Empty Bottle, 5/21

Mike Hudson has gone on the record claiming that Cleveland radio stations and newspapers were so hostile to punk that they went out of their way to cripple the Pagans in the late 70s. “WMMS never played a Pagans record and Scene magazine and the Cleveland Plain Dealer never featured an article about us,” he writes in his Pagans biography at “I recognize this as not just shoddy reporting, but as a deliberate attempt to deny our existence.”

Compared to the Dead Boys, who rocketed to immortality during those golden years by getting the fuck out of town and out-nastying the rest of the Bowery scene in New York, the Pagans are obscure today–and when you listen to the two bands’ records side by side, you have to ask yourself if Cleveland is the reason. But even if there was a campaign of denial under way in their hometown, it hasn’t prevented their reputation from taking root among garage fiends. They’d only played out once since their last tour in 1989, but on Saturday at the Bottle an extravagantly enthusiastic capacity crowd came to see them headline the final night of Horizontal Action’s Chicago Blackout.

So why did Hudson act like he’d been dragged out of bed to play the show? His voice sounded the same as ever–a snotty, torn-up, nasal squawk–but he sang like he was nursing a sore throat, rarely pushing a syllable, never straining and convulsing like he does on the Pagans’ recordings. He lingered at the back of the stage between songs, even between verses, and though he complained about the heat, I’m not sure he would’ve broken a sweat if he hadn’t been wearing a suit jacket the whole time.

He interrupted the crowd’s screaming and applause to tell us, in a tone more sardonic than gracious, that we were “too kind”–which didn’t strike me as out of order, because I know that punks, especially old-school punks with nothing left to prove, are expected to react coolly when a couple hundred people are going crazy for their band. And I know Hudson has called playing out a “chore.” But he’s also referred to the Pagans as “four guys melded into one projectile.” I guess it’s hard to feel like much of a projectile when all your bandmates live in different states and the only rehearsal time you arrange for your first gig in years is an extra-long sound check.

Bassist Robert Conn seemed to be trying to compensate for Hudson’s reserve. With his shaved head, tattoos, and bodybuilder’s physique–he took his shirt off before the set even began–he had the stripped-for-action look and pumped-up demeanor of a leather-daddy gym teacher and manhandled his bass like it was made of foam rubber. “This is rock ‘n’ roll,” he informed us heartily and repeatedly. Drummer Bob Richey likewise gave his all–even though he often had to back off midsong from the frantic double-time ride cymbal he’d started with, he was solid and accurate and never let the tempo flag.

But watching guitarist Mick Metoff you’d figure he thought playing in the Pagans again was a mildly ridiculous thing to be doing, an anachronistic burlesque–a fun time, sure, but a dead end all the same, not something to put his heart into. For several of his solos he scribbled disinterestedly on the fretboard with a beer bottle while chewing at the strings with a pick. It made a lot of noise, but it was characterless noise–the musical equivalent of typing #&%* instead of fuck.

I almost wish I’d been too far away to see exactly what was happening onstage, because aside from those solos the band sounded great. Even practically unrehearsed they were tight and brutal, and once I got over my irrational disappointment that their live sound was nothing like the grotty, dashed-off, cheap-shit late-70s recordings I’d fallen in love with, I was jumping around with everybody else. The band opened with “Street Where Nobody Lives” and hit all the bases after that: “Dead End America” (which Conn introduced as “Dead End Chicago!”), “Not Now No Way,” “Boy Can I Dance Good,” “Gloria.” Conn took over on lead vocals for “Six and Change,” as he had when the Pagans recorded it for their first seven-inch in 1977. Brian Hudson, Mike’s younger brother, provided the single’s infamous spoken intro–“Freddy, you didn’t have to hit the fag, Freddy”–but Metoff delivered it here, changing “fag” to “skag.” Back in ’83 Mike Hudson had accompanied “Boy Can I Dance Good” with contortions that “defied human skeletal form,” according to a visitor at a Cleveland punk Web site, but here he didn’t volunteer so much as a shuffle–he looked about as lively as a guy who’d been drinking beer in the sun all afternoon at the Cubs-White Sox game. Which, I found out later, he had.

The crowd was more than happy to do all the work, however. They pumped their fists in the air and shouted along with the lyrics, and there were digital cameras and video cameras and cell phone cameras held aloft everywhere. Many brave souls insisted on moshing, though the spilled beer underfoot and the dozens of bottles rolling around on the floor made it less like dancing and more like a physical challenge on a humiliating Japanese game show. People dropped left and right, but nobody hit the ground too hard–the crowd was packed so tight that it was impossible not to fall into someone else.

The band wrapped up with “What’s This Shit Called Love?,” and as soon as they’d hustled off the stage the audience started stomping and clapping and chanting. A guy near me shouted for an encore by repeating the unforgettable line Hudson had left out of the song’s bridge: “Somebody help me please!” The band returned for one more tune, “When I Die,” then disappeared again.

I wasn’t wearing a watch, but the whole thing couldn’t have lasted half an hour. Most of the crowd didn’t know it–Hudson hadn’t said anything from the stage–but the Pagans had just played their last song ever.

I love the Pagans, and while I was failing to get to sleep that night I started to feel mean and petty about my reaction to the show. I hardly know anything about Mike Hudson as a person, but the guy’s pushing 50 and he’s logged more than a few years of hard livin’. What kind of asshole does that make me, wishing he’d flung himself into a self-immolating frenzy like a fucked-up 22-year-old with bulletproof balls?

One of the night’s openers, a French four-piece called the Fatals, had taken that road–listening to them was like being rolled down a hill in a metal trash can, except with chord changes. Three of their members are in their 30s, but their desperate, unhinged blues punk sounded like something you’d get from postadolescent dropouts on their third baggie of model-airplane glue. They were up to their eyeballs in it–no self-regard, no self-awareness, no self-control. The bassist ended the last song by plunging backward through the trap set from atop a combo amp, leaving the drummer’s bare stomach running with blood where a wayward piece of hardware had carved a flap into his skin.

Don’t get me wrong–I thought the Fatals were fucking great. But I don’t figure I would’ve been the only one appalled if the Pagans had carried on like that.

I remembered something Hudson had said while introducing the band: he called drummer Bob Richey his “little brother.” His real little brother, Brian, the Pagans’ original drummer, died in a car accident in 1991.

On Halloween night in 1986, Mike Hudson was 30 and the Pagans were playing in Cleveland to kick off their only full-fledged reunion. Richey was on drums then too, because Brian had moved to LA. Hudson writes in the bio about seeing a roomful of clean-cut college kids singing along to the songs and wonders “why it couldn’t have been like that before, when it mattered.”

That was almost 20 years ago. “We’d been around long enough to realize we weren’t working our way toward anything,” Hudson writes. “This was as far as it was going to go.” He’s presently editor in chief of an alt-weekly called the Niagara Falls Reporter, which he helped found after moving to upstate New York in 1998.

To get up in front of a crowd again–even a sold-out Bottle crowd–after reaching that point, long after the verdicts have come in and the “important” bands in punk have been officially enshrined, must be a lot like visiting an ex you’ve been out of touch with for years. Hudson and Metoff’s strange, halfway-there performances make a lot of sense viewed in that light: they’re the onstage equivalent of the bemused, protective distance you might put on while you wait for your once-upon-a-time beloved to open the door. Part of you doesn’t really want to know how she’s been doing since she left you, but you can’t make yourself turn around and leave. There’s another part that wants so badly for her to say she still misses you, that she’s never had it so good since, that she’s lived her whole life wishing she’d known what she had with you before it was too late–and so you put yourself out there anyway.

So yeah, I do miss you, Pagans. The Sex Pistols? Playing the fucking Aragon on their Filthy Lucre tour? Please–that meant nothing to me. I know saying it doesn’t make a difference now, and I’m not so stupid as to imagine I’ll catch you acting grateful for it onstage, in front of God and everybody. I understand. You left us out there screaming for you for 20 minutes, hooting and whistling in excited anticipation whenever anybody set foot on the stage, even when it was just a couple guys who worked at the bar. They were up there to shut off the amps and unplug the mikes, but for a moment we could imagine they were going to tell us the Pagans were coming back. Man, what a great way to go out.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Anderson.

Philip Montoro

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid, and he’s also split two national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and one in in 2020 for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. Philip has played scrap metal in Lozenge, drummed with the Disasters, the Afflictions, and Brilliant Pebbles, and sung for the White Outs. He wrote the column Beer and Metal from 2012 till 2015, and hopes to do so again one day. You can also follow him on Twitter.