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Raiders of the lost art: Cobra Verde raise high-concept rock to a new level
Minneapolis Star Tribune
By Vickie Casey
Published Friday, January 14, 2000

Rock 'n' roll can be many things to many people. To CobraVerde's John Petkovic it's more than coming up with a good beat and some clever lyrics. It's a philosophy that incorporates his unique outlook on what rock 'n' roll is -- and isn't.

"Rock music is not a series of musical passages; it's a series of things that connote other things," Petkovic said. "The most unique records -- records that sound like they were dropped from Mars -- all sound like they were made by conceptualists and not made by musicians or technicians. I always thought that records shouldn't have one song that captures everything because then it's not an 'album.' Records should be a composite of very different sounds, and I think that's a tradition that's kind of long gone."


Reviving what he thinks might be a lost art form, Petkovic and his crew in Cleveland's CobraVerde have righted the wronged idea of conceptualist rock. The group's new CD, "Nightlife," its fourth album, is an in-depth course in the pursuit of personal pleasure and entertainment, slathered with glam-rock overtones, punkish squalls, stomping rhythms, Petkovic's baritone vocal intonations and pointed lyrics that take to task rock-star imagery as well as ego trips, bad love and tourist culture.

"We are living in a tourist kind of society," he says. "People drive around, and everything they experience is through a windshield."

Petkovic's expending so much energy on the philosophy behind his music is understandable: He works as an entertainment columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and is a commentator for National Public Radio on the Balkans (his mother is a Serbian immigrant). He also oversees music and movie reviews and popular culture discourse on his Web site, ScamCity2000, subtitled "A Journal of American Anti-Culture and a Guide to Millennial Panic."

Further beefing up his resume is his work as an aide to Crown Prince Alexander (the son of Yugoslavia's last king); appearances on CNN to discuss the Serb situation; writing for a host of national and underground magazines; recording with his electronic/experimental side project, Einstein's Orchestra, and working for a year with Robert Pollard's Guided By Voices during the "Mag Earwhig" release.


All this activity seems at once energizing and exhausting. "When you do a lot of things, the down side is that you don't have a lot of time to devote to one thing," he said. "But the upshot of it is that you can almost develop a kind of healthy schizophrenia where you can do various things. I think at some point some of the things may rub off on the others, and they all kind of seep in together."

While Petkovic's busy schedule contributed to the long recording process of "Nightlife" (the album took more than three years to complete), he attributes CobraVerde's longevity to this sense of scattered discipline. His bandmates also lead varied lives: synthesizer and theremin player Chas Smith teaches a class on rock 'n' roll at Cleveland State University, is a board member of the Church of the Subgenius, is writing a book on the history of rock and plays in Einstein's Orchestra; guitarist Frank Vazzano creates art for juggling pins, and bassist Dave Hill is an "Andy Kaufman-based character;, he does this wrestling thing" in Cleveland-area bars, according to Petkovic.

Petkovic first started playing rock in the mid-'80s in Death of Samantha. After that band broke up a decade ago, he launched CobraVerde, bringing along art rock, la his hometown peers Pere Ubu, while incorporating elements of punk, arena rock and vintage pop-rock. "Nightlife" includes a variety of his influences, ranging from the cabaret-like "Pontius Pilate" and the boisterous, glammy bounce of "One Step Away From Myself" and "Crashing in a Plane" (where irony reigns as he sings: "Save the song, kill the singer") to the swinging Euro-jazz of "What Makes a Man a Man."

With Ralph Carney of Tom Waits' band contributing sax, trombone and clarinet and drummer Mark Klein assisting with loops and samples to inflate the band's already heady mix, Petkovic is pleased with the result. But he doesn't have any aspirations of conquering mainstream Americans with his music.

"A lot of times I hear something, and I look at a band and I think, why are you doing this?" he said. Petkovic's reasons to rock are simple: "I really have fun doing this. . . . I'm at the point where I feel I could stare down 1,000 people."

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