Mike Hudson interview
Fri Apr 1 2011
The second act of Mike Hudson's life has taken him out of the bars and dives he played in with the seminal Pagans, and into the newsroom as editor-in-chief of the Niagara Falls Reporter. Tonight, those two worlds collide, as the Cleveland Confidential tour stops at Quimby's. We chatted with Hudson about '70s punk, Mike Royko and his book, Diary of a Punk.
How did the Cleveland Confidential book tour come about?
Bob Pfeiffer and I reconnected after many years last summer via Facebook, of all things. I had four books out and he'd written his novel University of Strangers, which I loved, so I partnered with Frank Mauceri at Smog Veil Records to put it out. Cheetah had also published his autobiography last year, and he's a Smog Veil artist as well, so it just seemed kind of a natural thing for us to go out together.
How well did you know Cheetah Chrome and Bob Pfeiffer in the 1970s? Did you stay in touch with them much in subsequent decades?
Cheetah I've always known. In fact, I knew his mother and he knows my mother. We're both Irish and you know how the Irish love their mothers! We played and hung out with the Dead Boys a lot in the 70s and Cheetah and Jimmy Zero would a lot of times come up onstage at Pagans shows and jam old Rolling Stones songs or whatever. After that, I'd see him from time to time around Cleveland and then later, in 93-94, we lived together for awhile in the East Village in New York. We did some recordings then as well. Then he moved away and I moved away and we'd talk from time to time or email... Bob I didn't know as well back then but we were in the same rooms together lots of times. I hadn't heard from him in more than 30 years before last summer. Still, when we got together the first day of the tour, it was like "Hey man"... Like we'd just seen each other yesterday.
How have the readings been going? What types of people are coming out to see it?
The West Coast was fabulous. We filled every room but the one in Seattle. The crowd that comes seems to depend on the venue. When we do punk rock clubs punk rockers come and when we do a college or a bookstore it's more about the intelligentsia.
One of the many facets of Diary of a Punk that I enjoyed was this sense of both love and hate for Cleveland. If not hate, then there’s a kind of frustration with the city, and with many in the Cleveland rock and roll scene who went out of their way to ignore The Pagans, and punk rock as a whole. A sense of loss of the Cleveland you grew up in—the old ballpark, the clubs, bars, lofts, and especially the people who are no longer around. It made me think of the Nelson Algren quote in Chicago: City on the Make where he talks about Chicago as being “like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real.” Does that sound like the Cleveland you lived and played in growing up, and what do you think about Cleveland these days?
I love Algren. Yeah, Cleveland was like that then, it was our town. Dennis Kucinich got to be mayor, the gangster Danny Green lived a couple blocks away, the Indians were as hapless as the Cubs most years... Now the place is really on the rocks. Like Detroit, Buffalo, all of the Rust Belt cities in the southern Lake Erie basin.
In some ways, you’re declaring victory in this book, because The Pagans, Dead Boys, Rocket from the Tombs, Pere Ubu, Electric Eels, etc. are still relevant and influential, while the bands championed by the large record labels (and the record labels themselves) and radio stations have sunk into oblivion or have become the butt of endless jokes. Why was the larger music scene--be it the larger radio stations in Cleveland, some of the so-called “alternative” weeklies in town—so hellbent on ignoring the great sounds happening in their own backyard?
We couldn't provide them with cocaine and protitutes.
You have no problem calling out the music writers who ignored The Pagans, and went out of their way to declare punk rock to be “a passing fad,” and yet you also have no problem singling out those who grasped what was happening, even mentioning Philip Montoro at the Chicago Reader for his writing on The Pagans around the time you played your last show at the 2005 Horizontal Action Blackout. Was that a conscious decision when you started writing Diary of a Punk?
You give credit where credit is due. That Horizontal Action show was awful, the last show we ever played, but Philip called me up and we talked about it. He wrote that the show was lousy, but went on to talk about the band and came up with a really intelligent and insightful piece.
You talk about the rift that existed early on in Cleveland between the artier bands who would read Gertrude Stein and the blue collar bands like The Pagans who read Mike Royko. Since we’re in Chicago, were you a fan of Royko’s growing up? If so, what favorite Royko books or columns come to mind? Was his work influential in your becoming a journalist and the kinds of investigative reporting you’re doing in Niagara Falls these days?
Royko was tremendously influential to me. I read him as a kid in the old Cleveland Press and then later I edited him at a small paper I worked at in Pennsylvania. There was a time, in the mid 80s, that I considered him not just the greatest newspaper writer working then but the best writer period. I think Bos" about Mayor Daley—the old man, not the kid—and For the Love of Mike a posthumous collection of his essays.
How is the muckraking you’re doing nowadays similar to getting out there and playing in bands?
The business of running a small, independent newspaper and book publishing company is remarkably similar to running the Pagans or Terminal Records when we had that. I learned a lot of lessons in that world that apply equally well in what I'm doing now. the whole DIY ethos.
In Diary of a Punk, you call Jello Biafra an “idiot,” and Bob Pfeiffer’s band Human Switchboard “non-threatening.” While you helped publish Pfeiffer’s book, did these characterizations make working with these guys on this book tour awkward in any way?
Not a bit. Jello and I had a drink together, and he told me that he had all the Pagans singles back then and those were partially responsible for him starting the Dead Kennedys. He's a great guy. And really, just about every band back then, except the Dead Boys, were non-threatening compared to the Pagans.
You definitely place The Pagans in the world of a blue collar punk rock band singing about your surroundings, loathing the artier music coming out of New York at the time like Talking Heads, and yet—and this is one of the things I love about Cleveland bands from that time in general—there’s an art to what was happening without being as self-consciously “arty” as much of what was happening in NYC. You took your name from a magazine that published Hart Crane’s poetry. There’s a noirish style to the lyrics, an occasional noir humor. The Midwest has its bullshit detectors set to levels much higher than other regions of the US. Would you say it was day-to-day life in Cleveland that made this happen in the sounds of the bands from that time, this sense of an intelligence and awareness of art without being a douche about it?
I think I'd say we were smarter than we looked. I was a newspaper editor, Brian, Mick and Tim were all widely read...But we were basically blue collar guys. I think that was part of the beef with New York -- I knew guys driving fork lifts in factories who wrote better poetry than David Byrne.
Along with Detroit and NYC (and possibly San Francisco), Cleveland was at the forefront of the evolution from protopunk to punk in the 1970s. Why was that? There are so many large industrial cities in the Midwest and elsewhere and Cleveland clearly stands out. Why?
Cleveland got hit early by the recession that began during the Ford presidency and got worse under Carter... our river caught fire, our baseball team sucked and the mob wars made the city the bombing captial of the country. We were the first major American city to go into default since the Great Depression. So it was all bad news, all the time.
Finally: What do you have going on beyond the book tour? And the inevitable question: Any chance The Pagans will get back together to play a show in the near-future?
I run a little newspaper here in Niagara Falls and that takes up a lot of time. I'd like to write a book about the Mexican drug war—I've been down there three times in the past year—but I'll need some kind of publishing deal to do that. There may be some recording with Cheetah and Bob and some other people, we're talking about that, and we may go back out in November. As for the Pagans, you should never say never, but I can't imagine the circumstances under which we'd play out together again. We're all too beat up from the last time.