My family and friends are the best thing I’ve known John Mellenkamp
It don’t take much
To sound like a sleeping prophet
When your misery sounds so much like ours Wussy, Teenage Wasteland.
He took his reading glasses from the front pocket of his faded blue short sleeved shirt. He examined the small tarnished lamp in his hands closely. It was so old as to be without age.
He looked towards the front desk, past the rows of resale detritus- the old colored telephone pole insulators, the 19th century hand tools, the rusting ancient coffeepots, blackened equally by age and fire.
“Hey,” he called out toward the old woman at the desk, “what’s the story on this one?”
Doesn’t work,” she said. “it’s old and weary and played out like everything else in this shop.”
“What do you need for this?”
“A hundred,” she said.
“No really yourself,” she replied, “when’s the last time you saw one of them, working or not?” She said impatiently.
He looked towards the front of the store. There was a young woman there, backlit by the large front window which overlooked the broken and twisted two lane out front.
“Lisa,” he called out, holding out the lamp, “I’ve got it.”
She smiled brightly, and said, “Really?”
Without responding, he went to the back of the shop, put a C-note on the old women’s wizened claw and walked to the front door collecting the pretty young auburn headed woman along the way.
The walked out into the parking lot, where he led her to the small fenced cemetery at the back of the shop. The gravestones were two hundred years old.
He stood beneath a tall green white pine, took a red bandanna from his back pocket and rubbed the lamp in earnest. A large coffee colored genie in a soiled red turban appeared in a small and unimpressive cloud of smoke.
The Genie took in the eager couple before him.
Cleaver cleared his voice and said briskly, emphatically, “We want the rock and roll package no 2, fame, fortune- immortality and riches, the works, followed by a spectacular death at an improbable age.” he said.
“You and everyone else,” said the Genie. “No one’s had any of that since 1968,” he said, “the Doors got the last of it.”
“We’ll damn it,” he said with obvious disappointment, “what do you have?”
“I can let you have plan 7 b,”
“What is that?” the young woman asked.
“No money, no widescale fame, no legions of adoring fans,”
“Well what do we get?” Cleaver groused.
“You get to start a big five piece harmonic band. It’ll be noisy as fuck, and people will be confused and you’ll get to ride from town to town across the nation in a smelly crowded van. There will be hardship and more than a little disappointment and a couple of broken hearts along the way; but, you get to make some great discs, create a handful of immortal tunes, and win the hearts of a small, but loyal, and far flung group of fans. And,” he said stopping for emphasis, “you’ll get to be the critic’s darlings for the next twenty years.”
“Shit, I just finished that gig,” cried Cleaver.
“We’ll take it,” said the bright young women beside him; “where do we sign?”
Wussy, a five-piece rock group from Cincinnati, is ex-Ass Ponys frontman Chuck Cleaver (guitar, vocals), Lisa Walker (guitar, vocals), Mark Messerly (bass, keyboards) John Erhardt (pedal steel) and Joe Klug (drums).
The band has a rabid fan base, volumes of serious critical praise, as well as national and international tours; and, day jobs.
It seems that somewhere along the way, they’ve neglected to strike it rich.
Front man and guitarist Chuck Cleaver notes, “we haven’t made a living from music,” to which bassist Messerly adds, “We’ve only taken money home a few times in the last fifteen years.”
As Alejandro Escovedo would have it, it’s been more miles than money.
The Early Years: Love and Hate and Going Off Like Frankenstein
The band formed in 2001ish. The start date depending upon how you define band.
Walker- who was new to Cincinnati and knew no one there at that time, said that she got to know Cleaver, and the Ass Ponys, through the WOXY music boards.
To meet people and explore the city she went to a couple of local music shows where Chuck and/or the AP were playing.
Chuck said that he knew of Lisa from the local music boards and that they subsequently met at an awards show in which Cleaver was slated to sing one song, solo. He related to Walker that he hated singing solo.
Walker offered to sing with him despite having only a passing knowledge of the song, Nevertheless, Cleaver took Walker up on her offer, wrote the song on a napkin and away they went. The effort worked well enough that they played as duet for three or four gigs before asking Mark Messerly to play with them.
“We then,” Messerly says, “played for a year as a crappy trio until Chuck agreed to let a mutual friend, Dawn Burman, join the band as drummer- without consulting any of us.”
Which was fine with Walker. “I needed a sassy girlfriend in that band,” she notes.
Those early years were pretty much a march through the wilderness with the band trying to find their sound. Everyone wrote at home and brought in offerings.
Walker remembers the first album as being primarily a “bag full of Cleaver songs.” Burman- a musical amateur at the time- worked to learn the drums and Walker worked on songwriting and guitar.
Several things about that time are clear in retrospect. The first being that the band was not immediately successful. There were a lot of bad shows.
To the few people who showed up (myself included) the band’s intent was not clear in the early years. It was a meager effort. There was a prodigious amount of drinking- and other assorted silliness- even by Northside musician standards.
“We hardly had instruments,” Cleaver recalled, “we borrowed stuff and we were far cockier than we had a right to be.”
Walker has previously described Wussy’s sound as “weird as shit.” Others tagged the band’s sound as “shoe gazer, psychedelic…The lyrics,” many said “tended toward the strange and otherworldly.” Some said southern gothic.
I ask Cleaver, “Where does the whole gothic label come from? People are always trying to make you out to be a modern day Eudora Welty.”
“It’s just the world I saw, the world I grew up in. I spent a lot of time alone in a strange country town (Clarksville Ohio). I was born late in my parent’s life- I spent a lot of time alone. My dad was a stubborn atheist and my mother was a willful Methodist with MS- there were times she was incapacitated… I’ve always felt old, I felt old at 4 years old.”
Cleaver says he’s just being himself and relating his vision as clearly, artistically and honestly as possible.
Others, however, see his long gray hair and beard, hear his high-pitched voice while taking in his shambling folksy self-deprecating style and seem to think he’s putting on an act or at least a speaking through a character. Which he isn’t. With Chuck Cleaver, what you see is what you get.
Ultimately, the point is moot, anyway, as Cleaver, and the rest, really don’t give a shit. They’re happy being with one and other; with their husband, their wives and kids.
Though, there does come a time when Cleaver stops laughing, ceases clowning around and does start to care. It’s then a good idea, then, to pay attention.
“Every band I’ve ever been in: Men Without Bones, The Ass Ponys, Wussy, people have always made fun of my bands. They’ve never been taken seriously, but I’ve never cared what others think,” he says succinctly.
“But I did have a vision for Wussy.” He tapped the table emphatically. “We were going to be a big harmonic rock band, and if people didn’t like it, tough shit.”
“Our fans are,” says Walker,” the icing on the cake- they’re the bonus, but it’s always been about us playing for ourselves. We don’t make antiseptic music, and we don’t care if we piss people off.” adds Walker. “We want to make art, not entertainment.”
All of which is true and incomplete. They do care, sometimes. It is true that on any given day, Cleaver, Walker and the rest, are musically and personally independent to the point of being hard asses.
It’s equally true, however, that on many days, each of them can be very kind and giving.
Cleaver, for instance, is perhaps the greatest curmudgeon in local music history. But he’s also a loyal friend and a big-hearted man. He remembers and pays back small favors, even years after the fact.
For instance, he’s come out tonight- to the Comet- with Wussy multi-instrumentalist, Mark Messerly, to give this interview, without bothering to mention, until well into our talk, that it’s both his birthday and anniversary. Such behavior is also classic Cleaver behavior.
The remainder of the band is also given to such kind acts.
For the Left For Dead sessions, Cleaver, and the rest of the band, not only agreed to allow me to make a documentary of the recording of the disc, they also gave me unfettered access, all summer, to the recording sessions at Ultra Suede Studios. They sat for long interviews. This even though I not only I lacked a track record as a film maker, I didn’t even own a video camera.
They did not become unreasonable when I butchered the film.
Which is all to say that, taken as a whole, Wussy is equally complex, friendly, wise and occasionally mercurial.
Wussy Vocalist, songwriter and guitarist, Lisa Walker grew up in Muncie Indiana. One Grandfather was a tank commander who fought Rommel; the other was a paratrooper.
She learned trumpet in the school band, rode her bike under broad midwestern skies. She was the protagonist in Wussy’s Teenage Wasteland riding through the cornfields with her transistor radio.
Her father, a microbiologist, taught her strings at home; her mother was a teacher.
Walker went to Cedarville College and then migrated to Cincinnati. She’s pretty, scary smart and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of music.
Mark Messerly grew up in Stow Ohio, outside Cleveland. He grew up with a love for nature secondary to spending his youth on his grandparent’s farm.
He came to Cincinnati after going to school at Berkley in Boston for Audio Engineering. After finding his way to Cincinnati, he formed the well-liked and well regarded sometimes duo, sometimes folk-rock quartet, Messerly and Ewing.
He’s a fine writer himself, he reads voraciously, loves birding and cooking vegetarian food and is of no use in a bar fight.
Initially a multi-instrumentalist when he joined Cleaver and Walker, he did not play the bass- the instrument he was to play with Wussy.
Added all up, Wussy began as a conglomeration of fascinating people who knew music but did not, except for Cleaver; know how to play the instruments they were to ultimately play in Wussy.
In short, Wussy is a strange band with a bad name and a weird sound which it fabricated as the band went along.
Says Messerly solemnly, “The first two discs were really hard.”
“The fact that the records came out at all is incredible,” agrees Cleaver.
Astonishing, also because on and off stage, personal lives rose and dove like a two hundred foot Ferris Wheel.
Walker and Cleaver shared, in those first three years, a tumultuous relationship. Messerly- who then had two small children- separated and divorced from his wife. Burman because very ill and required serious surgery.
The Cleaver-Walker romance did not end smoothly.
Early on, there were gigs when it appeared that a knife fight was more likely to erupt than music being played.
Cleaver laughs and says he recently spoke with another long time Northside musician who told him that he saw Wussy at the Northside Tavern in those days and was as equally astounded by the hatred on the stage as he was amazed by the music pouring out the PA’s.”
“Things did not go well for anyone,” Walker recalls.
And though it may be funny now, it was, all too often, nasty then. Feelings were hurt and hearts were broken. People went into very long funks.
Walker recalls taking exception one night to someone’s comment and refusing to take the stage.
“Were you intimidated?”
“No,” she says adamantly. “I can be meaner than anyone in the band. I wasn’t intimidated at all… and I wasn’t going to let this band go.”
Which is sort of amazing because, at least in those days, Cleaver could be quite a dick when he put his mind to it.
How did they survive those times? Those days in which the hatred was palpable.
“I think,” Cleaver says slowly and carefully, “that even for all the pain and fighting, Lisa and I realized that there was something greater at stake. The creative partnership has always seemed sacred. I tried to remember it’s all water under the bridge. I try to hold onto the good memories and let go of the bad ones.”
Things looked critical. Walker met someone and moved to Chicago. Burman announced that she was moving to Texas to be married and that she would fly in for gigs and practices. This led to an unpleasant conversation that Cleaver regrets to this day.
Changes, Change, Changes: Joe Klug and Strawberry
Yet, Wussy soldiered on. Messerly recalls that because the band was unhappy with the first two discs- (despite occasional flashes of brilliance: Airborne, Humanbrained Horse, Trail of Sadness, God’s Camaro) they really wanted to make the third disc a good one.
Was it possible to put all that animosity, hurt and bad karma behind them? Apparently so.
There was no way to know then, but things were about to change drastically for the better.
With the departure of Burman, the band turned to Joe Klug who was drumming with John Curley’s Staggering Statistics. It was a natural move as John Curley had produced the first two (and subsequent) Wussy discs. It was like bringing in family. Klug jumped at the chance to play with Wussy- for whom he had once previously subbed.
The clouds lifted. The third disc- Wussy by Wussy- garnered fan approval and critical acclaim; including a positive 2009 review from Ken Tucker on Fresh Air.
“When Joe came in,” Messerly said, “we didn’t have to have someone keep the beat on strings. It opened up our sound so much.”
“There were suddenly spaces between the notes”, adds Cleaver.
Walker says, “Joe changed the way we played.”
Wussy moved towards writing together in practice, refining their sound of minor motifs played atop buzz saw guitars.
Lyrically, Walker says she wanted things to be happy, but not too happy. “Anything bright and major is out,” she says cheerfully.
So, she, they, worked from a palette of minor chords that comes through Walker via her love of Bach, Beethoven, Simon and Garfunkel, CSN and Anglican Choral songs.
Superchunk, Television and Neil Young are other influences that you hear from Walker and others in the band.
Slowly yet steadily, the dark years gave way to the happy years. In 2011 Wussy recorded Strawberry and former Ass Pony John Erhardt joined the band initially supplying slide guitar and eventually adding slide and electric guitars.
Cleaver relates that Erhardt not only provides musical depth, but his solid, low key personality also provided badly needed calm to the group.
‘John makes touring easier as well, he’s very steady,” says Walker.
Says Cleaver, “Strawberry was our first real record. It was the first time that it didn’t feel as if we were in a car careening downhill without brakes.”
Rolling Stone gave the album four stars. Old school critic Robert Christgau gushed “When I say I consider Wussy the best band in America I mean I like or love–no, make that love or really like–just about every one of the 46 songs on those [first] five albums.”
The band shifted into overdrive and hit the road, touring the country and it all came together- all except for that money and fame thing…
Wussy followed up Strawberry with Attica and suddenly everyone was paying attention.
In November of 2014, CBS Morning News did an extended national piece.
Attica which contains some of the band’s most compelling and spellbinding work including Teenage Wasteland, Acetylene and Beautiful drew countless rave reviews. After years of struggle, the clouds finally seemed to have a silver lining.
In March 2016, the band released their seventh album, Forever Sounds, which reached number 20 on the Billboard Heatseeker album chart.
And if the band wasn’t buying Maseratis, there were signs that happiness was breaking out everywhere.
Messerly’s tour blog from NYC recounts, “So to sum up: gorgeous, super professional ballroom experience, …, one of the best nights all around we’ve been lucky enough to have as a band.”
And from Boston, two nights later “And the room was packed. Like all the way to the back with people standing on chairs to see packed. ….. Once again, I had a stupid grin on my face the whole night.
2017 and The Future
Two thousand and seventeen looked to be less hectic for the band. As a recent Facebook post notes: “we are spending most of 2017 working on new material, but we have one scheduled show [which has come and gone]!! Then it’s back to the studio…”
While not exactly using the word sabbatical, all agree that they could use some time off.
Klug and his wife have a new child for starters.
Messerly who re-married a year ago, has a large and very talented blended family he wishes to spend time with as well as a solo effort he’s wanting to release.
Cleaver’s happy walking dogs and selling vintage collectables online.
Walker is digging her new day job in which she researches and writes about art.
Which isn’t to say it’s been all radio silence. There are duo shows, and re-releases. Cleaver opened for Chuck Prophet.
Has the candle been worth the game? Given the pain and hardships of the last fifteen years, would they do it all over again?
Cleaver, Messerly and Walker all say yes without hesitation.
Cleaver adds, “I’d try and make some changes, I would, in some circumstances try and be kinder and show more respect sometimes.”
What three Wussy songs, I ask, will people still be listening to in twenty years?
“Oh God,” Cleaver says laughing, “I don’t know. I’ll be dead.”
Exactly, and what will be left behind?
Turning serious he says without hesitation, “’Teenage Wasteland.’ Lisa is an amazing songwriter. I just wish people would appreciate what a great songwriter she is. I mean, she’s a great singer too.” He stops for a minute and says passionately, “this is the Wussy song.”
“And what’s unbelievable,” adds Messerly, “is that she brought that in out of the blue, at the end of the recording session and she does that on every single album. Everyone else will be writing throughout the album and she’ll just keep everything to herself and one day she just shows up with a great song.”
“Two more,” I say.
“Maybe Airborne,” Cleaver says. “That was another one. We didn’t hear the lyrics until we got them in the studio. We were floored, we were crying.”
“Which one of yours?” I ask Cleaver.
“Maybe Beautiful,” Cleaver says. “People quote that chorus now,” his voice trailing off. He’s clearly more comfortable praising Lisa’s work than critiquing his own.
In a later interview, Walker answers, “Teenage Wasteland, Airborne and a song the band has yet to write and record. After all,” she says smiling, “isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?”
A last question. “If you could script Wussy’s last five years, what would that look like?”
“I honestly don’t know,” Cleaver says. “We don’t live way. I just want to finish this record and play some shows and do it all over again. We don’t know that we have next week, let alone five years. I just want to make records.”
“And, maybe do more of Europe,” adds Walker.
Elucidating Chuck says, “We’re a family now and everybody is necessary. Spending time together is what makes us happy. I can’t image playing without any of these people, it wouldn’t be Wussy.”
And with that Chuck’s out the door, Josie’s jerk burrito in its paper bag, just another happy rock star grandad on his way home.
And after a few more beers and some personal catching up Messerly will be on his way home to his wife Holly and their family; while Walker heads home to see her husband David and their dog.
Fame and fortune can, apparently, be overrated.
And then, as so often happens, this piece does not get published.
Mutual misunderstandings lead to this piece sitting on my hard drive for the better part of three years.
On the bright side, we now can now look into the rearview mirror rather than the crystal ball.
So what happened between 2017 and 2020?
A mixed bag, as always.
The anticipated hiatus happened, which probably for the best.
Cleaver suffered back problems which made it impossible for him to play. A tour was cancelled.
Joe Klug and his wife welcomed a second child and their first boy to the family and found plenty to occupy their time.
Messerly has been glad to spend time with his rapidly aging and talented children. His wife, Holly, has opened a Yoga studio.
With the exception of a few special one-off shows, Wussy’s last official tour was UK / Netherlands / Germany in 2018.
Despite being unable to play many full band shows in the US, though they do make three discs (What Heaven Is Like / Getting Better / New American Standard).
And now, in 2020, things are starting to look up.
The band, on March 6, is playing a show at Woodward theater followed by a six-city east coast tour.
“It will be a chance for Chuck,” says Messerly, “to figure out his physical capacity for touring.”
Best of all, Wussy has been selected to play the The National’s Homecoming Fest in May- which means playing on the same bill with Patty Smith and The National.
After that, Walker and Cleaver will be taking a stripped-down duo/trio format around the country for more house shows – starting in the Midwest, South and New England – then heading west later in the year.
As always, for Wussy, calendar pages will fly and every day will be anything can happen day.