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Critics' Choice

Interview by Bud Scoppa

Jaan Uhelski and I go way back—she started at Creem in 1970, a few months after my first review was published in a New Jersey underground paper whose name escapes me. We learned the ropes of music criticism from some of the best: Dave Marsh, Ben Edmonds and Lester Bangs for Jaan, Paul Nelson and Jon Landau for me.

After leaving Creem in 1979, she went from Detroit to San Francisco and has spent the last nine years in Palm Desert; I moved to Greenwich Village in 1969 and four years later relocated to L.A., where I’ve been ever since. One of the first female rock journalists, Jaan has written for NME, Mojo, Rolling Stone, USA Today, Classic Rock, Uncut, the San Francisco Chronicle and Relix, for which she’s editor-at-large while taking gigs at, among others, online-music service Rhapsody and working as a media trainer in order to pay the bills, which freelance music writing merely supplements. My list of outlets is similar to hers, while I edited Music Connection and Cash Box and worked at a bunch of labels to cover my overhead before starting my second stint at HITS in the first month of the 21st century. That we’re both still going more than a half century later seems like a small miracle at certain moments but business as usual most of the time.

So naturally, when J.J. Kramer, the son of Creem founder-publisher Barry Kramer, decided to resurrect the magazine five years ago, Jaan inevitably wound up doing the heavy lifting. She convinced J.J. to put his initial focus on a feature documentary—2019’s Creem: America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine—which she wound up producing, co-writing and narrating. And when the film had created the momentum to continue the undertaking, Jaan put the pieces together to make J.J.’s dream a reality. As editor emeritus of the relaunched Creem, she’s deeply involved in the task of keeping what she calls “the Creem ethos” alive.

We hadn’t spoken in years when I gave Jaan a call in conjunction with the second anniversary of the relaunched magazine—the summer 2023 issue is just out—but talking with her about print magazines, other writers and musical favorites felt instantly familiar for both of us. A couple of rock critics shootin’ the shit.

How on earth did you get involved with Creem again?

I just couldn't let other people fuck it up, so here I am. That's how I got involved with the documentary too. I put the director together with J.J. Kramer, because he was going to leave his job as a head counsel at Abercrombie & Fitch. And I was having breakfast with his mom when I was in Detroit, and I said, “Oh, it’s a terrible idea. He’s going to give that up and try to resurrect Creem magazine? Why doesn’t he just put his toes in the water? Why doesn’t he just meet with Scott Crawford”—the guy who owned Harp—“who’s been bugging me for a year about making a documentary about Creem, and see what happens?” And that’s what this all grew out of. The documentary was the baby steps, and that did fairly well.

When we found the right people and backers, we just went for it. But that’s always been J.J.’s dream. He identifies with Creem because his dad died when he was four and left him the magazine, so he’s been the CEO since he was four. So I was like, “Okay, stop being an obnoxious little brat and just get down to business like a 43-year-old brat.”

It sure seems counterintuitive to start a rock magazine in 2022.

Tell me about it. [Fellow Detroit native and magazine editor] Brad Tolinski and I talked about that forever. He wanted to start a magazine about psychics; he loves woo-woo stuff. And we talked it to death. And it was like, “No, it’s just seems like surefire recipe for disaster.” The first cover said, “Print is dead and so is rock.” But that whole “Make me” ethos of Creem was right there. I get worried every month, but God bless, I hope it keeps on going. I hope it has a lot more birthdays.

I remember you writing a couple of things when I was there, but I think you did more when Bill Holdship and Dave DiMartino were there in the late ’80s.

Yeah, they were in L.A. at that point, so it was pretty convenient. But I did occasionally contribute to the old Creem.

Yeah, I remember a Neil Young interview. The thing is, Bud, our whole lives, you and I have always had the same taste. We always write about the same people.

Yeah, I know.

I loved the piece you did on The Allman Brothers, but I’m not sure it was Creem. But I do remember the Neil Young one, because I’ve always been Neil Young-forward. I remember some reviews too. I don’t know whose person you were. I would say probably Lester, right?

I knew Lester through Richard Meltzer, because he would come to New York and stay at Meltzer’s apartment and we would hang out. But I don’t remember having an editorial relationship with him.

We all had our own people. But I was still a baby then, so I didn’t have a lot of people. Although I was very loyal. I still keep in touch with my writers. I’ve been trying to sneak in more and more older people. I do listen to new music because how can I not doing this for a living? And mostly because I media-train so much. Now they’ve got a “True Crime” series, which I love. I had Joel Selvin do one on Jim Gordon, and then this month they did a punk Black Dahlia. That’s probably my favorite section. But it’s not too much like the old Creem. You probably noticed that.

I haven’t seen it in print, but I do look at the stuff that comes up online.

The magazines show up and they’re so oversized they don’t fit in my bookcase, so I’m just always opening up the PDF so I can read it.

Oh, it’s bigger than the old Creem, huh?

Oh my God. It’s giant. It’s like Guitar Aficionado, really oversized. And it’s five-color, glossy. It’s heavy too. The subscriptions are expensive.

Why did you go high-end on the production?

I wasn’t in on that discussion, but I think that they just wanted to set it apart. They don’t have a newsstand model; it’s just a subscription model. So you have to buy it. It looks classy. It really does look like an art magazine. They knew that newsstand magazines weren’t selling, so they figured this was going to work. So far, so good. Their subscriptions are up.

I wonder what the profile of the typical Creem subscriber is.

I don’t even know. This is probably a skewed sample, but the people who write the letters seem to be old Creem subscribers because they write that they’ve been reading Creem since inception. There’s a bunch of 60- and 70-year-olds.

In the landscape of rock magazines—I almost want to put that in quotes at this point—Creem is certainly to the left of Rolling Stone, which is really no longer a rock magazine. That puts it closer to Mojo and Uncut, I suppose.

I think so too. But then part of it’s my taste too, because those are about the only rock magazines that take writing seriously. I think it’s more an English model. I think the biggest difference from the old Creem is we were at war with the rock stars, and this current staff is a little more in-crowd-y with them. They’re writing about their social group, by and large. There’s a piece on ZZ Top in this issue, but otherwise there seem to be a lot of Brooklyn bands.

And I’m always telling them in these editorial meetings, “No, no, no, no. They’re not our friends. You get better stories if you have a distance from them. Poke them a little bit.”

So you’re still doing media training. I imagine that’s necessary to keep your head above water?

Oh, yeah. This just pays okay. And you know what other journalism pays, so that’s pretty much the bread-and-butter thing. I’m finishing Ben’s book. When Edmonds was dying, he said, “Will you come and help me finish the MC5 book?” So I went to Detroit for three weeks thinking he’d show me what he wanted, and I’d take it back with me, but he hadn’t written a word. And that was unnerving. I spent those three weeks reading all of his interviews, but he wouldn’t let me take them with him. He died about eight months afterwards, and his girlfriend/widow asked me if I was still going to do it. And I go, “Yeah, but I have to figure out how.” So she scanned everything he had, and I convinced Brad Tolinski to help me turn into an oral history. So we sold it and we’ve got to turn it in by November. So Kick Out the Jams: An Oral History will come out for Ben because you’ve got to keep your people, even if they’ve passed over. That was a hard one, but his interviews were great. Ben was a great journalist.

I’ve never written a book. I’ve written chapters, but I feel like I’m more of a sprinter. I like journalism, and I always get to who’s going to care. Can I really give up three years of my life? This book has taken a lot longer than I thought. But again, it’s an oral history.

But yeah, rock books. When you do proposals, they go, “Rock books don’t make money.”

Rock doesn’t make money.

Exactly. Remember, rock is dead. Oh, God.

Well, there’s still a few of us left. Bob Christgau is still pumping away.

I interviewed him from the documentary, and I swear he was like my role model because he was as feisty and as nasty, and sitting in that ... I’m sure you’ve been in this apartment, every spare space is records. There’s no living space. He’s an inspiration. And Greil Marcus is still doing it. So why shouldn’t you and I?

Yeah, why not, as long as they pay us.

Exactly. It’s really funny, sometimes I do feel like the last woman standing. It’s like, okay, I’m here just by dent of everybody else going away or passing away. We’re still here. I think of you and I as the tentpoles of that.

When you think about the perpetuation of rock criticism, if you want to call it that, there are a few people I read voraciously. Elizabeth Nelson and Amanda Petrusich are really good.

Yeah, I love Amanda too.

And Steven Hyden has just the right kind of attitude and the smarts to pull it off. He’s probably closer to an old-school Creem writer than anybody else I can think of. But after that, I’m not sure I can add anybody to the list who really turns me on.

The one that I found, again, because what they wanted me to do initially was to read everything that was going to go in the magazine and to see if it passes the Creem test. And the first couple of issues and the things that we were doing online, I sent a lot of them back and said, “No, not that.” But I fell in love with this woman’s writing. Her name is Hether Fortune. She’s smart and funny, and she’s got that Creem spirit. There’s a couple of good people, but nobody has emerged as the new Lester Bangs. She’s the closest, and I love that it’s a woman.

I don’t know Elizabeth Nelson and Steven Hyden; I wrote their names down to check them out. I have this quote that was in Amanda’s Iggy piece on my computer. It says, “The idea is to feel how a person displaces the air in the room. To learn something about them that you don’t realize they’re telling you.” And I thought, Wow, that’s so key. When you’re doing a feature on somebody, you are actually taking it all in. You’re a forensic scientist of rock. That’s what she is, and I love that she does that.

But I’m with you; the people I read are older people or people who aren’t writing about music. I’m cutting out their things and putting them in a book, my own version of a lyric book. So when I’m out of words, I can read their stuff and go, Yeah, I can write something like that. But I haven’t found anyone I’m so enamored with either.

What about current bands?

I do like current bands. The best thing for me about Creem is we do these playlists every other Friday. So I just go to Spotify playlists and go through stuff, and I love doing that. It’s so not me, because I’m like a headbanging Detroiter, but I love that band Christine and the Queens a lot. On paper, I love Phoebe Bridgers, like love. I can’t listen to a whole album, but I like the idea of her. I like EDM a lot now. Maybe it’s just because I can have it play in the background. I like that band Odesza a lot. If you can even call them a band. They have billboards down here. It’s this big mystery, but when I put their music on, it really elevates me.

There’s one artist that I trained, G Flip. She just married that reality star Chrishell Stause from Selling Sunset. But when I went through the songs this week, I loved her “Be a Man,” which is about being a lesbian and non-binary. She talks about it in that song, and I think she’s brave and good. She’s a drummer from Australia, and she used to teach drums to elementary-school kids. I love really rhythmically driven music anyway, a big beat, a rock beat. So she’s rock and it’s a little poppy and it’s a little power anthem, but I really like her a lot.

I’ve gotta look at your playlists on Spotify. Are they under Creem?

What I do is, I go to New Music Friday, and I just play it in the background when I’m working. And if something piques my interest, then I’ll stop and I’ll listen to the whole song. Then I’ll look at the lyrics and I’ll put it on the playlist. I swear this has been the best thing for me at Creem. When I used to work for Rhapsody, we had to choose all the music that we would put up on the platform. I left there in 2008, so I haven’t really got my fingers in any new music. I’m ghetto-wise because of Uncut. and Classic Rock; I was just writing about classic-rock bands, the bands that you and I have been writing about forever. I could indulge my Allman Brothers love. Anytime something came out, I grabbed it, because God knows, if I didn’t, they’d call you.

So this is the first time in a long time that I’ve been really involved with new bands. I should have done this on my own years ago, but nobody was asking me to write about new bands. Please don’t print my age and I won’t print yours, but who’s asking a [redacted]-year-old what new music they’re listening to? I don’t want to be zapped with the ageism stick. They can figure it out how old either of us is, so do the math. I wasn’t at Woodstock, but I could have been.

That makes two of us.