December 19, 2007 by A.C. Rhodes
Robert Matheu is pretty excited about his book release, CREEM: America’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll Magazine. In fact it’s all he can talk, or e-mail, about. It isn’t a session with one of the hundreds of musicians he’s photographed before. No, this time it’s all about the book he just finished with a little help from some of his old, and new, friends.
Starting out like many of his Creem compatriots, an impressionable young music enthusiast from Michigan, Matheu instead used photos for words, providing the visuals for many an infamous caption. While Creem was known for using many photographers, it was he who remained most affixed to the magazine, later being a guiding force in the 1980s after his move to the West coast. Leafing through back pages (often literally), it can be great fun to try to spot all the photos. This game will be slightly easier with the book.
AR: What was your first introduction to Creem?
RM: In my early teens, growing up on the West side of Detroit – and that was actually the hard part when I was writing the outro to the book – remembering the bookstore at the corner of my street. Thankfully, my brother didn’t do as many drugs as I did over the years and he actually remembered. I didn’t really start reading it until ’71. I had a lot of friends, older friends, but I think of our lot, I was the first to discover Creem. They sold it at the corner store on my street and at that time had an adult section. It was displayed right on the rack next to Al Goldstein’s legendary Screw Magazine because the name had the weird spelling with the double e; it was kind of misconstrued as being some sort of soft core porn magazine.
Richard Siegel, who is what I refer to as on of the founding fathers, actually used that to their advantage in the early days because from what I understand of all the stories I heard from Rick and Charlie Auringer, they pretty much when they got the paper done, when it was still the double-fold newspaper, everyone had had their duties – almost like a paper route – taking it around to different stores that they actually went to.
Creem was like the only one that appealed to our sensibilities because even though Rolling Stone was around it was very much, you know, they wrote about the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead, which wasn’t necessarily the stuff we were seeing in Detroit. It was much more originally a local magazine. I think that’s what Tony Reay meant, when we first hooked up and started talking about the website, he said that was his original vision; we were supposed to be about the local scene. It was such a beautiful time and Detroit was such a different city, but it was like CKLW being what it was and WKNR, it was all about Motown, which is why I could never relate to Rolling Stone.
AR: When did you first start going to shows? What ones did you go to?
RM: Having a much older sister, who dated David Ruffin on occasion, I went to a lot of things that I shouldn’t have when I was sixteen. It was really about the Detroit bands. I grew up thinking that Bob Seger was already a star before the Silver Bullet Band. But when I first started going to shows it was mostly with my older friends and I would get dragged along. I saw the Stooges and MC5 when I was, like, 14 and that’s when I started taking photos. When I first saw the Stooges at the Grande it was because my friends were going to see someone else on the bill and I didn’t ‘get it’ immediately. The Stooges were vastly different…
AR: What year was that?
RM: It would’ve been in ’69.
RM: So we would see them live and then for the most part a lot of the bands I’d see live first and then get the records. Definitely the opposite of what people do nowdays. And then I just became a junky to that – anytime there were new bands playing. I saw Alice Cooper play was at an auto show. He had one side of Cobo Exhibit Hall, the big auto show was a big deal, so they would have bands like Cooper and SRC, Amboy Dukes and Bob Seger when he was playing with Tea Garden and Van Winkle, which would’ve been Smoking O.P.s era – at an auto show. Iggy Pop I didn’t get the first time. Anything Cobo or Eastown and Creem was a big part of that. So, Alice Cooper, MC5 and Iggy Pop, were there before national distribution, but Grand Funk is also a good example because they didn’t get radio play.
AR: What was your first Iggy experience like?
RM: I think the first time I saw the Stooges they were probably opening up for Alice Cooper, and that was a couple of years before Eighteen came out, this was only because my friends had seen Alice play at another highschool. By that time, Funhouse was already out. I sort of went backwards and bought the first album. It was like that with a lot of bands, The Faces were like that, too. I had seen them live, remembered a certain song and bought the record after the fact. But later into ’73, when I was already a die hard Alice Cooper fan I would see him play Cobo Hall and Edgar Winter would be the opening act, or Dr. John or Flo and Eddie who were all opening acts for Alice.
AR: How else did Creem fit in to all that with you? It was conducive to exposure to rock and roll, records and shows?
RM: By 16 or 17 it was just pretty much anytime that there was a show at Cobo or the Grande or Eastown, my friends and I would get tickets. Creem was a huge part of that because by then they were writing about it and we would see bands for that reason. Obviously everyone I mentioned was constantly in every issue, and that was before they had gone to national distribution in ’71. Until then it was pretty much a local and regional magazine, which is the reason those original double-fold issues go for $200 a pop on eBay.
So they fine-tuned it at that point, and did have a lot of news. I recall going to Leisure’s Book Store and finding that the Stones were going on tour that summer. I hadn’t heard it on the radio. I think much later I was in college, at Wayne State – original ground zero for Creem, but by then they moved to Walled Lake. That’s not the reason I went to Wayne State. I went there because it was closest to my side of town. It was downtown; they had a good radio program, mass communication, which was what I was pursuing. I had taken photography classes all through highschool at Cody. So by the time I got to Wayne State I persuaded the professor to let me jump a couple of classes ahead and take more advanced ones.
While I was there, I did get a part-time job at the radio station WWWW and tried to work my way into radio. There was a friend, with whom I still stay in touch, Jerry Lubin, who was originally at WABX and worked with me at W4 later on – the first freeform station – and again, very closely associated with the Creem people. A lot of them worked or wrote for Creem. So it was a very small, local crowd – very much like what was going on in San Francisco. But I had given Jerry one of my air checks when I did the weekend show and he kind of took me aside and said, ‘you know Bob, you’re already a much better photographer than you ever will be a DJ’ and he encouraged me to pursue photography instead.
So, I switched gears and started to pester the Creem people a bit more. I would see either Charlie or Lester at a show and bug them every now and then. I was still a teenager, so I didn’t know there was a hierarchy that had to be respected. I mean, Charlie was the one to go to – he was art director. By the time my first photo was printed, Sue Whitall was editor; Lester had already gone to New York and after that, at least one would be included in every issue for the next ten years. So after the first phone call I just kind of slowly integrated myself into the office.
AR: Maybe you were just waiting for a good word or some advocacy after your work was seen.
RM: Well, yeah, that’s my view in retrospect. I didn’t know that one person would be better to talk to and it’s not like I called the office and said ‘hey, how do I get my photos published?’ I would just send them up there every now and then and hope something would show up.
I was too much in awe of Charlie Auringer. I might have talked to him once or twice, but as you get to know Charlie he’s really not a conversationalist. He’s a man of few words. I asked him if he wanted to write anything or talk to Brian (Bowe), who co-edited the book with me, so we could shape a story, and he was like, “Nah, that’s what my photos were for.” People don’t give him enough credit.
AR: He’s still alive, yet.
RM: Yeah. One of the nice things about the book; a lot of Charlie’s photography hasn’t gotten the due that it should have because he kind of switched gears as Creem went national he really put photography aside and focused on the other side of the business with Barry Kramer, but he was also the art director. So he just didn’t shoot as much after ’74 or ’75.
AR: So, then what really grabbed you about it, the articles or photos? Was it the bands or writers?
RM: I’d say the bands.
AR: You shot some photos of shows during college? What were they?
RM: Not just college, as far back as Jr. High School. The Stooges and MC5, both in Holly George-Warren’s new brilliant book, PUNK 365, from Abrams. My first issue was followed up by a pic of good pal Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick doing self-effacing graffiti the next month. Did I mention at 50 years-old, having done the photos for the latest Stooges record being THE HIGHLIGHT! Come on, the back cover and double fold center spread on double vinyl … by the way, that version of “I Wanna Be Your Man” smokes and “O Solo Mio” is a still to be discovered gem, by design … they buried it on the LP version.
AR: Of your copious career, what are some of the more outstanding highlights?
RM: The reunion record of the Stooges, to have it out on double-fold vinyl and the pictures done in London.
AR: What do you most remember fondly from your Creem experience? What not so?
RM: The camaraderie with Dave Di, Ho’ship and Kordo… by then, we were all pretty fast friends. So we would go to shows together, like the Replacements. They would come to my photo shoots or whatever.
AR: Why did you leave? Where did you go afterward?
RM: When my first photo was published in ’78, I had at least one photo in every issue, and seven or eight covers along the way. I never left, that’s why I BROUGHT IT BACK. It folded, bankruptcy…twice in ’85 and ’88. By the time I moved to LA in ’80, I was shooting for NME, Rock Scene, and Zigzag – a British fanzine, I think Kris Needs was editor – did publicity shoots and work for labels as well. But it helped having an involvement with Creem because a lot of times the labels would give me access to bands due to my association. Then later, after Creem folded, Holdship was editor at BAM for a number of years and I probably did 40 or 50 covers and it was for a while almost Creem like, but with more freedom and better management…but that’s Wall Street Journal fodder.
AR: How was assembling the (new) Creem crew for the webzine?
RM: Really, one of the best things was reconnecting with a lot of people, like Jeffrey Morgan, that I haven’t heard from in a while. Richard Siegel and I have gotten much closer than we ever were back in the office, and Charlie Auringer as well. They have both been big supporters of our work with the website archive and book. We never lost touch, but with the warm fuzzy feelings brought about by “Almost Framed Us” – it got the gears turning.