Lord of the Strings

Guitarist Glenn Schwartz could have been a rock god. But on the verge of conquering the world, he chose to save his soul.

The Killers House of Blues, 308 Euclid Avenue 6:30 p.m. Thursday, December 2, $15, 216-241-5555
On stage before a crowd of 80,000: This is the view from the top of rock and roll. Glenn Schwartz was there -- a few days before New Year's Eve 1969, at the Miami Pop Festival. With his guitar and his band, Pacific Gas and Electric, Glenn blew that crowd away. This Euclid boy was ready to be a rock star.

But another metamorphosis was taking place. After exhilarating a crowd that looked like the whole world, Glenn made an announcement: He had kicked drugs and taken Christ as his savior. He advised the sea of hippies that they would be wise to do the same.

The media chalked it up to rock-star eccentricity. The next day's articles treated Schwartz and his band as the real revelation. The band landed on the front page of the Miami Herald. A New York Times critic said that PG&E was "among the best and most under-exposed talent in the country."

Glenn's talents were no secret to Jimi Hendrix, who asked Glenn to play at his last birthday party. Janis Joplin jammed with him at San Francisco's famous Fillmore West. He counted Chuck Berry and Eric Clapton as friends. Jimmy Page, Duane Allman, Carlos Santana, and Jeff Beck were admirers.

After the Miami Pop Festival, Columbia Records swooped in, bestowing upon Glenn and his bandmates the record deal that would put their songs on national radio. In the summer of 1970, Pacific Gas and Electric hit No. 14 on the Billboard charts with "Are You Ready?"

But Glenn was not ready for rock stardom. The business was full of unholy temptations. God had given him enormous talent, but for God he gave up everything.

Almost 36 years after Glenn made his testimony in Miami, he navigates a dusty white van through the Cleveland Flats, engulfed by a November fog. With him is Gene, younger brother and bass player.

When they arrive at Hoopples, a rustic, blue-collar sports bar, they are met by Sam, a sandy-haired man who's been taking nervous pulls at a Miller Lite while waiting for them. Glenn and Sam met three years ago at a rock show. Glenn locked him in a piercing stare that left Sam feeling "like I was standing at the edge of a 3,000-foot plateau." He is not religious. But he is devoted to Glenn and demonstrates his loyalty by acting as the brothers' roadie and promoter.

Sam ditches his beer, dashes outside, and grabs an amp. He hauls it up a few steps, placing it just where Glenn likes it -- a few feet in front of the Golden Tee.

Glenn enters without a smile or greeting for the regulars, only the same denim outfit, the same weary eyes. He lays his guitars on the video-bowling machine and stows the Bible behind it. He mutters to himself as he tunes his instrument. The first notes bring silence to the jukebox. There are about 30 patrons in attendance, and most know that this is their cue to stop talking.

Gene and Paul O'Brien, the drummer, mingle with friends as Glenn begins, fingers caressing the guitar's throat at first. Warmed up, gaining momentum, he starts strangling it, letting his trademark riffs wail out, the meaty part of his palm pounding the guitar neck, callused fingertips tugging strings for extra vibrato. Like every great guitarist before him, Glenn can make one instrument sound like two.

He grimaces, writhing through the high notes as if the guitar is electrifying him. O'Brien launches into his drum set, and the rhythm gets Glenn's trunk swinging back and forth, his knees bending.

He lays the guitar on the bar, and while his left hand works the high strings, his mouth works the lower. They say he began playing guitar with his teeth before Jimi. Today Glenn's teeth are mostly gone, so he pecks at the strings with gums and lips.

The guitar wails in a growling, screeching voice. Gene leans over and shouts above the din, "As long as you live, you'll never see anybody play guitar like this."

There is no stage at Hoopples, just a nook at the back of the bar, decorated with random knickknacks -- a Schwartz Brothers mirror, beer signs, and a felt dartboard, along with the bowling machine and Golden Tee. The bar is small enough that when Glenn stamps his black boots on the weathered hardwood floor, everybody can feel it.

Hoopples suddenly feels like a Mississippi Delta juke joint. "Hard time," he sings. "Hard time since the day I was born." Sam says it's the best he's ever seen Glenn play. "Come on, Gene!" yells Glenn. "Play that bass! Talk to me, Gene!"

The show ends as it always does, with Glenn delivering a sermon on the perdition of modern America to the few dozen people still in the bar.

"Sorrow is better than laughter," he tells them, locking a happy group in his baleful glare. "Laughter is cheaper."

This doesn't bode well for my interview. Asked earlier for advice on getting his brother to talk, Gene had said: "Just try to catch him in a good mood."

As I introduce myself, Glenn puts his hand up and calls for silence. He drops to one knee and begins a prayer. Sam bends his knee, as does Michael, another Schwartz fan. So do I. For 10 minutes Glenn casts images of an angry God descending to earth, laying waste to sinners.

When it is over, I say, "Glenn, I'm writing an article --"

"Not on me, you're not," he snaps. Before I can respond, he reaches for his back pocket. "There's only one article, praise God." And he pulls out a Bible, holding it heavenward. "Only one article," he repeats, beginning another prayer.

Glenn knows that a journalist's questions will probe his past, and there are sore spots -- first his years as a sinner, then the years of repentance, followed by years of poverty and obscurity.

Those who know him speak cautiously. "He has a good heart, and I don't want to do anything to cause him grief," says a friend who, like others, asks not to be named. They fear that Glenn would end their friendship. Even Gene refused to speak unless Glenn did, but it's common knowledge that Glenn doesn't care for the media.

The friend sighs. "Glenn's not really Glenn anymore."

He started guitar lessons at 10. His father was a hard taskmaster, pushing the teacher to make Glenn learn a week's lessons in a day.

His other passion was racing. Gene could build a mean hot rod, and Glenn could pilot it. If not for Glenn's blooming dexterity with the guitar, the Schwartz brothers might have made a champion racing team.

At some point in the '60s, he got married and had two sons. But he spent most of his early 20s kicking around with local groups like Frank Samson and the Wailers, the Sensations, and Mr. Stress' Blues Band, turning enough heads that by 1967, when he returned from a two-year Army stint in Germany, drummer Jimmy Fox was waiting with a proposal.

He wanted Glenn to lead a band they would call the James Gang. It would be a power-rock trio, Cleveland's answer to Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The James Gang quickly became the city's most promising band.

When the group's original rhythm guitarist left, Fox called Bill Jeric in for a tryout. Jeric had studied Glenn's guitar work from a distance. "I said, 'Boy, could I learn a lot from this guy!'" says Jeric. He had no choice. The first gig was a week away and Glenn gave Jeric a crash course: 12 hours of playing per day in the basement of the Schwartz family home, which Glenn had filled with old blues 45s. By week's end, Jeric had learned 50 new songs.

But in those days, Glenn's intensity was different; there was no trace of the snarling expression he would later bring to his Hoopples appearances. "Glenn had a big smile," says Jeric. "He was this ebullient personality."

He was also hungry, in the way that a musician from Cleveland has to be hungry. "His whole attitude was 'I'm the underdog. I've got to fight,'" says Jeric. "He had this drive in him."

Like Hendrix and the Who, Glenn wanted to give audiences a show that would leave them stunned. During a solo, Glenn would throw his legs over Jeric's shoulders, then play guitar hanging upside down, as Jeric swung his torso. "I'd bang his head against the stage," says Jeric. "He loved it when I drew blood."

On one such occasion, opening for Cream at Detroit's Grand Ballroom, the underdog James Gang earned an encore -- no small feat, considering that backstage, Eric Clapton was waiting for his turn.

No one who knew Glenn then talks about the drugs or the sex, but second- and third-hand accounts of typical rock-star indulgences abound. Glenn still confesses these sins, more than 30 years later. "I didn't used to get high, I stayed high," he announces at one recent performance. "And then I cried for God.

"I was a drunkard," he says at another. "Every word out of my mouth was a swear word. I cheated on my wife. I stole cars. Only God could save me."

Like many a rock star before him, Glenn overdosed on debauchery in Los Angeles -- probably during a West Coast swing with the James Gang. It was on Sunset Boulevard that he had his religious experience. It came through a preacher named Arthur Blessit, a charismatic sidewalk evangelist who told junkies that the world's greatest drug was Jesus Christ.

"He'll give you a high that will keep you till eternity," said Blessit in one characteristic sermon. "You don't have to drop downers, man. All you got to do is start dropping Matthew and Mark, Luke, or John."

Some friends say that Glenn was tripping on acid when he had his spiritual awakening. Others say that his world was simply spinning too fast: the drugs, the traveling, the exhilaration of success. He needed something to ground him. Blessit's message did that.

He went back to Ohio a born-again Christian. He witnessed to family, friends, bandmates. The fervor with which he preached grated on most of them. So in 1968, Glenn headed back to California with little except his guitar. His talent had earned him friendships with Jimi and Janis, but both were too far gone to be swayed by Glenn's sermons.

Blessit preached to the Hell's Angels, and this is how Glenn became a friend to that unsavory gang. The bikers had an affinity for Glenn's music, so much so that they bought the ragged man a new guitar -- the same one he plays to this day.

During this time, Glenn helped form Pacific Gas and Electric. And while the band caught national buzz after its live performances, Glenn's burgeoning religiosity and his growing distrust of the music business created tension with the record label. Shortly after breaking a hit single, "Are You Ready," Glenn walked away from his band and his record deal. Perhaps not knowing where else to go, Glenn went home.

Today, Columbia Records makes frequent appearances in his Hoopples soliloquies. "They offered me $50,000," he said one night. "I said, 'Keep your money.' They said, 'You're crazy.' I said, 'That's right. Crazier than you'll ever be.'"

He pauses, blinking madly, his body still. "Crazier than you'll ever be."

His was not a heroic return to Cleveland. It was 1970, and the James Gang had gone on to national success, with future Eagle Joe Walsh playing in Glenn's place.

By rejecting the overtures of national record companies, Glenn had destroyed what was once his dream. His sudden, all-consuming fascination with the Bible scared his family, and they steered him to a mental institution. It had little effect. Friends say that Glenn's wife was furious over his career change and threw him out of the house.

Though committed to self-denial, Glenn still couldn't give up music. Gene had learned to play bass, and the brothers convened a weekly show at a bar called Farragher's in Cleveland Heights.

News of Schwartz's ascetic ways reached the ears of Reverend Larry Hill, a former Assembly of God pastor who had left to form his own church, dispatching his followers to proselytize on the streets of Cleveland. Hill and a guitarist friend, Joe Markko, had conceived a new way to market the Christian faith: through rock and roll. He just needed a great musician.

Hill and Markko traveled to Buffalo to catch a Schwartz Brothers show. Preaching was already part of the performance. The themes were perfect -- as was the music. They invited Glenn to join them for a cup of coffee. They talked about religion, finding much in common.

"He had had a huge career already," Hill recalls. "If you listened to him talk, the unhappiness that was in his life . . . Fame might be wonderful for the handlers, but for the musicians, their life was nothing but drugs and unhappiness."

Jimi and Janis were dead. Clapton was hooked on heroin, as was Keith Richards. So Hill's words hit Glenn in the same spot that Blessit had touched a few years before.

They would become the All Saved Freak Band. A true grassroots operation compared to what Glenn was used to, the band traveled the country in a van, setting up on the sidewalk outside rock concerts or music festivals. Hill sang and preached, accompanied by the sweet voices of two sisters, Pam and Kim Massman. Glenn played his usual brilliant guitar, next to Markko's rhythm guitar.

It was a persuasive formula. Those who liked the band and pledged their Christianity were invited to live with the group at a commune near the town of Orwell in Ashtabula County. Glenn moved there in 1972. "He seemed to feel that he had peace," says Hill, who still lives at the commune with a few followers. "Nobody put a gun to his head."

Perhaps not, but Markko says Hill had a more powerful weapon: God. Hill would convince the entire group -- including Glenn -- that he was a prophet.

"Glenn was used and abused," says Markko. "It was like putting the frog in cold water, then turning up the heat. That's what it was like for all of us out there."

Hill claimed to have received visions of a looming Armageddon involving invasions -- from China, another from Russia, and yet another from Latin America. To ride out the storm, Hill said, they had to remain together, isolated from society.

Markko says that Hill enforced a rigid discipline of a sort not seen since the Puritans formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Sex was forbidden, and the women were to wear long dresses and avoid eye contact with men, who grew long beards. The men slept in the barn, while the women slept in the house -- with Hill. The days were long and filled with backbreaking manual labor. Those who tired or disobeyed Hill's orders were humiliated, sometimes whipped.

"It was a situation that got really bad and turned into a cult," says Markko, who led a group off the farm in 1980. "We left, and we never looked back."

Glenn's family eventually found him, forced him into a car, brought him home, and locked him in a room with Ted Patrick, who would become famous for his efforts to "deprogram" cult members. But as soon as Glenn had his freedom, he went back to the farm.

Hill says that his group was no more a cult than the Baptist church is, and he denies charges of physical abuse. He says that the penalty for bad behavior was usually 10 push-ups. He blames the accusations on a few disgruntled members made angry by the fact that developing spirituality meant losing money.

Glenn left Hill's flock in 1980, after Markko. Hill claims it was an amicable parting. Evidently, though, Glenn remained a restless soul, living in a van that he had painted with thousands of scripture readings. For food, he often rummaged through garbage cans outside restaurants. Friends visited him to drop off provisions and blankets.

Women are a source of anguish and inspiration for many a bluesman. Skip James' famous song was "Devil Got My Woman." Glenn draws little distinction between devil and woman.

On one night in early November, a woman seems to be on his mind. As he finishes a song, his eyes take on a faraway look, and his fingers twiddle the guitar strings unconsciously. "Thank God, she's gone," he whispers. "Thank God, she's gone."

He snaps out of it suddenly and declares, "You can't live with them. You can't bury them in your backyard." The crowd laughs nervously. Glenn gives no sign he was joking.

There is a girl at the bar, twentysomething and wearing a pink halter-top, her boyfriend leaning close. Glenn stares at her. "The American female," he begins. "They used to burn them. Not this generation. They let them live."

The girl and her boyfriend giggle, lifting their bottles to hide their smiles. "That's right, drink up, smoke up," says Glenn. "Because there's nothing where you're going -- except eternal hellfire."

After the next song, he returns to them. "The mouth of hell is opening wide to receive you," he says.

Later, he raises his hand like a blessing over the couple. "I command my shame and my fear to come upon these people who are talking. Take their joy."

The guy shouts back, "Don't take my joy," as his girlfriend tries to hush him.

"It's already been taken away, buddy!" says Glenn. Then he addresses the entire bar. "I've been to hell. I don't want to go back."

To get to the restroom, women must walk past Glenn's microphone. If he's in the middle of a song, he'll interrupt it to wag his tongue at them. If he's in the midst of a monologue, he's likely to say something vicious.

"She carries a disease!" he says to a man talking to a woman in a white satin top. When the girl embraces her friend, he yells, "Witch!" Later, he warns a man, "Her house is the way to hell, the way to the chambers of death."

Beneath Glenn's condemnations, this woman senses desire. She shoots a licentious look his way. "I rebuke you, Satan!" shouts Glenn. "I'll turn you upside down and prove you're a whore."

This is probably the reason there isn't a cover charge for a Glenn Schwartz show. You cannot dance. You cannot hoot during his songs, the way you might at a B.B. King concert. And it helps not to be easily offended. Glenn calls Asians "slant-eyes" and Mexicans "filthy people." But besides women, no group bothers him like gays. "America is filled with queers," he says. "What a shame!"

So too does he loathe the rich -- "They spend more money on dog food than they do to feed the homeless."

And then there are the haunting non sequiturs: "Early Sunday morning, you could still smell the burning flesh," Glenn says between songs one night, leaving it at that.

Glenn laments a criminal-justice system that is slow to punish. Ten years ago, one of his sons, shot in the head, was the lone survivor of Richard Pinto's Wickliffe shooting spree, which claimed two lives. Pinto, a paranoid schizophrenic, got life in prison. Glenn wanted Pinto to die. He favors the death penalty for a great variety of crimes -- including adultery, abortion, or leading a police car on a high-speed chase.

All of this makes it difficult to sell a Schwartz Brothers performance to an audience outside Hoopples. Friends say Gene pines for bigger stages and bigger paydays. But Glenn is the show, and you don't get Glenn without the gospel.

Black Keys singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach is a huge fan of Glenn's sound. "He does insane stuff -- his personality comes through in his guitar-playing," says Auerbach. "No fences. Totally unrestrained."

Last March, he invited the Schwartz Brothers to open a Black Keys show at Akron's Lime Spider. Glenn was his usual self -- spectacular guitar playing, followed by furious condemnations. "I love the fact that he's ours -- nobody else's," says Auerbach, an Akron native. He says he would like Glenn to open the next Black Keys show in New York City.

But most aren't as understanding as Auerbach. At a September gig in New Philadelphia, all was going well until two women started dancing. Glenn stopped playing and called the women "cheap whores."

Bill Miller, who played with Glenn in the Mr. Stress Blues Band in the '60s, was there. He says the bar owner told Glenn he had five minutes to pack his gear and get out. The man wrapped a wire around his knuckles and followed the band outside, hoping for an excuse to take a swing.

Episodes like these frustrate the people close to Glenn, the ones who root for his success. "Trying to get a handle on him is like grabbing a handful of bumblebees," says Miller. "Even if you got him, you get stung."

Glenn has worn the same dark denim jeans, the same dark denim Oshkosh B'Gosh parka to his Hoopples shows since they began in 1990.

A patron once said to him, "You look like a prisoner."

"I am a prisoner!" Glenn shot back.

He doesn't sleep on Thursday nights. After the show, he goes home to the Euclid house where he grew up, which he still shares with Gene. Sitting on his mattress in the basement, he fixes the strings he broke during that night's performance. His Bible, as always, is within arm's reach.

He receives familiar faces kindly. "This is Cindy," he'll say of the cat. "She'll sniff you a little bit." At home, his preaching is casual, matter-of-fact. "Still using tobacco?" he might ask, as a friend lights a cigarette. "God'll have nothing to do with you."

Glenn has no money, but he claims to have no need. The Lord will provide, and in those moments that he doesn't, Glenn is happy to fast. "I can do more with $5 today than I did when I was making $5,000," he has told friends.

He does not watch television or answer the phone. He does not believe in cameras, which is why Scene did not take a new picture for this article.

Friends sense in Glenn the weight of guilt. There is little they can do to ease it. "I'd say, 'Glenn, if anyone's going to heaven, it's you,'" says one friend. "Glenn denies that."

A fellow Christian, watching Glenn at Hoopples, once interrupted a sermon by saying, "God is love."

"No," Glenn shouted back. "God is judgment."

Whether his guilt is entirely a by-product of his Christian fundamentalism or is also fueled by more personal issues -- his failed marriage, his abandoned career, his isolation -- no one can say.

In the 24 years since Glenn left the farm, Reverend Larry Hill has resurfaced several times to recruit Glenn's soul -- and guitar. Sam, the roadie-manager, has seen Hill, who wears a long beard and walks with a prosthetic leg. Glenn has turned him away. Friends wish he'd done so long ago.

"I think if Glenn had never encountered Larry Hill, I think Glenn would have made music that could have really influenced his entire generation," says Markko. "He was always such a good man, such a gentle, tender heart. And he still is -- under all that anger."

It could be that Glenn's soul is as peaceful as it will ever be. These days, he lies on the basement floor and plays guitar for three, four hours. This is his last indulgence -- and he's grateful for it.

"It's obvious I'm in the spirit when I play," Glenn said at a November show, as if to apologize. "And if it was an evil spirit, I'd be dead."

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