‘Boy Howdy!’ Is An Insightful Documentary That Shows Precisely How Creem Rose to the Top

Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine
Five out of Five Stars

Back in the day, Creem magazine was known as the ultimate fan magazine. A go-to resource for all that was hip and happening, it shared news on the coolest bands that populated both the musical mainstream and the otherwise hidden lairs of the burgeoning musical underground. Its literary commentary was decidedly insurgent in tone and genuinely groundbreaking as well,  extending far beyond the usual discourse offered in either the run-of-the-mill rags or there popular periodicals.

A new documentary, Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine,documents the rise and eventual demise of this remarkable rock ’n’ roll ‘zine, from its humble beginnings in Detroit to its communal resettlement in the hinterlands of Michigan, before moving forward to its relocation in Birmingham, Michigan and, finally — and sadly — its eventual buy-out while accompanied by the lawsuits that hastened its end. Originally screened to exceptional reviews at South By Southwest in 2019, it shares the unlikely cast of characters that took part in creating this exceptional example of literary history as it was applied to rock ’n’ roll’s own vibrant legacy.

A fabled legacy it was. The film describes how the disparate personalities of the staff members somehow gelled to create a magazine like no other, one which gave the first in-depth coverage to such emerging stars as Alice Cooper, Bob Seger, Cheap Trick, Iggy Pop and Parliament-Funkadelic, well before the more established periodicals opted to pay any attention at all.

Among its many fine scribes was the notorious Lester Bangs, a true renegade writer whose writing helped define the course for gonzo journalism in the decades to come. That said, it also documents the internal squabbles that plagued the staff practically from day one. In one particularly memorable encounter, writer Dave Marsh takes his revenge after Bangs’ dog soiled his environs one time too many. He proceeds, unmercifully, to place the dog’s doo-doo on Bangs’ typewriter, resulting in a fistfight that further widened the personality riff that forever existed between them both.

Accordingly then, there’s no end to the insights, shenanigans and eccentricities the film documents so precisely, and given the current commentary shared by Cameron Crowe, Wayne Kramer, Alice Cooper, Thurston Moore, Joan Jett, and dozens of other fans and followers, the film becomes all the more poignant, personal and impactful. The origins of the legendary Boy Howdy, Creem’s offbeat comic mascot, are also uncovered in depth and detail, a respectful ode to one of the most iconic characters in cartoon lore and beyond.

Ultimately, it makes us all wish we there to witness it first-hand. That’s themark of a great documentary.

Happily then, the legend lives on courtesy of those creative individuals whose efforts give this project ta decided passion and purpose — among them, Executive Producer JJ Kramer, the son of Creem co-founder Barry Kramer, Director Scott Crawford (Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington DC, 1980-90) and Jaan Uhelszki, Co-Producer, Screenwriter and an original Creem staffer. Given its messy trajectory and its disparate cast of characters, eccentrics and general hangers-on, it’s a fascinating look at rock and roll culture from those on the frontlines of its more intimate environs

Consequently, we at American Songwriter were only too eager to talk with the key individuals who were involved in the film…

American Songwriter: JJ’s relationship to this project is of course obvious, but can each of you share how you came to be involved in the documentary? Let’s start with JJ. What do you do now? And how has your father’s legacy survived through you?

JJ:  I’m a lawyer. Specifically, I’m in-house trademark counsel for Abercrombie & Fitch. At first, you’d think that couldn’t be farther away from my father’s rock ‘n’ roll legacy. The reality is however that my background in intellectual property is exactly what allowed me to re-assemble the Creem brand and make this film.  After the magazine was sold off in the late 80’s, the brand’s IP was essentially broken off into different pieces, which took me nearly 15 years to put back together. I like to think that, when things got challenging — which was often — I tapped into my father’s entrepreneurial DIY spirit — not to mention the Detroit-sized chip on his shoulder—  to power through.

Jaan: I was  one of the original staff members. I started working there when I was in high school. At the time I was working at a hippie boutique/headshop but had high ambition to be a writer. So I told the publisher/founder Barry Kramer, who I knew slightly, that I would create a Creem t-shirt business for them — manufacture them, get them printed and sell them at the headshop, and even get the neighborhood kids to sell Creem t-shirts door-to-door (It was a huge success!), if they would give me a job at the magazine. Much to surprise, they went for it and hired me—not as a writer—but as the “Subscription Kid,” where my job was to process subscriptions. In order to write, I had to do my office duties, then write at night. I graduated to Circulation manager, and then after three years of double duty at the magazine, I finally worked my way into a full-time editorial position and was given a desk next to Lester Bangs — which was both a blessing and a curse. He could thrash out reviews in what seemed liked minutes, making me feel like there was something really very wrong with me, since my writing process was much slower than his at that point. Everybody’s was. I was Creem’s News Editor, then the Movie Editor writing “Confessions Of A Film Fox,” then the Features Editor. Ultimately Lester and I became co-Senior Editors, before we both left in 1976.

Whose idea was it to put this project together? And why now?

Jaan: The easy answer is 2019 would have marked Creem Magazine’s 50th anniversary. But it was more a confluence of events. Around 2015 or so, JJ Kramer was thinking of leaving the law, telling his mother Connie Kramer that he was thinking of quitting his job as counsel for Abercrombie and Fitch in Ohio and moving back to Detroit to take up where his father left off, and publish a rock magazine. I had breakfast with Connie when I was visiting Detroit from California and she was bemoaning the fact that her JJ was even considering that. I sympathized, but a lightbulb went off and I had an inkling of how to help. I used to work at Harp Magazine, and the editor Scott Crawford had left the magazine business and was now making documentaries. After he finished Salad Days, his film on the DC punk scene, he called me and asked me if I thought I could help him find out about doing his next documentary on CREEM Magazine. During the breakfast with Connie Kramer, I thought if I put JJ Kramer and Scott Crawford together it would be a win-win. I thought JJ could perhaps be the executive producer and keep his job. Scott Crawford could have his next project, and I would just go on back to California working as the U.S. Contributor to Uncut Magazine and as a producer at Rhapsody. I hadn’t even thought of being involved. I email-introduced JJ and Scott Crawford, and they immediately hit it off. The good news was JJ didn’t leave his job, and his mother was happy, Scott Crawford got his next project and I somehow got ended up co-writing the movie with Scott and co-producing with JJ.

Scott: I approached JJ as I was winding down my first film (Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC) about making a documentary film about Creem’s heyday. The Creem story was one that always intrigued me, since, as an editor, I had worked with many of the ex-staffers and the profound effect it had on me as a reader growing up. I knew there would be a helluva documentary to make if we could get everyone onboard. JJ and I both agreed on its narrative and we quickly started what was an eventual 4 year journey.

As for the timing of the film, I wanted to tell the story of what rock ’n’ roll journalism was like in its infancy and how Creem has influenced the musical vocabulary. I wanted to somehow capture the insane energy of the newsroom, the passion the writers had for the music (some of whom were willing to come to blows over it) and show audiences how much Creem truly changed the way we hear music by writing about it in ways that to this day are still unmatched in my opinion.

How easy or difficult was it to gather this archival footage and reach out to the many people that were interviewed for this film?

Jaan: It was pretty easy to get people to participate. Creem occupies a unique place in people’s heart. It was the magazine for outcasts. People who just didn’t seem to fit in were attracted to the pages of Creem. Why? Because the writers were just like the readers. We were rebellious, a little left of center, with wild imaginations and everything to prove. We weren’t wowed by rock stars. We didn’t put them on pedestals; in fact, we always were trying to knock them off of them. Writers like Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau were given the freedom to express in a way that they weren’t in other publications. Artists like the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe grew up reading Creem and dreaming of becoming rock stars. Thurston Moore even wrote and had published a letter to the editor. Former writers and artists came to us!

Scott: Luckily, JJ had the black and white footage that opens the film that was made available to us by the local PBS affiliate in Detroit. We were lucky to have it as visual evidence of the way the staff lived and breathed rock ’n’ roll. Along the way, JJ also unearthed a number of pieces of footage he found on old video tapes in his attic. It was like finding sunken treasure! Some of the black and white footage of Lester Bangs that appear in the film have never been seen before.

What do you think is Creem‘s lasting legacy and its influence on rock ’n’ roll and our current culture in general?

JJ: A lot of folks like to refer to Creem’s “kill your idols” irreverence and humor as its lasting impact, and, yes, that’s certainly a part of it.  But, for me, it’s even more fundamental than that – it’s a testament to the underdog, DIY, spirit. As we see in the film, Creem’s success was fueled by a group of outliers and misfits who, by their own admission, had no business running or writing for a rock magazine. But that didn’t stop them. In fact, it empowered them to roll up their sleeves, rewrite the rules, and do music journalism on their own terms –- and if that’s not rock ‘n roll, I don’t know what is.

Jaan: I think the legacy of Creem is that you don’t have to do the expected to succeed. That you don’t have to look a certain way, act a certain way and obey the rules to create something that matters. What’s the saying about well-behaved women rarely make history? Well-behaved rock writers don’t either. We were always looking at ways to show artists outside of “captivity.” To put them into extreme situations and see how they reacted. What they’d say. We all found the ordinary stultifying, so we looked for different ways to cover music: Whether it was Lester Bangs poking at Lou Reed incessantly, or covering Mountain’s guitarist Leslie West in a mound of White Castle burgers, or me getting on stage dressed as Kiss and performing with them, we just always wanted to push the aesthetic and take our readers along for the thrill ride.

Could there ever be another Creem?

JJ: Absolutely. Back in the 70s there was an ecosystem between the fans, the bands, and the writers. They each held the other accountable and created real community around the music. Creem was a champion of that dynamic and refused to kiss the ring of any publicist, label, or band manager. The result — aside from some bruised egos — was some of the most powerful and engaging journalism ever written –- the type of writing that made all involved feel like they were part of something special.  Unfortunately, that ecosystem is currently broken with many media outlets more concerned with ad dollars and click bait than actual record reviews. This has effectively sterilized and homogenized the industry, and the music has suffered as a result. While this paints a bleak picture of the status quo, it also presents the perfect opportunity for another Creem to break onto the scene, rattle some cages, and restore order to the galaxy. Some might even argue that the world needs Creem now more than ever.

Jaan: Can there still be print magazines at all? I hope so. No one can predict a revolution in thought or actions, or even publishing. So if there are a new group of people who are brought together by a single unorthodox idea, and aesthetic or even a wild hair, why not?

Has there ever been any thought to reproducing Creem as a book, or, at very least, a collection of anniversary issues?

JJ:  Yes, indeed. We are currently working on a commemorative print magazine to celebrate the release of the film and Creem’s 50th anniversary — albeit, a bit belated.  This limited edition issue will be available early Fall and will highlight some of the best articles and features from Creem’s twenty year print run. We’ll also be offering additional print issues and books down the road. We’re even developing a CreeMtv show. Stay tuned!

Jaan: We are doing a commemorative issue to coincide with the release of the documentary with some of the best articles over the magazine’s thirty year history.

In telling the story, was it a matter of rekindling some nostalgia, sharing a legacy or providing a way forward at a time when rock journalism is badly in need of inspiration and a revival?

JJ:  All of the above. At its core, this is a classic underdog story about being so passionate about something that you will it into existence. That message transcends generations and genres -– so whether you’re simply looking for a trip down memory lane, or a spark to ignite your creative fire –- you’ll find it in this film. 

Scott: Despite what doing two back-to-back historical documentaries might suggest, I’m not a fan of nostalgia. What I’m interested in is how music or culture can provide a refuge and an extended community for those who are looking for it. It’s not my place to say whether I think journalism is in need of inspiration — but there’s certainly plenty of music that inspires out there right now, that’s for sure. You have to look at this film and modern journalism with the proper context — keep in mind when Barry Kramer, Lester Bangs, Jaan Uheslzki, Dave Marsh and others at Creem started writing about rock ’n’ roll in 1969, it was a relatively new art form. Jazz criticism had been around for decades (i.e. Leonard Feather), but sincere rock criticism was still very much in its infancy. So the writers of Creem helped create a template for what was to come. That’s not to suggest they were the only one’s doing it — you can’t dismiss writer Greg Shaw’s Bomp’s early influence either.

Do you think the Creem story is one of triumph or is it simply bittersweet reminder of better days?

Jaan: I think Creem is a triumph over the ordinary. I think it shows what a group of people can do when they have no fear of failure or success — or if they do, they do it anyway because they are just driven by a need to self-express. I don’t think it was just an accident of timing. I actually think it was a hive mind situation, and that can happen at any time, and it has…

Scott: Creem‘s story is without a doubt, a story of triumph. A chronicle of a bunch of misfits who found each other by hook and by crook — with a love — hell, an obsession— for the music bringing them together. The magazine started with nothing, and eventually became the number two selling music magazine next to Rolling Stone in America. This, despite being based in Detroit and not in New York or California. While there was tragedy along the way, it’s an underdog story without equal.

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