Ohio’s semilegendary art-punk band Death of Samantha surely enjoyed one of the greatest debut gigs in history. In the early 1980s, teenaged clarinetist/guitarist/singer John Petkovic was sporadically employed at a family-style steakhouse called The Ground Round in the cultural dead zone of Parma, Ohio—then and still the New Jersey to Cleveland’s Lower Manhattan. His boss was a wiseass, always snarking at John about when his young, incompetent, only-just-barely-extant band was going to play at the restaurant. When that manager went on vacation, the assistant manager, who had overheard those exchanges and was apparently unable to parse sarcasm, actually booked the band. Per Petkovic, from a recent in-person interview that was totally fun to transcribe because he was munching on goddamn popcorn the whole night:
We didn’t have any songs, we didn’t have a name, but the assistant manager said there was an opening on wing night. So we brought down our amps and a P.A., and it was insane, whose band would do this to play the Ground Round? And at first, we thought people would actually be into it. So we needed a name, for the marquee, where it would usually say “BURGER NIGHT $4.99,” and [drummer] Steve-O mentioned “Death of Samantha.” I didn’t even know it was a Yoko Ono song, but I thought it would be cool, where it says “POPPERS AND ZUCCHINI $2.99” it would also say “MUSIC BY DEATH OF SAMANTHA.” So we set up, and people were coming in asking “what is this music by Death of Samantha, what is that?” and we thought they were asking about us because they were really into it! They were more like appalled! They fuckin’ HATED IT. People started winging baskets of popcorn around, throwing chicken wings at us, people were yelling “these guys suck, this is awful, this is terrible, we came here to eat!” People were refusing to pay, and the waitresses were screaming at us “Stop! They all want their money back!” Anyways, the place cleared out. It was embarrassing, but our bass player Dave James had a zine “Negative Print,” and he wrote about it. People thought it was a joke, but that fanzine was getting around. So people started calling us about shows. We had this credibility because I got fired for all that, so when we got our first real show there was a ton of people there.
From their beginnings as inciters of suburbanite riots, DoS went on to become a pretty big deal in the ‘80s midwestern rock subterra. The trio added lead guitarist Doug Gillard, and after the requisite handful of locally-pressed singles, they hooked up with Homestead Records—home to heavy hitters like Nick Cave, Big Black and Sonic Youth—for the albums Strungout on Jargon, the particularly brilliant Where the Women Wear the Glory and the Men Wear the Pants, and Come All Ye Faithless, and the essential E.P. Laughing In The Face Of A Dead Man. (All are out of print now, so prepare to dig deep.) The band convincingly and compellingly crossbred post-punk defiance and hardcore sneer with the fearless glam strut of Roxy Music, the exploratory meanderings of Television, and uncommonly literate lyrics. Concerts were a showcase for a preposterous low-budget-Tubes showmanship that emphasized Petkovic’s brutal wit and unstoppable mouth, and Steve-O’s flair for the ridiculous—the chubby, muttonchopped drummer was often ceremoniously borne to the stage in a coffin, from which he would emerge dressed as Vegas Elvis. The band would then launch into 40 some odd minutes of a beautifully shambolic rock that didn’t care what genre it was purloining at any given moment, and mocked you if you DID care. They were fucking magnificent.
Also, they inspired one of my favorite useless Robert Christgau reviews ever—here, in a review of the Wailing Ultimate compilation, he posits an imaginary conversation between John Petkovic and his mom:
As long as you don’t take the hooks too literally—believe me, there aren’t many more where they come from—this is a pretty fair introduction to garage postnihilism, a surprisingly palatable mix of musical and sociological interest. Just like the grooveful laborers on a reggae or hardcore compilation, Gerry’s kids hold together for the kind of continuous listen most local/label samplers can’t sustain. In fact, only their fans and their mothers could tell most of these fourteen bands apart without a scorecard, and I’m not so sure about their mothers. Mrs. Petkovic: “I liked that song you did about the well.” John P.: “How could that be ours, mama? A girl sings it.” Mrs. P.: “Isn’t Samantha a girl?” John P.: “Ma, we’re called Death of Samantha—Death of Samantha.” Mrs. P.: “Oh Johnny, she’s not really dead. That’s just, what do you call it, poetic license, right?” B+
But by the dawn of the ‘90s, just as bands like DoS were starting to get taken more seriously by bigger labels, if not yet radio, the familiar pressures of a lot of work in exchange for going nowhere pulled the band apart. A few years later, Gillard, Petkovic and later member Dave Swanson (now of Chamber Strings) reunited in Cobra Verde, and all three served time in Guided By Voices, though Gillard had the longest and most edifying tenure in that band. Gillard later joined up with Nada Surf, and Petkovic formed Sweet Apple with J. Mascis. But now seems to be the time for bands of that era to reunite, and the bug bit DoS practically at random. Petkovic again:
I had to go buy a pack of cigarettes, and Dave James was working over there—we’d been working like 1,000 feet from each other for ten years and never seen each other—and I saw some guy smoking, I thought I’d try to bum one off of him, and it was Dave. Doug had been in town the week before, and we talked about doing something musically again, and I told Dave the Beachland [concert club] kept bugging us to do a DoS show, and I didn’t think it made any sense, but Dave said “Sure it does, I’d do it.”
And that why-the-hell-not approach has led the band to not just a welcome reactivation, but to the most interesting album of its career. In rehearsing for their comeback show, DoS held their final practice at a recording studio. The engineer suggested running a recording of the practice, and the band said why the hell not. Those recordings are now the 2XLP If Memory Serves Us Well. Its liner notes contain reminiscences from Byron Coley, Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, and GBV’s Bob Pollard, and though it offers no new songs, it reveals their transformation over time in other ways. The band has become looser, and far more free. Two and a half decades spent in touring bands have definitely done wonders for Petkovic and Gillard’s guitar playing (and Doug was a hotshot to begin with), and James and Steve-O as a rhythm section have found a very deep pocket, giving the two guitarists a hell of a lot of room to explore the spaces around one another. There were always some lengthier explorations mixed in with Death of Samantha’s general spikiness, but it feels like they’re engaging more with that sort of thing now, and they’re a ton better at it.
Death of Samantha had an NYC show scheduled in 1990, but their breakup came before it happened. Their next show, fittingly, is at Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on Thursday, May 29. Here are some tastes of what you might expect to see and hear.
The author of this piece would like to thank Boy George for releasing a cover of Yoko Ono’s “Death of Samantha” in time to make web searches for this story kind of irritating to sift through. That being said, his version actually IS kind of awesome.