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New book on former Cleveland music venue Speak In Tongues details its lasting spirit

Sean Carnage
Speak In Tongues was an underground music venue located near Cleveland's West Side in the mid-1990s through the early 2000s. Local acts and household names shared the stage, and the lines between performer and crowd were often blurred. Pictured here is The Cassettes from one of the venue's final shows in 2001.

From 1994 to 2001, the music venue Speak In Tongues served as a hub for Cleveland’s creative community to gather and express themselves.

Located at Lorain Avenue and West 44th Street, the spot allowed underground artists to share the same stage as bigger bands like Modest Mouse, Red House Painters, Mountain Goats and Jimmy Eat World.

The do-it-yourself venue was operated by people who both worked and lived in the space.

Two decades after Speak In Tongues closed, bands, artists, residents and patrons of the venue still bond over the time they spent there.

Journalist Eric Sandy spoke with several of the key figures involved in the DIY space for an oral history published in Cleveland Scene in 2016.

Sandy expanded the piece into a book, “Speak In Tongues: An Oral History of Cleveland’s Infamous DIY Punk Venue,” which will be released in July.

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Eric Sandy
Author Eric Sandy's new book on Speak In Tongues captures memories and stories from numerous artists and attendees of the infamous Cleveland venue.

A piece of Cleveland history

It’s been more than 20 years since Speak in Tongues closed its doors, but the ethos or creative intent of that club can still be found all over the city.

Sandy said if you pull a string on Cleveland’s current creative climate, the thread will inevitably tug back to that little venue.

“This place was very much on the fringes of the Cleveland art scene in the mid-to-late ‘90s, but the context of what was happening at this little club has really filtered out over the years,” he said.

Many of the people who lived there, performed there or ventured in and out of the venue over the years are still very much part of the Cleveland art scene or community in general.

“You had DIY spaces all over the U.S., certainly all over the Midwest, but this was a distinctly Cleveland-flavored venue,” Sandy said.

Sandy decided to pen the oral history after being interested in the format from a journalistic and storytelling standpoint.

For the piece, the writer spoke with notable Cleveland figures who spent time at the club.

Matt Fish is a musician who performed at the venue and went on to start Melt Bar and Grilled.

Market Garden Brewery Co-Founder Sam McNulty would ride his bike to catch shows and raves at the space. The bar from Speak In Tongues now resides in Market Garden.

Artist Jake Kelly played his second-ever show there with the band Squirrel Monkey and began attending any show he could at the space.

He eventually began living at Speak In Tongues for a time.

"I think for the people who lived there, it was an incredibly important part of their lives."
Eric Sandy

A Facebook group dedicated to memories of the venue remains active, as does a website that archives every musical act that played at the space.

“Twenty years later, people are still bonding over this,” Sandy said. “Time just keeps slipping by, and we keep moving further and further away from that era of when Speak In Tongues was around, and I think having a small little token of that memory on shelves will hopefully be meaningful and important as people move forward and look back at where we all came from.”

Sandy said the venue touched so many different people, and documenting their memories helps broader audiences understand the pulse of Cleveland’s creative community at that moment in time.

“I think there’s something deeply personal about this. This wasn’t just like a college apartment. This was an institution, really. I think for the people who lived there, it was an incredibly important part of their lives,” Sandy said.

Stanton Thatcher, Brian Straw with Mind No Mind, presented by Sean Carnage.jpg
Sean Carnage
Speak In Tongues functioned not only as a music venue but as a collective where young Clevelanders lived and created a community in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Finding identity in the Rust Belt  

While punk rock put Northeast Ohio on the map in the 1970s and ‘80s, Cleveland’s music scene was finding its identity in the ‘90s.

“The answer was kind of found in Speak in Tongues,” Sandy said.

courtesy of Microcosm Publishing
Northeast Ohio journalist Eric Sandy's oral history on Speak In Tongues has a tentative release date of July 5.

Pockets of the city, in general, were creating their own communities as stadiums were being built downtown and aspects of Cleveland were changing.

“Speak In Tongues had that post-industrial, off-the-beaten-path, in-the-city-yet-still-welcoming-to-a-lot-of-suburban-kids kind of feel,” Sandy said.

The space where Speak In Tongues once flourished now houses a sandwich shop and beauty studio.

In the ‘90s, the area looked a little different. It was “rougher,” Sandy said, which added to the punk rock and creative edge of the space and community that gathered there.

“This isn’t the Lorain Avenue that we might know today. This was a fairly desolate part of the Near West Side, even though it was just a stone’s throw from Jacob’s Field, [which] was just going up that summer. Progressive Field we call it now,” Sandy said.

Speak In Tongues wasn’t a music venue all audiences might be interested in going to.

There could be fireworks set off inside the building while a puppet show was being performed to the sounds of a live thrash band.

It was a place for experimentation and creative expression, and it gained such a positive reputation among the DIY community that larger touring bands wanted to make a stop in Cleveland to play the venue specifically.

For these reasons, Sandy said it lives on as a key piece of Northeast Ohio’s music history.

“One of the things I kept hearing is that the border between the stage and the audience or the performers and the audience was very porous,” he said. “This is not something you’re going to experience at most venues these days.”

Performances could spontaneously erupt in back corners or hallways. There was a special openness in the venue that Sandy said offered a wide creative latitude.

This allowed bands to open up creatively and do things maybe they hadn’t thought of before.

Being part of a community

Sandy said most of the people who lived and ran Speak In Tongues were in their late teens and were pouring their lives into it for years.

“There were people living at Speak In tongues the entire time, and it kind of went through several waves of folks who came in and lived down in the basement of Speak In Tongues and put up walls and created little rooms for themselves,” he said.

Once you were there, Sandy said you were finding your way into someone’s home and community.

“That general welcoming spirit, to me, is very tied to what it means to live in Cleveland, or what it means to participate in the arts in Cleveland,” he said.

Sandy worked on the book with Joe Biel of Microcosm Publishing, which is based in Oregon but has Cleveland roots.

Biel is heavily involved in the punk rock DIY communities and encouraged Sandy to turn his 2016 oral history of Speak In Tongues into a book.

The book includes photos from Ken Blaze and numerous recollections and stories from those who co-owned the space, performed there or attended shows.

Speak In Tongues regulars and those unfamiliar with the venue can learn a piece of Cleveland’s underground culture and history through the book—some of which readers may find relatable even today.

“There was a chip on everyone’s shoulder at Speak In Tongues, and that’s certainly true for most Clevelanders these days,” Sandy said.

Amanda Rabinowitz has been a reporter, host and producer at WKSU since 2007. After serving as WKSU's Morning Edition host for a dozen years, she moved to afternoons in March of 2022 to become the local host of All Things Considered. In addition to providing local news and weather, she interviews Terry Pluto of Cleveland.com for a weekly commentary about Northeast Ohio's sports scene called The View From Pluto. She also hosts and produces Shuffle, a podcast focusing on Northeast Ohio’s music scene.
Brittany Nader joins All Things Considered host Amanda Rabinowitz on Thursdays to chat about Northeast Ohio’s vibrant music scene. As Shuffle Producer, she provides planning, scheduling, strategy and writing support for WKSU's weekly spin through local music.