Alongside fellow contenders like Johnny Ramone, Cheetah Chrome became one of the titanic, blistering guitarists launching the first wave of CBGB-era punk into the stratosphere of American culture. Yet his origins erupted a few years earlier in down-and-out Cleveland. As an authentic, no-bullshit rock and roll soldier, he helped propel two groundbreaking units there: Rocket from the Tombs, with David Thomas of Pere Ubu, and the Dead Boys, with his mate Stiv Bators. Together, these bands fomented a warped sonic renaissance and soon rendezvoused with history.
Since leading the attack with tunes like the Dead Boys' "Sonic Reducer," Chrome has taken a slightly crooked path by working with a variety of equally laudable figures, such as Ronnie Spector, Nico, Jeff Dahl and more recently New York Dolls alum Sylvain Sylvain, his partner in the Batusis. As his memoir A Dead Boy's Tale: From The Front Lines of Punk Rock recounts, street smarts are a crucial part of his DNA; hence, his new album, the swaggering Solo (incredibly, Chrome's first full-length solo outing), evokes a gritty spirit of survival without hauling along tons of sentimentality.
Rocks Off's David Ensminger reached Chrome on the road before his gig Friday at Fitzgerald's with Houston's Born Liars, the Guillotines and the Drunks.
Rocks Off: I know you are surviving in the middle of incredible flux in the industry. What lessons did you learn during the early years that you carry forward into the new environment? Cheetah Chrome: Well, mainly that you can't be a prick and win the game in the end. When I started out, the music business was a very dirty game, and we were very naive boys from Cleveland that wanted to be rock and roll stars. And while the people we met were the first people we were exposed to in the business, we were far from the first batch of naive kids from the Midwest they'd met.
We signed some very cruel documents that were standard in the industry at the time, and to this day I am trying to extricate myself from a couple of them. It's nice to be in a position now where I can offer a band a contract that isn't basically a printed minefield -- that comes from the perspective of an artist, not a greedy bean-counter. We have attorneys that rein us in from being too idealistic, and their Valium bills must be immense.
How would you describe the ethos or character of Plowboy Records, your new home? Honesty and quality, in everything we do. We are our target audience, and we know what we want to see in a record store, or a club.
Solo culls both from material meant for an ill-fated CBGB Records in the 1990s and work with the Batusis on Smog Veil with Sylvain Sylvain during the 2000s. How would you describe working with both Hilly from CBGB and Sylvain on those efforts? Well, Hilly was a great sounding board. He knew what was good and what wasn't. I respected his opinion, and I miss having it available today. We were good friends. And having him and Genya both involved in the recordings was nice because they had a strong relationship. A lot of trust existed between them.
Those two people are the reason I'm alive today. They talked me into going into rehab, not going on an European tour that 10 to 1, likely, I would not have come home from. Sylvain, he is the heart and soul of rock and roll itself. He has the best instincts and is one of the most generous players there is. I love him; he's like a brother. He just moved to Nashville, so I suspect we may be doing something new soon.
"Stare into the Night" feels like it could have been a Dead Boys tune, while "No Credit" churns like Link Wray meets Ryan Adams. Knowing these tunes feel solid and familiar, why have you released so little solo material, like the "Still Wanna Die" single years ago? Actually, both songs would have been Dead Boys songs had we lasted to a third studio record. I was working on both when the band broke up. As to why I didn't release more solo stuff -- mistrust of the industry. Once bitten, twice shy. I didn't try. I did turn down some shitty offers.
Story continues on the next page.
In the process of writing A Dead Boy's Tale, what side of you had to be confronted that you did not expect? The author side! I had no idea that I could do it, or that I would enjoy it. Everything else I had been through numerous times in my head. I had come to terms with myself by the time it was written.
Record execs in the late 1970s should have been more patient and waited for punk rock to reach Middle America successfully, you've argued. Why do you think that places like Cleveland and Akron did catch on early in the Midwest, while whole swaths of the country did not for years? Look at it now -- it hasn't changed, even with the Internet. It isn't that they don't hear about something soon enough, it's that it takes them a long time to accept new things that aren't lowest-common-denominator commercial crap. Concerning Cleveland and Akron, my reasoning on that has always been that we had great radio, groundbreaking radio.
People seem to underestimate the sociopolitical consciousness of the Dead Boys, but tunes like "Sonic Reducer" and "3rd Generation Nation" seem steeped in keen observations -- powerful commentary about the state of the world, not just jukebox-punk singles. That's funny because Stiv wrote one and Dave the other, and you never met two more different people. I never did feel we made a powerful statement unless the statement was, "The whole world is going to hell, and we're the spearhead of the movement!"
I always tried to get more political stuff into things, used to say we played "dick" songs: they were all about sex and partying. "Ain't Nothing To Do" I always considered a political song. "Not Anymore" was a definite social statement. I used to rag on Stiv because, of course, as soon as he gets in the Lords of the New Church, it was ALL political!!!
"I got a dead man inside me that didn't wanna die," you sing on "East Side Story," while another side of you shines like a new dime or the sun. As Walt Whitman once declared, we contain multitudes. As you've reached this point in your career, have you reconciled those sides? Nope, can't say I have. I can only play "whack a mole" with the sides. And I don't always win.
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