COBRA VERDE SINGER-GUITARIST JOHN PETKOVIC HATES INDIE ROCK even more than you do, which is a bit surprising, considering that his first band, Death of Samantha, spent much of the '80s releasing albums on Gerard Cosloy's influential alterna-label Homestead. In fact, Death of Sam's sardonic rock revisionism on records like Strungout on Jargon and Where the Women Wear the Glory and the Men Wear the Pants was such a direct influence on indie icons Guided by Voices that Cobra Verde were enlisted as co-producers and backup band on GBV's Mag Earwhig! CD.
In contrast to GBV leader Robert Pollard's boozy, one-of-the-guys persona, Petkovic longs for the classic-rock days when musicians were untouchable, elegantly attired aristocrats, before punks came along and knocked Jimmy Page off his wizard's perch on a faraway, mystical mountain. Petkovic calls indie rock “a victim culture, the Achilles' heel personified,” and laughs at the thought that modern rockers are presumably more honest because they dress drably.
“There's a lack of sincerity in Cobra Verde, as much artifice as there is authenticity,” he says. “I still think of rock as rebellion, an expression of physical power and intellectual energy.” There's plenty of both on C.V.'s latest, Nightlife (Motel Records), ranging from the confrontational pop melodicism of “Every God for Himself” and the Werner Herzoginspired “Don't Burden Me With Dreams,” to the updated Brechtian cabaret of “Pontius Pilate.” The band righteously see themselves in the swank and decadent glam tradition of Roxy Music and Mott the Hoople — a connection that's furthered by legendary Iggy/Ziggy photographer Mick Rock's stylish, sexy Nightlife cover shots of Mick Ronson's daughter Lisa lolling in fishnets and feather boa in the back of a limousine, clutching a bottle of champagne. Yet Cobra Verde take their sound into the current century with Chas Smith's unexpected theremin-and-synth arrangements, Tom Waits sideman Ralph Carney's tar-pit-mired-mastodon sax squeals, as well as Petkovic's and Frank Vazzano's spooky electric-eel-guitar squiggles on “Conflict.”
What really separates Cobra Verde from generic rock revivalists are Petkovic's unsentimental, witty lyrics (“Even machines have bad days”), which come off like angry fortune cookies bearing brutally honest survival advice (“Kill the dream/save the dreamer”). “Keep your feelings to yourself,” he warns sensitive songwriters. “The only thing I like that's warm and fuzzy is my cat.”
Petkovic calls his group's attitude “Cleveland nasty,” which he loosely translates as “Anyone who thinks their feet don't touch the ground, here we'll knock them down to the ground. Cleveland really is a two-bit town, a black hole, even in the music scene, because most bands have no ambition to go on tour. We're perceived as being part of this working-class, blue-collar economy, which doesn't have the East Coast veneer of sophistication. But it also gives you a good perspective on things, like the way Devo embraced this self-deprecating quality. You develop your own instincts in isolation.”
He takes special delight in contrasting his hometown with New York City, turning the tables on the latter burg's snobbery: “New Yorkers are the most provincial yahoos you'll find. I've been to New York a million times, but how many New Yorkers have been to Cleveland? They don't even know how to drive! How are you going to be an American if you don't drive?” Worried that New Yorkers are missing out on the quintessential American pastime, he adds, “America is an island nation of tourists. America is meant to be seen through the windshield, so you can visualize it but never actually touch it.”
GIVEN PETKOVIC'S SERBIAN BACKGROUND — he's worked as an aide to Yugoslavia's exiled Crown Prince Alexander and is a commentator on a National Public Radio news program about the Balkans — it's never clear on Nightlife if he's singing war songs about love or love songs about war. “Talking about love gives you the ability to be both conversational and dramatic in your language,” he says. “The way people make love in America is the same way they make war — from afar.”
While he disses “alternative weeklies that aren't alternative,” Petkovic's main gig is writing a column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. His bandmates maintain even more unusual careers. Synth player Smith is a professor of rock & roll at Cleveland State University and is also a board member of the Church of the SubGenius. Bassist Dave Hill is a wrestler in the town's thriving underground open-mike wrestling scene, and guitarist Vazzano designs juggling pins.
Asked if the Cleveland site of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has had any influence on Cobra Verde's music, Petkovic answers simply: “No.”
Cobra Verde plays at the Troubadour on Wednesday, March 22, with the BellRays.