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Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
May 22, 2003 Thursday

By Jeff Spevak, Staff Reporter

John Petkovic trusts animals. So the other day, in his job as a writer with Cleveland's daily newspaper, The Plain Dealer, he was pleased to be working on a story about a dog who was found in a suburban house, curled up on his master's stomach. The old man had been dead for a few days.

You don't come by that kind of loyalty much anymore.

Petkovic also has a band, Cobra Verde. It began as a studio project, then backed the somewhat eccentric Robert Pollard of the sloppy-drunk underground rock legend Guided By Voices. But Cobra Verde grew legs of its own. Even the one-time man of the hour of alt-rock guitar, J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr, climbed on board. In fact, J Mascis' loyalty runs so deep that, Sunday at the Bug Jar, he will be playing with Cobra Verde. But not while curled up on Petkovic's stomach. Petkovic is a reluctant participant in Cobra Verde's success.

"It reminds me of The Godfather III, when Michael Corleone is trying to get out of the mob, and they keep pulling him back in," Petkovic says. "I got pulled into being a band. People seem to really be into this record. I'm just hoping they're not too into it so I can decide what to do with my life."

Petkovic's problem is this: Easy Listening, Cobra Verde's fourth CD, is good. It's flashy and glam, like the New York Dolls, yet as primitive as David Bowie in a garage band, in the days before he got his teeth straightened.

"That always destroys these guys," Petkovic says. Nice teeth, he means.

"People always ask bands, 'What're your influences?' And things are so specific today, they say: 'March of 1966.'

"Ours is the entire history of Western civilization."

(Let's pause for air, because in a moment, Petkovic will take over the rest of this space. He's an enthusiastic conversationalist, but he tends to digress. Most of his writing for The Plain Dealer is about movies, so he speaks in film analogies. The interior of his cranium must flicker like a darkened theater.)

"When you ask about films, people are less apt to compare a movie to another movie," Petkovic says. "They're more apt to talk about the story. It seems like themes and story and overall sensibility win out. But with music, people always make references to other music."

OK then, forget about those earlier references to the New York Dolls and Bowie. Thematically, and in overall sensibility, Easy Listening is awash in sexual innuendo and metaphor. Specific references, too, for you perverts.

"I guess those that don't get it, like to talk about it," Petkovic says.

"Don't you think repressive societies manifest themselves in deviant sexual behavior? Or let's call it, 'Over-the-top' sexual behavior. Communists in the '50s were fascinated by orgies. It was like the last vestige of the liberated spirit."

To be a liberated musician today means freeing yourself from the bondage of success. Petkovic mentions a line from his song "Modified Frankenstein." "People have asked me, 'What does it mean, "Too unreal to be untrue?" ' Well, if you don't understand that line, then you don't get what it's like living in America in 2003."

Reality is stitched together from the facts we select and the lies we fail to question. That goes for war in Iraq or what you read in Entertainment Weekly.

"It's almost like a pose to be a reluctant star," Petkovic says. "To me, being a musician seems like a dead end. I'd rather do other things.

"Someone told me, 'Wallace Stevens was a far greater poet than you are a musician, and he held down a regular job.' "

Stevens was an investment banker. Lots of time for gazing out the window.

"When I'm mowing the lawn, I come up with song ideas," Petkovic says. "The best work is mindless work. Shoveling snow just clears the head out. I've been so freaked out lately, now there are so many things to do.

"No one ever cared if we got a record out before. Lately, I just want to mow the lawn a lot more. That's a way to alleviate the stress. That's where my cat helps me out, alleviate the stress. Actually, the cat is the greatest adviser to this band. He makes everything seem like hypocrisy."

Jeff Spevak is our staff music critic. Call him at (585) 258-2452 or fax him at (585) 258-2554.

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