"Those Were Different Times"
by Charlotte Pressler
Originally published in CLE magazine #3A in 1980
Reprinted by kind permission of the author
This is a story about life in Cleveland from 1968 to 1975, when a small group of people were evolving styles of music that would, much later, come to be called "New Wave." Misleadingly so, because that term suggests the current situation, in which an already evolved, recognized "New Wave" style exists for new bands to aim at. The task of this group was different: to evolve the style itself, while at the same time struggling to find in themselves the authority and confidence to play it. And they had to do this in a total vacuum. There were no "New Wave Nites" at local clubs; in fact gigs of any kind were rare, and usually attended only by the bands' closest friends; the local media for the most part ignored these bands; nor was there yet a national network; there were few fanzines; there was no Radar, no Stiff, no CBGB even. The whole system of New Wave interconnections which makes it possible for every second person on Manhattan's Lower East Side to be a star did not exist. There were no stars, in Cleveland, then. Nobody cared what these people were doing. If they did anything at all, they did it for themselves. They adapted to those conditions in different ways. Some are famous. Some are still struggling. One is dead.
It is, then, a fragment of the history of a period which saw a tremendous explosion of energy; irrevocably determing the character of many people's lives, including, of course, my own. If you look for my subjective reason for writing this article, it is there. When you grow to be twenty-eight, and realize that you have been living a certain way for ten years now, and that you are likely to go on living this way for the rest of your life, because you can no longer imagine what it is like to live any other way, you naturally begin to ask yourself how this happened. How it happened is the subject of this article-- just the facts, ma'am.
There are questions I would like to know the answers to. Why, for example, are so many of the people in this story drawn from the same background? Most of them were from middle or upper-middle class families. Most were very intelligent. Many of them could have been anything they chose to be. Jaime Klimek and Paul Marotta would have made fine partners in a law firm. David Thomas planned at one time to be a microbiologist. Peter Laughner would have made an excellent journalist. John Morton is an excellent visual artist. There was no reason why they should not have effected an entry into the world of their parents. Yet all of them turned their backs on this world, and that meant making a number of very painful choices. First, there was the decision not to go to college, at a time when the draft was still in effect and the Vietnam War was still going on; and several of these people were drafted. Most of these people did not marry; those that did generally did not have children; few of them worked jobs for very long; and the jobs they did hold were low-paying and dull, a long ways from a "career." Yet they were not drop-outs in the Sixties sense; they felt, if anything, a certain affection for consumerist society, and a total contempt for the so-called counterculture. The Sixties drop-outs dropped in to a whole world of people just like themselves but these people were on their own.
You can ask, also, why they all turned to rock 'n' roll. Most of the people I will be talking about here were not natural musicians. Peter perhaps was, and Albert Dennis, and Scott Krauss; but John Morton and David Thomas and Allen Ravenstine and Jaime Klimek would probably have done something else, if there had been anything else for them to do. One can ask why there wasn't; why rock 'n' roll seems to be (except possibly for the visual arts) the only living art form these days.
I would like to know too the source of the deep rage that runs through this story like a razor-edged wire. It wasn't, precisely, class-hatred; it certainly wasn't political; it went too deep to be accepting of the possibility of change. The Eels, perhaps, came closest to embodying it fully; but it was there in everyone else. It was a desperate, stubborn refusal of the world, a total rejection; the kind of thing that once drove men into the desert, but our desert was the Flats. It should be remembered that we had all grown up with Civil Defense drills and air-raid shelters and dreams of the Bomb at night; we had been promised the end of the world as children, and we weren't getting it. But there must have been more to it than that.