The end for Nickels came 17 years ago. He was 33 and had spent 10 years doing up to four sets a night at dives like Fitzgerald's Rainbow and Hennessy's, getting paid mostly in sore backs. His band's second-to-last show drew 18 people, its final gig fewer than 50.
And so Nickels settled down, had kids, watched his life unfold like a John Cougar Mellencamp tune. Then, two years ago, he got cancer.
"I had to take a chemotherapy routine that lasted a year, and I knew I was going to be sick for a long time and I wasn't going to be able to do much," Nickels says. "So I got myself a new computer, and I went upstairs to my attic and got out this old tape box of the Backdoor Men, and I started going through it.
"I wound up making a couple of CDs of old Backdoor Men stuff. I sent it out to the boys in the band; they all got a big kick out of it. We thought, 'You know, let's make a record.'"
The punk dads quickly wrote a batch of new songs, but they were feeling their age by the time of their first rehearsal.
"We got scared," Nickels recalls over a Dortmunder at Sushi Rock, a cosmopolitan eatery where everyone seems to look better than you. "We thought, we have this great clutch of songs, but maybe we're not going to be able to pull this off. I think the turning point was when you came in," Nickels says, turning to the 24-year-old sitting to his right.
Derek DePrator, with his powder-blue Neil Young shirt, bright-green Chuck Taylors, and star earrings, makes an unlikely business partner for the now-recovered Nickels, who sports a thinning crew cut, wire-rim glasses, and a dark button-down shirt that covers broad shoulders. They came together over their shared admiration for deceased Cleveland-punk great Peter Laughner, late of Rocket From the Tombs and Pere Ubu.
Introduced to Nickels through a former bandmate of Laughner's, DePrator joined the Backdoor Men at practice and promptly laid down scorching slide guitar on the new cut "Bus Station Gyration."
"Here's this scrawny little kid, he plugs in his Telecaster and in one take does this jaw-dropping slide guitar," Nickels recalls. "We were inspired. We got pumped up, and from there it really took off."
The Backdoor Men recorded 24 songs and released the 16 best on Mohawk Combover, an album worth the decades-long wait. Abrasive and affecting, it pits sardonic blast-furnace punk ("Fuck the French") against nervy psychedelia ("Oklahoma Jack") and penitent balladry ("Pure Heart").
"This record doesn't sound like an old record; it just hearkens back to real rock and roll," says DePrator, a veteran of well-known Cleveland bands that include Cobra Verde, the Tellers, Pleasure Void, and the Atomic Crash.
Combover was released on Nickels and DePrator's newly launched label, Handsome Productions, which also dropped the Atomic Crash's When the Train Left the Station, an album of lo-fi country blues on which DePrator croons ruefully over guitars that ache like the best bee sting you've ever had.
But Handsome's biggest buzz has come from Nickels's previously unavailable recordings from Laughner -- an estimated 14 albums' worth of music, which will be released sporadically, along with work by promising local bands. The first Laughner album, Setting Son, is a sparse, personal collection, mostly recorded in Laughner's bedroom, with him introducing songs and playing mean slide guitar.
"Sometimes young talent needs that kind of direction, and that's what I would hope Handsome could do over time." Nickels says. "This is the guy that's in the scene -- I'm the old man sitting at home with the kids," he adds, nodding toward DePrator. "He can feed stuff into the label, we can get it into the market, do it all in Cleveland. That's what we would hope to be able to do, to help show people the way."