Cheetah Chrome Coming Home
The seed The Dead Boys planted was rude and crude, and when the NE Ohio streets gave birth to its first true American punk rock band, music would never be the same again.
The Cleveland band’s young guitarist, Gene O’Connor who went by the moniker “Cheetah Chrome”, blazed a pioneering punk trail that had never before been seen or heard, if only for a moment in time.
The Dead Boys came about at a time when the music world was aching for a new sound separate from the comfortable tedium of the bland sound of 1970s rock and roll.
Steve “Stiv” Bators’ Midwest snarl and gravely screams combined with Chrome’s machine-gun-like guitar riffs, and the Dead Boys spewed forth an in-your-face rawness that took their influences of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley and smacked the rock world upside the head with shameless revelry.
It’s been 33 years since that less than humble beginning. Long gone is the orange-spiked quaff Chrome sported back in the day. It has long since been replaced Chrome’s shiny dome but with it has come a wiser, more introspective head.
Chrome has resided in Nashville, TN for the past 15 years and is married with a young son. The storied drug scene that was part and parcel to the early punk scene has vanished for Chrome.
But don’t be fooled. Chrome may have aged, but the piss and vinegar is still brewing. He has emerged in a new band with New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain called Batusis. His new book is called Cheetah Chrome: A Dead Boy’s Tale: From the Front Lines of Punk Rock (Voyageur Press). The 55 year old Chrome clearly has a new lease on life.
“You don’t party as much,” he says regarding the passage of time,“You don’t stay up late. You gotta be in shape for the show. With the Dead Boys, we were never in good shape for the shows.” He adds, “We always did good shows. If we weren’t on drugs, we probably couldn’t have. If we weren’t as racked, we wouldn’t have been as energetic.”
The origin of the name Batusis comes from the go-go dance performed on the ‘60s comic hero TV show Batman. The fictional Gotham caped wonder would bring his hand swimmingly across his eyes with fingers parted. The move is mostly known from its performance by Uma Thurman and John Travolta in the movie Pulp Fiction.
Batusis plays old-style punk that combines Chrome’s buzz saw guitar and Sylvain’s glam rock swagger. The mixture has resulted in a 4-song EP entitled simply Batusis, to be released June 1 on Smog Veil Records.
The songs give a new luster to the unpolished stylings of punk’s golden era. Cuts of the EP include Chrome’s ferocious “Bury You Alive”, Sylvain’s piano panache on “What You Lack in Brains”, the punk surf “Big Cat Stomp” and “Blues’ Theme” cover, originally done by Davie Allan and the Arrows for Roger Corman’s 1966 biker flick The Wild Angels starring Peter Fonda.
“Sylvain is a blast to play with, he can play anything,” Chrome says.”He’s got great instincts; he’s got a lot of great energy.”
“Sylvain would come to Nashville and hang out and jam. If I was down in Atlanta (where Sylvain resides) we would play. That went on for a few years.”
Frank Mauceri, co-owner of Smog Veil Records, and Bill Moriarty, a former Creem magazine writer, both knew Chrome and Sylvain were talking and one day decided the two punk legends should form a super group.
“Things just snowballed from there,” recalls Chrome. “We got in the studio. We got Thommy (Price) and Enzo (Penizzotto) of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts who had supported me in the past. It was great getting those guys in.”
Batusis had their premier gig this past March at the annual SXSW showcase and the reception was overwhelming.
With their new rhythm section busy playing other gigs during the Austin, TX festival Chrome enlisted drummer Lez Warner (The Cult) and bassist Chuck Garric (Alice Cooper) to play with Batusis.
“It was great,” he says of the annual new music showcase. “We were very pleased with the results and it was well-attended. People seemed to love us. The fan reaction online was good.”
Before Batusis puts together its first full-length recording, the bat boys will hit the US tour trail, stopping in at Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom July 21 as part of 12 show tour in The States, following nine shows in England and Scotland.
While Chrome and Sylvain are hopeful that Batusis catches on here and abroad there are no thoughts of shopping for a bigger label.
“I want to stick with Smog Veil. Frank is the only person I like to deal with. He’s very appreciative of the music. He is straight and up front. It’s none of the bullsh*t you deal with other labels. The guy’s a jewel.”
The old punk regime’s following is still very healthy in Europe, more so than here in The States. Chrome attributes this to appreciation for quality music, and he doesn’t pull in any punches about it.
“The American people’s taste for sh*t knows no bounds. They want Brittany. They want Lady Gaga,” Chrome says, appalled. “They don’t want us. Things have been dumbed down here. People don’t necessarily go looking for good music. They take whatever is given to them. Anything they have to dig for is too much trouble.”
What has sustained loyal followings for bands like the Dead Boys, New York Dolls and other pioneering punk bands, here and overseas, is their roots.
“Guys in the New York Dolls and the Dead Boys … we never lost sight of our roots in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” explains Chrome. “ We come straight from Elvis and Chuck Berry. (It is) a total bloodline that a lot of punk bands today don’t have. They appreciate that more over there.”
Chrome formed the Dead Boys with singer Stiv Bators from Youngstown, rhythm guitarist Jimmy Zero (William Wilden), bassist Jeff Magnum (Jeff Halmagy) and drummer Johnny Blitz (John Madansky). The group was an evolution from Rocket from the Tombs, formerly known as Frankenstein, in 1976.
At the prompting of the late, legendary Joey Ramone, the band moved to New York City and quickly gained a following for its outrageously lewd and obnoxious behavior and pure, unbridled, original punk sound.
In 1977, the band released its debut album, Young, Loud and Snotty. The single from that album, “Sonic Reducer” is the number that put them on the map and is to this day considered one of the most classic punk anthems.
The Dead Boys played with and became close friends of fellow Big Apple punks, the glam New York Dolls- Johnny Thunders, David Johansen, Arthur Killer Kane, Jerry Nolan and, of course, Sylvain Sylvain.
Sire Records was the creation of Seymour Stein and Richard Gottehrer. It was known for signing underground British bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cure, Depeche Mode and now set its sights on The Ramones, Talking Heads and The Dead Boys.
As the story goes, Sire attempted to mainstream this burgeoning punk sound but most of the US was not ready for it. This led to the demise of the Dead Boys, along with Chrome’s own departure from the band after he broke his wrist in 1979.
Chrome and the Dead Boys were living in NYC and along with extensive local touring, were heavily imbibing in the drug culture inherent with the times and punk environment. Fate struck the young Chrome one night at a roller disco party for the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards.
“I was with Richard Lloyd and Mick Jagger, and we were trying to race,” Chrome recollects. “I went to make a turn and one leg went one way the other went all the way out the other way. I tried to break my fall with my wrist.”
It was the beginning of the end for Chrome as a Dead Boy. His replacement was Hammer Damage’s George Cabaniss.
After releasing its second album, We Have Come for Your Children, in a way to exact revenge on the record label for pressuring the band to tone it down, Bators and the remaining Dead Boys sabotaged their contract, making the third album unreleaseable.
“They went on and did shows but I still had my stake in the band,” Chrome defends. “I wasn’t playing gigs. I also developed a worse drug habit. I was very frustrated. I would spend time at the Chelsea Hotel.”
Chrome fell into a spiraling drug funk. Disenchanted and frustrated, he could not perform with his bandmates.
“I was in New York, and I was very down-and-out. I was very addicted right up until about 1995. Especially after Stiv died, it was very rough. It was 1995 and Ilya (Erren Pardiñas, founder of Fly PR, which handles Chrome’s PR) had me clean up my act.”
Chrome would spend the next several years playing around New York City performing with the Stilettos, and his own band, Cheetah Chrome and the Casualties. He recorded “Still Wanna Die/Take Me Home”, recorded by Atlantic Records. He played on Ronnie Spector’s debut solo album Siren. He appeared on several recordings during the 1980s, most notably his own Cheetah Chrome and the Ghetto Dogs (Get Hip) and Jeff Dahl’s I Kill Me (Sympathy for the Record Industry). He also rejoined the Dead Boys for a reunion show during the late 1980s.
While Bator’s career would take off with Lords of the New Church in the ‘80s, his life was cut short in 1990 when he sustained injuries from being hit by a cab in France. He died of his injuries later that night after checking himself out of the hospital. Stiv was 41.
“With Stiv, we took to each other right away. He was my brother, my best friend. He was a great performer. One of the best.”
In 1995, Chrome moved to Nashville, Tennessee and recorded a live album, Alive in Detroit. In 2003, after the release of The Day the Earth Met the Rocket from the Tombs, he reformed Rocket From The Tombs with Steve Mehlman, Richard Lloyd (Television) and David Thomas and Craig Bell (both from Pere Ubu).
The band revived its career with tours between 2003 and 2006. It recorded some of the band’s old material for the first time in 2004. The recordings were released as Rocket Redux (SmogVeil). It was during this time that Chrome began jamming with Sylvain, who by now had moved to Atlanta.
“I moved to Nashville to get back into music more and I fell in love with the place,” Chrome admits. He also fell in love with his soon-to-be wife Anna, a native of Columbia, TN.
Whereas Batusis is the culmination of his camaraderie with Sylvain, Chrome’s new book is a final exorcising of the demons from his Dead Boy past.
“It was a matter of things coming together at the right time. I had thought about doing one before but I didn’t feel like writing and shopping it around. A good friend of mine works at a publisher. She said you should write a book. We got a deal signed and that was it.”
“There’s stuff I forgot that happened. I had to go online and research the chronology. I tried not to get too many people involved. I wanted it to be my take (on things).”
Chrome claims the book is “… not a tell-all book because I didn’t get tell-all money.” What it is is a look through the eyes of the Dead Boys’ guitarist who was declared one of Musician Magazine’s Top 100 Guitarists of all-time.
Chrome signed a deal with Voyager Press (MBI Publishing Company) and A Dead Boy’s Tale was written with a foreword from legendary punk rock journalist Legs McNeil. The book will be available September 15, 2010.
Through it all, Chrome has finally found happiness. With a new band, a new book, and a family he is finally living the American dream.
“I love it. It’s the best of both worlds. When I go to Europe I am really going to miss my son and family. On the bright side, I’ll take him to Vegas when we do rehearsals.”
Due to regular airplay being hard to come by and the limited number of alternative stations, bands like Batusis look to satellite radio with shows like “Dick Manitoba” and the “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” radio program on Sirius.
While Chrome has no illusions Batusis is going to dance its way into the homes of everyone, new life has been breathed into this former Dead Boy.
Stiv Bators wanted to be known as the guy who turned the lights out. Chrome wants to be remembered as “…the guy who turned the lights back on,” he says with a hearty laugh.
Batusis will be performing at the Beachland Ballroom, July 21.