Did the internet kill rock gods? Mourning the immortal pages of my 1979 Creem Magazine
Waxing nostalgic on the golden era of music journalism.
Two words made me want to become a music journalist: Almost Famous.
The 2000 film was a semi-pretend-semi-factual tale of a young writer named William Miller (modeled after the film’s director Cameron Crowe), who serendipitously meets the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), which kicks off his adventure by landing him his first assignment with Creem magazine — a review of a Black Sabbath concert. There he meets the fictitious band Stillwater (modeled after a combination of the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, and a few others). Rolling Stone assigns him to cover the band, and Miller goes on this whole escapade chasing the interview. Etc., etc.
Almost Famous glamorized music journalism, yet masked it in this proverbial “death rattle” of Rock N’ Roll prophesied by Bangs. For me, it was perhaps the most direct infomercial for choosing a career, what with the documenting of exaggerated lives and pure underlying love of the music. I received my first paid writing assignment the year Almost Famous released, and 15 years later, I’m still a career music journalist.
Fast forward to April 2015, during the East Coast’s first glimpse of decent spring weather. I was bumming around a local flea market, flipping through the vintage magazine section, when I found a copy of Creem magazine from 1979. I gasped. I had never actually held a copy of Creem before. It’s existed in my periphery as this mythical publication referenced in my all-time favorite film that obviously set the bar for music writers. I’ve read scanned Creem articles in anthologies, but holding a copy of the magazine was magical.
It’s the first issue of 1979, and Ted Nugent is on the cover, pointing what is either a gun or the neck of a guitar. His teeth are clenched, and he’s gripping it almost erotically, his hands blurred beneath the word “BANG!” in big blue letters. (He also happens to look exactly like comedian T.J. Miller.) Cameron Crowe is listed in the masthead, though by then, Lester Bangs was three years deep in freelancing for places like the Village Voice and Playboy. The magazine is 90 pages — a combination of smudgy ink newspaper prints and glossies. At 36 years old, Creem still smells like glue, almost like a library book. The only thing most of us smell nowadays while reading is our leg skin being singed by the heat of a Macbook Pro. But Creem is a literary relic, a remnant of a simpler time with more complex writing. So I read the copy cover to cover, and what I learned as both a fan of the written word and an overzealous music scribe made me both happy…and sad.
Remember the front of book sections in magazines, where readers would submit responses to articles? They still exist tangentially, but Creem’s fan mail was intense. In this particular issue, the readers typed like they were auditioning for staff writer roles at the mag, full of thoughtful rhetoric and actual reactions to what they were reading and what was happening in music. One reader submitted what appeared to be just one long stream of consciousness, flooded with name drops like Elvis Costello, CBGBs, and Mick Jagger. The reader’s name is M. Farque from Rockaway Beach, New York. Another reader submitted this pulpy vignette about how her boyfriend looks like Dee Dee Ramone and how she’d be down for a threesome. She even submitted a photo of her man in a tattered denim vest, and well, he kind of looks more like an emaciated Tracey Ullman. Still, this woman, Marilyn Muenster of Bridgeport, Connecticut, put her best (and perviest) foot forward. Maybe she did get that evening with Dee Dee and Tracey. Who knows?
The point is that the website comment sections of today are by no means an extension of this fan mail, despite it being a likely evolution. Comments happen in real time, with the ability to nitpick and anonymously rip apart articles just for the sake of doing so, an act we now know as trolling. It’s no wonder that we tend to dismiss the opinions of these sections now, as the reader-turned-writer almost never takes the time to marinate on what they’d like to say.
Artists On Artists
Recently I’ve been surprised to find out how many legendary musicians (like Kim Gordon) have moonlighted as music journalists. In this issue, Patti Smith (a frequent Creem contributor) reviews Jim Morrison’s An American Prayer, but in the form of a poem titled “Scream Of The Butterfly.” She crafts beautiful prose: “In biblical times he may have appeared as Moses or Samson or his pick of mad prophets. Today the drama of his intensity seems dated.” The drama of his intensity seems dated. Those words, written eight years after Morrison’s death, suggests that in the seventies, intensity had only intensified, making Jim less…powerful? It’s an astute observation from someone of Morrison’s ilk, especially since now, our stars have curated personalities and manufactured intensity for the sake of social media. Maybe Jim Morrison’s Twitter would include scattered one word tweets like “Cold” or “Soon,” leaving us all wondering what the hell is going on in his head.
The artists-talking-artists has continued in dribs and drabs, as publications like Interview magazine give us that fix in spurts. Still, with our artists owning overdeveloped egos, hardly anyone would take the time today to write a poem about someone else, save for the treasured few who balance creating art and passionately critiquing the work of others. The upper echelon may pen a poem about themselves, or just write a gigantic first person account of their brilliance like Kanye West did for his Paper magazine cover story. And maybe Patti Smith could write from that perspective about Jim Morrison, because real recognizes real. But Patti sidelined her own brilliance to focus on Morrison’s, and even that level of intensity is sadly dated too.
I remember the day that magazine features’ word counts changed. (Okay, maybe it wasn’t the exact day, but it was the day it first happened to me, after almost ten years of writing.) It was 2009, and I was assigned a cover story for the Source. Expecting 3,000 words, I was told to come up with 1,000. One thousand? That was like, the length of the intro. Of course the rate was slashed due to the shortened word count (considerably too), where previously a cover story would cover a few months of rent. Now it can’t cover a Boost Mobile phone bill. In Creem, the features were the length of pamphlets, with pages upon pages dedicated to interviewing Keith Richards or cover story star Ted Nugent. There was real access, actual face time with the artist and room for loads of context. Now we have 15-minute slots wedged into 6-hour press days, with label reps abruptly interjecting “final question” just as your interview is getting fired up. We have media-trained artists smiling so hard their facial bones might shatter, providing stock answers to pre-approved questions, leaving the meat to their social media accounts. I recently spoke with an artist for a major publication, and he said with a smile that he had no intention of releasing an album anytime soon. A week later, he tweeted a new album title—with a release date. We don’t get “stories,” we get a manufactured content in the name of driving web traffic.
I only 37% cared about Ted Nugent before reading Kat Gisi’s story, but now I care to learn more about him. Ted comes across as awesome from the moment he exits a plane (yes, back in the day there were even planes involved in interviews), sarcastically stating that he murdered a passenger with “a hunting knife made from the pelvic bone of a virgin.” Gisi was fortunate enough to spend enough time with Nugent, to capture his personality, which went from charismatic to creepy and back to cute again (especially when he talked about going on an African safari). That’s what interviews are supposed to do: give you a well-rounded sketch of the interviewee so you can come to your own conclusions. Do they do that now? Not really. This isn’t me mourning a musical generation that I wasn’t born into; it’s quite the opposite. We have a surplus of interesting people in the world to write about, but we’re unable to do that effectively within the given parameters. Rock writers of the ‘70s were given carte blanche to get the story. Maybe now we’re too busy trying to be the story.
Christened By Christgau
Robert Christgau had his own section in Creem titled “Christgau Consumer Guide,” where he reviewed handfuls of albums and gave them grades. In this issue only one album got a solid A, and that was the Ramones’ Road To Ruin. Loleatta Holloway’s Queen Of The Night came in at a close second with an A-. Christgau, now a famed critic and essayist, was already something of a brand back then. His reviews didn’t always help you understand exactly how an album sounded, but he did a masterful job of letting you know how an album might make you feel or what headspace the artist was in while crafting the project. He came through with historical references to back catalog and would cross-reference one artist with another in an almost “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” kind of way. It’s refreshing to read, as Christgau obviously absorbed every record.
As Jay-Z once said, “Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?” It’s a question we should ask present-day music writers who have already decided how an album sounds before even hearing it. We skim Spotify or rely on album samplers and label-sanctioned limited tracks to determine the collective sound of an album, since streams are often offered the day before an album releases, leaving websites with merely hours to slap together a review to stay relevant. Then we’re taken to task when we haven’t provided desired results. I don’t even know who I’m offending or defending with at this point, this is just an observation.
Almost a year ago to date, I had my first (and probably last) Almost Famous moment. I attended a Lily Allen concert, and after the show, I met up with her to finish off our interview which we’d started on the phone a few days before. She brought me in her limo, as we drove to a rooftop party where I met her friends and her aunt. She showed me pictures of her children, including videos she watches of them on the road. We ate, we drank, we partied. It was the most access I have ever had in fifteen years of writing.
Will I get that moment again with another artist? Maybe? Will I have as much (partially undocumented) fun as I did that night? Probably not. In the 2015 world of laptop writing, we don’t get to witness artists in their natural form. Artists are just as much brands as their fan bases, fictitious armies like Little Monsters or Katy Cats, Swifties, and, of course, the omnipresent Bey Hive. They allow audiences to feel a part of something, while reaching desperately for even the slightest bit of recognition like a universal shoutout to the whole army, or a coveted personal retweet. There was never much trust for the media to begin with, but now a true backstage document poses a direct threat to the Sprite endorsement.
The Lester Bangs character in Almost Famous referred to Miller's journalistic moment as the “death rattle,” and by calculation, that would have been almost 50 years ago. So it probably isn’t dead yet. But what I can say after reading that copy of Creem is that I should pay more attention to the tangible aspects of music. Maybe I am writing while sitting in web traffic, but that doesn’t mean it’s all for naught. I can be an analog girl in a digital world, writing about the famous, and the almost famous.