Different people are saying different things about the showdown that took place at the John Varvatos store in SoHo on the night of Nov. 15. What’s definitely true is that it happened while Mr. Varvatos, the men’s clothing designer, was hosting a book party in honor of Creem, the storied Detroit-based music magazine that launched the careers of legendary rock critics like Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs before folding in 1985.
The party’s guest of honor, and the man who had put the book together, was a photographer named Robert Matheu. A heavyset 52-year-old rocker who only recently sold his Harley Davidson, Mr. Matheu took pictures for Creem on a freelance basis for a number of years during the late 70’s and the 80’s. In 2001, after the magazine was featured prominently in the Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous, he took over the trademark in an attempt to bring the magazine back to life. The book Mr. Matheu has just put out, titled Creem: America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine and published in October by HarperCollins, is billed as a retrospective celebrating the Creem legacy, featuring interviews with the original members of the staff and reprints of old articles.
The party at the Varvatos store was in full swing when the fight erupted. Mr. Matheu was signing books when he spotted in the crowd J.J. Kramer, the 31-year-old trademark lawyer and son of Barry Kramer, who founded Creem in 1969 and ran it until his death, in 1981. Mr. Matheu was surprised to see Mr. Kramer at the party, because Mr. Kramer is currently suing Mr. Matheu for control of Creem.
According to one witness, a longtime friend of Mr. Kramer’s named Elizabeth Houlihan, Mr. Matheu shouted “What the fuck are you doing here?” at Mr. Kramer when he saw him. When Mr. Kramer walked over, according to Ms. Houlihan, Mr. Matheu grabbed him by the shirt and pushed him.
“J.J. pushed him back in self-defense,” Ms. Houlihan said. “And then Robert pushed J.J. again, grabbed his face and drew all over it with permanent marker.”
Security was subsequently called and Mr. Kramer was escorted out of the building, Ms. Houlihan said.
According to Mr. Matheu, who is considering filing a police report about the incident, none of this happened. His lawyer, William B. Kerr of the Wall Street firm Kerr and Richards, said Mr. Kramer instigated the confrontation by coming up to the table where Mr. Matheu was signing books and asking, “Are you happy now?”, before grabbing him by the lapels and shaking him. According to Mr. Kerr, who said he was standing next to Mr. Matheu when the confrontation took place, Mr. Matheu threw his hands up to show that he would not fight.
“I think my behavior was flawless,” Mr. Matheu told The Observer. “Had he come into the party and maybe had a different demeanor about him, we were all prepared to simply say, ‘Listen, we have a lawsuit pending, we have nothing to say to you, but feel free to visit with some of your dad’s friends here, as there are probably some people here who would like to meet you.’”
Regardless of what happened at Varvatos that evening—for now it’ll have to remain a Rashòmon story, though you’d think there would be some documentation, considering the number of photographers in attendance—the bad blood between Mr. Kramer and Mr. Matheu is undeniable.
First, some backstory: When Barry Kramer died, his wife Connie tried to keep Creem going for several years—a tall order, since it was already a quarter million dollars in debt and Ms. Kramer didn’t have much experience running a business. Still, she did her best, hoping to keep the thing alive until J.J.—who was six at the time of his father’s death—was old enough to take over.
Eventually it became untenable, and in 1985 Ms. Kramer sold all the intellectual property rights to a businessman named Arnold Levitt. The magazine ceased publication a few years later, and Mr. Levitt presided over several unsuccessful attempts to revive it.
In 2001, after the success of Almost Famous, Mr. Matheu approached Mr. Levitt and told him he wanted to start the magazine up again. The two of them worked out a licensing deal by which Mr. Levitt would hand over all the trademarks and intellectual property rights associated with Creem to Mr. Matheu for a period of five years, during which Mr. Matheu could create a Creem Web site, sell Creem merchandise and possibly work toward a proper relaunch. According to the agreement, Mr. Matheu would have the option of buying Creem from Mr. Levitt outright for $100,000 at the end of the five years.
But after five years, Mr. Matheu did not have enough money to close the deal, and neither did Creem Media Inc., the corporation he had registered after Mr. Levitt granted him the license in 2001. Time was running out on the option to buy, and the pressure was on: Mr. Levitt was saying that he had other offers, and that if Mr. Matheu didn’t move quickly, he’d take the rights back and sell the magazine to someone else.
This is where the story gets murky. According to the lawsuit Mr. Kramer filed last December, Mr. Matheu offered to make him an equal partner in the company if he helped get some money together to buy the license from Mr. Levitt. Mr. Matheu allegedly made the same offer to Chris Carter, a radio D.J. and rock musician from Los Angeles for whom Mr. Matheu had done some photography work over the years.
According to Mr. Carter, a longtime fan of Creem, Mr. Matheu had been trying to convince him to go halves on the license for a while. He’d been hesitant until Mr. Matheu told him that Mr. Kramer—who was, after all, the son of the magazine’s founder—was thinking of getting involved. Mr. Kramer’s involvement made Mr. Carter reconsider, and the three men came to an agreement that spring. The terms of that agreement, according to the lawsuit, were that Mr. Carter and Mr. Kramer would put in around $30,000 each in order to help Mr. Matheu buy the license, and that in exchange, Mr. Matheu would make them both equal partners in the company. As Mr. Kramer and Mr. Carter say they understood it, each of them would own a 30 percent stake in Creem Media, and the remaining 10 percent would belong to Ken Kulpa, a friend of Mr. Matheu’s who’d been helping him run the company since 2001.
Mr. Carter and Mr. Kramer both say the agreement was a rush job because of the time constraints imposed by Mr. Levitt, and as a result, no contract was drawn up before money was exchanged, and the deal was essentially made on a handshake.
Not long after the deal with Mr. Levitt went through, Mr. Carter and Mr. Kramer got a couple of troubling e-mails, one from Mr. Kulpa and one from a man named Jason Turner. Both of them claimed to be members of the Creem Media Inc. board of directors, and said that because Mr. Matheu had not consulted them about the deal, they would not honor it.
Mr. Kramer and Mr. Carter say they asked Mr. Matheu to explain himself. After about six months of back and forth, Mr. Matheu allegedly stopped responding to e-mails. In December, Mr. Kramer and Mr. Carter filed their lawsuit.
Asked about the charges last week, Mr. Matheu said he never told Mr. Kramer and Mr. Carter they would get 30 percent of the company in exchange for their contributions.
“We were looking at the possibility of how they could be invol
ved and in what capacity, and that never came into fruition and we never finalized anything,” Mr. Matheu said. “They wanted a lot more than there was to have.”
Mr. Matheu’s lawyer elaborated: “Our counter, and what we’ve said in court, is that Creem Media Inc. was a Nevada corporation with three board members, whose bylaws state, in effect, that you need a majority of board members to affect a management decision. … At best, J.J. and Chris Carter have an ultra viris offer from one member of the corporation. At worst, what they have is a he-said-she-said that he made an offer and they accepted it.”
Mr. Matheu’s lawyer said Mr. Carter and Mr. Kramer—who is trained in corporate law—should have known that Mr. Matheu did not have the unilateral authority to sell them a majority holding in the company without first clearing it with Mr. Kulpa and Mr. Turner.
It’s unclear, in light of this, what Mr. Matheu told Mr. Kramer and Mr. Carter they were buying for their $60,000.
Fast-forward to October 2007, when Mr. Kramer came across an advertisement on Amazon.com for a Creem book co-written by Mr. Matheu to be published by HarperCollins that month.
Mr. Kramer called his lawyer and successfully filed for an injunction to stop the book from going to press. When that happened, Mr. Kramer said, he was invited to the HarperCollins offices by an editor there to take a look at the book, in case he liked it enough to allow it to go forward.
That was wishful thinking: Mr. Kramer saw the book as a deceptive revision of the magazine’s history that not only overstated Mr. Matheu’s involvement but marginalized some of the people who had made it what it was.
At that point, HarperCollins came forward and told the court that they had already printed thousands of copies of the book and stood to lose a significant sum of money if it was pulled. As a result, the injunction was lifted, and the book came out as planned.
But for Mr. Kramer, there was always something else at stake. “This whole endeavor for me from the get-go was sort of a bridge to reconnect with my father, who I didn’t really get to know,” he told The Observer. “To have somebody try to take that from me and in the manner in which he’s attempting to do—that is absolutely maddening.”