When Old Punks Dry Out

Lizard man rises from the wreckage of success.

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Nova Lizard No. 1: No more booze for this cowboy. - Walter  Novak
Nova Lizard No. 1: No more booze for this cowboy.
Mike Salinger's drinking got old about the same time the idea of "nude people crucifying themselves as live theater" got old. Which is to say, the recovering performance artist mellowed with his medium. Sometimes, he still might hit life over the head with a sledgehammer, but at least he's not getting hammered anymore.

The director of Cleveland's Nova Lizard Project, Salinger was a professional inebriate 10 years ago. He timed his drinking bouts so he'd pass out after, rather than during, the shows. It worked at the time.

Unequal parts Frankenstein, Evel Knievel, and Cinderella, the performance group had built a reputation around its "raw poetry," which included stunts like setting gasoline-soaked stuffed monkeys on fire and dropping plugged-in TVs from the ceiling.

"It was balls to the wall," he says. "People were physically in danger." The potent mix of power tools and beer had its charms. The Lizards' scenes of Ward and June Cleaver engaging in hot sex on the kitchen table or blowing up turkeys filled with yogurt worked, maybe because the potential to fail miserably always loomed near.

Back then, with a temper to match his audacious feats, Salinger made upsetting people his vocation. Now, he's just trying to lead rehearsals that aren't part of happy hour. Recently, after an eight-year bender in Mentor and two years of sobriety, he made his official comeback with Babyprints, a Naked Lunch-meets-Ghoulardi love story starring some of the people he pissed off when he was drunk, plus a few new, non-pissed-off ones.

The theme, "You can't know anything," has the ring of a 12-step slogan. The play's two know-it-alls are Bill and Phil Blahonie -- twin brothers, albinos, beatniks, and science geeks. They're searching for a shortcut to genius by performing experiments on the hagfish, a scavenger that survives by swimming up other fishes' assholes.

Actually having a script is a departure for the Lizards, who used to rely on lots of sight gags, "because we drank more and we couldn't remember any lines," says lighting designer Andrew Kaletta. Much like the AA meetings Salinger attended until recently, Babyprints' rehearsals have been washed down with plenty of caffeine and nicotine.

"Now, rather than walking into the theater with a few suitcases of beer, we've got coffee and cookies," says Salinger, 38, a broad-shouldered guy who looks like he'd be more at home on the gridiron than the proscenium. "People get upset when the chocolate-covered graham crackers run out, ya know?"

The play was still in the Post-It note stage when Salinger booked it at Cleveland Public Theatre. With the help of renewed old friends, he had five months to write, audition, and rehearse it.

Jim Levin, the theater's executive director, figured they could pull it off. "There's a kind of core honesty about Salinger that I really appreciate," he says. "I guess he had a little bit more of a mean edge years ago, but we all did."

Among other antics, Salinger once trashed a hotel room and linguistically defiled a local TV camera crew. Tom Mulready, the head of the now-defunct Cleveland Performance Art Festival, brushes it all off as "intellectual aggression."

"Performance artists are generally a little more difficult than your average artist," he says. "They usually come in from way in outer space."

In a town where "you gotta be tough," the Lizards fit right in. For 1990's "Industrial Ballet," Salinger busted out of a steel box using a blowtorch. A factory machinist at the time, he's now a metal products salesman.

Rather than not accidentally setting himself on fire, his current challenge is to provoke without being a "dickhead" on a personal level.

"You treat people with respect, you'll get respect," he observes. "Also, it doesn't hurt to get a foot in the door, shake a hand. That's one thing you learn in AA -- how to shake hands."

Though the barbs and shoves are gone, Salinger's still an imposing director, pacing the theater feverishly as the minutes tick down to opening night.

"The one thing I'm apprehensive about is, I just wonder how many bridges I've burned," he says. "Because I do not remember a lot of time. I've done a lot of things to a lot of people. I've got a quick wit and a sharp tongue, and I can use them for evil. And I had. There's a lot of people who still won't talk to me. And I don't blame 'em."

Punk band Sleazy Jesus and the Splatter Pigs was another project from the partying days. "My job was to press the button on the drum machine and make margaritas," Salinger says. But even ice-crusher detail got to be too much.

"We had trouble working together," says Mike Baker, the Splatter Pigs' frontman and a former Lizard. "But it was really intense. You really had to put in 100 percent to get anything to happen."

It took a "cheesy baptismal scene" for Salinger to finally dry out. That happened in 1998 at the Rock and Reggae festival in the Flats. "I went to take a piss, and I fell face first into the river. The next day, my wife kicked me out of the house."

She later divorced him. Unlike longtime Lizard Robert Sirovica, she didn't find his debauchery "rather endearing."

For Babyprints, Sirovica and Salinger gathered props for a mad-scientist lab that would make Dr. Jekyll proud. Salinger's sister, a seamstress, made the play's über-hagfish costume, which looks like something from the wrong side of the tracks on Sesame Street.

For Salinger, writing the play's ending was the toughest part. But closure was ultimately achieved, with the help of the Loch Ness Monster and a skindiving suit.

"They all lean back and go 'ha ha ha,' and it's lights out," Salinger says of the final scene. "It's pure corn." Sometimes, a cliché cleverly done can be the best way out.

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