Boy Howdy: The Story of Creem Magazine
By Jay Armstrong
Imagine the day your niece watched Justin Bieber’s Believe documentary, take away the crying (sort of), and that my friends was the experience had sitting front row at the packed SXSW opening for Boy Howdy: The Story of Creem Magazine. Unfortunately, my absolute fandom of Creem makes this the hardest feel on a film to know how it will be for the laymen. Scott Crawford once more steers our focus to a pivotal moment in the annals of Rock n Roll long taken for granted, giving it the necessary focus and care the dusty fading memory demands. Crawford has grown hugely in craft in the five years since his first feature Salad Days; a film felt proper as an asterisk in getting a closer grasp on early eighties D.C. noise which shakes existence through today and more importantly the Ian Mackaye/Jeff Nelson template any label worth a shit has followed ever since. Boy Howdy rises to the ethos and ego of Creem Magazine, it is appropriately informative fleshing out fan intrigue while remaining approachable for any nobody willing to give it attention. Boy Howdy is on par with similar documentaries Gimme Danger and Danny Says, I will go as far to say it is better than both.
The importance Creem Magazine holds in the aesthetic of the community I have been drawn to since birth could never be captured at feature length–a lifetime of cynic self-deprecating self-righteous condescending optimism knows no possibility of visual representation– Crawford having spent his entire life on the same rundown side of the tracks as the rest of us found his angle for approach and it is perfect. Boy Howdy has the heartbeat of a fan echoing every minute through the film in the same way we can still today flip through the fifty year old pages of Creem in escapist excitement over finding someone else who gets IT, whose ability to articulate their love and criticism poetically pushes us to see fully the vestiges of beauty appropriately reserved for seekers.
Crawford does a damn fine job calling out, as the magazine has done since the very beginning, to those of us born with the stifling boot heel attempts of plastic herd culture to snuff the sense of passion and purpose eating us black sheep alive in the nowhere nothing cul-de-sac wasteland, his words a reassuring echo in the darkness that we are not islands waiting to silently be forgotten beneath the rising tide of cultural cardboard climate change. No we are not islands at all, instead we come to understand once more how we as well are beacons of hope for each other, conduits of the real and the substantial as we continue burning eternal philosophical importance the message running from Socrates through Nietzsche and Jung to begin true social realization in Fante, Ginsberg, Bukowski, Algren, Shelby, Kerouac, di Prima, Ferlinghetti, Joyce Johnson, Corso, etc, to be embodied, albeit unrealized, in Bowie, Reed, and pretty much anyone else worth a shit to ever cut a record. A filmmaker finally gives voice to what so many of us–and so many before us–have believed which is the writers for Creem Magazine deserve to be etched into the cosmos ideology as saints equal to those in the same immortalized circle as all mentioned. If ever there were a church for Johnny Rockers to worship the spirit of Rock N Roll it was Creem Magazine–no other publication has ever come close; Maximum Rocknroll, Punk Magazine, and the thousands of xeroxed now forgottens were nothing without the spirit of Creem shaping their pages but certainly deserve nods for their honorable appropriation. Every time I pick up a copy of Creem and read that bold arrogant “America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine” header I whisper a firm excited “yer damn right.”
What we gain through watching Boy Howdy is the appreciation of just how capital ‘R’ Rock n Roll Creem was to the very end. Nearly every band to ever matter shares the same fate as theirs; each other found an US in a sketch low rent high danger community where only artists and criminals thrive, their voice distinct and individual defined by the parts making up the whole allowed them despite all conflicts and frictions to become a beacon of burnout brilliance which embodied the roots of their nowhere desolate city reaching far beyond all imagined ambitions to ultimately implode through having nothing left to burn and no drug in the world left to save them. Rock n Roll is lighting the fuse on ones own life and letting it go, blindly focused, no excuses allowed, no missteps only confident wrong ones, not caring in the goddamn less whether someone else believes in your greatness or can fathom a similar vision, all that matters is what you are passionate about and always going towards it at any cost. Sometimes those passions are bands, sometimes they are drugs/alcohol/sex, and sometimes it is the feeling that nothing else in the world matters beyond doing your best to rub a few words together because nothing else in life makes sense beyond that. Creem Magazine in all its glory represented one of the few times all of that came together. They are bigger than The Beatles, it should not be surprising for things to resolve the way they did. Creem Magazine IS Rock n Roll. If the journey had gone down any other way they would have been frauds but instead on their Siddhartha adventure became gods. Does that make things better for the personal experience in retrospect for the people who were there in the glory days and the tragic resonance of anger and loss whose wounds may never fully heal? Of course not and on some level I guess one should not continue championing the ideas Creem stood for but I do and forever will personally and that is the best I can do towards refusing to live a life less than of substance.
I was reading Greil Marcus and pulling random books weekly from used book store shelves since I was twelve but never gave a single appropriate look toward Lester Bangs until much later in life. Having been obsessed as a young kid with Jim Morrison, and despite Philip Seymour Hoffman as Bangs being my favorite on screen character in the history of the world, I was never driven to seek him out from some sad unfathomable offense taken by the on screen “Jim Morrison, he’s a drunken buffoon posing as a poet.” I weep for twelve year old me pouring repeatedly over a stolen library copy of The American Night–in hindsight I did the universe justice by removing it from circulation. If only I had been smart enough then to see blind loyalty of fandom as malleably incorrect and forever in need of adjusting instead of pouring over Led Zepplin and Jimmy Hendrix I could have been listening to MC5 and The Stooges without having to move to Austin before doing so. I’m a late bloomer to quality tastes, a victim only to myself, what can I say?
After a review for a band who would later become close friends of mine, the lead singer one night stroking my ego far beyond what these mediocre dribbles ever deserve compared the piece to Lester Bangs. This off the cuff reference pushed me down the path of the last few years in discovery of someone I think of daily as a best friend. From word one Bangs spoke poetically the conversation always sought but never experienced finding comfort in someone whose opinions on best and worst records from bands mirrored mine down to initial and evolving opinions on Black Sabbath, an appreciation for one record from a band and vehement discontent for another. These are not soft alignments either. The arguments I have had over and over with respected friends throughout the years, going home frustrated to be the only one to see things in a way which felt absolute in their hot and cold never lukewarm intelligently considered and defined criticisms shaped out of love–reading his words brought salvation, it made me feel whole, I was no longer alone, someone finally was on my side. In a lot of ways in the early days of shedding propagated skin of youth while discovering myself Lester Bangs was my first real friend, the sort of friend I had been seeking since birth yet never felt anything beyond alienated always even in the crowds in which I finally felt as though I belonged. When I read him defending a love for shitty films, a defined personality quirk of my own, I had to set the pages down and get a hold of myself from tears, to find someone who connects with you in such a way and to know they died far too young, to understand in as much a way as two strangers ever could the sadness and the addictions and the fears which kept him from ever getting around to finishing a single novel. He may not have been a hero to everyone but he was and is to me. I was nervous from minute one that Boy Howdy would have me a blubbering mess but instead of tears I found myself smiling to see him on a theater screen in all his warm and judgemental glory, he spent his whole life pouring hour after hour over the things he loved, this moment of recognition has been long overdue.
Realizing you, the reader, are more likely to watch this film than to ever hold an actual copy of the magazine in your hands, make sure if you ever do that you don’t skip the Mail section–the letters, whether they were really sent in or just the staff themselves having fun at their own expense is open to speculation, are often hilariously brilliant in either making fun of the magazine as a whole or taking offense in an individual article, as the magazine began losing their way going into the eighties they are often the best part of the issues. If you are short on time just read the submissions mentioning Bangs by name, he really pissed some people off and it is wonderful. Whenever someone gets upset by one of my reviews and the gossip chain touches my ears with their criticism, laughter touches me thinking over those response letters; being honest and having an opinion you are confident in often rubs those in your social circle wrong in how they simply want to go on sustaining the party often amounting to blind acceptance of band misfires and genre trends. To some of us we are not here to write marketing campaigns for capitalistic ambitions, we read through other magazines in complete disgust of their lacking personal voice, forgoing opinions fleshed out critically with their belief blind fandom is called for to keep this thing alive. If that is true then let us give it all a proper burial here and now–give me substance or give me death! I grabbed a stack of Creem issues from my room in hopes of showing the response someone sent in about a Bangs review on one of the Stones albums of which he was less than impressed as everyone else seemed to be–my guess it was after his Exile on Main Street review– it stands out in my memory more than others in just how upset the submitter was, instead while looking for it I found the submission pictured to the left summing ideally the place Bangs should forever hold in our memories.
I digress over Bangs to point out how Boy Howdy appropriately shines a light on his place within the magazine yet offers the same spotlight to all the parts of the whole respectively while never getting bogged down on the overall for the sake of a few pieces. I personally had never given much thought to the experience their female contributors would have had being a part of something so brilliant yet blatantly male focused, having always imagined those involved to be the inspiration for Riff Randall‘s character in Rock N Roll High School without further consideration. One walks away from the documentary in awe of the whole which my expectations did not anticipate.
Friends have heard me talking about this film for months, since excitement going into anything always clouds our judgement, the hypothesis-determines-the-result and all that, I assume everyone will find viewing it enjoyable but how can one who was leaning forward in their seat as the theater lights went down know beyond speculation how those knowing nothing about the magazine at all will take it.
Boy Howdy is accessible beyond Crawford’s Salad Days, his ability to present a well informed engaging story arch as well as his editing has grown warmly as a shape of his voice through craft begins taking form on this his second film so to speculate this will be a hit for anyone interested does not seem a stretch. Ultimate verdict: anyone playing, writing about, or immersed in Rock n Roll must see this film; likely walking away from the viewing better by doing so. I sit with bated breath in this tragic desperate soulless time hoping for the grit grime guttural street salvation brought through bathing in the spirit of Creem Magazine will once more find those misanthropic trapped souls in their midwest chad clone communities, rally them towards positive aims through their pessimism as they find motivation to dig heals in against existence, championing no more the fads, the trends, the regurgitated, lifting only the true reflections of artistic as embodied with nothing but complete disgust for the complacent and complicit alike. We are a time without its own voice, we are a time desperately hung up on the negatives of trying when we should be burning to put one foot in front of the other heading down a path of sheer want want wanting to give us only the feeling of ALIVE in asking ourselves what the wildest desires of self expression might be as we snuff the defeating critics in us all with a resounding rhetorical, “why the hell not.” Creem Magazine and the ideology it solidified is one of the most important moments in all of history, their importance superior to that of Reed, Bowie, and Kiss combined; Boy Howdy is a perfect lens for this unaware generation to finally be shaped through the magazine once more.