"Our biggest support early on was across the river," Rich Kabat says with a wave of the hand that's not clutching his pinot grigio. It's been 35 years since he launched The Cleveland Scene. His hair seems scarcely thinner than it was in 1970; the gray is neatly confined to his mustache. His forearm rests on an issue of Scene. He says he doesn't often read it anymore.
The son of a steelworker and a graduate of John Adams High, Kabat leaped headlong into publishing when he learned about the demise of Cleveland After Dark. A weekly entertainment paper run out of Boston, it lumbered through several months before vanishing in the wake of the Kent State shootings, when campus curfews statewide sent nightlife home for the summer.
Kabat had been operating a tiny East Side promotions company. He assembled a staff of students, hippies, and other assorted cheap labor, and set out with blind faith.
Issue 1 appeared on July 1, 1970, in 250 locations from Youngstown to Sandusky. "To leisure time connoisseurs of all ages: welcome to The Cleveland Scene," the page 1 greeting chimed. "If it's the best of times you're after, The Cleveland Scene will guide you to it week after week."
The cover was a cubist montage of grainy black-and-white pictures: a babe in a bikini, a scene from Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Indians hitter Ken Harrelson, a penguin on roller skates. It numbered eight pages, with a story about Thistledown and another about Sea World security. That Issue 2 would come to pass was a miracle.
"There really wasn't a lot of precedent at the time," remembers Jim Girard, then an anthropology student at Tri-C who became editor from 1972 to '76. "There were some underground papers, but we didn't really want to do that. Rich Kabat's mantra was that we wanted to be entertainment."
For two agonizing years, no one quite knew what the hell that meant. John Richmond edited the paper in 1970 and '71, bringing an affinity for pure jazz and a half-dozen like-minded writers; readers were treated to two-part profiles on Dizzy Gillespie and previews of orchestra shows. For a paper trying to reach the club-hopping masses, they might as well have been writing about linoleum.
"When people would complain that there was too much jazz, John would say, 'Well, they should read about jazz,'" remembers Anastasia Pantsios, assistant editor at the time. This, thankfully, led to dissension.
"About May of that year, John had a meltdown and said, 'Fuck it.' Rich said, 'You're fired.' John said, 'You can't fire me -- I quit.'"
The tirade laid the groundwork for what would become a rich history of "Fuck it/You're fired" moments. Mercifully, it also spelled the end of Scene's Jazz Age.
By late summer, Girard started killing time after class at the paper's office at East 124th and Euclid. An open storefront equipped with dusty shelves, it offered but one amenity: Pat's Bar, four doors down. Fishbowls of draft beer were the beverage of choice, the nectar of the impoverished thinking man. Ritual visits became a source of great solace.
Tall and doughy, with steely blue eyes framed by thick-lensed round glasses, Girard was equipped with a musician's enthusiasm and unassailable credentials: He once opened for the James Gang when he was only 16 -- and allegedly, he killed. A guitarist and avid reader of motivational literature, Girard scaled Scene's corporate ladder via that most time-honored of traditions: He won the editor's job in a game of electric shuttle bowling at Pat's.
With that, a new paradigm took shape. "He was the first person that wanted to write about what our audience wanted to read about," Kabat says. As a bonus, rock clubs, concert promoters, and record labels suddenly were throwing cash at the paper. Boone's Farm, the wonderfully cheap elixir of the era, signed on to run full-page ads. It was the best of all possible worlds.
As Scene was finding its direction, the rock world that fueled its coverage was hitting overdrive. Each record label had a branch office in Cleveland -- the better to sink money into increasingly lavish parties aimed at wooing impressionable critics. Every new record and every tour stop was heralded with cocktail shrimp and liquor, and any writer worth his tape deck grew fat on the label's dime.
This was a game Scene could play.
"Cleveland was the No. 1 market not only in America, but in the world, as far as being receptive for new music to happen," says Steve Popovich, founder of Cleveland International Records, which made Meat Loaf a star. "There was so much respect for what happened in this city by the radio and print media. Cleveland was a very wide-open town at that time."
An underground paper by necessity with the desire for mainstream appeal, Scene ditched the pretentiousness of other small-time rags and was better attuned to music than The Plain Dealer's Jane Scott or The Press' Bruno Bornino.
"They were the paper in town, there's no doubting that," remembers Agora founder Hank Lo Conti, who once asked Kabat to distribute Scene in Columbus -- the better to promote his club there. "Every kid that came in the club picked up the paper. You'd see 'em sitting out in the lobby reading it."
As labels paraded unknown bands through Cleveland clubs, Scene was given first crack at exposing them. When David Bowie's U.S. debut took place at Music Hall, Girard chronicled his visit alongside Rolling Stone; when the New York Dolls launched their first national tour, Girard endured a meal of roots and nuts at a hippie joint to get the story.
By 1973, Scene had become a major player in the local music machine, mainly by doing the bidding of the big boys on the block -- Belkin Productions and the Agora, Cleveland's twin concert powerhouses. Management wonks today would call it "synergy"; to Kabat and Girard, it was just survival. The promoters filled the paper with ads, and the writers repaid the favor in concert previews. Belkin had the pull to bring superstars to town -- and Scene had the power to get the word out.
"Everyone knew at the time that Cleveland was a music force, and it took all the effort on all these people's parts to continue that and establish Cleveland for what it was," says Jules Belkin. "We were always willing to take an extra gamble on something that might be new, and we felt it'd be good for the city. We knew, with Scene, at least we had one area of support."
By the time the paper's fifth anniversary approached, it had grown to a roster of 20 full-time staffers and a circulation of 30,000. Interviews with burgeoning and established stars increasingly supplanted the brief think pieces by writers like Barry Burrito and Al Fusion and John Shirtless -- most of them pseudonyms for Girard. The operation moved from East 124th and Euclid to a basement at 1314 Huron, in the heart of downtown. Dank and claustrophobic, with leaky pipes and gamey Astroturf carpet, the space was universally heralded as a bunker. Fluorescent lights illuminated the only hint of decor: rock posters that propped up wafer-thin walls. It was the most spectacular setting Scene had ever known, and it was home for the next 15 years.
A Legacy of Liquor
When the paper moved to Huron Road in 1974, its next-door neighbor was the National Council on Alcoholism. The irony was large enough to block traffic.
Kabat's morning strolls to work met with winos passed out on the NCA's doorstep. Once he'd confirmed that none were his men, he launched into action: The agency had entrusted him with a bottle of Ripple, with instructions to dispense only enough to bring the drunks back to consciousness. Kabat would employ similar measures with his staff.
Booze was as much a part of Scene as concert listings and typos. Tuesdays took their toll on the heartiest of men; it was the day each week's writing finally was created in galley form.
"I remember drinking a fifth of vodka on Tuesday nights," recalls Crocus Behemoth, Scene's art director from 1971 to '74 and its most gifted drinker. When the 8 or maybe 12 pages were completed, long after the sun had ended its shift, they rode together to Western Press at 22nd and Payne -- then straight to the Viking Saloon. When sleepless nights gave way to drag-ass mornings, Kabat splashed blackberry brandy in their coffee. Not a single deadline was missed.
As Scene deepened its foothold in Cleveland, Kabat dug in at the Rusty Scupper, a businessman's lounge next door to the Huron Road office.
"He had a barstool with his name on it, and they'd bring the telephone to him," remembers Dewey Forward, owner of the original Peabody's DownUnder and numerous other clubs. "I wouldn't even try to reach him at the office if it was after 2 p.m."
Scene With the Band
In September 1971 -- Jim Girard's first days as a writer -- a call came from Hank Lo Conti at the Agora. The Who was in town, in support of its Who's Next album, and Lo Conti was hosting a bash with Keith Moon. Girard, then 20, was invited.
What was supposed to be a party for a few dozen insiders ended up packing in close to 300. Moon, the Who's coke-bloated id, bounded about the room like a drunken panther, locking lips with every groupie who talked her way past security and sporting a badge swiped from a Cleveland cop. Girard and his girlfriend quietly soaked in the sights, nursing beers and trying not to stare.
"Wow -- who gets to do this?!" he remembers thinking. "I'll do this as long as I can."
Plenty of opportunity arose. In the years that followed, every major artist -- and those on the cusp of being major, and those who could scarcely be called minor -- played Cleveland, and nearly every visit came with a bacchanalian revel. Scene, invariably, was there.
David Bowie's first American gig -- the Ziggy Stardust tour at Music Hall in 1972 -- was heralded with a blowout at the Hollenden House. A boxy hotel with oak beams and brick walls that approximated a stately manor, the Hollenden was one of the era's top party spots.
"There were people leaving with people, people doing all kinds of things with their nose," remembers Girard. Bowie politely sipped beer and mingled, while guitarist Mick Ronson pawed at Scene's redheaded sales manager, Valerie Kaiser. "I just love ginger hair! I just love ginger hair!" he shrieked, as Kaiser hid under the furniture.
Downstairs at the bar, children's TV host Lynn "Barnaby" Shelton was shitfaced with John Glenn, whom Barnaby didn't know from John Denver.
Parties raged on down the street at Swingos' Keg & Quarter and Celebrity Inn, which was ground zero for the rich and famous throughout the '70s: When Sinatra played the Coliseum in '73, he insisted on staying there; when Elvis embarked on a midwest tour, he rented three floors and nearly 100 rooms to serve as his base of operations. It's where a team of strippers was dispatched to greet Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies entourage. Where a 14-year-old Tanya Tucker flirted with reporters until her father summoned her to bed. Where Scene's own staff bands first learned about the charms of groupies, and where Kabat rented rooms so they could safely sleep off their hangovers -- and still walk to work by nine.
If Alan Freed christened Cleveland with the title of Rock and Roll Capital, the decadence of the early '70s cemented it. Girard was so all over this.
"Back then, you almost had to party -- at least once a week, and we were always back working the next day," he recalls nonchalantly, as if describing the routine of a punch-press operator. "We ended up working all day, then going home and taking a shower and getting to some party. But we felt obligated to do that, to get out and meet people. Plus, it was free beer and food."
This was no small consolation, given their wages at the time (Girard topped out under $100 a week).
The end of the '70s brought an end to the mayhem; the recession that pelted America had driven Cleveland to default and finally started exacting a toll on the record industry. Local label offices were beginning to downsize, their parties growing ever more modest. By the time Mark Holan became Scene editor in 1981, tales of coke-snorting and groupie-groping had taken on the patina of legend. Where a new record once would be feted at the Keg & Quarter, it was now unveiled with a "listening party" at a suburban office. Sometimes there was a cheese tray.
From End to Beginning
The Scene of the '80s and '90s was playing by revised rules of the music trade, but it continued to be increasingly prosperous. The subterranean office on Huron Road was razed in 1989 to make way for the Renaissance Building. The paper moved across Playhouse Square to 1375 Euclid Avenue, where it remained through the 1990s. It was the first office a writer might proudly show off to Mom -- and appropriately, it was the same building in which Alan Freed introduced America to rock and roll.
Scene was in the throes of its greatest success by early 1998, averaging 48 pages and 55,000 issues each week. At the same time came the dusky reality that there was no room left for growth. Kabat's paper had long since made him a wealthy man, and he had entrusted the operation to writers and salesmen, while he spent his weeks traveling the globe and navigating Lake Erie on his 26-foot Chaparral, Scene Isle.
He sold the paper to New Times, a Phoenix-based chain that had also come into existence in 1970, in response to the mainstream media's handling of the Kent State shootings. New Times had since grown to include 10 other weekly papers from Denver to Dallas to Miami.
Reader response to the new Scene was unanimously heartwarming, as the following letters to the editor indicate:
"You now resemble every other two-bit rag in America. I want my old Scene back!" -- Paul Kingston of Mayfield Heights
"Can anything be done about this? Please let the old Scene come back! It needs to be rescued!" -- Allyssa Lynn Allison of Cleveland
"How fitting that the band Garbage is on the cover of the 'new' Scene, when that is exactly what it has become." -- Jennifer Miller of Kent
Despite the surge of goodwill, the transition from music magazine to newspaper came with its share of hardships among a staff that had been newly divided. Bitterness festered in the days and years afterward. Several key players from Scene's early years chose not to speak for this story; others spoke mostly in expletives.
There's been some sunshine too. In six-plus years under New Times, Scene has nearly doubled in size and circulation, and opened its pages to more expansive coverage of news and arts -- all while devoting more pages than ever to Cleveland's music scene. It's been voted Ohio's best weekly paper numerous times, and its writers have stockpiled journalism awards -- including 24 in the most recent Press Club awards. Through it all, the paper still channels its founding fathers -- mainly with frequent meetings at McCarthy's Ale House, which houses the paper's research and development operation.
Scene's changes have come with their own growing pains, but they're no longer Rich Kabat's concern.
Between sips on Shooters' deck, he gazes across the mouth of the Cuyahoga, as the sun fires its evening glare off the water. After the hours he's spent reliving his past, the memories wash over him like the Erie breeze.
"We had fun," Kabat mutters. "All the parties. We had a good crew, and we celebrated together."
Any lingering feelings?
"I have feelings," says the man who started it all, a sly smile creeping across his face. "I have feelings every time I walk down and see that Scene Pavilion sign. I think damn, that should be mine."
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