TICKET TO WRITE: DO WHAT YOU’RE AFRAID OF
illustration by dave van patten
It’s a murderer’s row of music writers—Richard Meltzer, Jaan Uhelszki, Adny Shernoff, Roberta “Robbie” Cruger—and filmmaker Raul Sandelin has assembled them all for Ticket to Write, a history of the world’s most underpaid profession going back to the early years of Crawdaddy, Mojo Navigator, Creem, and Rolling Stone. From the Creem staff living together to the 1973 Rock Writers Convention to Rolling Stone and the scene itself turning corporate, this rock-heavy doc tells the story of how music magazines had their roots in unexpected places (sci-fi? Teen Beat?), how nobody made any money, and how Jaan Uhelszki ended up all made up and performing with Kiss for the classic piece, “I Dreamed I Was Onstage with KISS in My Maidenform Bra.” Uhelszki has some of the best stories in Ticket to Write: The Golden Age of Rock Music Journalism, and Sandelin, the filmmaker behind the earlier A Box Full of Rocks: The El Cajon Years of Lester Bangs, tells the story up until the 80s and the advent of the “visual” music celebrity, where his next film, Throttle the Sun, will take over. They talk about predicting death, typewriters thrown through windows, and hitchhiking with Ted Nugent. Ticket To Write screens this Thursday at Cinefamily. This interview by Rin Kelly.
What has to be wrong with someone for them to be a great rock writer—one of the true wigs of that era?
Jaan Uhelszki: I’ve thought a lot about this, because we’re doing this documentary on Creem, so I’ve had to go rake through my past. What I do know specifically about the people who worked for Creem is we were all outsiders. We might have looked like insiders, some of us—Ben Edmonds, who looked like a Beach Boy; Lester [Bangs] who looked like a shoe salesman, with kind of graying hair—but there was something that set us apart. I think that that got exploited, because we had this visionary, commercial force in [publisher and founder] Barry Kramer, and he exploited the fact that we were outsiders and had no place and he gave us a place, had us write and paid us $22.75 a week. I think we responded to being with others like us. I think at one point I wrote that we were all bozos on the bus. We did feel like we found our tribe. We’ve all stayed in touch all these years. Yeah, there’s still blood feuds that will never be resolved. I’m always so tickled to be at South By Southwest, or back in 1973 there was the rock writers’ convention—the one with Big Star—and it’s like, ‘Wow, you’re with these people!’ There’s an infantile, never-want-to-grow-up aspect to being a music writer too, because it’s like when Isaac Newton decided that he was going to find a numerological code in the Bible: I think rock writers are always looking for that code in lyrics. Like there’s some greater truth that you find by listening to the music or deciphering lyrics, or putting a particular artist’s work that you’re fond of in some sort of sequential order and it will make sense to you. I think rock writing is a search for meaning out of the art. It can be the most noble profession there is—not to be corny—because there is glamour and there is drama and there is diva-type behavior on both ends, but in the end it’s a search for meaning. I understand things better because I’ve made this my life. There was a time after I had my daughter when I went back to college—because I’d gotten my job at Creem and dropped out of college because it was the perfect job—and was toying with being a history professor. But I thought, ‘Nope, I can go back and study this history.’ The trajectory of seeing culture through the music and how it changed. I’m a clothes obsessive too: rock ‘n’ roll is at its best when there’s good hair and great clothes and pretty people involved.
Raul Sandelin: I think you have to have been super-talented with no desire to make a living. If there’s anybody out there who will write and write and live in buses and live in hotel lobbies and follow rich rock stars around—and never really make a dime doing it—if that’s a signal of something being wrong with them, that would be it. It’s the absolute, dedicated passion to writing about rock ‘n’ roll without being able to enjoy in the spoils of it. And there’s probably a few other ways in which rock ‘n’ roll writers might be a little unhinged—I mean, they have to match the boisterousness of the rock stars punch for punch. They have to be able to stand up to the rock stars, to be able to act like rock stars. Yet they don’t have a paying gig to do so. If you’re given two hours to put on makeup and spandex backstage—and if you’re getting twenty grand to do it—that’s one thing. But if you’re doing a bunch of this stuff and going home broke at the end of the night, that’s another. This is a rare breed that sort of acted like rock stars but never even got a promise of the money.
And Creem itself was almost like a commune, with people living together.
Jaan Uhelszki: They started in ’69. I was still in high school. Lester and I and I believe Robert Duncan all left in 1976. I left first, and then they left after me. So I was working there for six years. I didn’t always live with them, because my parents’ house was a lot nicer, and I had a little apartment. We had a farmhouse, and we had another farm, so there were always two houses for the whole staff. The staff was Dave Marsh and Charlie Auringer and Richard Siegel and Roberta Cruger and Barry and Connie Kramer and Lester Bangs and Ben Edmonds. That was pretty much the dream team Creem lineup. Dave Marsh left first, because he got lured by Newsday, and then Rolling Stone. Ben Edmonds became an A&R guy, and then I left—and then after that it wasn’t the same Creem magazine as it was before. But things had changed anyway. I think by then the music business was changing, and it was the advent of MTV and corporate rock, whereas we could abuse rock stars any way we wanted. We’d have food fights with them, we’d provoke—I remember one time Dave Marsh and Roberta Cruger and I had gone to see Rod Stewart and the Faces; Dave Marsh had written a story previously, and he brought in a few copies of the magazine. We took them backstage; he handed them into the dressing room and they came back all ripped up. He says he doesn’t remember that, but I remember it clearly. We got away with murder, and we were insulting rock stars all the time. It was a badge of honor to be insulted by a member of the Creem staff. Lester Bangs wrote so much about Lou Reed, and they really did get into fights. It was embarrassing, but I think they both thrived on it. They both really loved pushing each other to those nth degrees. Lester would bring us all, too—he would bring his girlfriend and me and my sister. It was just painful—you wanted to put your hands over yours eyes, because at some point things had gotten embarrassing and terrible. Lester, I thought, was far superior to Lou Reed in the comebacks, and I think it made Lou feel really bad. During the show—it was at the Ford Auditorium, he dedicated a song to ‘Lester Bangs and all those squirts of shit at Creem.’ I remember getting into a food fight with Noddy Holder and Slade—we were just horrible, we were like a street gang. We were thuggish rock critics. We were not Rolling Stone. We were Detroiters and Detroit transplants.
Raul Sandelin: It was a business—Barry Kramer founded the magazine around business—but they didn’t have a whole lot of money, so Barry had a building and then he had a house, a farmhouse. It was their office, and it was where they worked and they lived. They definitely lived like a commune—as did many people. The Rolling Stone writers at the beginning—in a certain way—lived like a commune. They were living in a rent-free loft and working long hours. They didn’t actually live at Rolling Stone, but they certainly worked there more than twelve hours a day, so they were there more than anywhere else. Again, there wasn’t any money, so you might as well have fun doing what you’re doing cuz that’s all you’re going to get out of it. People were in it for the love and the passion…they lived together, they partied together, they went en masse to concerts together.
What are your favorite stories about Creem? You have typewriters flying out the window, Lester Bangs falling head-first into a koi pond but keeping his drink above the water, people hitting Barry at Creem …
Raul Sandelin: Of course there were all the tensions and rivalries between Lester Bangs and Dave Marsh. You’ve got the typewriter thrown through the window. There’s the story of Dave, who was a really tiny guy, and Lester, who was a bigger guy, getting to a wrestling match over Black Sabbath and the Yardbirds. Those are some great stories. I also love Ben Fong-Torres’ stories about the early days of Rolling Stone and San Francisco when he first came on and was putting together the magazine with Jann Wenner. The stories about the early Crawdaddy years with Sandy Pearlman and Jon Landau and Richard Meltzer—what it was like to put together the first rock ‘n’ roll magazine. Some of the road stories, like Billy Altman traveling in a van with the Rolling Stones through the hot Texas heat. Of course Jaan’s Lynyrd Skynyrd story….We tried to let everyone tell their own story.
Jaan Uhelszki: We belonged together, but we didn’t always like each other. We used to have cover meetings before we finished the magazine and knew what was going to go on the cover. So it was always Barry Kramer, the publisher, and the writers and the editors. There would be like five or six of us. We’d always order ribs—God knows why: messy, horrible, exactly what you shouldn’t be doing around proofs—and Barry always wanted us to put very obvious types on the cover. He was always rejecting our cover headlines, and with someone like Dave Marsh, who is firm that he’s right—and he is right a lot, but he has no give… there were always punches thrown. We were always replacing the light tables in the art department—that’s where we had our meetings—because someone was throwing something through it. When I first came to Creem, I remember walking up the stairs in the middle of a fight between Dave Marsh and Barry Kramer, and I think Richard Siegel who was the associate publisher. That’s when the typewriter went out the window. It was always ‘beware below,’ because something was always going out of the window. Lester was threatening people. He was always big on defending women. If Barry Kramer said something really sexist to me or whatever woman was there, he was always on him. He was always a white knight in shining armor. Barry Kramer always wanted to make the commercial product, and we always wanted to make an arts product. It was that tension between art and commerce; he’d always want to err on the side of commerce, and we always wanted to go the art way. It was probably the balance that kept us going. We all had such wacked imaginations and were always riffing on each other and were always about big concepts. For me it was going on stage with Kiss and putting on the makeup, or there was a time when I convinced this Canadian band Bachman-Turner Overdrive to give me diet tips. I still feel bad about this: I made a diet guide by BTO, and they all were pushing like 300. I’m sure I suffered bad karma from that. When a lot of people work together, things get bigger. The sum of the parts is bigger than the whole. The collaboration was really keen, and it made us all better. I was better for being there with those people.
This isn’t a first documentary for either of you. There was Box Full of Rocks, and I vividly remember Jaan in the Big Star doc.
Jaan Uhelszki: I was really moved by [Chilton]. I’m pretty metaphysical myself, and I love the fact that he was guided a lot by numerology. That to me is fascinating. I love when people have systems, a different way of looking at the world. His system was that. Or how Joni Mitchell won’t leave the house until she flips her I Ching—she’s reluctant to leave the house unless she’s got a good routine. I remember that Axl Rose, through all those years when he just gave up, he had a psychic on call. Stuff like that, the oddball stuff—there’s a part of me that really hopes that famous people are different than the rest of us, and when they are, I’m always secretly thrilled.
Was there anyone whose weirdness was particularly thrilling?
Jaan Uhelszki: I’ve had a couple of stories that really moved me. When I was at Creem, part of the time we lived in a commune … we had two houses, and we saw each other all the time. We were the only people that we saw, really, and we’d function as one. We were like a giant beast. We’d go out to dinner together, we’d go to shows together, and we spent an inordinate time in the office. We would be there til three in the morning. It was Lester Bangs’ birthday—I guess it was 1975?—and he was supposed to interview Lynyrd Skynyrd. And I’m not kidding: he looked at me and he said, ‘You gotta do this for me.’ ‘Why? I don’t know the first thing about them.’ He says, ‘I’ll write the questions, don’t worry. You’ll be fine. It’s my birthday.’ ‘Okay, great. I’ll do it. I don’t wanna, but I’ll do it for you.’ So I went, reading his questions. I knew a little. I went to this hotel where I met all of them—most of the people in the band were real assholes. It was unenlightened times, and I was a woman, and I was from the North. They were Southern, and they knew everything. And Ronnie Van Zant, who was the lead singer, took me aside and we started talking. I’m a little mouthy, but it was still daunting to have a lot of Southern guys who were drunk picking on you. We talked for a couple of hours, and at the end he said, ‘You know, I’ve got that same thing Janis Joplin had. I abuse myself and I’m not going to be here very long.’ I go, ‘Oh, you’re just tired. At the end of the tour you’ll go home and you’ll be fine.’ ‘No, I’m never going to see thirty.’ It was one of those moments—should I put it in my story? Shouldn’t I? I remember being at a concert in L.A. when a call came backstage and said that Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane had crashed, and I knew immediately he didn’t make it. I was so moved that they knew—I mean, he had no hand in it. He didn’t fly the plane; he didn’t do anything untoward; it wasn’t the result of misbehavior. But there he was, dead before his 30th birthday, just as he predicted. I’ve always been haunted by that. I’ve gone back every [anniversary]. People ask me to go cover it, and I’ve had the most harrowing dreams there—dreams where I was walking through the swamps and he’s carrying his head like some Ichabod Crane creature. I have a friend who’s the deacon in a metaphysical church, and he said, ‘Ronnie says you’re still supposed to be telling his story.’ Because I do have these dreams about him. That moved me, and if we’re going with the heading, ‘Rock Stars Are Not Like the Rest of Us,’ he wasn’t like the rest of us because he had that … deep metaphysical prophet-type knowing. He used to write songs and he would never write them down because he said if they’re really good, he would remember them. He was that guy. He was more extraordinary. I think my pursuit after all this time is still looking for the extraordinary. It’s an Oliver Sachs thing where I think their brains are wired differently than the rest of the human race. I don’t think that they’re superior—I just think that they hear things. They pull things out of the cosmos. I’m not just ridiculously metaphysical, but I think they just live a different life. I think I’ve always been in service of that. I’m so awed by it—awed by it all these years. And it’s not like I’ve had always the greatest interviews: sometimes it’s like war. Especially since the 80s it’s been an us-and-them thing. When I started at Creem, it was the straights and the heads—it was different when you interviewed musicians. Now sometimes it feels like war, like I’m having to do Jedi mind tricks to get them to say things they don’t want me to know. So I always feel like I’m playing mental chess.
The film’s title proclaims it to be a movie about rock writing specifically, even though these writers weren’t always limiting themselves to that. Did ‘rock writers’ create the modern magazine, or were there other publications that focused much more on soul or R&B?
Raul Sandelin: Those were the first of these magazines. You didn’t quite have—outside of the more teen magazines and some other magazines like Hit Parader, which had actually been around since the 40s—a mold for a counterculture magazine. I think the rock magazines actually created that prototype. And actually that prototype became the alt-weekly that we have to this day.
In the film, Jim DeRogatis says that Rolling Stone was a ‘piece of shit’ back to 1968. How did it differ even early on from these other mags?
Raul Sandelin: That’s Jim’s opinion first of all! But what I think Jim is saying, right or wrong—and this is a question that affects all the arts—is that Rolling Stone became the first ‘professional’ rock ‘n’ roll magazine. Crawdaddy was the first, and Mojo Navigator came out just after, but Rolling Stone was the first magazine to also become a professional magazine, professional media outlet—maybe to use more modern jargon. And Jann Wenner did have the vision to create a business product, not just an art venture or a fan venture, but an actual business that was going to have national and international reach and penetration. But to do that, he had to lay down lots of rules and run it like a company, not a commune. You asked me about the commune earlier. Creem would pretty much always be a commune, or at least in Detroit—it later moved to L.A. By 1969 or so, only two years into it, Jann was seeing the business potential and turning it into a professional business. I think that rubbed a lot of the writers the wrong way. It was for right or for wrong. Since Jim is a writer, he’s going to say for wrong and say that Rolling Stone had become a piece of shit. Other people would point to the fact that Rolling Stone is getting ready to celebrate its 50th anniversary and has become an American institution.
How was sci-fi involved in the genesis of modern music writing?
Raul Sandelin: In the 1950 and 60s, science fiction fans—basically science fiction readers, people who followed Isaac Asimov, people like that—began putting together fanzines for fellow sci-fi readers. And they would discuss science fiction books and various discussions, much like we do today with blogs online. So those kind of became the precursors of the music fanzines. For instance, Paul Williams, a young Paul Willams—a teenage Paul Williams—would become a sci-fi fanzine writer and start his own sci-fi magazine, and then a few years later he discovered music and rock and roll. He did the same thing and basically started the first rock ‘n’ roll magazine, which was Crawdaddy.
He ended up very involved with Philip K. Dick.
Raul Sandelin: Yeah, I’m not sure everything he did—he was a conservator of things, and they were the best of friends. This is after Crawdaddy. Paul Williams started Crawdaddy in 1966, and ran things til about 1970, and then sort of went his own way and did a bunch of other things in the 70s, 80s, and even into the 90s before he tried to make a go of Crawdaddy again.
It sounds like teen magazines were also important, and the fanaticism surrounding the Beatles. One of your subjects talks about buying Tiger Beat.
Raul Sandelin: There’s always been teen magazines and celebrity magazines even going back to the 1920s—and if we really want to look hard, the 19th century. And certainly, after World War II, I think ever since Frank Sinatra, there have been teen magazines that followed the pop stars. Aimed at teenage girls. Those had been around for twenty years, so they also went into the making of the music magazine . In fact, the music magazine is probably a teen magazine all grown up. You know, a lot of the readers who started with Tiger Beat when they were twelve … by the time they were eighteen, nineteen, were ready for something a little stronger like Rolling Stone or Creem.
Jaan, how did you end up on stage with Kiss?
Jaan Uhelszki: There was an Esquire story where this woman named Blair Sobol had become part of Ike and Tina Turner and the Ikettes retinue for a while. She travelled with them. And Connie Kramer and I—she was the publisher’s wife—it was one of those things where you both get an idea and look at each other and start laughing. I don’t know which one of us said it first, but I thought, ‘OK, why don’t I try to be a Kiss-ette for a night?’ So I called up Casablanca Records. This was when Kiss wasn’t the behemoth they became—it was before they really broke big. I said, ‘I really want to be in Kiss!’ and they go, ‘You want to cover Kiss?’ ‘No, I want to be in Kiss!’ And so the guy Larry Harris called me back about two hours later and goes ‘OK, you can do it, but you have to promise not to call them a glam band.’ Why would I call them a glam band? It was that easy—it was ridiculously easy. They were really into spectacle, and I exploited the idea that they were into spectacle. That really made my career—the fact that I got away with it and wrote it. Without irony!
You put full makeup on?
Jaan Uhelszki: They did. They all fought about it. I think Gene [Simmons] started putting the makeup on first, and then Peter Criss said, ‘You’re making her look just like you. Let’s all take a crack at her.’ So each one of them did part of my face. They were like that—they were super-competitive and argued constantly. I ended up with all four of their insignias. They let me sing, but they gave me a red Fender guitar to play and didn’t plug it in. I didn’t know how to play anyway. Paul [Stanley] said, ‘Okay, this is what you do: you wear it low and sexy.’ I was like one of the boys! They insulted me. I still only wear eyeliner—I remember Ace [Frehley] making fun of me because I didn’t know how to put on pancake. But it was super fun. What I wasn’t prepared for is that I had no idea they were going to carry me off stage. I got one song or five minutes—whichever came first—and they had this big burly roadie at the end of it who carried me off stage. It was so much fun to write; I’ve always been a fan of participatory journalism, the George Plimpton school, which was so big in the 70s. But I never thought those things would come together. I just got incredibly lucky. I’m really brave and I will ask anyone anything. I will ask for things that I have no idea if they’ll say yes or no. I think the lesson is go do what you’re afraid of and just don’t be afraid to ask. That really is how I got that assignment.
You came up with a story—in a male-dominated industry—that a man might not have been able to get assigned.
Jaan Uhelszki: In those days, you just struck wherever you could. It was so male dominated.
It still is.
Jaan Uhelszki: Yeah, there’s not a lot of female rock writers, and when there are they’re treated as novelties.
What was it like hitchhiking to McDonald’s with Ted Nugent?
Jaan Uhelszki: I forgot about that! He was the same guy when I was fifteen that he is now. I never thought he was inappropriate. He was just a blowhard, just a know-it-all. I have this strange fondness for him. And the lead singer of the [Amboy Dukes]—they were both 6’3” or 6’4” and the other guy, he was a little scary. He was scarier than Ted Nugent. He was not a pussy, but he was a little more human. I remember my girlfriends and I didn’t have licenses—we had to hitchhike, and all the sudden this band pulled up and said, ‘Get in,’ and took us to McDonald’s.
It was just a coincidence that Ted Nugent pulled up?
Jaan Uhelszki: I guess a coincidence—are there any coincidences? I wasn’t a rock writer. I was just a teenager looking for boys, probably … We were so freewheeling. We didn’t have rides anywhere, so we were always asking people. I don’t remember where we were, but we ran into Bob Seger and his band and they gave us a ride to this club in Detroit called the Hideout. I was sitting in the passenger seat with Bob Seger and he was driving with slippers—like old man slippers, the kind that he would probably wear now, because he is an old man. But back in 1966, he was wearing old-man slippers and driving me and my friends to his club where they were playing that day. We met a lot of people by having the limitation of no transportation.
Jaan, you have some of the best stories. There was the interview with Jimmy Page in which he wouldn’t be interviewed directly. He answered all the questions through a press rep who acted basically as an interpreter.
Jaan Uhelszki: I think he’s just an ornery SOB. That had nothing to do with me being a woman—I think he just wanted to do it.
So he literally sat there with you and the publicist and just spoke to the publicist?
Jaan Uhelszki: Yeah—I walked in the door and the publicist was already there. [Page] was very pompous, dressed in the nicest clothes, looking very elegant, very Oscar Wilde in jacket and velvet and white jodhpurs and tall boots, just looking like decadence. The rockstar of my life—I used to love Jimmy Page, so it was just a horrible moment for me. I walked in, and he told me that he didn’t intend to talk to me directly. If I wanted to do the interview, I would have to do it through an interpreter. Talk about no irony: he meant it. So I sat there and I thought, ‘Okay, it’s a cover story. It’s the last day of the tour.’ It was this very Almost Famous moment where he kept dodging this interview. Nobody laughed. The woman’s name was Janine, and she didn’t even blink an eye. She was there to serve. Oh my God—it was the most awkward hour I’ve ever spent, it really was. If thought balloons could kill. It was hysterical. I cannot believe I didn’t end up laughing. He was deadly serious through the whole thing. The funniest part about that was that the tour doctor had a bottle of quaaludes, which was kind of like ecstasy in the 70s, and someone had stole them. The doctor went to every person on the tour and asked if they’d stolen them. I think during the conversation—I was already in my own world—I said, ‘Did you take the quaaludes?’ I can’t remember what he said. Years later, I’d rewritten a story based on the story for a few publications and reiterated the whole thing about asking whether he stole the drugs. And after the story, out of the blue he asked a friend of mine for my phone number and called me up and told me, ‘I just called you to tell you that I did steal the quaaludes.’ That was probably about 2005. I think the tour was 1977.
Do you have a favorite assignment or is it hard to pick?
Jaan Uhelszki: One of my disconcerting ones is I went to Lucinda Williams’ house a few years ago to interview her, and I thought we were getting along great. I remember her being neat, putting her trail mix in ziplocs and then putting them in neat little bowls on the counter and then—I swear—watching me to make sure I didn’t drop any. But the crazy thing is about an hour into the interview—it was a cover story, so I was gonna spend the evening with her—she goes, ‘I’ll be right back,’ and she disappeared and left me in her silent house for forty minutes. And I kept going, ‘What is going on here? What should I do? Should I call someone?’ Because I’d gotten dropped off. Would it be bad to go home? I just sat there. I took pictures of her artwork, I started taking notes, and she just appeared, like nothing had happened, later. I said, ‘What happened?’ She says, ‘Oh, I dropped my pink eyeshadow in the bathroom and I had to clean it up.’ Knowing how she acted around the trail mix, I had to believe her. I have to say that was one of my strangest stories ever. Or maybe the time at the end of the interview, Iggy Pop peed at the end of my interview.
He peed? In front of you?
Jaan Uhelszki: Yes. At the end of the interview—this was in 2010, I’d gone down to Florida to interview him; it wasn’t even that long of an interview, like maybe an hour long—he says, ‘Ah, I gotta pee,’ and I said, ‘Okay, I’ll be right here.’ And he goes, ‘No, I have to pee.’ And all of a sudden he pulls out his dick and he pees not two feet away from me.
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