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Jack Terricloth, punk rocker with a cabaret air, dies at 50
Pete Ventantonio, better known as Jack Terricloth, leader of the band World/Inferno Friendship Society, at Harefield Road, a bar in the Williamsburgh section of Brooklyn, on Dec. 30, 2008. Jack Terricloth, the devilishly smarmy vocalist and ringleader of the World/Inferno Friendship Society, who melded punk defiance with decadent theatricality, was found dead on Wednesday, May 12, 2021 at his apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. He was 50. Damon Winter/The New York Times.

by Ben Sisario

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- To old friends who met him backstage, he was Pete Ventantonio, a punk rocker from Bridgewater, New Jersey. On his records, he sometimes preferred whimsical credits like Marcello DiTerriclothia or Favorite Singer Who Goes With Everything.

But to the fans who swarmed his concerts, he was Jack Terricloth: the crooning, bellowing, devilishly smarmy vocalist and ringleader of the World/Inferno Friendship Society, a band with an ever-changing lineup that melded punk defiance with the decadent theatricality of Weimar-era cabaret.

Over more than 20 years, the group built a cultlike following with a rock sound embellished by piano, violin and a brass section. Its live shows — featuring Jack Terricloth in a dark suit and slicked-back hair, like a 1930s dandy — were key to the rise of the so-called punk cabaret movement in the mid-2000s, which also included Gogol Bordello and the Dresden Dolls.

Although largely ignored by the mainstream music industry, World/Inferno, which was based in New York City, made inroads with major arts institutions like the Public Theater in New York and the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, for one of Jack Terricloth’s signature projects: an exploration of the life of Peter Lorre, the goggle-eyed character actor known for movies like “Casablanca” and “M.”

“I find Peter Lorre a strangely charismatic, extremely creepy person, which I think most punk rockers can identify with,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 2009. “It’s the lure of the other. He’s the underdog, the outsider.”

To fans and fellow musicians, Jack Terricloth was an inspirational if remote figure who preached what he considered the central philosophical lesson of rock ’n’ roll: the freedom to reject society’s programming and reinvent oneself anew.

He was found dead Wednesday at his apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. He was 50. His sister, Lisa Castano, said the cause was hypertensive cardiovascular disease.

Born Peter James Ventantonio on June 11, 1970, and grew up in Bridgewater. His father, James Ventantonio, was a lawyer and municipal judge; his mother, Anita (Winkler) Ventantonio, was an elementary-school teacher.

As a teenager, he was inspired by punk rock and by stars like David Bowie who created their own personas, said Mike Cavallaro, a childhood friend who played with him in the band Sticks and Stones in the 1980s and ’90s.

By the mid-90s, as punk went mainstream, Peter began to conceptualize a genre offshoot that would incorporate theatrical presentation and a charismatic, world-weary frontman character. The World/Inferno Friendship Society’s first album, “The True Story of the Bridgewater Astral League,” in the style of a musical, was released in 1997.

“We are a punk-rock band, and we play punk-rock shows, but our music couldn’t be more different,” he told The Times. “Kids see us and think: ‘Guys in suits and makeup at a hard-core show? Come on.’ But we always have them by the third song, and then we’re something they have to accept about the punk rock scene and about the world. We’ve now entered into the great dialogue that is our culture.”

The album “Addicted to Bad Ideas: Peter Lorre’s Twentieth Century” (2007) became the band’s biggest moment. It was adapted into a self-described “punk songspiel” of the same title, performed at rock clubs and in high-profile arts series like Peak Performances at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

After its concerts, the group often mingled with its fans — who called themselves Infernites. Performances, like its elaborately staged annual Halloween shows, were embraced by both the audience and fellow musicians as communal rituals.

“He made you feel that you were part of a secret society,” Franz Nicolay, who played keyboards in the band in the 2000s, said in an interview.

In addition to his sister, Jack Terricloth is survived by his partner, Gina Rodriguez.

The group’s self-mythologizing sometimes made its history murky. Even the name Jack Terricloth has various apocryphal origin stories. Cavallaro recalled his friend acquiring it from an old girlfriend. Others said he took the name to distinguish himself from another Pete during his early days in the New Jersey punk demimonde.

The ultimate reason seemed to matter less than the act of self-reinvention, and his audience’s being in on the act.

Early last year, the World/Inferno Friendship Society released an album, “All Borders Are Porous to Cats,” and, like artists everywhere, was grounded by the pandemic. Yet Jack Terricloth was determined to find a way to preserve its Halloween tradition for its biggest fans, said Bill Cashman, his friend and the group’s manager.

So the band devised a scavenger hunt in which clues to the location of an outdoor performance were scattered throughout Brooklyn. About 50 to 60 fans made it to the show, on the roof of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum.

“It meant a lot to us to do that, even if we did it for a small amount of people,” Cashman said. “Just for the sake of doing our thing.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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