with early copies of the magazine to give out, exited the magazine. He was replaced with the equally mercurial Dave Marsh. A tightly wound member of Sinclair’s White Panther Party, he was on the courthouse steps when Sinclair, Detroit’s unofficial King of the Hippies, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for possession of two marijuana cigarettes (immortalized in John Lennon song simply titled “John Sinclair,” on the “Sometime in New York City” album).
A former high-school journalist who uncannily resembled Humble Pie’s Steve Marriott, Marsh had written a few things for the Wayne State college newspaper and the local underground newspaper, “Fifth Estate.” “I basically talked my way into Creem,” explained Marsh, by first asking to rent a room at the headquarters and then later to write for the magazine. But his timing was impeccable, given Reay’s exit. A devotee of the MC5, he was asked in 2000 to describe the popularity of the band in Detroit in 1969: “They were the Beatles,” he said.
An unsentimental place that had no truck for pretense, posers or false flattery, Detroit holds to the tenet ‘abuse is love.’
Like the MC5 themselves, Marsh thought music and politics were inextricable. He wasn’t necessarily committed to taking up Reay’s mantle of local coverage only, but location was crucial for Creem. Detroit was as much a force in what the magazine expressed as any of the writers who sat behind the IBM Selectrics used in those days. An unsentimental place that had no truck for pretense, posers or false flattery, Detroit holds to the tenet “abuse is love.” If Detroiters really like you, they tend to verbally batter you. It’s the compliments you have to watch out for.
MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer said that the Summer of Love never made it to Detroit. And for the most part he was right. The gritty reality of life in the Motor City at the butt end of the ‘60s had more to do with exhaust fumes than patchouli oil, and in the aftermath of the riots that raged through the city for five toxic days in July 1967 — ranked as one of the deadliest civil disturbances in the United States, requiring the National Guard and the United States Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to subdue the seething violence — Detroit was a place that had more to do with hate than love.
Even the music that streamed out of the ballrooms, teen clubs and tinny AM radios in Detroit wasn’t a soundtrack to any kind of peace-love frippery like those pacific sounds that were wafting out of California on phantasmagoric clouds of hashish smoke and enlightenment. It was the bellicose buzz of the auto plants, replicated in the primitive music and sex yodels of Iggy & the Stooges or the choleric vitriol of the mighty MC5. It was the urban despair and heartache of Motown’s best: the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, the Miracles or Mitch Ryder demanding “Sock It to Me Baby!,” a ham-fisted euphemism for ardor in this uncouth town.
In short, it was a perfect place for a rock magazine that was determined to tell the truth, and to never kowtow to anything except maybe its own eccentric tastes. Creem staffers wrote about what they loved and what they hated. At the best of times, they were consumer advocates making sure that teenagers didn’t spend their hard-earned dollars on inferior art, a hyped-up album or some media scam. Better was turning readers onto an obscure Velvet Underground song or decoding something heard behind the whisper on a Rolling Stones record. The writers thought there was majesty and prophecy in rock songs and wanted to help decipher them for the tribe. Or sometimes they just wanted to take the piss out of a rock star getting too big for his bellbottoms.
Creem seemed like the perfect place for me, since I had spent the last two years working at the Grande Ballroom, a 2,000-seat venue in the heart of Detroit that was the Motor City’s answer to the Fillmores East and West. A Moorish deco-style ballroom built in the 1930s, it had been open since 1966, and every major rock artist coming through Detroit, from the Grateful Dead, Yardbirds and Janis Joplin to the Who, Cream and Van Morrison, eventually made its way onto the low wooden stage.
My job was dispensing sodas to a horde of drug-sloppy concertgoers, but primarily to make sure no one dropped LSD or worse into the Coca-Colas, Sprite and orange pop we arranged on the bar for expediency after a band finished its set and the audience streamed out for a drink after watching a band play in the poorly ventilated ballroom. While it might have seemed like a bit of a dead-end job, for a hardcore fan there were lots of fringe benefits and moments of pure luminosity that I wouldn’t have traded for anything.
I began to realize that just seeing the bands was no longer enough for me — my fanaticism required expression.
I saw one of the very first public performances of the Who’s rock opera “Tommy” there. I was one of the handful who witnessed the second public performance of the band then known as the Psychedelic Stooges, and saw Iggy in his space-angel phase, performing in a long white choir robe with his face completely whitened while wearing a chrome headdress constructed from starched strips of Reynolds Wrap glued onto a bathing cap. I was there for the live recording of the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams,” and watched Led Zeppelin’s entire first set with my elbows propped on Jimmy Page’s amp. I began to realize that just seeing the bands was no longer enough for me — my fanaticism required expression. Maybe I needed evidence that I was there. I’m not really sure, but I recall thinking that I was probably watching musical history in the making, and I wanted to remember everything. I used to go home after I got off work at 1 a.m. and sit on the blue shag rug in my bedroom composing reviews of the artists I had just seen — B.B. King, Procol Harum, Chuck Berry, Sun Ra, Dr. John, Velvet Underground — just for myself. I didn’t think it was real to me until I wrote about it, and it was always better the second time around.
With that in mind, I started attending classes in journalism at Wayne State, visions of Brenda Starr dancing in my head. I can see now that I was a little young for my age, especially after I walked over to the South End, the student newspaper, and told them I wanted to write for them. The editor, who was about my age, said they really couldn’t use me until I had written something and acquired some clips I could show to them. Trying to counter that age-old Zen conundrum, I suggested they just skip a step, give me an assignment and then I’d have clips. The editor looked at me like I had a foot growing out of my forehead, abruptly jerked his head to the left and said, with more than a little disdain, “Why don’t you walk down to the Creem magazine offices. They don’t care about things like clips.”
Not really a bad idea, I remember thinking. Creem used to run a house ad that said, “Do It! This is just to say we want you. That should’ve been obvious all along, of course, but just in case it isn’t here’s the deal: NOBODY WHO WRITES FOR THIS RAG’S GOT ANYTHING YOU AINT GOT, at least in the way of credentials. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be sending us your stuff: fiction, reviews, features, cartoons, stuff about film, ecology, books or whatever you have in mind that we might be able to use. Sure, we don’t pay much, but then who else do ya know who’ll publish you? We really will...ask any of our dozens of satisfied customers... Whaddya got to lose? Whaddya got?”
A little crestfallen over my abject rejection at the college newspaper, I was trying to figure out how to screw up the courage to walk down Cass Avenue while I was waiting for my friend, Roxanne, in the university student union. She was just breaking up with this brooding artist type, she told me, and she wanted me to have coffee with them to act as a buffer. When I met the guy she was breaking up with, I thought she had lost her mind: Charlie Auringer was tall, handsome and a little dangerous-looking.
By the time I gulped down half of my black coffee, I found out that he was the Creem photo editor. I felt as if fate had just interceded in my life’s plan. I took it as a sign — I mean, who wouldn’t? But first I had to make sure that Roxanne was truly over him before I made an overture. He was taciturn, and it took a while before he progressed past monosyllables and we developed what might pass for a relationship. After a few months of meeting for coffee, I eventually got him to take me over to the Creem compound on October 9, 1970. It seemed equally propitious that it was John Lennon’s birthday, if you believed in such things. And I did. I was determined to work there, no matter what it took.
Lester Bangs looked like a visiting professor in one of the lesser-known humanities: The History of Fairy Tales in European Context.
It was unseasonably warm for fall, temperatures hovering around 70 degrees at 10 p.m., but tempers were soaring inside the compound. My visit coincided with the arrival of Lester Bangs, who had just come from El Cajon, California, ostensibly to do a cover story on Alice Cooper, but really to decide whether he wanted a job on the editorial staff that Barry Kramer had offered him after he sent a scattershot portfolio of flashy, opinionated reviews and truly strange letters to the editor. Tall and sturdy-looking, with slicked-back brown hair combed back to nearly cover the protruding bump on the back of his head, he looked like a visiting professor in one of the lesser-known humanities: The History of Fairy Tales in European Context. All he needed was a pipe. He was already wearing a three-piece Prince of Wales plaid suit jacket over a button-down shirt over a sparkling white undershirt, and brown wingtip shoes with laces that were scrupulously shined. I think this may have been just his way of trying to make a good impression, because there was little evidence of that sartorial splendor or cleanliness once he settled in. I remember wondering how he could look like this and write like that. I know he wondered about us too, because I overheard him telling Roberta Cruger, who was Kramer’s beautiful aide de camp, de facto movie editor and the most well-dressed member of the staff (cashmere twin sets), “I have never seen so many ugly people gathered in one city!” Maybe he just decided to emigrate to offset the averages, but whatever the enticement, by the end of his week, he had accepted Kramer’s offer and made plans to return after the first of the year, joining the ranks as the record reviews editor, a position that Dave Marsh had held but recently abandoned to become editor-in-chief. Bangs, a former shoe salesman, was better suited to the position anyway, because he actually liked music.
Marsh always took it a little too seriously, always seeing it in its bigger, mostly political context. It was never just entertainment to him; it held cultural clues and once decrypted, rock music showed you how to live a more meaningful and consequential life. The day I came to the offices, it was one of those times when he was defending that position, rather dramatically. Climbing the rickety terrazzo staircase with Auringer up to the second floor, I saw what looked like a medium-size projectile whizzing past my sightline. “Dammit, not again!” I heard my companion mutter, but I didn’t have any idea what he was talking about until I saw an electric typewriter, hurled one-armed by Kramer, had crashed into a light table with a shrill thwack, scattering shards of white glass everywhere from the force of the impact. It was as if a snow globe had exploded, followed by a red rotary phone that was flung out of one of the open floor-to-ceiling bay windows. Luckily, it was 10 at night, so no passers-by were harmed. Or at least I didn’t think so, since no one screamed.
All that was coming from inside this strange communal enclave were the sounds of two people shouting at each other, only inches from each other’s face, standing toe-to-toe like a small-scale Rodan and Godzilla. And maybe that’s what Dave Marsh and Barry Kramer actually were, each other’s demons come to life. But at the same time, each was in some way the thing that defined the other, moving them closer to their peak potential. I wouldn’t know that on that first visit, but it was clear from that very first day what a complex relationship the two of them had: an escalating babble of poisonous invective and psychodynamics, fueled by “motherfucker this” and “motherfucker that” and some far-too-aggressive shoving. It went on for a good 15 minutes — who knows how long before I got there — until finally Marsh’s face screwed into a sour grimace and he stalked off to his bedroom in the back of the building, but not without injecting the last word: “You’re still wrong, you scumbag!”
Marsh had a special knack for provoking even the most mild-mannered of souls, so when he found himself up against someone equally as contentious, sparks would fly. Barry Kramer was such a man. He, too, was small of stature, likewise pugnacious, and had unshakable confidence in his convictions. “There are two ways,” Barry would say, “my way and the wrong way.” Such pronouncements only fanned the rage lying close to Marsh’s surface.
I must have had a look bordering on terror, because a slight blond girl, who turned out to be Kramer’s secretary, Sandra Stetke, came over to me and said, “Don’t worry, this happens all the time. Barry has thrown so many of those phones out the window that the phone company refuses to come out to service them any more. The last time I called, a supervisor told me, ‘Vietnam will get push-button phones before this office does.’ It actually gets to be pretty routine. Funny, even,” she said, and with a swish of her long hair, she was gone, like a benign wraith in this obviously haunted house.
I wasn’t quite sure it was so funny. That was until I found out that Kramer and Marsh were arguing over the title of Johnny Winter’s third album, “Johnny Winter And,” which had just been released that day. As it blared from the record player, Marsh contended the title was an art statement, and Kramer insisted they just forgot the last word, that it should be “Johnny Winter and Friends,” and that it was really a stupid title. Which in fact it was. Just another day at the office.
Before Kramer turned to go back into his office, he seemed to notice me — an obvious interloper in their midst — and whirled, steely blue eyes flashing, demanding, “Who the fuck are you?”
Little did I know then, that was just a test. How you answered any of Kramer’s accusations-cum-greetings would determine your fate inside the Creem universe. Somehow I seemed to sense that, and replied without missing a beat, “Well, I’m not the tooth fairy, but I’m here to make you some money.”
I’m not sure where that came from; it all happened in a millisecond. But while witnessing that clamorous, frankly frightening dust-up, my mind went into overdrive and I realized that I did have a plan to work at Creem, and it had everything to do with the fact that I was the manager and buyer at Bizarre, a headshop-slash-jeans boutique in one of the suburban malls outside Detroit. I knew from Auringer that the magazine was in precarious financial shape — it had even suspended publishing for a couple of months because there wasn’t enough money to pay the printer. So, in that moment of confrontation, I told Kramer I could take the Boy Howdy logo, buy maybe 500 or so white cotton T-shirts from a supplier we used at the store, and take them to a friend whose dad owned a silk-screening shop and run them off. Then, I could sell them at Bizarre without taking a cut of the proceeds. With hardly a pause, I volunteered to send my 12-year-old sister JoAnn and her friends door-to-door to sell the T-shirts.
“Okay, you got a deal,” Kramer said. “Come back this week and we’ll talk details.”
Lester was my ally, my protector and, more than one time, my savior.
One glitch in the plan: Those details had nothing to do with me becoming a reporter for what was to become America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine. I had succeeded so well in my entrepreneurial efforts — my sister and her troop of pre-teens had sold a whopping 1000 T-shirts — that Kramer offered me a job…but as the Subscription Kid. I would process all the $5.50 checks and type in the subscriber’s name onto a card and send it to a database. I boxed up magazines and sent them to record stores and headshops around the country and mailed out the free records you used to get if you subscribed. Boxes of Doug Sahm and Creedence Clearwater Revival had to be packed up and dispatched pronto. I wasn’t the fastest mail girl, so Lester Bangs would often help me — albeit his packages were always a little messier than mine. Lester was my ally, my protector and, more than one time, my savior.
I was still attending classes at Wayne, working at the mall, and coming in and fulfilling subscriptions at the magazine. The bad news at school was there was actual homework, and I had to turn in a piece for my feature-writing class on two days’ notice. Lester volunteered to write it for me, especially when he found out I had to cover a wrestling match at Cobo Arena. “No problem, little lady,” Lester assured me. (He would often slip into movie dialect. Westerns at the best of times; the racially insensitive Amos and Andy at the worst.) “I got this covered.”
They weren’t particularly scintillating matches, but Dick the Bruiser, Bobo Brazil and the Sheik were superstars in that world, and thankfully Lester — a man of many obsessions — seemed to know that. So when Lester handed me the piece he wrote late Sunday night, I was a little less anxious about my grade. Until I read it. It was colorful, bombastic, full of adjectives and alliteration. But don’t get me wrong, I was grateful. Never the fastest writer then, I was happy to hand something in, never suspecting that the soon-to-be greatest rock critic of all time, Lester Bangs, would get a B-minus.
If Lester taught me how not to write (well, at least not like him), Ben Edmonds taught me how not to do interviews. About a year and a half after I had been at the magazine, I started to begin to write small pieces — usually late at night on my Sears Medalist electric typewriter at my parents’ house. By then, I had quit the mall job and college, and I was working full-time as the Subscription Kid. But both Roberta Cruger and I were required to finish our office duties, and only then were we permitted to write. It’s only in hindsight that I see how inequitable that was. Back in 1971 I was just happy someone let me into the club.
By 1972, I graduated from record reviews, and Connie Kramer, Barry’s wife, had arranged for someone to interview Flo and Eddie (the erstwhile Turtles and former members of Frank Zappa’s band, the Mothers of Invention). The two of us were going to fly to New York (my second plane trip ever) and stay at the very swanky St. Moritz, where I would interrogate the funny twosome who had just released their “The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie” album with most of the members of the Mothers after Franks Zappa was injured in an accident and went out of commission. The interview was due to take place at 9 p.m. In anticipation I arranged four straight-backed chairs in a semi-circle that afternoon, put out silly, slightly inappropriate snacks and ordered drinks to be brought up to the room. Not ever a really good idea for an interview situation.
Connie and I waited, but Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan were late. So late that when they’d actually arrived, I’d been awake for more than 20 hours. During the interview, I actually fell asleep and woke up to the sensation of Kaylan (“Eddie”) roughly shaking my right shoulder. I mumbled something about being up half the night preparing for the event, but they didn’t seem to believe me. It was the nadir of my budding career and, needless to say, I never wrote the story.
It had been a little embarrassing, not to mention unnerving, and before the next time I was due to grill someone I asked Edmonds for advice. He told me, “Don’t fawn over them. Don’t do drugs with them, and don’t sleep with anyone.”
Obviously afraid I wouldn’t take his advice (I don’t know why), he accompanied me to my interview with Steve Miller after “The Joker” soared to the top of the charts. Ben was dressed up in his fanciest clothes — string tie, hand-tooled boots, black vest over a poet’s shirt — and ended up conducting most of the interview himself. So what did I learn from that encounter? Never, ever bring anyone with you to an interview!
Besides Interviews 101, Edmonds taught me how to cook my first omelet — cheese with fine herbs. He knew how to cook exotic dishes like curry chicken and finnan haddie, and to be honest, he was just more genteel than the rest of us — most of us children of autoworkers. He was a Son of the American Revolution, born in Boston, and came to Creem after a year as an art student at Ohio Wesleyan. He had an affection for the MC5, and had somehow talked his way into the White Panthers lair. He spoke slowly — having overcome a childhood stutter — with big cultured vowel sounds, and he devoted inordinate time and energy to his wardrobe. He looked like a surfer but without a tan, or maybe a better-looking member of the Beach Boys, with pale, pale skin and even-paler shoulder-length blond hair. He had kind of a Samson thing going on with his coiffure, but not without cause — he really had stupendous hair. He lent a bit of class to the place, and usually specialized in stories on art rock or articles on the more well-behaved members of rockdom — you know, Ian Hunter, David Bowie, Elton John, Todd Rundgren, Bryan Ferry. His stories just bordered on the fey, but never really went over the edge — though Elton John had an over-the-top crush on him, and kept urging Ben to help him write his autobiography. But Ben was resolutely heterosexual, being drawn to women who looked like Bianca Jagger. “I don’t date my own tribe,” he used to say when asked about it. He dressed in a symphony of whites and beiges — never any color, except occasionally for a silly neckerchief that looked like he snagged it from Bowie’s closet. Behind his back we called him the White Worm.
The two of us were rolling on the floor, shrieking with laughter at our ingenious entries, wondering why we should have treated this particular event with any more reverence than anything else we did.
Ben had a natural authority and bearing, whereas Lester and I were like two unruly kids. He once came upon us stuffing the ballot box in the Creem annual reader’s poll. The two of us were rolling on the floor, shrieking with laughter at our ingenious entries, wondering why we should have treated this particular event with any more reverence than anything else we did. (Could that be why Lester and I were among the critics-of-the-year leaders for five years running?) Edmonds tried to stop us, but we were too far gone in our revelry, and we knew that he was more concerned that we didn’t expunge his own votes than with the impropriety of it all. “I’m telling,” he said, without a hint of humor.
“No, you won’t,” I told him. “And if you do, we’ll bump you to the bottom.”
“You wouldn’t,” he said.
“You know we would. But what if we make you the third most popular rock critic?”
“Make it the second,” he said.
“Nope. We already did all the hard work,” I responded.
“Take it or leave it, White Boy!” echoed Lester.
“I’ll take it, but I’m still telling,” he said, breaking into a smile finally. The funny thing is, if we hadn’t rigged the ballots, that would probably have been the correct order of the voting anyway, give or take a Robert Christgau.
Lester’s and my desk were next to each other, and his was a shrine to Taco Bell and “Penthouse.” His typewriter was just barely visible from underneath the rubble of food cartons, stacks of empty record jackets and discarded press releases. There were usually a couple of unopened bottles of cough syrup around — gifts from fans — that he swore he never drank anymore, or at least not if there was anything else remotely interesting and available. Usually the drug of choice at Creem was 222s, which were codeine aspirins. About once every couple of weeks we would take turns driving across the Canadian border 12 miles away, where the drug was sold over the counter. They were rather benign if taken in small amounts, but during an especially brutal deadline we would gobble a couple every hour or so around the clock. We used to tell ourselves it was for the pain, but secretly we knew it was more about alleviating the boredom of the Midwestern winters and the long, often 18-hour days spent putting a monthly magazine to bed.
Before leaving for interviews, Lester and I would engage in something like a football chant, working each other up, by repeating over and over: “Rock stars are not our friends. Rock stars are not our friends.” It was sound advice, I was to learn sadly, time and again. We would occasionally fill in for one another, as when I interviewed Lynyrd Skynyrd without ever having heard one of their records. They had come to town to play, and Lester was scheduled to interview them on what was his 27th birthday. “C’mon, Jaan, interview them for me. It’s easy. I’ll write the questions for you. Nobody will know the difference!” Bangs pleaded. There is something to be said for having an androgynous first name; that extra “a” in my name covers a multitude of sins. But they did know the difference and they weren’t pleased. It wasn’t that they actually knew who Lester Bangs was — his myth hadn’t yet gathered steam. They were just mad that a female was going to interview them, and a Yankee!
I spent most of the time with them trying to fend off ham-fisted insults and slurs. It was right up there with the time Rick Wakeman came to the door in a towel and refused to put on clothes for our interview. Except there were six members in Lynyrd Skynyrd, and they had their clothes on. I tried to keep pace with their drinking and piece together some kind of questions that would actually elicit some kind of coherent answers instead of the blather they insisted on heaping on me — riveting stuff like they grew their hair long to cover up their red necks. Head Skynyrd Ronnie Van Zant seemed to take pity on me, and motioned me over to a table where we could talk. He had been trying to cut down on his drinking, he said, but since it was the final day of their 1975 tour, he gave in and had a Jack Daniel’s and Coke. After two, he began to unwind a little and regale me with stories of his dangerous past — like the time he got thrown out of school for attempted murder, and how in 1975 alone he had been arrested for fighting five times. He told me his biggest regret was that he couldn’t be just like his father, Lacey (whose name he had tattooed on his left upper arm), saying, “I couldn’t be like him. I don’t even expect to live very long, because I’m living too fast... I have the same problem Janis Joplin had but worse. I’m not even going to see 30.” There was a terrible eloquence in his words that last night — he was just a month from his 28th birthday — and I remember leaving the bar feeling depressed. Then two years later I heard Van Zant and five other band members and crew had died in a plane crash in Gillsburg, Mississippi, and I realized how warranted that earlier depression was.
My stories soon caught up with my cooking, which had progressed from omelets, and I was regularly going out on the road with bands about once a month. This was where the best material was — catching bands in the act of being themselves — and where all the perks were, though some of them were better left unsampled. I remember once being flown in for a weekend at New York’s Plaza Hotel to do a story on a very successful blue-eyed soul duo. After an afternoon of lobster finger sandwiches and strawberries in the Palm Court, a haircut in the pricy salon and shopping for sundries in the pharmacy — all financed by the band’s record company — a limo was sent over to take me to the concert. After the show, I made an appointment to meet the pair the next morning to chat over coffee, but before I left their manager cornered me and offered me his clients for the night. I was afraid I had misunderstood him and told him I wasn’t on a deadline, and an interview the next day would be soon enough. He leered at me, said that wasn’t exactly what he had in mind — “maybe I’d like to do a little undercover reporting” (his words exactly). If I could have thrown up the lobster on his gangster suit with some amount of decorum, I would have. Instead, I looked him straight in the eyes, politely thanked him for the rare opportunity and told him we weren’t allowed to accept gratuities — at least not that kind. These were barbaric times for women music reporters, and often the musicians you were assigned to interview just saw you as a groupie with a tape recorder.
Maybe worse than that was when a group took you out on the road and then dodged you. I was on the road with Led Zeppelin on two occasions. The first went off seamlessly, though I must admit I did observe some weirdness — odd dress and sexual proclivities, strange assignations with girls with poodles and occasional bouts of overindulgence — but nothing that prevented me from reviewing the shows and filing reasonably unbiased accounts of life on the road with rock’s biggest bruisers. They were my favorite band and, if anything, I was hard-pressed to write anything unflattering for fear of bringing them down off the pedestal on which I and millions like me had put them.
But my last Led Zep excursion changed all that for me. I should have known it was an odd tour when the tour doctor accused Jimmy Page of pilfering his supply of Quaaludes. At that stage, I never even thought to ask what the doctor needed with all those pills anyway — jet lag, I told myself, as well as reminding myself that it was none of my business, not really, since I knew that I didn’t steal them.
I had been with the band for five days when Page (a former pen pal of Barry Kramer’s, by the way) finally consented to a meeting with me in his publicist’s suite. However, once I got there, I could sense there was an ill wind blowing. As I entered the room, he quaintly announced in his characteristically high-pitched voice, “Now it’s time for me to cellophane my mouth.” To say the least, I was a little disconcerted, and his publicist looked pale, but in retrospect I think it was probably an act. After a few awkward minutes, the publicist managed to convince Page (a little too easily, I thought) to let me ask her the questions, and she’d relay them to him. I sat there dumbfounded, and not at all invisible, as they had tried to render me. We all spoke English, right? And here these two people were trying to transmute an interview for a rock magazine into a simultaneous translation for the UN. Never one to fall down on the job (after all, it was a cover story), I agreed to the peculiar procedure and posed my questions to the flack; she then relayed them to Page, he answered her, and she would tell me exactly what he had just said, just as if I wasn’t sitting there hearing it for myself. This went on for the better part of a half hour, without any one of us acting as if there was anything out of the ordinary going on. And in Led Zeppelin’s world, maybe there wasn’t.
He told me he intended to have a cocktail party and was going to invite everyone except the press, because they only come for the free drinks.
It was rather like simultaneously watching and being in a foreign movie with subtitles. It was a bizarre charade, and I had tacitly agreed to go along with it to get my story, but I wasn’t exactly thrilled. It seemed to appease Page, and I had the feeling that this wasn’t the first time the publicist had to devise some pretext to get Jimmy Page to talk. As I got up to leave, he finally looked at me, in that particularly drowsy-lidded way he had, and spoke directly to me without his interpreter. He told me he intended to have a cocktail party and was going to invite everyone except the press, because they only come for the free drinks. It was a disturbing and haunting exchange, as the entire experience had been, and I wanted to tell him (but didn’t) that the press certainly wouldn’t have come for the company.
Not all assignments were tainted with sexual politics or star attitude, and some of the best times I ever had were when the band members treated me like one of the boys. Performing on stage with Kiss was just one of those encounters. I put on a studded dog collar, black tights and face paint, and performed in front of 5,000 people in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, for a story I had titled “I Dreamt I Was Onstage with Kiss in My Maidenform Bra.”
The groundwork for that story had been laid long before, in the spring of 1974, when Kiss came to the offices one afternoon to pose for a Creem profile. If you are of a certain vintage, you likely remember those, don’t you? — a takeoff on Dewar’s “What kind of man drinks Dewar’s?” ads — but in our case it was a Boy Howdy beer profile, a scheme involving minimum effort on our part that we concocted to get more coverage for bands whose record companies were spending their big advertising dollars in Creem.
The four of them arrived in a rented sedan, very low-budget and unpretentious. They marched up the single flight of stairs to our offices in heavy-soled platform boots. They were all hair, sunglasses and bravado, trying to steal the mantle of the premier New York Band from the New York Dolls. They thought Creem was a fitting place to begin their campaign, so we, blasé observers of the rock wars, sat back and let them go into their act. They clomped down the hallway and took over the ladies’ bathroom (when the mens’ would have done just as well) that Creem shared with the other tenants of the building. They were irredeemable bathroom slobs, leaving gobs of Kleenex and cotton balls in their wake, littering all the surfaces, and smearing the mirrors with petroleum jelly and lipstick. After monopolizing the premises for more than an hour, they stalked back into our editorial offices, taking up much more space than when they left. It was an amazing thing to behold — the transformation of the quartet was more than merely cosmetic, it was almost psychic. Our secretaries, who didn’t give these reasonably attractive metal-rocker types a second glance when they walked in the office an hour before, were transfixed and couldn’t keep their eyes off them after they saw them in the makeup. It was more a cinematic moment than a rock ‘n’ roll one, with Kiss looking more like cheap actors in a Japanese horror flick than musicians. I remember thinking, as Charlie Auringer took their photograph in our back parking lot, that this ritualistic application of makeup was very passé, kind of Warholian, but also very disturbing in a death-of-art kind of way. I hadn’t yet gotten used to the idea that the ‘70s were about concepts and gimmicks, and it would soon become the norm to create a band around a great idea, rather than the other way around. Video hadn’t yet killed the radio stars.
But eventually it did. Times changed, and one by one, the early staff began to scatter: Dave Marsh left, first for a job at Long Island’s Newsday, then to sleep with the enemy at Rolling Stone. Roberta Cruger went to work at TV Guide. In 1975, Ben Edmonds exited for Los Angeles for a job at Record World, an industry trade magazine, then EMI Records. I followed a year later, first taking Edmonds’ job after he exited, then moving to Northern California to marry, start a family and freelance. And I finally got that college degree — albeit not in journalism.
Lester Bangs departed soon after, moving to New York to write the novel he was always talking about. Instead, he became a media sensation, ending up (posthumously) in an R.E.M. song, and becoming the man about town every band and writer wanted to shake hands with, then buy a drink. Which turned out, sadly, to be a lot of drinks. He continued to write, and fronted Radio Birdland, a band with Joey Ramone’s brother, Mickey Leigh. Funnily, he’d never ever said anything about wanting to be a rock star; he didn’t have a good voice. More importantly, he never wrote that novel.
I would never suspect that both Lester Bangs and Barry Kramer would be gone in four years’ time — both from accidental overdoses, Kramer at age 37 in 1981, Bangs at 33 in 1982. I have a recurring dream about once a year or so, where Lester appears to me, shaking me awake and chiding me, saying, “You have got to get up, we have so much more to do.” I’m always mad at him, asking him why he let me think he was dead, which makes him laugh.
“So if you’re not dead, where have you been?” I ask. He always says the same thing: “I’ve been in Florida.” I’m still not sure what it all means. I’m sure I’ll figure it out in time.
Published in partnership with Creem Magazine
One of the first women to work in rock journalism, Jaan Uhelszki got her start alongside Lester Bangs, Ben Edmonds and Dave Marsh — considered the “dream team” of rock writing at Creem Magazine in the mid-1970s. Currently an Editor at Large at Relix, Uhelszki has published articles in NME, Mojo, Rolling Stone, USA Today, Classic Rock, Uncut and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her awards include Online Journalist of the Year and the National Feature Writer Award from the Music Journalist’s Association, and three Deems Taylor Awards. She is listed in Flavorwire’s 33 Women Music Critics You Need to Read and holds the dubious honor of being the only rock journalist who has ever performed in full costume and makeup with Kiss.