Music for the Messes

A thousand bands have slept on Speak in Tongues' dingy floor.

The Widow of Saint-Pierre
Speak in Tongues, where loose stools are a - decorative feature. - Walter  Novak
Speak in Tongues, where loose stools are a decorative feature.
4311 Lorain Avenue used to be the home of the Hungarian Singing Society. Despite the name, the spartan, dusky cavern was a clubhouse more than a concert hall; a blue-collar preserve where heavily callused men named Pete or Stu could stop for a beer and a few frames of bowling after a hard day blowtorching barges.

The years passed and tenants changed -- first to Communists running an ill-fated temporary agency, then to a bunch of self-described "former audiovisual geeks." The windows were bricked up, then unbricked again. But a few lonely bowling balls remained in the dusty corner, waiting for the ghosts of Pete and Stu to sail a few down the lane.

If Pete and Stu do return, they might be surprised to be greeted by skateboard punks or the latest sleep-deprived German techno band passing through town. The faint, lingering smell of cat urine and the case of grape soda in the beer cooler wouldn't be familiar to them, but they'd still be invited to hang out. Because in spirit, 4311 Lorain remains a haven of camaraderie.

Now that it's a collective for underground music called Speak in Tongues, the old beer joint has shed its ethnic affiliation and its liquor license. But it's still part of the melting pot, one nation under punk, free jazz, power pop, and something called screamcore. "We've never booked a ska band," notes Danny Noonan, a music fanatic who lives in the club's basement. "I'd say that was one of our greatest strengths."

In seven years, the Tongue has hosted more than a thousand obscure bands from all over, two independent film festivals, and one sparsely attended Planet of the Apes marathon. This has been done with no booze, no owner, no profit, and hardly any promotion. The club's amenities? A sound system donated by a friend, a stage hammered into being by some industrious youths in search of a project, and a Communist farmer landlord named Wally.

Speak in Tongues was born in 1994, when two guys who wanted to listen to live music in their living room moved in the building. "It was pretty shabby, but I knew we could transform it into something that would be ideal for what I wanted to do," says Dave Petrovich, who initially inhabited the crash pad with his now-deceased pal Schelby Bell. Friends helped repaint and pull up carpet. "It was such a rinky-dink kind of place -- they had nailed down the carpeting. Not just in the corners, but all over the floor."

The bar, cash register, and bowling equipment were relics from previous generations. "I think they were probably doing a lot of the same things that we're doing," says Petrovich. "Or if not the same thing, the same kind of attitude -- coming together to stay above water and keep themselves sane."

Opening night featured Walking With Edna, an audacious pop group with fans dressed up in papier-mâch´ crab and swamp monster costumes. They were so grateful for the club, they even set about constructing the stage. "I just came home from work one day, and they were building it," says Petrovich. "We didn't have a lot of money to throw into the building. I think Schelby was working at a Kinko's. I was working at a video store." They wooed out-of-town bands by sending postcards to contact addresses gleaned from the punk 'zine Maximum Rock and Roll.

Though the club has experienced several incarnations, it's kept the DIY vibe. The list of obscure names that have played there is more fun than the Cartoon Network on cough syrup. A sampling: musical puppeteers Flossie & the Unicorns; the grating, G-string-wearing, wooden-club-waving Happy Grindcore; and the ever-popular All Natural Lemon-Lime Flavors. A few bands, like Modest Mouse and Disengage, have since gone on to semi-fame and ephemeral fortune.

Actually paying the bands has been a struggle. Performers receive 100 percent of the door charge, but turnout has sometimes been slim -- maybe because publicity often consists of a few homemade fliers stapled to nearby telephone poles.

Unsullied by profit motives, the Speak in Tongues friends thought enthusiasm alone would bring in the believers. And sometimes, it has. "I thought that, if the bands liked the space and the people that came liked the bands, it would kind of keep itself going," says Petrovich.

Longtime clubgoers talk of selling records and CDs from their personal collections to pay a band's bus fare home. Or auctioning off some of the bowling balls in the corner.

"Most of the bands would stay over instead of getting hotels," says Petrovich. "Which is how we made a lot of connections with people. They had a lot of good memories about the place. We'd stay up and talk, get up in the morning, go have breakfast, make lunch, take 'em around Cleveland. People remember that stuff. It's refreshing, you know."

At the club's hygienic low point, about 6 people and 16 pets were cohabiting there. One of the faithful describes it as "the world's dirtiest circus." Jake Kelly, another supporter, remembers that "there were dogs, there were cats, and there were dogs that would eat sofas. There was junk everywhere, and there were weird people." Train hoppers and cross-country bicyclists sometimes crashed for a few nights, brunching on chili dogs at Steve's Lunch across the street.

After a couple of years, Petrovich moved out. "I'm kind of girly. I like to have a clean place. Plus, I just wanted to get an apartment where you didn't constantly have to be letting bands in."

Now, only Noonan and one cat live at Speak in Tongues. About 20 people have been booking music there, though. Last year, they formed the collective to keep the informality flowing smoothly. The members -- mostly slightly rumpled guys with serious bedhead, but a few women, too -- pay $25 a month to book bands.

Besides concerts, they've hosted a triple christening, impromptu after-hours mambo parties, and a midnight golf tournament played with croquet mallets. Pete and Stu, clutching grape sodas daintily in their ham-sized fists, would weep salty tears at such versatility.

A benefit on Saturday marks the collective's first anniversary. Petrovich's minimalist pop band, the Perfect Guy, is performing, as are three other bands that practice in the club's basement -- Viva Caramel, Proletarian Art Threat, and Sleepy Kid. Proceeds go to keep the generators running. Power to the amplifiers! Up with the anti-establishment!

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