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The Idiot Diaries 

Decades ago they were obnoxious punks. Now they're packing houses again across America

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There's been exactly one punk-rock moment so far in the Cleveland Confidential Book Tour, a national road show featuring three guys who used to sing about how much life sucks but now talk about how happy they are to have survived it all.

It happened back in February at Moe's Books in Berkeley, California. Mike Hudson, the former frontman of the Pagans, was reading from his memoir when a drunken fan rushed the stage.

"It was the weirdest fucking thing," he says. "He came up behind me and pulled me back. He said something about the Dead Boys selling out or something. Turns out he was an employee of the store. And it was a straight bookstore! There was nothing punk about it."

In a way, the book tour is just like the old days, when the three erstwhile punks — Hudson, Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome, and Human Switchboard frontman Bob Pfeifer — would pile into a van, drive across the country, and convince occasionally indifferent audiences to listen to them. They're even calling the readings "gigs" — gigs with less equipment, as Pfeifer says.

None of their bands ever got super-big, and nobody made much money. These days, they have less hair and more weight around the middle. Then again, so do many of their fans: In Los Angeles they read at a punk record store to "guys who were 40 years old and dye their hair real black," says Hudson. "And their jeans are too tight, and they got the potbelly thing going on over their jeans with their T-shirts ..." But he's not complaining. He signed more Pagans albums than books that night.

The readings have been packed throughout the tour's first leg, which included stops in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and L.A. Old friends like Dead Kennedys mastermind Jello Biafra and the Stooges' Scott Asheton are showing up. More surprising is the number of kids turning out to hear guys old enough to be their grandpas talk about their sordid pasts. Three young girls approached Hudson and Pfeifer at the Berkeley gig.

"They had our books and a Pagans CD, and they wanted us to sign them," says Hudson. "Their hands were actually shaking. Bob asked them how old they were. One was 15. That is so fucking cool."

Now they're making their way in a rented van across the Midwest toward the East. Most who show up know about Chrome. Some know Pfeifer from his former job as a record exec. A few hardcore fans are there for Hudson, who admits they were all nervous about the initial stop at Seattle's Experience Music Project, which came together at the last minute and attracted about 90 people. Since then, they've sold out every appearance, mostly in venues that hold about 200.

Cleveland Confidential stops at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at 7 p.m. on Monday. (Admission is free, but you need to call 216-515-8426 to reserve a spot. The Rock Hall will also be streaming the event live at rockhall.com.) And for the first time, the three vets will be joined by David Thomas, the enigmatic frontman for Cleveland avant-punks Pere Ubu.

"I'm doing the more prestige dates [since] my book is an e-book," says Thomas. "A physical book tour doesn't make all that much sense."

Or, as Hudson grumbles: "He cherry-picked the best shows."

Hudson's band never made it to the West Coast during its run in the 1970s and '80s. Maybe that's why one of his favorite gigs so far was on Oscar night at the Book Soup bookstore in West Hollywood.

"Sunset Boulevard was basically closed, and we were worried people wouldn't be able to get to it," he says. "Every bar and every restaurant was having its own Oscar party. But we filled the room, and the lady at the bookstore said it was the biggest one they had since Condoleezza Rice."

Why all the fuss? One supporter of the tour has a theory.

"People want to know what it was like in the formative years of any rock & roll movement — Cleveland circa 1975-1980 being no exception," says Frank Mauceri, who owns Smog Veil Records, a Chicago label that regularly reissues albums by old Cleveland punk bands. He's also helping pick up the tab for the tour.

Hudson says people are asking about every little detail his foggy mind can recall. "They want to know why Stiv [Bators] blew his nose in a piece of baloney," he says, referring to the time the Dead Boys frontman famously used a piece of lunch meat as a Kleenex before eating it in front of a grossed-out audience.

The weird thing is, everybody knows about Cleveland — about how a bunch of the original punk bands in New York City were made up of Cleveland musicians. "Patti Smith, Television, the Heartbreakers — their first gigs out of New York before they had anything going on were in Cleveland," says Pfeifer. "Cleveland was a real epicenter."

But it's not just the storied punk scene. "They know Ghoulardi and Dorothy Fuldheim," says Hudson. "It's unbelievable. Why would somebody who's never been to Cleveland even know about this shit?"

Maybe they actually read the books? Hudson, 55, spends a great deal of his 2008 memoir Diary of a Punk slamming Cleveland's mainstream scene of the 1970s. He also talks a lot about smoking cocaine, getting the shit beat out of him in public bathrooms, and generally acting like a belligerent ... well, punk.

He's also the best writer of the group. For years he's edited The Niagara Falls Reporter, a crime tabloid published in Niagara Falls, New York, where he lives these days. He's also published a collection of short stories and essays called Jetsam.

Like most people who write memoirs, Hudson and Chrome treat their books as part therapy, part ego trip. They don't apologize or glorify their asshole moves from back in the day. They simply put them out there.

Chrome's A Dead Boy's Tale From the Front Lines of Punk Rock traces his career from Rocket From the Tombs (the Cleveland proto-punk band that also included Thomas) to Batusis, the group he now leads with New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain. Like Hudson's book, it rolls through a series of stories that usually start with drugs or booze and end with a bloody face or a jail cell. And like Hudson's book, A Dead Boy's Tale's rapid-fire prose reflects its frenzied subject matter. (Learn more about Chrome's fiery career, flameout, and resurgence in the Scene story "A Dead Boy Lives," at clevescene.com.)

Pfeifer's book, University of Strangers, is a novel rather than a memoir — too bad, because his life is crammed with rock-world intrigue quite unlike the drunk-and-druggy punk scenarios of his tourmates.

After playing in Human Switchboard, Pfeifer moved to Los Angeles, where he was a senior VP at Epic Records and helped resurrect Alice Cooper's career in the late '80s. He became president of Disney-owned Hollywood Records, where he spent most of his brief tenure repackaging Queen's catalog. He was later indicted as part of a major wiretapping scandal that rocked L.A. five years ago. (Pfeifer paid a private investigator to illegally bug an ex-girlfriend. He pleaded guilty and spent some time in jail.) Now 56, he runs an archival company that helps preserve rock history for places like the Grammy Museum.

University of Strangers is inspired by beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The stories are told by different narrators from different perspectives, which makes for a bumpy read at first. But eventually Pfeifer ties all the pieces together.

Thomas, 57, still records and tours with Pere Ubu; they released an album in 2009 and are working on a new one. His e-book, Bring Me the Head of Ubu Roi, is adapted from his play based on a 19th-century satire that helped launch the surrealist movement and gave his band its name. It's a typically artsy, restless, and cluttered work from an artist whose mind still doesn't seem to have a pause button, even after all these years.

And how is it likely to go over with the Cleveland Confidential crowd?

"I have never been concerned by what an audience wants or is interested in," says Thomas. "Who the hell even asked them? And, more to the point, what the hell do they know?"

The Cleveland Confidential Book Tour was Pfeifer's idea. Maybe it was Hudson's. Or maybe they came up with it together — depends who you ask. Chrome, now 56 and living in Nashville, was on the road anyway, promoting A Dead Boy's Tale and finding rapt audiences for his foggy accounts of onstage train wrecks — the Dead Boys never played a show sober — and backstage overdoses. It's exactly what crowds come to hear. Not the fiction. Not the character studies. Not the portraits of old guys making peace with their younger selves. Of course, it helps that many of the sex- and drug-fueled stories include cameos by punk godfathers like Iggy Pop, Johnny Rotten, and the Ramones.

Hudson's and Chrome's books touch on just about every raunchy moment they can remember; neither man, it seems, is afraid of looking like a dirtbag. They share many of these same tales at the readings, and they occasionally recall a few they may have forgotten to write down. Chrome says some fans ask about things he doesn't want to talk about — or simply doesn't remember; he did a lot of blacking out back then, after all.

"People want to know things that maybe they shouldn't know," he says. "And you always got the one guy who thinks he knows more than everybody. It's like, 'Fuck you. I wrote the book.'"

Colorful language notwithstanding, the tour has more in common with a night out with history professors than punks who added songs like "Caught With the Meat in Your Mouth" and "What's This Shit Called Love?" to our collections. Each night, the four writers read from their books for about 10 minutes (they still argue before every gig about who goes on first and who closes). Then a moderator — the Rock Hall's director of education, Jason Hanley, will run the Cleveland date — asks a few questions before fielding some from the audience. Then the authors sell a few books, sign copies, and chat with fans.

"These people look like rock & rollers," Hudson says of the crowds, "but you can hear a pin drop when we're reading."

In Portland, the three tour regulars got onstage with their instruments and pounded out Dead Boys and Pagans songs with a local trio. It was the first time Pfeifer had performed live in a quarter-century, and so far it's still the only time they've plugged in on the tour. "We even had an opening act," he says giddily. (Pfeifer would like to try the same in Cleveland, though he says it all depends on their schedules and whether or not any local clubs have room for them.)

Back in the day, there was a line between the straight-up punk of the Dead Boys and Pagans, and the artier takes of Pere Ubu and Human Switchboard. "It's all punk now," says Hudson. "But there was a division then. It was almost like we were on a separate team. But we were all united in our hatred of Michael Stanley and WMMS."

"People made something of the punk vs. art-punk thing," says Pfeifer. "But the fact is, we're all fans of the same music. When people look back on that era, it's all just punk to them. But we all had attitudes back then. We don't have that now."

Of course, this could all be a case of playing nice. Remember: These are reformed jerks who've been known to tear shit up — including their own bandmates — in years past. The other three aren't quite sure how the addition of Thomas will work out, especially since the Pere Ubu frontman has a reputation among fellow musicians as a cantankerous grump.

"I'm glad to have him along," says Hudson, "but if he gets lippy with me, I'll put him right on his fucking ass."

And that's about as volatile as things get these days. "We're not getting in trouble," says Pfeifer. "With age comes patience and priorities in life." Years of abuse have put their lives in perspective. Chrome is completely sober, but Hudson still has a beer from time to time. Where once they shared needles, now they share parenting tips. Hudson and Chrome are married, and Chrome and Pfeifer are doting fathers to their young sons.

This leg of the tour winds down with an L.A. gig at the Grammy Museum on April 14, which Thomas also plans to attend. After that, each man will go his own way. Chrome will resume recording and playing with Batusis. Hudson will return to the helm of The Niagara Falls Reporter. Pfeifer plans to make new music with the Tabby Chinos, a group he formed with former members of the New York post-punk band Bush Tetras and producer Don Fleming, who's worked with Sonic Youth and Screaming Trees. And Thomas is busy with Ubu, a reunited Rocket From the Tombs (with Chrome), and his play.

"I wasn't really buddies with these guys back then," says Chrome. "But we're close friends now. Mike and I talk on the phone all the time."

They talk about resuming the tour in the fall, maybe with some new blood. Chrome is up for it. Pfeifer has even suggested they record some music together — that Portland gig got him excited.

"It's a weird thing," says Hudson. "None of the bands I was in ever — including the Pagans — was like this. We never had this ambitious of a schedule."

Even David Thomas has kept the door ajar, if only to allow the slimmest crack of daylight through.

"Let's see how this goes," he says of the Cleveland gig.

More by Michael Gallucci

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