Cleveland Confidential Book Tour, moderated by Luc Sante and featuring Cheetah Chrome, Mike Hudson, and Bob Pfeifer plus Eric Davidson
Saturday, April 9
Better Than: Watching the East River burn while sitting in a swank DUMBO loft.
There must have been something in the water in mid-1970s Cleveland that can account for the city’s knack for spitting out the blistering bands it did. In fact, there was: the layers of crud and steel mill runoff that float atop the Cuyahoga River actually caused it to flare up and ignite several times, most notably at the tail end of the ’60s. The Cuayhoga River Fire in 1969 proved to be the spark for the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Water Act of 1972, but no amount of legislation could protect the citizenry from what was bubbling up in the warehouses and tenements along the river’s banks.
The Cleveland Confidential Tour, which has been making its way across the country since February, features three heavyweights that came out of the city’s ’70s punk scene: Human Switchboard’s Bob Pfeifer; Mike Hudson, who fronted the Pagans; and Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome. For this stop–a reading and panel discussion moderated by the author and critic Luc Sante–they were joined by erstwhile New Bomb Turks frontman (and Cleveland native) Eric Davidson, who kicked the night off with a short reading from his book We Never Learn, which looks at the garage-punk explosion of the 1990s and early 2000s. (I’ve known Davidson socially for a number of years and was employed by his publisher while his book was in production.) The selection he read about the cheap rent and artistically conducive environment in the city’s more industrial quarters quickly went off-script with a few asides and notable bits of trivia–did you know that after New York and Boston, no other city hosted more Velvet Underground shows than Cleveland? Or that more serial killers and US presidents have come from Ohio than any other state in the nation?
Next up was Pfeifer who, as Sante noted, wrote “Refrigerator Door,” which was hailed by none other than Kurt Cobain as the “‘Stairway To Heaven’ of punk.” (Whether that’s a good thing depends on which side of the Zep divide you fall.) While his roots and impact on a certain strain of underground rock are unassailable, the selection he read from his book The University of Strangers, a part-fact part-fiction romp centered around the Amanda Knox murder case, felt somewhat flat and out of step compared with the rest of the bill.
Hudson was up next. The Pagans might not be a household name like the Ramones or Sex Pistols, but pound-for-pound the legendary Clevo punks were every bit as ferocious–after all, snarling out the refrain to “Dead End America” amid rampant unemployment, abandoned industrial wastelands, and, yes, a river that was on fire, makes the mohawked punks of King’s Road look like pretty boys. Hudson’s rough and gravelly tone, straight out of a Jim Thompson novel, lent itself well to the stories spun from his book Diary of a Punk, which offers a firsthand account of the time period.
Older, not quite as loud, but still just as snotty, Chrome finally took the mic to read from his new memoir A Dead Boy’s Tale: From The Front Lines Of Punk Rock. The Dead Boys’ Cleveland roots are often overlooked–after all, they split for New York in 1976 at the behest of The Ramones and first came to prominence under the tutelage of CBGB’s proprietor Hilly Kristal–but they are a Cleveland band through and through. Chrome and drummer Johnny Blitz both served time in Rocket From The Tombs, a band which soon splintered off into the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu, and made off with what would form the basis of the Dead Boys’ repertoire: “Down In Flames”; “Ain’t It Fun”; “What Love Is”; and primitive versions of “Sonic Reducer” and “Caught With The Meat In Your Mouth.” Although Please Kill Me had many juicy bits of the Dead Boys’ history, Chrome proved that he might have just saved the best stuff for his own book. Wry and witty, Chrome regaled the crowd with recollections of causing drunken mayhem in the streets of Toronto with members of Thin Lizzy, the band’s pre-meditated move to destroy all of their equipment in a power-play to bilk Sire Records out of some cash, and one particularly vivid account of inciting a near-riot at a Providence Holiday Inn, where they had been at war for several days with Neil Diamond. Diamond had booked the entire 12th floor, and Diamond got the blame for the riot in the following morning’s papers.
Far from being an oldtimers’ night the four authors connected the dots between their musical pasts and today’s music. Rust Belt rock still seeps into the collective consciousness, whether it’s DEVO and The Cramps’ deconstructing pop culture detritus, the lo-fi bordering on no-fi sounds coming out of the Mike Rep orbit (Gaunt, Guided By Voices, Times New Viking), or the even more subterranean Die Electric Eels, Baloneyheads, Hammer Damage, and X_X. Did the place define the music, or did the music define the place? Hudson mentioned that Cleveland was the first city in the country to go into receivership and bankruptcy since the Great Depression, to which moderator Sante replied, “With the creative stimulus of poverty and disrespect, the future looks pretty good right now.”
Critical Bias: Last time I saw Cheetah Chrome was at one of the CBGB benefit shows; the Dead Boys played, and they had a leather jacket on a mic stand in the place where Stiv Bators should have been. Still way better than the Johnny Thunders-less incarnation of the New York Dolls.
Overheard: “In the ’80s, the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a series of ads that said, ‘New York might be the Big Apple, but Cleveland is a plum.’ No one there must have realized that if you eat enough plums, you can’t stop shitting.”
Random Notebook Dump: Mick Collins of Detroit’s Dirtbombs and Gories swapped notes with the panelists on the benefits of calling an urban wasteland home.