Articles and Reviews
Sept. 20, 1999
Cobra Verde find the swaggering essence of glam rock that Todd Haynes and
"Velvet Goldmine" missed.
By Joe Gross
Sept. 21, 1999 | "Velvet Goldmine" was a blast, despite its campy,
post-"Citizen Kane" story structure, a sexless lead actor and its conflation
of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed into one character. Celebrating the glories of
fandom, director Todd Haynes captured the breathless experiences of opening
a new record for that first spin or reading NME as if it were the Torah. As
good as it was on the wombish bliss of being a fan, the actual music -- it
was supposed to be about glam rock -- was hugely inadequate, mostly because
Haynes couldn't get access to David Bowie's crucial hits or space oddities.
Instead, he commissioned art-rock band Shudder to Think to write songs for
his brutally fop-brained protagonist Maxwell Demon, and the results were
uniformly disastrous: The songs signified glam without ever actually
delivering on glam's crucial crunchy arrogance.
Haynes would have fared far better if he had consulted John Petkovic and his
band Cobra Verde. Cleveland journalist Petkovic has been trying to fuse
contemporary punk with visions of glam for almost 15 years now, first with
the little-known Death of Samantha and since 1994 with Cobra Verde. Much of
Petkovic's earlier work had glam's chunky riffs and dramatic songwriting but
it also had misplaced energy and none of the music's ostentatious flair. The
Jesus and Mary Chain's T. Rex was often better than Cobra Verde's, but God
knows Petkovic would have done a better job than Shudder.
But for the first time in Petkovic's career, it all comes together on
"Nightlife," a tight, heavy, guitar-and-chirping-synth version of glam rock
written sideways. These are the sort of songs Roxy Music might have recorded
had Brian Eno stayed on to write his epic "Baby's on Fire" with them. In
fact, the specter of Roxy's art-thrum looms extremely large over the
staccato piano and sax bleats of "Crashing in a Plane." Petkovic's warbling
baritone is hardly Bryan Ferry's voice of the spheres -- the closest he gets
is on the ballad "Between the Seasons." But Petkovic has finally nailed that
crucial rock star insolence. His band -- which backed Guided by Voices for a
record and now includes Frank Vazzano (guitar), Chas Smith
(theremin/synthesizer), Mark Klein (drums) and Dave Hill (bass) -- pounds
through the songs like they expect them to be deathless, and that's an
essence of glam that's almost impossible to get right.
Petkovic has claimed that he loves glam for the masking element, the
role-playing that it demands. To paraphrase Courtney Love, "Nightlife" fakes
it so real it's beyond fake. Cobra Verde no longer sound like a band
addressing a genre through an ironic veil; they've suddenly started to play
the stuff straight-up, something Shudder couldn't do for "Velvet Goldmine."
In "What Makes a Man a Man," Cobra Verde are asking the ultimate glam
question. They're also smart enough to dodge the answer, because not knowing
is glam's root integer.
"Heaven in the Gutter" is all trebly swagger, and you can almost see
glittery rebel rebels banging their heads. At the same time, you get the
sense that Cobra Verde could use a little work on their strut. After all,
what kind of self-respecting spaceman would admit, "Ain't going back to
Venus/I've never been to Mars"?
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