“313!” says Jaan Uhelszki, who’s answering the phone from California but forever is a child of the Motor City.
“I haven’t lived there in a zillion years, but I feel like I wake up in Detroit every morning. You just never stop being a Detroiter,” says the co-writer and producer of a new documentary about Creem, the city’s greatest gift to rock journalism.
“Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll Magazine” captures the rise and fall and defiantly irreverent essence of the magazine launched in 1969 in the Motor City’s gritty Cass Corridor. It was a publication that cared passionately about music, rejected mainstream styles, never took itself too seriously and could be rude, juvenile and sexist in its excesses.
The movie premieres Friday at virtual screenings that help support venues like the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Cinema Detroit and Hamtramck’s Film Lab and events like the Freep Film Festival.
They don’t make rock docs about playing it safe, and taking leaps of faith was part of the Creem credo. The articles often were more like spoken-word poetry or literary arguments than traditional journalism. The staffers were a tight-knit group who at one point moved together to a house in rural Walled Lake and formed a sort of magazine commune where, as Uhelszki puts it, there was nobody else around for miles and miles..
And, oh what a staff it was. The film paints vivid portraits of the legendary Lester Bangs (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 movie hit “Almost Famous”), venerated critic Dave Marsh and pioneering female rock journalist Uhelszki, who was studying journalism at Wayne State University when she started working for Creem.
More: WATCH: Creem magazine documentary delivers a real Detroit rock ‘n’ roll story
More: Music writer Ben Edmonds dies after cancer battle
Uhelszki says the magazine offered a level playing field for anyone, regardless of gender, who wanted to write about rock. As publisher, Barry Kramer could be volatile, but he treated the women at Creem as well or as poorly as he did the men — and he promoted them
Recalls Uhelszki, who started out in the subscription department, “He told me I was a terrible secretary, so he was going to kick me upstairs and give me a writing job.”
One of Uhelszki’s most memorable assignments was appearing onstage with Kiss in the band’s full makeup look for a 1975 story with the headline “I Dreamed I Was Onstage With Kiss in My Maidenform Bra.”
Although Creem was immersed in the testosterone-fueled world of rock, it became a forum for many talented women writers, from Uhelszki to Roberta Cruger, Lisa Robinson and Susan Whitall, a former Detroit News staffer and author of the books “Women of Motown” and 2018’s “Joni on Joni: Interviews and Encounters with Joni Mitchell.”
And it was the women who were more willing to ask the awkward questions, according to Uhelszki. For instance, she recalls asking Kiss members: “Doesn’t it itch when you have that makeup on?”
“I think females are much more observational, and I think that sensitivity, that attention to detail, that particular point of view that we all brought was one of the things that elevated Creem,” she says.
Working at the magazine led to close friendships resembling those of “old war buddies,” says Uhelszki. The movie does a vivid job of showing the clashing egos along with the mutual love and respect.
“It really bonded us for life,” she says.
Remembering former Creem editor Ben Edmonds, the who died in 2016, she says: “He took me on my first interview and he taught me how to make an omelet.” She still dreams a few times each year about the late Bangs, who has been gone since the early 1980s.
“They live and breathe and inhabit my waking hours, even now.”
The documentary doubles as a quick history of Detroit’s music stature as the hometown of Berry Gordy’s empire and top rockers like Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, and Bob Seger. But one of the secrets to Creem’s attitude was that the writers didn’t think rock stars were really different from them. According to Uhelszki, they never put the people they covered on a pedestal.