The Cleveland Confidential Book Tour came through Cincinnati on April 3rd, and I was in attendance at The Comet to see Cheetah Chrome, Bob Pfeifer, and Mike Hudson. I’d originally met the first two guys when I covered their respective Cleveland-based bands, the Dead Boys and Human Switchboard, for Creem in the late ’70s/early ’80s. As those two entities became enshrined in my personal pantheon of favorite bands, I remained interested in their members’ subsequent efforts, musical and now literary. But I wasn’t previously familiar with Mike Hudson, whose punk band, The Pagans, had somewhow escaped my journalist’s notice during those heady days of Creem writing.
No, I didn’t get any photos of the tour, just scribblings in my notebook, as I came up through compartmentalized journalism after all, but you can see what the principals looked and sounded like per this video of their earlier stop in Berkeley:
Just imagine the three of them darkly highlighted against the spring sunshine dazzling through The Comet’s front windows rather than backed by a wall of books.
The Cleveland Confidential Book Tour spotlighted Cheetah Chrome’s autobiography, A Dead Boy’s Tale (Voyageur Press, 2010); Bob Pfeifer’s novel, University of Strangers (Power City Press, 2010); and both Mike Hudson’s music memoir, Diary of a Punk (Tuscarora Books, 2008), and his anthology of his fiction and journalism, Jetsam (Power City Press, 2009). At The Comet, the authors read selected passages from their books, and then took questions from the crowded bar. My favorites among their statements were Bob’s “I agree with Cheetah — [Alice Cooper's] ‘Eighteen’ was the most influential record on punk,” and Cheetah’s own response to a question whether writing his book was “cathartic” — “I was glad to be done with it and not typing in my basement for another year.” Yes! to both, sez me.
Still, I’m more than grateful for Cheetah’s subterranean keyboarding, as A Dead Boy’s Story has been an amazing read for me — amazing not just that I never anticipated a definitive self-penned account of Cheetah’s life and really the whole ’70s punk experience, but amazing too as I wasn’t sure he’d be around to tell this story. When I met the Dead Boys in 1978, Stiv Bators seemed like the media-savvy guy who would always be the face of the Dead Boys, while Cheetah was a raw-punk guitarist with lots of talent, but with drugs and other demons riding on his back. And then, in an outcome worthy of Woody Allen’s version of the Old Testament, Stiv died in 1990 after being hit by a car in Paris, while Cheetah’s chance visit to Nashville led to marriage, fatherhood, and finally beating drugs — giving us all the benefit of A Dead Boy’s Tale. His book is comprehensive, covering everything from growing up in a single-parent apartment in a West Cleveland housing project to his rock’n'roll career’s highs and lows, with abundant, enlightening detail — from the sociology of the neighborhood of his youth to guitar-string specifics for those so inclined. And it’s witty and entertaining all the way.
Mike Hudson’s Diary of a Punk is a similar account of aspiring to punk and other such rebel expressions after growing up rough in Cleveland, though on a more concise scale than Cheetah’s, as Hudson’s book concentrates on his on-again/off-again career as the front man of the Pagans, with the autobiographical elements more incidental. Which is where Mike Hudson’s mysteriousness (from me not knowing of him before this tour) really kicks in, as he’s been a professional journalist too since the ’70s. Whenever the Pagans began to run out of steam, he’d go back to writing, as a freelancer for everything from fanzines to “men’s” magazines, as a daily-newspaper beat guy, etc.. Currently he’s the editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter weekly, which muckrakes political and labor corruption in the Honeymoon City. This from a guy who quit high school, but who was mentored by novelist David Markson and other writers along the way, and who has developed a great just-the-facts pithy-but-expressive prose style. As I emailed Mike recently, some of his ca.-1980 fictional sketches in Jetsam “sound like Bukowski translated into Buckeye — an irresistible concept for me, of course.”
Bob Pfeifer’s University of Strangers novel is likely in the ”postmodern” genre (who isn’t these days?), yet it’s not forbidding nor a difficult read. It’s presented in an “oral history” style, with the plot carried by the alternating & candid statements of dozens of characters, some of them literally picked up from reallife “content” on the Internet. The book has many, many levels of pop-culture references, and the more you know about a certain topic, the more humor you’ll find all through the book. As someone acquainted with Human Switchboard’s history, I picked up on those refs, with old liner notes and song lyrics quoted verbatim in droll new contexts. I know much less about the late Chilean novelist Robert Bolano, or about American university student Amanda Knox, arrested in Italy and accused of killing her roommate, a story that was a tabloid sensation a season or two ago, so I’m sure I’ve missed some of the satiric references in those passages, but it’s a compelling story in any case.
My bottom-line take on University of Strangers is that the novel’s semi-protagonist “Branko P.”s ordeal in an Italian prison and eventual redemption, is Pfeifer’s fictional recasting of his own legal troubles and jail experience when he was involved in a court case in L.A. a few years back. Which is fine with me — I’m not interested in getting into the who’s and why’s of that case here, it’s not important to me. I just think Pfeifer’s always made good music, and now good fiction, out of ALL of his experiences. Incidentally, the “Strangers” in the novel’s title are a Masonic-like secret society of hipsters who show up throughout the story. And I’m not party to their recognition fist-bump, though the book includes a drop card which enables the reader to download songs by Bob’s cool current band, the Tabby Chinos.
All the books I’ve described above have been fine reads and major inspirations for me. And I can confidently ask you to make validatory “BUY OHIO!” purchases of these books for now. As it happens, none of these Cleveland-native authors lives “here” any longer, so maybe our new rightwing-apparatchik governor, John Kasich (oddly enough a native of Pittsburgh PA), won’t receive any reflected glory (nor taxes, which he professes to disdain) from these Buckeye exiles’ literary accomplishments. Which is also fine with me.