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The Last Rock Star
Magnet Magazine, May 1999
By Fred Mills

In an era when too many epitaphs have been hastily written for rock 'n' roll's gravestone, COBRA VERDE leader John Petkovic is an anomaly, a noble glam-rock savage with a day job and a "Nightlife."

"The '90s is a decade inhabited more by fans than visionaries," proposed John Petkovic in an essay last year for music/culture zine Your Flesh, "and accordingly, art is more an expression of fandom than vision."

The Cobra Verde singer/guitarist was discussing the films of Leone, Kurosawa and Tarantino, but he could very well have been describing the tension that informs his band. it's a different sort of tension, full of contradictory urges: Self -examination butts up against grand gesture; pointed swipes at kitsch 'n' paste culture are heard alongside impassioned homages to musical icons of the past; and Petkovic's burning desire to save rock 'n' rol1 from its worst instincts is tempered by his realization that Matchbox 20 will most likely continue to outsell Cobra Verde at a pace of roughly a milllion to one.

Which is precisely why we need someone like Petkovic. To paraphrase Patti Smith, where have all the rock 'n' roll artists gone?

AS FAR BACK AS 1986, WHEN INTERVIEWED by a fanzine about his then-current combo Death Of Samantha, Petkovic was pooh-poohing the notion that you had to be an apologist for low art. why settle for British bands flogging their depression or American combos wearing their misery on their flannel-shirted sleeves, he wondered, saying, "[Death Of Samantha is] into rock 'n' roll, but not necessarily everybody else's definition of rock 'n' roll. My songs deal with trying to find the redeeming values in life. There's no self-pitying, whining and crying going on here."

Credit it to growing up wrong. Petkovic, 33, was born to Serbian immigrants who had opted to swap living under a repressive Yugoslavian regime for the relative comforts of middle-class Ohio. By the time young Petkovic was ready to hit the mean streets of Cleveland, he had already been exposed firsthand, on family vacations to Europe, to things most American teenagers his age only read about.

"What was 1 supposed to do at home?" Petkovic reflects. "Toss around a baseball in the backyard? what the fuck's that? I'd seen chicks taking their tops off at the nude beaches in France. I'd hung out with kids into dope and the New York Dolls. So it did make me a little anxious as a teenager. I was drawn to weird shit, to punk rock, to absolute concepts in art and Politics. But there was no hipster enclave in my high school. See, when you grow up in a vacuum -- that's why a lot of the great music was created in Cleveland in the '70s. The Velvet Underground was playing here in clubs a lot in the '60s. So people here decided to form bands, and they got into Roxy Music and Alex Harvey and stuff, and out of that you got Pere Ubu and Devo and the Dead Boys. Great music was created out of a vacuum.

"Nowadays, people will tell me they like lo-fi because anyone can do it, and I think how opposite my first inspiration was. When I saw the album cover of, say, Rock And Roll Animal or Raw Power or heard the Velvet Underground or the Rolling Stones or Alice Cooper, I didn't think, 'Anybody can do this. 1 can have access to that club.' 1 was inspired by the greatness of the music, the otherworldliness."

In 1984, Petkovic formed a high-octane, brainy and theatrical rock group with three fellow Cleveland outcasts. By the time Death Of Samantha had run its course some five years later, the band -- Petkovic (vocals), Doug Gillard (guitar), Dave Swanson (bass) and Steve-0 (drums) -- had notched four critically-saluted records for Homestead Records. Robert Griffin, a veteran of numerous Cleveland bands and the owner of Scat Records, recalls seeing DOS "at least 20 or 30 times. They always came on strong, completely in overdrive. Rock 'n' roll chaos at its best."

It was Griffin who was responsible for coaxing Petkovic back into music after a five-year self-imposed exile. During this time, Petkovic had served as an aide to Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia, worked as a correspondent for a Bosnian-Serb news agency and as an NPR commentator; he also started writing for the Cleveland Plain Dealer (where he now works full-time). Griffin finally badgered Petkovic into a local studio, saying he'd release the results on his label, and by the middle of '94, Cobra Vercd -- Petkovic, Gillard, Swanson (now on drums) and the studio's owner/engineer Don Depew (bass)-- was born. The band's debut, Viva La Muerte, hit the stores just in time for Cobra Verde to join the Scat-sponsored "Insects Of Rock" tour that summer headlined by Guided By Voices. Two more records for Scat and a slew of singles would follow over the course of the next three years.

Whether intrigued by the arty cheek of a band naming itself after a Werner Herzog film or simply relieved to get a record in the mail that didn't sound like Helmet or Green Day, music critics lined up to sing the praises of this band that combined the classic crunch of the Stones, led Zeppelin and the Who with the psychodrama of Bowie, Pere Ubu and the Birthday Party while sounding-for all its emphasis on stylistic synthesis-absolutely fresh.

Touring was never a priority for Cobra Verde, its members occupied by day jobs and other projects (Gillard was already busy with his own band, Gem). Yet the band had earned enough of a reputation by '97 to spur Robert Pollard into inviting the quartet to join him in an overhauled Guided by Voices. Even though sessions for the next CV album had begun, it was too good an offer to pass up, so the LP was put on hold in order to record Mag Earwhig! and tour.

The Pollard/CV union was a formidable one. But it wasn't destined to last-and it had unexpected repercussions. First, Pollard dissolved the lineup rather unceremoniously during the tour (the members of CV heard about being fired from an interview Pollard gave to an online magazine). Then, several months later, when Pollard began assembling the next version of GBV, he asked Gillard if he was interested in rejoining. The guitarist was, though Gillard also made it clear to Petkovic he'd be willing to help out in CV when time permitted.

Petkovic, who had resumed work on the CV album and was anxious to make up for lost time, wasn't too keen on Gillard's offer. Now, Petkovic is pragmatic about the matter, explaining diplomatically, "I had started [the record], then the GBV thing came around, which was fine -- touring was a fun thing to do. But you're in a situation where you have all these ideas to finish something up and you're going crazy ... With Doug, Gem has been his main thing. [Cobra Verdel was what he'd come in and out of more. Then he was doing all these other things. The record was going in a different direction, and at some point, time means something. You just have to allocate more time to one project and get that done."

For his part, Gillard also declines to dish, although he does point out that he and Petkovic haven't spoken since he made his announcement. I liked how Cobra Verde sounded as a collective," says Gillard. "The way Don mixed everything and played bass, and Dave's drumming -- it structured the songs. And John's got a great voice that can really project. Everything came together in that lineup. But Cobra Verde wasn't that active a band; we didn't play a lot of gigs. So it hadn't commanded much time, and 1 would definitely have been able to contribute as much as I had before."

Following the split with Gillard (Swanson also left Cobra Verde, for unrelated reasons), Petkovic continued work on the CV album with Depew, keyboardist Ched Stanisic, drummer Mark Klein and synth/theremin player Chas Smith. Sax ace Ralph Carney (Tom Waits, Oranj Symphonette) was also brought in for a number of sessions. Guitarist Frank Vazzano recently joined to round out the live CV roster. And while such a protracted recording process could have resulted in what Petkovic calls "killing the song with songcraft," Nightlife (on Motel) met the demands of Pelkovic's stated ideal: "I love hot, overloaded sounds and records that have a really primal, physical response to them."

Nightlife is bursting at the seams with brawny, id-in-overdrive rockers like the anthemic "Casino" and the sax/guitar/synth glam-cruncher "Crashing in a Plane," Petkovic bellowing like some star-crossed lovechild of Iggy, Morrison and David Bowie. The album also sparkles with contrasts, its poppier travelogues artfully balancing acoustic and electric textures. The bluesy and brooding romanticism of "Back To Venus" suggests a Sticky Fingers outtake, while the Latin-flavored "Tourist" (about a surreal visit Petkovic made to a Mexican bordello) manages to be ethereal and lusty at the same time. Throughout, the album drops musical references like glass marbles on aglazed tile floor; one hears echoes, both outright and subtle, of the Kinks, Mott the Hoople, Roxy Music, Alex Harvey, Nick Cave, Serge Gainsbourg-even blaxploitation and spaghetti western soundtracks -- not to mention the CV back catalog as well, courtesy of remakes of "Every God For Hirnself" (originally on the Vintage Crime EP) and "One Step Away From Myself" (from a Sub Pop single).

If this sounds like a dizzying stew, think of it more as calculated madness on the part of Petkovic. "I'm not into a glam-rock notion per se," he says "but the tenets of glam rock I like, which have to do with parallel ideas, people taking on masks and a kind of schizophrenia. Like in the Fassbinder film Despair, where this guy is in a movie theater and he sees himself four aisles in front of him watching the movie. So I wanted to make a record that's a combination of all these different moods and feelings-as opposed to today's 'authenticity' notion where you're going in and wearing your heart on the sleeve. Rock 'n' roll should be conversational. It should be sexual.

"I think one thing that was great about music in the '70s was that rock had hit a certain point where you could imagine equal doses of loud guitars, doo-wop, pop, harmonies, driving backbeat, avant-garde stylings on a synth, some guitar-noise feedback chaos and throw on some sappy strings at the end. It all seemed like there was some sort of conglomeration that rock hadn't rejected, but accumulated. I wanted music with that large sound, an expansive sound,, not one that's limiting things."

His album finally out, Petkovic is already eyeing the future. Cobra Verde will definitely tour, with Petkovic aiming to "recreate that kind of feel like how Roxy Music had it set up, all these musical layers going on but still powerful." Petkovic is also anxious to indulge his synthesizer fetish -- he owns 15 vintage models and once interviewed Robert Moog -- by assembling what he calls a Gary Numan-esque "heavy-metal synth project." Finally, elaborating on an undertaking he and CV theremin player Smith have called the Futurists, Petkovic is eager to mount a "sci-fi cabaret" revue that would use Nightlife's closing track (the slinky Nick Cave-doing-Kurt Weill "Pontius Pilate") as a template and play non-rock venues such as art museums. "You wouldn't carry around a bunch of big amps," Petkovic deadpans. "And a lot of good-looking chicks hang out at museums."

In discussing future plans, the subject of past projects inevitably comes up. Petkovic bought the Death Of Samantha catalog from Homestead not long ago, and while he's entertaining the idea of doing a comprehensive DOS boxed set, for him "the bottom line is, it was a fun thing musically - but I don't listen to those records. I want to be thinking about the next record. You know, I always admired Marlene Dietrich because she was the most unsentimental person about whatever she'd been involved with. Or Marlon Brando; he never talks about what he did in the past.

I'll tell you a funny story. Steve Albini came to see Death Of Samantha, and he hated us. After that, he constantly attacked us every chance he got. He came to a show and came up to me and said, 'I know you know who I am, and 1 just wanted to say I came to check you guys out.' I said, 'Ah, let me guess-you're a college radio DJ?' You know, I don't do that to anyone. I don't assume anyone knows who 1 am or anything about Death of Samantha. It's kitsch when it falls into people thinking about what they did, like a midlife crisis."

IF, AS PETKOVIC HAS SUGGESTED, TODAY'S ARTISTS OPERATE more as a sum of their accumulated influences than as supernovas of creativity, where does this locate Cobra Verde? Is Nightlife a work of visionary art or merely inspired fandom? A little of both, actually.

"John has a world view -- strong opinions, passion-and he feels compelled to voice it as loudly as possible," argues Scat's Griffin. "He has a talent for orchestration and production. We really need more people like that involved in music. There are too many people playing music because it's something to do. I don't think there are many people making music in the language of rock 'n' roll. You can play what appears to sound like rock but you're not speaking the language. John speaks the language and has his own accent."

Petkovic, adopting a confidential tone, theorizes, "Look, music is timeless, part of a continuum. I think if people hear our stuff, they're gonna really like it. It might not fit in with certain indie-rock people; 1 don't think it has that indie-rock language. What kind of language it does have, I don't know. But when the Sex Pistols started it was, 'Wow, a new thing.' You listen to them now, they fit into a rock 'n' roll continuum. Every generation wants to have its special place in time, but then 30 years later, you see it was only making a variation on what the generation before had done. I think of it like what I wrote about those movies in Your Flesh. Kurosawa was making films based on John Ford and Shakespeare; Sergio Leone was imitating themes from Kurosawa's nods to the American western; he hired Morricone, who was not even a big fan of American westerns, to do the soundtrack. That's getting to be a pretty fuzzy lineage.

"I really love a lot of records in my collection: Raw Power, Country Life, Coltrane's 0le, Comic Book by Serge Gainsbourg, Morricone, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith. I'm sure they all fit in (to Nightlife) somewhere. I felt that maybe I could come up with something that could stand up next to one of those if I worked on it as much as they worked on theirs."

At the same time, Petkovic isn't ready surrender to the creeping mediocrity and victim culture that he feels infests rock 'n' roll in the '90s.

"Why does music nowadays have to be 'of this moment' or 'of this reality' or about abuse and being mistreated during childhood?" complains Petkovic, his voice rising. "The idea of music, of art, is seen as: You always have to apologize for being an artist and being outside of things. There's something wrong with you if you don't want to be part of love and to be loved and to get into everyone's pain. Indie rock in particular is all this groveling about abstract nonsense; it has nothing to do with art or being above the rabble.

"To me, 'rock star' means 'poet with power.' Patti Smith was right -- for a long period of time, to be a rock star, it meant someone who had been an outsider but had achieved something, gotten some sort of power, but you were still an outsider and were considered to be pretty cool. When the Rolling Stones made a record, there was mythmaking going on; not only was it supposed to be adventurous, they had the political clout to take their audience in a direction. Then came Bon Jovi, and 'rock star' turned into this horrendous, schmaltzy activity. And now you got guys like Barenaked Ladies-who are probably rebelling against Bon Jovi-and they think a rock star should be more like a normal person, that you have to identify with the person."

Releasing an audible sigh of exasperation, Petkovic concludes ' "You know, when I go to a movie, I don't need to identify with the lead character. I just wanna see a work of art."

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