Freep Film Festival’s opener chronicles CREEM magazine’s Jewish founder, one of an “unruly band of outsiders, misfits and punks.”
By Don Cohen
Photos courtesy of JJ Kramer
If Rock ‘n’ Roll never forgets, as Bob Seger famously sang, then rock ‘n’ roll can certainly never forget CREEM magazine.
Started in Detroit 50 years ago by Barry Kramer, a Jewish counterculture figure who owned a record store, book store and head shop, CREEM went from being sold out of the trunk of his car to becoming the nation’s No. 2 music magazine. Strutting Detroit swagger, it branded itself “America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine,” giving the middle finger to No. 1 Rolling Stone.
It’s rise and fall is told in Boy Howdy! The Story of CREEM Magazine, the opening night offering of the sixth annual Freep Film Festival on April 10 at the Fillmore Detroit.
The new documentary explores the magazine’s start in 1969 in the Cass Corridor and its rise to become a national powerhouse by the mid-’70s. It also chronicles the magazine’s demise following the tragic, untimely deaths of its publisher (Kramer) and its most famous alum (writer/editor Lester Bangs).
CREEM was irreverent, rude, comic, opinionated, original and ground-breaking. While other music publications largely ignored them, CREEM covered controversial and now-iconic bands such as Iggy Pop, MC5, Lou Reed, J. Geils, Patti Smith, The Clash, Ramones, Alice Cooper, KISS, Cheap Trick and Blondie.
At the same time, it nurtured some of the best and craziest young rock writers and journalists — Dave Marsh, Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, Sylvie Simmons, Cameron Crowe, Greil Marcus, Richard Marcus and Ric Siegel, to name a few — who, much like the rock n’ roll business at the time, made it up as they went along.
JJ Kramer, 42, the film’s producer and the son of CREEM founder Barry Kramer, describes his father and the rest of the staff as an “unruly band of outsiders, misfits and punks.”
“The film is an authentic story, a Detroit story,” JJ explains. “It evolved into a gritty, no-holds-barred look behind the curtain of the CREEM offices and the relationship the writers had with each other and the artists they covered — all with the Detroit music scene exploding around them.
“Detroit gave it a blue-collar aesthetic,” JJ says. “The film is really a story about the do-it-yourself spirit, rolling up your sleeves and doing things on your own terms. It is about being so passionate that you will it into existence.”
Working on the film with director Scott Crawford and CREEM alums, including Jaan Uhelszki who also wrote and produced, helped JJ better understand his father who died of a nitrous oxide overdose when JJ was 4.
“It helped me connect to my dad in a way I had not been connected before. Almost everybody I spoke to had a Barry Kramer story,” JJ says. “He was an incredibly brilliant visionary, but also a provocateur. He had a lot of volatile relationships. He would push people’s buttons on purpose, reate chaos and then try to control and rein it in. Not everyone left on good terms with him, and some still had residual regret and hard feelings.” He says the interviews were often “therapeutic” for all involved.
A Michigan native, JJ grew up in Franklin and West Bloomfield, becoming a bar mitzvah at Temple Israel before graduating from Andover High School in 1994 and Michigan State University in 1998.
After attending Emory Law School in Atlanta and working in New York, he moved to Columbus, Ohio, where he has been vice president and associate general counsel for Abercrombie and Fitch for a decade. He lives in suburban Bexley with his wife and two young children.
When Barry died in 1981, he left the magazine to JJ, so, at 4, “I became the chairman of the board of my own rock ‘n’ roll magazine,” he quips. His mom, Connie Kramer, then associate publisher, became publisher to keep it going.
Over the decades, CREEM had its ups and downs, moving to Los Angeles, being sold and going out of print, and, after a lengthy court battle, a group headed by JJ regained control of its brand and archives in 2017.
Connie, 72, lives in Commerce Township and is founder and director of RetroDoggy Rescue, devoted to finding homes for abandoned and lost animals.
“Before I rescued animals, I rescued errant rock ‘n’ roll writers,” she says.
She went to Mumford High School in Detroit; and her parents, Harold and Cylvia Warren, were active Jewish community members.
Connie and Barry were married in Las Vegas in 1973 after attending an Elvis concert and she still tells people Elvis sang at their wedding. They were also married in a Jewish ceremony by Rabbi Jacob Siegel of Adat Shalom at her parents’ home.
Reached by phone with dogs barking in the background, she sounds high-energy, but pauses a moment as she recalls the times.
“You don’t get to do all the ups in life without all of the downs,” she says. “I look back at things now with a lot of love and a lot of melancholy. I would do most of it again, but I’d have to be young.”
Asked how she sees things with the benefit of hindsight, she says, “Every generation has its time, and I’m a bit partial to the generation I lived in and grew up in. So many young people with so much to say came out of a subdued upbringing to live with an explosion of creative thought. It’s not so different from what is happening today, but it was so much rawer.”
While not directly involved in the film’s production, she has seen the almost-final cut and approves of its warts-and-all storytelling.
“It is damn accurate. Watching it with an aged eye, the first feeling I get is I don’t know if I want to live this again,” she says. “We were loud. We were loud in our thinking, in our speech and in our music. The music was everything.
“Barry and I shared ideas and concepts,” she says of their working together. She handled the administrative end of the business — subscriptions, promotions, advertising, sales — as well as being a cook and self-described “house mother.”
“He was not the easiest person to deal with,” she shares. “Success immobilized him. Nothing could happen without Barry’s OK, and he wasn’t okaying anything. The magazine was super-demanding, and nothing was giving him peace and joy. It was the perfect storm for Barry — we were getting a divorce though it wasn’t because we didn’t love each other.
“The day after Barry died, I realized somebody had to take hold of the reins,” she says. “I just knew this was JJ’s.” She says she kept it alive with the vital help of Sue Whitall — who became CREEM’s editor before becoming a writer for the Detroit News in 1983 — and her father, “a brilliant businessman” who headed Paragon Steel.
“I’m incredibly proud of JJ. He spent about 10 years of his life to put every block in place to make this film. I’m not just proud of how he has handled the details, but how he handled the people involved.”
Surprisingly, not only was CREEM a product of Detroit, it was also a product of West Bloomfield.
“Cass Avenue was the original communal space,” Connie says, but due to safety concerns after a robbery and need for more space, the magazine moved to largely undeveloped West Bloomfield. Its original farm was on the northwest corner of Haggerty and 14 Mile, housing on the southeast corner.
“I spent most of my time at Cass Avenue and the farm dancing — it was the best emotional outlet ever,” Connie says.
Affirming lyrics from the song “Rock ‘n’ Roll” by The Velvet Underground’s lead Lou Reed, later given a local twist by Detroit’s own Mitch Ryder, she says, “I truly do mean it when I say my life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll.”
Boy Howdy! The Story of CREEM Magazine, in its Michigan premiere sponsored by Chemical Bank, kicks off the Freep Film Festival Wednesday, April 10, at the Fillmore Detroit. A VIP party starts at 6:30 p.m., doors open at 7 p.m., with the film at 8 p.m. An encore showing will be at 9 p.m. Friday, April 21, at Emagine Royal Oak. For tickets and schedules, go to freepfilmfestival.com. For more about CREEM magazine, go to creemmag.com. The festival runs through April 14.