A Real New Wave Rolls Out of Ohio
Well, there's Devo, the Dead Boys, Pere Ubu, the Bizarros, Rubber City Rebels, Tin Huey . . .
Last spring there was a smart, rambling letter from a guy in Kent, Ohio, with a smart, rambling album to match--on Water Bros., by a group that seemed to call itself 15-60-75 the Numbers Band. A month or two later the group played Trax, of all places; sorry, I told the letter-writer on the phone, I'm going on vacation, if you mean it you'll be back. A month after that there was a handsome, exquisitely stoopid single, on Booji Boy, by an Ohio group called Devo, short for "De-Evolution." I liked the misogynist Dead Boys' album, on Sire, more than I wanted to; their bio claimed they'd been unable to commence their homage to Iggy in their native Cleveland, and I wondered why. Gary Storm of the Oil of Dog show on WBFO, Buffalo--"If all you love is money you'll hate our guts"--gave me a playlist that included records I thought no disc jockey had heard of and records I hadn't heard of myself. One was an album called From Akron, on Clone, by two different bands, the Bizarros and the Rubber City Rebels. I wrote away for it and loved it, although I didn't relate to the EP by Tin Huey I got with it. Devo showed up at Max's with a movie of themselves, a hilarious version of "Satisfaction" that omitted the hook, and David Bowie. They were also from Akron, it appeared. The letter-writer began sending me (blank), a mimeographed "Ragazine of High and Low Art" dedicated to the proposition that "anybody doing anything at all against our gray Midwestern nothingness deserves attention." The first signing on Blank, Mercury's new punk label, was rumored to be Pere Ubu, from Cleveland.
It was long about then, in early December, that I looked at a map and ascertained that Akron was about 40 miles south of Cleveland and 10 miles west of Kent. Something was obviously going on out there.
1. Alan Freed's Latest Wave
Cleveland has one major distinction in popular music history. It was in Cleveland 1951 that record retailer Leo Mintz persuaded Alan Freed to devote an entire show to the rhythm and blues the white kids in his shop were wild about, and until 1954, the Moondog belonged to the teenagers of northeastern Ohio. But though Alan Freed couldn't have happened just anywhere--not in the South, where some racial crossover was inevitable and more was impermissible, nor in any city that was all white--he might well have arisen in Washington or Los Angeles or Detroit or even Pittsburgh. So it's not surprising that in the end Cleveland wasn't part of the rock and roll industry. Cities like Philadelphia, Detroit, and Memphis (not to mention Chicago and Los Angeles) thrived despite New York's dominance, but like Cincinnati, where Syd Nathan's King label specialized in out-of-town talent, Cleveland lacked either their size or their cultural resources. It still does, and to an extent what's going on in Akron-Cleveland right now is probably an accident. There's even a possibility that bands in other cities are making rock and roll every bit as good and not recording it--but I doubt it.
Musically, I think of Akron-Cleveland as one place. The two Cleveland bands that interest me--Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys--do seem a little more sophisticated conceptually than the ones from Akron, but not enough to support any big theories. Nor does it matter much that Akron is a satellite of Cleveland in such crucial matters as radio, or that people in Akron don't have easy access to Cleveland's excellent library, art museum, and (why leave it out?) symphony orchestra. In most ways the cities are quite similar. Both have long borne the impress of a large white industrial working class that now faces the removal of rubber and steel manufacture to the South; both also support many corporate headquarters and a large managerial and professional class. Both suffered major race riots in the '60s. Both experienced intense counterculture conflicts as well.
Most important for our purposes, both continued to pursue an unusually active relationship with rock and roll long after the music biz had established itself elsewhere. Ohio is a big place, of course, but it does seem to turn out more rock musicians than most big places--not only the Ohio Express from Columbus and the Ohio Players from Dayton, but such Cleveland groups as the James Gang (featuring Kent Stater Joe Walsh), the Raspberries (featuring "classically trained" Eric Carmen), and the funky white boys of Wild Cherry. One curious facet of Cleveland taste is represented by the Raspberries, as perfecting a Beatles homage as has ever been concocted in America (other Ohio groups with similar power pop proclivities include Youngstown's Blue Ash and a terrific new Columbus band Romantic Noise, led by a black guy who calls himself Willie Phoenix). But Pere Ubu, Devo, Tin Huey, the Dead Boys, the Bizarros, and the Rubber City Rebels all respond to a more curious quirk of Cleveland taste--an attraction to weird, arty rock and roll.
Very much connected to the weirdness as both cause and effect is WMMS, one of the few FM rock stations in the country that might still be called free form or at least progressive. That is, it hasn't been entirely reduced to the pre-programmed mush of "AOR," which is Bizese for "album-oriented radio." But like every similar station, it has undergone corporate transmogrification, in WMMS's case after it was purchased by Malrite Broadcasting in late 1972. Once, it was one of the few outlets in the country for the Velvet Underground, the MC5, and the New York Dolls, as well as for obscure English art-rock bands like Soft Machine, King Crimson, Van Der Graaf Generator. It aired David Bowie well before RCA's Ziggy Stardust push, and was an early supporter of Roxy Music. These days, it still breaks many new artists, often from smallish labels--Janus's Al Stewart, Chrysalis's Babys--and has instigated Cleveland cults for such eccentric acts as the Senesational Alex Harvey Band and Meat Loaf.; if those names sound suspiciously schlocky, and if you wonder why the station also proudly displays platinum records from Foreigner and Peter Frampton, that's just progressive radio, and Progressive rock, 1978. Still, while in Akron-Cleveland I did hear such AOR no-nos as Elmore James, Bowie's "'Heroes,'" 10 minutes of Funkadelic guitar. And if its says something sad about the fate of progressive radio that WMMS raised its audience share from 3.5 per cent to 10.6, the best AM or FM rating in the city, while the local counterculture once again receded into the underground, it says something heartening about Cleveland that its most adventurous station is also its most popular.
When asked why their audience is so open, current WMMS deejays offer such enlightening theories as "there's nothing much to do here" and "the weather's not the best," but Billy Bass, the legendary jock who personified the station before the takeover, traces it back to Alan Freed. Bass believes that Freed began a tradition of begin on top of pop music that still lives on for Cleveland teenagers, and maybe he's right. All being on top means today, though,is knowing about a prefab dupergroup like Foreigner three months before your cousin in Louisville, or getting hip to the theatrical outrageousness of a Meat Loaf. It was different when Bass was spinning the Velvets and Crimson. You may believe, as I do, that one of those groups was superb and the other abysmal, but you have to sympathize with the Cleveland discophile who told me how disappointed he was when he finally got to hear Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead as a young hippie. He had been longing for something that was really . . . out there, and he didn't get it from Frisco psychedelica. But he did get it from the avant-punks and the English art-rock weirdos--and from WMMS.
I've been stubborn about the term "punk," applying it mercilessly to the new New York and English bands because even the artiest of them owned a clear formal debt to avant-punk godfather Lou Reed. Of course, I also liked it because it pissed people off; "New Wave" struck me as a pretentious evasion. But Akron-Cleveland is so clearly influenced King Crimson as well as by Uncle Lou that it's broken my will. The Dead Boys define themselves as punks, and the Bizarros and the Rubber City Rebels fit into the category. Yet even though Cleveland protopunk Peter Laughner helped found Pere Ubu, the Band has never been any more avant-punk that its Gallic, bohemian name, which goes with the sort of conventionally vanguard influences--Balinese, musique-concrete, free-jazz--that color its sound. Devo's minimalism has gone over at Max's, but it looks and sounds like the art-school band it is, with none of the driving intensity you get even from punks as unpunky as Talking Heads. Tin Huey plays committed versions of "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and "Don't Worry About the Government," but its basic configuration is Captain Beefheart Meets Gong at Be-Bop Deluxe's House and They All Have a Good Laugh. And while I find the jazz-blues vocal stylings of 15-60-75's Bob Kidney oddly reminiscent of the aforementioned Reed, Kidney himself does not.
So, I give up. This is New Wave. And since most American listeners sympathetic to punk also admire Robert Fripp, say, or at least Bowie and Eno, I must admit that the synthesis makes sense. Only in Manhattan, with its rigorous, Sohofied standards of image and form, would Pere Ubu's avant-garde free-for-all seem so unkempt, and suspicions that these bands are a little naive aesthetically do not appear to have nagged at the more adventurous record companies. Pere Ubu and the Bizarros are on Blank; the Rebels are about to sign with Sire; Eno has already produced a Devo album that Warners financed, while Stiff distributes three Devo singles in England; Stiff also plans a compilation album entitled Akron: Spirit of America. A rich, promising local scene--with just a couple of drawbacks. First, the only one of these bands that has been programmed on WMMS, much less any other commercial station in the area, is the Dead Boys. And second, the only local rock bands that have played their own music live with any regularity over the past year are 15-60-75, which holds down a four-nights-a-week dance gig at JB's in Kent, and Pere Ubu, which had the Thursday slot at the Pirate's Cove in Cleveland until it recorded its album and embarked on a six-week tour of the East and Midwest.
None of these difficulties distinguishes Akron-Cleveland from anywhere else in America. Even in New York lack of airplay is the bane of the New Wave, and just by giving some exposure to the likes of Patti Smith, the Dead Boys, the Sex Pistols, and the Vibrators--all on major labels, of course--WMMS can claim to have discharged its artistic duty. Good bands from other cities--Romantic Noise, for instance, or the B-52s, who have performed more at Max's and CBGB than in Georgia, where they live--find it even harder to locate clubs where they can play out. The program director who told me that "when you get lumped into a New Wave category the public is suddenly turned off" and the club owner who argues that it's his patrons well be objectifying their own prejudice, but the lowest-common-denominator vox populi they posit isn't merely theoretical--they've been working to create it for most of this decide. What the New Wave bands have to do is to prove, somehow, that the more irreducible Fraction that once demanded Lou Reed and King Crimson from WMMS is still out there, and that it's not satisfied with Meat Loaf.
Such a project would probably require a midwestern Hilly Kristal, someone who liked the music (or the musicians) (or the odds) enough to stake his saloon for three or four months. In fact, since Akron and Cleveland are 40 miles apart, there might have to be two. Or perhaps a likely venue would be Kent, which in the '60s functioned as a combination of Berkeley and Fort Lauderdale for both Cleveland and Akron, although the number of music bars has been diminishing as fast as the university's enrollment, and the Kent Community Store sells more old-timey than New Wave. That this dream impresario has not yet materialized may just mean the breaks are evening out, for Akron-Cleveland has been uncommonly blessed with musical movers and shakers who have taken care of business well. The place just hasn't lucked into any club owners yet.
The archetype for the area's New Wave is Peter Laughner--Lou Reed obsessive, founding member of Pere Ubu and many other bands, Creem rock critic and Punk Punk-of-the-Month, dead of too much booze at 24 last summer. but my guess is that the most effective inspiration has been David Thomas/Crocus Behemoth, also of Pere Ubu. A fat, nervous schoolteacher's son, Thomas is so uncomfortable with the accoutrements of fame that he objects even to record company dinners and photos of the group, and he's not what you'd call good with people. Yet despite his apparent unworldliness he's gotten a lot of stuff started. As a writer for Cleveland Scene, the local "leisure" giveaway, he kept the spirit of rock and roll weirdness alive in the mid-'70s. As a clerk at Hideo's Discodrome, near Western Reserve in Cleveland Heights, he helped create a more impressive New Wave outlet than any in New York--although owner Johnny Dromette, on of the rare record pros whose hair is still long enough to take a barrette, was a prime factor, with a lot of advice from clerk Peter Laughner, and Jim Ellis, an art student who edits a literate tabloid fanmag called Cle, hasn't hurt behind the counter either.
Crocus brought Pere Ubu together in late 1975 to make a single, an excellent one called "30 Seconds Over Tokyo." Nick Nicholis didn't even start the Bizarros until New Year's Eve of that year, and it was Pere Ubu's example that inspired Nicholis to record the Bizarros, Tin Huey, and the Rubber City Rebels for the label he called Clone. On the other hand, although Nicholis got promotional advice from Crocus, it was his own idea to proselytize locally by distributing Bomp, Trouser Press, and New York Rocker to the retailers who sold his records. And Nicholis could never have produced the records had not Mark Price, bassist with Tin Huey since 1972, invested $8000 of an inheritance in the eight-track recording studio now installed in what otherwise might be Price's parlor.
Crocus's influence has been felt less beneficially--for the scene, if not for individual bands--in one other activity. For although Pere Ubu seems as committed to its city of origin as a band can be, it was Pere Ubu who in the spring of 1976 up and drove to Max's Kansas City, eventually getting on the Max's compilation albums. A few months later, Rod Bent arranged to borrow a failing Akron bar called the Crypt for weekday boozing and Fri.-Sat. rock and roll merriment. It was at the Crypt that Bent and his cohorts, formerly a heavy metal copy band called King Cobra, turned into the Rubber City Rebels, banging out loony toons about infanticide ("Bring him down to the Rubber City Day Care Center . . .") and kidnapping (wails the forlorn kidnappee: "I wish I was poor/I can't take it no more"). The Crypt was also where Devo, since 1972 a rather theoretical rock band that played out only once or twice a year, was transformed from a sporadic visual and literary concept into a group with a regular drummer. The Bizarros got to try out their stagecraft there as well, Pere Ubu appeared, and the Dead Boys came down for several memorable lost weekends. It's said that the scene was falling apart by the end of '76--one wonders how the Rebels' beer-guzzling punkoids got along with Devo's arty crowd, who used to bring their own orange juice and stay all night. In any case, a restaurant chain offered the rubber worker who owned the place $14,000 for his liquor license and Akron's New Wave withdrew to the basements and garages. That May the Dead Boys went to New York and stayed there. A few months later Kip Cohen of A&M heard a tape and invited Devo to L.A., where they quickly built a cult despite A&M's equally speedy loss of interest. The Rebels followed in November.
When I visited Ohio in early March, the Devo musicians were touring England. But I was able to meet with Bob Lewis, their quasi-manager and longtime conceptual collaborator, in a cheap, comfortable double apartment maintained by two women who introduced themselves as Susan Devo and Bobbie Devo. Like so much New Wave, the Devo idea--sci-fi technological love-hate enriched by scatological slapstick and relentless oxymoron--reinterprets and adapts counterculture perceptions rather than reducing them to toothless cliches. So it wasn't surprising to find that the band's headquarters felt like a commune, or to hear Bobbie refer to the Devo "community." Their manifestos of five or six years ago-took an anti-android tone, favoring what Lewis called "that transcendent state most fully engendered by Fred Flintstone--the technologically sophisticated cave-man." But these days bassist Jerry Casale claims that "the people in Devo feel like robots"--they perform their herky-jerky computer chants in identical masks and industrial costumes--and compare the band's "collective image" to a beehive.
Lewis told me that Devo concentrated their attention on music two years ago: "Eventually you realize that either you take the job in the factory or you do the creative thing, and if you're gonna do the creative thing you'd better be serious about it, be professional and get your shit together." It's not likely that anybody in Devo would have wound up in a factory after years of fringe employment in the arts and electronics, but professionalism has definitely become their way. When a Warners exec told them that he liked to sign one "art band" for every act he knew was going to sell three million,'he was politely asked what art band would balance off Devo, and there are already plans for an all-synthesizer look and sound. Their attitude toward their audience--as might be expected from a band that has said it aims "to inject some notion of the transcendent into the bleak existence of these poor ones"--is as ambivalent as their attitude toward technology; if anything, they seem to prefer machines to the "mongoloids" they're trying to reach. In the time-honored tradition of rock professionalism, the Devo community expects to relocate in Los Angeles shortly.
From Devo HQ I went almost directly to the Bank, a jazz club in downtown Akron, where 15-60-75 the Numbers Band was doing some Elmore James for a collegiate dance crowd numbering 35 or 40. This is the only bar band I've ever heard that sounds unique--blues guitar and harp and jazz horns over r&b and free-form drumming, all identified by Bob Kidney's taciturn, surreal-Dylanesque, rather flawed vocals and songpoems. Numbers is an institution in kent, and a remarkable one--but it's still just a bar band. Urged on by bassist (and letter-writer) Chris Butler, Kidney took the band to Trax last summer, and they'll be in Florida on a working vacation this May, but if the a&r guys think they're not commercial, so be it. Each of the seven musicians in the band lives on the $100 a week his playing nets him; Kidney shares a house by the lake with his wife, who works for a florist, and at 30 finds life sweeter than he ever thought he would. "I'm content," he told me. "I can write and play what I want."
Kidney is a '60s rock and roller whose values somehow didn't get turned inside out on their way to 1978. For him, music and a decent life come first. Devo is a '70s art band that wants to sell three million records, and like most '70s art bands they're aware that this ambition is dangerous. But they seem quite capable of conceiving the decent life differently from you, me, or Bob Kidney, of taking a paradoxical, de-evolutionary relish in the dehumanization of the star system. For the other Akron-Cleveland bands, however, the alternatives are less clear--neither retreat nor relish seems entirely satisfactory.
Like Devo before them, the Rebels did well in L.A.; after contracting a manager who works for ASCAP and poaching a billboard on Sunset Strip for five glorious days, they seem to be on their way. But to where? Seymour Stein of Sire tells them they're "power pop" and wants them to tour and record in England. They're willing, too; they went to L.A., Rod Bent told me on the phone, "to get exposure in the industry," and like their friends the Dead Boys they're ready to go out on the road and grind themselves an audience, assuming there's one there. With their musical roots in New York (big inspiration: the original Heartbreakers) and their personal ones in the Midwest ("I don't need no oceans/I got industry"), they'd probably be happier on the road than in L.A., where they feel uncomfortable, and they might even have some fun: "Rubber City Rebels/Just a rubber band/Rubber City Rebels/Bouncing across this land." But they regard Akron as their home, and say they miss it.
At this point, attentive readers may feel that Akron-Cleveland's New Wave is disintegrating right in front of them. With the Dead Boys and Devo expatriated, the Rebels going pro, and the Numbers Band off by themselves, who's left? One set of answers might come from Liam Sternberg. The 28-year-old son of an "attorney" who has played guitar, bass, and keyboards in show bands in the U.S. and England, Sternberg is currently theory and composition and working on an experimental ballet score as well as coordinating Stiff's Akron LP. The album will feature not only the Rebels, the Bizarros, and Tin Huey, but also two tracks by Sternberg's own Jane Aire and the Belvederes, which will be distributed as a single. Other contributors include Chi Pig, the latest creation of Debbie Schmidt and Susan Smith, who led a pioneering Blue Cheer-type band a decade ago, when they were 16; two semi-mythical rock groups called Idiots Convention ("together six years," Sternberg claims) and the Sniper Band; and the altogether mythical Waitresses, described by Chris Butler as "a total concept band like the Monkees with the drive and commitment of Steely Dan." Butler got fired from the Numbers Band for devoting too much energy to the Waitresses--going out and finding waitresses to sing the songs must take time--and now performs with Tin Huey.
If Akron's New Wave were to boom, or if Stiff were to sell a lot of albums, it's conceivable that some of these names could emerge from the basements and/or minds of their designers and take on human form. It's also conceivable that Sternberg or Butler, in the great tradition of studio rock and roll that Nick Lowe of Stiff exploits so gleefully, could continue to nurture whole groups in their heads. But if these artists are to maintain any but the most marginal vitality, the traditional Stiff approach--heavy on the fun-loving hype and not without a certain aura of find-'em feel-'em--will probably have to be modified by that of Cliff Burnstein's Blank Records. For as the label of two-thirds of the area's resident first-generation New Wave--Pere Ubu and the Bizarros, with Tin Huey leaning to Warner Bros.--Blank is the hope of the scene. And as two-thirds of Blank's current roster, Akron-Cleveland might be the hope of Burnstein, too.
Because Blank is a wholly owned subsidiary of Mercury, the label that put the New York Dolls to death a few years ago, New Wave partisans regard it with suspicion, but it's the most interesting experiment to hit the music biz in years. What mourners of the Dolls always forget is that the Dolls provoked their own execution by spending Mercury's money like the superstars they deserved to be. Burnstein's bands, unlike Nick Lowe or Devo, will never get to experience (and comment ironically upon) the presumed glamour of the rock life, but neither will they inspire accountants to fulminate about punk 1 ripoff artists, because Blank offers chicken-feed production advances of 15 or 20 grand, with all other expenditures, including tour support, kept to a minimum. In addition to songwriting royalties of about 20 cents an album and whatever's left over from the advance--between $5000 and $10,000 for a band that is well-rehearsed and prefers to keep the music raw anyway--the performance royalties should begin to come in after sales of about 30,000. The company's profits start sooner; Burnstein figures that if he can average 25,000 sales per LP released he'll be in the black. A lot of records sell 25,000 these days, but only because they are hyped by the enormous promotional outlay that Blank eliminates. What no one knows is whether word-of-mouth and reviews can generate that kind of volume in the growing but still limited audience of New Wave aficionados.
So far it's been slow. When I talked to two members of Pere Ubu on March 4 in New York, two weeks into a modest introductory tour that they found somewhat wearing, they reported sales of 9000 on their excellent debut album, The Modern Dance; on March 27, with the tour over, Burnstein told me they were somewhere over 10,000. Not much progress for a band on the road. But say they do well in Europe; say radio opens up some; say the New Wave audience continues to build. Say The Modern Dance proves a durable catalogue item, selling not 25,000, but 50,000. That would mean about $20,000 in royalties for a five-man band. Say that in addition they could net what the Numbers Band gets in live performance--$35.000 a year. That's a lot of ifs for an annual income of $11,000 per man. But $11,000 represents a middle way between the provincial inertia of a Bob Kidney and the delighted deracination of a Devo, and would provide a better living than what most of Akron-Cleveland's New Wavers manage in the day jobs that now keep their bodies and music together. And if the prophets of New Wave prove correct, if some sort of rock revolution is just around the corner, such musicians will already have established a base from which to claim the rewards of their virtue. Pray for Cliff Burnstein.
4. A Night on the Town
On March 10, the Bizarros and Tin Huey played upstairs at JB's, the most adventurous music bar left in Kent, while 15-60-75 did its regular stint downstairs. To an extent, the upstairs performance was arranged for the visiting critic from New York, which made him apprehensive. But he had a wonderful time, and he wished you were there. Not that you were needed, exactly. The owner reported that March 10 was the biggest Friday in the history of JB's, and added a case of beer and a small cash bonus to the bands' share of the door, bringing the take (after P. A. costs) to $15 and two bottles of Heineken's Dark per man.
Nick Nicholis, the 26-year-old leader of Bizarros, is the only child of a Greek rubber worker turned cook; he has jobs with both the Akron school system and the Akron parks department, and lives in a handsome old house owned by the teacher he married last June. Although Nicholis counts the purchase of an LP with a banana on the cover and a fortuitous four-hour conversation with Jonathan Richman as formative life experiences, he is too sincere and hardworking to qualify as a typical anything, much less a typical avant-punk. So I worried about how he'd project on stage, and at first my misgivings seemed justified. Nicholis had become more aggressive vocally since his album, getting rid of Uncle Lou's detached tone while retaining his phrasing, but he looked schlumpy in his hooded sweatshirt and sensible shoes. And although guitarist Jerry Parkins was prevented from soloing by Nicholis's arrangements--so that his nifty repertoire of runs, licks, and fills, all highly condensed, gave the music just the edge it needed--drummer Rick Garberson, recruited from a heavy metal band, was much too busy for such a spare conception.
What made the band snap into place for me was bassist Don Parkins, a bank teller and business student with the bearing of a factory worker and the eyes of Elvis Costello. Throwing himself into the music, with a gawky abandon that subsumed all diffidence, nervousness, and showmanship, he looked like exactly what he was, a fan whose dreams were coming true. That, I realized, was what Nicholis projected, too, although he was shier about it. The Bizarros--a name I considered hopelessly pseudo-ominous until I learned that it came from a Superman comic--aren't punks, they're punk fans: sharp but basically ordinary young men who can identify with punk anti-sentimentality without turning into cynics or minimalists. Nicholis's formal instincts are trenchant and his will strong, so the drumming will boil down and the lyrics will tighten up. But this band won't ever become elegant, altogether devoid of vulgar impurities--and that's their strength.
Tin Huey's music is also impure, but in a different way. With influences like Robert Wyatt, Ornette Coleman, Henry Cow, and Faust (the group, not the hero), they're Akron's esoterics, and like Liam Sternberg, who insists that no New Wave can break in 4/4, they value technique. This is not the kind of band I usually like. But where most groups use difficult keys and meters to get closer to Atlantis, or transubstantiation, Tin Huey seemed to be seeking the eternal secret of the whoopee cushion. What they did was Good Music partly because it was Very Funny, and it looked as zany as it sounded. This was a band whose remarkable young saxophonist, Ralph Carney, wasn't above playing a duck call or using his head as a percussion device, a band whose Robert Wyatt cover was the Monkees' "I'm a Believer." Newcomer Chris Butler added r&b grounding on three different instruments, contributed several of the best songs, and brought along a Waitress. And they stopped for breath about as often as the Ramones, not counting two blown fuses.
Only fans of such a band dance to its music, and the floor at JB's was jammed for Tin Huey. Quite a wonderful crowd, too: everything from punks to aesthetes--which are not the same thing in Akron--with a lot of young students and old hippies in between. Different sorts of dissidents were banded together in a fellowship of defiant pleasure that recalled the pluralism of a Ramones or Patti Smith concert in New York, except that it was broader. Despite the usual backbiting, a similar camaraderie unites Akron-Cleveland's New Wave and extends beyond. When I asked Bob Lewis about the gym battle at Kent State, he offered what I found to be the general opinion: the gym was certainly a ripoff, but the protesters were caught up in a losing battle over a vague, anachronistic issue. Then he told me, almost as an afterthought, that Devo and Numbers had done a benefit for the protesters that spring. In Ohio, mutual support is all but assumed: "anybody doing anything at all against our gray Midwestern nothingness deserves attention."
Not that the gray midwestern nothingness was as oppressive as the Comsymp in me was prepared to find. Given the proximity of Kent and the nature of modern communications, some version of The Arts was there for those who sought it. And the worst poverty I encountered was at least semi-voluntary, making class analyses problematic: while the arty bands (Tin Huey, Devo, Pere Ubu) seem to come from tonier circumstances than the punky ones (the Dead Boys, the Rebels, the Bizarros), I'm not positive that the appearance is congruent to the reality. I am positive, though, that the heedless eclecticism of these bands--whether naive, as when Rick Garberson adds rolls to "Blitzkrieg Bop" while Nick Nicholis swings the vocal, or sophisticated, as when Pere Ubu juxtaposes power chords and synthesizer aleatoric--reflects both Akron-Cleveland's paucity of original culture and its tradition of openness to new pop music. These are syntheses unhampered by the preconceptions of more cosmopolitan or more rooted places. And however confusing questions of class become in a city where almost every rubber worker owns a house and a few even own bars, I'm also positive that every one of these musicians feels compelled to confront the industrial landscape. One thing all of this music shares is a conscious rejection of pastorale.
That said, it must also be admitted that some other urban response is likely to prevail commercially in Cleveland rock and roll. As befits an artist-breaking market, Cleveland is now the home of two national labels, both distributed by Epic: Steve Popvich's Cleveland International and Carl Maduri's Sweet City. Neither entrepreneur has any interest in New Wave; Maduri, a big fan of "melody," thinks pop music is better than ever. Wild Cherry and Michael Stanley, Cleveland artists who record for Maduri, no doubt feel that their music is as real as Pere Ubu's, and when Maduri seeks another local artist, perhaps he will check out independently produced pop rock records of varying verve by Tinkertoo, Jerry Bush, and Don Young's Production.
But then there's Strychnine, the Styrene Money Band, the Human Switchboard. National recognition by major labels for bands from Devo, rumored to be getting lavish advances from some music-biz cartel, to Tin Huey, who have Cliff Burnstein to fall back on should all else fail, seems to have jolted local New Wavers. And if Devo's dreams of glory should come true, or Cliff Burnstein's modest proposal be accepted, they'll keep coming. Maybe they'll even find. Then everyone can decide what's real and what is you pay your money . . .
Village Voice, Apr. 17, 1978