"Can't Forget the Motor City" (1): Creem Magazine, Rock Music, Detroit Identity, Mass Consumerism, and the Counterculture

By Kramer, Michael J. | Michigan Historical Review, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

"Can't Forget the Motor City" (1): Creem Magazine, Rock Music, Detroit Identity, Mass Consumerism, and the Counterculture


Kramer, Michael J., Michigan Historical Review


"THIS is the last frontier, right outside the very walls where I sit," Dave Marsh declared from inside a grimy industrial loft in downtown Detroit where he lived and worked as a critic for the rock-music and counterculture magazine Creem. Writing in 1971, Marsh knew quite well that Detroit was in dire straits and that the city was an unlikely place for a publication devoted to the idealism of the counterculture. Nonetheless, Marsh sought to speak authoritatively about that idealism. Reflecting on the relationship between his decaying hometown and a burgeoning national "psychedelic" counterculture, Marsh mused: "It is part of the pattern of psychedelicdom's plan to save the world, of course, to get back to the land. In Detroit, you first have to find the land." Then, in a rhetorical move that would become crucial to Creem, Marsh suggested that Detroit's hopelessness was precisely what made the city central rather than marginal to "psychedelicdom's" salvation project. "But if we can save the Motor City," Marsh declared, "rest assured, we can save it all." (2)

Although Marsh did not articulate the "it" in need of saving, the crisis surrounding Detroit and the nation would have seemed clear enough to his readers. Detroit itself gained infamy from the 1967 riots, which were the culmination of years of decaying race relations. (3) More broadly, during the late 1960s and into the 1970s the United States sustained what many felt was an unjust war in Vietnam. On the domestic scene, the country experienced the contested implementation of Johnson's Great Society, Nixon's political scandals, economic transformations bringing first plenitude and then an oil crisis and a recession, and a cultural alienation that, by the end of the 1970s, Jimmy Carter would famously deem a "malaise." (4) Furthermore, the counterculture Creem sought to define faced its own problems: attempting to imagine an alternative social structure that was more harmonious than the technology-driven, mass-consumer order dominant in the Cold War years, the counterculture wound up associated at one extreme with violence and failure, symbolized perhaps most of all by the murders committed at the Altamont rock concert and by the cult led by madman Charles Manson, (5) and at the other, less dangerously, coopted in "lite" form by television shows and Pepsi commercials.

At first glance, Creem might not seem a likely publication to grapple with the problems of 1960's and 1970's America. But the fact that a magazine devoted to chronicling the commercialized products of the music industry might also be interested in, as Dave Marsh put it, "saving it all" should give one pause. Though it emerged within a countercultural milieu in Detroit, Creem did not express a simple, naive idealism about revolutionizing cultural and political life in the United States. Instead the magazine attempted to develop a critique of the counterculture in which it participated, while refusing to give up on that counterculture's utopian dream of transforming Cold War America into a more just, vital, meaningful, and fun society. Creem's combination of identifying with, yet also criticizing, the counterculture complicates the prevailing interpretations of this social phenomenon and its place in the history of the 1960s and 1970s, whether those analyses are hopeful celebrations or hostile condemnations. (6) Creem did not advocate "dropping out" of mainstream America, and the magazine refused to belittle the experiences of individuals who remained within the mass-consumer, mass-mediated confines of American life. But the magazine did express discomfort and dissatisfaction with the state of the society surrounding it. Because Creem does not fit easily into caricatures of the counterculture as either an irrational fringe movement of revolutionary fantasists or a commoditized pseudo-rebellion fostered by the consumer market it ostensibly opposed, the publication offers a chance to glimpse participants in the worlds of rock music, commercial culture, and youth politics struggling to understand their situations and attempting to negotiate their way through the possibilities and the dangers of everyday life in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.

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