Just past midnight on January 1, fireworks lit up 4311 Lorain Avenue. A similar scenario played out all across town. But at the art/music collective Speak in Tongues, things were different. The cherry bombs and ladyfingers were lit inside the building, as the ill-tempered thrash ensemble Nine Shocks Terror tore through a set nearly as combustible as any firecracker. It was a telling moment, as every aspect of Speak in Tongues has always stood against the norm.
It was also a sad moment. Less than a half-hour after Nine Shocks left the stage, the last of the 1,600 bands to play the space concluded a rushed set, putting an end to the venue's remarkable eight-year run. Just a week earlier, on Christmas Eve, members of the collective were abruptly notified that their building had been sold and they had but seven days to vacate the premises. Speak in Tongues was occupying the commercial property without a lease, and the new owner was required to give tenants only a three-day notice before eviction. With little recourse, the members were forced to cease operation of one of the most hospitable, forward-thinking spots in town.
"You could call it your own. You could truly call the space your own," says Nine Shocks Terror bassist and collective member Tony Erba. "You could say, 'I'm bringing in my bands, I'm going to present this kind of music and this kind of art to people,' and be allowed to do it. It was a falling-apart, messy, dirty, smelly place, but it was ours, and it's got a reputation that's known worldwide."
Speak in Tongues, which never charged more than $5 a show, was known for bringing in some of the most challenging and influential experimental artists.
"I think, just by sheer word of mouth, Speak in Tongues' reputation among experimental, avant-garde musicians really flourished," says Dave Segal, managing editor of Alternative Press, who performed at Speak in Tongues as DJ Veins. "When nobody else in the city gave a damn, you could count on Speak in Tongues to book the real obscure, great artists. A lot of these artists probably wouldn't play Cleveland unless there was a club like Speak in Tongues. You had Tomas Brinkman of Germany citing the club as one of his favorite places to play in the world.
"You got the sense at Speak in Tongues that it wasn't really about the money at all. As much as any place in the city, it was purely about artistic merit."
With cash ruling the music business, Speak in Tongues' eschewing profit was unique and necessary. In the end, though, the very chaos it embraced led to its downfall. Its building was bought by Gene Burnworth, owner of the metal club Pit Cleveland on the building's third floor. Burnworth had no taste for the bedlam at Speak in Tongues; he plans on turning the space into rehearsal rooms.
"I have nothing against any of those kids. I get along with them all fine, but they're sloppy, and I don't mean sloppy as in not cleaning their room. I mean sloppy as in open underage drinking and drugs," Burnworth says. "It's been noted. You go down to the Second District, and there's a list of times where they've been shut for such things. I've sat in my window and watched someone selling drugs right in front of the building, literally pulling out pills from his pocket and selling it, right on the street. I'm not housing that. I'm not going to be irresponsible. It's just reckless behavior, oblivious to their surroundings. All you can smell is human feces and urine. It's a frickin' hole. I'm going to clean it up and do something good with it."
As Burnworth suggests, not everyone mourns Speak in Tongues' ouster.
"I actually see it as a good thing," says Matthew T., an indie filmmaker and longtime Speak in Tongues member. "There was some stagnancy in some regard, and there was a lot of attachment to the building itself. Something interesting to me that's coming out of this, I think, is the realization that the building was just a physical space, but the idealism of Speak in Tongues and the collective goes beyond a physical building."
Indeed, as it hunts for a new home, the collective plans on sponsoring shows at other venues in addition to keeping its website and phone number in operation. As Dave P., one of the founders, put it from the stage on closing night, "You can take the person out of Speak in Tongues, but you can't take Speak in Tongues out of the person."