If CREEM was, as every cover touted, “America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine,” then Boy Howdy! The Story of CREEM Magazine, which recently debuted at the SXSW Film Festival, is our nation’s only rock-mag documentary. Director Scott Crawford captures the beloved publication’s notorious irreverence with some help from famous fans, but it’s the stories from those who worked at CREEM during its heyday—like senior editor Jaan Uhelszki, who co-wrote the film with Crawford—that get to the heart of a magazine that helped launch the careers of a generation of rock writers.
The doc brings to life CREEM’s biggest personalities who often clashed over their passions for music, journalism and, of course, the money that kept the whole operation afloat. Publisher Barry Kramer fired the founding editor Tony Reay shortly after launching CREEM in 1969 and brought on writers like Dave Marsh, Lester Bangs, Sylvie Simmons, Cameron Crowe, Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, Chuck Eddy, Lisa Robinson and Uhelszki, who once wrote about getting on stage with KISS in full make-up.
Uhelszki got her start for the magazine as a teenager in Detroit, when she was working at the Grande Ballroom as a “Coca-Cola girl.” Next to her was a kiosk that sold copies of CREEM. “I said, ‘If I give you a free Coke, can I write for you?” she recalls. “That’s how it started—a lot of free Cokes.”
She moved her way up the masthead and looks back on the experience as a special moment in the history of rock journalism.
“It was the early days of Big Rock,” she says. “There was no one covering them—rock criticism was in its infancy. So the stars would come to us because they wanted to be covered. People showed up at the office all the time. So we never thought that they were gods. We always talked to them like they were common people. So that barrier didn’t exist. You could make fun of them, they’d make fun back, and it would be a different kind of interview. So that spirit of fun and irreverence people talk about, it’s really a product of the times.”
Kramer, who died in 1981, could be a difficult boss, moving the operation from Detroit to a 120-acre commune in rural Walled Lake, Mich., where the staff both lived and worked for a few years. For Kramer’s son, J.J., a producer on the film who was just four-years-old when his father died of a nitrous oxide overdose, the filmmaking process was something of a chance to learn more about his dad.
“It was the center of the story,” Uhelzski says. “It was a man who didn’t know his father searching for his father. And the way to search for his father was through the magazine, what he created. J.J. got so much information from these interviews. What you see is only like an infinitesimal part of what actually was recorded, but J.J. listened to all of those. So J.J. now has a different picture of his dad, and he’s not the same man at the end of this film as he was at the beginning. It’s the unexpected benefit.”
Crawford and his team also unearthed footage that no one knew existed of the CREEM staff goofing around in the office. “That’s what I love about doing documentary projects, when you’re looking for archival stuff,” he says. “It was like the last one I did. I found footage that I’d never seen of myself being interviewed on the street outside of a punk show when I was 12, and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ That was like gold. There’s footage of Lester Bangs and no one’s ever seen.”
“Oh my God, it’s so hilarious it makes me miss him even more,” Uhelzski says of Bangs.
Crawford is no stranger to the world of music magazines. He started reading fanzines as a kid that would often reference CREEM. After digging into old issues, he began creating his own fanzines, each one a little more professional than the last, until launching Harp magazine in 2001. The magazine was in print until 2008, when it moved online, eventually evolving into Blurt.com. “One of the goals I had while doing Harp was to hire every writer that I’d ever read in CREEM—I wanted them on that masthead. And I was really able to do that for the most part.”
After transitioning from the print world to digital, Crawford left publishing for filmmaking, directing a documentary about the D.C. punk scene called Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington D.C. For Boy Howdy!, he interviewed fellow Creem fans Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alice Cooper, Michael Stipe, Gene Simmons and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, who says in film, “I lived and breathed by what was printed in CREEM Magazine.”
After its Austin premiere, Crawford will be taking Boy Howdy! to a number of other festivals and screenings, including Asbury Park, N.J., the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and a festival in the magazine’s hometown of Detroit. Watch the film’s trailer below: