Creem Queen

Jaan Uhelszki’s hard rock life.

creem magazine writer jaan uhelszki

Jaan Uhelszki has some stories to tell. Having spent her career as a music writer—most notably at Creem, the legendary Detroit publication that declared itself “America’s only rock ’n’ roll magazine”—she has interviewed some of the most famous names in rock history. It may sound glamorous, but it wasn’t the easiest job.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

There was the time she went to Florida to interview Iggy Pop. She was supposed to spend the day with him, but he seemed to be in a bad mood and gave her only an hour. At the end, he said he needed to take a leak, but instead of excusing himself to the bathroom, he relieved himself mere inches from her foot.

When she sat down with guitarist Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin (one of her favorite bands), he refused to speak to her directly and answered her questions only through his publicist, though they were just a few feet away from each other. Uhelszki called the experience “awful and embarrassing.”

Of course, not all encounters involved piss and hostility. Perhaps most famously, Uhelszki once performed onstage with Kiss in full makeup and regalia (guitar unplugged).

Not one to regurgitate a press release or write a glowing fan profile, Uhelszki humanized her subjects, knocking some off their pedestals and exposing them as they really were. “I’m not interested in people who are just going to be really superficial or give me canned answers,” she tells me recently from her home in Palm Desert. “I’ll just hammer away at them. It’s like, Why not? What have I got to lose?”

Uhelszki helped tell the story of rock ’n’ roll for the past half century, and she’s not done. Last year, she returned to her roots with the newly relaunched Creem, which was resurrected after a 33-year absence.

Founded in 1969 in Detroit by Barry Kramer, a record store and head shop owner, and editor Tony Reay, Creem became known for its funny, uncensored, and frequently offensive participatory-style journalism. Its scrappy crew included writers such as Lester Bangs and Cameron Crowe, who became nearly as famous as the bands gracing Creem’s pages.

Born and raised in Detroit, Uhelszki started off working in the subscriptions department in 1970, at the same time that Bangs started on the print side. Her first piece, “An Open Letter to Smokey Robinson,” was a personal plea begging the soul singer not to retire. She became the magazine’s news editor, movie editor, and eventually co–senior editor, along with Bangs. In the 2019 documentary Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine, Uhelszki recalls the atmosphere at the time: “You drug-fueled yourself so you could work 20-hour days. We made beautiful words out of sheer terror and codeine.”

That documentary, which was cowritten and coproduced by Uhelszki, helped renew interest in the magazine and (along with reclaimed intellectual property rights) propelled it back into existence, with Kramer’s son, J.J. Kramer, at the helm. Relaunched in June 2022 as an online publication—including a full digital archive—it is now a hefty, oversize quarterly print magazine that carries on the punk-rock spirit of the original but with a younger, modern music fan in mind.

Uhelszki is the only holdover from the early days, serving as the through line between past and present. J.J. had initially asked her to look over some articles to see if they were “Creem enough.” She agreed, throwing away about half of them. First given the title of editor emeritus, she became increasingly involved and is now an editorial director. “I do read every single thing that goes in there: every headline, every picture, every picture caption,” she tells me.

Music-wise, the magazine aims to cover wider ground than its predecessor did. Legacy bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Who are featured alongside up-and-coming acts like 25-year-old experimental electronic artist LustSickPuppy, soul artist KeiyaA, and Hawai‘ian black metal band Kūka‘ilimoku. In the spring issue, you can check out what kind of car Ty Segall drives, learn the backstory of how Metallica got signed, and read up on the clowncore scene.

Uhelszki says it was a conscious decision to make the magazine more inclusive. As groundbreaking as the original Creem was, it was still a boys’ club—and a very white one at that. Much of what was published would never pass the smell test today. For example, in a 1979 profile of Blondie, writer Nick Tosches asks Debbie Harry how old she is, whether she still menstruates, her preferred method of removing hair from her legs, and whether she has “housewife instincts.” In one of his famously contentious profiles of Lou Reed, Bangs drops both homophobic and racist slurs.

In the documentary, Uhelszki says the offensiveness was part of the magazine’s charm. “Everybody was politically incorrect,” she says. “No one watched their words. That’s what made Creem so good.” Yet, when I ask her about it today, Uhelszki admits she has some regrets. “If I could find a way to hack some of the things I wrote and get rid of them, I would 100 percent do that,” she says.

Still, as a pioneering female music writer, Uhelszki, alongside contemporaries like Ellen Willis, helped blaze a trail for other women in the industry. Although Uhelszki insists that her being a woman was a “nonissue” as a writer, she had to put up with a fair amount of BS to do her job. There was the time when Rick Wakeman (solo artist and former keyboardist of Yes) answered the door in a towel and wouldn’t put his clothes on. Or when Gregg Allman wouldn’t let her use a tape recorder because, he said, “I never trust a woman who writes everything down.” Or when the manager of Hall & Oates offered to send the duo to her hotel room for a three-way.

How did she deal with it? “You pretend it’s not happening,” Uhelszki explains. (Or, in the case of Hall & Oates’ manager, she used humor, saying, “We’re not allowed to accept tips.”) “I really didn’t know what to do. It’s like way before #MeToo.” In the end, she would get her revenge through her writing—“because you get the last word.”

As a music writer, I know the danger of interviewing your idols and the potential for it to ruin your love of their music. Uhelszki doesn’t seem to have that problem. She says she’ll interview anyone—with one exception. “I’ll never interview Mick Jagger because I love the Rolling Stones, and anytime he’s been offered to me, I just go, no, because I need one. I need one person in glass,” she says.

Although she has been a Californian since 1976 (first in Los Angeles and then Berkeley before moving to Palm Desert, where she has lived for the past nine years), Uhelszki maintains the scrappiness of her hometown while also being warm, personable, and exceedingly easy to talk to. It’s not hard to see how she got her subjects to reveal themselves. (Although not all as uncomfortably as Wakeman did.)

In her sixth decade covering music, Uhelszki still possesses the enthusiasm of a teenager. She rattles off a list of bands she’s excited about: Band of Heathens (“I love their lyrics”). Bill Callahan of Smog (“He seems like the Marlboro Man”). Steve Lacy (“He’s so good.… He’s like a rocket ship. He’s on fire.”). Bonobo (“I love EDM because it kind of lulls me into this meditative space”). Surf Curse (“For totally opposite reasons, like party-tastic kind of music”). She’s also a fan of Hurray for the Riff Raff, Amanda Shires, the Head and the Heart, and Wilco.

Music, she says, is her “biggest source of enlightenment.” “The more I learn, I learn it through that medium.”

“I think it’s holy,” she says. “If I have a religion, it’s probably this.”•

Kathleen Ok-soo Richards is a writer and editor living in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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