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The Rocket, 3-22-2000
Cobra Verde
Bring on the Night
By Dave Liljengren

"First off, I like to have sex in a car..." Cobra Verde's John Petkovic is explaining the convergence of themes which meet in the rich, sensual cover art to Nightlife, the expansive work of glam rock and "big ideas" which has pushed the Cleveland reporter and his studio project-cum-touring band into the klieg lights of worldwide rock critical adoration. Decadently sexualized and vaguely reminiscent of an early Roxy Music album cover, the Nightlife disc is draped in scenes of luscious, limousine-bound models, flopping and cavorting for an adoring camera lens.

Alluring photos may be the eye candy which arouses the audience's prurient interest, but sometimes sex in a car is more than just sex in a car. Petkovic wants the audience to look beyond the fishnets and pursed lips on the cover to deeper issues of voyeurism, role-playing and escapism.

"I think that this is a tourist society and getting that way even more so," he says. "It's always fun having sex in a car, but aside from that, there's something very different about automobiles and there's something very different about the way people experience realities [in them].... One thing about night life, I do like the idea that you go out, and you can take on different roles. To me, it's an active thing where you go out and party as someone else."

Further, he says, "The record was recorded at night, and I have my own night life which is, you know, trying to forget who I am otherwise."

Who he is otherwise is a media figure of some importance in his hometown. Petkovic is the author of "Time Out," a daily entertainment column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer; an occasional reviewer in the music mag Alternative Press; a Balkan affairs contributor for the Cleveland NPR affiliate; and the curator of ScamCity2000.com, a wide-ranging Web site and forum for all things interesting to Petkovic, from Alice Cooper's riffs to Madeline Albright's policies, Noam Chomsky speeches to Negro League Baseball history.

While Petkovic's media career has brought him distinction, his night life as a rock singer, guitarist and songwriter has been no less successful. From 1985 to 1990, he fronted Death of Samantha, an avant-punk combo which released three well-received albums. In 1994, Robert Griffin of Scat Records asked Petkovic if he'd like to do a solo album. Preferring to hide behind a borrowed identity, he named his solo project Cobra Verde after a Werner Herzog film featuring one of Petkovic's favorite actors, Klaus Kinski.

To help with Cobra Verde, Petkovic recruited two former members of Death of Samantha -- singer/guitarist Doug Gillard and bassist Dave Swanson, who moved to drums in CV -- and added bassist Don Depew for Viva La Muerte, CV's debut, which came out later in 1994. The grouping coalesced into a band and by the time of their 1997 release, Egomania, the Cobra gang had approached indie legend Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices, offering to serve as his band for the recording of GBV's Mag Earwhig! and the tour which followed. The Cobra Verde lineup changed again for Nightlife. In addition to Petkovic, CV now includes guitarist Frank Vazzano, bassist Dave Hill, keyboardist Chas Smith and drummer Mark Klein.

Despite having performed in Guided by Voices with Pollard -- or perhaps because of it -- Petkovic does not see musicianship as the essential catalyst in the making of great rock albums. "The best albums are not made by musicians or technicians, they're made by people with a concept."

One of Petkovic's central concepts for Nightlife was to create something both larger than life and grander in scope than the average indie rock release of the moment. "Most of these indie rock bands, there's no reason, absolutely no reason, why they're doing anything, because when they go up on stage all they're doing is delivering an even more mundane version of their mundane lives.

"I like records that sound big," he continues, "that sound like there's something involved, that there's layers of sounds, that there's layers of voices, that there's lyrical subtexts, that there are choruses coming right out which just disappear and you go to a different kind of a verse, a totally different sounding verse.... I like records that don't sound like they're going to fit into someone's collection of lo-fi, hard-to-find, and the latest, most obscure sort of things. I like records that fit into the canon of rock 'n' roll music."

Far from fitting into this canon, Nightlife rewrites it with a larger-than-myth presentation of glam rock. It serves as a glue to hold together the manic, and at times conflicting, ideas powering the disc. "Every God for Himself" attacks the world of cinema, while "Pontius Pilate" rails at corporate handwashers who sign termination orders but lack the courage to deliver them. The brawny "Crashing in a Plane," meanwhile, with its refrain, "Violence makes, makes up the man," allows CV the chance to wail and bang as Petkovic attempts to prove his favorite Kinski-inspired catch phrase, "Strong things project."

Crafted with care in the course of 300 hours in the studio, Nightlife is indeed ambitious, big-sounding and multi-layered. This pleases Petkovic, who is eager to get back to the studio with the current Cobra Verde lineup. As he concludes, "It takes a lot of work to have fun."

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