When the Dead Boys released their debut album Young, Loud, and Snotty in 1977, punk was still new, and no one knew that the music would ring just as true two decades later. It was a period when naive idealism and street-tough cynicism collided head on: Rock could still be saved, but it had to be stripped to its raw, ugly center. The Boys made good on this premise, in a way that still resonates even today. The first time I heard “Sonic Reducer” blasting out of my speakers, it was a revelation: teen angst channeled into a furious three-minute assault of hoarse vocals and wind-tunnel guitar. For me and I’m sure many others, that song has always been indicative of a time I wasn’t around to experience: the age of the Ramones, Johnny Thunders, CBGB, and other names that conjure up a long-gone mythic world.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that I have to pinch myself as I’m sitting with the Dead Boys’ former lead guitarist Cheetah Chrome and prying war stories out of him over a few beers at Boscos. One of the few intact survivors of the late-’70s New York punk scene, Chrome is now a proud Nashville resident, a little older and a lot wiser, and he looks back on his younger years with a mix of humor and wistfulness. “I came down here to record demos,” he recounts nonchalantly. “My old bass player moved down here about 1990, around the time Stiv [Bators, the Dead Boys’ former vocalist] died. We got together in Christmas of ’96 and decided to do a project.... I was supposed to be here two weeks, and five years later, here I sit!”
It’s a strange path that led Chrome from his boyhood home of Ohio to Music City. When he was still a teen in Cleveland in the mid-1970s, he was a founding member of the influential Rocket From the Tombs. As much as any band, the Rockets could rightly claim to be creators of punk rock: Members Chrome, Stiv Bators, and Johnny Blitz would go on to form the Dead Boys, while singer David Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner would go on to Pere Ubu. “In Cleveland, you had to be a cover band of whatever was on the radio,” Chrome recalls. “We wanted to be a Kiss/Stooges/New York Dolls cover band. Peter [Laughner] wanted to be in a Velvet Underground cover band. So we had all these different reference points.”
Playing Cro-Magnon rock ’n’ roll was considered unfashionable in the era of Foreigner, but Rocket From the Tombs found other left-of-center groups who shared their vision. When bands like the seminal New York outfit Television came to Cleveland, the Rockets opened for them and soon gained local notoriety.
But the group splintered before it could ever make a real impact. Thomas and Laughner carried the band’s dark version of garage rock to startling new heights with Pere Ubu, creating anthems out of the Rockets’ “30 Second Over Tokyo” and “Final Solution.” Chrome, Bators, and Blitz eventually formed the Dead Boys, and sensing a more hospitable climate in the east, moved the group to New York.
“[In New York] we were not the outcasts,” Chrome remembers. “We were normal. I was like 20 or something, and it was a revelation that was like, ‘I’m not nuts!’ ” Even among the New York underground, though, the Boys were something of an exception; they took the juvenile-delinquent demeanor of the Ramones and the Dictators and added a tougher musical edge. The band found management with CBGB club owner Hilly Kristal, signed a record deal with Sire, and recorded the unforgettable Young, Loud, and Snotty. Along with the aforementioned “Sonic Reducer,” the record featured such other high-water marks of adolescent outrage as “Caught With the Meat in Your Mouth” and “Ain’t It Fun,” later covered by Guns N’ Roses.
Still, the group found itself derailed by internal conflicts, a lack of label support, and the shock of being youths let free in the dark world of rock ’n’ roll. “We self-imploded. Drinkin’ too much, partyin’ too much, not cooperating with the record label...we did it all,” Chrome muses. From there, the members went their separate ways.
Flash forward to 1996: Chrome had ventured south to Nashville to do demos for a recording project and fell in with LAMF, the now long-gone Nashville band. “I jammed with [LAMF] at the Exit/In, got to know them, and then they broke up,” he says, laughing. “The people who wanted to stay together were Jimmy V., Johnny Silver, and Greg [Walker]guitar player, drummer, bass player.”
Now with a new band, Chrome began working again. The group gigged as well as recording some tracks at Woodstock with Genya Ravan, who had helped produce the Dead Boys’ debut LP. “Johnny and Jimmy both had children and gave me notice. It wasn’t a band breakup, but they both had to bow out. Then Trauma Team offered me their services.” Now the core of this band anchors Chrome’s new lineup: Matt Bach on drums and Pat Albert on guitar, with Andy Zachary on bass.
“It turns out Matt is an old Rocket From the Tombs fan, so we decided to jam on some Rockets stuff,” Chrome explains. “I’ve got the best band in town: I’ve got a guitar player on bass and a guitar player on drums. The only bass player in the band plays guitar!”
At a recent Springwater show, Chrome and company proved that the veteran musician still has a few tricks left. As Bach flailed away behind his drum kit and the guitars reached stadium level, you could be forgiven for forgetting you were in Nashville circa 2001 and not the fabled New York of 25 years ago. Every time Chrome pulled out a classic like “Final Solution” or “Ain’t It Fun,” I couldn’t help thinking with amazement, “This guy actually wrote these songs!”
Chrome is in high spirits these days. Not only is his new band lineup in full swing, he’s merely a month away from being married. “When I moved down here, [Chrome’s fiancée] Anna had never heard of me. I mean, she’d heard of the Dead Boys, but not me! That’s probably why it worked.” The next few months also promise the release of a live album recorded in 1999, when Chrome was still playing with members of LAMF. The project was initiated when Doug Giovanni, an old acquaintance of Chrome’s and owner of Detroit Underground Inc. Records, invited him to Detroit for a live taping.
“[Giovanni] actually brought me out of semi-retirement. He said, ‘What would it take [for] you to get to Detroit?’ ” Two years later, the recording of the show will finally see the light of day, but don’t expect Chrome and his group to hit the road guerrilla-style in support of it. “I’m getting a little long in the tooth to jump in the van for six monthsnot that I don’t love it,” he says wryly.
Although Chrome boasts a newfound optimism, he can’t help but betray a little bitterness at the Dead Boys’ fate. “The hardest thing is to watch bands with no credibility getting big on something that we started. I can listen to some pretty big bands today and hear my licks in there.” But, he hastens to add, looking back is still “more encouraging than when it started.”
With all the dry wit and wariness of an old veteran, Chrome truly appreciates the stability of his current existence, due in no small part to his new home. “I love rock ’n’ roll, and I actually tried to die for it at one time. I failed, and I also failed to get the million bucks. I guess I just came to the realization that I’m no spring chicken. You find some place and you realize it’s nice. I’ve got a good home here, I have good friends, and I still have my guitar and my band. And it looks like the future holds a lot of things. Poor old Sid Vicious don’t have that.”
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