Pagans

There was a moment in 1978 when time stood still in Cleveland.  The “moment” was defined by the Pagans, a band that was so in the moment it became their end...

Drawing by Jack Snyder

Looking back, you’d like to carp about the music gatekeepers of Cleveland during the mid-late 70s, WMMS and Scene Magazine.  Their complete disregard of punk music was well known and in retrospect you can't blame them.  Cleveland was and always will be a prolific music consumer so why would they waste air time and ink on the Sex Pistols, let alone the Cleveland underground, when their listeners wanted to hear Pink Floyd and read Rush and Bob Seger concert reviews.

For punks though, being in a consumer town had its advantages.  In the golden age of 1977-79 I can think of five record shops from Mentor to Lakewood that had decent import sections.  Those places were where you cut your teeth on the shit and the 45s were the bread and butter.  Considering there were generously one hundred punks in Greater Cleveland there was plenty of vinyl to go around, especially if you were on the ball.

Every few weeks we’d trek to the coolest of all the record shops, Hideo’s Disco Drome.  Record Rendezvous downtown had great stax, but the staff were aloof, artsy and standoffish.  Record Revolution was ok, Record Exchange had some decent shit but were fucking pirates, and of course there was the misfit store at Great Lakes Mall in the front of Newberry’s, next to the lunch counter, that was the home of the two crabby guys that ran the joint.  There was something genuine about the Drome though and it became our go-to store if for no other reason they had a cool vibe and always seemed glad to see us.

At the Drome we found singles by local bands like the Dead Boys, Electric Eels, Devo and Pere Ubu and we gobbled them up like Black Beauties, Mr. Natural and Viceroys.  Quickly it sunk in that the Eels were dead, Devo had split for an artsier and more profitable locale and Ubu, who hadn’t permanently relocated, seemed haughty and for shit sake had more dudes in the band than Tower of Power.  Of course we thought it was cool that The Dead Boys were “one of the ones” in punk, but those guys split for NYC, so they were Nettles and Chambliss to us.  There was a Cleveland connection, but they were no longer a Cleveland band.

 

There was buzz at the Drome about another local band.  The Pagans.  On one our visits I saw their single, “Six and Change” and bought it.  My pal did too.  When we got home and played it we had questions… “Who is Freddy and why did he hit one of the regulars at Traxx?”  “B-Side? Holy shit it’s the same fucking song.”  “Recorded live? Where?  In the wrestling room at Mentor High?” “What’s with all these fucking cymbals?”

There was nothing that grabbed us musically, nonetheless we kept spinning it and by the time we smoked two cigarettes we knew it was the best thing we’d ever heard.  Forty plus years later there is even less that musically grabs me, and it’s far from the best thing I’ve ever heard, but “Six and Change” might very well be the most important and influential record in ClePunk history.

The Pagans didn’t have Chris Thomas or Nick Lowe in the booth manning the board.  Hell, the booth was a bong water and beer stained recliner in some Mentor shithole.  “Raw” is overused punk adjective that really indicates a lack of funds rather than a recording intention.  “Six” was raw in that sense, but to us it was simply, “in your fucking face,” and it was from a band that was in our backyard.

And unlike the shit bands that Cleveland so proudly trotted out in the late 70’s (you remember, the fucks in hip huggers, gold coke spoon chains and feathered hair) you knew the Pagans didn’t make this record to get laid.  They made this record because they had to.  And though they didn’t really have anything to say, in 150 seconds they spoke volumes.  That’s why “Six and Change” was and still is important and influential.

 

Soon after purchasing “Six and Change” another 45, “Street Where Nobody Lives” b/w “What’s This Shit Called Love” was released and it was then that we knew these guys were for real. Then, one Friday that Fall we got wind from someone at St. Joe’s that the Pagans were playing an impromptu gig at the Drome that night, so off we headed to Lakewood to sort out what these guys were all about.

I bet there weren’t thirty people in the Drome.  Johnny put painting tarps over the records and pushed a few of the bins off to the side.  We were standing around smoking butts and shooting the shit when the moment began, that seminal moment.

Mike Metoff, Tim Alee and Brian Hudson came out and started to fiddle with their instruments, then Mike Hudson brazenly strode through a makeshift curtain from the back room, grabbed the mic and said “This is a song about…”  He started most songs with that phrase.  Then, “one, two, three, four…”

For twenty minutes I was in some weird-assed setting, totally unprepared for what was happening.  We were about 10 feet from the band and watched a sneering Brian carelessly bang away on the drums, yet keeping perfect time.  Tim was up and down the fretboard with those salient bass lines that defined much of the Pagans sound.  Mike rammed power chords and riffs down your throat.  If Brian's bashing and Tim’s bass lines provided the foundation, then Mike framed, sided and roofed it.  As performers, Metoff and Alee were badass, stoic as hell, no “rock” faces, no pretense, no poses; to me their image was their cool.

And then there was Mike Hudson.  He was wearing wraparounds and sang leaning over a mic stand in a contortedly prone manner.  He was what we knew punk to be but he didn’t entice the scant crowd to react to him by hurling insults or spitting beer.  Nope, he just belted out one after another, smoking like Sinatra, and being totally in the moment.  When their hell-fire set ended he exited by pushing his way through the curtain without so much as a glance behind. That’s pure fucking legacy.

Once the dust settled, we blew out of there, got in my pal’s VW Bus, lit a joint and headed east not saying a word until maybe E. 185th St. and even then, there wasn’t much to say.  We felt the vibe, and whatever strata we thought punk was on an hour earlier was gone.  It had just been redefined.  This was a new game, a local game, a visually and audibly rebellious game, a game just for us and a few others.  Fuck ‘MMS.  Fuck Nazareth.  Fuck that fraud Kid Leo.  Fuck the idiots in their World Series of Rock t-shirts.  We now owned this shit and it was a ’69 GTO revving its 366 and had a full tank of gas. 

Sadly, neither of us had any idea that the summit had just been reached, that we saw the “moment” and that it was gone.

 

In late December the Pagans were slated to headline a show at the WHK Theater over on Euclid Ave.  We didn’t realize at the time that Art Blakey and Monk had both played there in the early 1960’s, but that’s cool history in retrospect.  Johnny Dromette was the show's promoter and was selling advance tickets at the Drome so we shot out to Lakewood to grab some.  We found out later that the two crabby guys at Newberry’s had them for sale too.

The show, Distasto 3, had a start time of 9:00 and I reckon we strolled in sometime after.  This wasn’t like a bar or club where you could stand around a dance floor or hunker near a high-top and be close to the shit; this place had proper theater seats.  There was a balcony section and we figured that would be a good place as any to get high for the next few hours so up we went.  Relative to what ensued it was the best possible seat in the house.  We were in the Enola Gay.

Most of the crowd had yet to show up as we suffered through sets by the insipid Chi Pig and the somewhat forgettable Wreckage.  At least these were short sets and with the D team out of the way, notwithstanding the few Stroh’s cans that were heaved at Wreckage, the show was finally going to heat up.

As the remaining of the nearly 200 folks that showed up that night arrived I saw the smattering of local punks that were always at shows or the records shops.  For the life of me I can’t remember if the rest were paste eaters, Bondo boys, Cars fans, or the curious, but there was a new bunch in the mix and a good number of them appeared ready for a scrum.

By the end of 1978 the Pistols had come and gone and mainstream piles of shit like Rolling Stone had written stories that glamorized the mob violence at punk shows.  I’m not saying the hacks at Rolling Stone alone set the table for this new bunch of pre Ritalin shit for brain fucks, but the shit they and other rags wrote slowly began to shape the punk scene into a wider arc.  This new bunch wasn’t a “let’s watch the train wreck” crowd, they were a “let’s derail the mutherfucker” crowd. 

I’ve lived in many cities since leaving Cleveland 40 years ago and no shit, Cleveland is a tough sonuvabitch.  Mind you, not a fake “chip on your shoulder” Boston tough, Cle is a genuine lunch pail, “let’s throw down for the fuck of it” kind of town. 

Disasto 3 was suddenly defined by lunch pail meet punkers. “You wanna be punks mutherfuckers?  We’ll show you punk.”

 

Things remained cool though while Bernie came out and did his thing.  Even with the WHK percolating the idiots couldn’t act foolish towards Bernie.  He was the puppy that belonged to the kid next door.  He was the Herb Score of local punk.  Honestly though, with all the newbs in attendance, most really didn’t know what to make of him, and to be real honest, at times, neither did we.

Then the Lepers took the stage.  We had seen them a few times by then and I was so fucking in love with Barb it hurt.  So much so that two years later I took my Lepers pin with me when I left for boot camp.  At Disasto 3, they nailed their set.  And in a rare treat Pie even slung a guitar around her leather clad body suit and played chords John Morton had yet to invent.  As the Lepers exited the stage gangs of thugs were assembling at the gate, but they had yet to cross the moat.

To this day I have no idea why Styrene Money was on this bill, not because they sucked, which they did, in spades, but like Chi Pig, the shit they played, and I mean shit, just didn’t gel with the rest of the bands in the lineup.

The whole affair was now running about an hour behind schedule, consequently the crowd was an hour ahead of their “let’s get as fucked up as we can” pace and as such were as fucked up as they could be.

When the Pagans came on all hell broke loose and the thugs breached the moat.  You’d have thought there was an “applause” light flashing that now read, “throw shit”.  Beer cans rained from on-high pelting the boys but they didn’t miss a beat.  And as they plowed through maybe a song or two, Hudson, flanked by Tim and Mike, began losing his footing as he slipped on the beer that had by now flooded the stage.  This is when the set went FUBAR.

 

The “applause” light had now switched to “all bets are off, everything overboard!” and with that chairs flew on stage, a couch came flying out of the balcony from just to the left of where we were sitting, and if that doesn’t take the cake, as if on cue, stage lights randomly began to short out, popping with mini explosions everywhere.

While beer continued to pour down on the stage like the hammers of hell, fights broke out everywhere.  Local posers of the day Swasti and Scruffs were acting like their usual imbecilic selves.  The stage and lighting crew seemed to be instigating brawl with the paste eaters when a roadie for Styrene Money, a real gem most likely wearing a Daffy Dan t-shirt, broke from his gang, ran across the stage to an amp and unplugged Mike.  This was a major league dumbass move but you had to admire this guy’s pluck.  Hudson was livid, and I thought he was going to kick the mother-lovin’ fuck out of this dude and he may have, because that last 10 minutes of wilding had made everything after a blur.

I’d like to say that we were intellectually above it all, and if not throwing shit at the band counts, well, I guess we were.  But we didn’t react in a manner that would have indicated our displeasure at the dicks.  Hell no, we were laughing like fuck, kind of like when someone starts honking their horn at the drive-in and in 30 seconds the entire grounds start doing the same.

Nearly twenty-seven years earlier Leo Mintz sponsored the Moondog Coronation Ball at the Cleveland Arena, an event that history considers to be the first rock and roll concert.  The legacy of that show was the integration of black and white audiences.  There are conflicting accounts of that night and the scope of the turmoil, but at the end of the day the event brought people together.

Disasto 3 did anything but that.  It polarized punk in Cleveland.  For many the music was the rebellion and there was no need to wreak havoc on the world with tough guy bullshit.  We weren’t dweebs from Shaker Heights, we were ‘burb kids over 6’ tall that played sports and could hold our own.  But instead of brawling, being on the "X" to us was all about watching the few bands that could really pull it off, bands like the Pagans that could intimidate us by their sheer presence.  Gnarling guitars, vocals with no comprehensible words, crashing drums and that “stick it in your fuckin' ass if you ain’t liking it,” attitude.  That was punk.  But the paste eaters fucked that all up, and if the Meltdown of ’78 lit the fuse, Disasto 3 was pure tannerite.

Johnny Dromette didn’t intend for this to happen.  I’m sure he didn’t bask in the aftermath thinking he had just brought punk to the Cleveland map.  Shit, no one wanted to be him that night.  The place was a shambles and someone was going to catch holy hell.

And sadly, we had no idea as the Pagans exited the stage with instruments being tossed and Mike wildly swinging at the roadie, that it was over and that the “moment” had come a few months prior on a Friday night at the Drome, and the “moment” was defined by it now being gone.

 

The Pagans sparingly played in 1979.  They were famously snubbed a month or so after Disasto when the dumbass Agora booked even dumber ass Alex Bevan to open for the Clash, after announcing the Pagans would be on that bill.

At some point the boys went to NYC without a pot to piss in and played CBGB’s and Max’s, the Louvre and Prado of punk venues. These gigs paid the band nothing and were days apart.  They were broke, starving, getting fucked over by Dromette, yet were met with positive New York reviews. Regardless, the NYC gigs and a few other Midwest stops in the ensuing months became their Waterloo.

By the end of 1979, NY had scrapped the artsy frauds like Patti Smith, Lou Reed, and their fake, smack booting moppet hangers on, and now harbored the credible Heartbreakers, Ramones, Richard Hell and Cle's Dead Boys. The Cramps split the city sometime around ’79 and went to Cali, which by then had acts like the Bags, Germs, Dickies, and Fear.  Detroit had the ghost of Iggy and the cool as shit Destroy All Monsters.  Amazingly, cities like Chicago and Boston had their enormous heads in their collective asses and had yet to yield any local punk.  This was payback for the audible chum known as Styx and Aerosmith I reckon.

And then there was Cleveland in ‘79.  I’d argue from 1974 to 1979, Cle was as prolific as any punk town in the US and yielded plenty of seminal music.  We were right in the wheelhouse yet were too fucked up to contextualize that the best of them all, the Pagans, had left the yard quicker than a Dan Spillner change up and after their breakup the punk scene in Cle would never be the same.


I was gone from Cleveland by 1982 when the Pagans reformed with bassist Robert Conn (the vocalist on “Six and Change”), Bob Richey on drums (who for my money was the best punk drummer the ClePunk scene ever had) and the late Chas Smith on Keyboards.  This lineup was dubbed “the Pink Pagans” by some, I’m not sure if Mike and Mike ever endorsed that, I guess it doesn’t matter.  If nothing else it does discern the reincarnation from the original lineup.

This re-birth was absolutely as viable as the original Pagans in many ways, most notably to me was their adherence to their image.  Hardcore punk was knocking on the door and even then was a mixed metaphor.  A nameless friend, recently stated through another nameless friend, something to the effect of, “the dudes you hated in high school were suddenly at punk shows, fucking it all up.”  Nonetheless the Pagans didn’t move in the direction of hardcore whatsoever.  They held their ground, while retaining their roots, and though I was gone so can only go by recordings, if anything they became more rhythm and bluesy at times while retaining their grit, energy, songwriting ability and cool.

When it was all said and done, the Pagans were mismanaged, they drew the short straw of being in the wrong town (but at the right time), they no doubt found themselves to be big fish in a small pond and as such they succumbed to the temptations of the day.  All of these contributed to their end, and in the end the legacy of the Pagans can be remembered by a definitive moment that Cleveland had never seen before and will never see again.

Mark V.

Thanks to Tony Morgan for the many pictures he has shared with ClePunk.