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Cleveland, Ohio, USA
and the Improbable Rise of Cobra Verde

from Urban Outfitters' Slant Magazine, 1996
By J.K. Manlove

ONE, a vision.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum juts above the gray-brown shore of Lake Erie in a sudden burst of angles and glass, nudging Cleveland's stooped skyline reluctantly toward the next century.

Suddenly, the surface of the lake is broken by a periscope, barely noticeable on this chilly March day. Cut to the sub interior; in the dank light, long reddish locks become visible beneath a vintage sailor's cap, as spindly fingers -- the nails bitten beyond recognition -- grip the scope. Soon, we hear a guttural "Fire!" in a language that falls somewhere between German and Russian, lots of consonants fighting the vowels for attention. Cue stock footage of a torpedo cutting through icy water.

Then the blast: the rock hall is engulfed in an enormous cone of fire, the sound of shattered glass matched by the eerie cackle of the sailor. The scope slides down.

John Petkovic pauses for effect, then smiles. "And that's how the video would end. Isn't that great?"

Petkovic, the vocal and guitar demiurge behind Cleveland's Cobra Verde, has crept up behind me at work. Tall, lanky, his blue eyes wide with some unfathomable mixture of glee and irony, he was just on his way to the bathroom and wanted to share this pick-me-up of a brainstorm.

"That would be so great," he says again, as if to no one, and walks on. He doesn't look back.

TWO, a confession.

"In case you were wondering," Petkovic tells me over a cup of ground roast lite Java gold mocha, "we don't stand for the good of mankind." No, I think, but you do seem to stand for this unforgiving marvel of a city in this badly out-of-joint time. As though he's reading my mind, he leans in a bit and says, "I tried to go straight. But I guess I'm just a rock and roll recidivist." Exactly. Up periscope.

THREE, genius.

To begin to know Cobra Verde, I have decided one must start -- not with Cleveland -- but with alternative radio. And not because you can hear Cobra Verde records there; you can't. Because of what you hear there instead of Cobra Verde records.

Over the winter, driving back and forth to work every day, I thought I had discovered the ultimate alternative-rock artifact, for the inevitable alternative-rock exhibit at the still-standing rock hall: the Toadies' "Possum Kingdom." From that irritating, plodding opening "riff," which practically screams its quotation marks over the car radio, we are faced with the perfect pastiche of third-hand, smirky mediocrity, right down to the fake-twangy vocals and the "ooooo-scary" hints of serial murder (the singer's "dark secret" behind the boat house, which in any decent '70s song would be a blowjob). Exquisite, right?

But then our "modern rock" station did me one better, trotting out a live version of "Possum Kingdom." God, what brilliance: an imitation of a band doing an imitation of their idea of what a "now" song should, in theory, sound like.

Then, the same station somehow upped the ante and found Seven Mary Three's aptly named "Cumbersome" ("I have become [crash] cumbersome [crash] to this world"). When I saw the video, in which they don't blow up the rock hall or even spray a woman in a bikini with a big firehose, it hit me: Nietzsche was right. Eternal recurrence of the same. It is 1975. Seven Mary Three aren't just some reference to, some ironic evocation of, Black Oak Arkansas. They just are Black Oak Arkansas, right down to the fringed coat and the mustache and the way Jim Dandy sings "my gurrrrllll" on the chorus.

It's just that John Petkovic and Mr. Manlove live in Cleveland, so we can see it better than my comrades in Seattle or New York, where alternative journalists at alternative publications are trying to find out how alternative and iconoclastic Seven Mary Three came up with their cool retro song.

This is a trick to be sure, but it's rather like the ventriloquist's trick of singing while drinking a glass of water. A hard trick to learn, but of little use once you have.

They came up with their song, not because they're ironic, bored intellectuals who are interrogating the abstract idea of Jim Dandy as simulacrum, but because, as I said, they are Black Oak Arkansas in the flesh. And here in Cleveland, they never left.

Here, the only way to fight this crap is not to do it. On purpose. And so, Cobra Verde. "The only way you will not be exploited is if you have no marketable skills," Petkovic says. From the judgment of "modern rock" radio, he's got that about right. And so he joins the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks, Gang of Four and Cleveland's own Pere Ubu in having no marketable "skills." Just a great, distinctive band.

FOUR, my dark ages.

A free paper here has a listing of 99 local bands and their 99 CDs. A "service." But if you scan the club ads, or listen for the radio giveaways, or read the music columnists, you learn that the White Zombie show was "tremendous" and Lisa Loeb tickets are still on sale and someone from Cleveland ran away to the Big City to join a "real" band (Stabbing Westward) on a "real" (i.e. major) label.

You learn from a classified ad that a local band in search of a "rad" vocalist does not require the services of, and I do quote, "bird-watching fags."

In short, you learn that it is 1975; and if you want to make odd, difficult music no one knows what to make of, you will just have to go ahead and do it. But don't expect "support." Don't expect label interest or Neil Young to "drop in" or carts of hors d'oeuvres or Drew Barrymore in a pair of Mickey Mouse underpants to "just happen" to be in the club while she's in town making a "sweet" little Gus Van Sant film project. You'll just have to do what you want to do, make the sounds you hear in your head, and not worry about getting Butch Frigging Vig to produce. After all, who do you think you are, Nirvana?

FIVE, symphony.

John Petkovic writes songs in a private universe spinning between two poles, one he calls "impact" and the other "atmosphere." His is a constructivism fraught with all the dangers of Rick Wakeman in a gold-lame cape that somehow comes out early Eno-meets-Steve Jones. He puts great stock in melody, and has a voice properly pitched between artifice and anger to make melodies stick. But for him, that is just the beginning.

Songs are then built on tape by the whole band, piece by piece, in a craftsmanly manner that would make Steve Albini's head explode. Rather than search for the perfect recording of some ultimately "real" core, some inner honesty of expression, they turn songs into algebra problems to be solved.

"We look for four or five distinct frequencies, a kind of symphonic quality," Petkovic says, stopping to consider what the hipocracy might make of a word like that. "It can take a long time. Luckily, I have, like, 30 or 40 guitar pedals."

A fearless sailor indeed.

SIX, America.

Cobra Verde released their first album, Viva la Muerte, in 1994. But our story goes back to 1975 and environs -- appropriately -- when a young John Petkovic, born in the United States of Yugoslav parents, would hear Roxy Music and, later, the New York Dolls on frequent trips to what was then Europe's most liberal post-Stalinist state. He saw even then, as an American kid who spoke fluent Serbian, the kind of intellectual culture he didn't like -- and the kind of music he did.

Something of that early distaste for America's cultural arrogance remains with him yet. The problem with the intellectuals, he says, is that they are in fact "at the vanguard of conventional wisdom," selling a notion of bland self-realization they confuse with real free-thinking. "There's something in the American psyche," he says, "that wherever we go, we will make things feel good because we say so." Our own identity seems threatened, in other words, if other people can't smooth over the hard edges of history and say that this is indeed the best of all possible worlds.

Nor are such woozy sentiments missing from the new alternative establishment -- which must make the renewed ascendancy of Black Oak Arkansas easier for someone like Kurt Loder to swallow, mumbling "the best of all possible worlds" over and over to himself before the camera light comes on.

Petkovic sees in the insistent denial of alternative rockers that they are "selling out" a symptom of a deeper malaise, which Dr. Manlove has diagnosed before as the quest for authenticity. The problem is, behind the flannel table-pounding about dark secrets, one finds . . . more table-pounding. There is no there there. "Indie music has all the character of a happy-go-lucky dissident in a totalitarian state," Petkovic says. And what do you do when the party steps down voluntarily?

"If 100 people are on one side of the street, and some find out they're like, 97 or 98 in line, it's real easy to go across the street and point your finger," he says. It's harder, one supposes, to come up with a floor show.

SEVEN, the movies.

John Petkovic loves movies, and this is not unrelated to coming up with a floor show. He tells the story of a Werner Herzog movie in which a visionary finds himself in a village of the blind. Or at least he thinks the villagers are blind, since they can't see the fire he sees everywhere plain as day. But then, he can see the future. It's like that old joke, Petkovic tells me, where a guy walks by with a sign saying, THE END OF THE WORLD IS COMING. So a bunch of people say, Well, but we've been hearing that for years. And still the world doesn't end. And the guy says, "Why do you think the sign says it's coming?"

What Petkovic likes about movies is that they offer a suspension of disbelief, a way to make symbols without apology. By way of explanation, another story, the floor show I mentioned. Petkovic's first band, Death of Samantha, played its first show in August 1983 in a Ground Round family steakhouse. It did not occur to him that perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Jones would not like pummeling punk with their baked potato, just as it still fails to occur to him to make Seven Mary Three records. They played about four songs and then were literally thrown out. And fired to boot. And the rest is an indie legend.

DOS, which also involved Cobra Verde guitarist Doug Gillard, went on to make four records, including the widely reviewed Come All Ye Faithless. And then -- Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Gin Blossoms having opened for them -- they quit. "Why add to the trash heap of irrelevant information?" is Petkovic's only comment about that time and the possibility of success as the next Husker Du. For two years, aside from a bitter fight with Homestead Records to get his own albums back, he lived a quiet life in Cleveland. He got a job.

EIGHT, a theory.

There is a theory, popularized by people like Jean Baudrillard and Herbert Marcuse, that we live in a society where real opposition is not possible, because all opposition can be co-opted. Left and right are mirror images, so the stern refusal to sell out is inevitably underlaid by a desire to succeed "on a different level," even though those checks from Capitol Records keep on coming.

When Petkovic gave up the indie ghost of Death of Samantha and came back as Cobra Verde, he knew that his only option was to admit everything and do whatever he wanted. Just like it was 1975. Thus, another story. This woman from Sub Pop called him one day and said, stricken with conscience, "It's not like you're a $5 whore." "No," says he, "but give me $10 and we'll talk."

There is another theory, from a reactionary political philosopher named Leo Strauss I heard too much about in college. Strauss thought that great art or great thinking could only come from repression, unfortunately for "open" societies. As any Clevelander can tell you, there is some truth to this. I'm sure the woman from Sub Pop had no idea what Petkovic was talking about.

NINE, maracas.

I walk up to a gray steel door in the Cleveland suburb of Bedford on a subzero night. Inside, Cobra Verde are working on a song for their as-yet-untitled next album. Bassist Don Depew is at the console, his long brown hair half covering his face as he tinkers with the dials on an effects pedal patched into the board -- all the while assuring Petkovic that his background vocals are "fine." "Do you get it, does it make sense?" Petkovic prods. "Sure, yeah, I guess," Depew replies drowsily.

Which is not to say that Depew and drummer Dave Swanson don't have firm ideas about how the records should come out. When I remark how unusual it is for collaborative projects not to turn into Yes or Primus albums, "loose baggy monsters" like Henry James novels, Depew snaps, "Why does it have to be one way? If it sounds OK, it is OK."

Yes, but common sense can bend: what Picasso or Ian Curtis thought was OK, others called crazy. Or bad.

Swanson, who played bass in DOS and was involved in other Cleveland underground bands like the Reactors, adds that the "symphonic" quality Petkovic ascribes to Cobra Verde comes from listening to such a wide band of music that the received categories begin to melt a bit.

But sensing the soft, Billy Corgan center lurking there, he quickly continues, "We don't listen in a slacker sense. I mean, we couldn't make an alternative record if we tried. The trouble with indie records is, they just don't have songs."

True enough. As the 16-track starts up on the song under construction here, which fuses a "heavy," semi-Soundgarden foundation to oddly catchy, slightly off-kilter Moog and Petkovic's alternately sweet and threatening vocals ("Don't let me love you / like I've loved myself"), he bounds into the control room with yet another idea.

"Hey!" Heads turn. "You know, maybe we can get the maracas on this track." A tiny smile inhabits Depew's face. "Yeah. No. I mean maybe."

TEN, the recordings.

Viva la Muerte (on Scat Records), the debut, is aptly characterized by Petkovic as a "rock monolith" -- although there are hints there, on a track like "Montenegro," of the sinewy, snake-charming grooves to come. In 1995, Cobra Verde launched a three-pronged assault: the EP Vintage Crime and the single "Leather" (b/w "A Story I Can Sell"), both on St. Louis's Scat, and the single "One Step Away from Myself" (b/w "Everything to You") on Seattle's Sub Pop.

The seven-inches, which don't duplicate EP tracks, show clearly where the band is now. Their formula is tightly produced songs that crush together airy intros, compact, crystal-hard chord progressions, soaring choruses and wedding-cake layered vocals -- adding in old, buzzing Moogs and Rolands as a kind of ether in which it all breathes. Lyrical themes include dreams of genocide, heroin-slash-melancholy ("a watery sad vein") and dressing up like a priest. I prefer "Leather's" Creedence directing a version of Wire fronted by Glenn Danzig, but the Sub Pop tracks are well-chosen for the less baroque, more rockist audience that label draws.

Vintage Crime starts out more in the Muerte camp, and includes some agitprop that reads better than it sounds. But it takes off on the last three tracks, among which is a genuinely creepy cover of "Fire of Love." And the EP boasts what is in my view Cobra Verde's finest moment so far. If I had to pick one thing they've done to back up my enthusiasm, it would be "Every God for Himself," by a mile. It's nearly a perfect song, bleak but catchy, complete with a Mick Stardust guitar solo and a White Album false ending.

The best way I can describe it is to quote from an article I read recently in one of those theory journals on the notion of the uncanny -- "the haunting of what seems new in the present by residues of the past." The song's discipline and fierce propulsion are entirely contemporary, unlike the cloying, Small Faces nostalgia of a group like Supergrass. But with its seductive chorus and sly, cinematheque lyrics, it captures well the uncanny's unfulfilled longing for "an eerily familiar home that was never really inhabited and therefore can never be regained."

At this rate, the next album should be The One.

ELEVEN, Elvis.

We are walking out of a coffeehouse where the most attention John Petkovic got was a surly request for his dirty glass. He asks me about the two years I spent living near New York City, then the conversation turns to his parents. "They really worked hard when they came here, you know, and I kind of admire that. I mean, they don't know any of this punk or alternative -- their idea is that their son wants to be Elvis." He shrugs.

Well, Tom Verlaine and Jon King and Ian Curtis weren't exactly Elvis either, but they were rock stars of a sort, our rock stars. And although the waitress may not know it, the pedestrians may not know it, the radio may not know it, John Petkovic could be a rock star like that.

Major labels will learn he doesn't come cheap: "I don't go for any of this groveling for chump change," he says of the college-kids-in-a-van touring syndrome. But he has the vision and the voice. He's doing it his way. And his submarine is waiting.

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