The Godfather of Cleveland Hardcore

Dwid's T-shirts, ex-roadie, and fingerprints are on MTV's Headbanger's Ball. Why isn't he?

There wasn't a monkey. Never had been. But a dead monkey made Dwid's story better. The Integrity singer was holed up in Mentor a few weeks ago. He was in the U.S. for a one-off gig with his band, a temporary return from Belgium, his home for the last two years. Even when the drama surrounding Dwid is low, which is seldom, he's insulated; callers cannot reach him directly by phone. But he returned a call placed to an intermediary.

As Dwid acknowledged his whereabouts, piercing shrieks sounded in the background. "That's cockatoos," he explained. "This place is full of animals. They used to have a spider monkey, but it died." Then he added in a somber monotone, "They get old, and they die."

The interview happened the next day, and the cockatoos continued their racket. Dwid's host just laughed at condolences for his deceased monkey. "Did you tell him there was a monkey?" he asked Dwid. "You dick." There was never a monkey. But it made a nice flourish. Just another joke. And Dwid, as he is fond of saying, has jokes.

Integrity began as just another one of Dwid's goofs, a fake band with stickers and no music. Then it became real. Then it transcended reality. Ten years after the band's prime, the Integrity catalog is a blueprint for metalcore, an explosively popular hybrid of heavy-metal chops and the go-for-the-throat mentality of punk's hardest strain. It's a driving force behind MTV's reborn Headbanger's Ball, a weekly showcase for all things hard and heavy. The popular annual metal roadshow Ozzfest now bursts with metalcore bands each year, as acts like Atreyu, Hatebreed, and Bleeding Through have broken out of the underground, releasing albums that have soared past 100,000 in sales -- no small feat for such a brutal sound. Integrity, as much as any band, helped launch the modern incarnation of this movement.

"They're one of the watershed artists," says Albert Mudrian, author of Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal & Grindcore and the editor-in-chief of the monthly metal magazine Decibel. "They're definitely important to all forms of extreme music. A band like Hatebreed wouldn't sound like they did without Integrity opening up that door for them."

"A lot of bands I work with give Integrity plenty of respect," adds artist Derek Hess, who's done cover art for such metalcore heavies as Unearth and Converge, and who also sponsors the metalcore-leaning Strhess Tour. "They were ahead of the curve. Integrity started incorporating art and illustrations, and I think that was a real right-on thing that broke away from the pack. When you say the name Dwid throughout the industry, they know who you're talking about. He's infamous. It's not just a local thing."

But as much as Dwid's talent made Integrity's success possible, his character limited its prospects. With an artist's penchant for brooding, a frat boy's taste for fun, and a used-car salesman's tongue, the mercurial Dwid is a charismatic shit-talker who's one of the most divisive figures in all of hardcore. When Integrity was first developing a name for itself, Dwid would shoot his mouth off about bands in other cities so much that Integrity couldn't play half the country as a result of his insults.

"That was the way Dwid fueled the media machine, by starting controversy," says Aaron Melnick, Integrity's guitarist through 1998. "If you read his 'zine, the Blood Book, he'd crack on [Detroit's] Pit Bull and [California's] Chain of Strength. He had no reason to crack on these people, but he'd do it to create controversy. That, to me, kind of ruined the band."

Tours crumbled, shows were canceled, and the band's sets were either spectacular or disastrous. And thanks to Dwid's erratic work habits, Integrity collapsed from a groundbreaking band to a revolving door of musicians that's encompassed half the Cleveland rock underground.

"One day, I sat down and did the math, and -- I can't do this with chicks -- I did the math, and there have been over 60 people in the band," Dwid says. "And that was a couple years ago. It's kind of a prep school to be in Cleveland rock and roll."

Integrity was a band that once seemed destined to become the toast of the tattooed masses. Instead, its story is one of the most twisted in all of Cleveland rock. Dwid is the godfather of Cleveland hardcore, a big talent with an even bigger ego, but he has precious little to show for it and only himself to blame.

John "Jack" McLimans, aka Dwid Hellion, 34, was born in Indiana. His parents divorced when he was a kid, and he alternately claims that he grew up in his home state with his mom and two sisters, and that he moved around the country with his dad and stepmom.

"My father was into sports. He was a quarterback for the Purdue Boilermakers, and my mom was a cheerleader," Dwid says, though the Purdue Office of Sports Information has no record of Dwid's dad, and they don't keep track of cheerleaders. "The books and art were my way of rebelling. As a young, hungry mind, I could smell out the things I was interested in."

Dwid discovered BMX at an early age, then skating, which led him to hardcore. Enjoying an underage beer buzz, he once slurred "hey, dude" to "hey, dwid," and he's been Dwid ever since. At 15, he moved to Cleveland, later graduating from Mentor High. He spent a year at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he picked up a foundation for a modest career in photography, sculpture, video-shooting and editing, and illustration. But he quickly got bored and dropped out. Also, he was busy. Integrity was growing. And so was Dwid's reputation as a hell-raiser.

"Dwid was always a troublemaker. He did some pretty horrific things," says former Mushroomhead frontman Jason Popson, a longtime friend and fan of Dwid's, who has the blood-splattered Integrity logo tattooed over his heart. "He did a show at the old Peabody's -- I think it was Palm Sunday. He got in a fight, and some kid pulled out a knife and cut the mic cord while he was singing. Dwid ended up chasing him down the street with a gun, firing shots in the air. Ridiculous stuff like that. You name it. One time, he got a human ear somehow and nailed it to his roommate's door, with a note that said, 'Lend me your ear.' Just bad news -- everything you want a hardcore singer to be. He was an instigator, for sure. He was a demon."

With 1990's Those Who Fear Tomorrow, Integrity's growing fan base went national. In the following years, the group released an unending string of 7" records and compilation tracks, some experimental, some lo-fi, some raw noise. Integrity split an EP with a young band called Hatebreed, which would eventually sign to Universal Records and become one of the biggest bands on the scene. Hatebreed singer Jamey Jasta, who was once an Integrity roadie, now hosts Headbanger's Ball. Jasta's website routinely praises such Cleveland bands as Ringworm, but repeatedly goes out of its way to point out that Dwid "ran Integrity into the ground." (Hatebreed's management declined to arrange a Jasta interview for this story.)

From 1995 through 1997, the dysfunctional band averaged an album a year for hardcore stronghold Victory Records. Integrity's three biggest discs sold around 12,000 copies each, with 1996's Humanity Is the Devil moving nearly 15,000. Based on the apocalyptic writings of Robert de Grimston, that album's high-concept multimedia blasphemy started earning the band comparisons to thrash titan Slayer.

Dwid says the records did well for Victory, but claims that when the band was at its peak, he received only a handful of checks for a few hundred dollars each.

"Totally untrue," says Victory Records owner Tony Brummel, who gets pissed off fast. "I'm totally surprised by that. I always did what I was supposed to do for these guys. And at the end of the day, they couldn't hold their fuckin' band together."

Even for a group that spent only a couple of months a year on the road, maintaining Integrity was no easy task.

"I can argue with Dwid without him even being here," says Melnick, who strongly disagrees with Dwid's contention that Victory didn't pay Integrity. "Our relationship with Dwid was just to argue with each other. Dwid used to yell at us for smoking on stage, and then he started smoking. Honestly, it was so unimportant -- the dumbest things. One argument in particular, Dwid was yelling at me because I didn't believe in aliens.

"It was a good thing that we broke up," Melnick continues. "After a few years, we got some notoriety, and Dwid didn't even come to practices anymore. We'd send him tapes, and he'd do the album."

After a 10-year run, Dwid called Melnick and ended the band. A year after the seminal lineup split, Dwid revived the group, and Integrity became an on-again, off-again institution, still not maintaining a regular regimen of practicing, recording, or playing. Beyond the singer, the lineup was a rotating cast of players.

"It was never the kind of band you could live with," says Dwid. "There wasn't a lot of money. And people would say, 'Well, there's a lot of friction with the public and controversy, and I have this good job,' or 'I want to get married or have a house one day.' And it's not happy music. You're constantly dealing with disenfranchised people, and that can wear on you."

It can wear on your family even more. In 2000, Dwid's wife of seven years filed for divorce. The two had met on the scene, but after having two daughters and a son, Mrs. McLimans drifted further and further away from hardcore.

"We grew up together. We had similar interests," Dwid says of his ex. He still has a braided wedding band tattooed on his ring finger. "She went into the marriage knowing what I was about and who I was, and eventually she wanted to change me into a standard-issue suburban guy, and it didn't really work. I returned home after a European tour to find I was in another dimension, and she and I moved on to opposite sides."

By all accounts, the divorce wasn't Dwid's idea -- having limited access to his children seems to weigh on him far more than anything else -- and the separation sent him into a self-obliterating tailspin. After 2001's Closure LP, Dwid ended the band again. He announced plans for a new project, but stopped playing. Drained, he made a run at being a face in the crowd. He even gave the nine-to-five a try, burning through Cleveland's alternative media, spending time at the Call & Post, the Free Times, and Scene, working in layout and design, taking pictures and writing articles.

"Ahhh, Dwid," says Katy Williams, Dwid's boss at Scene. "He spent most of his time on his cell phone -- his best friend -- and the rest of the time in all of the hot sales reps' offices. The funny thing is that he loved to be at work -- he just didn't work much."

Moving in new circles, he traded his camo sweats, Jordans, and construction gloves for a Kenneth Cole wardrobe. He liked the yuppie life, and it liked him.

"A lot of people only know the flamboyant party guy," says Popson. "They have no idea what the guy used to be. And I think he was doing that just to prove he could go from being this hardcore guy you were afraid to have in your house, but then be this West Sixth guy that could go to a swanky bar and hit on girls wearing a fur vest or feather boa."

Ultimately not suited to office life, Dwid drifted back to rock, finding work at Peabody's, Cleveland's downtown rock hotbed. Years of scrapping paid off: He was an efficient and effective bouncer. He also promoted shows, made fliers, cleaned up, and fixed things.

"He told all the girls that he was the janitor at Peabody's," says Dan Cull, the club's co-owner. "They loved it. I had a Mötley Crüe relationship with him. For the whole nine months he worked here, we had a lot of steak dinners at the Diamond Men's Club. He'd bring 30 people with him. The girls loved him. He never had to pay for a lap dance. He's a fun guy to be around. He lights up a room. The best way to describe him is Glenn Danzig mixed with David Lee Roth."

Resettled on the other side of Cleveland nightlife, the former hardcore kid became enamored of the cheesy glamour hardcore stands in direct opposition to. Dwid started appearing at Mushroomhead shows, hair spiked, wearing a tight shirt, tighter pants, and oversized sunglasses. He fell in with One Life Crew riffmeister Blaze, and the two became toxic twins, cruising and boozing till way after daybreak.

A few impromptu Integrity songs at other people's shows led to appearances at hardcore festivals, and Dwid started to get the itch. Dead Even singer J.C. Koszewski stepped in to play bass.

"The show I played in Connecticut was just for the fun and money," says Koszewski, a 21-year-old with a pitted black Integrity skull tattooed on his right leg. "But after the set, he's sitting there in his camo shorts and his Nikes, and he was back to the guy I saw in the posters on my wall. I think that was the first time I'd seen him play music to a crowd of new kids -- and how much it meant to them. And that's when To Die For started to happen."

It's December 2003, and Dwid's lucky his teeth are still intact. A week earlier, he and his bandmates had been savagely beaten at a gig in Portland, Oregon, by a pack of skinheads. Lounging in a plush Lakewood apartment that looks like a set from MTV's Real World, Dwid, once a straight-edge legend, tips a Budweiser and calls it "the fountain of youth." It's hard to argue. A figure in national hardcore circles for over a decade, Dwid looks closer to 20 than 30, bone-thin, his left arm a blur of overlapping tattoos.

With a red ball cap on backwards and a gleam in his eyes, he bears a resemblance to rap-metal loudmouth Fred Durst, but talks like surfer dude Jeff Spicoli. The hardcore singer compares himself to arena-rock royalty David Lee Roth and explains that music is in his blood. On a roll, he identifies the apartment's owner as his brother. He claims the same thing of Jason Popson. Neither is.

As he drains his beer, Dwid appears eager to distance himself from the genre to which he's a forefather. But he knows metalcore's hot. Just a few months earlier, he seemed ready to get his act together and cash in on the suddenly popular scene. He put together a blistering, well-received new album, To Die For. Alternative Press magazine, a champion of underground sounds, gave the disc a perfect five-out-of-five score in its review of the record.

Everything was in place for Integrity to finally capitalize on 15 years of struggle. Dwid even agreed to tour. But at the Portland show, a flurry of fists derailed what seemed like Integrity's imminent return to glory. During the band's set, a group of anti-racist skinheads suddenly rushed the stage, raining blows on the entire group.

Members say the primary target was Integrity drummer Tony "Chubbz" Pines, who has been associated with One Life Crew, a Cleveland hardcore posse whose dry sense of humor and nationalist messages made it a target of controversy. Broken and tired, fragile esprit de corps cracked, Integrity played one more show, canceled the tour, and drove home. Following a less than triumphant return to Cleveland, Dwid pulled the plug on the band for the fourth time.

"We all sit around and wonder why Dwid did this, when we were on top of the world," said Chubbz, fuming over the fiasco. Chubbz said he'd been trying to run the band like a business, but that Dwid was more interested in partying like a rock star -- one of the true taboos in hardcore.

"Maybe it's foolish. Maybe it's self-destructive, but I just want to have a good time," Dwid attempts to explain. "I want that Mötley Crüe thing, where Nikki Sixx is always there and Vince Neil is always there, and we make people have a good time. That's my favorite band. That's what I want to be like.

"I don't need to cash in," he adds. "I grew up a rich guy. My family is very wealthy. But I make a gas-station person's wages. I see the world. It's a good time. I'm not a greedy dude. Here I am, living in my brother's basement."

And with that, Integrity's comeback attempt was over, almost as soon as it began. When the wheels came off the band again, Dwid joined his current girlfriend in Belgium; he had met her on tour. He launched the Integrityesque Sledgehammer project, playing with European straight-edge vegans who had grown up idolizing him. Backed by them, he toured Europe and Japan as Integrity. He continues working with Cleveland and national bands, producing original art, shooting clips, and connecting bands with record deals. He's produced video for Belgium's Flanders Ballet. His latest creation is the multimedia project Belazard, a dark synthesis of Dwid's art, music, and horror writings. But with Integrity, there's always another show.

Late last month, Dwid briefly returned to Cleveland, where Peabody's hosted the close-to-annual Integrity relapse. With metalcore bigger than ever, the show drew fans from as far as Boston. Integrity took the stage at close to 2:30 a.m., and the room was packed with a Who's Who of the Cleveland hardcore scene. A herd of bodies clamored to get close to the mic, longhairs and skinheads waving arms, pumping fists, throwing elbows, and taking flying leaps onto the crowd's shoulders, with arms and legs windmilling.

The band -- most of the last recording lineup, plus American Werewolves drummer Nate Jochum -- played for a hard hour. A steady procession of stage divers flipped into the pit as Dwid messianically bared his chest and pointed the mic into the crowd like a gangster flashing his piece. The chiseled, angular face from the To Die For era had rounded out, and the stubble had grown into a beard. Stalking the stage like a walking spotlight, Dwid breathed anger. He sounded as if another two songs would render him mute for life, and he crashed toward that point with abandon. To this crowd, he was Brother Dwid, reverend of Cleveland hardcore.

"There's one thing about this town that does not exist anywhere else, besides the backstabbing and the crazy bullshit we all endure," he said hoarsely between songs. "When we come together inside of these walls, this is church, this is where we all are one. For all of our friends, for everything that we stand for, for everyone who's against us outside these walls, that's what it is. I'm just as guilty of the jokes outside those walls as are every fuckin' one of you, believe it or not. But the truth is, we are all together to ruin this shit."

Before returning to Belgium, Dwid spends one last day deep in Mentor's woodland suburbs, reflecting on his life in his old stomping grounds. This year's model of Dwid Hellion has the beginnings of a paunch, and he's switched to Bud Light. He wears Versace sandals and a black T-shirt with the same Samhain skull that he has tattooed on his gut. The demon and the party guy are gone, and now he looks like a European poet.

"A friend of mine once said that, second only to Bermuda, the Lake [Erie] has the most magnetic pull," he says. A week after the show, he talks as if he's been on a steady diet of cigarettes and sandpaper. "But when I land here in an airplane, there is something familiar, something disastrous, something unsettling. I have some friends here who are absolutely insane, and I think that that has a lot to do with where they reside. But I think being insane gives art some of its best qualities."

Dwid's tastes run toward the hallucinatory and morbid: artists like painter Francis Bacon, photographer Joel-Peter Witkin, and rock illustrator Pushead. He talks art better than most people with a liberal arts B.A. Reflecting on some of his favorites, such as Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch and German painter and engraver Albrecht Dürer, he feels it's important to distinguish between their lives and their work.

"To borrow a phrase, I think Bosch was a cripple of the Book of Revelation, living in a church, waiting for the end of the world," says Dwid. "I think Dürer had a day job -- he was great, but he had a day job. He wasn't consumed. I don't think that being able to walk away is good in art."

Does he think he's consumed?

"I'm consumed. In the worst way." He goes silent for a second, staring at the bottle cap he's been playing with. It's a performance, but it's not insincere. "I think there's a difference between wanting to be insane and being insane. I try to be sane. I think I am. It doesn't really work, though." He tosses the bottle cap.

Time out for a beer run. The sun is getting low as Dwid nestles in the corner of a couch, legs crossed, waving his arms as he talks, chopping the air like a kung fu monk.

"Integrity is like a psychiatrist for me," he says. "For some other people, I think it's more important than it is to me. For me, it's like I'd stop painting a picture. I don't see it as a band.

"I'm good at what I do," he continues. "I'm entertaining, to a degree -- some nights. I'm ingrained in the entertainment industry, but on the outside. It's like you can see a great multimillion-dollar film in a big, shiny theater, but you can go around the corner and see a gritty film for half the price. And I'm that guy, the gritty film."

Conversation wraps up. He has friends to meet before leaving the country. In a minute, he'll put on a sweater, leaving a wave of his slicked-back hair hanging in his face; instantly suave, he'll glow like a young Chet Baker. It's become clear that he doesn't remember the previous talk from a year ago, so one last question: Does he recall the story about Popson being his brother?

"That was a lie," Dwid says, and a smile suddenly splits his face from ear to ear, his eyes twinkling. It's the most entertained he's been all day. An account of the story's intricate details makes the smile stretch wider.

"I have the ability to create that type of delusion and believe in it and convey it," he says with a well-rehearsed pantomime, waving his hands in the air, tracing a helix to symbolize the weaving of facts and elaborate, on-the-spot bullshit. "The jokes. I love the jokes more than anything else."