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They came from the 80s…
Dean Robinson’s documentary Ain’t Easy Being Cheesy chronicles the life and times of Indianapolis hair band contenders Nova Rex
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Editor’s note — Way back in 2011, we told you about Nova Rex, an Indianapolis-based glam metal band from the 80s that came this close to hitting the big time back in the day, and the documentary about them, Ain’t Easy Being Cheesy. The story was pretty popular, but like many things 80s-related these days, the past couple years have seen an uptick of interest in the story and the documentary, probably due to the band getting back together and releasing new music. Since we’ve been plagued by technical problems and missed deadlines here at FWR Towers, we thought we’d take the opportunity to re-run the story.
Three decades ago, rock bands dressed like transvestite hookers were all the rage. They wore fishnet stockings, spandex, pink-leopard print leotards, and high heel boots. Their hair was often sprayed and aqua-netted so that it resembled the frill of some prehistoric Ceratopsid, and they boasted facial make-up that would make Barbara Cartland gasp in horror.
And except for the occasional power ballad, they composed anthems to partying, and rocking, and the kind of sex usually encountered in the letters section of Penthouse, with titles like “Cherry Pie,” “I Wanna Rock,” and “Smooth Up.”
During the mid-to-late 80s, hundreds of these rock bands strode the land, and Nova Rex was… well, they were one of them.
The life and times of Nova Rex — a band with Indiana roots who spent a big chunk of their career based in Indianapolis — are chronicled in a new documentary called Nova Rex: Ain’t Easy Being Cheesy, by film-maker Dean Robinson (Butch Black: the M.E.A.N. Man).
As the 70-minute documentary shows, Nova Rex had the look, the sound, and the songs (“I Just Wanna Rock,” “Turn It Up Loud”) to be one of the contenders, but it just didn’t happen for them. They released several albums, EPs, singles, and videos between 1985 – 1995, and attained a certain level of semi-fame, but a major label deal — and major level stardom — never quite materialized.
Though the band did have their fun, and the documentary takes a pretty honest and candid look at the band’s career and the era, with bass player Kenny Wilkerson and guitarist J.P. Cervoni, the band’s two constant members during the decade or so they were active, providing most of the commentary during one-on-one interviews.
Robinson knew that band during their stint in Indianapolis during the early 90s, when Robinson edited and published a magazine called HiJinx. “It was a rock n’ roll, heavy metal magazine that Doug Diamond and I put out from 1989 – ’94,” Robinson says. “It was a lot of rock n’ roll stuff with some tongue-in-cheek humor. We wrote about these local and national bands like they were superheros. If you read the text, you can’t tell the locals from the nationals; we wrote the one up just as big as the other.”
By the time they located in Indianapolis, Nova Rex had already made records and toured extensively across the country. Bass player Kenny Wilkerson was originally from Whiteland, Indiana, and met guitarist J.P. Cervoni while both their bands were playing clubs in Florida. Cervoni, an accomplished musician who had played with Buddy Miles, had formed a version of Nova Rex in Canada, brought it to Florida to take advantage of the (then) lucrative spring break market, but soon found himself looking for new members after the current line-up fell apart. Nova Rex was based in Florida for a while, and then moved to LA.
The band toured extensively, had good management, and played to packed audiences. But Los Angeles was pretty expensive, and also, this was towards the end of the 80s — in LA, the “hair metal” genre Nova Rex was a part of was already starting to fade. Indiana, however, had not yet got the message, and on a trip back to Indianapolis, Wilkenson realized that with the right amount of hustle, Nova Rex could be, in his words, “the biggest fish in a small pond,” and he convinced the rest of the band to re-locate.
What really struck Robinson about Wilkerson was that he understood — and seemed to love — the whole game of promoting a band and trying to make it big. “He’s PT Barnum,” Robinson laughs. “Kenny really understands the business aspect of show business, and the show aspect. You’ve really gotta have both if you’re going to play in this game.”
“All those bands wanted to be rock stars, but no one wanted it more than Kenny and Nova Rex,” Robinson continues. “The dude talks a mile-a-minute, so when you’re first meeting him, you think ‘hmm, he talks a real big game,’ so you’re a little skeptical, but then when you sit back and watch… well, he’s doing it.”
Indeed, as the documentary shows, Wilkerson, Cervoni, and the rest of Nova Rex worked hard for the notoriety they were able to achieve, especially while they were in Indianapolis. The documentary is packed with clips from local news and television shows and appearances with area DJs. At one point, Nova Rex even got a deal with Anheuser-Busch, and footage shows them sporting Budweiser jackets while performing on stages festooned with the beer’s logo.
The footage in the documentary and the music are all pretty representative of the time, and there is a lot of funny material in the film. But if you’re thinking real-life Spinal Tap (and really, when you hear the words “documentary” and “heavy metal band” in the same sentence, how can you help it?), you’re a little off. Yes, there are some Spinal Tap moments in the flick — for instance, near the start of the doc, Wilkerson and Cervoni talk about how the only difference between them and a band like Def Leppard was “the numbers.” For a few seconds, you think they’re talking about record sales, but no, they’re talking about women.
There’s also a lengthy section where Cervoni and Wilkerson talk about “the look” — dressing up in women’s clothes and spandex, borrowing outfits from their girlfriends and shopping at the make-up counter of department stores (“no, try this one. It holds the sweat a little better. And this is a great cleanser…”).
And what drummers were to Spinal Tap, singers were to Nova Rex. The band went through maybe four or five singers (I lost count), though the only one interviewed is the band’s first, Kevin Tetz.
But the whole conceit with Spinal Tap is that they weren’t in on the joke; heck, they didn’t even know there was a joke. Wilkerson, Cervoni, and Tetz come across as unpretentious, unassuming guys who just wanted to rock, and they are well aware of how ridiculous and outrageous some of it was. Their recollections provide the film with a few of its funniest moments.
Despite never having landed a deal with a major record label, Nova Rex seems to have experienced a smaller scale version of rock star fame anyway. They signed autographs, got into clubs for free, and even indulged in a little rock star prima donna behavior — Cervoni and Wilkerson recall a gig in Minnesota in front of 1,500 people where Cervoni refused to go on stage until someone brought the band the missing case of beer they called for in their tour rider. And Cervoni doesn’t even drink beer.
Once again, the band seems to realize how absurd it all is, but perhaps most importantly, neither Wilkerson nor Cervoni seem angry or bitter that Nova Rex never quite made it. They admit that they went through some bad times after trends started to change and Nova Rex was no longer getting the big gigs or the perks, but they seem to be able to talk about those times with honesty, perspective, and a sense of humor.
Robinson lost contact with Wilkerson after Hi-Jinx ended in 1994. They found each other on Facebook over a decade later. Wilkerson was living in Florida, where he and his wife own a few tanning salons. “He wanted me to format some videos for him,” Robinson says. “So he sends me all this stuff, all these DVDs and stuff, and I said ‘Kenny, we’ve got to do a documentary. You have way too much footage.’ Which goes to show you how ahead of the game he was, to have all this stuff and keep it.”
For Robinson, the most interesting part of Nova Rex: Ain’t Easy Being Cheesy is towards the end, as the band moves farther into the 90s. As any pop music historian can tell you, things changed quite a bit early on in that decade, and spandex and aquanet — not to mention corporate sponsorship — were about as uncool as you could get. The documentary features long-time music business professional Mark Wolfson talking about trends in music, and how many bands have a tough time negotiating those changes. “That’s just art, that’s just music, that’s just entertainment,” Wolfson says.
In other words, that’s the way it goes. But Robinson seems to have a slightly different perspective. “It’s like, these bands built this platform on this glam stuff,” he says. “That trend is going to help to identify you, but it’s just a trend, it’s just a passing fancy. So if you’re identifying yourself by that, especially with these visual clues, then you’re going to pass, too.”
“Now you’re known for all the wrong stuff,” he continues. “You do a song called ‘I Just Wanna Rock,’ because it sounds like something you’ve already heard. But when you do that, and your trend is over, then it’s over for you.”
Nova Rex is on the web at novarexoffical.com. You can also find them on facebook.