Regrouping in Cleveland

12/27/02
Robert Cherry
Special to the Plain Dealer

"After being bludgeoned by the major-label world, I thought, Well, I can kill myself and start over - or just maim myself and come back to Lakewood.' "

Leave it to Prick's Kevin McMahon to look on the bright side.

In the mid- '90s, McMahon won a coveted deal with Nothing Records, the label co-owned by Nine Inch Nails main man Trent Reznor and his manager, John Malm. He recorded a well-received debut album, "Prick," filmed a large-budget video for the salacious cyber-glam single, "Animal," and supported David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails on tour in 1995.

But the reality of life on the Interscope-funded label didn't live up to McMahon's fantasy of the big time.

He frequently uses the word "nerve-racking" to describe his experiences promoting "Prick." The mercurial artist couldn't see the point in glad-handing at industry functions when he wasn't perpetually glad. And the recluse and perfectionist in him didn't enjoy the touring grind: Bus. Backstage. Abbreviated set without sound check. Hotel room. Repeat.

"I told them I didn't want to do certain things. And . . . here I am," he says with a laugh, enjoying scrambled eggs and rye toast in a restaurant near his rented home in Lakewood.

McMahon grew up on Cleveland's West Side and got his start in the early 1980s fronting Lucky Pierre, a mod-inflected new-wave combo managed by Malm and briefly featuring a pre-fame Reznor on keyboards.

McMahon was living in London when the plug was pulled on his proposed two-disc follow-up to "Prick." When he returned home for a family Christmas party shortly thereafter, he stayed to reassess his aspirations. "There was never any real blowout with Trent," he says. "The day before I was supposed to begin recording the second album, the label decided they didn't want to do it. They wanted more radio-friendly songs. And since I don't listen to the radio, I didn't know what they were talking about. I can't write songs that someone wants me to write."

He remains faithful to his own prolific muse, though. This summer, he released "The Wreckard," an appropriately titled album largely salvaged from material he was demoing for his major-label follow-up. The bracing disc, exclusively available at www.prickmusic.com and at live gigs, features 14 shape-shifting tracks that work well as aural cinema, if not as commercial radio fodder.

"It's too hard for me to explain these songs - you'll run out of tape," he says, gesturing to the machine recording our interview. "I want the songs to be something people can listen to more than once and have the story evolve into another perspective."

Tonight at the Odeon, he'll debut the more visceral cuts from "The Wreckard" alongside selections from Prick's debut. The new group interpreting McMahon's studio creations includes old friends: guitarist Greg Zydyk, former Lucky Pierre bassist Tom Lash and former Stabbing Westward drummer and Exotic Birds frontman Andy Kubiszewski.

On Sunday, McMahon will perform a solo set of Lucky Pierre standards at the Symposium in Lakewood. He also plans to release a retrospective of that group's material once he figures out how to properly present it. It's all part of an ongoing creative process McMahon calls "fine-tuning a stylistic abstraction."

"My body of work is like a giant snowflake," he says with a laugh, referring to the writing, recording and performing of an individual style within a popular tradition like rock 'n' roll. "The style is the searching itself. I guess it'll just write itself out until I'm dead. And then . . . that's it, that was my song."

For now, he plans to remain very much alive in Cleveland. He even plans to begin touring once again in the new year - this time on his terms. Author Thomas Wolfe was wrong: You can go back home. Sort of.

Shortly after McMahon returned to town, his family home met the wrecking ball. In recent years it had served as a nunnery, then was razed last year to make way for Lakewood Hospital's expansion. Before it was demolished, though, McMahon's family was allowed one final visit.

"I went in to say goodbye to the house," he recalls. "And on the third floor where my brother and I stayed, our old Velvet Underground poster was still plastered to the door. So the nuns were rocking."

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