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Interview with rock writer Jaan Uhelszki

Jaan Uhelszki is one of America’s most respected and eminent rock writers. Former editor of the revered by sadly defunct rock rag Creem, Jaan is now a freelance writer. She pens for Uncut, Classic Rock and Guitar World et al.

Interview by Neil Daniels (free extract from the book All Pens Blazing Vol. II)

When did you become a rock critic?
My first piece was published in 1972.

Can you give me a potted history of your career as a rock journalist?
I was a rock critic-in-training a couple of years before I ever wrote anything for Creem. I wheedled my way into working for the magazine by promising to manufacture and then sell Creem T-shirts for them. I was managing a rather of-the-moment boutique at the time, so I just used my entrepreneurial skills to pull it off – always with the idea that if I excelled at this they naturally would want to hire me. Luckily the bravado really paid off and they made me the “Subscription Kid” and later Creem’s Circulation Manager.
My “big break” came because then-Editor In Chief Dave Marsh knew I had an over-the-top obsession with Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. When Smokey was due to announce his defection from the outfit, I was crushed and David invited me to go with him to the press conference. What I didn’t know was he wanted me to write about it. Two weeks later he called me at eleven o’clock at night demanding copy. I have to say I was blind sighted; I had no idea that was on his mind, but drove out to the Creem office-cum-commune in a robe and fuzzy slippers and borrowed all of his Miracle’s albums. I stayed up all night to write what became An Open Letter To Smokey Robinson, begging him not to retire. It turned out to be the cover story, after that I never looked back.
After three years at the magazine, I finally worked my way into a full time editorial position and was given a desk next to Lester Bangs, which was both a blessing and a curse. He could thrash out reviews in what seemed liked minutes, making me feel like there was something really very wrong with me, since my writing process was much slower than his at that point. Everybody’s was. I was Creem’s News Editor and was responsible for The Beat Goes On, and then after Roberta Cruger left, I became the Movie Editor and took over Confessions Of A Film Fox which I did for the next seven or eight years as well as going on the road and writing a feature every other month or so. I started to branch out a little, freelancing for Fusion and Phonograph Record Magazine and a couple of European music mags like Pop and Poster. Ultimately Lester and I both became co-Senior Editors, before we both left in 1976.

Were you an avid reader of any rock writers when you first started?
Yes. Like every one else of that era I read Sixteen Magazine and then a trip to New York when I was fifteen truly opened my eyes after I got my hands on a copies of the East Village Other and the Village Voice. They were writing about music in a deep, personal, intimate, intelligent way, and I realised that was exactly what I wanted to do. When Eye 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. I loved the skewed, idiosyncratic way he described musicians and music elevating it to something regal, important, even dangerous. I also really loved Richard Goldstein at the Village Voice, Mike Jahn and Michael Thomas.

Are there any contemporary rock writers that you admire?
I like so many. There’s Jonathan Ames, Lenny Kaye, Strawberry Saroyan, Aidin Vaziri, Josh Baron, Ben Edmonds, John Swenson...

What was your main role as editor of Creem?
A mediator between warring factions. There were a lot of big personalities at Creem and many arguments at editorial meetings: typewriters being thrown through light tables, outright fistfights, inquisitions over long distance phone bills. I always felt I was trying to be a human balm for all the hot blood in the office. I think my greatest strength is I tend to get uncannily calm in the face of emergencies. And there always seemed to be one there. As for roles, we were a very egalitarian bunch. We used to have a boxed out ad asking for submissions at the beginning of the book that said: “We don’t have anything you ain’t got”. I’m not sure we really believed that, but there was an element of us just putting out a magazine on sheer will. We really had no idea what we were doing in the beginning. For the first five years or so there weren’t any designations to who did what. No listing for Editor In Chief, Managing Editor and so forth. We all contributed according to our strengths. I was queen of the high concept stories, and was usually pitching those. Bachman Turner Overdrive Diet Guide, KISS Komic, and my story about performing with KISS.

What was the Creem office like on a daily basis?
No one really got in until around 11:30 am or noon. Mostly because we never got home until dawn, if at all. It wasn’t unusual to find us blaring something like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music or Raw Power and pecking furiously at our IBM Selectric long after midnight, not uttering a word to each other for hours on end. Lester Bangs slept so many nights on a green leather couch, that it retained the shape of his body. I curled up under my desk when I couldn’t bear to write another word – or have the strength to walk home. Ben Edmonds was more fastidious – his desk was always scrupulously clean, just like his copy – and he kept more regular hours.
Lester would come to the office with a large root beer or sometimes Tab which he might or might not spike with Romilar cough syrup. For some reason we were all taken with the politically incorrect Amos And Andy television show, and often spoke in character all day long, which we thought was hilarious. There was always some promo man from the various labels bringing by rock stars: The Dictators, Billy Squire, Bay City Rollers. Iggy Pop visited one day and [our publisher] Barry Kramer dumped a trash can over Iggy’s peroxided head. It was one of the few times I’d ever seen Pop dumbfounded. Peter Laughner used show up looking like an underfed fallen angel, before he was in Per Ubu. He used to write stingingly beautiful record reviews for us that I still remember. But mostly I think about how tragically ironic it was that Lester’s obituary of Peter so foreshadowed his own end. The line “One of the reasons I am writing it is that there is more than a little of what killed Peter in me, as there may well be in you”, still haunts me. But then I don’t think I’ve ever accepted that Lester really is gone. Patti Smith was a constant visitor before she formed her group. Her best friend Judy used to live close by and we could always commandeer Patti to write something for us.

Who was on the staff list at Creem when you were editor?
I worked there from 1970-1976 and the core staff was: Dave Marsh, Lester Bangs, Ben Edmonds, Roberta Cruger, Charlie Auringer, Ric Siegel, Connie and Barry Kramer and me. Sue Whitall and Eric Genheimer came in as Editorial Assistants right before I left. There were a series of beleaguered Managing Editors who rarely stayed more than a year: Gary Kenton, John Morthland, Robert Duncan.

Can you tell me about your famous piece on KISS, I Dreamed On Was On Stage With KISS In My Maidenform Bra?
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 so I got the idea I should do the same thing with KISS. Never dreaming they’d say yes, I called up the publicist and asked if I could do a story on them – but I wanted to dress up like a member of KISS and perform with them. They didn’t bat an eye. But this was in the relatively early days of KISS's career, and they were trying everything to break them – staging KISS-atons – anything really. The record company was all for it – only cautioning me not to refer to them as a glitter band. Despite all that when I got to the sound check to meet up with the band, I found out no one had told the members. Awkward. Anyway, it was an amazing experience for me: I found out that I wasn’t as reserved as I thought I was, and I understood more of the musician’s psyche: how you can get addicted to the adoration of the crowds. Intoxicating, really.

Were you the resident KISS fan at Creem?
I actually got the beat because no one else wanted it. I have always believed that nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. KISS’s time had come right about the time they recorded Alive at Detroit’s Cobo Hall.

When did you leave Creem?
March, 1976.

Do you have any regrets?
No, not really.

Which article are you most proud to have written and had published?
My Lynyrd Skynyrd Fifths And Fists For The Common Man, that was published in Creem’s March 1976 issue. It was one of those pieces that just fell into my lap. Lester Bangs was supposed to interview them, but since it was his birthday, he asked me to fill in. I told him I would if he’d write the questions. So on 13th December, 1975, with his questions typed badly on a yellow sheet of paper, I grilled Ronnie Van Zant. After about an hour or so, Van Zant leaned across the table of the booth where we were sitting and told me that he didn't expect to live very long. “I'm never going to see thirty”, Van Zant he said. “I have the same problem Janis Joplin did, but worse". I tried to argue with him about it, reminding him that it was the end of the long gruelling tour, and the mood would pass. He laughed at me, and kissed me on the cheek, before I left. Never believing his prophesy would come true, I put it in my story anyway and didn’t think about again. That was until 21st October, 1977 when I heard Lynyrd Skynyrd's plane had crashed –three months before Van Zant’s 30th birthday. There were some fatalities reported but at that point they hadn't announced who was gone. But in my heart, I knew Ronnie Van Zant hadn't made it out alive. I always wondered why he chose me to make that awful admission. And why I found it important to put in the story. It seemed a little out of context in a piece about a band on the way up. To tell you the truth, I'm still a little spooked by it.

Can you recall any rock ‘n’ roll anecdotes that you have been caught up in from interviewing bands backstage or wherever?
The worst I think was my encounter with Jimmy Page on Led Zeppelin’s 1977 tour. 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 realise the implication until I began asking 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 sleep 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 am. Being on tour with the Allman Brothers was also memorable. Dickie Betts wouldn't talk to me at all, cautioning me not to “write what you see and not what you think”. 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 and dash off some notes because when I tried to write anything while he was talking, he’d say, “I never trust a woman who writes everything down”. 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 ten. I never understood the significance of the gift.

Do you read any British magazines?
Uncut, Classic Rock, Mojo and Word. And of course, British Vogue.

Are you a fan of any British rock writers?
Mat Snow, Jim Irvin, Lynne Barber, Nik Cohen, Nick Kent...

What are your thoughts on the current music magazine situation in North America as we’re slowly easing out of a major worldwide recession?
I bemoan their fate. I’m not sure anyone in American reads anything that’s not online. A conspiracy of the recycling industry.

What publications do you write for these days?
Uncut, Classic Rock, Guitar World, Relix, Tone Audio, Sound & Vision.

What is your daily routine?
I start work at about 8:30 am, I answer e-mails and go to a few news sites and see what happened while I was sleeping. Then by 10:00 am I either start work researching a story – I’m an obsessive researcher – or write questions for an interview. But if I’m on a deadline, I usually start writing about 8:00 am. I can’t make myself make an outline, but instead jot down countless notes that I never look at, obviously an attempt to stall the inevitable. I also try to build in “a courage to write bad day” – just to allow the words to come out and not judge them. Something Michael Stipe once said has always stuck with me. He said, “I allow my instinct to vomit whatever comes to me like a cat with a hairball”. It’s so much easier to edit or change something that you’ve written that is not stellar than face the day with a blank screen. And usually it’s not as bad as you thought. Sometimes excessive chocolate is involved in this writing ritual.

What has been the highlight of your career?
Having Ornette Coleman telling me my voice sounded like the sky.

 

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