Interview: Cheetah Chrome of Rocket From the Tombs and Dead Boys
When it comes to the history of punk rock, there are few individuals who can truthfully say they’ve seen it all. Cheetah Chrome was present at the creation. In 1974, Chrome was the guitarist in the seminal Rocket From The Tombs, the Cleveland proto-punk outfit that included David Thomas, Peter Laughner, Craig Bell, and Johnny Blitz. When RFTT broke up in 1975, Thomas and Laughner started the formidable Pere Ubu. Chrome and Blitz hooked up with one of the greatest front-men in rock and roll history, Stiv Bators, to form the absolutely essential Dead Boys. Mayhem ensued. The Dead Boys took the much-vaunted New York City scene by storm with the sort of incendiary stage shows that created a legend that has only grown in the decades since the band’s demise.
To put it bluntly, the Dead Boys freaked people out. Critics were quick to hang many of punk rock’s excesses on the band. They were characterized as dangerous nihilists who were more likely to burn your favorite club to the ground than put on a good rock show. Despite making one of the greatest records of punk’s first-wave, 1977’s Young Loud and Snotty, the band was largely ignored by what passed for the “mainstream music media.” Except for an ill-fated reunion in 1987, the Dead Boys were no-longer by 1979.
Cheetah Chrome continued to be a dominant presence on the New York scene playing with everyone from his own band, Cheetah Chrome and the Casualties, to Nico. During the ‘90s, he relocated to Nashville and recorded a great live album, Alive in Detroit, for DUI Records. Then in 2002, Smog Veil Records released The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From The Tombs, the classic compilation of ur-punk classics. Suddenly, there was new interest in the early Cleveland scene, and a growing recognition that this was the primordial ooze out of which the great punk movement sprang. In 2003 Chrome hooked up with David Thomas, Craig Bell, Steve Mehlman, and Television’s Richard Lloyd for an RFTT’s reunion. In 2004 Smog Veil released Rocket Redux, live recordings of RFTT’s back catalog.
In the years since, that collaboration has continued. This spring, Rocket From The Tombs released a seven-inch single that paves the way for an album of new material. And if that wasn’t enough, Cheetah has also hooked up with his old pal Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls and the rhythm section of Joan Jett’s Blackhearts to form the punk super-group Batusis. Their self-titled EP, the sonic equivalent of a swinging haymaker, is one of the most welcome surprises of the first half of 2010.
Just how can we account for this explosion of creativity? I had a long conversation with Cheetah Chrome to find out the answer to that question, and in the process learned a lot about the early Cleveland scene, the great Peter Laughner, the frustrations of being a Dead Boy, the rebirth of Rocket From The Tombs, and the joy of doing that Batusi!
Let’s start with Cleveland. I’ve always thought that Cleveland has been given short-shrift in the histories of punk rock. What do you think the place of Cleveland is in the history of the first-wave?
Cleveland has such a rock and roll history that has everything to do with national acts and nothing to do with people from Cleveland. Everybody from out of town came to Cleveland and got a great reception. They got treated like kings. They got huge fame and accolades. But if you were from Cleveland, it was like, “Oh they can’t be any good. I know them!” (laughter) You know what I mean? They just figured if you were from there you had to suck.
It sounds like a part of the city’s famous inferiority complex.
So many people — I mean, everybody played there: the Stones, the Beatles on their first tour, Paul Revere and the Raiders. You had the Big Five Show, you had great radio. You had CKLW out of Detroit, and you had two of the first and best FM stations in the country in the country with WNCR and WMMS. Two of the biggest progressive radio stations. But as far as local music was concerned, you had cover bands. You did have the odd hit — you know, The Choir’s “It’s Cold Outside,” and the Raspberries had a couple of hits and so did the Outsiders. But they never really got the recognition in Cleveland they should have got. Everywhere else they went they did fine, but when they came home they were treated like just another local band. Which I get to this day! I mean, when I go back to Cleveland and they do an interview with me they want to know about my high school days. They don’t care about what I’m doing musically. They want to hear about when I worked at May Company. [May Company was a regional department store based in northeast Ohio.] “So you’re playing music, you’ve got a new band together. Does that mean you won’t be going back to May Company?” (laughter)
It’s all very local. So it was a very strange and very frustrating place to grow up — at least musically. Your options were very limited, and I think that’s what all this came out of. I actually think, the funny thing is, the same thing was going on in places like London, where you had great bands like the London SS who never got heard of. They were rehearsing in woodsheds around the same time Rocket From The Tombs was together. So the punk thing was very much a product of the early ‘70s; there were connections to glam and Hawkwind, that kind of scene. That’s really where the Rockets came from, the Dead Boys came from. All those influences came pouring into you in Cleveland, and they had to come out some way.
It never ceases to amaze me the incredible ferment that comes welling up from that place at that time. I mean, the bands that come out of there — just the bands that spin off of Rocket From The Tombs — I think that’s a story that needs to be told, and it needs to be repeated. Too often in the histories of punk rock there’ll be short mention of all of that, but then it’s rendered little more than a footnote.
Oh yeah. But when you think about that time, think about how boring that book would be. (laughter) We’re talking about Peter [Laughner], me, and David [Thomas] in Rocket; you had the Mirrors, there was the Electric Eels, and there was Tin Huey in Akron — and all of us were sitting around frustrated in our own respective rehearsal spaces, playing once or twice a year and bitching to each other how we weren’t getting anyplace. It wasn’t a happy scene! (laughter) It was pretty productive, I guess, if you like watching bands rehearse. But it wasn’t at all exciting. It was very mundane.
Right. I guess there are only so many times you can play Johnny Dromette’s record store. (laughter)
Yeah, which I didn’t even get to do! That was after my time. After the Dead Boys went to New York, I didn’t really go back to Cleveland that much — and when I did, all of a sudden, there were 60 bands just like mine. Which was great. All of a sudden, there was a thriving music scene. That didn’t exist when I was there. The punk scene — when we put together the Dead Boys and got out of Cleveland and Pere Ubu got together and got out of Cleveland — it broke wide open. I came back and all these kids I’d hated in high school who hated me in high school, a bunch of greasers and nerds, all of a sudden they’re in the front row wearing orange sunglasses and motorcycle jackets. (laughter) Guys from the football team with safety pins in their lips — it was absurd! But it grew from there. There were a lot of great bands and a lot of cool people.
Let’s talk about the Dead Boys for a minute. I want to read this sentence to you — I did this random Google search of the band, and the first hit that came up was the allmusic site. The very first sentence of the band’s biography reads, “The Dead Boys were one of the first punk bands to escalate the level of violence, nihilism, and pure ugliness of punk rock to new extreme levels.” (laughter) Is that what you guys were doing?
Well, you know, apparently some people seemed to think so. And no, that wasn’t it at all. We were just being ourselves. Yeah, we were nasty little pieces of work. The Dead Boys, to my eyes, never got a fair shake in the press. They loved playing up all the sensationalistic aspects of it [that] got played up and the music got — the fact that we could blow anyone else in town off the stage had nothing to do with it. Now the record Young, Loud and Snotty has stood up better than just about any record from the early punk days.
There is no doubt about it.
It has to be in the top 10, if not the top five.
And I’m talking about the sound, I’m talking about the songs, I’m talking about the playing — everything. Nobody mentions that. They’ll mention Stiv [Bators] blowing his nose on bologna and eating it. They’ll mention getting a blow-job on stage. God, it was funny! You know? People just need to get woken up sometimes!
Well, I’ve always been quick to note that just the title of the record, Young, Loud and Snotty, would to my mind denote a sense of humor, not violent nihilism. For god sakes. When I got my hands on that record, it was 1978 or ‘79. I think I was a senior in high school. We played it over and over again. We loved it. But for us it was hilarious; it wasn’t something to be afraid of.
Oh yeah, I guess they took our line, “I wanna beat up the next hippie I see,” personally. They didn’t know that I had hair down to my ass six months before the record came out. (laughter)
That’s one of the more interesting things about this music. When punk rock roared into existence, it wasn’t a fashion statement–
There were so many different sounds. So many different kinds of bands that fit comfortably under the umbrella of “punk.” There was certainly no uniform. Then, all of a sudden, it was about black leather and Mohawks. It was about looking a certain way. And then hardcore blew up and everyone started to sound a certain way.
That was when I really started to regret the whole “anybody can play” ethic. (laughter) I just wanted to make a whole record that said, “Look everybody can’t play. You need to fucking learn how to play. You need to fucking learn how to sing. Playing fast doesn’t mean playing good.” It was just miserable to me.
So the Dead Boys phenomenon was pretty short-lived. There were the two studio albums…
Well, one studio album that was worth a shit.
Right. And then there was the live album — which was remastered, or you re-recorded vocals?
Yeah, Stiv did.
You would think that based on what was a pretty limited output the Dead Boys would be little more than a footnote. Instead, they are a touchstone of that early first-wave. What accounts for the band’s longevity?
The thing is, when we were out there we were a very tight working unit. We were good. You got your money’s worth when you came to see the Dead Boys. We kicked your ass. We pinned your ears back. So word of mouth about the shows has continued. Some of those shows are legendary. That has a lot to do with it. The power of the live shows, and re-releasing a lot of the live stuff. You know, in 1997 you could not find the Dead Boys on the internet. But re-releasing a couple of those albums really helped. It kept the band out there. Then there were these fan sites — there was this great Stiv Bators site. And it all just built from there. But you are right, I thought we would be just a footnote for sure. The Rockets even more so.
That’s the other thing. I was in Athens, Georgia when the Rocket From The Tombs compilation came out and I was in this little [record] collector’s place. I was looking for some Ubu stuff, and the proprietor saw what I was looking at, and he came running around the counter with the Rockets CD in his hand. He was like, “Look at this!” It was like it was a sacred relic or something. (laughter)
That gives me a perfect segue into talking about the Rockets. One of the great things about that compilation is that a wider audience got to hear Peter Laughner’s great guitar playing.
Oh yeah, exactly. He was great; I’m glad that record got out there. Peter was a great guitarist, [who] taught me a lot. I owe him a lot, because he showed me how to work with a band and how to develop a song. He really taught me how to work on a song. A lot of his guitar-playing was brilliant — he could fly by the seat of his pants for hours.
I’ve been hearing these rumblings and rumors for a long time that there was a Peter Laughner compilation in the works.
Oh yeah, there is. I think it’s Smog Veil.
Awesome. Wish they’re hurry up. (laughter) I’ve been hearing about that thing for two years or so.
Yeah, it is definitely coming out. It’s supposed to have everything on it.
Peter Laughner, to my mind, is almost a mythological character. For so long the only thing that was out there in the wider world was that thing that Lester Bangs wrote about him. As heartfelt as that remembrance was, it never once tries to explain what an extraordinary talent the guy was as a musician, as songwriter, as a guitarist.
Well, you know, Lester didn’t know Peter that long. They became drinking buddies later. Lester got to know him later when he was having more problems. Peter always partied — we all always partied. Peter was a very engaging guy and had a great personality; he was very funny and very sincere. He could make you laugh; he could bore the hell out of you. (laughter) He could do it all. He was a great guy to be around. I really loved him. He had a lot of heart.
All that came across in Lester’s article was that he was a zombie/druggie. Peter loved rock and roll and he loved writing; he loved people like Lester Bangs who is actually — you know, a great writer, but a really boring guy. (laughter) I was really let down when I met him. He wasn’t the guy who wrote the articles — that part of it kind of got mythologized.
Peter was your normal rock and roller. People don’t realize that he died when he was ! He was a kid! To me, he was like an adult, because he was like 21 when we formed the band and I was like 19. That was a big deal back then. Now, looking back on it, I’m like, my God, how did he shoot his liver when he was only 23? You really have to try to do that.
When the Rockets got back together, how did you decide on — I hate to use the word “replacement” — but how did you decide on Richard Lloyd?
We tried to do a rehearsal in Cleveland when we first found out we were going to try and do this gig out in LA. It was just the four of us — Steve playing drums and me, Craig, and David. We just ran through songs, just walked through the arrangements. It was terrible, no fun at all. It became glaringly obvious what we needed, and we started worrying about what we were going to do — how are we going to replace Peter? We couldn’t think of anybody — we all just scratched our heads.
All of sudden, I was looking through emails or something, and Richard’s name just popped out at me. I was like, of course! That’s the guy! He knew Peter, he saw the original Rocket From the Tombs. Peter was going to replace him in Television at one point. There was such a connection there. Part of the connection was that Peter loved the way Richard played. I asked him, you know, I told him that “RFTT” was going to be doing a reunion, and did he want to be the other guitarist? He said, “Yeah, I’m in.” Five minutes later I get another email saying, “What’s ‘RFTT?’” (laughter) He just figured if I wanted him to do it, he wanted to do it.
I had to explain it to him, and he was like, “Oh, that band? Yeah, you guys were great! I want to play in that band!” It worked out perfectly. Once that connection was made we all worked for a couple days here in Nashville, went out and did the show, and it turned out brilliantly. And we’ve stayed together this long.
Well, Rocket Redux was just great. And the new seven-inch is so intriguing. Are you guys planning a new studio album?
Oh yeah, we’ve got the studio time booked now for August, and we’re going to finish like 12 songs that we wrote at the same time as those two. We had a big brainstorming session back in 2006 and we wrote like 15 songs. Those two were the first two we got done. We waited a couple years before we even recorded those two. So we’re going into the studio and August and we’re hoping for a February release.
That’s fantastic. I can’t wait to hear that.
Yeah, and I get to do that and then turn right around and do the Batusis record. I’m going to be spending most of August and September in the recording studio.
Hey, you’ve done a few of these interviews! (laughter)You’re jumping ahead of my question outline. I was going to ask about the Batusis next. I’m actually getting ready to snag my tickets for your Atlanta show at The Earl at the end of July. I’m really looking forward to it. Obviously, the New York Dolls would have been an enormous influence on you guys back in the day. Have you known Syl Sylvain long?
Probably since 1975?
And you saw him and the Dolls?
Yeah, sort of the second-string Dolls at that point. It was after Johnny Thunders quit.
So you guys have known each other for a long time. When did you first start talking about making music together?
Oh, probably about 20 years ago? (laughter) We’ve talked about doing a project together every so often. We get together and jam in New York every once in awhile. I’ve got a friend, John Spacely, who played harp and sang blues. We used to do a little jam with him and a couple of friends — that was mostly Yardbirds covers and Animals covers, all English blues stuff. We never played any gigs and never really planned to. I think we might have done one show in like ’87, which was like in a living room. It wasn’t very big at all. It was more just to get together for fun and to hang than it was for to really be a band.
Syl ended up moving to Atlanta and I ended up moving to Nashville. We’re about four hours apart, but you drift apart when you’re not in the same town. In New York, we’d see each other every few weeks at least. But then it was if I played Atlanta he’d come out and if he played Nashville I’d come out. Then finally he got back with the Dolls, and I got back with the Rockets, and it had been awhile since we’d seen each other. We always sent each other our best through friends. I saw him in New York at Hilly’s [Kristal] memorial service. And next thing you know, Frank [Mauceri of Smog Veil Records] sends me an email one day saying, “You’re friends with Sylvain right?” I said yeah, and he said, what do you think about doing a project with him? I said “Hell yeah!” He said he was friends with Syl’s manager and he’s saying you two ought to get together and do something when the Dolls are off the road and the Rockets are off the road. I said, yeah I’d definitely be open to that. So we kind of put it together.
Me and Syl got talking about who to get to play. At that point, I’d been using the Blackhearts as my backup band when I played up in New York and up on the East Coast. Thommy Price is an old friend of mine and Enzo [Penizzotto] is great. We love playing together; it’s a lot of fun. Joan doesn’t care what they do as long as they’re ready to get out on the road with her. I couldn’t think of a better rhythm section in the world to do it — they’re fucking great. So we all came down here to Nashville to do it, [and] that’s when I got a hold of Ken Kumer. I’d worked with him before and I liked the way he did things. And we got together and it totally flowed.
The EP is just great. It’s what you’d expect. I do have to ask you a question, though, just for my own knowledge: what is the connection with Davie Allan? Davie Allan is one of my heroes, and you really don’t get much more obscure. I just love his playing. Whose idea was it to do “Blues Theme?”
Syl brought that in. I was very familiar with Davie Allan because the Bomp! stuff was coming out, and Alive Records was putting out a bunch of that stuff. Syl brought in “Blues Theme” and I was like, oh yeah, let’s do that. I wasn’t sure Thommy and Enzo even knew who he was, but they just got the groove going for us, you know.
I love those old biker flicks that Roger Corman used to crank out–
But as I started to get more into music I started to notice that crazy fuzzed-out surf guitar and I started tracking down who he was. And I’m pretty sure that Davie Allan is still going strong.
Yeah! He still plays.
To tell you the truth, I would have picked “Wild Angels Theme.” It’s one of my favorites. But “Blues Theme” is a good one and it sure worked. That was one where Syl just started calling out the changes and I just followed him, and you can’t go wrong doing that now can you? (laughter)
No doubt, it just sounds fantastic. And it fits. Great choice. Now, before we wrap this up, I’ve got to ask you about your forthcoming memoirs. Do you have an official publication date?
Yeah I believe it’s September 15th. That’s the official date. Coming soon to a bookstore near you. I’ve never done this before — I’m not sure how this works.
What prompted you at this point to sit down and put it all down on paper?
I have a friend who works at the publishing company — this girl I knew from Boston. She had done a book for this company, and she said, “It’s about time you wrote a book.” She got me to do a sample chapter and gave it to her publisher. I had thought about it a few times, but I had no idea how to go about it. Her book was very nice, very cool. The publishing company she works for [Voyageur Press] has a big history of doing music books. I thought about getting a ghost writer, but I didn’t want someone in my face for six months. So I said I’ll just do it myself. It just started growing — at page 350 I realized I’d gone way beyond my word limit. (laughter) But she told me just write what you have to write, and we’ll figure it out.
Well, I bet you there are a few stories in there, too. (laughter)
Oh yeah, there’s a few stories in there.
I can’t wait to get my hands on that bad boy. Fantastic.
Okay, Cheetah, that is it for me. Thanks so much chatting, I really enjoyed it. You take good care of yourself, and good luck with your many projects.
Thank you Mark, I appreciate it. And I’ll see you in Atlanta.