Almost Infamous – Robert Matheu and the Big Book of Creem, Part II
Posted by A.C. Rhodes on January 3, 2008
AR: Tell me about the book. How did the idea first come about?
RM: No brainer, it was never not an idea. So many tried to do it over the years. I’m not saying that I was the right person, but the only one to get it done. After we started the website archive and then the new era Creem, the readers never stopped asking for it. Since Brian and I had spent so much time with the old issues over the last four years, we knew what was good and where to go. Greg Allen, our art director, had been working with us on the website as well, so it came together pretty fast. We only had three weeks for the first submission, then for corrections, proofing, etc. In that time I went to Rod Stewart, Alice Cooper, and Iggy Pop for their color comments, we’d add those while Harper Collins was doing test runs on the photos and proofing. And I’ve told the story how I, or how Brian Bowe found me…
AR: When did you meet him?
RM: He started writing via the website; little emails about what he was into, sensibilities and musical taste, that kind of thing. His love of the MC5 and all things related encouraged me to re-embrace my Detroit music roots as well. So, he started doing some reviews for the website. Richard Riegel and Dave DiMartino were always touchstones with the website archive, the direction we should be taking it, that kind of thing. I asked them how we were going to find the next editor. They both had the same take as Brian began to write more, saying how they enjoyed his work – kind of casting their votes without knowing it. Brian in turn brought some fine new young blood in, writers that he had in his class at Grand Valley. So, his expertise would be from being a journalism professor, working at a couple of newspapers and editing the Creem website the past four years. By any means, the way that Brian got involved was, as we say, very blowjobian. Creem brought Brian out to Coachella the year the Stooges reformed. I gave him my extra photo pass and a camera and took him into the pit to see the Stooges up close. While waiting for them to start, I told him how we thought that he should be the first editor of Creem in its new life. The Stooges tore into “Loose” and that was that.
AR: How did you choose the pieces?
RM: Per Jeffrey Morgan’s suggestion, we used Eno’s Oblique Strategies. The criteria that Brian and I used for what we chose for the book could have fallen into four or five different kinds of categories: “well, we need a Susan Whitall piece, we need a Jaan piece … hey, we don’t have a Ben Edmonds piece”, so we’d find one. And then it would be, “we need a T-Rex piece; we need a Mitch Ryder piece, MC5, Stooges”, that kind of thing. One of the standouts to me that we used was Dave Marsh’s Who cover story, which is kind of formulated and formatted like a Dick and Jane book. That would have been from late ’71 and largely due to Charlie Auringer’s photos. That’s the great thing about this book; [Charlie’s] going to get his day and a lot of people will get to see them. And that’s what I was trying to say about Dave DiMartino. He’s written a couple of books that are in the library of congress, one on the Doors and he’s always been an editor some place, yet doesn’t have the same kind of presence that the other Daves (Marsh & Fricke), have had. Sue Whitall’s interview with Chrissie Hynde, the Pretenders piece, is there. Brian and I hands down, knew that was because one, we thought it was one of Sue’s best pieces and two, Sue talks about Dave DiMartino and I as much as she does the Pretenders. A lot are like that, dating back from Lester’s and Dave Marsh’s days. There were others, like Lester’s Stooges piece, about the last show at the Michigan Palace and Metallic KO, the cover story where Iggy’s breaking all the records. It was kind of two-fold; we had access to the photos, it was one of Lester’s better pieces and was about the Stooges, so it worked out nicely. How can we go wrong with that? All the things we love, Lester, the Stooges, the photos. Other choices were a bit harder, because there were so many great Led Zeppelin pieces; what were we going to choose as the definitive Led Zeppelin piece? We were looking at not running Jaan’s piece about being dressed up onstage with Kiss again; let’s get something that she’s not known for. So we have one of her Led Zeppelin interviews.
AR: Is that the one where she met Jimmy Page?
RM: Mm-hmm, right.
AR: Where she was led to… oh, yeah. Ugh.
RM: It’s a good…
AR: No, that’s a great one, to use.
RM: It’s a fantastic piece. And then decisions were made for others because the photos were great and we had access to them. There were obviously so many great Dave and Lester pieces to choose from. We really liked Lester’s Black Sabbath story, “Bring Your Mother to the Gas Chamber,” one of the first we put up on the website. But at the same time Brian and I had grown so tired over the years of people contacting us through the website with queries about Lester, everyone always wanted to talk about Lester, and we said, “why don’t we just make Lester a saint now and get it over with?” So we really didn’t want the book to be about Saint Lester. If anything we probably spun it a bit more so to focus on some of the stuff that John Kordosh, who doesn’t get a lot of credit or attention, did. There are two great interviews that John did with George Harrison and Johnny Cash, a couple of things that one wouldn’t think would be in Creem. The Johnny Cash piece was definitely at a time when Johnny’s career hit the lowest point, but it was a great interview. And we all loved Bill Holdship’s Replacements interview because it was just so funny. Some things we didn’t even have to think about.
AR: That was classic.
RM: One of the people that we felt had really been overlooked was Rick Johnson. As we started to explore Rick Johnson – and he had just passed away that year – I asked Dave DiMartino who was Rick’s editor at Creem what he felt were the definitive Rick Johnson pieces. He said the two that still made him laugh were “Duets from Hell” and “The Secret Life of Queen.” Both pieces were made up out of thin air, you know, that Rick didn’t have to do any research for. He just made them up and they’re brilliant. I was just paraphrasing what Dave said in his intro – and that’s the reason that they were so funny – he could write about anything and someone could say, we need this piece about something and he would just do it. Bebe Buell went on at length about her relationship with Rick Johnson in “A Creem Dreem Remembers.” Again, for the last five years Brian and I had been studying the archives and just discovered things. When we first signed the deal with Collins we literally had less than about three weeks to come up with our first deadline. And I don’t know whether or not it was a dare by Matthew, our editor, at Collins to see if we could deliver, but Greg Allen, our art director and Brian and I were so well rehearsed from doing the website for the past four or five years that we didn’t think it that daunting of a task. In fact, Greg’s first comment was, “How are we going to fill up 300 pages?” Brian and I laughed and said, “Greg, the question is what do we not put in? We can fill up 300 pages pretty quick”. After we made the first deadline, I contacted Alice, Iggy and Rod Stewart, who we had asked for new comments to kind of pepper through the book – we weren’t getting those right away. We had to put the book together and submit it to Collins knowing that we were going to come back and add this stuff – same for the Holdship and DiMartino pieces. While they were proofing old content we continued to work on the book that whole time. As it went along, we had to cut and cut. So we have about a third of the next book already laid out.
AR: How painful were the cuts?
RM: The painful part was when we had to take things out of the pieces because a lot are not run in their entirety. A lot are excerpts. The “Mad Dogs and Englishman” piece was massively huge, so we had to cut that back some. It’s not like we were looking for a way of justifying it, but Brian and I knew from talking with these people over the years, that much of what went into the magazine tended to go in because they tried to fill up space. So we were careful with what we did have to cut and that it wasn’t going to wreck the gist of the story. Jeff Morgan has been looking over my shoulder since the website. I knew I could count on Bill and Dave; I knew I could count on people like Iggy and Alice because I’d maintained good working relationships with them as a photographer over the years. It was just that I didn’t know how much of I was able to get of everybody. The one thing that I probably missed in the book was Chrissie Hynde. We’ve had a good working relationship since day one. I’ve done album packages for the Pretenders – 50 of my photos were in their box set that came out last year and Chrissie and I are still great friends. She said that she would be happy to do it. Five years ago when I first entertained the idea of bringing Creem back, “If there’s anything I can ever do for you… I love Creem.” And the thing was that it was just bad timing for her. So that’s the only kind of heartbreak involved since we had such a nice Pretenders piece and it was one she really liked from back in the day because it had a different approach than what Chrissie was seeing from NME or Melody Maker or Rolling Stone – it had the unique Creem approach.
AR: You didn’t go in already thinking about a second book?
RM: There’s potential for another book and Collins has mentioned that they’re already talking about it. I think Brian agrees with me that the second wouldn’t be compromised at any capacity and there’s still enough to do another book of equal merit.
AR: It’s sort of like a super-sized Creem Issue.
RM: That’s what really got all of us excited was the new pieces people wrote. It was originally what Collins wanted me to do – (kind of) tell the Creem story – and I was very hesitant to do that. But when we first gave them the book proposal, we gave them an inventory of all the brilliant stories, why they were brilliant and I kind of kept the aces up my sleeve of what was going to make this different. We had talked to a number of publishers over the years and the right combination of things weren’t being offered; either too much control, not enough control, or money. Collins got it right from the start with by allowing us to do it, and not in house, which is somewhat unusual for them. So, when Matthew asked what was going to make it different than a Rolling Stone reader, they kind of wanted me to write a narrative about it, which there was no way I was going to do. I mean, I knew that from the start. What I can do, since I still had a good relationship with a lot of people from Creem is go to them and get them to tell the story. And his eyes just lit up and he said, “That’s it – that’s what’s going to make it special”. Although I wasn’t sure I could pull that off.
AR: Like a highschool or college reunion for many…
RM: Although, with the website we didn’t do a lot of editing because we had so much room to work with. Jeff was one of the few who were there the whole time. He was someone Lester brought to the magazine, but from the moment we launched the Creem website, he’s always been looking over my shoulder, helping, making suggestions, contributing and writing, in my opinion, stuff that’s right up there with what he did for the publication. I did get him to write a piece about how it came to be that he wound up at the magazine with Lester. That was good because while we didn’t want to focus on Lester too much, we needed to address him. We just came up with a unique way of doing it.
AR: You know, I never thought of you initiating this, if only because you were a photo editor. It’s sort of like you’re the yearbook editor.
RM: You know, I expect some flack. It’s going to happen. We have a line at the bottom of the Creem website, where everyone who was ever involved is listed, that read, “Greg Allen gets the credit, Robert Matheu gets the blame and Ken Kulpa gets the bill.” It was a joke, but it’s true. Greg would get the credit for everything looking so good. I could’ve taken a co-art direction on it, but it’s already embarrassing enough how much my name is there. It is heavy on Bob Matheu photos but then again it’s heavy on Bob Alford, another Creem photographer and friend…
AR: And Mick Rock?
RM: You know Mick Rock is a pal, but there wasn’t that much of him in there as you remember. I could’ve gotten probably anything I wanted of Mick’s, but there was nothing in the book that went along. With Lester’s piece on the Stooges, back in the day the photos that ran with it were mostly Richard Creamer’s, and the Neal Preston cover shot of Iggy breaking all the records. So, we had that to run along with my photos of the show that Lester was actually at. And this is where I may or may not, I hope that I’m not setting myself up here since you won’t write about this anyway, but if I get any it would be because I put some of my photos in the book that didn’t run back then. But, to my defense, the photo of Iggy and James Williamson that ran was taken at the show that Lester was at so I can kind of justify it.
AR: And some of what stems from Creem politics through the years?
RM: About possibly getting criticism for putting too many of my photos in the book?
AR: Is that why you’re thinking of it?
RM: Naw, probably because I feel like I put too many of my photos in the book. [Laughter.] But, again, it’s vastly different than what Collins wanted me to make. Because I had Charlie and Bob to go to – Charlie was the reason I shifted gears – his were the photos that I saw in those early issues of the Who and the Stones and we used those in the book. There’s a full page photo of Mick Jagger that Charlie took that I remember thinking was amazing when it first ran. And the funny thing is that I know the way that issue was laid out back then; that he used it as a full page photo not next to anything else. It wasn’t part of the article – no print over it or any text next to it – Charlie just ran it because he could since he was the art director. He just wanted to see it full page, and I love that about Charlie and, damn it, that will be my excuse as to why I did that enough with my photos. There are a lot of full page photos in the book with no type and no text because that’s kind of what Collins wanted. Greg and I took the original design esthetic of Charlie’s and went over the top with it. In that way, a lot of the new stuff we created reads like Creem to me.
AR: Since you alluded to that before, what kind of idea did they have?
RM: I’m hesitant to say it in these words, but it’s true I guess, they wanted Bob Matheu’s version of Almost Famous. And I said, ‘you know, I’ll give you that, but we’re not slapping the Creem name on it. If I’m doing this book, it’s not my version of the Creem story. It was never intended to be the definitive story, but a celebration of the great stuff that ran in its pages. It was very important to not call it a “best of”, either. That’s when Matthew explored the different approach. I loved working with him, even after working on magazines for years, because I learned a lot from him. I love that, especially at this point in my life, learning anything.
AR: Maybe it’s impossible to gauge, but what are your favorite points in the book?
RM: The fun thing that I don’t think I mentioned was four or five pages that resemble the “Back Stage” section. If you remember that section originally it looked like a comic strip with black and white photos and captions. That was always a fun time being up in the office when they were doing it in the ‘80s because is was the last thing that was done. Charlie would throw a big folder of photos and say, “okay, we need backstage.” More often than not there was some drinking or pot smoking involved – someone would say something which would prompt someone else to and it was truly a collective mentality which made that happen. The “Profiles” were the same way; someone would write one line, someone would come up with another. With some, like the Replacements one, you can read it – I can at least – and know that Bill Holdship wrote the whole thing because it’s his style. And that’s just from the time that I was around. Linda Barber might give you something completely different, but she did give us things like that we sort of peppered throughout the book to help explain the Creem process. On those “Backstage” sections we have photos of the staff mixed in with favorites like Iggy and Bowie with a few of the original captions and some added things as well.
AR: Do you remember a Barry Kramer interview quote from the ’70s where he says something about Creem being bigger than any one person? He talks about there having been “star” editor-writers and writer-editors before and that there will be again. It seemed eerily prophetic, though I don’t know that it’s been fulfilled.
RM: The name Creem carried so much weight it was ridiculous. But I started telling people when they asked about who the new stars were. Luke Hackney, who hopefully will take over soon with what we started five years ago, is like my Lester; heavy thing to lay on him I know, but I expect great things from him, whether it is with or without Creem. It’s been a great privilege to celebrate all that’s Creem. I wanted Creem to sell itself and that’s what it did.