Jaan Uhelszki: Confessions of a Former Subscription Kid
By Scott Woods (April 2002)
As one of Creem‘s senior Editors during the ’70s, Detroit native Jaan Uhelszki was an integral voice during that magazine’s most legendary phase. Uhelszki wrote various columns and dozens of reviews for Creem, though her real forte was the feature profile, in particular her interviews with what used to be disparagingly known as “third generation” rock stars, like Grand Funk Railroad and Kiss. Interestingly, she claims that being a women often aided her in getting the good stories — in part because she wasn’t taken too seriously.
Now based in Berkeley, Uhelszki continues to write for a number of publications, including the British glossy Mojo, as well as Amazon.com.
[Thanks to Jay Blakesberg, who took the photo of Jaan and Joey Ramone.]
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Scott: Please start by telling the readers what exactly you’re up to these days–writing-wise or whatever. Give us a current C.V., please!
Jaan: Unbelievably, I’m still doing exposés and feature stories on rock’s worst offenders. The more socially outcast a band is, the better I like them. I still like to spend time on the road with bands, and decode their lifestyle and psychology (or is that pathology?) for readers. Getting into the minds of musicians has always been fascinating to me. They really aren’t like the rest of us. I review records for Amazon, do features for Mojo, Alternative Press, the San Jose Mercury, and write liner notes for Time-Life and Sony Legacy.
Scott: What were you like in high school? Were you popular? Looking back, would you say your social status then greatly influenced who you are now?
Jaan: I’m not sure my social status determined who I am today, other than the fact that I always looked at myself as an outsider looking in. At the age of 12 I was 5’8″ making me the second tallest person at Lathrup Elementary School. The early height gave me a certain sense of authority, but also set me apart from the 4’11’ more obviously popular kids.
Scott: When and how did you discover rock and roll? Was this something you shared with others, or was it more of a solitary pleasure?
Jaan: I grew up in Detroit, the home of Motown, and because of that, we always seemed to have enlightened radio stations that played amazing stuff. The birth of FM radio, in 1968, opened up an entirely new type of music, in terms of bands like Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Janis Joplin, et. al., as well creating a whole new mysterious subculture that was at odds with the dominant one. When I listened to the radio I felt a part of something bigger than myself–I had joined an exclusive club, where all of us could “hear” Jimi. I think I still can.
Scott: Talk about your evolution as a music critic–was it something you were ambitious to do before joining Creem?
Jaan: I had always wanted to be a music writer. A trip to New York when I was 15 truly opened my eyes, when I first got my hands on a copy of the East Village Other and the Village Voice. They were writing about music in a deep, personal, intimate, intelligent way, and I realized that was exactly what I wanted to do. WhenEye magazine started showing up on news stands when I was in high school it showed me the world of rock celebrity, and I devoured articles by Nik Cohn and Michael Thomas, wishing that I could be doing the same thing. In less than two years I was.
Scott: According to Jim DeRogatis in Let it Blurt, you started at Creem as the “subscription kid”; then Bangs championed your writing and you moved into an editorial position. What was the first piece you wrote for Creem and how did it come about?
Jaan: Actually, Dave Marsh has more to do with my first pieces in Creem than Lester. I think he was sick of hearing me beg to be elevated from the mailroom into the editorial offices. He took me along to a press conference at a swanky Detroit hotel, where Smokey Robinson was announcing his retirement from the Miracles, and promised that I could write about it. I think I thought he was kidding, because I never bothered to take notes or even work up a story. About three weeks later, Marsh called me at home about ten o’clock at night and asked me where my piece was. Chagrined, I told him I hadn’t written it. Marsh actually demanded that I drive the twenty plus miles to the Creem house-cum-offices in Walled Lake, Michigan and pick up some Miracles albums, listen to them, and turn in a full blown story by ten the next morning. Chastened, I actually did what I was told–for once, not even bothering to change out of my night clothes. I buttoned up my blue and white checked bathrobe, fuzzy slippers, sped to the farmhouse, arriving at around eleven that night. I stayed up the entire night hammering out the story, which somehow became anOpen Letter to Smokey, begging him not to retire. Oddly enough that first story was the cover story.
Scott: What exactly were your functions as an Editor at Creem?
Jaan: When I finally worked myself out of my position as the Subscription Kid–three years after I started working there–I was given a battered desk next to Lester Bangs, which was both a blessing and a curse. He could thrash out reviews and features in what seemed liked mere minutes, making me feel like there was something really very wrong with me, since my writing process was much slower than his. I was responsible for creating the news section, “Beat Goes On,” putting together the movie section, after Roberta Cruger left, penning the movie column, “Confessions of a Film Fox,” writing a record review and/or feature a month. Of course, there was the less glamorous work of copy editing and proofreading, and the obligatory staff meetings, where we would all order in ribs and chips and grape pop from Checker Bar-B-Que, and then get into the most awful rows over what was going to be on the cover. As for those famous captions, they were usually a collaborative effort–we all had really skewed senses of humor and played off each other really well.
Scott: Was the staff of Creem in any way aligned against Rolling Stone?
Jaan: It was during that infamous Avis campaign, when the number # 2 car rental company claimed, “We Try Harder” than number #1, Hertz. We felt the same way. We not only believed we tried harder than Rolling Stone, but we were much more irreverent, and as a result more honest. For better or worse, we felt we weren’t beholden to anyone, and made fun of whomever we pleased–often to the detriment of ad sales. We were uncontrollable; the writers at Rolling Stone were very civilized. I think we felt we were much more authentic and rock than they were, and felt a little smug because of it. I guess the smugness made up for big salaries.
Scott: One of the things I most loved about Creem growing up was the lively, usually hilarious letters section. Was there a lot of mail to choose from? Was all of it legit?
Jaan: The letters was always my favorite section, I wish I could tell you that we made them up, but we didn’t have to. I always was amazed how much sicker our readers were than we were. Lester was the letters editor, and he was the one who always wrote the pithy, insulting answers, at least from 1971-76.
Scott: What was the best thing about working at Creem on a daily basis? Also–the worst thing?
Jaan: The best thing was the camaraderie. How great it was to find my own milieu. Everyday wasn’t so much like going to Disneyland, more like living on Donkey Island from Pinocchio–only we looked entirely normal. Sometimes we would make phony phone calls to rock stars whose numbers we happened to come in possession of, or we would speak entirely in the dialogue of “Amos ‘n Andy.” Then there were the days when publicists would bring up-and-coming musicians to our offices. We felt duty bound to play with their minds–just because we could. I’ll never forget the day our publisher Barry Kramer walked into the editorial offices to find Iggy Pop sitting there–and promptly emptied the contents of a trash can over his beautiful, platinum head. Much to his credit, Iggy found no reason to remove it. The worst part was the hours and the demands on our very souls. It was hard work putting out a monthly magazine, special issues, and books, and we tended to work 18-hour days. I usually got into the office at noon, leaving perhaps by 3:00 A.M. on a regular basis. We saw few outsiders, and sometimes it felt like we all belonged to some cult. Having a separate life was almost impossible.
Scott: One thing I always associate in my mind with you is the artist interview/profile. You had a very funny way of bringing the stars down to size. (Let’s just say, you were not exactly Cameron Crowe.) What was the first major pop star interview you did? Describe the experience.
Jaan: I’ve never had any patience with those suck-up, regulation interviews. I figure once you have a rock star in your sights, you’re duty bound to put them on the spot. I grew up reading movie fan magazines, and always wanted to know every single detail about my heroes. I just expanded that philosophy a little, and would query them about the most outrageous aspects of their life I could think of, or ask them the hard questions in a very soft focus way. There’s always something that publicists warn you not to talk about–but I figure if there’s an elephant in the room, you have to acknowledge it, then dissect it. What really surprises me, is how often a star will answer an awkward question. My first interview was a road trip with Steve Miller. I was insanely nervous, but despite his reputation, Miller was really very kind–taking me to dinner at his cousin’s house during one of the tour stops and instructing me in some embarrassing dos and don’ts of on-tour behavior. I remember blushing when he told me writers should never sleep with their interview subjects, because then it would be rather awkward to confront them the next morning with a tape recorder. I always wondered if he said that to the male reporters who toured with him. Ha!
Scott: A piece that you’re very well known for is I Dreamed I Was On Stage With Kiss in my Maidenform Bra. How did this piece come about?
Jaan: I’d always been a fan of George Plimpton’s participatory journalism, and was hugely influenced by Paper Lion, his story about training with the Detroit Lions. That book was really a big deal in Detroit, so I got the idea I should do the same thing with Kiss. Oddly enough, I just called up the publicist and asked if I could perform with them. This was in the relatively early days of Kiss’s career, and they were trying everything to break them–remember the Kissathons in Los Angeles that their label, Casablanca Records, sponsored? Anyway they said yes, and the only promise they extracted was that I wouldn’t call Kiss a “glitter band.” As if I would have!
Scott: Did any members of Kiss respond to the piece afterward?
Jaan: I was the unofficial Kiss editor at Creem, since no one else ever wanted to cover them, so after the piece, I still continued to write about them. None of them thought it was that big a deal. At the time, it was just another story. It just grew in stature as the years went by, probably because no one else has ever performed with them.
Scott: Any particularly disastrous encounters with the rich and famous you care to share?
Jaan: I’ve told this before, but it was my encounter with Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin. I’d been on the road with them for over a week and couldn’t get him to agree to an interview. Finally on the last day of the tour, he agreed to an audience on the condition that the publicist had to be there. I agreed, but didn’t realize the implication until I began asking my questions. Jimmy stipulated that I must first ask the publicist my question and then she relay the question to him–even though we all spoke the same language, and I was sitting a mere six feet from him. This went on for about an hour, and was so odd, and rather humiliating. Another weird encounter was the time I was on the road with Crosby and Nash, and I didn’t have a room at the hotel, and was forced to bunk on a pool table. That wasn’t as horrible as it seems, but what was worse was they would only do interviews between 3:30-4:30 A.M.. Being on tour with the Allman Brothers was also rather special. Dickie Betts wouldn’t talk to me at all, and then Gregg Allman wouldn’t allow me to use a tape recorder. We would talk, then I would run off to the bathroom every half-hour or so to write everything down he said. It was really disconcerting. Before I left the tour, Gregg gave me a pair of his boots. They were pure white and a men’s size 10. I have rather large feet, but not that large. I never understood the significance of the gift.
Scott: When/how did your position at Creem end?
Jaan: I left in March 1976, for a job in Los Angeles. I was afraid that I was becoming a big fish in a little pond, so I left. Lester left six months after I did.
Scott: What are your thoughts on Creem after Lester Bangs?
Jaan: It’s strange, what has been called the “dream team”–Marsh, Bangs, Ben Edmonds, me, Roberta Cruger, John Morthland–had all left by ’76, so the character of the magazine was very different. We were always fighting with the publisher Barry Kramer about what we should cover and how. He always wanted it more commercial, with more pictures, less copy. After we all left, he more or less had his way. There were some really good writers from the later period, most notably Bill Holdship, Sue Whitall, and Rick Johnson.
Scott: Talk about your relationship with some of the other early Creem cast–Marsh, Barry Kramer, Lisa Robinson, et al. Was it one big happy family?
Jaan: Lisa lived in New York and sent her copy in, but the rest of us lived together in one of two houses paid for by Creem. It was far from a happy family. There were moments of real simpatico, but with such big personalities, there was bound to be sparks. I remember a vicious fight between Lester and Marsh, when Lester’s recalcitrant and untrained dog Muffin defecated on the floor for what seemed liked the thousandth time. For whatever reason, Marsh had had it, and ceremoniously placed the mound of still warm shit on Lester’s typewriter, Lester walked in to see it, then went after David. No one ever seemed to keep anything in. It was always this living theatre. Often staff meetings would disintegrate into fisticuffs–with someone shot-putting a typewriter through a light table, or pitching a telephone through a window.
Scott: Who is your favorite writer of all-time, and why?
Jaan: I’ve always loved Nik Cohn, way before he wrote the magazine piece that became Saturday Night Fever. He was colorful, with a wicked imagination and a really dry, British sensibility, and he never missed a trick. He just had a wonderful way of telling a story, picking out odd little details, which would really define a person. With Nik, God really was in the details.
Scott: Of all the articles, interviews, and reviews that you’ve written, can you single out one that you’re most proud of?
Jaan: My Lynyrd Skynyrd piece for Creem, and the follow-up piece I did for Mojo, 20 years after the plane crash. When I interviewed Ronnie Van Zant for Creemin 1976, he told me that he never thought he’d live to see 30. I pooh-poohed his prophecy, attempting to talk him out of what I though was nonsense. It turned out it wasn’t, and he died in a plane crash in October, 1977. To pay back the debt I felt I owed him, I went to Jacksonville to retrace his life, the crash, and his ghost. It was an amazing, revelatory journey, about the mystery of life itself, and really moved me.
Scott: The part of your rock critic career I’m most familiar with after Creem is the writing you did for Addicted to Noise. How was that experience?
Jaan: It was really brutal work. We were trying to invent a new type of journalism, really. It was like putting out a daily newspaper about music, with a skeleton staff. I was responsible for all the news seven days a week, as well as doing a feature or two a month, transcribing the long-winded interviews–[Editor] Michael Goldbergliked to use every single utterance from a star’s mouth–as well as getting on the phone with managers, publicists, psychics, hotel porters–anyone who had a scrap of rock news. It was invigorating, and I felt so alive doing it. I remember one night my sister, Michael Goldberg, and I were sitting in a Denny’s following R.E.M’s first show after Bill Berry’s aneurysm, writing an account at 2:00 A.M., so we could have it for the next day’s news.
Scott: You did pretty major features on a few of the big Brit-pop acts of the mid-90s. Your Noel Gallagher interview, for instance, was one of the first lengthy pieces I read on them from this side of the Atlantic. Did this just sort of happen, or was it a scene you particularly wanted to cover?
Jaan: I am a total Anglophile. I lived in London for a couple of years, and have a great love for British music. I was a rabid NME reader and had been following their progress up the British charts. When I heard they were coming to San Francisco, I asked for an interview. They were such open, polite innocents then. That is one of the interviews where I couldn’t believe that the interview subject was actually answering my sometimes-intimate questions. It was like Noel was on an English quiz show, and he actually seemed disappointed when I came to the end of my questions. A record company put out that interview on CD; it really is one of my all time favorites.
Scott: Are you able to say what exactly happened with Addicted to Noise? It seemed to be going very strong, and suddenly it wasn’t around anymore. Any inside scoops you can share?
Jaan: When Michael Goldberg sold the company to Sonic Net he lost control. For all his foibles, Goldberg was a true visionary–when he wasn’t at the helm, it floundered.
Scott: What other outlets have you enjoyed writing for? You mentioned something about liner notes, for instance.
Jaan: I love writing liner notes. You’re able to write a historical analysis of something you really care about–and go much deeper than a mere article. I do a lot of stuff for Time-Life and Sony Legacy. I get to revisit many of those acts I covered in the seventies. For instance, Gregg Allman was much more loquacious when I interviewed him for the Best of Gregg Allman, than when I interviewed him in 1974. When I worked on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s box set, I interviewed 30 or so of his friends and famous fans, and it was incredible. I ended up with tears in my eyes during so many of them. Carlos Santana actually wept while talking about him. As for other outlets, I do stuff for Mojo, USA Today, the San Jose Mercury, Alternative Press, Spin, Blender, and Amazon.com.
Scott: Have you done much (or any) writing of a non-rock nature?
Jaan: Yes, I’ve written about politics for a local Berkeley publication, about architecture, photography, food, spiritualism, fashion, and beauty for a number of magazines. I think you can read the culture by what people wear, eat, and believe in, and deconstructing those clues really interests me.
Scott: What are your thoughts on the present state of rock criticism? Are there any writers or publications that you’re particularly impressed with?
Jaan: I think that rock criticism is more restrained. When you write a poor review, or piss off a manager you are denied access. That seems to force writers to play it safe. The publications I like are Blender, Mojo, and In Style (because I’m still invariably nosey about star’s lives).
Scott: What did you think of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Bangs in Almost Famous?
Jaan: I thought that Hoffman was incredible. He channeled Lester. I interviewed him, and he was eating lunch right through the interview, chewing, talking with food in his mouth and gesturing wildly, just like Lester used to, and I don’t think he was staying in character. He really conveyed Lester’s humanity and kindness, something people often overlooked in him, instead of being captivated by his bombast and the outrageousness of his writing. I think the movie was good, Cameron was forced to create something that would appeal to a large demographic, and while he had to temper the outrageousness of the times for the mainstream, he was able to concoct a truly engaging story.
Scott: Who would you want to play you in The Jaan Uhelszki Story?
Jaan: I guess Bridget Fonda. She has the same birthday that I do.
Scott: What songs would open and close that movie?
Jaan: “1969” by the Stooges and “My Way” by Sid Vicious.
Scott: Along with a handful of other writers–Ellen Willis, Lisa Robinson, and Lillian Roxon first come to mind–you helped break down the barriers of rock criticism to allow some women through the front door. Did this make your job that much more difficult back when you were starting out? Discuss this in relation to editors, as well as publicists and musicians.
Jaan: We lived in the hinterland of Michigan, and I don’t think until I did the Kissette story that anyone knew I was a woman. I was always getting mail addressed to Mr. Jaan Uhelszki; in fact, I still do. I think I had an advantage since there were so few women writers, male rock stars really didn’t take you seriously, believing a female reporter to be a groupie. It seems so silly saying this now, but it happened so often, you’d feel like having cards printed that said: “I’m not a groupie.” But on the upside, you’d tend to get better answers to your questions since the stars didn’t think you’d have the guts to actually be hard-hitting in your stories, so they’d tend to ramble on, and tell you more than they would a male counterpart.
Scott: Did you ever reach a point in your own career where you felt this was a non-issue?
Jaan: There does tend to be an old boy network at some of the established publications, but I think I always thought being a woman writer was a non-issue. I don’t think I haven’t gotten work because I was a woman.
Scott: Although you’d never know it from this site, music criticism is no longer as dominated by men as it was 25 years ago. Do you still feel there are major barriers for a female rock critic to overcome?
Jaan: I think they need to be as fearless as male writers are, and as aggressive in their pursuit of a story. I think woman should form their own network, women helping women. As in life, we’ve never been able to organize successfully enough.