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Reinventing glam: Cleveland's Cobra Verde uncoils ambition and attitude
By Greg Kot
A femme fatale in the back of a limo, outfitted in fishnets and a feather boa, lounges against an androgynous character in red high-heels. The image welcomes would-be listeners into Cobra Verde's decadently delicious "Nightlife" (Motel), a lurid and alluring blend of high-concept ambition and low-brow attitude, the kind of soundtrack David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Brian Eno might've made if they had lit out for the industrial flats of Cleveland in the late '70s instead of hanging out in boring old Berlin . c
The album's cover art, courtesy of Mick Rock, echoes the legendary rock photographer's work from the '70s, when his images shaped the personas of everyone from Lou Reed to Queen. "I wanted him because he's one of the few guys to acknowledge that rock is a game of artifice," says Cobra Verde's singer-guitarist-conceptualist John Petkovic, who has been making pushy, pouting indie-rock since his tenure in '80s cult heroes Death of Samantha. "You look at the cover of something like (Iggy Pop and the Stooges') `Raw Power' and you can't tell if it's real or staged. That's the area for me where rock music gets most interesting."
Petkovic draws inspiration from '70s glam, the era when artists like Bowie, Mott the Hoople and T. Rex were creating fresh personalities by jumbling up rock's past. For Cobra Verde, rock is no dress-up day nostalgia trip, a "Velvet Goldmine" exercise in flashy trash, but a seething statement of affirmation. The singer tries on a different persona with each song, exploring everything from Brechtian cabaret to Stones-like stray-cat blues, all in the name of transcending the everyday. As Petkovic sings on one track from the new album, putting a twist on Sly Stone's proclamation that "Everybody Is a Star": "Finally I realized it's every god for himself."
Before heading to Chicago for a date Friday at the Empty Bottle, Petkovic took time out from his day job as an entertainment-arts columnist for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer to chat.
Kot: "Nightlife" isn't just a collection a songs, it's a complete package. The images, art work, lyrics, music, all work together.
Petkovic: The greatest music isn't made by musicians or technicians, but by people who have a concept. Think about the concept of Black Sabbath -- they were the first industrial rock band in the truest sense, with each instrument functioning at the same level in a dirgy way. Suicide, Kraftwerk -- these were bands of conceptualists who made great music. And there's a difference between concept music and theatrical music. Theatrical music is outside the realm of reality or life. But concept music is about pursuing one idea -- obsessively, in my case.
Does Cobra Verde feel a part of the indie-rock fraternity?
The indie-rock ideal of wearing authenticity on your sleeve is bull. A philistine, puritanical fear of sex and the fantastic killed indie rock. These people are afraid of sexuality, false things, trampish looking characters. They want some ideal of truth. They say the rock star is passe and dead. At the same time, rock stardom has been embraced in rap, and it's the idea of strong characters that has made rap such a vibrant musical form. Strong ideas don't exist in rock anymore. In rock, you have to grovel a lot every step of the way. Pleading with your label to do things, begging the corporation to let you in. And it starts seeping into the music.
So Marilyn Manson has the right idea?
While Trent Reznor is whirling knobs in a sterile studio, Manson is strutting around in a leather G-string and has these sexy back-up singers wailing behind him. He seems to have acknowledged the ultimate lie and the sham of things and embraced it, as opposed to the other guy. (Manson's) a crass character, but rock 'n' roll is inherently crass.
What do you like about glam rock?
I like embracing traditions and re-creating them in new ways, and glam rock did that. It was the last era of rock music where there was an accumulation process going on. You had jazz, the avant-garde, electronic elements, '60s pop, heavy metal, this whole spectrum of sound, all feeding a kind of retro-futurism that had no regard for whether these things were or were not supposed to go together.
Explain Cleveland to me.
(Laughs). I sometimes feel like a dissident in Germany in 1933. It's a big sports town, everything is the Indians or the Browns, even though we have a world-class orchestra and art museum. Sometimes I think if they find out I haven't been to an Indians game in five years, they're gonna haul me out one night and I'm gonna disappear. Smart, hip people generally want to leave Cleveland because it's too much of a ghetto for them. It can't sustain a large music scene. Right now, we're the only band touring on a national level out of here. But it has an interesting mix of central and eastern European migration, an industrial past that has been replaced by this technocrat present. It creates one kind of environment in which interesting rock music can be made, and bands like Pere Ubu, Rocket from the Tombs, the Dead Boys and Devo have proven it. Though very few people make interesting things here, those that do are stronger for it.
Kot is the Chicago Tribune rock critic.
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