Sharps & flats

Cobra Verde find the swaggering essence of glam rock that Todd Haynes and "Velvet Goldmine" missed.

By Joe Gross
September 21, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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"Velvet Goldmine" was a blast, despite its campy, post-"Citizen Kane" story structure, a sexless lead actor and its conflation of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed into one character. Celebrating the glories of fandom, director Todd Haynes captured the breathless experiences of opening a new record for that first spin or reading NME as if it were the Torah. As good as it was on the wombish bliss of being a fan, the actual music -- it was supposed to be about glam rock -- was hugely inadequate, mostly because Haynes couldn't get access to David Bowie's crucial hits or space oddities. Instead, he commissioned art-rock band Shudder to Think to write songs for his brutally fop-brained protagonist Maxwell Demon, and the results were uniformly disastrous: The songs signified glam without ever actually delivering on glam's crucial crunchy arrogance.

Haynes would have fared far better if he had consulted John Petkovic and his band Cobra Verde. Cleveland journalist Petkovic has been trying to fuse contemporary punk with visions of glam for almost 15 years now, first with the little-known Death of Samantha and since 1994 with Cobra Verde. Much of Petkovic's earlier work had glam's chunky riffs and dramatic songwriting but it also had misplaced energy and none of the music's ostentatious flair. The Jesus and Mary Chain's T. Rex was often better than Cobra Verde's, but God knows Petkovic would have done a better job than Shudder.


But for the first time in Petkovic's career, it all comes together on "Nightlife," a tight, heavy, guitar-and-chirping-synth version of glam rock written sideways. These are the sort of songs Roxy Music might have recorded had Brian Eno stayed on to write his epic "Baby's on Fire" with them. In fact, the specter of Roxy's art-thrum looms extremely large over the staccato piano and sax bleats of "Crashing in a Plane." Petkovic's warbling baritone is hardly Bryan Ferry's voice of the spheres -- the closest he gets is on the ballad "Between the Seasons." But Petkovic has finally nailed that crucial rock star insolence. His band -- which backed Guided by Voices for a record and now includes Frank Vazzano (guitar), Chas Smith (theremin/synthesizer), Mark Klein (drums) and Dave Hill (bass) -- pounds through the songs like they expect them to be deathless, and that's an essence of glam that's almost impossible to get right.

Petkovic has claimed that he loves glam for the masking element, the role-playing that it demands. To paraphrase Courtney Love, "Nightlife" fakes it so real it's beyond fake. Cobra Verde no longer sound like a band addressing a genre through an ironic veil; they've suddenly started to play the stuff straight-up, something Shudder couldn't do for "Velvet Goldmine." In "What Makes a Man a Man," Cobra Verde are asking the ultimate glam question. They're also smart enough to dodge the answer, because not knowing is glam's root integer.

"Heaven in the Gutter" is all trebly swagger, and you can almost see glittery rebel rebels banging their heads. At the same time, you get the sense that Cobra Verde could use a little work on their strut. After all, what kind of self-respecting spaceman would admit, "Ain't going back to Venus/I've never been to Mars"?

Joe Gross

Joe Gross is a Washington writer.


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