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Creem magazine’s wild misfit days of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll

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The office of Creem magazine was as unruly as the music that its writers covered. One day, when local hero Iggy Pop paid a visit to the mag’s Detroit headquarters, publisher/founder Barry Kramer sneaked up behind the proto-punk and dumped a trashcan full of garbage on his head. Then Kramer inexplicably exclaimed, “Hey, motherf - - ker! Did you forget your manners?”

Joan Jett once showed up, outraged and intending to kick the ass of critic Rick Johnson who decimated the Runaways’ first album (she assumes that he slipped out a back door). A pre-fame Patti Smith frequently hung out there on a more peaceful campaign: selling the staff on running her poems. They did, in September 1971, and she responded a couple of issues later with a letter that read in part, “When I’m real famous, I’ll always remember the people who stuck their neck out when I was a punk. People like you guys . . .”

Years later, Michael Stipe would see a stunning picture of the newly famous Smith in the publication’s pages. As he recounts in “Creem: America’s Only Rock N’ Roll Magazine,” a new documentary about the magazine’s rise and fall, premiering Friday on Virtual Cinema, “My entire life shifted dramatically. I found [my gang] in Creem magazine.”

Launched in 1969 by Kramer, a hip entrepreneur who owned four headshops in the Motor City, Creem was a shoestring operation embraced by kids like Stipe because the magazine spoke directly to them. “It’s uncanny how much we were like our readers,” Jaan Uhelszki, an early staffer at Creem and a writer/producer of the movie, told The Post. “We had no other place to go and letters to the editor had weird rock-star fantasies.”

Barry Kramer and Lester Bangs in June 1976.
Barry Kramer and Lester Bangs in June 1976.Courtesy Greenwich Entertainment

Maybe that’s because the magazine’s writers — including superstar scribes Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches, Cameron Crowe and even Charles Bukowski, who penned a wildly booze-fueled review of a Stones show — were rock stars in their own right. One no-doubt alienated chick wrote in and asked, “What do you have to do to bang Lester?” The editor’s response: “First you have to barry Kramer.” Ardent readers got it, laughed out loud, felt included.

Sometimes lines between rockers and writers merged in ways that would never happen at, say, Rolling Stone. Bangs once got on stage with J. Geils Band and wrote his review as they played. At show’s end, he smashed his typewriter a la the Who’s Pete Townshend. Uhelszki took it a step further. She convinced Kiss to let her go on stage, in full-on makeup, and write about how it feels to be in the world’s most outlandish band.

Outfitted with a red Stratocaster, she hit the boards for a “Rock And Roll All Nite” encore. “It changed my life,” she said. “It was my breakout story and I came to understand the draw of the stage. I realized why people don’t give up on performing.”

During the magazine’s 1970s hey-day, circulation exceeded a healthy 200,000 and rock stars got stripped bare.

Bangs did a hilarious series of battles royale with Lou Reed. Both in total blowhard mode, they aimed to take each other down and seemed equally out of their heads on various substances. “It was a tug of war,” said writer/director Scott Crawford. “Lester Bangs pushed Lou Reed to the brink three times.” That said, Lou was hardly a pushover. In a dialogue exchange that you would read nowhere else, he told Bangs, “You really are an a - - hole. You went past a - - holism into some kind of a urinary tract.” Bangs got him back, titling the story, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarfs.”

A regular running feature called “Stars Cars” was part real and part put-on: the Ramones with a dirty Pinto, Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry in front of his freshly wrecked sports car, Alice Cooper laying in the path of a Rolls-Royce bearing a vanity plate that read “Greed,” Devo boarding a bus.

By the 1980s, the Creem dream was souring. Lester Bangs had moved to New York and ODed. Cameron Crowe went Hollywood. Jaan Uhelszki went to Record World. As his OG crew departed, publisher Kramer turned increasingly detached. He immersed himself in cocaine to the point that he snorted lines while visiting his wife in rehab.

In 1981, he overdosed on nitrous oxide with a plastic dry-cleaning bag over his head — “I thought it was a joke death,” said Creem insider Dan Carlisle — and bizarrely left majority ownership of the magazine to his 4-year-old son JJ. Now a straight-laced intellectual property lawyer who admits he’s kind of “the family’s black sheep,” JJ grew up with the magazine unraveling. Over time, rights to hundreds of stories wound up with various owners.

Using his professional prowess, JJ litigated, negotiated, signed deals and got all of the magazine’s material back home. Now, with the movie done, plans loom for Creem TV specials, greatest-hits issues, a robust website and a second life for the magazine that his father started. Picking up where Barry left off, JJ said, “I think my dad would be thrilled with what we’re doing.”

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