It was November 1972, I was 13 years old and the girl with a Quaalude beckoned.
Just three nights earlier, I had my mind blown by witnessing makeup-smeared Alice Cooper lasciviously writhing around on stage via the new TV show In Concert. Now I was walking home to my family’s garden-apartment after buying his “School’s Out” at Grand Way department store in suburban Nowheresville, Elmwood Park, New Jersey (tantalizingly close to Promised-Land Manhattan, yet still a world away).
Album in hand, I stopped at a candy-store on the other side of Route 4 to see if they’d gotten in the new issue of Mad. They had not. But they did have a month-old copy of a magazine called Creem. A girl on the cover balanced that ‘lude on her juicy red tongue. The publication appeared illicit and the drug seemed like a positive. I thumbed through and saw a photo of Alice Cooper alongside a topless blonde crowning him with a boa. Of course I ponied up three paper-route quarters for my first issue of Creem.
Behind my closed bedroom door, I listened to Alice’s metallic pop: “She wanted an Einstein but she got a Frankenstein,” he snottily growled about somebody’s disappointed mom (I related). I read articles about Humble Pie on the road, the downer that every kid wants to take and a wild NYC artist named Patti Smith who just put out a poetry book called Seventh Heaven. I plummeted down a rabbit hole that I have yet to emerge from. Alice Cooper rewired my brain and Creem – along with other titles like Rock Scene, tabloid Rolling Stone and the outrageous but short-lived teenage groupie bible called Star (in which Sunset Strip’s demimonde posed scantily clad and provided dating tips for pubescents in the hinterlands) – taught me everything that a kid hell-bent on alienation and debauchery, while brimming with writerly ambitions, needed to know.
With 2020’s release of a terrific documentary called Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine (which documents the rise and fall of the iconoclastic publication out of Detroit), 2022's publication of Lenny Kaye’s great memoir/pop-treatise Lightning Striking, and Almost Famous – director Cameron Crowe’s paean to rock writing and rock magazines – nearing its 25th anniversary, the moment is ripe for time-tripping back to an era when music mags mattered. Writers like Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches, Dave Marsh, Kaye himself and Richard Meltzer reminded me that I was not in possession of ridiculously questionable taste for digging “Diamond Dogs”, Slade and everything by the New York Dolls.
Alluringly, writers at the rock mags never came off as adults scribing for children. “I didn’t think of the readers as kids,” said Kaye, who went from writing for rock magazines to being something of a rock star in his own right as Patti Smith’s guitar player. “I just thought of them as people who were into music.” Growing up as a science-fiction obsessive, he added, “I was embroiled in fandom.”
As for myself, I knew I could never be like Alice Cooper. But, maybe, if I got lucky, I could be a little bit like Lester Bangs. He was the gonzo journalist of Creem – a guy who prepped for a Lou Reed interview thusly: “guzzling scotch by the case and chewing Valiums like Jujubes” – and got portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous. When aspiring rock writer William Miller, a character played by Patrick Fugit and modeled on Crowe (who wrote for Creem and Rolling Stone before going Hollywood), expressed gratitude that Bangs was home for a late-night heart-to-heart, Bangs replied, “I’m always home; I’m uncool.” As a kid whose after-school hours were best spent in his room, listening to Mott the Hoople records while reading magazines and plotting how to write for them, it’s a line of thinking that I was intuitively behind — long before Bangs dropped that wisdom in Crowe’s movie.
Jaan Uhelszki, one of the early writers at Creem (and now a key player in the magazine’s recently announced revival), assured me that I was not alone – nor was Bangs. “We’d be writing and editing late at night; music was always blasting on the office stereo, usually controlled by Lester,” she told me. Writers and readers “were all in a fraternity” – to the extent that she and Bangs would make late-night calls to super-fan readers who wrote letters to the editors – “and it was all organic. Dysfunction ran through us. That is what Creem was.”
Maybe it’s why the magazine – in which a drunken Charles Bukowski chronicled a Stones show and the tragically late Peter Laughner peppered his Modern Lovers review with a side-note about meeting a teenage speed addict on a bus and not being able to get it up for her because of his own speed habit – felt so reliable.
At a time when there was no internet or 24-hour pop-culture news-cycle, the rock mags were everything. They were a lifeline to worlds beyond New Jersey and each magazine had a unique personality and purpose.
Rolling Stone was serious and big-budget literary (hence, it turned me on to Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe and Williams S. Burroughs – a fantastic interview he did with David Bowie was titled “The Punk Meets the Godfather” – and that leapfrogged me to the Who’s “Quadrophenia”); Creem was the coolest and embraced me like one of the gang (Dave Marsh’s review of Iggy and the Stooges’ “Raw Power,” in which he wrote how the album’s maniacal centerpiece song “Search and Destroy” might derive from Iggy Pop watching the Vietnam War on TV every night, made me buy the album and fall hard for everything Iggy); Rock Scene with its stars-at-home pics was the school newspaper if the coolest kids in town happened to be Joey Ramone, Lou Reed and Patti Smith (if only). “We’d smoke pot, sit around a table and put it together over one or two weekends,” said Kaye, who was an editor at the publication helmed by Lisa Robinson, now Vanity Fair’s music supremo.
The most instantly impactful part of Rock Scene was Kaye’s sidebar called Correspondence Clinic, which published the home addresses of people looking for penpals. They included real live girls who actually got excited about Richard Hell concerts and didn’t think you were a freak for digging the Velvet Underground. I found my tribe scattered in small burgs across the United States. We shared our Patti Smith inspired poetry, gushed over the lasting merits of Blonde On Blonde, vented about how badly our towns sucked and gained cool points by having heard the new Sex Pistols single or read about the Clash in the Brit music weekly NME. When one of the girls told me she got a small swastika tattoo near her ankle, I overcame my Jewishness to not care. After all, her poetry was great, she encouraged mine and sent me a cool booklet she put together during her stint in a mental institution.
Sorry, but you’d be hard-pressed to meet girls like this in Elmwood Park. Years later I saw her playing keyboards for a cool band called Dangerous Birds (“Birds, as in girls?” I asked her; “No,” she replied, like in, pterodactyls”) and recognized her by her tattoo.
I still have Thom McAn shoeboxes full of penpal letters. Sometimes when I am feeling blue or nostalgic, I’ll pluck out a missive at random, read it and remember where I was at the time. It’s all been goosed up by the fact that I recently retrieved cartons of old Creems and Rolling Stones and punk fanzines like Slash and New York Rocker that had been stashed since the ‘80s in a crawl space above my parents’ garage. They are now sorted and loaded into cubbies inside my home office. They catalogue the things that shaped my brain: the first issue of Punk magazine with Lou Reed turned into a comic book monster on the cover and initial exposure to the Ramones inside (I thought the band was a joke and called the magazine’s office, hoping to be let in on it), Uhelszki writing in Creem about stunt-performing on stage with Kiss, Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” excerpt that originally ran in Rolling Stone – complete with outre Ralph Steadman illustrations. Plus the cool ads (there was a tee-shirt company supposedly helmed by a shaggy haired kid who called himself “Jay Gatsby, the most wasted teenager alive”), endless reviews, limitless possibilities, wild photos like the one of a stoned-looking Keith Richards posing under a sign pleading for a drug free America.
They got me going. So much so that by the early 1980s I was writing for magazines myself (and even managed to get a story into Creem, about a Chicago hardcore band called Naked Raygun, right before the mag folded) and deploying lessons learned from long afternoons in my bedroom, reading pieces by journalists who had no idea of the inspirations and educations they were throwing down. Done in by MTV and later the internet – “We stopped being the conduits between rock stars and readers,” said Uhelszki. “We became less essential” – rock mags were losing their all-consuming importance by then.
I’m thrilled to have been a passenger on the ride up. However, with seemingly everything in the world (including back issues of Creem) at our fingertips, it’s hard to argue with the logic of Lenny Kaye. “All things outgrow themselves,” he told me about the moribund state of rock ‘n’ roll magazines, which began declining back when the Internet was still known as ARPANET. “Creem was edging into cliché. Music changed and Rolling Stone outgrew itself. You can’t have nostalgia. Everything outgrows itself. That’s how you get change. Your crew moves on. And I like that.”
As do I. But, still, I can’t fight the thrill of thumbing through a nearly 50-year-old issue from when rock mags ruled the earth or randomly snagging a teenage penpal’s letter out of the shoeboxes. And I wouldn’t want to.