"I JUST HAVE THIS weird phobia," confides John Petkovic, singer, guitarist, and Svengali of Cleveland, Ohio's shamelessly rocking Cobra Verde. "I imagine these tortured, overfed, overpaid art-rock guys sitting in a dimly lit room, and their soul is coming out on the page. That's not how it should be. Just write the shit down on the way to the studio."
According to Petkovic, the real mystery of rock 'n' roll—the question that has lingered since Little Richard first put fingers to ivory—is a simple one. "Where can I find a pair of tight-fitting pants?" he asks with a laugh. "If I see a pair of pants that says 'relaxed fit,' I know I can't rock in those pants."
With Nightlife, Cobra Verde's fourth album, Petkovic and longtime collaborator bassist/guitarist Don Depew (along with a revolving cast of cronies) offer up an unexpected delight in a year in which emaciated teenagers and overfed, overpaid egomaniacs singing about nookie have dominated the charts. Listening to it, you come to understand what fans of Cobra Verde already know: Petkovic likes Rock Music, the kind that involves dark glasses (as in Lou), cigarettes dangling from lips (as in Keith), and yes, tight trousers (as in Iggy, David, Mick, and their army of imitators).
Not so readily apparent is that Petkovic likes to talk, and not just about music. When he's not subreferencing into oblivion about Marx, Fassbinder, Kubrick, and the poet John Donne, he laments the "detached '90s" or the "alienation from self" that the decade has spawned. And he walks it like he talks it. As the creator and editor of ScamCity 2000, a Web-based "journal of American Anti-Culture," he and his collaborators regularly expound upon everything from baseball's Negro League to Marilyn Manson to movies. (Petkovic also writes a daily arts and entertainment column for Cleveland's Plain Dealer.) What it all comes down to is that, while he's loathe to admit it, John Petkovic is an intellectual, with one foot in the rock 'n' roll gutter and the other firmly in the door of respectability. Like the '60s rock icons (Jagger, Townshend, and Roxy Music among them) who quit art school only to inject their music with high concepts, Petkovic informs Cobra Verde and Nightlife with the kind of roguish intelligence that sounds best with the amps cranked to 11 and a drink in each hand.
If there's one thing Petkovic can't stand, it's people who are ashamed to rock. "Hip-hop has survived because it's had strong front people," he explains. "The front people in rock music have been declawed and turned into people who basically have to apologize for being on a stage. That's been really horrendous for rock 'n' roll." What's more, says Petkovic, this shame has infiltrated our culture as a whole, to the point where bold vision is considered a negative attribute. "Maybe these days people feel uncomfortable with big ideas, maybe they want irony or silliness," he muses. "It's almost like this never ending string of apologies. It's very annoying."
You'll find no apologies on Nightlife, just a collection of glam-inspired stunners that best lend themselves to feather boas, limos, and Saturday night. An adroit tunesmith, Petkovic's trick lies in his ability to meld the swagger of his heroes with his own impressive rock power. "One Step Away From Myself" is wonderfully Cars-esque; the sax-smothered "Crashing In A Plane," is pure Stranded-era Roxy Music. The chorus of "Casino" is so over the top you'll wonder if it's a joke (it's not). But it's precisely this kind of exaggeration that's at the heart of Nightlife and of Petkovic's whole approach to rock 'n' roll. "I don't want to authentically recreate nightlife," he says. "I want to authentically recreate the artificial notion of what nightlife promises and ultimately fails to deliver. I like things that are kind of fake."