Photo by Anna O'Connor
Iconic punk guitarist Cheetah Chrome (born Gene O’Connor) spent many years as a rather wild cat, crowned by a shock of red hair and known for his street smarts, musical talents, and taste for indulgence. In the mid-70s in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, Chrome helped architect the sound of punk with the seminal rock band Rocket From the Tombs (along with David Thomas and Peter Laughner, who would later form Pere Ubu) before harnessing the band’s aggression into a new project with Rocket drummer Johnny Blitz and frontman Stiv Bators. Eventually, the group—now a five piece dubbed the Dead Boys—relocated to New York. As they became a fixture on the CBGB stage (club owner Hilly Kristal even became their manager) it became apparent that no one could touch the Cleveland transplants when it came to antisocial tendencies, nihilism, or ferocity. The Dead Boys’ scathing rock ‘n’ roll—heavily influenced by groups like Alice Cooper, the MC5, and the New York Dolls—turned the notion that punks couldn’t actually play their instruments on its head, and the members’ debauchery, both onstage and off, became legendary in its own right.
While the Dead Boys’ magnetism was undeniable, their crudeness and extremism put them at odds with, well... a lot of folks, but especially those at their label, Sire Records. Rather than build on the excitement generated by their 1977 debut album, Young, Loud, and Snotty, Sire pressured them to “soften” their act for their follow-up, We Have Come For Your Children, a process that added plenty of nails to the coffin for the Dead Boys’ soon-after demise. Even when punk eventually did hit the mainstream (as Chrome predicted it would) the Dead Boys remained too tough to repackage for mass consumption.
After the Dead Boys parted ways, Chrome stayed in New York, playing with a number of bands, doing session work for artists including Ronnie Spector and Nico, and sinking deep into addiction, to the point where he actually died and was resuscitated by medics after an overdose. It wasn’t until Kristal and Young, Loud, and Snotty producer Genya Ravan staged an intervention in the 1990s that Cheetah really hit the road to recovery. He eventually kicked his bad habits for good and started a family in Nashville, taking on occasional music projects, including a Rocket From the Tombs reunion, and playing alongside Sylvain Sylvain in Batusis.
In 2010 he published his extremely candid (and very well-received) autobiography, Cheetah Chrome: A Dead Boy’s Tale From the Front Lines of Punk Rock, but the ink barely had time to dry before he was on to a new chapter in his life; this time as the creative director for Nashville-based Plowboy Records where he works with unconventional artists steeped in American music traditions. Last fall, he released his first studio solo EP, SOLO, on the same day the CBGB movie (in which Chrome was portrayed by Rupert Grint) came out.
I caught up with Chrome before a handful of east coast tour dates with Plowboy labelmate Paul Burch and an appearance at the annual Joey Ramone Birthday Bash at Bowery Electric on May 19 as part of the Joey Ramone Tribute Band with Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols), Sic F*cks, George Tabb, and Ramone’s brother, musician Mickey Leigh. Chrome shed insight into his decades-long career from both sides of the music biz and shared some pro tips on prank-pulling, straight from the unofficial Stiv and Cheetah Handbook.
Noisey: When you finished your book, did you have any clue that you’d soon start another chapter of your career from the other side of the music industry?
Cheetah Chrome: Not at all. That was a left turn I didn’t really expect. At the end of the book tour, I was getting really sick of being on the road. I don’t enjoy it as much as I used to. I love playing shows, but the other 23 hours a day are pretty much a pain in the ass, you know? I took a couple of years off and then when the label thing came up, I thought it—and especially the Eddy Arnold tribute I was asked to do—was a challenge. I’m not a country music guy, but I really enjoyed being able to take songs that I wasn’t that familiar with and put them with artists that I was really familiar with and get them all to do something really different. It was a lot of fun, and that’s what attracted me to it. Then the next thing I know I’m up to my ears in the Nashville music business. It’s not as bad as I thought it would be.
There’s definitely a thread between your music and some of the artists you’ve signed. Was that the idea coming into Plowboy?
The first thing I made clear when I came on board was that we weren’t going to be a country label. The tribute record was something that meant a lot to Shannon Pollard—Eddy was his grandfather. After that it was, “We’re not going to limit ourselves to one type of music, we can do whatever we want.” It just happened that with the tribute, guys like Chuck Mead and Paul Burch started out in punk bands, so there is a thread there. The funny thing is, the more I get to know a lot of the session guys here, they all used to be into that stuff. I was surprised they knew who I was and they were fans. They’re very much like the New York punk guys. That’s one of the things I like about Nashville: it’s “Music City,” not “Country Music City.” Musicians are musicians. It doesn’t matter what kind of music we play, we all get along really well. I’ve got a session this afternoon and I’m going to have some of the players from Nashville musicians on one of the songs—it’s something I haven’t done yet, and I think it’s going to be pretty neat.
In your book, you talk about everyone from the Bee Gees to the Damned, in the sense that “musicians are musicians,” but that music is marketed to fans in very different ways. You’ve said it was detrimental to the Dead Boys and that people didn’t understand the scope of the band because you were lumped in with all of the other punk groups.
Yeah. Sire Records didn’t understand us at all and they did not know what to do with us. Seymour Stein was one of those guys who would jump on whatever bandwagon he could to make a buck. He had the old theory of, “I’ll sign 50 bands, put out 50 records, and the five that sell, I’ll keep.” He tied up a lot of bands that should have been free to make another deal. With us, if he didn’t like what we were doing, he should have let us go. Instead, he tied us up for a couple of years. Another one of his tricks was buying up competition. There was a lot of game-playing back then in the music business. You don’t have as much of that now. It’s healthier, the attitude of labels and all of that. A lot of people learned their lessons. That’s how you’ve got guys like me running labels. I know exactly where the pitfalls are, and I know what not to put in the contract before I even send it to the lawyer.
It’s very funny to find out that I could do this. It was a little daunting to be a record label executive. I didn’t know if I could do it, but right from the beginning, all the years I’ve been in the business, I kind of knew what needed to be done, and what we could be doing differently, and things I didn’t like about the business that I could actually change.
Did you have the sense that if you would have done it a little differently with the Dead Boys, and the other guys would have had more faith, that things would have come out differently for the band?
Definitely. When the band started, me and Stiv were basically the leaders. It was a benevolent dictatorship. We would listen to everybody, but we pretty much made the decisions. Then when we got to New York and Hilly became our manager, we took the attitude of, “This will be cool. Now we don’t have to run things and the five of us can be equal now.” That led to problems because three of the guys did not understand what was going on a lot of the time. We had members that would vote against their own best interests just to piss me off, and a lot of game-playing going on that had no place in business. The consequence of some of those decisions were very real, and they broke up the band.
Are you still in touch with the other guys in the group and is that something that’s come up since then?
Not really. Every time we tried to get back together or do anything, all the old problems immediately rear their heads. I always compare it to Thanksgiving or Christmas, when you have the family over. Everything’s cool for the first couple of hours but by the end of the night you are all fighting and everyone gets drunk and starts arguing, and they all leave and are pissed off at each other until next time. That’s how all of the Dead Boys reunions have always worked. The last one wasn’t so bad, but it became very obvious that without Stiv, there wasn’t much in common between me and those guys. He was the glue that held us together. Without Stiv there to be the buffer, it’s not fair for them or me anymore.
Rocket From the Tombs and the Dead Boys both had greater success outside of Cleveland than in it. Why do you think bands have to leave their city to get accepted at home?
In the mid-70s, Cleveland had a really good concert scene, and really good, progressive radio, but the local music scene was bands that would do the hits and Top-40 stuff. There wasn’t much original music, except for maybe blues. Rock ‘n’ roll was kind of a closed shop—either you play these songs or you don’t play. Then the Viking Saloon came along and you had bands like us and the Electric Eels and the Mirrors, but we were pretty much playing for each other and our friends. You didn’t get any walk-ins off the street and it never really got bigger on its own. There were some people like Hank LoConti [Cleveland music promoter] who would give us opening spots because he liked us, but it was Rocket From the Tombs opening for Iron Butterfly. Really strange bills because they didn’t know what to do with us.
I’ve always wondered what would have happened if Peter Laughner had said, “Hey, let’s go up to New York with Rocket and play a gig.” Dead Boys might have never happened because [Rocket] probably would have been happier. We totally broke up out of frustration and disinterest of the public. All the in-fighting was caused more by that than any musical differences or anything like that.
Time and place can really shape a band.
Back then, Cleveland was so commercial. They had Cleveland International Records, who had Meatloaf, and all the disc jockeys were into Southside Johnny and things like that. They looked down on the Dead Boys because they didn’t understand us. They’d say, “that’s not musical,” but it was musical; we were all very good musicians. They weren’t musicians themselves, so they didn’t know if we knew how to do it or not. You could get a lot further in the radio scene back then with cocaine and hookers than you could with good music.
SOLO is a combination of pre-Nashville and post-Nashville songs. How was it merging these two different periods of your life together?
The Woodstock stuff was recorded when I first moved to Nashville, and I had probably been here a month. I still had a lot of New York in me. In the period of time between the two sessions a lot had changed. I had gotten married, had a kid, and had gotten out of music for a few years. I naturally evolved into a different person, but the music was still the important thing to me. I think the later stuff is more “musical,” not as punk. How many years can you do the same thing, you know?
You’ve talked about going into a regular day job as a relief from many years of not having a stable lifestyle.
It definitely helped, having the security, and feeling like I could get outside of myself for a bit. When you’re in a band, you’re kind of the center of the universe and that’s all you think about. You live and breath it, and it’s very much kind of chasing your tail if you don’t get somewhere. Even if you do get somewhere you have a bunch of sycophants hanging around and kissing your butt and you’re not dealing with reality, in a way. It’s nice be part of something bigger than yourself and look at things from that perspective. It really kept me grounded.
So after starting a family and having a more traditional lifestyle, what was it like getting back into music full time?
First, I did the Rockets thing, and I was definitely ready for it. I had done the Alive in Detroit record [Chrome’s 2000 solo album], but I was still kind of burned out at that time. When the Rocket from the Tombs opportunity came along, it was really cool because that had always kind of been unfinished business with me. It was nice to get back with those guys and finish what we started. Unfortunately, Peter wasn’t with us, and when we started David and I weren’t really getting along, but we kept our differences in the background. We don’t need to be friends to be in a band—but it evolved and now we get along just great. We went on tour and we put out a record [Barfly], and the timing was just very good for it. As soon as I got done with that, I wanted to go out and do more gigs.
With Barfly, did songwriting with Rocket it work the same way it had before?
With the original band, everyone had half-written songs sitting around. It was my first real band, and I had [future Dead Boys] songs, “What Love Is,” “Ain’t Nothing To Do” (that was during Rocket, but we never got around to it), just the music for “Transfusion,” With “Down in Flames,” I had the riffs, but I didn’t have the words. David had all the lyrics and he’d match it up, maybe a verse here, a chorus here, and we’d write the song around it to fit the music. It was my first experience writing songs like that and I thought it was fascinating. And then Peter had the lyrics he’d been working on for “Ain’t it Fun,” and it fit the music perfectly and it all came together very quickly, in two to three months. All we did was rehearse. We would literally go to our jobs, go home and eat dinner, and go down to the loft, five nights a week at least, and we’d be down there three to four hours every night. That was another part of a big learning experience for me because Peter really understood how a band worked and he would be able to whip us into shape. We really, really worked hard.
So Peter was the bandleader in that sense?
Yeah. When we got to Barfly, the process was a bit of the same but David was more of a leader at that point so that’s the way we worked. It was much easier if we let David keep track of things. Something has to be done, and either you take a vote and spend a lot of time trying to convince each other, or you can take it to one person to say “yes or no.” You can bring a song to David, and have it all arranged and everything, and he’ll turn it on its head and spin it sideways. “That’s going to be the main riff now,” or “No, that’s the verse,” and it changes completely around and it really works sometimes. He is more of a singer than a musician, although he dabbles in playing in instruments and he’s very good at what he does. He gets some really interesting sounds out of the instruments, but at the same time he doesn’t understand how the guitar player works. “Play this.” “That’s physically impossible.” “Do it anyway, you’re the guitar player.” That’s a literal thing that would happen at rehearsal and it was fun and you try to do it. It works out good because you’re doing things that you wouldn’t try to do on your own, and so David contributes very much to the music that way.
With SOLO out, do you have another album in the works or will you stay more focused on other artists at Plowboy?
I’ve got a full plate through the end of the year with Plowboy. I do plan to do some more shows this year, but when my son—he’s 9—gets out of school, I like to spend my summers with him. With a laptop and a phone I can work just as easily anywhere. I can take him down to the skate park and work from there.
You and Stiv were not only a fantastic team when it came to music, but also for masterminding practical jokes. If you really wanted to get someone, what would you do?
It’s hard to beat the Saran Wrap over the toilet bowl. You take the Saran Wrap and you put it over the toilet bowl, you unscrew the light-bulb and you get everyone who walks in there. Stiv was always a fan of the “hot foot.” Someone would fall asleep and they’d get a book of matches in their shoe. It was hilarious. It always worked. Stiv had a another favorite—we’d go to McDonalds and get a milkshake, and we’d walk outside in front of a family and pretend he was having a seizure. There are a million of them, we loved our jokes. There were more elaborate ones like going down a hotel corridor—you take fishing line, start at one handle and tie it to the one across the hall, go to the next, and you just went down the hallway going down the hall. You’d rig the fire alarms and no one could open the doors. You don’t get to see the reaction, really, but it does freak out a hotel.
So would you say the surveillance state we’ve grown into has ruined the art of pulling practical jokes in public places?
It has to. I definitely can’t see being able to get away with half the stuff I used to. A security conscious world has put a damper on things there, but we still have some good ones. I teach my son. We sit around and plot things and I teach him the proper execution. He’s experimenting too. Sometimes they don’t work out, but he puts a lot of thought into him. I teach him all the most important things.
Cheetah Chrome has a few upcoming tour dates:
Saturday, May 17th at The Delancey in New York, NY
Sunday, May 18th at Treehouse/2A in New York, NY
Monday, May 19th at The Bowery Electric in New York, NY *Annual Joey Ramone Birthday Bash
Jamie Ludwig is playing pranks on Twitter - @unlistenmusic