They had to cut ties with Cleveland to follow their dreams.
But on Monday evening four punk progenitors enjoyed a homecoming-of-sorts when their “Cleveland Confidential” book tour swung by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Mike Hudson (Pagans), Cheetah Chrome (Dead Boys, Rocket from the Tombs), Bob Pfeifer (Human Switchboard), and David Thomas (Pere Ubu) took turns reading from their latest works before a capacity crowd in the Rock Hall’s Foster Theater. Some of the writing and reflections—especially in the case of Hudson and Chrome—were autobiographical, stirring memories for authors and audience alike.
Hudson’s “All the Wrong People are Dying” was culled from his latest compilation of fiction and journalism, Jetsam (published by his own Tuscarora Press). In it, the former singer eulogizes several pre-Cobain era musicians whose flames fizzled early. Some died as a result by misadventure with drugs and alcohol. Others—including Dead Boys vocalist Stiv Bators and Hudson’s own brother—perished in fluke auto accidents. Hudson’s writing (which was paraphrased in memoir Diary of a Punk) examines the significance of both stupidity and dumb luck in the context of such sudden death.
“Nothing is important,” he concluded.
Pere Ubu founder David Thomas did little to offset his curmudgeonly reputation—but his presence (one of only two on the tour) resulted in moments of humor and insight. Thomas read an excerpt from his play Bring Me the Head of Ubu Roi, adopting the voices of several characters in the script. Later, he pondered the etymology of “punk” and expounded on the importance (or lack thereof) of the audience in art. Thomas also called out Cheetah Chrome on his book smarts; the Ubu singer said the guitar player’s leather-clad bad boy image conceals a closet intellectual with a photographic memory.
Chrome read aloud from parts of A Dead Boy’s Tale: From the Front Lines of Punk Rock, his memoir of decadence and redemption in the music business. His passage about how the Dead Boys blamed a hotel-wrecking bash on Neil Diamond drew laughter and applause. He shared a few anecdotes with Thomas about their mutual Rocket from the Tombs past—and agreed with Hudson and Pfeifer that rock music inspired them as youths in a city where there was “nothing to do.”
Pfeifer shared a chapter from his “dada” crime novel University of Strangers, wherein a luckless prisoner in Italy marvels at how a fellow inmate came into possession of fresh eggs for breakfast. Pfeifer then took issue with Scene Magazine’s cover story on the book tour. While he had no qualms with the context of the profile, he lamented the distasteful title: “The Idiot Diaries.” Pfeifer and his peers rightly observed it was a poor choice of words, given that Cleveland is always eager to embrace hometown talent in the news. Cheetah and Hudson would be first to admit they were obnoxious in their teen years—but it’s not for anyone else to call out their youthful indiscretions in print. Self-deprecation is one thing; labeling another.
Thomas listened intently to his colleagues with his eyes closed. During the Q&A which followed, he alternately rested his head on the table—or thumped on it with his hands in protest of whatever ideas were being disseminated.
“I’m going to take a break for two and a half minutes,” he announced at one point.
Pfeifer encouraged the Ubu guru to chime in at leisure, but it turns out Thomas’ 150-second estimation of silence was fairly accurate.
Rock Hall Director of Education Jason Hanley moderated the reading and Q&A as part of the facility’s ongoing series of lecture events. Previously, the Rock Hall has hosted similar visits and interviews with Peter Hook (Joy Division, New Order), Jon Anderson (of Yes), and Ronnie Spector. The events are typically free and open to the public, but reservations are advised. Smog Veil Records—a Chicago indie company that carries many past and present Cleveland artists—sponsored the reading.
Hudson—who broke into journalism even as the Pagans disbanded—now publishes Niagara Falls Reporter from his NY home, where he resides with wife Rebecca.
Pfeifer was responsible for signing Screaming Trees and others while VP of A&R at Epic Records in the 90s. He then became President of Hollywood Records—but desk work doesn’t prevent him from jamming with new band Tabby Chinos.
Incorrigible as ever, David Thomas will release new titles from both Pere Ubu and Rocket from the Tombs this year. Dividing his time between England and the U.S., he recently completed a mini-tour of Europe with his band and is responsible for everything Ubu at www.ubuprojex.net and www.hearpen.com.
Definitely not a “dead boy” despite years of substance abuse, a new-and-improved Cheetah Chrome lives in Nashville with his wife and son. The guitarist has work in the pipeline with Rocket from the Tomb and his own Batusis. “Sonic Reducer” recently appeared in the film Carlos and is as rebellious an anthem as ever. But not necessarily a punk anthem, surmises Thomas.
“Why does it have to be punk?” Thomas questioned the qualifier. “It’s just an anthem. Like ‘Summertime Blues.’ It’s metaphorical. You don’t expect some teenage kid to actually take his problem to the United Nations.”