In a new book on sale next week, former Scene staff writer Eric Sandy expands on the oral history of Speak In Tongues published in this paper back in 2016
with more interviews, fuzzy memories of debauchery and tales of glory involving the beloved underground venue.
Out from Microcosm Publishing on July 5th, "Speak In Tongues: An Oral History of Cleveland's Infamous DIY Punk Venue,"
excavates the brief but packed history from late 1994, when the club opened at West 44th and Lorain, through New Year's Eve 2001, when it all came to an abrupt halt as the last batch of caretakers departed and the landlord informed those who remained the lease would be not renewed. (The moment, as one person told Scene years ago, was met with mixed feelings befitting the chaotic club: "I was sad, you know, when it closed, but I was also kinda like, 'Oh thank God that's over.'")
Speak in Tongues meant a lot to the people who made it happen and kept it alive, to local bands and performace acts who found a home there, and to people who spent their nights and weekends there, finding something they couldn't find anywhere else. It was a moment beyond duplication, and one that informed a lot of what's happened since in the Cleveland music scene.
That's exactly why it's worth revisiting.
“In the book, I’ve added more voices to the oral history—both musicians of national repute these days and local artists who performed at Speak," Sandy said. "The book starts with a long essay about the place and about the city. Despite placing the story itself in the words of the people who knew it best, I wanted to spend some time in this longer version explaining a) why this story is important in the grand sweep of recent Cleveland history and b) what sort of cultural forces were at work on the near west side in 1994. I felt that an essay might be a helpful way of slipping into the past. [Microcosm publisher and Cleveland native] Joe Biel also has a great publisher’s note about his own perspectives on the place.”
In Biel, Sandy found the perfect partner for telling the story.
“Microcosm [Publishing] essentially started at the bar at Speak In Tongues, back in the ‘90s, so it was very cool getting to work with [them] on this project.”
Sandy was cognizant, both before and now, of delving into a story so very personal to those involved while playing the role of parachuting journalist who never stepped foot in the club.
“I often felt a disadvantage in being an outsider and having this sort of imposter syndrome in what is a very intimate type of history," he said. "But that was also some of the fun, being able to peel back layers of Cleveland culture to see the roots of what’s currently happening in the city. There was the flip side of that, too, where my distance kept me insulated from any internal politics or personality dynamics from that time. It’s not all roses when you’re living with your friends in the basement of a punk club, apparently. I tried to keep in mind the competing viewpoints of what Speak In Tongues meant to so many people.”
Percolating under the original oral history, and part of the impetus in doing it in the first place, was the fact Speak In Tongues was largely undocumented by the press while it existed. Scene, while a reliable and reliably good outlet for music coverage, didn't do much on SIT shows back then and was generally considered "mainstream" by Speak In Tongues devotees. But that doesn't mean coverage didn't exist, and the kind that did was right in step with SIT's ethos.
"There was a layer of further-to-the-fringe local media that covered the place, and this book-length version acknowledges more of that history," Sandy said.
Speak In Tongues may have escaped into the future, as the sign in the front windows read after it closed, but as Sandy proves, it can't escape its past.
"Speak In Tongues: An Oral History of Cleveland's Infamous DIY Punk Venue" is out next Tuesday. Secure your copy here.