A Bexley lawyer's quest to honor the influential rock magazine-and the father he never knew
A Bexley lawyer's quest to honor the influential rock magazine-and the father he never knew
Once upon a time, there were freaks, and there were straights. The freaks were proud, and the straights, being straight, were clueless. In such a climate,CREEM magazine thrived. This did not last long. Call 1980 the fault line-November and December specifically. Reagan was elected, Lennon got shot, and we all had a merry Christmas.
Seven weeks after a Beatle was killed on a New York sidewalk, Barry Kramer died of a drug overdose in a Michigan hotel room, pretty much takingCREEMwith him. It wasn't a big deal at a time when counterculture figures were famous for hotel room overdoses. But as you'd imagine it was a very big deal for Barry Kramer's 4-year-old son.
J.J. Kramer doesn't fit his father's definition of rock 'n' roll: "naive, rude, adolescent, simple and simplistic," as defined in a manifesto co-written by Barry Kramer,CREEM's founder, in the magazine's one-year anniversary issue in April 1970. Instead, J.J. lives in a beautiful Bexley house on a beautiful Bexley street with his beautiful family. He's senior counsel for intellectual property in the Abercrombie & Fitch legal department. "It's almost that I'm the black sheep of the family," he says.
Yet J.J. has fought like a mongoose for a decade to reclaimCREEM's legacy and somehow connect with a father he never knew. His documentary, "Boy Howdy! The CREEM Story," is the fruit of that labor, the definitive history of his dad's other baby.
TheCREEMstory is about rock 'n' roll, Detroit, drugs, dysfunction and a brilliant cast of alienated dropouts who fancied themselves writers even if they didn't know squat about journalism. At the center was Barry Kramer, who spent $1,200 to start a rock magazine in the Detroit head shop where he sold records along with the pipes and bongs, a place where rock bands and their fans felt at home.
As Barry and his cohorts wrote, "There is nothing else, at all, here to do. If you're not into rock 'n' roll you're not into anything." Detroit's rock scene had "a nearly symbiotic relationship between the bands and their audiences."
And what bands: Alice Cooper, Grand Funk Railroad, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, the Amboy Dukes (featuring Ted Nugent), Bob Seger, the Stooges and the MC5. Michiganrocked, man. Hard. Much harder than the meandering acid-fueled jams (think Grateful Dead) from the West Coast. If you're going to San Francisco, wear some flowers in your hair; if you're going to Detroit, best bring a hardhat.CREEMpromised to reflect that and thus drew an amazing array of literary talent: Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Robert Christgau, Nick Tosches, Greil Marcus, Jaan Uhelszki, Cameron Crowe, Lisa Robinson, Roberta Kruger.
Barry Kramer "had a talented group of people, and he let them run free," says Bangs biographer Jim DeRogatis. Barry "was our dysfunctional father," says Uhelszki. A Detroit kid, she started atCREEMselling subscriptions then started writing pieces like "I Dreamed I Was Onstage with KISS in My Maidenform Bra." "We were all dropouts from somewhere" who loved rock and wanted to write, she says. "We were like the Stooges, we were learning to play our instruments onstage."
Barry may not have known publishing, but he had a native instinct for handling people, says Barry's widow and J.J.'s mother, Connie Kramer. He would tolerate just about anything to keep his collection of rebellious writers happy, even paying for Lester Bangs' psychiatrist to keep his work in the magazine. The result was unlike anything else in the music scene. Consider Bangs' take on Lou Reed'sMetal Machine Music:
One day in the summer of 1975 I awoke with a hangover and put onMetal Machine Musicimmediately. I played it all day and through a party which lasted all that night, in the course of which I got shitfaced again on cognac and beer, broke about half my record collection, punched out the front screen door in my house …
That wasCREEM. No sacred cows: they'd even poke fun at John Lennon. (Lennon was tickled. He sent Barry a funny postcard with aCREEMcartoon mocking him pasted on the back and was often seen wearing aCREEMT-shirt. "Yoko sent us a note when J.J. was born," Connie says.) You would not see any mockery of John Lennon in the pages ofRolling Stone.
Rolling StoneandCREEMwere not exactly competitors.RSwas bigger, more popular and, as the '70s wore on, it took on trappings consistent with the ambition of publisher Jann Wenner-slick covers, cozy celebrity profiles of movie stars along with cozy celebrity profiles of the rock aristocracy.CREEM-cheap covers, cheaper pages-billed itself as "America's Only Rock Magazine." There was no envy ofRolling Stoneon theCREEMstaff.
"We always felt a little sorry for them," Uhelszki says, for laboring under the heavy hand of Wenner, who blanched at the thought of a mere writer jeopardizing ad revenue or his chance to be friends with Mick Jagger.CREEMwriters had a motto: "Rock stars are not our friends" (an idea memorialized in Cameron Crowe's autobiographical movie "Almost Famous"). Barry Kramer believed in the Detroit creed that a vast gulf between bands and fans was the kiss of death for rock 'n' roll. "We were very egalitarian," says Uhelszki. But Kramer was still the man in charge.
Whenever he met people of stature-a star, a recording company executive, whatever-he would always greet them with the same Oedipal profanity. "He was constantly testing everyone and everything," Connie says. "People who worked for Barry loved him, and they hated him. He was a master at manipulation. Barry was brilliant-he was, however, badly damaged. He lost his father at a young age. He had demons, real demons."
AsCREEMpeaked in the mid- and late-'70s (at one pointBillboardmagazine offered to buyCREEMfor "a million-plus," Connie says, but he turned it down), Barry's demons and drug use started to get the better of him. "Barry's problem was that when it really became a success, it kind of immobilized him."
Barry and Connie separated, then divorced, and he was living in a hotel when he put a plastic bag over his head to inhale the nitrous oxide that killed him. Connie, who'd been doing ad sales and promotion for the magazine, took over and keptCREEMrunning for a few years, but it wasn't the same. "When he died the magazine died," she says. And there was the matter of their 4-year-old son, J.J.
"I had a lot of issues with drugs in his early years. He was, early on, raised by his [maternal] grandparents," Connie says. "He had a rough situation. I don't know how he survived."
"When my dad died, things were not going well," says J.J. His mom's family was well-off, living in upscale Bloomfield, Michigan, and gave him stability and support, he says, while his mom tried to get her act together. He doesn't have any memory of Barry. "I remember being at the funeral. Mostly I go by the pictures." (Not that being the son of Barry and Connie Kramer wasn't cool: His godmother was Gilda Radner, and he remembers his mom taking him onstage atSaturday Night Liveto meet the Coneheads.)
There'd be no "turn on, tune in, drop out" for J.J. On his parents and their drug history: "It may have scared me straight," he says. After graduating from Michigan State University he got his law degree from Emory University, moved to New York, embarked on a legal career and met his future wife, Sherri. And he started thinking about his dad's legacy. Sherri's brother was a huge fan ofCREEM, J.J. says. "His roommate had a leather jacket that had actually belonged to my dad. Six months later I was at a wedding in the family, and he gave me the jacket."
He was always curious about his dad, Connie says. "Over the past 10, 15 years his interest in his dad really grew." He wasn't alone. Others were thinking about aCREEMrevival as well.
In 1985, Connie soldCREEMand its intellectual property rights to Arnold Levitt, who managed to keep the magazine alive, albeit in diminished form (think '80s big-hair bands) for a couple more years. In 2001, Levitt licensed theCREEMrights to Robert Matheu, a formerCREEMphotographer who wanted eventually to restart the magazine. When the five-year agreement expired, Matheu didn't have the cash to complete the deal. Enter J.J. Kramer, who invested in Matheu's plan as a way to align himself with his dad's old magazine.
Long story made short: Matheu's deal fell apart, and lawsuits ensued. J.J.'s intellectual property specialty would come in handy ("just a coincidence," he says). In 2007 J.J. learned Matheu was about to release aCREEMretrospective in book form. Incensed, he sought an injunction to halt publication, but the book came out anyway.
More strife and more lawsuits followed, and now, J.J. says, he and a partner have the trademarks and the rights toCREEM: "I'm in the final stages of putting an agreement in place," he says. "We will finally, under one umbrella, have a holding company forCREEM's intellectual property."
J.J. was almost ready to pull up stakes and head for Detroit to immerse himself inCREEMlore when Jaan Uhelszki heard from Connie that J.J. was hellbent on reclaimingCREEM's legacy. Uhelszki put J.J. together with Scott Crawford, publisher of the music magHARPand director of the documentary "Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, D.C." With J.J.'s blessing, Crawford put together a trailer for theCREEMdocumentary and turned to Kickstarter for funding; they surpassed their $100,000 goal last summer. It wouldn't have worked without J.J.'s presence, Crawford says. "The fact that my family's involved and that Jaan is involved brings a lot of credibility to the project," J.J. says. December 2017 is the target date for release.
Uhelszki says she's struck by J.J.'s smarts and determination: "It's funny, coming from such eccentric people-I think J.J.'s a reaction to his parents' messy brilliance."
"I think J.J.'s going to make a great documentary," Connie says. "It's about closure, it's about the need to find out who his dad was." She pauses. "It's sad. So many people I would love for him to talk to are dead."