U.S. Rocker was a free monthly alternative music magazine in Ohio—the Cleveland/Akron area specifically—for most of the ’90s. It was an important forum for underground writers and artists who loved the metal, hard rock, noise, post-punk, ambient and just plain uncategorizable music of the time. It was really special, just like it’s co-creator and guiding spirit, Brenda Mullen (born Brenda Lawson, aka Brenda Mintie).
Let’s step into the wayback machine, shall we? Set the controls for 1993…
It’s hard to imagine a world without the internet, where there was simply no convenient place to read local opinions on music, art and culture for free. Dailies and weeklies offered some coverage, sure, but they were also proper businesses. They cast a wide net and catered to broad tastes—and their advertisers.
U.S. Rocker was something else. Think of it as a fanzine with a budget and a regular printing schedule. Or maybe it was an amateur national magazine? Whatever the case, Brenda Mullen was essentially publishing 10,000 copies of a cutting-edge music web site in print form every month back in the days before the internet really took off.
Brenda was way ahead of the curve.
Like a lot of trailblazers, Brenda Mullen was a complex and driven person who didn’t use a roadmap. I know because I worked for her from 1993-1998, first as a writer then as a layout and production person. Later I was an editor, a distribution person, an ad salesman and even the magazine publisher after she turned her focus elsewhere. I did not know how to do any of these jobs when I started—Brenda taught me how to do everything, and I’m forever grateful for that. When I later moved to Hollywood and worked for “real” magazines like Hustler it turned out I had had an excellent teacher. I was light years ahead of everyone else I worked with. I know a lot of other U.S. Rocker staffers with similar tales.
So who exactly was Brenda Mullen—this maven of metal, this seer with a skinny cigarette?
I started listing all the identities Brenda revealed to me in our brief time, years ago, as friends and colleagues. Each Brenda characteristic is balanced by an opposite. She was super smart but not an intellectual. She got into music through metal, but listened mainly to obscure noise and ambient. She was a strong woman on a trendy male-dominated scene. She disdained trendiness but was not an elitist. She was a Cleveland rock scene rebel and one of the most independent people I’ve ever been graced to know, yet Brenda lived far away in rural Wooster, Ohio, in her father’s house where she single-parented her pre-teen son. Brenda put her raucous urban party mag together in a country basement. There were no punks or metalheads hanging around—more like cows and horses!
Fortunately I don’t have to struggle to eulogize someone as multifaceted as Brenda Mullen. She can—proudly and potently—speak for herself.
What follows are snippets of some of Brenda’s best and most revealing writings, pretty much in order from the time I met her in 1993. There are links to the source material if you want to read further. Brenda wrote a ton of record and concert reviews too and you should check those out too. She had great taste.
Keep in mind that U.S. Rocker was not a literary journal. It was solidly utilitarian—bringing great music to the masses as was Brenda’s vision. But you can see bits of Brenda’s autobiography peeking out everywhere. Her story, her time in the 1990s and the great music she loved all unfold in a way that, while heartbreaking now that she’s gone, paints a portrait of someone who embraced life to the max, on her own terms, society be damned. “Let’s rock.”
When I initially told my friends I was writing for U.S. Rocker, the purists rolled their eyes. “Not that metal rag!” One of the things that attracted me to Brenda was that she, like me, was making the crossover into more challenging and genre-defying music as the 1990s went on. One of the first bands we loved in common was Ed Hall, from Austin, Texas. They did Kiss and Erik Satie covers—how very Brenda! She always had a wry sense of humor…
Will the real Ed Hall please stand up?
Interview by Brenda Mullen
You can go anywhere in the country and probably find somebody by the name of Ed Hall. It could be your next door neighbor. The doctor. The lawyer. The psycho that hasn’t been caught yet. Then there is a very strange three-piece band from Texas named Ed Hall. Here’s a clue: There’s nobody named Ed in the band. So why in the hell would anybody name a band Ed Hall? Well, I had a theory. I told drummer Lyman Hardy that there are just enough butt-cheeks between the three of them to spell out the name…
One of the fun things Brenda got to do as publisher and co-founder (with Trent Weller) of U.S. Rocker was stir the pot of local music scene gossip. Being the ’90s, this was done by overhearing drunken blabbing at shows and then spreading the juice via long telephone calls on the ol’ landline. Brenda was the master of both. She (and Trent) were “The Bar Spyz” and she got to let loose pseudonymously on some of her favorite targets, like Scene Magazine, in every issue…
Street Talk by The Bar Spyz
Welcome to Street Talk, brought to you by the “metal rag with delusions of grandeur” (<— latest endorsement from Scene magazine, where every year is 1981). And isn’t it amusing that Scene has probably spent more space trying to justify their Nine Inch Nails coverage than they ever spent covering the band in the first place?
Derek Hess joins as cover artist
In the second half of 1994, Brenda seemed to come alive with a whole new energy that was really inspiring. She adored Derek Hess—booker, chicken wing chopper and up-and-coming flier artist at the Euclid Tavern—whose knowing sense of humor (as embodied in classic artwork for Cop Shoot Cop and many others) matched hers.
Brenda had tired of publicists jockeying for a U.S. Rocker cover…and then not sending appropriate materials. Our publication was not Rolling Stone—we couldn’t fly Annie Leibowitz out to shoot some new band in an exotic locale. Shit, we could barely afford the gas to drive to the Flats.
I remember trying to turn some tiny, grainy press photo of Marilyn Manson into something cover-worthy. Brenda was like, “Fuck this. I wonder if Derek would do the cover and we could be done with all this bullshit?” I said: “Why don’t you ask him?” Thus began a string of sixteen covers Derek Hess created for U.S. Rocker—making a name for himself and for us.
Each month, Brenda was in her dad’s Wooster basement stirring the gossip cauldron (I was still working a day job), scheming, and when she though of a band for the cover, she’d call Derek and he’d take it from there. I’d roll up to Derek’s studio on my drive to Wooster and slip him some cash. He’d hand me the cover wrapped in brown paper. It was some spy shit—and I was so excited to get to Wooster where Brenda and I would unwrap and marvel at the contents. Derek never let us down. It was always mind-blowing.
Here’s Brenda announcing things initially…
Street Talk by The Bar Spyz
The month of October brings yet another change in the look of U.S. Rocker. In case you didn’t notice (and how could you not?), this month’s cover was drawn by noted area poster artist (and long-time Euclid Tavern concert booker) Derek Hess. Hess’ artwork is much in demand these days; he’s been hired by concert promoters around the country to design art for concert posters. He also received a mention in an article on poster art in Newsweek. He’s well-known in this area for the dramatic posters he has done for the Euclid Tavern shows. And this winter , he’ll be doing his first major one-man show at the Busta Gallery… We’d love to get your reaction to our new cover format; drop us a line and let us know what you think.
Little-known fact: Tattoos were illegal—forbidden—in Cuyahoga County through the 1990s. U.S. Rocker got a significant amount of local advertising from tattoo shops that were clustered just over the county line in Elyria in Lorain County, Ohio. It was like a village of tattoo artists. I will always be so glad for their support of what we did (they paid cash too, unlike clubs who ran up credit). Brenda became a big tattoo enthusiast through visiting with these advertisers.
In 1994, a new trend spread across America: body piercing. Cleveland’s David Anthony, a nurse and a gentle giant of a gay man, opened a “clinic” near downtown by exploiting a hole (ahem) in the laws that kept out tattoo shops. The clinic felt very outlaw—and erotic. Of course Brenda was there. She was keyed into the sexmagick vibe. I think this was the first time she ever hinted at her shamanistic and black magic-y beliefs so overtly in U.S. Rocker…
Brenda Mullen interviews Chain Link Addiction’s resident piercer, David Anthony
People get pierced for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it goes in stages: first, for adornment—either they like the way it looks or the way it looks on their friends. Second, addiction—once pierced, a person might want to keep adding on. Third, spiritual—inducing small amounts of pain is part of occult practices in some Shamanistic cultures. Pain will cause various hormones to flow through the bloodstream which affect the brain/mind complex. The purpose is to alter consciousness and/or induce visions. Fourth, sexual enhancement—piercing the nipples or genitals will make those areas more sensitive.
The post-Nirvana, post-grunge world was a weird one. Metal bands—all the rage on the underground just a few years previous, were trying to claim grunge cred. Grunge people were going pop. Brenda hated this fickle nonsense. She began to focus her interests on unclassifiable music—especially bands led by Mick Harris (Napalm Death, Scorn, Lull, Painkiller) and Kevin Martin (GOD, Techno Animal, Ice)—that blended noise, metal, ambient and industrial. I’m still not sure what to call this niche, but Brenda claimed it early on…
Peering inside Pandora’s Box and seeing the face of GOD
God’s music will leave the average Candlebox fan panic-stricken, desperately seeking out a melody they could hum along with, or better yet, scrambling for earplugs. But there are others who seek out bands like God and those people are far beyond driven; for them, most music is boring trend-ridden garbage.
Best of 1994
Here’s Brenda on where her interests were at this time—diverse and dark:
From Kevin (Martin) to Kevin (Sharp), Brenda was on a roll with the challenging post-metal music.
Cleveland—such a den of intrigue during the 1990s! The population was large, news was fractured, bands were hungry, and grifters were about. When Brenda spied predatory scamming of the musicians she loved, she wrote a three-part exposé on the chief offenders, the nefarious Cleveland Music Group. Frankly, I thought this was overkill at the time. No real artist took the CMG seriously. But Brenda could not be deterred. This was her mischievous side, her obsessive personality coming to the fore. Or maybe she just enjoyed torturing these tools.
TL; DR: they never recovered…
Do you really want to join the Cleveland Music Group?
Trade organizations have sprouted up across the country, harkening to the call of little bands desperately seeking information about the music business. These organizations, mostly found in major cities, are generally not-for-profit and are run by volunteers within the music community. While such organizations begin with the best of intentions and are fronted by hard-working people, things tend to go awry. Over a period of time, they may become derailed by miscommunication, exclusionism, in-fighting and their own delusion of power in the marketplace. The Cleveland Music Group, or CMG, is just such an example.
Brenda was always in touch with the ethereal, and she started to reveal that more in her writings. I’m not sure if anyone caught it at the time, but the signs were there. Here she is talking to one of her soulmates…
Scorn: Interview with Mick Harris
Silence and extreme noise have found a nothing-place. It’s not industrial. It’s not modern alternative rock. Some peg it as isolationism and others call it dark ambient. I call it a cure for pain… an escape to places vast and desolate, where melody fears to tread and lyrics rarely exist.
By 1995, Brenda was already a South By Southwest pro. Her account of the bands and industry machinations are funny and also prescient.
Other important Brenda interviews from this time:
Robert C. Banks is an incredibly talented and risk-taking independent filmmaker, and a Cleveland icon. Brenda and Rob both loved industrial music, and Rob contributed his photography to the magazine for over half a decade. When Banks made a documentary (sadly not online to this day—what gives?!) about local freak, Supie-T, called You Can’t Get A Piece Of My Mind, Brenda jumped in with a nice profile to support Rob…
One thing about Brenda was that she was trusted even by some of the most guarded and elusive performers, like Dwid from Integrity. This was an era when Dwid and Co. were fucking up audiences, fucking over haters, and hiding the fuck out between tours. Brenda got in there somehow. This interview was a score at the time. It’s funny though, despite getting the exclusive she tweaked Dwid’s narcissism and refused to give him the cover (another fave, Edsel, got the honor that month instead). Cheeky.
Brenda Mullen interviews Integrity’s Dwid
I’ve always thought of Dwid as a true-to-life Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Upon meeting him, you’ll find a soft-spoken, mild-mannered young man; an entrepreneur and a caring father of his two young children. On stage with his band Integrity he’s a frontmen totally driven with rage— and this was once a normal, nice guy… There is a shroud of intrigue and tension that seems to follow the band wherever they go. I don’t know why this is, but every time I go to an Integrity show, it’s always eventful, but not necessarily in a ‘good’ way. It’s almost like the proverbial ‘dark cloud of gloom.’
As the months and years went by, Brenda was really starting to mature as a writer and let loose with the autobiography. Here she gives you a snapshot of what life was like with her dad, Lynn—the real underwriter of U.S. Rocker throughout the initial years. I ended up in this tale here too, ’cause I would camp out at the Lawson home for at least one weekend a month so we could create the latest issue…
U.S. Rocker’s Brenda Mullen talks with Relapse Records’ Bill Yurkiewicz about the Japanese-American Noise Treaty compilation
If you’re looking for the most extreme, alienating, terrorizing music, the first thing that might enter your mind is to pick up a death metal record by Cannibal Corpse. But have you ever considered the possibility that there are other extreme forms of music that are non-genre specific and make death metal seem like background music to your tea party in the park?… I told [compilation curator] Bill [Yurkiewicz] one of my first experience listening to noise music when my fellow U.S. Rocker staffer, Sean Carney, and myself were in the basement putting an issue of the magazine together. My father happened to be upstairs at the time. We were listening to another Relapse compilation called Release Your Mind, which features a variety of experimental artists. The final track, “Electrostatic Release” by Namanax (which is Bill’s project), came roaring out of the speakers. We didn’t really consider the fact that it was probably making the upper floor of the house feel like a bulldozer was driving through it, and we kept on working. A few minutes went by and suddenly we heard this: “WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT SHIT? WHAT IS THAT? TURN THAT FUCKING SHIT DOWN!!!!” Sean and I stared at each other, wide-eyed and bewildered. We felt like we were 16-years-old again.”
Best of 1995
Brenda Mullen takes a trip to SXSW 1996
This year really was the culmination of U.S. Rocker‘s ambitions. Brenda was fully engaged, and we got to go to South By Southwest with Anastasia Pantsios for the first time as a team. It was super fun—I shot this video which was only recently released…
A question a lot of people ask me is “what is the next big thing?” I don’t know how to respond to that, but there are certain things that happen at these conferences that indicate when a club is jammed and there’s an hour-long wait, there’s your answer—Girls Against Boys, Joan Osborne, Ben Folds Five, For Squirrels, Liz Phair, Guided By Voices, Radiohead. Okay, I know what you are probably thinking. Haven’t Liz Phair and Guided By Voices been exploding at retail? No, the only thing that’s exploding are a bunch of rockcrits’ superlatives about these no-hit wonders. But watch out for Girls Against Boys!
Today Is The Day
Brenda was unstoppable at this time with a string of great exclusive interviews and some illuminating glimpses into her psyche and her life in Wooster, studying the occult and raising her son…
Brenda Mullen talks with Dave Sardy
“My writing is about self-directing, looking inward. You can’t really point at the rest of the world unless you figure out what perspective you’re pointing from.”
L. Ron Hubbard, most know for his multi-million seller Dianectics has found a way to combine modern science with mental health and it’s passed off to the public as “self-help.” Upon further investigation (myself being an innocent victim passing by their headquarters in Toronto a few years ago), I was lured into filling out a pile of questionnaires and was “evaluated” according to variables of reaction… In Hubbard’s Self Analysis, he describes briefly the benefits of Dianetics: “One of the basic discoveries… was that unconsciousness and all the pain attendant upon it was stored in a part of the mind and that this pain and unconsciousness accumulated until it caused the organism to die. Erase or nullify the physical pain, the losses of a lifetime, and vitality returns.” Put in simple terms, his ideas suggest wiping out past experience and reactive personality—and voila! The world becomes a beautiful place. But in the real world, I think [Barkmarket] guitarist/singer Dave Sardy would rather just react.
Brenda Mullen talks with the band that has almost lived up to its name
I have a couple theories about “How to Find Great Rock Bands.” Great music, no matter the genre it is, will invoke the following emotional responses: A) It’s provocative enough to want to have sex to, B) It’s so endearing you’ll cry your head off, C) It’s so aggressive that you’ll want to go punch someone in the nose, or D) All of the above at once.
My other theory is to simply play a copy of the band’s record for my 11-year-old-son, whose favorite bands you could count on one hand. He thinks most music he hears on commercial radio stations is “music for retards.” Yep, that’s my boy! His name is Dustin. And as of four months ago, Failure became one of his favorite bands…
U.S. Rocker’s Rock Explosion 1996
Brenda hosted a huge party with all our favorite bands at Peabody’s DownUnder: Cash Money, Craw, DuValby Bros., Primitive, Disengage, Downside Special, Nucleon, Red Giant and Biblical Proof of UFOs. We made it! The magazine was legit—and Brenda was surrounded by friends.
All party photos by Karen Novak.
Best of 1996
Brenda had really assembled a who’s who of Cleveland rock by this point as U.S. Rocker staff. Here’s what she was listening to at that time—definitely read the other lists too…
Stephen Kasner, who passed away at the end of 2019 like Brenda, was one of Mullen’s most favorite artists. His Occult spirituality and depressive point of view really seemed to gel with Brenda at this time. Kasner granted her an interview and we struggled to edit it to a manageable length for publication—there was so much good stuff. What I find most interesting are not the paragraphs she wrote about Kasner, but the ones she wrote about herself and her cosmic beliefs…
What is your reality? For most folks, it’s routine: get up in the morning, go to work, come home, eat, play sleep, etc. Whatever your personal reality is, have you asked the Ten Thousand Dollar Question, “Is there anything beyond life?”
I’ve often looked at myself in the mirror and pondered the idea of a parallel universe. I’ve wondered what would happen if I could only put my hand through the mirror. [Stephen Kasner] is one of the few who has put his hands through the glass… and it didn’t shatter. “It’s an ethereal thing, basically,” says Steve. “It’s like trying to reach into a dream.”
The best known and most usable map of the “astral” plane is the “Kabbalistic Tree of Life,” which shows the paths and connections between different realms of the spirit. The starting point is earth level. Unfortunately, the paths to the highest supreme being (as shown by the Tree) are inhabited by spirits who are sometimes ominous, ugly and dangerous. “There’s terror in going through dreams, or going through death,” says [Kasner]. “I hope there’s something beautiful in that. Death, being the ultimate, is the root and the spirit and the soul of my work.”
Brenda thought of journalist/rocker John Petkovic as a kindred soul and fellow traveler, whose aesthetic embodied everything she loved about ’70s and ’80s music….
Brenda Mullen listens while John Petkovic constructs a logarithmic spiral
I wrote in U.S. Rocker Year End edition that Cobra Verde‘s guitarist/lead vocalist John Petkovic is “living inside my brain.” He’s reading my thoughts and putting them to music—a mirror on my misfit self. The sounds and style and soul of Cobra Verde doesn’t fit into any neat category. They’ve absorbed everything I love: classic ’70s pomp-rock like Queen and Mott the Hoople, the snarling dynamism of ’80s metal, and the musical economy of the the contemporary underground scene. They rock out stylishly, hitting the mark successfully with each shot of melody, power, and sarcasm. They have the kind of artistic integrity that burns through great music of every genre, scene, and movement, regardless of the flavor of the week.
In the Lap of the Gods
While laying out the paper each month, we listened to a LOT of new music—but also tons of classic Queen. I always liked Queen but after hanging with Brenda, I loved Queen. Enjoy this slice of Brenda’s early years….
Birthday wishes for Queen’s Freddie Mercury
It was all mom’s fault. I think I was 13 or 14 years old and she casually mentioned that she liked Queen. (In fact, she and my stepdad had front -row seats for the Night at the Opera tour…damn!) I went shopping with my brother and father for Mom’s birthday and I picked her up a copy of Sheer Heart Attack on vinyl. She seemed somewhat appreciative of the gift, but the album sat around, and sat around, and sat around.
Finally, a life-changing event occurred the day I put Sheer Heart Attack on the turntable. This shit rocked my liver while friends of mine stared, eyes glazed. I guess they were too busy listening to garbage like Asia, Styx, Bob Seger, the Michael Stanley Band, Bruce Springsteen , ad nauseum.
People talk a lot about how punk rock changed their lives, but in Wooster, Ohio, where nobody had access to anything out of the ordinary, Queen was as alien and confusing to my friends as the Sex Pistols might’ve been to most Clevelanders. And what could be more punk than the phrase “NOBODY PLAYED SYNTHESIZER” stamped on the back of every single Queen album (up till The Game)?
As a teen I was not only impressed by Queen’s music, but I had a terrible crush on Freddie. Early photos of him, clean shaven and with long, stylish hair, gave way to impulses like sending gushy love letters… I don’t recall when I found out Freddie was a homosexual, but when I did, I was really disappointed. I believe that somebody had to TELL me because I never realized it, even though the band never tried to hide it. They let it all hang out as early as their first two albums with songs like “My Fairy King” and “The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke.” Duh!
Many years later, on a typical late night drive home from Cleveland to Wooster I first heard the news that Freddie Mercury, lead vocalist of Queen, had passed away from AIDS. The song “Bohemian Rhapsody” immediately followed, and so did my tears. During my 33 years of life on this planet Earth, I’ve never shed a tear for any rock deaths, and since Freddie passed on, I probably never will again…
When U.S. Rocker took a hard look at “hesher” or stoner culture at the end of 1997, Brenda wrote one of the most remarkable pieces pieces of her career. This trip through her teen and early adult years as part of a rural Ohio party crew is just full lovely of lovely vignettes about legendary locales like Little Arizona, Rogues Hollow, and Shreve Swamps. I envision a Rivers Edge-type movie when I read this. Though a Wooster burnout film won’t likely be coming to theaters any time soon, Mullen’s writing is so vivid it doesn’t even matter…
A one-tanked trip to party spots of yore by Brenda Mullen with Deric Craig
Deric Craig and I spent the better part of our wonder years trying to be part of the elite Heshers (named “Burn Outs” back in the ’80s). We were roving bands of neanderthal juveniles looking for a place to gather and get high. All-ages concerts and clubs didn’t exist in our day, and had they, we might’ve had a few braincells left. Nevertheless, we forged our birth certificates to get inside local clubs and prayed they wouldn’t catch on to our apparent slyness.
Heshers often preferred the outdoors over clubs, because Jane smells, and club owners don’t like Jane’s perfume. And since we grew up in a little town southwest of Cleveland called Wooster, party spots were in abundance! We suppose Clevelanders might’ve opted for the Metroparks or peoples’ houses, but it’s just not the same as the tour we are about to present. In fact, rule out the parks because bacon descends upon your head right around 11pm. And most of our friends still lived with their parents, so that’s out, too.
Under the influence of LSD and other fun things… we often made up nicknames for each other, like Quick-Phil, Gropie, Cutter, Teeus, or Malcolm Taint Senior (Taint was king at partying). We gathered in one vehicle or several, and met at various locations to drink beer, smoke pot, and laugh the night away. Whether or not Clevelanders had access to such places is not our concern; the fact that these places existed at all is worth the price of admission into the past. Enter, young friend…
Today Is The Day
Brenda’s final U.S. Rocker piece was an interview with her good pal, the tortured post-punk screamer Steve Austin from Today Is The Day...
By the time this issue hit the stands, Brenda had already moved on from U.S. Rocker. Fortunately her writings from these crucial years survive and are both testament to her vision and taste, and tell an important tale of pre-internet era music whose memory is surprisingly endangered.
May these good times live on in all of us, with Brenda flying high above as guide.
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