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An Interview With Cheetah Chrome , Author of A Dead Boy’s Tale: From the Front Lines of Punk Rock

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Musician-author Cheetah Chrome, is the real deal – a punk musician playing in bands, including the Dead Boys, before they had that name for that genre of music. 

I used to really be into punk music, as I talked about here and here, though as Cheetah says the music I was into, American Hardcore, was not his favorite.

Still, how often does one get the chance to interview someone who saw early shows by bands ranging from Television to Devo to The Police and Talking Heads, would do drugs with just about every musician you can think of, hung out with the Ramones? Plus the comment in the promotional material mentioning he was once declared dead?

Yeah, doing this interview was a no-brainer. There was so much drug use described I was worried about getting a contact high but as he says in this interview he did that not to brag but to warn others.

A Dead Boy’s Tale is a fascinating read, not just revealing about the author’s life but also informative about the music industry in general and this genre in particular. While there have been great books – especially the oral histories – describing the advent of punk music this memoir provides a fascinating more personal approach and it works well.

The book’s foreword is by Legs McNeil, who wrote Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, one of the best books about punk music.

He refers twice in the interview to Stiv Bator, a friend and the vocalist for the Dead Boys before going on to lead The Lords of the New Church.

Scott: You tell some hilarious stories so I want to start there. For example, I love the story about Iggy Pop and when you gave him downers and how it cost you a decent show out of him and the Stooges (at least the first time you saw them.) Do you two stay in touch at all?

Nah, I don’t think I’ve seen him since 1993 or thereabouts. During my blackout years. The last time I actually remember well was after Stiv died; he did a very nice video tribute for the memorial in Cleveland, and I thanked him.

I also love the story about you pantsing a member of Devo and CBGBs. You alluded to rumors of a rivalry – can you elaborate on those rumors? Also what do you think of Devo’s “comeback” in the last year?

There was never any rivalry; maybe they thought there was, but if anything we were big supporters of Devo. I remember we brought a ton of people down to see them at CB’s the first time they played. There would have been no point to a rivalry, we were so different musically, and we drew different audiences for the most part. They got all the nerds!

I know nothing of the reunion other than that they did one; I hope they have fun!

I expected to learn a lot about you but you taught me a few things I didn’t know about other artists too. For example, I had no idea that David Bowie wrote “All the Young Dudes” partly to save the career of Mott the Hoople. Was one of the reasons you wrote the book to not just tell your story but to also share your knowledge of music and the industry?

Well, I wanted to share how much rock and roll meant to me. I was a huge fan before we made it, and was very influenced by the whole rock culture, which was very different then. Magazines like Rock Scene and Creem were vital to us, kept us informed and inspired; they were my lifeline to something bigger than Cleveland. They covered all of the good bands, like the Stooges, Bowie and Mott, and I was a fountain of useless knowledge about those bands!

What’s it like to have the great Legs McNeil say this of you: “If Stiv was the front man and the face of the Dead Boys, then Cheetah Chrome held their soul. For all his fuck-ups and addictions, Cheetah was a true rock and roller who never compromised his vision.” Speaking of Legs, which are your favorite books about punk? Legs’ is a classic.

Well it’s very nice, and much better than some of the things he says to me in person! We’re good friends, and we can burn on each other pretty good! I love Please Kill Me, all of those people dishing on each other, whew! And I Slept With Joey Ramone is great, it really brought back the feeling you had when you were there in the early days. Punk Rock: An Oral History by John Robb is a very good account of the early days of Punk in the UK.

What was it like writing this book? Was it difficult? What was the hardest part? The easiest?

It was a lot harder than I imagined; I thought I’d be writing 10 or more pages a day and just breeze through it. Unh unh, no way, Jose! In reality, I was lucky to get 3 a day, with all of the fact checking and the fact that I can’t really type! The hardest part was the chronology, when things happened. I can remember what things happened, but not necessarily when they happened; and I had to stop and really think to remember some very hazy things.

The easiest was picking the cover photo. My editor found it online and I just said “Wow! That’s it!”

You make a comment on page 79 I hoped you would elaborate on: “The funny thing is, When That ’70s Show first came on TV, I was floored by how much it really was like my life back then. I mean, it was exact.” That may speak for itself actually but I figure more of my readers know that show than know you so any thoughts on that?

It’s just funny how realistic the portrayal of the time was on that show, how innocent it all seems now and how it was the exact opposite then. We did spend a lot of time hanging out in somebody’s basement, stoned, and listening to records. The scenes around the table always remind me of that. I, of course, was more like the “Hyde” character than any of the others, but waaaaay more extreme.

The promotion for this book refers to the Dead Boys as one of the greatest punk bands ever. Do you agree with that description and, if so, what makes the Dead Boys one of the best?

Well, we could play, mainly. We had all put in the hours on our instruments, and as a band. We rehearsed a LOT. And we were hungry, we wanted to make it. Bigger than we did, that’s for sure! What I think makes us one of the best is that we were a hell of a great live band; and that the music stands up today as well as it did then. “Young Loud and Snotty” in particular …

What do you think the biggest misconceptions are about the punk music scene of which you are a part or, heck, about you yourself?

That punks were dumb, violent thugs; we weren’t dumb.

On a related note, what do you think punk music of that era should be known for?

The variety of music, the broad range that there was. It was like the sixties all over again. You had us, the Damned, the Pistols, the Stranglers, the Ramones, the Dictators, the Talking Heads, Blondie, the Clash – just to name a few. No two sounded the same. It was a great time in music.

My interest in punk music was more about straight edge and the hardcore scene. What are some of your favorite bands from that genre?

Don’t have any. For hardcore and straight edge, to me, they all sounded the same. No two sounded different.

You mention that the Beastie Boys and Guns and Roses, among others, later covered the Dead Boys songs. What’s that like to have that stuff covered by others?

Well, it’s nice. There’s the financial aspect of course, and it’s nice to know you got through to someone. A lot of times I thought we hadn’t.

You wrote a lot about your drug use and your pranks. At first I thought you were sort of bragging about all the hijinks but then things got serious and scary with the overdosing. What was your intentions there – were you trying to help pass on a message regarding drugs? And am I right that you considered the pranks to sort of be part of your act?

The pranks were a constant part of life with Stiv Bators, Dead Boys or no Dead Boys. We woke up scheming daily on ways to get each other, and we teamed up on other people. You had to be on your toes! But the whole band had a sort of A Hard Day’s Night, Marx Brothers mentality. We were like the “The Five Stooges.” I remember having rooms full of people on the floor just having what was for us a normal conversation!

I was definitely trying not to make drugs look glamorous, more trying to point out how insidious they are, how over years of thinking you aren’t hurting yourself suddenly you realize that you will never be the same, how quickly things can go South. I hope maybe I might save some kids some trouble if they read the book, maybe they’ll see it’s not something they want to go through.

You talk at one point about temping to make ends meet and that reminds me of interviewing a rock singer, Vic Bondi of Articles of Faith, and giving him a hard time about working for Microsoft (to me that seemed pretty “unpunk) but I later decided that was a dickish thing for me to say because what matters is the music not how one makes the money to keep doing the music, right?

Hey, I always worked up until the band made it. There was a long time where I didn’t, so I’d deal a little, had a lot of girlfriends that took care of me and lived hand to mouth on the streets when I was an addict. It didn’t particularly bother me when I finally had to man up and admit I needed another source of income, it was actually sort of a relief. Nothing wrong with working, having an honest job.

The book’s ending is sweet especially this comment:

My past is very much a big part of my life now. I no longer run from it. I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I’ve ever been, and I’ve mostly come to terms with the bad things I’ve done over the years. The important thing to me is that I don’t do them now, and that I do everything in my power to teach my son the importance of right and wrong and fairness to others, to hopefully let him have the benefit of learning from my mistakes. One of the things I’m happiest and proudest of if that my son has already had a much better start in life than I did, and I’ve already been more of a father to him than mine was to me.

This begs the question: How much does he know about what you did when you were younger?

Well, he’s only five and a half. He knows about the bands, he knows about my childhood. He’s been to Cleveland, seen the projects where I grew up, where I used to ride my bike, go to school. Pretty much he knows about anything he asks me about – I’m very honest with him, and eventually he’ll know everything. I mean, he’s already starting to read pretty well, and the book is lying around the house! We’re very close, very good friends, and I make it a point not to lie to my friends.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • http://oakhaus.blogspot.com Bill Sherman

    I loved the Dead Boys and remember seeing ‘em play near the tail end of their career: a great garage-y punk band.