Articles and Reviews
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
"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.
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
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
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
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
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)
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?
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
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
"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
A fearless sailor indeed.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
"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.
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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