Rock journalist Jaan Uhelszki laughs as she describes a friend’s skepticism about life and work at Creem magazine during its glory days in the ’70s.

“He keeps telling me, ‘All you Creem people romanticize it, you always make it seem like it was much better than it was,’” Uhelszki says. “I say, ‘No, it really was that good.’”

With the release of the new documentary “Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine” on Friday, Aug. 7, Uhelszki — who co-wrote the film with director Scott Crawford and co-produced it with J.J. Kramer, the son of founder Barry Kramer — puts the proof on film.

The movie, which blends archival footage and interviews with rock star fans such as R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, tells the unlikely story of a rag-tag band of music lovers in Detroit who set out to make a magazine and ended up making history.

Creem was unlike any other music publication for most of its 20-year run. It championed bands other publications initially ignored, from Detroit faves like Alice Cooper and Iggy and the Stooges to early punk and New Wave heroes like the Clash and Blondie.

And it threw wide its doors to all manner of misfits in the playhouse of rock ‘n’ roll journalism. Writers and editors such as Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Ben Edmonds, and Uhelszki were staffers as it took off. Freelancers included punk poet Patti Smith and teenager Cameron Crowe, who years later wrote his friendship with Bangs into the movie “Almost Famous.”

“We honestly thought we were like the bands,” Uhelszki says of the irreverent in-your-face attitude that Creem often displayed. “We had that anti-Rolling Stone-ness where you didn’t put stars on the pedestal, you drag them off.

“I think we loved rock bands so much, and we loved the whole idea of rock and roll and the people who made it that that was our way of showing love or actually making them be more real.”

Lester’s Legacy

Scott Crawford was 12 years old when he started a fanzine to cover Washington D.C. punk rock in the early ’80s. Back then, zines were the best way to discover emerging music scenes, and many of them referenced a magazine he did not know.

“Lester (Bangs)’s name kept coming up as well as Creem,” Crawford says. “And I just was like, ‘What is Creem? Who is Lester?’”

Everything clicked when he found a used bookstore that had years of back issues of Creem for 50 cents apiece.

“My father bought me just a whole ton of them and I read them from front to back, always looking for Lester’s stuff,” Crawford says. “And finally I began to realize, ‘OK, this is what all the talk’s about.’”

When Crawford launched the music magazine Harp in the early ’00s, he hired as many former Creem writers as he could. Uhelszki was senior editor for most of the magazine’s seven-year run.

After the success of Crawford’s documentary “Salad Days,” which explored that D.C. punk scene, he approached Uhelszki with the idea to do a documentary on Creem.

She was initially reluctant but helped Crawford connect with J.J. Kramer, who inherited Creem as a 4-year-old when his dad died in 1981, but before long Uhelszki signed on too.

Creem Rises

Barry Kramer launched Creem in 1969 above a record store-head shop he owned in a rough-and-tumble Detroit neighborhood, andit was a loosely structured outfit in the early years.

Editor Dave Marsh was 19, a college student, when he signed on for the $5-a-week pay Kramer offered the staff. Uhelszki was just shy of her 18th birthday when she talked her way into a job.

“I started in October 1970, Lester and I started at the same time,” she says. “I was working as the Coca-Cola girl at the Grande Ballroom. Right next to it there was a kiosk that Barry’s employees ran that sold papers and Creem.”

She’d give them free drinks and pester them to tell Kramer the Coca-Cola girl wanted to write for Creem, which worked, sort of, landing her a job not as a writer but as “the subscription kid,” she says.

Marsh, who knew she wanted to write, ended up tricking her into her first piece for the magazine, inviting her along to a press conference where Smokey Robinson was to announce his retirement one afternoon.

“He called me that night and goes, ‘Where’s your article?’” Uhelszki says. “I go, ‘What are you talking about?’ He fooled me into writing. I think he knew I was my own worst enemy.”

A few years later, Uhelszki delivered one of her best-known pieces, inspired by the memorable Maidenform bra advertisements where models woke from dreams in which they’d ventured bra-clad and shirtless into unlikely public spaces.

“I thought what great idea for that: ‘I dreamed I was onstage with Kiss in my Maidenform bra,’” Uhelszki says of what became an August 1975 story in which the guys in the band gave her a Kiss makeover and had her join them on stage for a song.

Detroit Rock City

The Kiss story shows up in the film, and will likely appear in the 50th-anniversary commemorative edition of Creem that Uhelszki and her skeptical friend are wrapping up a Nov. 1 release.

But the movie has many more wonderful stories from pranks and arguments inside the Creem offices to the significance Creem played for a generation of future rock stars and writers.

Some of the best material came thanks to the Detroit PBS station’s decision around 1970 to do a story on this brand-new magazine in town. Not only did the black-and-white film footage survive five decades, it gives viewers glimpses of the office, staff, and an editorial round table conversation.

“When I saw that footage I said, ‘OK, this is a done deal, we can build a whole doc around just this footage,’” Crawford says. “This footage helps visually put you in the environment that they worked in, to the point where there’s actually a tour of the offices.”

So how did Creem rise to become the No. 2 rock magazine in the nation behind Rolling Stone for a decade or more?

Crawford thinks the fact it was in Detroit, not New York City or Los Angeles, was significant.

“The rock scene was really becoming white-hot at that point in the late ’60s, early ’70s,” he says of Detroit’s shift from Motown into hard rock and proto-punk at the time. “I think there’s a certain Midwestern sort of chip on your shoulder attitude that kind of permeated the pages of the magazine.”

Uhelszki points to the fearlessness of a staff that made up the rules as they went along.

“I don’t even think we had the awareness we were inventing something,” she says. “It’s like ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ where all these people start making symbols in their mashed potatoes. It was like all of us were having this shared experience in different places and we all came together.”

Both agreed that the main thing for Creem was how much its staff unequivocally loved and unabashedly celebrated rock and roll.

“There’s this Lester Bangs’ quote I found when I was working on the documentary,” Uhelszki says. “He says: ‘Don’t ask me why I obsessively look to rock ‘n’ roll bands for some kind of model for a better society. I guess it’s just that I glimpsed something beautiful in a flashbulb moment once, and perhaps mistaking it for prophecy, have been seeking its fulfillment ever since.’

“I think there was some revelation for all of us,” she says. “Like in the music there was some kind of code that special ears could hear. Or it had meaning, but it had the same meaning for all of us, and there we all were together.”

LA Daily News