An interview with Scott Crawford, the director of the new documentary about legendary rock mag Creem
Last week saw the New York City premiere of the documentary, Boy Howdy!: The Story of Creem Magazine.
As a highlight of the enormous “DOC NYC” festival, the crowd was pretty full, including NYC rock kahunas like John Holmstrom, Bob Gruen and David Fricke. A good Q&A followed, with producer and Creem founder Barry Kramer’s son, J.J. Kramer, and director Scott Crawford (Salad Days).
There’s a good chance most who frequent Rock and Roll Globe probably owned and hoarded many copies of Creem in their youth. A veritable operating manual on “How to Stop Worrying about the 1960s and Learn to Love Punk Rock,” Creem started in an abandoned building in dilapidatng, downtown Detroit in 1969, populated by a staff of wacky warriors with scars from bars and broken bongs, ready to take on The Man with words and a methodology far louder and trashier than what Rolling Stone was quickly devolving into.
We didn’t even have the word “punk” yet (though the film claims Creem editor Dave Marsh invented it in 1971). Nonetheless, Creem formulated a gonzo journalism bursting with the kind of irreverence, violence, sexual liberation, and in-yer-mug veracity of the proto-punk stance that was simultaneously fueling Detroit’s rock scene. It’s fairly settled that the Stooges and MC5 started the sonic shit, but Creem gave us the journalistic version, somehow turned it into a national rag, and flamed out in the latter-80s like every other coke-addled good thing the 1970s gave us.
Boy Howdy! gives a great, fast, sweeping vision of the whole story, smartly focusing on its leading lights, like Marsh, Lester Bangs, the groundbreaking female staff members, and founder Barry Kramer. It includes loads of rare footage (the clips of the staff hanging around the offices being especially intriguing) and (sometimes too quick) interview bits from Detroit legends like Wayne Kramer, Niagara, and John Sinclair, to stars like Joan Jett, Michael Stipe, Kirk Hammett, Chad Smith, Paul Stanley, and more; and non-musicians like Cameron Crowe and Detroiter Jeff Daniels, all highly influenced by Creem’s crazy world.
At times, the film does feel like an investigation into a father never known. But as producer Kramer and Crawford explained in the Q&A, there are a million tales one could pull from the Creem story and make a whole other documentary about. This one, as a fast-paced history, works well to keep the Creem flame burning.
We checked in with director Crawford about the making of Boy Howdy!
VIDEO: Boy Howdy!: The Story of Creem Magazine trailer
So before we dig into Boy Howdy!, you directed the DC hardcore doc, Salad Days. Did the making of that film in any way lead to this Creem doc? And in general, what was the genesis of Boy Howdy!?
I started working on Boy Howdy! once Salad Days started to wind down. In a lot of ways, they’re both part of a similar narrative – a music community with a chip on their shoulders that succeeds in spite of the various challenges that confront them. So in a way, they’re both underdog stories. But they’re also two subjects that I’m passionate about, and I think that comes through in the films. I reached out to J.J. Kramer about the possibility of doing the doc in 2015, and we immediately hit it off and agreed on the story arc. Apparently a number of other filmmakers had approached J.J. over the years, so I’m grateful he gave me a shot.
How long was the process of making Boy Howdy!?
The film took almost four years to complete. It was a real labor of love, but I think we have a really special film that will appeal to Creem readers and music fans alike. So I’ve spent the last eight years working on docs back-to-back.
Can you tell us about any killer “No way!” moments while searching for source material and found footage?
We ran across a few real gems while putting the film together. J.J. came across old footage of him as a baby with his father, as well as some never before seen footage of Lester Bangs in the Creem offices. Those are the moments that you live for while putting together a documentary like this.
Dave Marsh — can you tell me about interviewing him, landing the interview, etc.? And do you subscribe fully to the notion that he coined the term “punk rock?”
Dave Marsh is obviously a big part of the early Creem story, so it was essential that he be in the film. After about two years of trying to schedule the time, we were finally able to sit down with him. Jaan Uheslzki did the interview, and it was as honest and thoughtful as I had hoped it to be. As for the punk rock notion, I think a case can certainly be made that he was the first writer to coin the phrase – but I’ll leave that up to the audience to decide.
I was surprised there wasn’t more with John Sinclair. Can you tell us about his involvement, interview, etc.?
Sinclair was certainly an integral figure in the early Detroit rock scene – between his activism, the White Panthers, and management of the MC5. But he wasn’t a central figure in the early days of Creem. That said, he was a great interview, and it was an honor to sit down with him.
How much do you think that this film was sort of J.J.’s attempt to know his father better, as he passed away when J.J. was like five, right?
Right. Since J.J.’s dad died when he was so young, he never really knew him, and J.J. had lots of unanswered questions. As we assembled this patchwork quilt of others’ anecdotes, stories, and recollections from the early Creem years, I think J.J. accomplished his goal of learning about who Barry really was, the good, the bad, and the crazy.
J.J.’s mother is in the film quite a bit. I get the idea from her tone and the settings of her interview segments that she maybe had to get away from that rock and roll world?
I certainly don’t want to speak for Connie, but I suspect that for her, the rock world is a little bit of “been there, done that.” From where I sit, it seems like most important things to her are her family, friends, and dogs – and that makes complete sense in my book.
At the Q&A, you guys mentioned a number of different topics in the film that could have their own documentary — Lou vs. Lester, the female staff writers, Dave Marsh, etc. What is a side story in Boy Howdy! that you would want to pursue more?
There were a number of side-stories in the film that didn’t make into the final cut, but perhaps will be part of the DVD extras. The White Panthers were followed pretty closely by the local authorities – and some of them worked at Creem in the early days. That was a part of the film that we left out, but it certainly explores the intersection of music and politics that was a part of the early Creem story.
My band touring kicked in in the 1990s, but I met many a ’90s band and beyond who grew up reading Creem and generally knowing about its amazing sense of humor, etc. Was there any thought of talking to some newer bands about the magazine’s influence?
We did talk to Patrick Carney from the Black Keys as well as Redd Kross, and Shepard Fairey in the film. That said, there are certainly other contemporaries we could’ve talked to. That’s the beauty of Creem, it continues to inspire new generations decades after it suspended publication.
You mentioned at the Q&A that what we saw was not exactly what the final film will be. Can you explain more?
We added some additional voices to the film as well as new music and a different ending. All in all, I think the final version provides a bit more context to the Creem story. The nice thing about watching the film with an audience is you get to see what works and what doesn’t. So it gives you an opportunity to fine tune and adjust accordingly.
What are the immediate plans for the film, as far as distribution. It has already shown in a couple other cities and fests this year, right?
We are looking to take it out for a wide theatrical release and VOD in the coming year.
Hey, you worked at Harp magazine! What were some of your favorite stories you got to work on there? How did the mag end? And any odd chance we could get a book of the “Best of Harp?”
Running a magazine like Harp was a 24-7 commitment, and I had a blast doing it. Working with many of the writers from Creem‘s heyday was a real highlight. I learned a tremendous amount by working with them. Whether it was Dave Marsh, Jaan Uhelszki, Richard Meltzer, or Ed Ward, their writing served as a real inspiration to me. I wish I had stories to tell like the ones you’ll find in Boy Howdy!, but alas, a documentary about Harp would be about as exciting as watching paint peal on my shed.
In the Q&A, J.J. suggested a number of avenues he might go down to keep Creem alive in some way. What do you think is the most possible?
I think there are a lot of options available to J.J., especially with the renewed interest in all things Creem. Whether it’s relaunching a website, producing a Creem television series, or some good ol’ fashioned merchandising. I suspect Boy Howdy! shall ride again.
VIDEO: Creem panel at SXSW