The It Men

The It Men

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The history of rock n’ roll might be one of those paths leading to hell -- a famous hell, where the Devil has the best tunes -- and where the paving stones are seldom built from good intentions. Rock n’ roll is show biz. Its lovers come for the big lights, and big names. It’s full of the deluded, the egomaniacal, the suckers and the stubborn. But can rock n’ roll be based purely on friendship? That doesn‘t count in the big time, you say. But if rock n’ roll is today’s folk music, then folk music is whatever folks want it to be, right? And if people want it to be about friendship, then let it be so. For friendship is greater than those rock n’ roll daydreams and knickknacks. The musical moments we all share as fans is what really makes this music come to life.

The It*Men are music lovers, but also friends. That makes this band very important to them. And when one of these friends is terminally ill, that makes the band even more important to not just the It*Men themselves, but to their friends, family, and other loved ones. But why the hell should you care? You’ve probably never met these guys.

Friendship is what brought the It*Men into being. At It*Men lead guitarist Matt Cassidy’s wedding bash, his college pal Ken Janssen sang along to a Pulp tune during karaoke. Ken couldn’t sing, but was smart, funny, and could go from obnoxious to charming (and back again) in the time it takes to down a shot.

Matt had plenty of musical ideas that he wasn’t using in his main group, the psych-rock band New Planet Trampoline. Other wedding attendees, such as Ben Gmetro, leader of “cosmic cowboy” band The Dreadful Yawns was in the same situation. These tunes were three or four-chord jams, big on volume but not terribly, let’s say, “sophistication”. Perhaps what these caveman chords needed was a character like Ken to beef them up while playing the ham. So Ben and Matt grabbed Ken, their friends/bandmates Charlie Druesedow and Dave Molnar (drums and bass, respectively), and created the It*Men. They also made sure to grab a lot of alcohol.

Unlike New Planet Trampoline and The Dreadful Yawns, who were heavily engaged in the business of writing, recording, and touring, the It*Men were supposed to be a boozy poker-night activity where the bar was low but the beers were full. So there were no real worries when Ken clammed up during a run-through of the It*Men’s first tune, “Baby I’m Your Man”. During the first It*Men show, so terrified was Ken that he drunkenly lay in the parking lot of the Beachland Ballroom as the band played on stage. Again, these antics were laughed off.

After a few gigs, Ken worked with his stage fright. He’d get scared, then get wasted, and then hit the stage like some Jack Black-ified maniac. Ken got both band and crowd fired up. Microphones got broken, beer bottles flew through the air, ceiling tiles fell, costumes were put on, and pants came off (not infrequently, it seemed). High art it wasn’t, but it made for some wild and goddamn glorious parties.

But how would the It*Men, now one of THE must-see party rock bands in Cleveland, figure out a way to take their drunken antics into the recording studio? They already had a concept album planned out. Taking a cue from This Is Spinal Tap, they created a phony, tongue-in-cheek biography. This whale tale claimed the It*Men were a hit band who, after hitting their zenith in the mid-60s and late70s, dissolved into obscurity. Their album -- entitled Greatest Its -- would be a “greatest hits” album drawn from a totally fake career spanning over several years. This gave the It*Men the leeway to make a universal rock album full of stylistic zigs and zags.

Four days and countless beers later, the It*Men finished their debut. Greatest Its starts with a sizzle as “Tell You The Truth” pan-fries an AC/DC intro while searing in some smart-assery: “How can you fuck/when you’re fucked in the head/How can you live/Rock n’ roll is dead”. We then move on to a noisy Motor City-inspired flirtation, “Come And Get Some”, collide with some out-and-out smut with “That’s Not The Way I Heard It”, get downright stupidly brilliant with “Doing Drugs For You” and headlong into a ride on the trippy “Death Machine”. Ken screams, bellows, gargles, coughs, while the rest of the It*Men take every classic garage rock cliché and smush them like cigarette butts into crushed beer cans.

The It*Men released Greatest Its, commencing a marathon of shenanigans at Cleveland’s rock bars. Some nights, the band brilliantly held their own while Ken doled out laughs. Other nights, the It*Men just staggered drunkenly. Whatever the case, Clevelanders just lapped it up until one day the well ran dry. Friendships were fraying because some It*Men wanted to concentrate on their original projects; others were just done being part of a high-voltage comedy sketch where the punch line was “…I guess you just had to be there.”

Through the passage of time, rough spots between the band members were smoothed over. When Ken was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) 10 years after the demise of the It*Men, the deep friendship that brought the band into being flourished once again. While medical bills were stacking up, Ken was looking for something to get his mind off the illness that was consuming him. The solution was to reform the band, record new tunes for release, and play one final gig, all of which would go to defray Ken’s costs, boost his spirits, and solidify the bond between the members of the It*Men. In June of 2013, the It*Men, their friends, and a who’s who of Cleveland rock vocalists performed Greatest Its in its entirety, along with new songs like the comedic “Bowie Dick Test”. The night turned into a loud and wild celebration of life and love of rock n’ roll that no one who attended will ever forget.

So it’s no surprise that a real spirit of fun resides in the grooves of Greatest Its. You’d think a record this good would be a big deal in the rock n’ roll marketplace. One listen to Greatest Its, and it should be your own personal big deal, especially if you love AC/DC, The Stooges, The MC5, and any number of long-gone garage band. But more importantly, this record is a big deal to the It*Men. Greatest Its, however, is a big deal among the It*Men, whose joy at making music together gives a real, visceral, and honest OOMPH to the tunes you’ll find on this record. Laugh with them, rock with them, and as soon as you do, share this record with your own fellow rock n’ roll lovers.

-Edward Ángel Sotelo - July 2013
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The It* Men* Greatest Its (Comp) Davenport, Stow House Records US 2013 Sell This Version