[RIFFS OF LIFE] If anyone ever wanted to do an indie-rock remake of It's a Wonderful Life, Sweet Apple singer John Petkovic has a few casting suggestions: himself as George Bailey and his bandmates J. Mascis and Dave Sweetapple as his guardian angels. As Petkovic describes it, his two old friends pulled him from the brink of self-destruction in 2007. Back then, he had just watched his mother succumb, painfully, to bladder cancer. Sleeping on her literal deathbed for her final three months, he began to suffer from insomnia. If that weren't bad enough, an accident to his hand left him unable to do what he loves most: play guitar.
"On every level, I was just totally fucked up in the head," Petkovic says via telephone. Feeling his life coming apart, he got in his car and headed east, away from his hometown of Cleveland, with no destination in mind. "My life is always chaotic," he says, "but this was like an episode of Cops meets Dostoyevsky."
Hundreds of miles later, Petkovic got a call from Dave Sweetapple, who invited Petkovic to his home in Vermont. Mascis, who had played with both guys in different projects while on hiatus from fronting Dinosaur Jr., drove up from Amherst, Mass., and suggested they all record an album together. In a span of three weeks, Petkovic wrote over 20 songs—many of them directly addressing the death of his mom and the subsequent tailspin he'd fallen into. Although it was precipitated by tragedy, the resulting Love and Desperation—featuring Petkovic on vocals, Sweetapple on bass, guitarist Tim Parnin and Mascis on drums (he also contributes a few of his trademark squalling guitar solos)—is hardly a downer, full of the strutting classic rock riffage and glammy bellowing of Petkovic and Parnin's long-running cult act Cobra Verde. And even though the track list includes titles like "Crawling Over Bodies" and "Hold Me, I'm Dying," the lyrics are marked with a strain of gallows humor crucial to Petkovic's coping process.
"I felt helpless," he says, "but not humorless."
With members spread out across the country, no one in the group intended Sweet Apple (indeed named in homage to its bassist) to become an actual touring band. Then it accepted a gig at last year's South By Southwest. With no practice, the band convened in Austin, and Petkovic describes the show as being "like throwing a cat up in the air and hoping it lands on its feet." Dates opening for Guided By Voices (of which Petkovic was briefly a member) followed, as did its current tour supporting stoner rockers Dead Meadow. All of a sudden, a band that started as a way of keeping its frontman from leaping off any proverbial (or actual) bridges gained an air of legitimacy. But for the frontman, the loose, non-aspirational nature of the band is what's made it worth continuing on as something other than just an outlet for his grief.
"The whole post-Nirvana era is bands wanting to be successful but trying to appear reluctant about it," he says. "With this band, there's no reluctance, because there's no plan."
Sweet Apple plays Doug Fir, with Dead Meadow, on Wednesday, Jan. 12. 9 pm. $12 advance, $14 day of show. 21+.