Chicago Sun-Times Excerpt




Copyright 2000 Chicago Sun-Times and the author



Lester Bangs arrived in Detroit in late 1971 wearing his goofy grin and looking like a cartoon bumpkin. Creem magazine's new assistant editor sported long sideburns, a bushy mustache, and the same brown suit coat he'd worn when he visited Rolling Stone in 1969. His overstuffed valise was literally held together with a rope.

When MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer encountered Bangs during a party at a Cass Avenue loft, the musician's first instinct was to thrash the guy who had nearly ruined his career. ``We were used to getting attacked for our political stance, but he hit me where I lived,'' Kramer said. ``He said I couldn't tune my guitar and couldn't play''

Kramer approached Bangs, introduced himself, and waited for the flash of recognition that would make the blows to follow that much sweeter. But instead of brawling, the two wound up drinking arm in arm, just two more drunken buddies at the local Bohemian watering hole. Twenty-five years later the guitarist still wasn't sure how that happened. ``It took a lot of courage on his part,'' Kramer said. ``Rarely do people like to admit they were wrong.''

Bangs not only admitted it, he'd been born again. Shortly after his arrival he saw the MC5 in concert at a Detroit dive called the Frutcellar. ``They weren't just fantastic, they wuz cataclysmic, and it's only now that I completely and finally understand why so many people lose their cool and objectivity over this band,'' he wrote.

``It felt like vindication,'' Kramer said. ``Once be said, `Damn, the MC5 really are what they said they are,' what was there to argue about? We considered him an ally.''

Such was the mind-set in the city that Bangs always called ``Deeetroit!''

``The whole town is like one huge mouth where all the teeth rotted out and no dentist has been 'round for years nor is one ever gonna come again because nobody cares,'' Bangs wrote. Yet the natives took a perverse pride in it all. They sported bumper stickers heralding "Detroit, The Murder City," and when newcomers wondered why nobody cared enough to tow away the many rusted-out junkers abandoned on the sides of the highways, locals pointed out that at least they were all American cars.

John Lennon nailed the vibe when be performed in nearby Ann Arbor in the fall of 1971 at a concert to free jailed White Panther Party leader and former MC5 manager John Sinclair. ``Apathy isn't it,'' the former Beatle said. ``We can all do something. So Flower Power didn't work. So what? We start again!''

Now Creem was at the center of a burgeoning new music community. ``Detroit is such a unique hotbed of rock 'n' roll because the kids are so deeply involved in it; rock 'n' roll is their whole lifestyle and they know no other,'' the magazine's editors wrote in an early mission statement. "We are a rock 'n' roll magazine, with all that that implies. Our culture is a rock 'n' roll culture. We are rock 'n' roll people.''

A few months after Bangs arrived, all of that was boiled down to a few not-so-humble words on Creem's masthead: ``America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine.''

* * *

Early in Bangs's tenure, Creem was housed in a three-story cast-iron loft building at 3729 Cass Avenue, near the epicenter of the 1967 riots. Publisher Barry Kramer (no relation to Wayne) managed Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. The band rehearsed on the top floor, rocking the building with the strains of ``Devil With a Blue Dress On.'' Back issues piled up on the stairs, and a demolished typewriter sat atop a pedestal on the second-floor landing, symbolizing the magazine's approach to journalism.

According to various accounts, editor Dave Marsh had gotten ticked off and thrown it out the window; Marsh had gotten ticked off, thrown it at Kramer, and it had sailed out the window; or, most popular, the publisher had gotten ticked off, thrown it at Marsh, and it had smashed into the wall after narrowly missing Marsh's head.

A few weeks after Bangs moved to Detroit from his native California, Creem relocated. The loft building had been robbed several times, but Kramer had vowed to stay put until the day a group of black gangsters stormed into the office brandishing automatic weapons. Finally he followed the many white-owned businesses that had fled the city's urban center.

Kramer bought a 120-acre farm at Thirteen Mile and Haggerty roads, 30 miles northwest of the city. Just barren and remote enough to qualify as ``the country,'' the small town of Walled Lake struck Bangs as ``Dogpatch without the charm.'' The publisher and his wife lived in the nicer of two farmhouses. The second house, a crumbling two-bedroom dump, sat a quarter of a mile away on a little hill overlooking a desolate field. It served as the magazine's office and home for the rest of the staff.

Although they shared some musical interests, new roommates Marsh and Bangs were a study in contrasts--physically (Bangs towered over Marsh), personally (Bangs was slovenly; Marsh fastidious), and politically. ``Marsh tries to tell me that even though I call the New Left rank I'm actually `the most political writer around and don't even know it,' '' Bangs wrote. ``I generally hold to the opinion that the whole Movement is a load of [crap].''

When White Panther leader John Sinclair was finally released from jail, Bangs joked that they ought to hold a concert to send him back. The war in Vietnam raged on despite, Henry Kissinger's announcement that peace was at hand, and Richard M. Nixon was headed toward an easy reelection. Cynicism seemed to be a reasonable response to the times.

``Marsh saw us as foot soldiers in the counterculture revolution and Lester just saw us as bozos on the bus,'' wrote Creem staffer Jaan Uhelszki. ``We used to say Creem was a cross between Mad magazine and Esquire. Marsh and Lester were largely responsible for maintaining that delicate balance between the absurd and the profane.''

Never an easy balance to strike, it was especially difficult at Walled Lake because the staff lived and worked together twenty-four/seven. There were no secrets in the tiny farm house, and the staffers had even less privacy than they knew.

In the spring of 1999 the FBI responded to a Freedom of Information Act request and declassified a thirty-page file on Barry Kramer and Creem. According to these documents, the Detroit field office suspected that the magazine's office was a potential ``safe house'' for members of the Weather Underground. The Bureau began to monitor Creem's phone records and subscription lists, and from March through July 1972, agents occasionally hid in the woods around the house, peering through binoculars as loud rock music wafted into the brush.

Unaware of this cloak-and-dagger intrigue, Bangs lay awake at night listening to Marsh and his girlfriend, making love. ``Go, Dave, go!'' Bangs cheered. Not surprisingly, tensions mounted, and it was not unusual to find the editors tangling in a brawl.

* * *

The situation at Walled Lake might have been hellish for the staff, but the pressures resulted in an extraordinary magazine the embodied the spirit and energy of rock 'n' roll while refusing to take itself or anything else too seriously. ``Creem is a raspberry in the face of culture,'' Bangs told a visiting reporter, ``and in a sense it's a raspberry in the face of itself.''

``Unlike Rolling Stone, which is a bastion of San Francisco counter-culture rock-as-art orthodoxy, Creem is committed to a pop aesthetic,'' wrote Ellen Willis, the rock critic for The New Yorker. ``It speaks to fans who consciously value rock as an expression of urban teenage culture.'' The cornerstones of that culture were of course rock 'n' roll, drugs, and sex.

Like a hung-over reveler on New Year's Day, rock seemed to be suffering from a post-'60s malaise. The pop charts were dominated by the likes of ``A Horse with No Name,'' ``Joy to the World,'' and ``Song Sung Blue,'' while the allegedly ``progressive'' FM radio stations lumbered under the weight of bloated, self-important artistes.

James Taylor, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jethro Tull, and Chicago were the enemy, and Creem ceded respectful coverage of them to Rolling Stone. It found its champions elsewhere: in Detroit via the Stooges, the MC5, Bob Seger, and Mitch Ryder; in the bargain bins with Bangs's beloved garage bands; in maverick individualists such as Marc Bolan, Leon Russell, Dr. John, and Johnny Winter, and in the warped white blues of the nascent genre heavy metal.

The magazine was just as emphatic about its taste in drugs. It ran cover stories on ``Sopor Nation,'' the new mass of kids booked on Quaaludes and reds; ``The Tobacco Companies and Dope''; and ``A Luridly Complete Compendium of Street Drugs.'' Sex appeared in more subtle ways. Bangs talked the Jefferson Airplane's Grace Slick into baring a breast for her appearance for a "Creem Profile." He also reviewed a new porno movie called "Deep Throat," declaring, ``It resembles such prior hotcha classics as Tropic of Cancer in that it's very funny, while its sexiness, not to mention sensuality, is entirely questionable."

In some ways Bangs was one of the more enlightened men at Creem. He listened to the women complain about work and their boyfriends and advised them to stand up for themselves. In August 1972, the leading journal of the feminist movement published his call for female equality in rock. ``Clearly we need an all-woman rock 'n' roll band that can create the kind of loud, savage, mesmerizing music that challenges men on their own ground,'' he wrote in Ms.

Bangs complained constantly about his own love life, or the lack thereof. He had brief flings with a pretty young Canadian girl and a married woman who later told him that she was a lesbian. These encounters did little to alleviate his growing loneliness. "I keep hoping something, uh, meaningful is gonna come along,'' he wrote. ``Maybe its just feeling sorry for myself, but if I can't find a good woman to love I figure I might as well be dead.''

Increasingly the writer sought escape via a jug of Gallo port, a handful of Quaaludes, and the Dionysian roar of heavy metal. His two-part love letter to Black Sabbath has been credited with naming the sound that set millions of heads a-banging, but ``Bring Your Mother to the Gas Chamber: Are Black Sabbath Really the New- Shamans?'' never actually used the words "heavy metal." Wherever the genre's name originated, Bangs certainly embraced its din.

Black Sabbath was a band of working-class Birmingham toughs who merged horror-movie imagery with an equally ominous sound. Bangs hailed them as ``the John Miltons of rock 'n' roll." In the months that followed, he also championed the hammering rhythms, wailing guitars, and ululating vocals of Deep Purple, Dust, Black Pearl, and Grand Funk Railroad, all of whom were despised by other critics. ``As its detractors have always claimed, heavy metal is nothing more than a bunch of noise,'' he wrote. ``It is not music, it's distortion--and that is precisely why its adherents find it appealing.''

Bangs's other favorite album at the time was the Rolling Stones' murky new epic, "Exile on Main Street." Initially he hated the album, calling it ``a mass of admittedly scalding gruel'' and ``the worst studio album the Stones have ever made.'' By the time that the review hit the newsstands in the summer of 1972, he'd reversed himself. ``Hard to hear at first, the precision and fury behind the murk ensure that you'll come back, hearing more with each playing,'' he wrote in January 1973. ``'Exile' is about casualties, and partying in the face of them. The party is obvious. `The casualties are inevitable.''

The critic's second take on the album came as part of a piece on what the Stones had meant to Bangs throughout his life, and it ran in a special issue devoted to the group. It also featured a memorable essay on the band's sex appeal penned by a writer named Patti Smith.

Raised in suburban New Jersey, Smith was just beginning to earn a reputation in New York as a poet. She regularly sent poems and reviews to Creem. Her primary links to the rock world were through her boyfriend, Blue Oyster Cult guitarist Allen Lanier, and her pal, guitarist and rock writer Lenny Kaye. But Smith had big plans, and in the summer of 1972 she traveled to Michigan to meet her editors.

Smith and a group of Creem staffers went to see Randy Newman in concert at Pine Knob. ``First act is this dork named Jim Croce who looks like Frank Zappa and sings like James Taylor,'' Bangs wrote. ``You don't mess around with Jim--Eat my wongo, Stupe! In separate parts of the audience both me and Patti are making ourselves thoroughly obnoxious yelling out things like `Where's Bob Dylan?' and me braying like a jackass: `I'VE SEEN FAHR AND I'VE SEEN RAAAAAAIIIIN!'''

Before returning to New York, Smith set Bangs up with one of her best friends, a photographer at a local suburban newspaper. For a while, Bangs thought it was true love. The woman sat next to him on the couch during a party at Walled Lake and announced that she'd heard him doing a stint as a guest DJ on WABX-FM. "The records you were playing--total trash--I just said to myself, `Wow this guy really knows,''' she said. ``I was going to call you up and say: `I'm yours, baby, take me,' but I chickened out.'''

Bangs couldn't believe his good fortune. `These kinda things don't happen to me every day!'' he wrote. ``At first we were together like every night and the only time we didn't see each other was when we were at work. That lasted for about a week. Then the second week we saw each other about every other night and I told her, without being sappy, that I loved her.''

It was too much too soon. The relationship ended, and the writer returned to his usual routine. His roommates often woke up in the middle of the night to find sprawled in the old barber's chair in the living room, an empty bottle at his feet and Black Sabbath's "Master of Reality" spinning on the turntable. Even through the headphones, the volume was so loud that nobody else in the house could sleep, but for Bangs the clatter was as soothing as a lullaby, and he smiled blissfully as he snored.