Creem’s Canadian Connection:
Interview with Alan Niester
By Andrew Lapointe (April 2002)
Barbeques and weekend trips with Lester Bangs, dangerous encounters on Cass Avenue in Detroit, and the shenanigans of Richard Meltzer: These are just some of the memories rock critic Alan Niester has of Creem magazine.
Niester is a native of Windsor, Ontario, but grew up with his eyes buried in the rock rags from the States, such as Crawdaddy! and Fusion. In the early ’70s, he began freelancing for Creem and Rolling Stone, which meant traveling to the seedy area of Detroit where Creem was located. Alan has some fond and, incidentally, some strange memories of his time at “America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine.”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Andrew: Explain your history as a fan of rock music from early on.
Alan: I guess I got pulled in like so many people did in 1964 with The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. That was actually the first time I got excited about it. Prior to that, I think I bought a few hits compilations, but not as a real fan. I guess I might have been about 13 at the time.
Andrew: How did you start into rock journalism?
Alan: I wrote a little bit in my university newspaper–I actually wrote in my high school newspaper too. I was at the University Of Windsor, writing for the University Of Windsor Lance and buying Creem magazine, although at the time it was in its earliest incarnation, it was kind of a newsprint fold-over. And there was an ad in Creem saying, “Nobody who writes for this rag has anything you don’t have,” encouraging people to send in their reviews and stuff, so I did. I think the first review I sent in was Blodwyn Pig, a Jethro Tull offshoot band. Surprisingly enough, I got a note back, I believe it was from Dave Marsh, saying they liked it and they were going to print it and I should come over and meet them. And at that time, the Creem offices were at Cass Avenue–that would be one of the original Creem offices which were right off downtown Detroit in a pretty seedy neighborhood, and I went over and met Dave and those guys at that time. And I think, as I recall, Lester hadn’t arrived at the magazine at that point. And I just started from there basically. When Dave Marsh quit and went to Rolling Stone as a Record Review Editor, I got some stuff published there as well.
That led to a period of three of four years, maybe 73′ to 77′, where I wasn’t doing too much as I recall–no, maybe the Rolling Stone stuff lasted until about the mid ’70s–and I had moved to Toronto to take up a teaching job. I got a call from the Globe & Mail. The Globe was, at the time, without a music critic, and I can’t remember who the guy was but he just could not write under deadline pressure–writing reviews, he was literally sweating bullets. So they asked me to come on. It was ’77 and I just stayed on, purely as a freelancer for the Globe & Mail, and–I’ve not really done much else. I’ve done a couple things for the Montreal Gazette and a few other things, but as sort of going back to American publications and stuff, I hadn’t really had the time to pursue it. Working for the Globe & Mail and working full time has been more than I can handle.
Andrew: Getting back to Creem, what attracted you to that magazine? Was it the style of the writers or was it something other papers weren’t doing?
Andrew: Did you spend time with the staff?
Alan: Yeah. For the first year or so, it was pretty much a professional type of operation; I think I dealt mostly with Dave. And I really can’t remember exactly at what point I met Lester; I don’t think it was Cass Avenue but it might have been. It might have been when they moved out to the farmhouse in Walled Lake. I can’t remember for sure, but when Lester came on, I started hanging out there a lot more ’cause we had a lot in common. We were both fairly social animals, Lester liked to drink and I liked to drink. We just hit it off pretty well and we started spending a lot of time together. And once Lester was there, then I started spending weekends out at the house on Birmingham and stuff like that. And it was really when Lester came on that I got more involved. But also, I hung out a little with Ben Edmonds, Gary Kenton, and others. Dave wasn’t really a social character; he liked to keep to himself pretty much.
Andrew: Did you ever hang out with Richard Meltzer?
Alan: Yeah, yeah. Richard of course was from New York–then California–so we didn’t see him very often, but there were a couple of memorable times when Richard came and he was quite a character. I remember very specifically a press party, there was this old mansion on the Detroit River called the Gar Wood Mansion, Gar Wood having been a speed boat racer in the 1930s or something, and his mansion sat over the river but the city had taken it over, and Kim Fowley had just recorded an album and was doing a press party, and they actually rented the Gar Wood Mansion for it–it was a big, spooky old place. And I remember Meltzer being there and I think that was the first time I ever met him, and there was a big buffet table for all the press, and Richard actually got up, stood on the table, and urinated into the punch bowl or the shrimp salad or something. That was basically my introduction to Richard; he was a pretty bizarre guy, much more so than Lester. Also, I remember when Nick Kent came from England. The only thing he would eat here was Sara Lee chocolate layer cake, like 3 or 4 times a day.
Andrew: Growing up in Windsor, what was it like to be writing for Creem? You went to the States to spend time with these people; was it kind of surprising and shocking just to be in an different environment outside of Ontario?
Alan: No, not really. Cause by then I was 20 years old or so and I had my own car and if anything I sort of acted like the chauffeur for Lester, ’cause for the longest time he didn’t have his license or he didn’t have his car and I would go out there and it was a little bit freaky when it was on Cass Avenue. I wasn’t there at the time but I remember a story going around that Creem had been visited one day by a bunch of drug lords who had thought drugs were being dealt out of the office, and that it was their territory or something, and that freaked everybody out so much that it precipitated the move out to Birmingham. And it was pretty seedy down there, but once they moved out to the suburbs, it was just getting on the highway and tooling out there.
Andrew: Did you ever feel frightened to be in this seedy area?
Alan: No, not too much. I’m a pretty big guy. It was actually a point where, the drinking age in Windsor was still 21–some of my friends and I would sort of routinely go over to those areas and pick up beer, cause it was the only way we could get it.
Andrew: How did you get from writing for a wild, outrageous rock magazine to a more conservative Canadian newspaper? What was the transition like?
Alan: There was a guy named Bart Testa, and back in those days there were only so many writers and we all sort of knew each other by name and reputation. And Bart–who now teaches at the University Of Toronto, and has for years–was a contributor toCrawdaddy!. And I had at the time a fair number of bylines in Creem and Rolling Stone and some others, and so–I can’t remember whom, but we met at a party or something, somebody thought we would hit it off, and we did. And at that time, he was married to a woman named Ray Mason, who was working as a copy editor at the Globe. I’m not exactly sure why, when theGlobe was looking for another writer or pop critic, they didn’t pursue Bart Testa, who could have done as good or a better job than I could have, but they asked me to do it and I think basically just because of my reputation, because I had some bylines in some of these mags.
I don’t know, the Globe has a reputation for being conservative, but if you look at some of the stuff I’ve done over the years, some of the stuff they would let me get away with was pretty out there. It depends on how you feel on any given day, there’s some concerts and reviews that are so basically boring that it’s hard to write anything edgy about them. It kind of depends on how you feel on any given day and–you could sort of run with it. The Globe has never censored me in any way in terms of if I want to do something a little unusual. So you know, that reputation that they have I don’t think is really deserved.
Andrew: What about writing for Rolling Stone? Did you just send them stuff?
Alan: Yeah, yeah, I mean basically, I wasn’t there for very long and I guess I was kind of their Canadian voice and most of the stuff that I did was Canadian records: the Guess Who, Edward Bear, Lighthouse, and stuff like that. And mostly because Dave Marsh was the editor at the time and I think I managed to hang for a while after Dave left or quit or whatever, and I remember he ended up being the reviews editor for Penthouse, so I can actually say I got some stuff printed in Penthouse too–not something that was actually letters to the editor. I never did anything major for them, it was never anything beyond record reviews.
Andrew: So, you’re teaching now?
Alan: Yeah, I am.
Andrew: Where are you teaching?
Alan: A school in Scarborough.
Andrew: Are you an English teacher, a high school teacher or…?
Alan: Yeah, a high school teacher, English, History, stuff like that.
Andrew: What do the students think of you, as a guy who’s written for rock magazines?
Alan: Students today don’t read newspapers and I manage to keep my two careers fairly separate. A few of them know, but it’s also true that today a lot of the stuff they’re interested in is the stuff I don’t write about anymore. They’re really interested in rap and even some of the heavy metal stuff. I’m still interested in what I write about, but I can’t say I’m really passionate about it anymore. I sort of run hot and cold, but by and large it’s sort of two solitudes, two entirely different lives.
Andrew: What have been some of the best subjects you’ve ever written about? Something you really felt was your best work or something you could remember to this day?
Alan: I guess the most interesting part about the whole thing–and you know, it’s been 25 years at the Globe now–I guess the most interesting thing is that I’ve managed to meet an awful lot of people and interview people live that seems almost incredible to me. I remember talking to Bill Wyman on the phone once and he was sort of rambling on and then half way through the phone conversation he stopped and he said, “Gee, am I talking too much?” And I said, “Well, no.” Here’s an original Rolling Stone, and you’re talking on the phone and he’s asking if he’s talking too much! And Robert Plant chastising me because when he did his album, what was it? Walking Into Clarksdale or something. I said, “What the hell is Clarksdale, anyway?” and he gave me shit ’cause I didn’t know what it was.
Andrew: So, do you enjoy that?
Alan: Yeah I do.
Andrew: I mean, it’s almost stupidly kind of honouring to have a rock star not just talking to you but yelling at you…
Alan: Yeah, yeah. Well, it was good-natured yelling. But I really enjoy that aspect of it. And I have to admit, when I’m talking to people live, I’ll take my album covers down for them to autograph, which is supposed to be a no-no for journalists, but you know, hey, I’m a freelancer, I don’t consider myself a kind of diva in the world of journalism. You know, I’ve got lots of memorabilia on the walls, Eric Clapton magazine covers signed and stuff like that, and that’s kind of, you know, personalized kind of stuff. And I remember interviewing Donovan once, and he’s really out there–the guy’s a real flake–and at the end of the interview, we were in a hotel room, he just picked up his guitar and started playing so I got a personal concert from Donovan. It kind of went on for a while, I remember feeling fairly uncomfortable. But things like that, there have been lots of moments like that that have been really interesting and I think that’s probably been the best aspect of it by and large, because all the people I’ve interviewed over the years, I’ve only had one or two bad experiences. For the most part, the people I’ve talked to have been extremely professional, warm, and friendly. Like Ian Anderson, one of the most interesting people I’ve met in my life–the guy is just fascinating. And James Taylor–extremely warm human being.
Another interesting encounter was with Yes. This happened in the early ’70s, when they were at the height of their powers. I was a big Yes fan–I always loved that British prog-rock stuff. The band at the time was, uh, Squire, Anderson, Howe, maybe Alan White, and Rick Wakeman. I was sent to interview them on the day of a concert at Maple Leaf Gardens. I was amused to discover that the band had not one, but two dressing rooms. One for Squire, Anderson, Howe, and White, which was filled with nuts, berries, white wine, and enough vegetables to stock a small grocery store. The other dressing room was for Wakeman. It was filled with cold cuts and beer. Unlike the other four rather hoity-toity lads, Wakeman was truly Jack the Lad. He was also bored and lonely, and needed a drinking companion. My half-hour interview basically grew into a day-long binge on Wakeman’s rider. Wakeman quit the band soon after. Not exactly a shock. At this point, I’d like to mention that the abuses I wrought on my body three decades ago are no longer part of my lifestyle. I could almost pass myself off as an abstainer these days.
The only bad experiences I’ve ever had with musicians were with The Church, they’re this Australian band–they’re either from Australia or New Zealand–and they were on their first or second record, and they came across as a bunch of complete and utter snobs who could barely condescend to talk to me. I like them, though–I mean, I like their music, and I still get their albums. The only other odd moment I think was with Cab Calloway, the old black entertainer, and I figured I’d just bring my along my tape recorder and press play and he would just ramble on with all of his old stories for a half hour or forty five minutes. The problem was, he was a crotchety old guy, and he didn’t want to talk at all. So basically, there was a lot of dead air, and it was really awkward and uncomfortable. Stuff like that, you know. I remember interviewing Anne Murray once, trying to think if she could remember when I criticized her outfit in one review.
Andrew: Were you familiar with a lot of other Canadians in your field? Like Ritchie Yorke?
Alan: Never met Ritchie Yorke, I know Larry LeBlanc fairly well. Ritchie, I guess, was the generation before I was–not to say he had stopped by the time I was rolling, but I think it was pretty close to that. And of course, my focus originally was with American magazines and I wasn’t living in Toronto so I didn’t get to meet these people. I remember there was a magazine calledBeetle that made its way down to Windsor, I think Ritchie Yorke wrote there, I can’t remember for sure. But no, I had very little contact with the Canadian media at all, there was very little actual Canadian rock writing, and what there was was in the dailies. I eventually met Peter Goddard, but quite after the fact. Now I know most of the guys who write about music or have written about it, and I’ve socialized with Greg Quill and Peter Howell. But back then, most of my focus was on the American writing; that’s where all the writing really was at that point.
Andrew: I think the first review I came across of yours, was of a Guess Who album, it was in Rolling Stone. You said that they were “The Lucille Balls Of Rock.” Do you remember that?
Alan: I cannot vaguely remember it now. It’s a very funny line, I’m glad I said it, but I have no idea what it means at this point. Lester Bangs had a lot of influence on the people who were writing at the time, I was not the only one consciously trying to write in a Lester-esque style. Maybe that’s where it came from, I don’t know. I mean, I was trying to be fairly outrageous at that point, and God knows what it means now. [laughs]
Andrew: So, what are you working on now? Just the teaching and the newspaper?
Alan: Yeah, the stuff with the paper has slowed down a bit, there’s been an editorial change. There are also some ongoing cutbacks at the Globe & Mail, which sort of means they run hot and cold. They obviously have a full-time writer, and I sort of pick up stuff he won’t do, or whatever. You kind of run hot and cold, but that’s fine, I mean, I’m just happy to keep my finger in at this point if I can. I’m not worrying about it too much one way or another.
Andrew: How do you like teaching?
Alan: It’s okay, it’s a living. [laughs]
Andrew: Have you always wanted to be a teacher?
Alan: I just fell into it. I didn’t really know what to do; it’s one of those things where you finish university and–what next? I guess I’ll go teach in college. I remember I was getting sick of university, certainly, and I was offered the job of staying another year and being the editor of the university paper and I mean, I don’t know what would have happened if I had–I guess I would have been a full time journalist. But I really needed to get out of there, I was really sick of it.
Andrew: I just finished Let It Blurt. Did you speak to Jim DeRogatis about the book when he was researching it?
Alan: Yeah, we spoke at length. A lot of stuff that I talked about ended up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. I think I must have talked to him for a good hour or so about the time I knew Lester. Basically, we hung around together a lot from, I don’t know, ’71 or ’72, ’til the time he left Detroit and went to New York. He was a pretty lonely guy in a lot of ways, he didn’t have very much family life, so I would go on Saturdays sometimes. I would take the car and pick him up and bring him back to my family’s house for the weekend. We’d do backyard barbecues with my mom and dad, and he loved it. I mean he would sit in lawn chairs, eating steak and talking politics with the old man, and he seemed to really enjoy that kind of connection. And you know, a lot of driving around, going to bars in the Detroit area and stuff like that. I remember when he finally did get his car, driving out to Ann Arbor, I think, cause he was interviewing John Sinclair of The White Panthers–and I went along with him, and that was pretty exciting. For a 22-year old kid, that was like the heart of the political situation at the time.
But Lester was a bad drunk, a little dangerous. I remember once we were looking for something to do, we were sort of looking for something to eat and we ended up in a White Castle burger joint, half way up Woodward Avenue and we were the only white people in the place, and Lester started “jive talkin'” to the lady behind the counter and the whole place went quiet, and I thought, we’re going to get killed on the spot. I had to pull him out of there. Things like that. There were a number of times I sort of had to basically save his life, because he would just get drunk and do anything and say anything. You know, he’d pass out a lot, so there’d be a lot of schlepping him around and putting him in the back seat of the car to take him home. But, if I were to ever write a Reader’s Digest thing about the most fascinating character I’ve ever met, Lester would certainly be it. Tons of stories. I think I should sit down and write a movie, but I guess Cameron Crowe beat all of us to it.
Andrew: Did you have any contact with Bangs after he left for New York in 1977?
Alan: I think I saw Lester twice after he relocated. My wife and I went to visit him in Lower Manhattan, I think around 1980. [The accompanying photo is from that visit.] Lester didn’t seem to be the Lester of old. He seemed to have lost some of his spunk. He told us that he was in therapy, and he generally didn’t seem too happy. One thing that hadn’t changed, though, were the living conditions. His place was an absolute garbage dump, and the bathroom was so disgusting that my wife was afraid to enter it. If they’d had Fear Factor back then, visiting Lester’s bathroom could have been one of the tasks. Even cockroach eaters would have run screaming!
He also came to Toronto at some point before that. I can’t remember what the occasion was, but I think it may have had something to do with a speaking engagement. I do recall he was granted celebrity status. I think, though I’m not sure, that one of the dailies even interviewed him. Whoever footed the bill also provided the bed, so we were only able to get together on the Saturday night. Of all the places in town to hang out, he chose the Horseshoe Tavern, and we ended up listening to country music while he quite literally cried in his beer. It was kinda like old times.
Andrew: I read about Creem‘s history and it seemed the people at this magazine were just insane and crazy.
Alan: No, I don’t think that’s true. There was a hardcore business sense at work there. Dave was fairly conservative. Barry Kramer and his wife were the owners, and you know, they weren’t party animals and they were kind of distant from me, and their concern was making money, you know. A lot of the people there were fairly professional and they all had a vision of what they wanted to do at the magazine. I mean, Ben Edmonds wasn’t a partyer, per se, Gary Kenton wasn’t a partyer; the only person who was really out there and on the edge was Lester. You know, a lot of the other people were just freelancers like me. We just sort of became part of it, part of the structure of the magazine. They really had a vision, and as interesting as the magazine was…Anything Dave Marsh has been involved in has had a tremendous focus and you know, the pursuit of the rock ‘n’ roll ideology. And Creem was certainly that, they would let people write pretty much what they wanted to write, there were no restrictions on what you could do. I don’t think that was ever the case at Rolling Stone–the editorial hand was a lot heavier. But that is kind of hard for me say, I mean I didn’t do that much for them. The nice thing about Creem is whatever you put down on paper, had a very good chance of getting in the magazine.
Andrew: Even though they were professional, why do you think they were more of an open magazine to all sorts of people?
Alan: Well, the magazine was very unique. I mean, I guess as Lester became more and more involved with the magazine, I think to some degree we started following him, ’cause his writing was fairly extreme and a lot of people simply followed that lead. More than any other magazine out there, Creem believed in rock ‘n’ roll and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and everything that it stood for, and that there should be no restrictions on writing about rock ‘n’ roll, and I think that was the editorial sensibility at the time.