Cheetah Chrome had his bags packed when he got the call last February that his drummer, Matt Bach, had narrowly escaped death. Seems Bach was involved in an automobile collision just hours before a scheduled show in Detroit.
“Well, Matt is lucky to be alive,” explains Chrome over the phone from his Tennessee home. His Tom Waits-like rasp is disarming, and sometimes unintelligible. “He got rear-ended by a car at a stoplight, was pushed into oncoming traffic, and got broadsided by another car. The car was totaled.”
The Detroit show, of course, never happened.
Such fits and starts have dogged Chrome since the early 1970s when he started Rocket From the Tombs with Dave Thomas and Peter Laughner in Cleveland, through his days as guitar hero for New York-based Dead Boys, and later stints with a cadre of renowned pop-star fringe-dwellers including Nico, John Belushi, Bob Stinson and the Ghetto Dogs, among others.
Chrome’s seen ’em come and he’s seen ’em go. He once explained to me that “The legends part came natural, it’s the livin’ part that’s hard.” The words were profound. At the time the punk-rock forefather was squatting in an abandoned hotel on 14th Street in New York City.
For a time in the 1980s and 1990s, Chrome — a former major-label recording artist — was no stranger to substance abuse. He was also homeless. He’d often sleep in nightclub basements or on couches while still being treated like rock royalty by incredulous fans and generous club-owners happy to let the notorious guitar player drink for free.
Rock ’n’ roll survival
By the early 1990s, Chrome was mourning the loss of many of his closest friends, including Johnny Thunders, New York Dolls drummer Jerry Nolan and pal Stiv Bators, the Dead Boys front man. He became estranged from other cronies too, including Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards.
When Johnny Thunders died in New Orleans, an East Coast DJ with a debased sense of humor reportedly circulated T-shirts that read, “Cheetah’s Next.”
Chrome refused to become a cliché. Here was a cat whom the Damned had opened for on its first visit to the United States in 1977. He’s the guy who once beat up, then later befriended, dummy-punk Sid Vicious. Chrome had Lou Reed lined up to produce the Dead Boys’ third record and walked out of the meeting in disgust when Sire label chief Seymour Stein was negotiating with the other Dead Boys about the need to “go New Wave.”
Following a fluke arrest for jumping fare on the New York subway, Cheetah had seen enough and decided to clean up. Having finally received royalties from the 1993 Guns N’ Roses cover of the Dead Boys’ “Ain’t it Fun” on that year’s The Spaghetti Incident?, Chrome relocated to Nashville. He put together a new band. He got married.
These days Chrome describes himself as stable, “off the hard stuff,” and having a good time making music again.
Chrome’s one of the last of the real rock ’n’ roll outlaws (and, yes, the word is chosen carefully) still alive to tell his stories, which he does eloquently in his lyrics. He ain’t about to milk the past by peddling pieces of his story to titillate backward-looking punks riding some pathetic nostalgia train.
Detroit rock city
While he now calls Nashville home (where he recently purchased a house with his wife, Anna), Chrome has had a love affair with Detroit since the halcyon days of the 1970s.
“I’ve always loved the music that came from Detroit and I’ve had a lot of good times there over the years,” Chrome says. “Obviously, the Stooges and MC5 were big influences on me musically. One of the first radio stations I ever heard was CKLW; they always had great shit on back then. I bought Creem magazine the day it came out, just to see what tirade Bangs had going that month.”
Cheetah reminisces about the MC5 and Lester Bangs, about the Dead Boys sharing bills with Destroy All Monsters at Max’s Kansas City in Manhattan, and at old Detroit bars like the Red Carpet and the Second Chance in Ann Arbor.
“I’ve been friends with the Ashetons, Niagara, Mike Davis, the Cult Heroes, Wayne Kramer, all those guys for years. When Stiv died, Dark Carnival (Niagara and Ron Asheton’s post-Destroy All Monsters band) came up to Cleveland and played a benefit toward burial costs, which was very cool of them. I remember Ronnie Asheton used my Marshall the first time Destroy All Monsters played at Max’s. …
“One guy I only met once was Rob Tyner, and we got along really well,” continues Chrome about the late MC5 front man. “He gave me a tour of the catwalks backstage at the Majestic Theatre on Woodward; they’re like four stories high, really cool. He is missed … and Bangs, he lived in New York City for quite a while, I knocked back a few beers with him back then. He wasn’t as funny in person, but he was a pretty good guy.”
Chrome’s contributions to punk have been considerable, though often overshadowed by his death-skirting, frequently rowdy persona, and because many journalists could rarely grasp the soul of Chrome’s brand of rock ’n’ roll.
Back in the day, the Dead Boys were often maligned for being too raw and too Stooges-derivative; they were, however adored by ’70’s screeds such as Creem and Rock Scene. History has been kind to the Dead Boys and the band’s two studio albums (Young, Loud and Snotty and We Have Come For Your Children) are now iconic to hordes of leather-jacketed pariahs the world over.
These days Chrome seems somewhat floored by the sudden critical acclaim, particularly that surrounding the long-awaited release of the “missing” Rocket From the Tombs album, The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From the Tombs, which hit shelves earlier this year. The CD is a pastiche of demos and live performances from 1975, and includes future Dead Boys staples such as “Ain’t it Fun,” and “Sonic Reducer.”
A March 2002 Village Voice review of the CD said, “The Rocket saga stands as a story of what might have been: a mix of riotous elements (populist, dadaist, teen-revanchist) that coulda-shoulda resonated beyond the fringes of subculture.”
“It’s the one album in my life I never thought I’d actually hold in my hands,” Chrome says. “It’s amazing how many people are into it. … I always figured that part of my life had gone the way of all things, which would have been sad. One good thing is having the band get the recognition I believe it always deserved. Hell, Rockets blew both the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu away in many ways.”
As evidenced on last year’s DUI Records release Alive In Detroit — recorded at Lili’s 21 in Hamtramck — Chrome has lost none of the horny adolescent fire that fuelled his best known songs with the Dead Boys and Rocket from the Tombs. He’s outlived many of his friends. His more recent songs reflect that, and are informed by a bluesier, more haunted sensibility. Tunes like “Love Song To Death” and “So Cold” and “Starin’ Into The Night” are every bit as valid as Dead Boys ballads like “Not Anymore.”
With a wife, a house and a new lease on life, Chrome remains philosophical about it his past, can even laugh about it, and is optimistic about the future. He even promises a new studio album early next year.
“I’ve got Matt Bach on drums — he’s as good as new — Pat Albert on guitar, and Andy Zachary on bass, we’ve been together over a year, and frankly, we kick a lot of ass!”
Expect the Cheetah Chrome show at Lili’s to be rife with Rocket from the Tombs and Dead Boys songs, as well as inspired new stuff. The stuff born of experience, loss and, of course, redemption.