Thursday, December 22, 2005

The 'Creem' of Michigan rock


Back in the distant mists of time, Michigan seeded homegrown rock acts and an underground press which together sparked an exciting counterculture, if only briefly.

At the forefront were musical groups such as the punk prototype Motor City 5 (MC5) and the Fifth Estate, a counterculture rag founded at Wayne State University in 1965.

The scene was eagerly embraced by tens of thousands of college students at campuses across the state who were protesting the Vietnam War, calling for women's liberation and racial equality.

Rolling Stone magazine, founded by Jann Wenner in San Francisco, was viewed by many as an "underground" publication. Now a slick magazine, Rolling Stone was originally printed on newsprint and folded into magazine size. It was the country's original serious music paper and provided a national forum for the emerging underground scene.

Detroit, meanwhile, was the base for Creem Magazine, edited for a time by Lester Bangs, who earned credence as an irreverent rock critic and commentator on the social scene. Creem's logo was a drawing of a milk (or beer) bottle dubbed "Boy Howdy." Robert Crumb drew the cartoon for $50 in 1969 despite having a growing national reputation in independent comics.

With a visit to the neighborhood record store a customer could pick-up music from the hippest Michigan bands and plenty of counterculture reading material. In East Lansing, half a dozen such independent shops existed across the street from the Michigan State University campus.

On the music side of this intersection were the MC5, managed by political activist John Sinclair; Detroit's namesake band featuring a newly -invigorated Mitch Ryder; Bob Seger System; SRC; Frijid Pink; Frost; Amboy Dukes; Brownsville Station; Catfish Hodge; Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen; and Iggy Pop and the Stooges.

The journalistic side of the equation included Ypsilanti's Second Coming, Ann Arbor Argus, East Lansing's The Paper, and other regionally produced publications. Other well-known (at the time, anyway) underground newspapers included Chicago Seed, San Francisco Oracle, Atlanta's Great Speckled Bird, Berkeley Barb and Los Angeles Free Press. Even Escanaba had an underground publication called The Experiment, edited by this writer.

Independent comics also flourished. One of the most popular was The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic book drawn by Gilbert Shelton, which featured the adventures of three hippies, Freewheelin' Franklin, Fat Freddie and Phineas. I still own issue No. 2 which features each of the brothers giving a different hand gesture on the cover.

Besides music and various publications, the counterculture needed accompanying gear. Headshops sprung up to supply rolling papers, herbs, blacklight posters, psychedelic clothing, incense and lighters, pins, stickers and similar artifacts. One such collective of shops near Central Michigan University was called Mountain City, a reference to Mt. Pleasant.

Concerts were another unifying factor and Michigan's bands delivered the goods. Singer Rob Tyner led the MC5 through wild versions of "Kick Out the Jams" and tons of great original material only to miss national acclaim for their politics. Ditto for Iggy Pop. Ted Nugent's Amboy Dukes took us on a "Journey to the Center of Your Mind." Frijid Pink released a killer update on "House of the Rising Sun" and Brownsville Station earned praise for shows featuring their hit "Smokin' in the Boys Room." SRC ignited concert-goers with "Black Sheep," while Bob Seger ran through myriad regional hits--including "Heavy Music"-- with little recognition.

Creem--calling itself America's Only Rock & Roll Magazine-- became headquarters for Mitch Ryder's Detroit, making a direct link between the music and rock journalism.

Still, failure to achieve national success spelled doom for many great Michigan bands. By 1975, as its college-age participants grew older, the youth culture experiment faded.

1 comment:

Jim said...

I also recall a "hippie" minimall, possibly on Woodward (north end, nearer to Oakland County) with craft merchants separated by hanging beads and such. As I recall, it burned down. Maybe too many lighted candles? There were another couple of places I recall visiting with my parents, too. Rochester MI had a church rebuilt into a hokey-looking castle with similar merchants, format, and length of operation (though that building, since re-restored, is still there). Suprised you didn't emphasize WABX more, or even WWWW. Underground cartoonist R. (Robert) Crumb lived in Detroit in the late 60s era, and did a comic there (Motor City), and people associated with the MC5 told me that people like Steve Winwood were even a part of the local scene from time to time. There was also the Plum Street activity. It has quite a history, this place.Link to my MC5 article attached.