Articles and Reviews
New York Press
By David Grad
Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia, glam, proletarian discipline and rock stardom: these are terms you're not likely to hear uttered in the same conversation, much less by the same individual. But when talking to John Petkovic, the founder and principal member of Cobra Verde, they spill out in rapid succession and assume a coherence that gradually builds to an oddly seductive worldview. Because unlike his peers, Petkovic is grimly aware that there is greater reality beyond the trends in the underground or even the Billboard charts, and he has little patience for the self-involvement and tunnel vision of most musicians.
"You can either live in seclusion outside of the so-called industry you are operating in, or you can live in the real world and have a real-world perspective on things," he expounds. "Every record that comes out now seems to have something about the industry on it. I don't know that bands go to the extreme yet of dropping their manager's or lawyer's name, but when I read something about somebody and they say their inspiration for a song was how they got screwed by their label or the downside of their making it, I always think, 'That's not an inspiration for making music That is just so incestuous and megalomaniacal, it's insane.'"
Petkovic knows a thing or two about megalomania. Cobra Verde's fourth CD, the recently released millennial glam masterpiece Nightlife (Motel Records), was self-financed over three years and cost $9000 at a $25-an-hour studio. Even given his job as a daily entertainment columnist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the 34-year-old musician says, "It cost me an arm and a leg. I couldn't afford such luxuries as CDs and going out to dinner for a long time."
Working mostly by himself (vocals, guitars, synths) with the studio's owner Don Depew, Petkovic found that being in total control was the "liberating environment" he had always sought. Nothing was played live; songs were pieced together in a process he describes as "a musical Rubik's Cube." It was not having to work within the inherently democratic band paradigm (for touring purposes Cobra Verde is now a stable five-piece) that was the key to success. Petkovic says, "It felt really good to work on something where you alone selected the details which would remain on the album. It may sound like a biblical injunction, but I was guided by the principle that if some elements are stronger than the others, then the weaker shall be removed."
Petkovic is clearly not immune to the strange appeal of perfectionism. Take, for instance, the way he bought back all the existing stock of Death of Samantha, the plucky, no-apologies Cleveland rock band he led from 1984-'91. "It sounds crazy, but I bought out the back catalog because I did not want it to be available at all. It's weird, but I wasn't happy about the way that Death of Samantha worked out at all. At the time I was sick of the whole thing and I wanted to eliminate all traces that its music existed. 'Man,' I thought, 'I want to get rid of this and it would be great to start at point zero.'"
Though Petkovic has since reassessed the band's merits and now plans to reissue its work, his interest in music clearly has nothing to do with a commercially successful career. In the new underground, Do It Yourself has metamorphosed into Do It For Yourself. In Petkovic's view it isn't much of a financial sacrifice anyway. And the much-touted "level playing field" of the Internet doesn't sway him either.
"The impact of MP3s is being inflated. It seems hard to imagine that people will suddenly become free-spirited and sift through 10,000 MP3s to find something really cool when they weren't willing to go to the local mom and pop or even mall store that happened to have a good record in it. Even the profit margins on schmaltz are pretty narrow. Look at these bands that put out the worst pieces of garbage and are still broke."
He proposes a different model: "It's better if people keep regular jobs and have this proletarian view of making music-that they are just stamping out product. Not in the sense of something that is just bought and sold, but that your work is done in this disciplined environment. Somebody who has a regular job is dealing with the realities of life. It's no wonder why so many bands' best album is their first. When they were making that album they weren't in the industry."
But doesn't that violate one of rock's central tenets, that the rock lifestyle itself is a major inspiration for the most transcendental music? "Perhaps," Petkovic responds, but then adds, "After so many five-year plans and failed harvests you might start wondering if maybe we should start working our crops in a different way. So I think there is a difference between a working-class commitment and slogging it out for something, and its ultimate end. And the ultimate end is to create this Nietzschean greater idea."
The Nietzschean greater idea here is flawless rock 'n' roll, which is impossible to define but about which Petkovic gives at least some clue when discussing the derivation of his band's name in 1994. "Werner Herzog's last film with Klaus Kinski was Cobra Verde. Kinski had just died. I always loved Klaus Kinski. I always thought that rock 'n' roll should be like him. It stares at you, right in the face, with those bulging eyeballs and jutting chin. It has that mystical power."
Unfortunately, Petkovic complains, rock-including "independent rock"-rarely lives up to that ideal. "I hate indie rock as a musical concept and style. It is a wear-your-Achilles'-heel-on-your-sleeve kind of approach. It posits that there will not be a front person, and it posits that the music will not be assertive, and that the ideas will not be assertive. It may call itself indie, but it is not driven by the individual. It is driven by a communal sitz bath of warm vibes or something.
"Not only is nightlife under assault because clubs are being closed by people like Giuliani," he continues, "but it's also under assault because people want their heroes to be just like them and be this kind of goofball. Rock is part of a whole grander scheme. Bill Clinton is the total indie rocker. If Bill Clinton were in a band he would be in some kind of hybrid between California singer-songwriter and emocore, the schmaltz-peddling liar."
These days it's almost startling to hear anybody who plays an electric guitar make such a connection between the subculture and a greater social reality. But at heart Petkovic is a fundamentally political animal. "Rock is a political act. To be a frontman in 1999 is a political act. To show strength in public is a subversive act."
But then his politics transcend the bounds of mere cultural activism: He has been a member of the Yugoslavian opposition movement in the United States since the early 1990s. In 1991 he was even appointed as an aide to the Yugoslav Crown Council, which was trying to reinstate the monarchy in that fractious nation after the fall of communism, in the person of Crown Prince Alexander. The logic of this peculiar scheme was to fill the political vacuum left by the death of Tito and avoid the inevitable breakup of the country.
"We saw the Crown Prince as someone who could bring some kind of order into Yugoslavia, who could wed the cult of personality that had existed with Tito to the political structure," explains Petkovic. "Someone who people could look up to as a figure, who had symbolic power and who would have allowed for a stable transition of the political structure."
The experiment failed when the Clinton administration refused an audience with the heir to the throne. Petkovic is still bitter about the experience, and holds the U.S. responsible for the resulting disaster. "By 1992, events on the ground had taken over and it was no longer a feasible option. The United States wanted inherent instability in the region, because they wanted to expand NATO." This opinion has only hardened since U.S. planes bombed and destroyed his family's home in Cuprija.
But then where does glam come in? Bowie, Roxy Music and T. Rex's reputations are not based on their political prescience. Not surprisingly, Petkovic makes no apologies for the canvas on which he created his current CD.
"The greatest thing about glam rock was there was this fluidity in all its elements from lyrics and appearance. And it included elements of every musical style from doo-wop, r&b, heavy metal and jazz to avant-garde sounds."
He also sees it as the perfect antidote to the current general malaise, because "it opens up an intellectual focus by throwing material reality into confusion."
Maybe he's right. Increasingly, we are all caricatures of David Bowie's alien. The concept of being a tourist in one's own home and heart is a theme constantly reiterated on Nightlife.
"We live in a tourist society," Petkovic concludes. "Living by proxy, whether it's waging wars by proxy or the way they have sex. America is inherently a country you experience through the windshield. People are becoming increasingly numb to things."
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