Long before music websites or blogs—fifteen years before social media—before Netscape, .mp3s, Napster, or iTunes were invented (and abandoned), at the very start of the compact disc era and the dawn of music’s digitization, a bunch of underground music fanatics in and around Cleveland, Ohio harnessed the power of the desktop publishing revolution. They created a publication to carry their love of heavy metal and underground noise to the world…
“We got lucky,” remembers Trent. “There was definitely something changing with music, and we were there to document it and ride the wave.”
U.S. Rocker debuted at the height of the zine revolution when post-punk and underground culture types converged on their local Kinko’s to express themselves. But while it’s true that many U.S. Rocker contributors were committed zine culture people with artistic panache and do-it-yourself publishing know-how, “The Rocker” was something much more rare.
U.S. Rocker was a full-fledged monthly music newspaper with real rock ‘n rollers in staff roles covering regular assignments and monthly beats. The paper also had photographers capturing the nightlife, copy editors (well, some of the time), a regular printing schedule (every first Friday of the month), paid advertising that was hustled by an ad sales staff and a distribution route that covered the northern half of Ohio—and eventually several other states, too, from Illinois and Indiana to Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Tennessee and, ultimately, select cities in Florida.
“Certain artists that turned out to be huge—we caught them early on with their first album without even knowing it,” says Trent Weller, recalling U.S. Rocker’s early years. “We were really lucky that the whole time frame of when we started, we got to really help promote a lot of bands like that.”
Ten-thousand 11”x17” tabloid-sized newsprint copies of The Rocker were unleashed monthly throughout the region by a revolving army of U.S. Rocker writers, fans and friends. U.S. Rocker was a handmade lifeline by and for people who cared about music.
Well over 200 contributors put massive amounts of sweat and time into U.S. Rocker during its decade-long run.
During its decade of existence, U.S. Rocker forged together red hot local and national music news, scene gossip, album and concert reviews, interviews, original art and opinion pieces from outside the mainstream—all things that were not easy to gather in the unconnected, pre-Internet world!
Check out the photo, by staffer Dave Cackowski, at the start of this post. You’ve got U.S. Rocker associate editor Jon Epstein and co-founder / publisher / editor Brenda Mullen (on the right), hanging with Fear Of God in front of the old Empire Concert Club (sadly both Fear of God singer Dawn Crosby and Mullen are deceased). Brenda and Jon are not merely observing the scene—they’re on the sidewalk with the band and the fans shootin’ the shit, getting the dirt, having a ball. That’s what U.S. Rocker was all about.
The paper’s roots were working-class and not fancy. In fact, some alternative music snobs of the time may have looked down their nose at this unpolished gem. U.S. Rocker certainly perturbed the music industry powers-that-be who did not want music fans to publish opinions that they could not control from New York, London or Los Angeles. Despite the challenges and the pressure, U.S. Rocker blazed for ten years and was never co-opted.
These were Cleveland opinions, you see—earnest, unfiltered—straight from the rock ‘n roll capital, written by the hardcore believers who were at the clubs seeing the shows that mattered.
U.S. Rocker had something to say, and the volume was often turned up to eleven.
Nowadays, the closest thing U.S. Rocker compares to would be a boisterous subreddit—a passionate free-for-all discussion/argument between a swarm of devotees—printed in grimy black and white, nearly two decades before the Reddit platform was even conceived.
But how did the publication begin? How did it explode into existence? 1989 saw a huge upheaval in music and in culture, laying bare cultural rifts that continue to rumble and radiate heat today. It also saw a forging of friendships and relationships that have outlasted everything that’s happened since.
In this oral history, we examine the genesis of U.S. Rocker during its initial 1989-1993 period—the publication’s pioneering first five years.
Please note: developments from The Rocker’s equally notorious second five years, ’94-98 (which includes wild original cover art by Derek Hess, Dave Cintron, Jake Kelly, Stephen Kasner, Clay Parker, Timmie Boose and more; photos by Karen Novak; columns from Tony Erba, Steve Wainstead, Mike Kole, Damon Smith, Eden Gauteron, Dave McClelland and Ron Kretsch; cartoons by Melissa Sullivan and Mr. Squirrel Murphy; the new generation of Speak In Tongues-based DIY bands and artists; what seems like the entire staff of WRUW-FM writing reviews; amusing clashes with Scene Magazine and Alternative Press, etc. etc.) are not covered in this examination, so definitely come back for part deux (someday).
This particular oral history was put together to reconnect with the late ‘80s/early ‘90s period in pop culture when no one knew what was coming next (no spoiler alert: a shit ton of great music as it turned out). Grunge, Alternative, extreme metal, and hip hop were all on the ascent. U.S. Rocker jumped right in to recommend bands, genres and artists that are still making an impact today.
“I never get to tell these stories to too many people—a lot of people just don’t know,” co-founder Weller laughs. “And a lot of people are, like, what are you talking about? Maybe they think that I’m bullshitting, right? Because I get that all the time. When they see my resume, they look at me like—what? There’s no way you did all this shit. I’ll be honest with you, if I was somebody looking at my resume, I’d look at the person and go, damn, too!”
My thanks to all who lent their words and stories to this project. You rule.
Now, set the Wayback Machine for 1989 and enjoy the tale. Rock on!
IT BEGAN WITH A SLAM...
HEY ROCKERS!! At the moment, heavy metal and rock and roll is running rampant through Cleveland, Akron and Canton nightclubs and on radio stations. The only way to KEEP IT THIS WAY is to get off your lazy behind and PAY ATTENTION to what’s going on around you! Oh, you can say, “Yeah, this is cool, heavy metal is happenin’, where’s my Z-ROCK?” Let me whisper in your ear, “IF YA DON’T GET OUT AND SEE THE SHOWS, AND IF YA DON’T CALL AND BUG RADIO STATIONS, AND IF YA DON’T BUG THE NEWSPAPERS ABOUT YOUR BAND… THEN YOU DON’T SUPPORT HEAVY METAL!!” Don’t let life blow right over your head, and don’t think that just because you are in a rock band that you will automatically get exposed. You want signed? Let me hear you BBBBBBUUUUUUUUZZZZZZZZ.
–Brenda Mullen, March 1990
Trent Weller (U.S. Rocker co-founder & assistant editor, 1989-94): I went to high school in Twinsburg, Ohio. Graduated in 1986. In 1989, I worked for Concrete, a hard music marketing company out of New York City. We eventually broke the whole Pearl Jam / Seattle scene—and NYC bands like White Zombie and Spread Eagle—in the early 1990s. This was before that though.
At that time Concrete had “Concrete Corner” where we would go into all the independent record stores that wanted to participate, and set up these little displays. I would put out promotional stuff, like stickers and sign-ups for giveaways like CDs and concert tickets. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, you didn’t really see heavy music or underground music promotion on that huge kind of level. So I acquired a lot of music industry friendships.
I was also managing a band called Liquor Sweet in Akron.
There was this guy on the scene, Darrel Sprowls. You remember that comedian from back then—Jim Varney? You know, “Ernest”? Kind of a skinny hick guy? Well, that was Darrel. He was really tall, really skinny and really lurpy. He had good intentions, but he had no clue what he was doing. Somehow he was involved with SLAM Magazine—”State Line Area Music”—out of Wisconsin. Milwaukee-area. They were your basic local music publication and he wanted to bring them to Northeast Ohio. Help them expand. He wanted to profile Liquor Sweet. So I was helping Liquor Sweet get their promo pack together for SLAM and setting up photoshoots and all this stuff. Liquor Sweet needed lots of help.
Somebody mentioned Brenda Mullen to me, I don’t remember who. I think she came to one of Liquor Sweet’s shows, and I got her business card, and called her to set up a photoshoot. That’s how we met.
Liquor Sweet ended up getting all our promo stuff from Brenda and her company, Promosphere Unlimited. Brenda would create entire promo kits for bands—photos, t-shirts, tchotchkes, press kit. One-stop shop. And I thought that was pretty cool.
And so the two of us plus Darrel started working on SLAM Magazine together. We were writing and distributing it—all this stuff. I didn’t really know what the hell was going on, to be honest. I was doing a lot back then. I always had multiple things going on.
Pretty soon Brenda and I realized that, you know, we were doing an awful lot for somebody else. Like, all of a sudden, SLAM started being all our stories and all our reviews—we were writing everything for them!
Brenda one night was, like, ‘Why don’t we start our own fucking magazine?’ It was 4am and we’re driving home from a show or something. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’re distributing this guy’s product—except that it’s really our product because everything in it is by us.’
So we said, screw it! I had some money saved up and Brenda had some money too. And so we put it together and started U.S. Rocker in November 1989. The first issue that came out was December ‘89.
Martin F. Lance (U.S. Rocker staff writer, ’92-98): Brenda Mullen’s dad ran a railroad repair company, and I think he financed the printing of the paper. She said she made enough in ad sales to pay for it, but I always doubted that.
Trent Weller: We really only knew what we had learned from doing SLAM. Luckily, we went out to [SLAM-homebase in Janesville] Wisconsin twice and actually watched them do production. They cut and pasted the entire magazine from letter-sized sheets they printed on a laser printer. We were pretty horrified. Like, oh shit, what are we getting ourselves into here?
Anastasia Pantsios (Freelance writer + photographer; U.S. Rocker associate editor, columnist, staff photographer & ad sales, ’92-98): I used to see the magazine around. Frankly, it was really kind of cheesy in the early days. There were a lot of little publications back then during the hair metal years. A lot of girls who are fans of a band started these publications because they wanted to get into the shows. And all the articles are always written by two girls. And out-of-focus focus photos—page after page of these fuzzy, contrast-less horrible photos. Just dreadful. I mean, you go into a record store, and you might see six or eight of these publications a lot of times. And so when I saw U.S. Rocker… I was like, hmm.
Trent Weller: Brenda and I should have bought stock in Kinko’s because, every single month, we would go there and spend almost all night and day—literally 24 hours—until we were done. We always waited right up to the deadline because we wanted shit to be as current as possible, you know? So crunch time for us was double crunch time for anybody else because we were a monthly. Everything we packed into the issue had to be extra fresh so it held up in case Scene got it later.
Melissa Pollack (Case Western Reserve Art History student; WRUW 91.1 FM programmer, host of “Scratch Your Brain”; U.S. Rocker associate editor, ’90-92): I was kind of shocked and amazed, like, it had never occurred to me that somebody local would just take this on. I mean, there were zines everywhere. That was a thing at that time, but it was more on the West Coast. And they were always much more underground. They weren’t trying to be an actual, legit-looking paper. Whereas U.S. Rocker definitely was somewhere else. It was trying to be more like an actual alternative magazine. I remember, when I first saw it, it was interesting to me, but it also felt a little scatological. Like, there was a whole bunch of hair metal stuff littered around on the cover. And then every now and then there was like metal stuff collaged in there as well. So a really weird combo because, to me, those two felt like different worlds. Plus there was all this other stuff…
Martin F. Lance: You never know how many singer songwriters with home studios you have in your area until you start a magazine…
Trent Weller: We were trying to appease everyone at first because we didn’t realize that we were gonna have to start filtering through this shit. Not running every single thing that got sent to us, you know? We had no idea.
When Brenda and I were both really into a band, we did everything we could to help them out. We would help them get a show in Cleveland. For example, Brenda managed a band called Blue Steel. And we booked a show for them out in Milwaukee when we visited SLAM. When we played there we met some bands there, which then turned into us swapping shows with them. We did that for a lot of years—for tons of unsigned bands. Because we knew the bands had to start somewhere. And that was an outlet for them.
Also the good bands—the bands that we thought were really worth it—we would contact bands in the other cities that we thought would be a good match and connect them. So that started happening. It was really cool. So bands from Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Detroit—all these different areas—would open for a band that we paired them with and then they’d return the favor back in their city. Back and forth.
Then, Pantera—one of our favorites that we were always trying to help out—they were signed just five issues in! That was huge for U.S. Rocker. We had called that one. Encouraged it. That was a really big deal.
HEADING OUT TO THE HIGHWAY
With over thirty concerts to cover, I know some of you may be disappointed that you didn’t get reviewed, but I just haven’t mastered the art of being in ten places at the same time! Believe me, we were all breaking speed of light records to get somewhere somewhat on time!
–Brenda Mullen, September 1990
Trent Weller: For a long time we were back and forth, Brenda and I. I was in Cleveland, she was in Wooster, Ohio [a traditional Ohio small town out past Akron and Kent, home to Smuckers, Rubbermaid and the College of Wooster]. For a short while, I actually went to live in Wooster with her to try and make the production process easier. But one of us needed to be in Cleveland, and we both knew that. So I came back to Cleveland eventually.
Anastasia Pantsios: I’m saying I probably met Brenda first. And I’m guessing that it was probably at the Euclid Tavern. Because I was going to all the Derek Hess shows regularly and she was connected with some of those people. Yeah, she had crushes on a few of those guys. So I’m sure I saw her there. That’s probably when we started talking. And I think I probably got involved as she was getting more connected with those fans because I was really into that scene. I was following bands like Screwtractor and Craw and Chump and all those other bands that were playing down there.
Brenda was crazy, complicated, erratic, unpredictable, emotional—a little bit too open sometimes with feelings that she hadn’t totally processed. She was also a creative, energetic, and fun person. I loved all the time I spent with Brenda but she could be really, really frustrating, too, because she did things that were illogical and self destructive.
Trent Weller: Brenda loved cigarettes. She loved to smoke. I couldn’t say anything because I smoked weed. So she had her thing and I had mine. And we always got along. We were like brother and sister, you know what I mean? We were never involved beyond that. We were just like best friends. And it was a real special relationship. I hope other people get to experience that sometime.
Jon Epstein (U.S. Rocker associate editor, ’90-94): Brenda’s commitment and dedication to the music scene in and around Cleveland and getting the word out about it to the world in general—it was an obsession. It really was. I mean, I’ve never seen anybody work as hard. Brenda made getting that magazine out everything. She was doing the layout, going and picking up the issues at the printer and dropping them at the shops. She was 24/7, and it paid off ultimately for her.
Trent Weller: We put so many miles on her blue Celica. We would go to shows three or four times a week. Drove all the way from Wooster—and back—the same night, you know? Keeping each other awake and stuff. Talking non-stop. Going, ‘Okay, we’re gonna do a review of this show tonight.’ And, ‘I found this for the news column.’ On and on… We saw so many shows—just stellar shows, you know, we could not cover them all ourselves…
Trent and I do most of the work for this paper. We run the office, sell the ads, layout the paper, deliver the paper, EVERYTHING. There are others who help out with delivery, but most of our staff just writes and turns in stuff past the deadline. Late. That’s okay, I’m getting used to it…
–Brenda Mullen, January 1993
Melissa Pollack: I had a radio show—I had been on WRUW for four years. So I was kind of a known quantity around town. So at some point, I must have been backstage interviewing a band for my radio show, and somebody must have told Brenda who I was. I have to imagine she approached me because I don’t think it would have occurred to me to approach her. And she asked me if I was willing to write reviews. And I remember thinking, well, I’m already at these shows. I’m already writing, you know, what can it hurt to also write a review of it? So I told her, I didn’t mind a bit.
Martin F. Lance: When I first met Brenda and Trent they needed writers, so that must have been why they let me write. My first article was a review of artist Steve Selpal’s party with me critiquing the kind of meat being barbecued. Later on I reviewed a Sick April tape that never got commercially released.
Trent Weller: Pat Mitchell was another writer who was really important to the paper during this time. She’s such a great storyteller. Pat is in Memphis which meant all of a sudden, the magazine is popping up in Tennessee!
Dave Cackowski (U.S. Rocker photographer & staff writer, ’90-92): I was working with The Iron Planet, metal fanzine started by Craig Bobby [who became a major and important contributor to The Rocker] shooting concert photos for them. I was also working for Alternative Press and founder Mike Shea when it started as a fanzine before becoming a publication like Scene, who I also worked for as a writer and photographer. Trent asked me to be a writer and photographer for U.S. Rocker. I also helped to put the paper together several times at Brenda’s.
Trent Weller: We were working with Concrete Marketing in New York City. And they offered us direct communication with Pearl Jam, White Zombie, Pantera, Soundgarden, when it was really hard to get to those bands. And we got full access for contests and interviews—the whole deal.
Melissa Pollack: On my radio show “Scratch Your Brain,” I treated it like a crossover show. Because back then Hardcore and metal were like two different worlds that didn’t seem to think they had a lot in common, which just made no sense to me. So I tended to play mostly metal, but I did play a fair amount of Hardcore. And I would even throw in some rap at times where it was appropriate. I carried that curated approach over to U.S. Rocker.
Martin F. Lance: When I first started reviewing CDs I had to print out the review, then drive it over to Trent’s house, so he and Brenda could type it into their computer. Later on I figured out how to fax my reviews, but we could never get to the point of transferring files electronically…
Dave Cackowski: I had my own column called ‘Dave’s Dungeon.’ I would give updates on albums coming out, news about artists and bands, concert announcements—sometimes with photos. I covered concerts writing the reviews with photos I shot. I would also review new records.
Trent Weller: Promoting bands before they broke—that was our specialty. You know, we would grab a band that we thought was really cool and push them, like Pantera. In one year Pantera went from playing Flash Gordon’s to the Coliseum. In between they played a show at The Agora that was so crazy, I’ll never forget, the kids were moshing and pulled the PA into the pit and all the kids in the pit were holding it up as the stagehands struggled to get it set back up on stage.
Melissa Pollack: I remember going to Brenda’s place at some point. And I just remember, she was really great. She was like, ‘Look, you just tell me what you want to do, and I’m happy to let you do it.’ So that was great, because very often bands would come to town and I’d be, like, well, I already have a relationship with their label. They’ve already been asking me to interview them, you know? So we would sort of divvy things up. And I had basically told Brenda what my musical taste was, which was great, because she and Trent liked all the stuff I didn’t. So it worked out pretty well.
THE ROCKER TAKES FLIGHT
Since we work hard and spend lots to put this ‘zine out every month, and since it seems like we will never become multi-millionaires, I have come to a conclusion: Honesty, integrity, hard facts and humor is what you will get from reading U.S. Rocker. If you are looking for high-tech graphics, pompous, boring edited-down articles, or super-hype, don’t read this magazine, because you won’t find any of that here. I have no intention of becoming a corporate riddled, politically motivated news machine. What you see is what you get.
–Brenda Mullen, January 1992
Trent Weller: We took a big step forward when Jon Epstein came on as a writer and associate editor. I think he reached out to us, because he saw the magazine in Wooster somewhere, because Brenda lived in Wooster of course. Jon thought we were onto something cool, I guess. Or maybe he knew our printer or something. Either way we were just blessed to have him fall in our lap, that’s for sure. Because he took the bull by the horns right away. He was always awesome at what he did. He is a great writer. He’s really intelligent. He was teaching at the College of Wooster when he worked with us. And we would go out there and get assignments from him—like, interviews that he did and stuff—and pick them up and go to Kinko’s in Akron and stay up all night, transcribing everything and printing it out, and you know, doing the cut and paste thing. All night long. Oh, my God. It sucked. But having other people involved really lifted us up in a big way.
Jon Epstein: I was in graduate school at the time. I was at Kent State working on a doctorate in sociology. And I had been making some extra money freelancing as a music writer for a bunch of magazines around the country, and stumbled across the U.S. Rocker—I think at Quonset Hut, if I’m not mistaken—and thought that it was a really cool magazine. I called them up and asked Brenda if she could use a writer and she said, ‘Hell yeah!’ So I started writing reviews for her. And next thing I know, they’re moving me into an editorship position.
Trent Weller: Jon was a teacher down in Wooster at the college when he worked for us. And one of his students was David Bowie‘s son, Duncan Jones, aka Zowie Bowie. And so he got to meet David Bowie at Duncan’s graduation. I don’t know if he told you about that. Jon’s pretty humble about that shit. I remember Jon telling us, come on down!
Jon Epstein: And off we went, I think, because I was bringing some connections in the music industry with me that they didn’t have simply because I had come up from North Carolina. So I was going in a completely different circle of people when I moved back to Ohio. I was able to bring a whole new set of possible stories, etc. And I was also going to concerts and stuff pretty much every single night anyway. Research! [Laughs] ‘Cuz I actually wrote my dissertation on alternative music and its relationship with kids’ behaviors—which I made the argument was a bunch of bullshit. You know, kids will obviously gravitate towards music that they feel reflects their attitude. That makes sense, right? But it doesn’t mean that heavy metal is gonna turn you into a Satanist or whatever. That’s just ridiculous. And the fact that people were actually buying that B.S. in 1990 just blew my mind.
Music censorship was a topic we explored a lot in the early U.S. Rockers. Take Gwar as a prime example. U.S. Rocker discovered Gwar very early on. We loved Gwar. We found out about the band when they were charged with obscenity—I think it was somewhere in Georgia, I can’t remember now. And they had become aware of the work I was doing in sociology and called me to ask if I would be a witness for them in this trial. Which of course I said, sure! Because as far as I could tell, what we had here is nothing but theater, straight up. It’s badass man. That’s all that shit was. Sure they’ve got, like, crazy gigantic dicks and whatever. But it’s performance art, man, relax. What a great concert that put on too. I always stood near the back because I didn’t want to go home all green and red— covered in fake guts and blood, right?
But the reason we decided to go with Gwar is because they were seriously pushing that envelope at that time right there—between what is art and what is obscene. In my opinion, obscenity has always been in the eye of the beholder. You know, there’s no such thing as a dirty book. It’s just the way you’re reading it.
THE “TRENT TEST”
To walk away from one trend and turn back to another trend is stupid. ANY TREND IS STUPID! And the reason music becomes ‘trendy’ is (unfortunately) due to major media and labels creating it from one or two successful groups of a certain musical style, then labels sign a hundred bands JUST LIKE THE SUCCESSFUL ONE. And, gee, didn’t these A&R people preach to us at almost every single music seminar that they were “looking for different and unique,” from what is popular? Some back up that theory, and some don’t…
–Brenda Mullen, March 1993
Trent Weller: I had a real low tolerance for bad bands. So we would go to shows and because someone would be like, ‘Oh, they’re going to buy an ad in the magazine, so you got to at least check them out.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah. Ugh. Okay.’ So when a band was bad, Brenda would know it because I’d be like, on my way to the bar, or on my way outside to smoke a joint, or to go mingle with whoever or, you know, go chill in the office with the owner, or whatever, because I just couldn’t stand a bad band.
But Brenda was really good about giving everybody an equal opportunity. And even if they were bad, she wouldn’t say so until we were on our way back towards the middle of night driving. She was very cordial to everyone, whether she liked them or not. I think that’s another thing about Brenda—she was very genuine. She knew that these were artists, and she knew the work that’s put into that kind of thing, because she was an artist, too. She played keyboards and later she ended up doing the Airbagg project on the U.S. Rocker compilation CDs we put out, you know? She was fully involved in the music scene, and she knew how it worked so she appreciated every band. For her bands weren’t binary—good or bad. That was her special quality.
Jon Epstein: Brenda, she was probably the most cutting edge out of all of us. She was the one that really went for the extreme stuff. She started moving more and more into the really heavy Black Metal stuff. She really dug that. We never really were too hung up on genre, man, you know? We were all about metal and hard rock. But if there was something else out there that seemed to be relevant. We wrote about it too. Like the Connells—180º opposite from Cannibal Corpse!
“D.W. Neal” Filsinger (WRUW programmer, host of “Dare Waves”; U.S. Rocker staff writer, ’93-98): I think I met Brenda at one of the weekly Derek Hess Monday and Wednesday shows at the Euclid Tavern—probably something like Cop Shoot Cop or the Cows. Or maybe it was at the old Grog Shop, which was right in its beginning stages around that time. If we didn’t want to see the band at the Tavern, the Grog had no bands—just food—on those same nights, which was just a really good example of the cooperation between clubs that made the Cleveland scene special at that time. So we’d eat food and sit in the corner table there and sing along to the Misfits and whatever was on the jukebox. I was out of work—no more having to get up early.
I told Brenda, ‘I have a show on WRUW’ and she asked, ‘Do you want to write reviews? We’re trying to pull in different types of music. Maybe your tastes are a little less metal but that’s okay.’ The first review I did was The Fall. So it’s not metal or hard rock but it’s still great stuff. And pretty soon I was assigned a Nik Turner review. Then Season To Risk, Pain Teens… Brenda was obviously very particular about the direction she wanted the paper to go in.
Martin F. Lance: I once had to interview the Buzzcocks, which I was a big fan of. They were in New York doing phone interviews and I got to talk to singer Steve Diggle. I pretty much froze up and couldn’t think of much to say. Steve was gracious enough to just start talking about things that might be of interest. My interview ended up being slightly over one paragraph long called “12 Facts about the Buzzcocks.” So much for me doing interviews.
My motivations for publishing a rock newspaper are often misunderstood. All I ever wanted to do is help create a more flourishing local music scene, and hopefully pay the bills doing it. I think over the past three years we’ve helped out a lot of bands, locally and elsewhere. And the readers are definitely there. I’ve heard you roar. Those of you who have stayed with us since 1989… I’m amazed. And those of you just now coming on board, we appreciate your support. We hope to continue to publish a paper that offers a broad spectrum of new and established artists, as well as allowing lots of space for local artists…
–Brenda Mullen, January 1993
Jon Epstein: I really think that the music scene in Cleveland in the late ‘80s / early ‘90s was just an amazing thing, man.
Don Foose (singer, The Spudmonsters): I can’t remember what year but it had to be around the time that we played with Gwar at The Empire, I remember seeing the U.S. Rocker and I loved reading the album reviews and interviews in there. U.S. Rocker was sincere and dedicated to giving honest reviews, in-depth interviews and had a great sense of loyalty to the scene.
Trent Weller: A lot of people are like, ‘Why the fuck is the Rock Hall in Cleveland? Let me tell you why: I’ve toured to forty-some countries around the world. And there’s a lot of great audiences everywhere, believe me, but Clevelanders are really fucking diehard, especially when it comes to heavier music. They would sell out a venue so fast like the Agora. Clevelanders really, really dig that shit. Cleveland, kids are not afraid to get up on their chairs—on each other’s shoulders—and scream and let the bands know how cool they are, how much they love them.
Jon Epstein: The Cleveland music scene was and is big enough that it allows a lot of innovation, a lot of new kinds of things to kind of unfold naturally—and be supported. I’m thinking in particular about bands like Mushroomhead—who started out just as a yuck by a bunch of guys like U.S. Rocker cartoonist Jeff Hatrix [aka Jeffrey Nothing], going ‘Hey let’s put on wedding dresses and act like a bunch of idiots for an hour and see how that works?’ And look what happened from there? I mean, that fight about who came first Mushroomhead or Slipknot—is that still going on? ‘Cuz I can tell you the answer to that because I was there: it was Mushroomhead. Absolutely. I was there with Trent at their second show, man. God, that was funny as hell—when did that take place? It was like early ‘90s at the Phantasy. And I mean, it was just a hoot man. I called Brenda and said, ‘Hey, you got to come and see this. This stuff is nuts.’ You know? It was amazing, man. It was just so much fun.
Melissa Pollack: I especially remember the Cleveland scene being incredibly supportive of each other. There was a lot of crossover. And I’d like to think I had little to do with that. But I just remember that there were a lot of metal kids at Sick Of It All shows, and there were a lot of punk kids at the Agora metal shows, you know? It was just nice to see that. And my understanding is even after I left Cleveland, the scene became even more convergent as far as the local bands were concerned.
Trent Weller: We didn’t have a ton of competition at first. All the other startup publications and the established ones like Scene—the Free Times wasn’t even around yet—they were clueless. Alternative Press was made in Cleveland but obviously they were never competition. They were way ahead of everyone.
Don Foose: U.S. Rocker was very well-rounded and they covered all different genres of bands. Spudmonsters fans always read it religiously. Scene, U.S. Rocker and the Free Times were all incredibly important and had their own characteristics.
Peanuts (Freelance music writer extraordinaire; “The Host of the North Coast”; U.S. Rocker staff writer, ’92-98): Scene had become a piece of shit. U.S. Rocker was way more liberal about embracing new music.
Don Foose: I think U.S. Rocker had more of a professional fanzine vibe to it and I loved that. U.S. Rocker was 100% music. I found out about Pantera in U.S. Rocker. Also, I found out about a lot of local bands in there too.
Trent Weller: It was seeing magazines like Patrol and things that popped up here and there over the years kept us on our toes. So we started incorporating more gossip via the “Bar Spyz” column. Everyone always asked if it was written by me because I was bouncing around all these damn bands’ practice spots and going into every record label office, but we all took turns actually. And because there were no cell phones—or they were very, very rare—we had to actually go out and interact and get those scoops, get that gossip.
“D.W. Neal” Filsinger: I mean, the metal heads were probably confused by it because there was a lot that wasn’t metal in U.S. Rocker, despite people continuing to think of it as a “metal mag.” And yet during that time frame, when Grunge was happening, instead of focusing on Pearl Jam, Brenda turned to The Jesus Lizard and Craw and Tad and music that was more underground, but are now of course legendary cult favorites with strong followings. Like Melvins and Mudhoney. Brenda and U.S. Rocker got all those bands right from the start.
Jon Epstein: Yeah, that was another thing that we did with U.S. Rocker was we would take bands like Marillion or King’s X—bands that were really kind of fringy—and refuse to treat them that way. Put them on the cover, you know? Say, ‘What this band is doing is important—you need to hear these guys. You might not like it, and that’s fine. But you gotta listen…’
Melissa Pollack: Brenda and all these other strong women behind the scenes… You know, it was really encouraging to have those kinds of examples, especially in a scene where, as it was presented, it was incredibly masculine, and a lot of people would have assumed it was misogynistic, although it really wasn’t.
When Pantera and Suicidal Tendencies were a double bill at the Agora, I remember getting invited afterwards to go and hang out with everyone at their hotel room, because they were having an after party. So I went and it was at the Intercontinental at the Cleveland Clinic of all random hotels. So we were all hanging out in one of Suicidal’s rooms. And one of the members of that band, I can leave his name out of this, but he was really drunk. And he was starting to get kind of inappropriate with me. And I was just starting to feel a little uncomfortable. And I noticed without even having to say a word—without even having to say a thing—the other guys in the band and crew just came in and worked together to steer him off somewhere else. It ended up being good thanks to them. And I just really appreciated the fact that they had enough respect for the women who were part of the scene—the women they were inviting into what could potentially have been an ugly situation—and preventing it from being that.
The other thing I liked about the scene back then is I was really passionate about music. And I would never have called myself Straight Edge because that was very much a Hardcore thing that had a lot of connotations to it, but I didn’t do any drugs or drink. And that was totally accepted. There was no pressure. There was never any pressure to do anything at all. People would offer you stuff and I’d say, ‘No thanks,’ and they’d move on. It was very chill.
WIND OF CHANGE
Music is becoming more and more complex and dangerous, seemingly reflecting our society as a whole. As life gets more tedious and our brains work in hyper-mode, it seems the general public wants more beef for their buck. We’re not living in a fantasy world of la-dee-da anymore. With car jackings, drive-by shootings, murder chaos, L.A.’s burning, and Ice-T, shit is really hitting the fan now. And there is really no escaping the unrest.
–Brenda Mullen, March 1993
Trent Weller: It’s crazy—everything changed as far as the alternative thing pushing glam rock and all that stuff out of the way and coming through like a bulldozer. And it happened quickly. I’ll never forget the publicist from DGC—the David Geffen Company—calling, saying ‘We have this new band, come to the Empire and see the show.’ And so I went to the show, and I couldn’t even remember the band’s name. But there they were—Nirvana. I went to the Empire early because I knew everybody that worked there. I’d be at the bar drinking before they open the doors. And so one of the Nirvana roadies was, like, ‘Anybody got any weed?’ I’m like—uhh me. So they’re, like, come on! And so I went in the dressing room, and there’s Kurt and Krist. So I got to hang out with them. It was really cool. I was there for, like, an hour and a half. And I came out and a lot of doors just opened up, right? You know, a lot of people that knew me were like, dude, were you just in the dressing room!?
You could just feel the tension and the, ‘Oh my god, it’s about to explode!’ thing. The music was dangerous. You know what I mean? Nirvana got on stage and they didn’t care if they were bloody or what. They were gonna put on a show no matter what. Bands aren’t like that anymore. They’re not organic. I remember Krist Novoselic hitting his head on the microphone and bleeding, but he didn’t care. He never missed a beat, you know? And Kurt was screaming like he was being murdered or something. It was awesome. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came out and they broke on MTV and the rest is history. It was just a week after they were in Cleveland.
Jon Epstein: It was a very transitional period in heavy music for sure. I guess the story of Alternative and Grunge and all that has been told to death. But the thing that made Cleveland unique in all of that was that we really hung on to the more metal, hard rock-y end of that as opposed to the Grunge end of that. Cleveland is in a lot of ways very traditional in how the music scene approaches itself. I think the reason U.S. Rocker was as successful as it was is because we continued to carry that torch when other people were wandering off into these other strange places. While still at the same time taking bands that were coming out of like Seattle and singling out the stuff that was important.
I remember Trent and I playing Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger for the first time. Their manager Susan Silver gave us an advance copy. She was nervous to hear what we thought. I was, like, holy shit! This is a game changer, man! This is going to be the new heavy metal! And of course Trent and Brenda both agreed with me. So yeah, we’re not sure where this is heading. But these guys are in front of this pack. It wasn’t Nirvana. It was Soundgarden for sure. Although no no disrespect to Nirvana. Kurt Cobain was a great songwriter. No doubt about it. But Nirvana didn’t have the hard rock / Rust Belt metal-edge that Soundgarden brings—that Cleveland needs. You know, no matter what we’re doing, we got that. Maybe it’s that we’re just such an ingrained industrial Midwestern town, that we keep that roughness. That edge kind of defines everything that comes out of Cleveland.
HEY WAIT I GOT A NEW COMPLAINT
Hello I’m the notorious ‘ED’ that answers all your letters every month. My name is Brenda. I’m the one who insists on long-winded retorts to most of the silliness that passes my desk…
–Brenda Mullen, July 1991
Trent Weller: U.S. Rocker would get a lot of letters, and we printed every letter we got, for the most part they were real. Brenda loved to jump in. She could be a shit-stirrer.
And yeah, there was a lot of controversy because we didn’t have a filter. And back then there was no other place people could vent their opinions. There’s this one thread that went on for six months with David Dennis—the singer from Zaza. Anastasia had been managing them. Brenda and Anastasia were very, very close. And so we tried to help Zaza out but I don’t think Brenda loved them. I think she may have done a review of their demo or something and it wasn’t a very positive review and the singer might have taken it personally which has happens all the fucking time! My god—so many times.
Like Chris Connelly. That guy fucking hates me. Still. He wants to kick my ass every time he sees me. Just because of a U.S. Rocker review years ago where someone on the staff trashed him for acting like a dick. I didn’t even write it—I swear! [Laughs]
Anastasia Pantsios: U.S. Rocker happened right at an important time because you had the very sudden death of the hair metal and pop metal scenes. I think people forget how major that was, particularly in local Cleveland clubs. And then, boom, at the end of 1991 just it just disappeared faster than anything I’ve ever seen in my life. There’s never been a transition like that. You had that really intense transition, which I wrote about in my “Case Studies In Cluelessness” columns in U.S. Rocker. I managed Zaza from the end of 1989 to the end of ‘91. They were not really hair metal—they were pop metal. But David Dennis, the singer in the band, his tastes got narrower and narrower till he was literally listening to only Bon Jovi, Whitesnake and Journey—and his music reflected that. He was the one who said to me, ‘Oh, who’s Nirvana? I never heard of them. They don’t matter.’
Interestingly, I recently went down to Whiskey Island for a reggae show, and I saw two people wearing Nirvana shirts who weren’t born when Kurt Cobain died. So there was that attitude among the hair metal scene that nobody was going to remember Nirvana. Boy, were they wrong. [Laughs]
Sean Carnage (WRUW programmer; U.S. Rocker staff writer, art director, cartoonist, distribution & ad sales ’93-98; editor & publisher, ’97-98): In 1990, I was an 18-year-old freshman at Case Western Reserve University, coincidentally in the Art History department the same as Melissa Pollack, who was a senior. I had just gotten my first WRUW radio show—same station Melissa was on. And Neal Filsinger. Melissa drove me to two of my earliest Cleveland concerts. The first one was thrash band Die Kreuzen (who played for about two dozen people on a snowy winter night). Second was Smashing Pumpkins (played for about four people on an even crazier blizzard-y night). Both were at the Babylon-A-Go-Go. Both were free. The record companies were making a hard push to break any and every Grunge band. Those were the days!
Anastasia Pantsios: We already knew something was changing. And I think one of the reasons was I had a long-distance friend, who edited a Bruce Springsteen fanzine. He lived in Seattle. And he was the editor of [Seattle local newsweekly and Grunge champions] The Stranger. And he had put me on their mailing list in about 1987 or ‘88. So we’d been reading about bands like Soundgarden and Screaming Trees and Mudhoney. We knew about Sub Pop. And so when it broke, I said, there’s a lot behind this, this isn’t just this one band, it’s not going to be a fluke. And sure enough—it wasn’t! And so at that point, you saw all the grunge bands.
Sean Carnage: I got bored with Case Western Reserve pretty quickly. The bands I was seeing were much more inspiring. Soon enough I ditched college to major in beer drinking and pit dancing at the Euclid Tavern, which was very conveniently down at the corner.
For work, I had a MacIntosh and knew desktop publishing. You gotta remember this was very early for computers. Grown-ups thought I was a magician. I turned those skills initially into a gig at OfficeMax store #1 at the Golden Gate Plaza in Mayfield Heights. I had no car so I would take this massively long RTA bus ride from University Circle all the way up Mayfield Road to I-271. On the way, for entertainment, I had Chris Smith, guitarist from Integrity, who would a lot of times be riding the same bus. He would terrorize these old biddies by clearing his smoker’s lungs really loudly. Or he’d grossly devour a pentagram-topped leftover pizza from his job at Mamma Santa’s—“Mamma Satan’s?” [Laughs] Pretty entertaining at 8am after a night of partying.
The bus ride back to University Circle was dreadfully boring though. I started picking up all the reading material that I could at the Quonset Hut at Golden Gate to pass the time. That included U.S. Rocker, which at first seemed kind of ridiculous to a ‘90s young person like me. What with vestigial ‘80s hair metal popping out here and there from the pages. But surprise surprise, U.S. Rocker also covered new underground bands I loved like Craw, Clutch, Ed Hall… There were some interesting signs of life there. I started to look forward to the new issue each month.
Anastasia Pantsios: With the grunge bands, you also saw this really thriving underground scene that came with it. Because the guys in Nirvana were friends with people in bands like the Melvins and, as a result, labels looking for the next Seattle started signing them thinking, ‘We’re gonna have a big hit with Melvins!’ [Laughs] So across the country and the world, the smarter bands were being picked up because they were picking up everybody.
Unless they lived in Cleveland—nobody from Cleveland ever got picked up. But Cleveland bands shouldn’t feel too bad. The smart bands knew this was a fluke. Like the Poster Children, for instance. I remember them saying when they got signed, well, you know, ‘They’re gonna just drop us after one album. So let’s get as much as we can. Let’s get enough money from them to build a good studio and by event so that when they drop us, we can keep making our own records and touring.’ And that’s exactly what they did. They didn’t say, ‘Oh, we got this money, we’re gonna buy motorcycles and go to strip clubs.’ Like the hair metal bands. [Laughs]
USR—PIONEERS OF THE WWW
Around the offices of U.S. Rocker, we have been talking for months about putting The Rocker online, in order to reach a wider audience who may not necessarily hang out at places where the magazine is distributed. The three editors, Brenda, Trent and Jon, became convinced that having magazines available through computer bulletin boards would one day be the most important medium for print journalism…
–Jon Epstein, August 1992
Jon Epstein: I was getting a degree in sociology, right? And because sociology is statistics driven, there’s a lot of computers involved. So I was very aware of computer technologies at that point, but the thing that really got me was the way that The Grateful Dead had started to use internet stuff to connect with their fans. I’m not a Deadhead. But my graduate assistantship when I was working on my Masters was as an assistant for a person who was doing research on the Grateful Dead and spent an entire summer on tour with the Dead. In fact, I can tell you 100% conclusively that I don’t like the Grateful Dead. I’ve seen them 40 times—I think I’m pretty clear. But they sure did have it together with their fan base. And when I saw them moving onto the internet I realized that, you know, this was the beginning of something. I wasn’t exactly sure where it was going. But I knew it was going there. All it took was a little convincing with Trent. He’s just a good guy. He’s, like, all for whatever. ‘Yeah, let’s try it.’
So in 1992—before web browsers had even been invented—U.S. Rocker went online. We were pioneers. It was a bulletin board at first, done in DOS. It was just a bunch of green text with a prompt, you know, and people would just, it was kind of like the very early stages of phone texting, except you did it on your computer. And there was no graphics, no sound. But it allowed people to connect with other people from all over the world that had interests similar to theirs. They never would have met otherwise. Brenda was like, ‘Well, I don’t know—are people actually going to do this?’ Well, it turned out they did! U.S. Rocker went out all over the world as a result—to places that we never would have gotten to. And that changed everything, didn’t it?
There’s a couple of articles in that book Jim Clevo wrote [Networking in the Music Industry] that describes my thought patterns on how we got there so early with U.S. Rocker. The other one that got me involved with this was Marillion. They were super early on the internet, crowdsourcing funds for their tours before such a term even existed. And I realized that this is the future. I had no idea that it was going to do what it did to the music business, which was essentially kill it.
You know why? Because record companies were under the mistaken assumption that they were selling music, and they weren’t, they were selling media—there’s a difference. And once we could figure out how to get that music without having to buy the vinyl or the plastic, we did it. And out they went. Oops.
INTO THE VOID
Aach. I hate everything. I don’t listen to major FM radio stations. I despise EMPTV and do NOT watch it. I don’t read RIP. So how the hell do I know what’s going on? Who ever said that I know anything? One thing is for sure: we are what we eat. And as I get my grubby hands on more obscure music, the happier I become. For the most part, I like weird, ugly, noisy, droning, heavy, angry, reckless music. NO POSER ROCK GLAM METAL CORPORATE CRAP.
–Brenda Mullen, January 1993
Sean Carnage: Eventually U.S. Rocker inspired me to start my own magazine, Crack, where I profiled underground bands like Boredoms, Melvins, Ween, Borbetomagus and George Clinton who, high on cocaine or something, granted me a four-hour interview at the Agora where I had to keep turning the tape over and over hoping something he was jiving about would be preserved. I was pretty clueless about the whole process. I brought extra cassettes after that. [Laughs]
Since I could never afford to publish Crack it lived mainly on my computer and a few Xeroxed copies. One night at the Euclid Tavern, Anastasia introduced me to Brenda Mullen and I fanboyed out when I found out she published U.S. Rocker. We hit it off and we started talking until dawn on the phone after shows. We both loved to smoke, shoot the shit and we were both night owls.
I told Brenda about new bands I was into, that I thought could change the world—like Boulder. Brenda confessed that she hated the hair metal bands and wanted to cover edgier stuff. I was, like, ‘What’s stoppin’ ya, lady?’ She said she wanted to get these aggressive publicists begging for front covers off her back. I said, ‘You should get Euclid Tavern booker Derek Hess to do the cover—he’s up-and-coming and has killer style.’ She said ‘Good idea’ and told me that I should get involved with the magazine. Since Crack was going nowhere, I said, ‘Okay, when do we start?’ First thing Brenda invited me to was this anarchic, drunken free-for-all group review session called ‘Demo Demons’ at Anastasia’s apartment…
People think we are pretty damn poisonous when we write critical things about bands. What good does it do to say great things about a band that sucks? It doesn’t help the band and it certainly doesn’t help the consumer—you know, the one that actually buys the record. But then you run into things like personal ‘taste’ and that sort of thing. Well, we do pass around the recordings that we get and if nobody likes it, the verdict is in. Recently we developed a section of the paper called “Demo Demons” where a panel of writers review unsigned demos. From now on, that’s where all the unsigned materials will go. Imagine this: instead of one person’s opinion, you get four or five opinions all at once. What could be more accurate than that?
–Brenda Mullen, November 1993
Martin F. Lance: Brenda was inundated with demo tapes from people, and really didn’t want to spend a lot of time on any of them. The solution was something called Demo Demons. A bunch of us would get together and listen to these tapes and give short comments, often negative, which would end up in a small review alongside several other tapes. Anastasia came up with the now classic phrase “Competent but uninspired” which described most of the tapes being reviewed.
“D.W. Neal” Filsinger: Demo Demons is when people would always be sending us cassettes, or CD EPs. And they say, ‘Hey, listen to us,’ ‘Hey, write about us.’ Or, ‘Hey, we’re playing.’ And we’d listen to them. And nine times out of ten they were just so amateurish—we would sit around drinking beers and just, like, completely abuse these bands. I mean, every now and then you’ll be, like, Oh my gosh, this sounds really good.
You know, a classic line that so many bands used—to supposedly show they were eclectic—was: ‘We listen to everything from Metallica to Mozart.’ And we’d be cringing when we read that ‘cuz then we listen, it would be just so derivative of some Grunge band or some metal band. It was like…oh geez. Get a clue.
HARD TO BELIEVE IT EVER HAPPENED
Perhaps I was out of line, yelling about ‘typical musicians.’ I hope I pissed someone off. Get mad, then maybe you’ll do something! We took a risk. We’ve slid down that hill backwards many times. We’ve stepped on that disgusting piece of cold meat in the middle of the night. Am I crazy? You bet. So are a lot of other people who went to bat for this town. Is it worth it? Good question. For me, I’d have to say yes, but in a very twisted way. Every experience I’ve had with this paper in the past two years has opened my mind to unbelievable things. Not just music, but life…
–Brenda Mullen, January 1992
Trent Weller: Cleveland in general and U.S. Rocker in particular were good places to be at that time. You could never pull it off these days at all. People aren’t looking at magazines—or even blogs or websites anymore. It’s all gone freeform. Social media. And it’s like… I look back now and I’m, like, I was really blessed to live in a very special time with music.
Anastasia Pantsios: U.S. Rocker could never happen today. The delivery of music and the discovery of music has changed so much in the last twenty years when file sharing and then streaming made it possible for both people to listen to more things and for artists to get their music out there on their own. And there’s been some good and bad in that. I don’t know how people serve as gatekeepers anymore. I mean, I see Pitchfork. And that’s almost like a negative to me when Pitchfork loves something. Or on Spotify or Apple Music when you see all these, you know, ‘Recommended if you like…’ prompts. I don’t like that either, because it really steers you to listening to more of what sounds exactly like what you’ve listened to before. So it’s kind of like the opposite of what U.S. Rocker was doing.
Jon Epstein: One of the things about Trent and Brenda that was really kind of amazing was that there was a tremendous amount of trust, right? So if Brenda or Trent came to an editorial meeting with an idea—even if the other two of us are going, well, that’s fucking weird, man—we still believed in them and let them run with it. We were very open to trying new things. And in my case, Brenda and Trent got to the point where they knew that if I got interested in something, that there must have been something to it. So they gave me pretty much free rein to do whatever I wanted to do.
Trent Weller: We had a lot of people that believed in us. We were blessed. Because a lot of people in our position on that underground level wouldn’t—didn’t—get the love that we did. I mean, I can talk to you for days, tell stories of things we went through with all the venues like the Agora—Johan is no longer here, you know—and also Michelle with the Phantasy. Kathy at the Grog Shop, Geo at Flash’s. Early on, Chris Andrews from Chris’ Warped Records was super helpful. Chain Link Addiction. All the underground people. The corporate powers that be like the Belkins, even though I ended up working for them later, you know, they weren’t supportive at that time. I think a lot of them felt bad later on, because they knew that I ended up being successful in the business and ended up running into me a lot as a tour manager and otherwise. Another big supporter was Tony Ciulla, he was managing Marilyn Manson, and Rob Zombie and everybody else—all these people were so good to us.
Sean Carnage: Brenda and Trent are catalysts that propelled my life into an entirely different realm from what I expected or intended. I got more involved in U.S. Rocker as Trent was starting to be really successful with Foundations Forum and all these bands he was managing and stuff. Brenda needed help. Boots on the ground. The paper had to get made! Soon I was assisting during production weekend in Wooster—which turned into production week as Brenda and I got more ambitious. I was just a kid, absorbing everything. The sheer amount of brand new indie label CDs stacked in Brenda’s basement, ready to be listened to for the first time… I mean, she had stuff even the record stores wouldn’t get for months to come. It was like being a kid in a candy store. I was hooked.
“D.W. Neal” Filsinger: I still have tons of CDs with white stickers on them and Brenda’s writing that says you know, ‘Neal review this by XX date.’ I don’t want to get rid of those, ever! Some of them because they’re really good CDs but also because they take me back to that super fun era of reviewing music and going to concerts nonstop. I mean the big weeklies here in Cleveland—they don’t even do music reviews anymore.
BRENDA MULLEN, RIP
There is no glamour being an editor. It’s hard work, piled a mile high. Going to concerts and getting tapes in the mail is only a small reward. Getting backstage passes is fun, but it isn’t my priority in life. My happiness comes from feedback. When people write, call or speak to me about something new they read in U.S. Rocker, I know I’ve done something.
–Brenda Mullen, December 1990
Martin F. Lance: I was sorry to hear of Brenda’s passing. I hadn’t heard from or about her in years. To her credit she did lay the groundwork for what became a pretty impressive magazine.
Trent Weller: Yeah, back when we were on that little Macintosh, man, in her smoky little apartment busting that shit out… Those were good times. The more I think about this, I get really bummed because I can’t share these memories with Brenda anymore.
Dave Cackowski: Brenda was an innovator who seemed to be more into alternative and punk music than other styles. I was sad to hear she had passed and frankly dismayed that her family kept her death silent from those of us that were a part of the publication that she and Trent created. I will miss her. She was passionate about music.
“D.W. Neal” Filsinger: Brenda did an okay job. I mean, it was a big job for one person. And she did a pretty good job of pulling it together. And I was interfacing with her for the reviews and the records. So that was cool. You know, musically, she was someone who was trying to expand beyond metal. And I always liked that. Because for some metal heads it’s just metal and nothing else. No other type of rock or music. Brenda Mullen had big ears, as we say.
Trent Weller: Brenda and I were talking like a month or two before she passed. And we were talking about getting together. And we were really looking forward to seeing each other and we had things for each other, back from when we were doing the magazine together. She had so many of my interviews and she was going to give all these tapes to me and it was gonna be really cool. I was so excited about it. I didn’t hear from her through the holidays, so I sent her a message on Facebook. And it was like, oh, she died four months ago. I was in shock. Bugging out. Never gonna see each other again.
Sean Carnage: Besides music, Brenda was hardcore into esoteric spirituality. Signs and symbols. Astral projection. I don’t know that I’m a believer, but I do know that by writing all this stuff down in U.S. Rocker—all the important memories and feelings about the art and music we loved—Brenda created something that’s transcendent. It’s not easy to do that. Even in publishing circles, it’s rare that any one individual gets to express themselves in such an unfiltered way over such a long period of time in print. Her writing holds up too. Brenda’s achieved a kind of immortality by being a doer and a prime mover—by being passionate and engaged.
THE LEGACY OF U.S. ROCKER‘S FIRST FIVE YEARS
The first couple of years with U.S. Rocker, I was misguided by the idea that everyone in the major media could pull together and support the area’s local music. While we have made some waves within certain circles of the media, I doubt if it will ever be the utopian existence that I dreamed of. What I did discover is that we CAN make an impact without the help of certain powerful people. They can continue to ignore us (or better yet, slag us). We pulled off some great things in 1993 that was more than I could have hoped for. And college radio has been a big help too. Hey, grassroots rule. The biggest energy boost I get is when someone comes up to me and says, “You guys kick ass. It sure would be boring around here without you.” Thanks.
–Brenda Mullen, November 1993
Trent Weller: I think there was definitely a connection between everyone that we ever pulled in. We really loved what we did, and loved music—still do—and wanted to help bring it to the masses. We were young, we were full-energy—and we were at all the greatest shows.
Don Foose: U.S. Rocker covered the Spudmonsters all the time and helped build our following by writing about us. During that time we were drawing around 1,000 people when we would play out and I know that all the local magazines were very instrumental in that. Trent and Brenda did so much to help bands become noticed and helped create the “buzz” for so many. They cemented their legacy in every issue they ever released.
Melissa Pollack: It was an incredible time where hard work paid off. Brenda started a magazine from nothing. I started a radio show just out of wanting to do an extra curricular. If you were willing to put the time in, and you were passionate about it, you totally could build something from nothing.
Peanuts: A lot of people should remember the paper fondly…
Jon Epstein: The fact that you’re talking to me now about a free magazine that started over thirty years ago… there’s something about print journalism in the way that communities grow and evolve organically around things like that. U.S. Rocker was so important. We just seem to have forgotten about that. I think we stood the test of time in that way, because we really did do it. We were fans. This music meant something to all of us. It wasn’t just a way to make some damn money, you know? It was about pointing people in new directions, to maintain a scene that the three of us loved but that was also vital to the city of Cleveland itself—it extended far beyond us and our rock and roll buddies. It was the entire Cleveland community. I’m having that same fight now in Winston-Salem, North Carolina where I live now. Trying to get the powers-that-be to understand that having a vibrant local music scene is critical to having a city that young people—that any people—truly want to live in.
Sean Carnage: I had such a blast putting these first fifty issues online. It was a spiritual recharge I was not expecting. Every time I sat down at the computer or got a message from Trent it was like a new clue in the coolest detective story ever. Certainly one with the best soundtrack. Of course the final fifty issues, the ones that I was most involved with—I’m super proud of those still. But after reconnecting with the U.S. Rocker pioneers, now I’m way more into the early years—before I was on staff. Back when I was reading on the Mayfield Road RTA bus. The early issues still radiate fun and discovery. It feels like anything could happen.
“D.W. Neal” Filsinger: Our scene has a legacy. Definitely. Cleveland was the biggest city between Chicago and New York for a lot of touring bands. And it was bigger than either of those cities for a lot of those bands in terms of impact and the size and enthusiasm of their fandom. U.S. Rocker is a big part of that. It was so much fun. I never felt so immersed in a happening scene in my life as during those days. Now, you know, maybe now there’s a scene in Cleveland and maybe the 20-year-olds are doing it now on the indie scene, but I don’t know if there’s anything that compares to the sprawling scene U.S. Rocker cultivated.
Melissa Pollack: The early U.S. Rocker-era was a uniquely fantastic time with what I thought were really loyal fan bases, although it’s kind of hard to say, because some of the bands are struggling now, and some are not. But it’s certainly an era where we were passionate about live music. I think a lot of the younger kids are more than happy to watch a concert on a screen, and don’t have a clue what they’re missing—which I think is tragic. So it’ll be interesting to see what the history of music is going forward, because it seems to be pretty much blockbusters, like people think they need to go see Beyoncé. But are they willing to shell out twenty bucks to go see a little local band that doesn’t have a production like that? I don’t know how much that’s going on these days at the college level, I don’t even know if it’s related to college, although it certainly was in our generation.
I do feel like there’s some, some, I guess you could call it emotional trauma that was experienced from back then—some lasting negative repercussions on some of the bands’ careers. I think it’s really sad. For example, if you look back on most of those Grunge-era bands, all the good singers are gone. They’re all gone. And I think for everyone, it’s a slightly different story. But for some of them I think, unfortunately, they were looking back at their heroes from the ‘60s and ‘70s. And for some reason felt like they kind of had to emulate that. And then once they were were addicted, it was too late. There’s just no turning back from that. Some of them—people like Chris Cornell—it’s like, depression is a tricky, tricky thing. Because unless you’ve experienced it, you can’t understand how it’s possible that somebody so supposedly successful and so loved could have this issue, but it’s a true chemical imbalance. I could care less whether you’re a gazillionaire or you’re popular, or you’re destitute.
Trent Weller: I think that we helped a lot of people out. I think a lot of people that were really green came in and learned a lot from us and from the magazine, and what it represented. And you know, I don’t regret too many things from that time. We had a lot of people that were willing to help us out.
Anastasia Pantsios: I certainly think that there are a lot of relationships that began because of U.S. Rocker and U.S. Rocker people that continue today. That’s the legacy. And the artists like Derek Hess, although Derek’s success was really a hallmark of U.S. Rocker’s second five years. Multiply everything that happened in the first five years because the middle and second half of the decade were even more hectic.
Martin F. Lance: Google asks my wife to review restaurants that we eat at. I always tell her if she’s going to review something she should at least get a free CD or concert ticket like I did.