Photo: Matthew Tetrault
Brother Cleve wore many hats, literally and figuratively. He followed a myriad of passions in his lifetime, and mastered more of them than most mortals would even dare to attempt.
Born Robert Toomey and raised in Medford, MA, Cleve was a music fanatic from a young age, latching on to heroes that included Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, novelist Terry Southern and Frank Zappa. An early vinyl obsession expanded to the stage, and by the mid-1970s he was an accomplished keyboardist, on acoustic and electric varieties, as well as accordion, performing in clubs and bars before he could drive. As a musician and a fan, he was a regular at Boston area dens of musical pleasure including The Rat, The Club, Cantones and the Cantab Lounge.
Cleve’s wife Diane Dodge says, “At Malden Catholic High School, at age 15 he wrote, produced, directed and scored original music for several plays. He made his friends act in them. Performances were reviewed in the school paper as ‘Successful, but subversive and dark.’” She adds, “He was so proud when the school and the priests censored him!”
During a multi-decade musical career that would crash a Discogs page, Cleve was affiliated with a dizzying array of Boston bands, as a keyboardist and producer: The Suade Cowboys; The Fabulous Billygoons; The Space Negros; Cane & Able; The Swinging Erudites; Blue Heaven; The Dawgs; Wheelers & Dealers; The I-Tones; Waitiki. He toured with Boston rock heroes The Del Fuegos and Barrence Whitfield & The Savages, and collaborated with artists far beyond Boston, from Mark Mothersbaugh to Dimitri From Paris and Juan Garcia Esquivel. Fittingly, he was also a minister in the Church of the SubGenius – the affiliation that birthed his Brother Cleve moniker.
Along the way, Cleve developed the other skillset for which he became equally known: Mixologist and Tiki Bar Historian. What started out as a mere fascination in the 1980s – and included a stint as bartender at the legendary Hoodoo Barbeque – snowballed into a reputation that would send him around the world. Diane explains, “His first Tiki drink was a scorpion bowl at The Kowloon in Saugus when he played there in a ‘show band.’ And the rest is history.” Along these lines, many would agree that his worlds collided most perfectly as Combustible Edison’s keyboardist and resident cocktail shaker master in the 1990s.
Locally, he was known as “The Godfather of Boston’s cocktail scene” (Boston Globe, Liza Weisstuch), and during the ‘90s and 2000s he combined multiple passions into one incredible package, touring from Russia to India to Mexico – helming seminars on cocktail making and nightlife history in the afternoons and evenings, and then DJing afterwards, late into the Mai Tai-soaked night.
Cleve never ceased to enthrall audiences as a DJ, because his only goal was to open minds to music that they had never heard before. From obscure Bollywood tunes to Exotica and “space age bachelor pad music,” old and new; cool jazz, funky soul and “tears in your beer” Country; punk, reggae, Blowfly and Dolomite; and the occasional Zappa blast, of course.
Cleve passed away on September 9, 2022 at the age of 67. His was a life well-lived, and a legacy that will never be forgotten by his friends and fans around the globe.
His vinyl collection was renowned, and for very good reason. We at Want List Records are honored to be able to share it with the public, working to do so in collaboration with his wife Diane.
CHECK OUT THESE LINKS FOR SOME KILLER CLEVE AUDIO MIXES:
BOBBY TOOMEY/BROTHER CLEVE – RIP
By Lester Miserables (used with permission)
Another void, another premature passing; Robert Toomey, the “beatific Brother Cleve” exits the stage, sullying scores of hearts and minds he graced with his consistent euphonic charms.
He cooked up a remarkable career in the global empire. The urban cool cat, street ambassador, musical wizard, DJ, mixologist emeritus, dean of kitsch culture and dispenser of mirth and medications: a unique vocational admixture indeed.
Bobby embraced a career of creative performance art with aplomb, adding luminosity and joy for his extended circle of friends.
Bobby, the genius, the mystic, turning his hobbies into careers and sustaining them one and all. A battery of musical talents in one package; “the session guy”, the “go/to” player, adept, improvisational, in any genre, in any pinch, be it jazz, funk, grunge, punk, reggae, or fusion; the reliable keyboard relief pitcher — “the fingers” — throwing strikes.
From the suburbs of Boston, Bobby got right down in the “business” during Boston’s renaissance music scene of the 1970s. Hacking the “ghetto inspired” moniker, ”Brother Cleve” — with his Irish Catholic roots no less — he drove it home ,..it stuck,… Cleve the cartoon, Cleve the meme, and finally Cleve “the brand” plugging the name into the pop culture mediascape.
And then years later, in his final act, he gets the “press,” the “ink,” the “recognition” in the periodicals of record, he forged his “legacy” before clocking out at the height of his game at a gig in L.A.
No unnecessary static, no distortion — Mr. terra firma — always grounded: clean signaling and a controlled delivery, a conversation with Bobby Toomey was itself a verbal “jam session,” with stories, anecdotes and adventures in satire.
“Bobby, that’s you sitting next to Frank Zappa, right?”
“Yes, he was somewhat rattled and defensive that night…there were reporters feeding him a lot of dumb questions.”
The ubiquitous Cleve; climbing a little higher after each decade, omnipresent: the convivial clairvoyant, resilient and aspirational.
“Cleve, you were in LA last week, hanging out with Tom Waits?”
“He was in the studio next door when I was on call to record backup keyboards; ….we talked war stories, ha-ha, he has many…”
At his summit in the summer of 2022, the “inventive genius” closes out with a meritorious reputation for his uncanny ability to KEEP THE PARTY GOING to the very end.
THE EARLY YEARS IN BOSTON: THE 1970s
In the throes of Boston’s late seventies urban decay; a robust underground music culture would be activated; creating a “scene,” an “underground”; with plenty of “night crawling”; it was an open freeway for Bobby’s curiosities.
He could recall the sorties into some of the darkest local dives — beyond the reach of the law, Chris Mahar and Bobby — exploring the city in the convertible Chevy Impala: the urban ginboat with the mushy shocks, bouncing from Jamaica Plain to Medford — in search of last call — with Magnus Johnstone’s reggae tapes playing on a cassette player.
Nasty places with no windows; like the Ancient Order of the Hibernians in Dudley Square — a real danger zone — Bobby and Chris at 3 a.m. in a booth, guzzling 16 oz seventy five cent ‘Gansetts; steps away from the bookies, leg breakers and arsonists, getting the full immersion, the cinema verité — Chris and Bobby starring in their own film noir, “Descent into a local hellhole.”
Dawn’s light and then back to the boat with the body rot; bouncing down Washington St; the warm beers under the legs; the after-gig night cap — off the beaten path. It was a visceral experience with specific meaning to a brain at peak voltage.
“Was that Cleve in the Impala convertible with that witch doctor head-dress? I think I saw him in the combat zone around 2 am?”
“Was that before or after he was shaken down by the Staties?”
He talked his way out of that one.
THE 1980’s AND THE “JOY OF NIHILISM”
By the 1980s, you might say he embarked on his “session” period, although the number of bands eludes me — someone may have a better list: the Suade Cowboys, Del Fuegos, Barrence Whitfield, Combustible Edison, the Billygoons, Iron Liver, Dragonfly — help me out here — plus numerous stand-ins for band keyboardists gone missing.
The seasoned session musician/band leader, he could read charts, knew theory, he could pick up any melody and sync it — in a flash: the nimble hand, the hired gun, the accomplished virtuoso thrown into different venues in city after city; the typsy gypsy filling a void.
That was the bandwidth of Brother Cleve. Jazz, funk, grunge, punk, and reggae, a crystal ear and at ease in the recording studio where the money mattered.
But what of his own compositions during this early period, what did he call it? “Punk funk fusion” — one part Miles Davis (Bitches Brew), one part Pere Ubu, a dash of Devo, Kraftwerk and Dub: compositions with humor, irony, and self-deprecation.
“Gonna soaka my brain in alcohol.” screamed Bobby over the keyboards in the early 80s; obviously being true to his verse.
“Gonna pepper my brain in alcohol.”
The premier Suade Cowboy; belting it out; on a Thursday night in the early 1980s; from the gritty music box that was Cantone’s bar at the foot of the financial district.
When the sun rose, Bobby struck a quiet demeanor, filtering out the spoils of the evening’s boozy refuse. A master of control; he straddled the dualism of his generation’s “two worlds”; the moral/formal and the depraved: playing the straddle if you will.
At night you might be throwing feces at the mother culture and on the flip side you might be gladhanding the powers that be. Cleve, later emerging from his musician’s lair to the local gin mill bar, would playback his stories, lecturing on the “Joy of Nihilism,” with a grin and a wink.
“Cleve, is that you talking with Reverend Stang at the Subgenius convention?
“Yup, they submitted my name for the position of Bishop in the sub G ‘high’ church election committee.”
When the 1980s bacchanals were in full bloom, spontaneous raves of crazy joy got loose; like the hot August jam sessions with a pop-up band called “Iron Liver”: hacking original songs and throwing lyrical missives at the wall to see if they could stick.
Bobby, that is to say, …Cleve… that is to say at these particular “spirited” sessions …”Zachypar” …. the multifarian name he afforded briefly: played host and ringmaster to the frolics.
“Zachypar ….. do we need a horn section for this?
“Don’t worry, I’m going to add cowbells right after that last refrain, heh, heh, pass me a cold one, thanks. I think you should leave that phrase in about seeing your reflection in the porcelain bowl, ha, ha, ha,”
Cleve, making mischief, the provocations, the zingers, the double entendres.
“Maybe we should call the band the Naked Apes” — quoth the maestro.
ENTER THE 90s AND WHITHER THOU GOEST BROTHER CLEVE?
By the nineties, many of the late seventies rock proletariat were packing their social baggage away: some embracing the froth of easy money; some comfortably withdrawn and some living lives of quiet desperation. The thermal energy of the underground culture began to cool at the culmination of an epic 40 year social/political sizzle.
The hip tribes of rebellion splintered at the millennium turnover… and people lost track until the internet showed up to gather all the lost souls.
Call it “Blues for a Tormented Empire.”
He prevailed, of course, the mission in focus, building the reputation — music gigs and DJ gigs — getting booked across the Globe — London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Moscow Bombay… and in between these sessions production work with Sony Pictures, Universal Studios. I can’t even catalog it.
“Seen Cleve, lately?”
“Yah he’s in Mumbai now! I saw him in LA two weeks ago.”
“Did you say Mumbai or LA?”
“Well, he left Mumbai for L.A., he was called in to do a gig there — an outdoor rave, about 15,000- 20,000 people — more perhaps.”
“A gig? But what about the bar business?”
“Yeah, he’ll be back in town in two weeks, there’s a bar in Porter Square that’s opening; he’s going to host there for a few months to gin it up.”
“Gin it up?”
“Yeah, Cleve is doing a lot of PR for new venues — he’s training staff for exotic cocktails — he’s doing seminars for some of his sponsors.”
The local club scene veteran had launched another career — the mixologist/session man — climbing up the mothership’s ladder to the bridge; the garage band war wagons traded in for intercontinental flight.
In the nineties, he mints his relationship with Lady Diane and sets off to write another chapter in the new century.
“Cleve… is that really you and Diane standing in front of the Taj Mahal?”
MILLENNIALS AND MIXOLOGY IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM
The two-career man — now master mixologist — was kicking off the next century by resurrecting all the forgotten tiki drinks, tropical rum floats, Chinese restaurant specials, Waldorf cordials, Manhattans, Martinis — the sexy but neglected medications of the last — lost generation — (Hemingway/Fitzgerald — and they could drink).
Harnessing the catalog of cocktails – from Havana to Marrakesh – he put intrigue into the standardized / mundane drink menus.
A curator of mankind’s “antifreeze” in a paid commercial context, no less. Checkmate $!
As the internet schemes came and went, he just relentlessly honed his craft; the mix master himself; a dash of mischief, a shot of levity, holding down the vibe in a sea of froth.
No way, never did he gild his status to put him out of contact or defer you to an agent; he was socially game whether it be skybox seats at the Celtics game or a gin joint shitshack in West Quincy. Yup, West Quincy.
“Living to tell the tale!” barked Cleve at the 15 or so bar patrons.
This was at the Charles River bar in Cambridge. One of the former local underground dons happened to sit at the bar this day to imbibe; an older veteran from the over-the-top underground-nightclub-crawlings. He — the reformed — wandered in after a 20 year hiatus on one of those New England late spring days when the seasonal shift was robust enough to lift your crushed spirits.
The hiatus — retrenchment perhaps — included career discipline (sobriety), financial reset (a real job), hygiene upgrades (healthcare/electric toothbrush), nuptials (voluntary), mortgage (manageable), kids, tuition — the whole middle class curriculum. Call it the death of punk freewheeling, just another hipster with gray streaks, corralled and bridled.
He — the urban rounder — who had valiantly fought back against his own indulgences and round the clock drinking sessions gave in to a momentary lapse. He untethered his leash and headed toward the stylish Cambridge saloon without giving the family notice.
“I just need a drink; I guess, maybe this is where the kids’ drink,” he thought to himself, sitting down at the bar.”
Looking up to order, there is Cleve — thirty years later — in trimmed go-tee, shades and a white pork pie; a stainless steel shaker rattling above eye level, smirking, entertaining a gaggle of 15 to 20 Gen X souls who were feverishly medicating.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, he lives to tell the tales!” Cleve rejoined loudly.
The tales of course were the unspoken darkside decades; the crude late-night fevers of the flesh — too racy and grim to reveal — ecstasy and savagery clashing nightly in the saloons when most of Main street was shuttered down out of fear of moral collapse. All those bad memories, all those depravities, now locked away, suppressed, unspoken: the 1970s lurid carnival now locked in the collective memory vaults.
Cleve was smirking as the veteran patron stood there blinking.
“Bobby, dude, I mean Cleve, holy shit — it’s been years”
The other patrons shifted from the ripple of the drama.
“I gotcha pal,” volleyed Cleve, “have a beer first and then you can chase it with this elixir — this ‘psychotropic’ broth — I’m going to lay on you! Believe me this will send you into oscillations!”
There was the great Oz himself; scripting “it” — “the encounter” in real time; right in the urban theater — another act, another sub-plot to play out — Bob Toomey/Brother Cleve as director.
“Don’t even!” he convulsed laughing, his index finger twirling.
The mixology; the bar as stage; the engagement, it was a natural transition of course — the ubiquitous Mr. Cleve himself on display, doing PR. He was sought after — a hot property as it goes — very connected, with wings on fire.
“Drink up Bunky!,ha, ha!”
FAST FORWARD A DECADE LATER; THERE’S A BUDDHA IN THE SEAPORT
In the new plaza along Seaport Avenue just south of the Federal courthouse — Boston’s unimaginative “Houston style” pop up development, leases some of the priciest commercial square footage in the continental US.
Among the glazed facades, nondescript metal panels, and flattened geometries was a French Creperie –ground zero — in the plaza, but still kind of a sterilized commercial front yard.
A thirty foot glass storefront; a lobby bar; stark white, a postmodern minimalist cathedral — the “Creperie” — with its faux chic hipness; just another register for millennial plastic.
The chrome plated high-chair style bar stools hugging the twenty foot island parabola with the white polished Corian top and wine glass trees hanging like vines was backed up against a full feature wall of pastel colored victuals.
On the half inch glass shelves were the ‘ranks’ in full dress, a generous line up of fermented five star generals in the upper shelves. A top brass ensemble of righteous alchemy.
The patrons — a mix of kids and elders; gray mares and ponies — had cozied in at the bar. Seaport Ave on the waterfront, a few miles from where it all started.
Exec: “Who is this guy Brother Cleve?”
Bar mgr: “He’s a mixologist, he’s practically rewritten the book on exotic cocktails! I’ll send you a link on youtube.”
Exec: “And you want to do what?”
Bar mgr: “Put him on the payroll and keep him at the bar”
(Pause, youtube,..web search – minutes later)
Exec: “Ok, let’s put him on the payroll, I’ll send a request to HR and copy you.”
Over in the corner was a distinguished figure of ‘cool’ dressed sartorially stylistically edgy, and standing as one with the crowd of gabby youth, polishing a brandy snifter before punching letters into his phone; mapping out his monthly globetrot.
“Hon, let me introduce you to this guy.”
“Nice to meet you Mr. Cleve,” she whispered with a raised eyebrow. “your friend told me you got married at an Elvis Chapel in Las Vegas?”
“Oh yuh, we took the vows and then the Elvis impersonator came over to Diane and I and sang ‘Love me tender’ — it was very touching, poignant even.”
“I was in tears … from my hangover, that is. It is Vegas after all!”
The story was true, of course, and relevant for the moment. The bar needed authenticity and a host with creds.
On one of those perfect summer days, the city in a bath of light — the bistro in the COVID era — with the outdoor tables and vertical plantings was like an outdoor pleasure spa: like a scene out of the Nile thousands of years back.
At the reception counter, standing next to a ‘Rubenesque’ with the big menus was the main feature; the master himself; his nibs; beaming at the irony of it all: his “hipness” presiding over the benefactions like Buddha; the Bodhisattva, blessing the sacraments of modern consumption.
“I’ve got a real treat for you” he smiled and then signaled the staff.
“By the way, I think I’m on the Betty Ford Center hit list now.”
DRINK SOMETHING STOUT IN REMEMBRANCE OF THEE
One of Bobby’s closer peers noted that you didn’t drink with Bob Toomey; you took ‘communion’ with him. Not the high church toll booth type where you deposit the confession and then gleam off on the superhighway of sin.
You ‘get down’ with Cleve; get on the same frequency; your flushing out the frontal lobes, forgetting your shitty trespasses, shelving your recriminations — there — in the mercantile rectory; gulping round after round of holy water. Basting the neurons before they reboot the next day.
These ‘sessions, boozy baptismals – revivals’ were essentially a comedy hour. The whispers erupting to guffaws, the vocals turned up, booze fueled declarations spewed with abandon, uproarious anecdotes, howling laughter at the days absurdities, passing on the giddy vibrations, and dispelling the tavern’s formal room chill; the solo patrons jumping in on the nonsense. A far cry from the morbid dive bar ‘informals.’
2 a.m. the lights up, and there you are – blotto, kippered — sitting amongst a cadre of schwacked disciples; a bunch of shitfaced gnostics.
Memorable times they were, he noted — hosted by the velvet Godfather himself — the prelate of jubilation, still rocking in the millennia. “The man that nosed dived into oblivion,” to borrow his phrase.
DOES ANYONE HAVE A RECIPE?
The bells toll, but there’s still work to be done.
A symbol for his namesake: a majestic cocktail — in his honor — in cyberspace; in the server farms; the archives and apps: on the actual menus: yes, the genius deserves his own drink.
Imagine — in the near future — staggering into a high-end bistro; eyes crossed; sniveling at the barista and begging for an aperitif called “a Brother Cleve.”
Well, enough then, gotta go; there’s tears in my beers. RIP Brother: thank you and amen for all that you’ve done. We’ll see you in the Smithsonian.