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VENUS IN FURS
A bona fide Rock Star, the false-eyelash-worshiping John Petkovic, holds forth
By Randall Roberts
Is there anything more exciting than witnessing a vulgar mortal's transformation into a sparkling god? Anything more thrilling than getting whisked away in a limo, bathing in champagne and being dumped by the side of the road eight hours later, lipstick traces on the nape of your neck? Dressing in black velvet and a top hat and waltzing into a flannel bar? Spinning a rhinestone web around your oh-so-humble Levi's skin?
"I think false eyelashes are better than real ones," says John Petkovic, guitarist, singer and songwriter for the Cleveland-based Cobra Verde, who perform this weekend at the Side Door. "You know what I mean? I just like things that are fake. The ultimate lie and deception is that what people read in the media is real, and what people listen to is heartfelt and what people see around them really took place. I'm not part of that aesthetic -- the heartfelt things -- and identifying with people. I don't need to identify with anyone. I don't want anyone to identify with me."
This is but one grand declaration made by Petkovic, who is king of the grand declaration both during a phone conversation and when he and Cobra Verde are banging out their caked-on, way-bigger-than-you'll-ever-be Rock with a capital R -- one grand declaration among an avalanche that pours out of his lips.
The flip side of the champagne dream, one that is embodied on Cobra Verde's fantastic new album, Nightlife (Motel), is that to lead a rock-star life and to reach the realm of magical unreality associated with it, one must be somehow ordained as a rock star by the Secret Society of Megalomaniacal Rock Stars; that to appear famous, you must actually be famous. Cobra Verde is inspiring proof to the contrary and should serve as a template for all aspiring rock bands. Wanna be a star? All you need are style and an ability to shake your mortal coil, pull on some purple leather pants and wrap a feather boa around your rock-star soul.
This is what glam-rock -- Roxy Music, T. Rex, Bowie -- was all about, and Cobra Verde recalls the era both musically and philosophically, even if Petkovic doesn't necessarily consider Verde a "glam band" as such. "Obviously I like a lot of the glam stuff, but I like tons of other things, also. I think there's a certain thing about glam that people -- it was maybe the last period of music where high concept and big ideas were not seen as a bad thing, and I think that may be why we're referred to as (glam). You see a lot of independent films these days, and the problem with that big gap between the Hollywood schmaltz and the indie film is that indie films tend to be small-minded and very anti-concept, anti-idea, anti-big-issues, and I don't mean social issues but big flowing ideas -- and Hollywood films are so bombastic. I think that there's this really wide gap, and I think it's the same thing with music right now. If you're doing rock music, where there's a degree of artifice there, I think the easiest thing to do is to go back to glam, which is the last era where that kind of sensibility had its heyday."
That theme has run through Cobra Verde's eight or so years of existence, embodied best in "A Story I Can Sell," from their great collection Egomania (Love Songs), released on St. Louis' Scat Records in 1997: "Sell your story or deal in dreams/Shed your skin -- start again/Then begin to crawl again/Then believe all the lies you've sold."
Petkovic sprang from a movement that seemed the antithesis of artifice; his first band, Death of Samantha, released music on Homestead Records, one of the most average-dude labels of the '80s and home to such anti-rock-star rock-star acts as Dinosaur Jr., Big Black, Sonic Youth and the Volcano Suns, all of whom seemed to prefer jeans to jewels, T's to tassels. Death of Samantha, though, played a sort of faux-entitlement rock and never tried to disguise their megalomania (in fact, they seemed to inflate it). Cobra Verde is a continuation of DoS, a reaction to the piles and piles of self-absorbed "poor me" whiners who have come to inhabit the rock world in the past decade: "I think it's a failure to acknowledge the reality around us," says Petkovic of the authenticity issues he sees at the heart of indie-rock. "Obviously the inspiration for things is that there's a thought that comes into your head, or you feel a certain way, or you tried to do something and you failed, so you take refuge in writing this song But I just think that that kind of heartfelt attempt at authenticity in indie-rock is really a nostalgic attempt to reclaim something that never was there in the first place."
Nightlife is a Big Rock record that never tries to disguise its aspirations to Grand Statement status. Shimmering chords battle proud, puffed-chest analog synthesizers for supremacy, and saxophone solos à la Roxy Music appear through a mist to take centerstage. The power chords leap from the guitar fully formed, and when Petkovic sings, he sings; he doesn't try to disguise his efforts, infusing the words with bellowing drama. Nor does he attempt to disguise the melodic theft and homage evident all over the record. Each song, it seems, steals something from somewhere else; you can hear the piano plunk of "Now I Wanna Be Your Dog" on "Crashing on a Plane" (which also recalls the Buzzcocks' "Something's Gone Wrong Again"). You can hear the vocal harmony of Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes" on "Every God for Himself." The wild, celebratory air of Roxy's "Virginia Plain" beats throughout.
Says Petkovic: "See, when you want to steal, you may as well steal from something that's been stolen from so many times that it's no longer theft. By having people cite different songs all the time -- "It sounds kinda like this' -- I can say, "No, it actually came from that.'" Asked about the "Ashes to Ashes" theft, Petkovic laughs, then declares, "See, I thought that was "Leader of the Pack.' I always liked that song. It's never really intentional, but I kind of like the idea of yanking some melody flying through your head that sounds pretty good. I don't mind theft, though. I think it's fun. The bullshit answer is "It's fun to acknowledge the great music that has been produced out there,' but I think it's fun to personally swipe things left and right. The record before this, an EP called Vintage Crime (also on Scat) -- that was all about copped riffs. To tell you the truth, there's nothing wrong with stealing good, you know?"
The cover of Nightlife captures perfectly the aesthetic within. It's a photo taken by Mick Rock, who snapped some of the most famous photos of the glam era (including one of the great rock shots of all time, Iggy Pop on the cover of Raw Power). It features an all-dolled-up Lisa Ronson, daughter of Mick Ronson, guitarist for Bowie and Lou Reed in the '70s, entangled with a androgynous guy/girl in the back of a limo; Ronson's holding the neck of a champagne bottle, staring out the window. She looks larger than life. "I think that what Mick Rock does -- there was this period of time, and there are very few people who did it and I think Mick Rock was one of these people who was able to capture an image and capture the false eyelash in everyone. When music becomes a kind of Achilles' heel personified, and all these flaws are hanging all over the place, to me that's not interesting anymore. I was talking to this guy and he asked, "What did you like about Mick Rock?' That Iggy Pop Raw Power record, I thought when I first saw that that it might have been a staged record. I don't like things that are fake, I don't like things that are real, but I like when both things are thrown in doubt and interchanged to the extent that it ends up being a game that you're playing, a game of illusion rather than in fact an act or reality."
Opening the show will be Prisonshake, fellow Cleveland rock stars now transplanted to St. Louis. This will be their first appearance in nearly a year-and-a-half. The gig at the Side Door should be required for any aspiring rock band: Dude, you know your music rocks, but do you have what it takes to go all the way? Do you have the guts to ditch your blue jeans and Converse, to bury the Budweiser and swig Dom from the bottle? Do you just rock, or do you really, truly Rock?
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