By Olivia Neilson
A collector’s paradise resides in the foyer of Birmingham’s historic Allen house; where one is greeted straight away by the alignment of past Creem Magazine cover issues that extend the wall alongside the grand staircase, 1980s rock posters, a cardboard cutout of world-renowned music critic Lester Bangs and an IBM Selectric typewriter with a yellowed sheet of Creem stationary sitting in the carriage return.
The typewriter is open to anyone who wishes to leave feedback on the latest feature in the Birmingham Historical Museum that opened on Friday, March 7 and will be available all throughout the coming year.
In February 2014, journalism classes at Seaholm High School were visited by former Creem editor Susan Whitall, who began her employment at Creem in 1975 as assistant editor and worked her way up to top editor –holding the position from 1978-83, before her departure for the Detroit News.
Whitall’s alma mater is Seaholm High School and she spoke fondly to its students about her memories of Creem.
“Writing for Creem was great,” Whitall said. “I was 21, just out of college and boom, I found myself in a place that was constantly bustling, full of people bursting with ideas.”
Whitall also spoke about the offices—memorabilia from which can now be found in the museum exhibit: an original brown telephone, vintage records, a corkboard decorated with black and white photographs of once-popular musical groups and framed pictures of rock icons, including one signed by Bruce Springsteen.
“There was constant chatter in the editorial department about music, books, writing – I learned a lot from Lester Bangs and the other editors about how to structure a story and make it interesting to the reader,” Whitall said. “Creem was the best possible place, and not surprisingly, endless fun.”
With its new exhibit, the city of Birmingham has acknowledged its ties to the music industry that produced a new legacy for southeastern Michigan after the days of Henry Ford.
Credited to that industry, the term Motown now denotes an upbeat, vintage cadence with influences of rock, pop, soul and gospel conjoining into one distinctive sound.
For Detroit natives, it denotes also a sense of pride and nostalgia for the city in its heyday and the brands and publications that surfaced during that time, one being the esteemed Creem magazine, which notably rose to fame in the 1970s as a prominent rock ‘n’ roll publication to rival others like Rolling Stone.
According to Patricia Rusek of the Radio/Broadcasting department at Seaholm High School, there has never been a contest.
“I do remember Creem,” Rusek said. “But I think it’s always been Rolling Stone for mainstream music.”
Publicist and PR specialist Cynthia Summers thinks that Creem was a competent adversary.
“Creem Magazine was a very cool alternative to Rolling Stone,” Summers said.
Understandably, Whitall carries a special allegiance to the magazine and specifically prizes its distinct personality.
“I know it [Creem] was better than Rolling Stone, because we were more creative, and less corporate,” Whitall said. “Rolling Stone routinely did things such as promise a cover to a record company, when they asked (for an artist) but I would say, “No, we decide who’s on our cover.”’
She credits much of that unique spirit to the city in which the magazine was born.
“Being in metro Detroit, away from the “media centers” helped us retain our individuality, and independence. “
The magazine launched in 1969 and ceased print in 1989, undergoing a brief revival in the 1990s before falling back into the shadows.
Consequently, younger generations are decades removed from publications like Creem.
One of the goals of Birmingham’s exhibit has been to cultivate a new appreciation from young people who don’t have those memories.
“I think that most young people would be surprised how cool older people were once,” said Birmingham Historical Museum Director, Leslie Pielack. “How edgy, how bold—they were pioneers and legends.”
But there are exceptions. Sarah Shaya, sophomore at Seaholm High School, is one.
“I found some old articles from Creem on the Internet a while back and I really enjoyed them,” Shaya said, who also has a particular fixation with punk rock.
“The thing about punk rock is that it’s this way you can express yourself differently from how society generally expects you to. It’s a way of individually and it’s a way of life.”
Unbeknownst to the majority of fans, the term punk rock was actually coined by Dave Marsh in the Creem issue of May 1971, marking one of many milestones.
For a city like Detroit, Creem has been monumental.
“I thought it was one of the coolest magazines at the time, but I didn’t find out until many years later that it was produced right here in Detroit,” Summers said. “But it only stands to reason that one of the music capitals of the world would publish a great music magazine.”
Birmingham’s attempt to honor the publication will be a source of great pride and nostalgia for many people, particularly those as familiar with it as Whitall.
“Some of my Creem colleagues are coming in from around the country to be videotaped at the exhibit, so we’re pretty excited about it.”