Cleveland rock scene still feeling effects of Phil Lara's failed vision

The Jigsaw Saloon saga will soon be a song. It's already a T-shirt. Cleveland metal band Forged in Flame has printed shirts with Jigsaw CEO Phil Lara's face on the front, locked in a crosshairs.

"We figured this is a way to make back some of the money [Lara] never came through with," says Forged in Flame singer Gary Kane.

The band got the idea at practice, when they were enjoying a hard-won laugh about the ongoing Jigsaw situation, an 18-months-and-counting clusterfuck that killed Parma's beloved Jigsaw, crippled the legendary Agora and left bruises all over the Cleveland music community. The group decided the festering frustration would make for a good song.

"We talked about how the guy's probably got a bounty on his head," says drummer Jon Vinson. "And the idea came up for [a song called] 'Marked Man.'"

"Marked Man" will be on the band's upcoming record, which doesn't have a release date yet. But a similarly themed T-shirt is available now for $15 at the band's website, Kane says they're moving briskly. The band is also planning a sticker that says "Phil Larceny." (The band does not advocate actual violence against Phil Lara. They're just saying they'd bet someone is considering it.)

Lara barreled onto the Cleveland club scene in late 2007. He presented himself as a business veteran who wanted to shake up the music business with some innovative new approaches. Lara's ideas and the biz went together like ammonia and bleach, and Cleveland nightlife is still choking. Plug his name into the search engine at for the full story.

But while most of the coverage has dealt with the impact on venues, Lara dabbled in band management as well, with similar results.

Forged in Flame was his first guinea pig. The group formed in 2007, and by the time Lara and his partner purchased the Jigsaw, the band had some momentum. The group played the club. Lara liked them and invited them back. Then he sent an e-mail, inviting them to the 'Saw for a meeting. That's when he made his pitch: He wanted to invest in the band, build up its value and sell it off at a profit.

"One part I thought was weird was that he said, 'I've never failed at anything,'" recalls Vinson. Still, the intrigued band members agreed to sign with Lara.

In spring 2008, Lara called another meeting. He wanted the band members to be full-time employees of his then-growing business, Jigsaw Entertainment, complete with salaries and health insurance. He asked them how much they needed to live, rent a rehearsal space, promote the band, make some T-shirts and put together a good demo. The band did the math and came up with a figure of $150,000, which included the members living close to the bone for about $8 an hour. And for a hot minute, the money began rolling in.

Forged in Flame began playing the Jigsaw between one and three times a month, for crowds of 30 or so people — light duty for a house band. Lara gave them health-insurance cards. That was followed by money to record and release CDs. Lara gave them the green light to shoot a video with Mushroomhead drummer Steve "Skinny" Felton directing. Felton says Lara paid him.

Soon, the band faced the same situation that Jigsaw and Agora managers, cooks and bartenders encountered: Paychecks arrived late, bounced or never appeared. After Lara assured him the health insurance was in effect, Vinson visited the emergency room, only to find that his care wasn't covered. (Vinson says he still has outstanding medical bills). Checks that Lara wrote to the rehearsal facility bounced. By autumn, the band owed the facility more than $1,000 in rent. Lara apologized, cut the hall a fresh check and told the band not to worry about it. When that check bounced, they cut the cord.

After his first music-biz test model crashed and burned, Lara launched the next one on a larger scale: Without fixing the bugs, he proceeded directly from management to concert promoting.

The members of Cleveland hard-rock band Venomin James were fixtures at the Jigsaw before Lara owned it. Lara liked the band and gave them opening slots on prime national shows. In fall 2008, they called to book a date for their CD-release party. Lara told them to come in; he had some things he wanted to talk to them about.

The band arrived at the Jigsaw on time. They waited an hour for Lara to show up. When he finally did, he laid out his grand vision: a network of clubs across the region where national acts — which he'd fly in — would play mini-tours, with handpicked local bands opening. At the time it seemed plausible — in addition to owning the Jigsaw, he had deals with Peabody's, the Hi-Fi and the Agora.

In the meantime, said Lara, he'd pay Venomin James a salary so the members could concentrate on music. This was exactly the opportunity they were looking for. He asked them about the new album. They told him they wanted to have it mastered by Alan Douches, a New Jersey engineer who's worked with big-name talent like Mastodon and Sufjan Stevens. Lara told them to send off the music and let him know when it was done; he'd pay for it.

In November, Lara gave the studio a credit-card number that was declined. He stopped returning the studio's calls. Then he stopped returning the band's calls. By December, they decided Lara would never make good on the debt. They told Lara they planned to move on — and did it politely, keeping in mind that he had a stake in four of the city's major clubs.

"[Lara] kind of dicked us over, but he was nice the whole time," says guitarist Joe Fortunato. "But the dude never followed through on anything. He seemed like Jekyll and Hyde. He was a cool guy. Behind the scenes, he was unraveling the scene."

In February, the band played an outside promoter's show at the Jigsaw. That's when Lara told them he had "four to six" shows with stoner-rock band Fu Manchu "locked in" for March, from Chicago to Rochester, with a St. Patrick's Day show at the Agora. Cleveland rock band Suede Brothers was booked as well, he claimed. Lara wrote some dates on a bar napkin and told them to leave them open.

"He promised us all this stuff," says Fortunato. "Everybody wants to daydream, to win the lottery. The fact that someone said they would step up and do anything — that meant a lot to us. So we followed that, with stars in our eyes."

Fortunato began making posters and flyers to promote the tour. He checked into having an EP pressed to sell at the shows. He also checked the clubs' websites to see how they were promoting the concerts and if the opening support was listed. To Fortunato's dismay, no shows were listed at all.

In mid-February, the Jigsaw closed, and Lara stopped returning their calls. Fortunato called the clubs the tour was supposedly playing. Chicago's Double Door told Fortunato Fu Manchu was not playing there. In Columbus, Ravari Room had already spent money advertising the show but pulled it from the schedule when Lara broke off contact. Small's in Detroit spat venom about "some asshole in Cleveland who's trying to be a promoter" who had tried to book a show.

They'd all had some contact with him, but when it was time for Lara to sign papers or cough up money for a deposit, he stopped returning calls.

"I think he thought that he could do [the tour] for a certain amount of money, and he could wheel and deal," says Suede Brothers manager Chris Francis. "And it didn't happen."

Venomin James and Forged in Flame are slowly climbing out of the financial holes they dug at Lara's behest. The studio and clubs were understanding, but Cleveland's reputation is blemished. Worst, they say, is the lost time. Venomin James knew that singer Jim Meador would be deploying for military service this summer. Fortunato says they could have spent those months working on getting their music out instead of trying to make good on Lara's bad promises.

"I never got the impression that [Lara] had malicious intent," says Francis. "He just ran his mouth too much. I never had the sense that he was out to screw people, but at the same time, he did it."

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