“Trying to convey an acid trip with mere words”: Speak In Tongues lives again in a wild new book

Sometimes you can tell a book is going to rock with just a quick glance at the back cover blurb:

Speak In Tongues was a freewheeling, community-run underground music venue in Cleveland, Ohio that operated on a do-it-yourself basis throughout the late 1990s. The venue fostered a flourishing creative culture, where you could enjoy a puppet show from a spray-painted couch or meet other punks to start a band or a movement, but was also smoothly run with a great sound system and the best curation of music that you could hear in the city during its tenure.

The vibe comes on strong with Eric Sandy’s brand new Speak In Tongues: An Oral History of Cleveland’s Infamous DIY Punk Venue (with photos by Ken Blaze and more) published by Microcosm Publishing.

I mean, damn, this one is red hot. And I’m not just saying that because the music from this era is classic (if you don’t believe me, click here for some Noise Rock Nuggets) or that I was lucky enough to be there (still got the scars to prove it).

The dust jacket sums things up better than I ever could as to why you should be foaming at the mouth, right now, in anticipation of reading this true life, uncensored punk rock tale:

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm Publishing

Speak In Tongues exterior on a typical show night. Photo:  Ken Blaze.

On any given night, you could go see hardcore punk, experimental jazz, or thrash shows where fireworks were set off inside the building. Traveling bands regularly booked shows there, including ones that went on to greater fame, like Modest Mouse, Avail, Lifter Puller, Jimmy Eat World, Alkaline Trio, Milemarker, and J Church.

Venue operators, and later a management collective, contended with police surveillance, skinheads with knives, an exploding oil drum full of raw meat, a flaming car, and a different number of riots depending on who you ask.

There may not have been a bar, but a healthy BYOB policy ensures that everyone’s memory is different, resulting in an entertaining story of a place that truly was what you made it, the source of lifelong friendships and endless lore. This comprehensive oral history tells a story that is greater than the sum of each person’s recollections, forming a picture of a unique, weird, special place that deeply informed the next twenty years of Cleveland’s underground culture.

Speak In Tongues: An Oral History is perhaps the most unhinged music scene collective memoire yet published. It’s also, for the ’90s/Y2K underground audience especially, the most creativity- and life-affirming.

Moreover, this is a significant book not just for rockers and artists but also for students of Ohio and Rust Belt history.

Respected journalist—and first-time author—Eric Sandy has nailed it here. Photographer Ken Blaze’s photos make the good ol’ days come alive in vivid color and stark black & white. Microcosm Publishing has wrapped things in a deluxe package (mmm… why is the smell of premium printing so delicious?). And the cast of characters spieling their versions of the fractal Speak In Tongues tale is epic, to say the least.

Heck, I even got a few words and photos in there too.

There are reasons why we all spent so much time bashing our brains and our eardrums with gnarly Noise Rock in SIT’s intense punk dump hellhole, and all are laid bare within the pages.

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm Publishing

9 Shocks Terror was a favorite at Speak In Tongues. Photo: Ken Blaze.

I was lucky enough to get some time with author Eric Sandy and Microcosm publisher Joe Biel, himself a Speak In Tongues veteran whose life took some new turns after his association with this classic Lorain Avenue joint.

I know that projects like this are the opposite of easy. How–and why—did Eric and Joe pull it all together? They explain it all right here:

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm Publishing

Oral history author Eric Sandy.

Let’s get the Jane Scott questions out of the way first. How old are you, Eric, and where did you grow up? 
Eric Sandy: I’m 33, and I grew up in Rocky River, Ohio, just west of Cleveland.

Where do you live now?
Eric: These days I live in Cuyahoga Falls, near Akron, with my wife, our one-month-old daughter and our two dogs.

What was your first concert?
Eric: Lollapalooza 2003, when it was a tour and still very much a Jane’s Addiction-sanctioned event.

Read about infamous Cleveland-area Lollapalooza’s in U.S. Rocker

Ah—the ‘other’ Jane. Very nice! And we’ve got Microcosm publisher Joe Biel here as well. Same questions to you, sir: how old are you and where did you grow up?
Joe: I’m 45 and I grew up on the East Side of Cleveland. Like most of my block, my dad worked in a steel mill until he had a stroke in 1983. The rest of my block got laid off a few years later and offered their jobs back at lower wages. Our family totally rode the social safety net until I moved out. The ’80s were rough.

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm PublishingEric, where did the idea come from for the Speak In Tongues piece that you wrote—titled “Whatever Happened, Happened”— that ran in Scene in 2016?
Eric: I wanted to do an oral history of something in the Cleveland area. The idea I pitched at Scene was much more pedestrian, and it’s probably best that it was shot down. My editor, Vince Grzegorek, suggested Speak In Tongues might be an ideal subject for the form. I think he was right. I dug in on the interview process right away. Matthew T., as I recall, was the first person I met. Outside of vague references I’d picked up on over the years, I really didn’t know much about Speak In Tongues at all. Those early interviews were basically single-question, blank-canvas conversations: So, like, what happened at this place?

READ “Whatever Happened, Happened”—the shorter-form piece which inspired the book

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm Publishing

Microcosm publisher Joe Biel got his start behind the bar at Speak In Tongues, doing what he loves: making and distributing zines and publications. 930 books later, he’s still doing it!

Joe, you are a Speak In Tongues alum. How did you find your way there back in the 1990s?
Joe: I was an undiagnosed autistic kid who was pretty socially awkward. I liked Metallica and early Soul Asylum, which made things like Gang Green and Screeching Weasel palatable. I tried to get into Integrity but it just seemed so dumb. But I was curious and before long, I was biking to the record store and picked up a J Church 7″, which was much more think-y and my speed.

J Church was, coincidentally, playing at Speak in Tongues in 1994. I thought the place was way cooler than anywhere else I’d seen shows.

The condition of the place didn’t strike me as much as the spirit. I saw the cast of Speak at shows around town and thought they were more fun than most. I had gotten a copy of Jake Kelly’s Summer at a disappointing Smoking Popes show at the Euclid Tavern that same year and thought it was awesome. I met Beckett Warren [later an infamous Speak In Tongues performer in Begit N Frenz and Whales, among other groups] five minutes later.

Check out all the Beckett-related posts in the archive

I went to more shows at Speak, which were always mind expanding. When kids my age moved in I was like “This is the best thing ever! We rule the world!”

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm Publishing

If you haven’t checked out the official SIT archive… what are you waiting for?

What was your contribution to SIT back in the day?
Joe: Well, I found out about shows rather circuitously and often after the fact. So I took it upon myself to copy down the calendar and make flyers…without even asking anyone or telling anyone that I was doing this. Mind you, I’m autistic so things make sense to me but are often awkward in hindsight.

Spend some time at the amazing Speak In Tongues poster archive

Somehow [S.I.T. performer and resident] Bob Bertalan found out about this and responded “Now you get in for free to everything!”

READ: An oral history of Junking Theory, one of 1999’s greatest bands, featuring Bobby Bertalan

Then I graduated to asking if I could book a show and was merely instructed to write it on that day on the calendar. Then I kept doing that and the unofficial/official systems just bore out. When I booked shows elsewhere, I had to fork over $200 and deal with all this bullshit. When I booked shows at Speak, we never talked about money, it had better sound, and someone would thrust cash at me to pay the bands at the end of the night.

Flash forward: when did you became aware that Eric was writing about the venue for Scene? Did you know him previously?
Joe: I lit up when an ex sent a link to Eric’s article for Scene, “Whatever Happened, Happened.”

What kind of feedback did you get from Scene readers, Eric?
Eric: The reaction was generally good, and maybe even slightly bemused in a fun way. Why, out of the blue like this, was Scene running such a long feature on this place that they’d largely ignored when it was around? But my sense was that people appreciated having something on paper, some nod to the otherwise buried history of a special time and place. If you look around Cleveland media, there’s almost no trace of Speak In Tongues. I gather that some of the stakeholders like it that way, but as a local journalist who did a lot of music and culture writing at the time, I felt it was important to excavate something from that era and look at it with present-day eyes, to see how this place had changed the city. Tagging in Ken Blaze, with his photography, was integral to the success of that piece, too, as it is now with the book.

Visit photographer & author Ken Blaze’s site

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm Publishing

Matt Kuchna relaxes on the roof, high above Lorain Ave. and the hubbub inside Speak In Tongues. Photo: Ken Blaze.

What was your reaction when the original piece came out?
Joe: I was overjoyed. This was someone taking our childhood thing seriously—a thing that is impossible to explain, even with the combination of words and photography. And he was doing a remarkably good job of capturing the place! I was shocked and thrilled! You know, it’s like when something is special to you; it’s sometimes hard to see that it was special to thousands of other people too.

Did you feel that there was more story to tell at that time?
Eric: I did, mostly because I knew there were, what, hundreds if not potentially thousands of people who knew the place and who I’d missed in my interviews. We acknowledged that in the intro to the Scene feature. That was inevitable, though. How do you adequately tell the story of a seven-year run of art and performance? So much of the Speak story is subjective, which makes it a fun project, but that also means that the sheer number of perspectives on the place kaleidoscopes infinitely. There’s no real way to pin down the story. It’s like trying to convey an acid trip with mere words. Of course, for the writer, that just means that you must be sensitive to this fact. You must negotiate a purposeful through-line in the history, knowing that you’re missing out on other possible narratives.

Here’s my entire collection of Speak In Tongues photos, clippings & stories

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm Publishing

This fine photo was taken by Sarah Wido who was a driving force on the scene (she worked at a photo finisher—thanks for all the prints!). I was proud to contribute photos from my archive to Eric & Joe’s book, but I want to make clear: I did not take every photo! Here I am with Ian Colbert, appearing as Sean & Ian. See more of Sarah’s work here.

Were you the person who encouraged Eric to expand the tale to book-length?
Joe: I think it’s safe to say that I was, though I suspect that I wasn’t the only one!

Eric: Joe had reached out shortly after that first feature went live. He had spent time at Speak In Tongues (and in fact committed to the idea of a publishing company while hanging at the bar!), and sensed a fun book project there. We played phone tag and lost touch, and I left Scene for another job.

Joe: [Eric] said that he had a bunch of stuff that had to be cut, and I sent him a publishing agreement. I pestered him every few months for literally six years before Ron Kretsch convinced him to do it and that I was the right publisher. Eric and I didn’t meet until last year.

Ron Kretsch’s U.S. Rocker-era writings are all available as FREE downloads

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm Publishing

Speak In Tongues as still life (perhaps the ONLY times things were still). Photo. Ken Blaze.

Eric: In 2021, Joe told Ron Kretsch about the idea, and Ron reached out to Vince, telling him to tell me to get in touch and make this thing happen. Vince passed along the message while we were out golfing one day, and I followed up with Joe. So, this long series of short communications eventually landed in a nice and simple conversation about what it would take to make a book.

Did you give any advice to Eric when he started working on the book?
Joe: Eric has a really good head on his shoulders. I did read the initial edits with some skepticism but he really nailed it, I feel.

Eric: [Joe’s] main piece of advice was: more of that. Keep it fun. Distill the essence of this place. We met up in Cleveland, where Microcosm was setting up a new warehouse, and he mentioned Craig Finn’s book, Lifter Puller vs. The End Of, which features a scene from a Speak In Tongues show. Finn had disparaged this particular show as a nightmare, even as (the few) fans who were there tended to herald it as an amazing experience. Joe’s point was that many people see Speak In Tongues differently. Each night brought different perspectives into the fold. And even a sparsely attended Lifter Puller show could have resonance for people (good and bad) decades later. This was just a good mental foundation for me; Joe expounds on this in his publisher’s note.

When did you start work on the book?
Eric: I started work on this in July 2021. The manuscript was due Dec. 31, 2021, and we had another four- or five-week period during edits when I was able to add some more interviews to the mix.

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm Publishing

This is Kevin Jaworski NOT Matthew T. (“I don’t wear jeans” says the T.), photographed by Danny Noonan, from my collection. Kevin’s bringing a Grunge-like explosion to the end of an infamous Razak Solar System gig (which was played behind a curtain). Read the full story & see video here.

How did you get back into the groove—back into the SIT story?
Eric: I re-read my original feature, and then started playing a lot of common Speak In Tongues bands on Spotify. I also read Sam McPheeters’ Mutations, which got me into the essayistic hardcore headspace. (I highly recommend that book.)

Re-live the time Sam McPheeters & Men’s Recovery Project came to Speak In Tongues

Also, since that original feature came out, the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland had happened; I didn’t want to conflate anything about that tragedy, but I felt it was an important historical touchstone to keep in mind while approaching an overview of Speak In Tongues. Brian Chippendale, from Lightning Bolt, wrote a terrific essay on Ghost Ship (while mostly writing about Fort Thunder in Providence), called “The Paradox of Life Affirming Death Traps,” which I quoted briefly in my introduction.

Watch RARE live video from the night Lightning Bolt destroyed S.I.T. with Razak Solar System & Numbskull

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm PublishingWere you writing a little each day or…? Curious to hear about your process.
Eric: Yeah, mostly weekends. One challenge was just the time factor: trying to stuff this project into the rest of my life, basically. I work at a business magazine, and I was in the third year of an MFA program last year. Each day, I was doing a lot of writing, and each subset of this writing was a totally different style. Balancing those demands was tricky. For this book, it was less about the pure writing than about the practical stuff: tracking down contact information, setting up interviews, researching people’s backgrounds, conducting interviews, transcribing interviews, rearranging transcripts into a coherent narrative, and then editing and refining. I did write a lengthy essay for the front of the book, something that would lend my own voice to the story after all these years, and that took quite a while to stitch together. Thankfully, that piece was much more in line with my MFA work, so it felt more “of a piece” with my daily work.

How does the book differ from the piece in Scene?
Eric: Structurally, not much. I didn’t want to divert from the chronology and the different “chapters” of Speak In Tongues that I laid out in the first piece. So, as I added new voices and built in new stories to the overarching oral history, the job became one of fitting new puzzle pieces into a puzzle that, on some level, was already complete in my mind. That was very tricky, but it was fun to identify and split open these opportunities for expansive new tangents within the original manuscript. Adding the introductory essay was also an important choice, I thought, to briefly walk with the reader through Speak In Tongues in my own detached, journalistic voice.

Joe: It’s about ten times as long and we had the benefit of scraping the archives much deeper. The photos that you provided as well as the ones that I had never seen before. Eric goes much deeper on what I feel like are the core stories. I didn’t know about the spy job that was going on until I read the Scene piece, for example. And he took that sort of detail and expanded it across the whole period.

Here’s my entire collection of Speak In Tongues photos, clippings & stories

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm Publishing

Tony Erba (shown with Steve Peffer and 9 Shocks Terror) is a ‘colorful’ addition to the SIT oral history. Photo: Ken Blaze.

Did you include any new voices? 
Eric: I did, mostly focusing on musicians and artists who performed there. Tony Erba wasn’t in the original piece, which was a huge oversight. (I recall trying to land an interview with him, but when we spoke on the phone, he was on the side of a highway while touring—with a flat tire—and we didn’t reconnect for a while after that.) He was a great addition.

READ: 9 Shocks Terror’s SoCal tour with Tony Erba & Jim Konya changed my life

Patrick Carney from The Black Keys (formerly, circa the SIT era, of Churchbuilder) was a fun interview.

READ: Weird times at the old Grog Shop: A Festival of Seans, one Black Key & Har Mar Superstar

Beckett Warren was super helpful. Nora Hartlaub, of The Cassettes, really opened up the conversation toward the political action that was happening at Speak In Tongues early on.

Check out Nora & The Cassettes in these incredible historic posts

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm Publishing

The notorious, the horrible Speak In Tongues basement! Photo: Ken Blaze.

Did you discover anything working on the book that you didn’t know back when you wrote the original piece?
Eric: There were two major threads that came up this time around, which I didn’t really pick up on in the earlier piece. One was the attitude of direct action and political awareness that pervaded the place. Not only was there the spectre of the Ohio Communist Party in the building, but there was Food Not Bombs operating nearby in tandem with Speak In Tongues. There was a distinct willingness to act like a community center almost, like an uplifting source of warmth and connection for homeless residents and people in need of simple help. This probably isn’t all that different from some of the necessary community-building you see nowadays, but having it occur within a punk club was very interesting to me.

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm PublishingThe other thread was the impact of social media on community-building. I know you and I talked about this. I was hesitant to play it up too much in the book, if only because we’re still only just beginning to understand how social media is changing our social interactions now. But it did seem like a critical difference between how Speak In Tongues operated/existed and how a similar attempt at a Speak In Tongues-type place might operate/exist today. I don’t think I landed on anything revelatory there, and sometimes the conversations got closer to romantic nostalgia than meaningful social conclusions. That’s not a bad thing, but I’m not sure how helpful it is to readers today…

READ: I was the Easter Bunny for GSMF & the craziest Speak In Tongues show ever

Joe: The book confirmed a lot of suspicions. The reason you want an elaborate fact checker like Eric is that most of our memories are rather shaky and even comparing notes about somewhere that was larger than life is rather prone to exaggeration! Often when I say “someone set a car on fire at this show.” I hear myself and wonder, “Did that actually happen?” Eric helped to verify a lot of those details. Chiefly, the existence of the sound system always seemed suspect to me. I wasn’t really into glamorizing violence and I never realized that most punk clubs don’t result in a knife fight with neo-Nazis, so more than anything looking at the details with 25 years of sober clarity helps a lot to interpret what we experienced.

What about the visuals—what was it like collaborating with Ken Blaze? And the other photographers?
Eric: Ken Blaze’s work is critical to any remembrance of Speak In Tongues, and I was glad he was willing to jump in and be a part of this project on top of his own book.

Order Ken Blaze’s excellent Escaped To The Future photo book about Speak In Tongues (now in its second edition!)

Similarly, your own assistance on this front was vital. With Speak, so many different types of artistic expression were happening from night to night. Inevitably, each person will capture only a small segment of the overall picture. Your photographs (and the U.S. Rocker archival stuff) provided a nice counterweight to the mid- to late-era Speak experience.

U.S. Rocker chronicled SIT bands, happenings & people—download all the issues for free

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm Publishing

One of the things that blew me away about this book were the photos from SIT’s very first show, line-up shown on this, the debut flier. Courtesy: Dave. P.

We were also fortunate that David Petrovich [aka Dave P. The Perfect Guy during the S.I.T. era] was willing and able to dig through some old boxes and find amazing photos from as early as night one at Speak In Tongues.

Check out all the Dave P. related posts

Those ca.-1994 images have not been seen anywhere, to my knowledge, and they capture a Speak In Tongues that is completely different from the chapters that came later.

I don’t think this book would work nearly as well without those important visuals.

Joe: Eric did all the wrangling. I knew Ken from way back when. I put out an Unknown record and we were buddies back from Speak. He’s always been easy to work with and a tremendous asset for his communities. I appreciated the previous photobook that he self-published and that he featured just enough photos and quotes from me that people frequently assume that photos of Danny Noonan are mistaken to be of me!

Danny was a big part of Speak In Tongues & our Cleveland scene—check it!

But the real thing that I feel into when we got into production is that my entire color palette came from Speak, like what I wear every day still. And so I made the abrupt decision to expand to 192 pages and run all the photos in color. And I feel like that was the right choice to properly capture the place.

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm Publishing

Toward the end, Speak In Tongues became a collective, captured here by the supremely talented Ken Blaze.

What was it like writing about a place you’d never been?
Eric: Well, difficult. I frequently had imposter syndrome while working on this, and still do, but that’s always the case when working on stories like this. Most of my journalistic work has involved wrongful convictions or public corruption; to some degree I am often prying into people’s lives to pull back layers of truth. This is a sensitive job. With Speak In Tongues, I felt that it was somehow more sensitive. Not only had 20+ years passed, but this subject played an outsize and emotionally complex role in so many people’s lives. Where “the truth” in public corruption case can be determined through investigative journalism or litigation, here it was much more complicated.

READ: Speak In Tongues supergroup Walls Of Malm—plus Thrones, Lit-Ex & Warlocks in May 2000

Needless to say, the article “an” in “An Oral History…” was very important to me. This is only one version of the Speak In Tongues story. We’re shipping it to the world authoritatively, of course, but that doesn’t mean it captures everything—not at all.

Many people, you included, reminded me that there is a certain strength in coming to this as an outsider, so I kind of focused on that. I may not have the first-person sensory details of my own experience, but I’m also not bogged down by any interpersonal dynamics or my own possibly insular view of the place.

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm Publishing

Early Joe Biel band on the SIT stage! Joshua Tree, featuring Len, Josh, Joe and Brent (who is out of the frame). Photo: Ken Blaze.

How did the place change your life, Joe?
Joe: I was a developmentally disabled, alcoholic teenager. My home life was repressive and violent. Adults, including my parents and teachers, did not put a lot of expectations on me. I was told not to have kids and it was expected that I would be reliant upon others throughout my adult life. Speak put me on a different path where I quickly learned morals, ethics, values, and most importantly—meaning and purpose. It was the moment where I figured out that I didn’t have to rot in the closet or perform other people’s expectations of me.

I think I was sixteen or seventeen years old when I drunkenly stammered at you that I was going to start the punk rock version of publishing. And you said something vaguely affirming. Then I did that.

930 books later, I am fairly positive that I wouldn’t have been pompous enough to think that I could have pulled off of that without seeing other people do it every day at Speak in Tongues. Today, we employ 30-some people and own two warehouses, one in Cleveland. We publish about 60-70 per year now, but that’s after many years of doing, say, two!

Visit Microcosm Publishing & tap into the knowledge

What does the SIT tale say about our beloved city?
Joe: I think it says something about the post-Bankruptcy conditions and how that created so much vacant space that we could get away with something so stupid and ridiculous for seven years. I mean, how many projects with no budget and no experience or leadership don’t last half that long?

Now that the book is out, what are your feelings about SIT?
Joe: I am totally shocked and overjoyed to get the fan mail that is just like “You can’t believe what this book means to me. This place was my everything.” And it’s always from a name that I don’t even recognize. I think it’s the age that I was at the time and the way that I was simultaneously teased and accepted there. It’s just beyond affirming and magical.

Eric: It’s interesting: Would I have hung out there, had my time intersected with Speak In Tongues? I’m not sure. I’d like to think that I’d have been up front at those early Modest Mouse gigs; in college, I listened obsessively to The Lonesome Crowded West. The freewheeling nature of the place would have appealed to me, but I also wasn’t running in the hardcore scene, which might have been one of the more immediate entry points to the place.

At any rate, it’s a fascinating subject. The stories I found most interesting were the ones from the people who lived there: the weird tales of day-to-day life in a DIY space.

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm Publishing

I have no idea what is happening here, but whatever it is it’s SO Speak In Tongues… Photo: Ken Blaze.

How does the SIT story connect with Cleveland today? 
Eric: I wrote about this angle in that introductory essay, and I think it’s an important frame for why this book exists. The Cleveland of 1994 is not too different from the Cleveland of 2022. It’s a very dysfunctional city with grand aspirations that get foisted onto a weary population with a chip on its shoulder. There’s a certain restlessness to Cleveland, partially because we want the city to be better and partially because we’re uncomfortable with how little things change around here. The specific neighborhood around the old Speak building looks different now, in terms of economic development and single-family home prices, but that’s still mostly cosmetic. From 1994 through 2001, Speak In Tongues seemed to serve as a great outlet for some of the local restlessness, even if it only ever existed on the fringe of the city’s culture.

READ: Y2K—okay!? Dr. Zombie MD at Speak In Tongues with Zeek Sheck, Begit N Frenz, more

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm Publishing

Ralph Haussmann behind the board. His ultra-pro sound system made SIT the best-sounding club in town, and he encouraged noisy experimentation. Photo. Ken Blaze.

The place served the role of what we’d call a creative incubator now, and you can find people carrying on with cool business ideas, event concepts, and civic activism in Cleveland these days—people who came of age at Speak In Tongues. A lot of people who were close to the place will cite it to one degree or another as the deeply important foundation of their adult lives.

Could it have happened anywhere else? Well, it did. That mid- to late-’90s era was terrific for independent venues like this. But Speak was distinctly Cleveland in its flavor. For anyone interested in music or film or activism, I think the story of Speak In Tongues provides a helpful example for how a loose-knit group of kids can come together and create something so full of life.

READ: “Speak In Tongues on the Eastside”: Oblongata, Razak Solar System & Beckett take the Grog Shop

Joe: Just about everything that I am still in touch with ties right back to that place and I feel like, similarly, anything that interests me in the city also quickly leads back there!

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm Publishing

It’s humorous to me that in the book the girls bathroom is described as the ‘nice’ one. Perhaps it was slightly less of a hazard than the mens… slightly. Photo: Ken Blaze.

What’s the takeaway for the uninitiated?
Joe: Even as a developmentally disabled teenager without a high school education, you can band together with your camrades and create the coolest fucking world that you’ve ever wanted to see in some dingy building with a dingbat landlord and every time that you think some adult figure is going to wander in and declare “What do you think you’re doing?” they instead smile and dance along with the performers, who are, for whatever reason, performing in the kitchen that evening!

READ: White knuckle shroomin’, The Basketball & Speak In Tongues, 1999

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm Publishing

At some point in time, the residents added ‘Liberty Dance Hall’ back into the name, which I believe was a leftover from the Communist era. SIT’s Communist connection was a huge revelation reading this book. Photo: Ken Blaze.

Did you leave any more material “on the cutting room floor” so to speak? Will there be a volume 2?
Eric: I’ve got hours and hours of unused interview tape, but that’s just part of the selective editing process. I’d like to think I chose well, and that the best stuff I’ve got is in the book. That said, there’s plenty of room for a Vol. 2 down the line. I’m certain that this book release will generate vivid memories in readers who spent time at Speak In Tongues—and who may want to share them with me or even another writer.

Joe: We joked this morning that we’d do The Speak in Tongues Coloring Book next.

READ: Razak Solar System goes green for the Green Party at Speak In Tongues in 2000

So, Eric, you wrote your first book—a huge accomplishment—congrats! What was the most challenging part of the endeavor? 
Eric: Thank you! As the project grew—and it’s not like it’s even a novel-length book or anything—it became tough to hold the entire narrative in my head while also zooming into particular segments for editing. Like I said, I already liked the structure of this story, so I felt there was a natural flow to the whole piece as it developed. But there was that tricky problem of needing to see both the forest and the trees, while also putting people’s words to proper and meaningful use.

The most fun part was engaging with the music along the way. So many bands were mentioned, and I’d run Spotify in the background as I sifted through interview audio. This was an incredible portal to a very wide range of music, and it was awesome getting to retroactively listen to some of the more “overlooked” bands of the time. Similarly, reading through U.S. Rocker concert reviews (and thanks for sending along some of those hard copies!) was amazing.

Hard copies of U.S. Rocker are still available—collect them before they’re gone!

Could Speak In Tongues ever exist again?
Joe: Music, culture, and socializing have all changed so much in 20 years and it’s been to a strangely decentralized place. However, I’m old enough now and have seen enough badly behaved middle aged people to know that it’s not my place to tell young people what they should like or how to live their life. My concern isn’t to recreate that magic but for people to socialize in a way that they meet their peers.

Speak In Tongues Oral History Cleveland Ohio Eric Sandy Ken Blaze Joe Biel Microcosm Publishing

All good things must come to an end? I’m happy to say that now that it IS the future, SIT is still going strong with two books (Ken’s photo book and this new Oral History by Eric Sandy). Not too shabby. Don’t ever count SITers out. Photo: Ken Blaze.

What’s next, gentlemen?
Eric: I’ve got a manuscript out to a publisher right now. It’s a collection of essays loosely tied together by climate change, which came out of my thesis work with the MFA program. Fingers crossed. I’d love to get that one out in the world as a book. Next up is one of several possible Big Ideas, including another collection of essays on mass media in this dystopian century of ours.

Joe: I want to show people that they can do it, on their own terms. I’m finishing writing a book about the Portland Black Panthers right now.

Are there any events planned to promote the book and get the old gang back together?
Joe: Yup, we’re doing another book, Hello Cleveland, and want to organize some bookstore events in October when everyone can be back in the CLE.

Order Speak In Tongues: An Oral History of Cleveland’s Infamous DIY Punk Venue

Here’s everything I’ve posted about Speak In Tongues

READ: Capturing the Cleveland scene – An interview with Ryedood

READ: An interview with musician & Speak In Tongues sound person, Brian Straw

Follow me on Instagram for Cleveland throwbacks & more

Watch & subscribe to my YouTube for historic Cleveland videos & more

Pre-order Hello Cleveland from Microcosm Publishing

+ There are no comments

Add yours

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.