Poetic Justice

For Cobra Verde's John Petkovic, rock 'n' roll hasn't come back; it never went away.



Tractor Tavern, 206-789-3599, $15

9:30 p.m. Thurs., Oct. 24

“TO ME,” ANNOUNCED Cobra Verde’s John Petkovic in 1999, during an interview I conducted with him just prior to the release of the Cleveland band’s third album, Nightlife, “‘rock star’ means ‘poet with power.’ Patti Smith was right: For a long time, to be a rock star meant someone who had been an outsider but had achieved something, gotten some sort of power, but you were still . . . considered to be pretty cool.”

Three years on, considered within the Rolling Stone-hosanna “Rock Is Back!” context, the quote seems downright prophetic, and if you don’t believe that, ask yourself why bands like the Strokes, the Hives, and the White Stripes dress up to go onstage, or why practically every quote is some myth-invoking variation upon rock ‘n’ roll’s larger-than-lifeness and timeless powers of transcendent cool.

Prophets rarely enjoy the fruits of their own visionary prowess, however. So it’s not surprising to learn that Petkovic, rather than jet-setting and doing magazine covers, is still in Cleveland, currently putting the final touches on the forthcoming Cobra Verde record (projected title: Easy Listening!, due next spring). On the afternoon that I ring him up, he’s getting ready to leave in a few hours on a two-week tour with Cobra Verde serving as both the opening act and backing band for former Dinosaur Jr. main man J. Mascis.

“I was up real late last night playing bass trying to learn the songs [from Mascis’ new album, Free So Free], although I’m not really a bass player, so I’m kinda thrown into this,” says Petkovic with a laugh. “Mark [Klein, CV drummer] is saying to me, ‘Man, what songs are we doing again? Do you know them?’ I’m going, ‘I dunno, do you know this stuff?’ Maybe by the time we get to Seattle, things’ll be more coherent! But there’s not really any game plan to this. We’ve learned some of the old Dinosaur songs, like ‘Freak Scene,’ ‘The Lung,’ a few others. To tell you the truth, I don’t know what is going to happen. He’s still going to play, say, half his stuff acoustically, then we’ll get up and play with him. But with J., there’s nothing planned out.”

This will actually be the second Mascis-Verde jaunt; the band toured with him in April, although at that point, the onstage collaboration tended to be encore jams on old Stooges songs. Meanwhile, Petkovic, Klein, and CV studio bassist Don Depew appeared on several of the Free So Free tracks, and Mascis returned the favor by laying down some guitar for the new CV album.

COBRA VERDE HAS been around since 1994, when Petkovic was still partnered with guitarist Doug Gillard (the two had been together in the notorious Death of Samantha). The pairing came unglued around the time of recording sessions for Nightlife, following a somewhat ill-fated Guided by Voices-CV recording and touring liaison that ultimately resulted in Gillard sticking with the Bob Pollard camp. Nightlife, an inspired, artsy collision of Bowie/Roxy Music glam and Stooges/Stones rawk, went on to earn across-the-board critical kudos, however. Steady roadwork since then has left CV (Petkovic on guitar and vocals, drummer Klein, guitarists Frank Vazzano and Jovan Karcic, keyboardist/theremin-whiz Chas Smith, touring bassist Ed Sotolo), in Petkovic’s words, “very tight, so much so that we don’t have to practice. We just go out there without thinking about things too much, because in live music, it’s better to err on the side of physicality vs. the intellect. Not that you don’t care—but you should embrace the chaos. That way, there’s no stress.”

Translating his chaos theory to the new album, Petkovic suggests that where Nightlife had a “studied, detached quality” to it, sessions for Easy Listening! have definitely had a more spontaneous, I’ll-write-a-song-tonight-we’ll-record-it-tomorrow vibe. What’s the album gonna be like? “Catchy. Brighter. More immediate. Sharp chords, lots of tambourines, more poppy than Nightlife. Like a cross between the Kinks and Gang of Four, if you could have reversed time and had Gang of Four come first and the Kinks be influenced by it!”

Sounds, um, suspiciously like a rock record, John. Come to think of it, Nightlife, for all its densely layered textures, was a pretty balls-to-the-wall rock record, too. Three years ahead of your time?

“It’s funny—we go out of town, and I’ve noticed that things seem to have changed a lot in the last year. People used to say, ‘You guys are just a rock band, but you kick ass!’ And now it’s just, ‘Man, you guys rock!’ The ‘just a rock’ qualifier is no longer there. ‘Man, you guys are just like the Hives!’ Or something like that. But you know, if a band comes out that sounds like the Hives and goes on to make 40 million bucks, those guys in the Hives are gonna moan, ‘Man, we did it, but we were too early!

“I understand that ‘rock is back,’ and it did come back, in some ways, in the popular consciousness. It may be more relevant or timely. But there’s also the whole clich麠’Well, rock never went away anyway!’ If I never made a dime playing music, I don’t care. Not trying to sound arrogant, but it’s like, I’m sure that when Curt Schilling goes out there to pitch, he probably goes, ‘Oh, I’m up against a .320 hitter? This is gonna be easy!’ Well, being in this band is easy. It fucking kicks ass, and we just go out there and rock out.”