Text and live photos © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen
Book cover image and video from the Internet
A Dead Boy’s Tale: From the Front Lines of Punk Rock
By Cheetah Chrome
MBI Publishing / Voyageur Press (Minneapolis, MN), 2010
368 pages; USD $24.00 / CAN $27.00W
I really don’t know Cheetah Chrome. Yeah, I saw him in the Dead Boys quite a few times, including many shows opening for the Damned, and a couple of the Johnny Blitz benefits at CB’s. Then there was the Skels, when Julia Masi and I interviewed him and hung out with the band for an afternoon, with Julia taking photos of them on St. Mark’s Place. Nancy Foster and I also saw him pair up with John Spacely at the Johnny Thunders memorial in the early ‘90s. It’s been more than a dozen shows, and we’re Facebook friends, but I really don’t know Cheetah Chrome.
Thanks to his new (and hopefully first) autobiography, A Dead Boy’s Tale: From the Front Lines of Punk Rock , just released by Voyageur Press, I have a better idea of the man behind the blazing guitar.
Despite a long history of erratic behavior and substance abuse, Cheetah’s still here… well, in Nashville, anyway. Many of the people discussed in the book are not, such as Stiv Bators, Peter Laughner, Johnny Thunders, Joey Ramone, Hilly Krystal (and his dog Jonathan), Ron Ashton, John Spacely… Fortunately, his synapses survived as well, enough to write an autobiography on his life-thus-far.
The book is dense as he describes growing up in a poor area of Cleveland, as he turns from orange haired tyke to teen, getting in and out of trouble, and one can argue that the detail is perhaps too much (hell, everyone really wants to hear those back stage and road stories, right?), but I argue that Cheetah cleverly sews a solid picture of what he is to be, prefacing his rise to relative prominence by describing his finding of music as a force, his various guitars, and the early hints of indulgences.
[Dead Boys during Blitz Benefit at CBGB's]
On the other hand, I found the last quarter of the book to be a bit thin, without mention of some of his work, like with the Skels (other than in the preface), focusing more on his fighting addiction than making music. Yeah, it’s in there, but as he made music a hobby rather than a career (his description) at one point, for his own health, he talks more about his life off the road than on. Perhaps he thought we would be more interested only in his earlier work? Or maybe the book company gave him a limit of pages? It’s possible that he was zonked out and just doesn’t remember that period well?
But don’t get me wrong, this work keeps the reader interested from beginning to end, and I am hoping that the less detailed spots are just lead-up to the next book (From a Dead Boy to a Live Man, may I suggest as a title, with a firm nudge and smile?). And rather than just whining about his addictions or glorifying them (like Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries), Cheetah’s approach is just to talk as himself, without trying to justify or damn his actions and experiences much. It’s a brave stance, and one that should be applauded.
The key focus of the book is from Rocket From the Tombs, through especially his Dead Boys period in the ‘70s. There is lots of Pete Moon level machismo bravado, destroyed hotel rooms, and sexual hijinks, much of it fuel by, well, you know. Lots of it will make you laugh, some of it will make you wince, and, well, other than the performances, may make you glad to be reading it from a distance of time. I remember being backstage at CBGB’s in 1977, for example, talking to the Dead Boys, and keeping my finger over the mouth of my beer as they were infamous for peeing in any open drink they could find, in good fun of course.
While Cheetah may not have the lyrically poetic background of a Carroll (I’m happy to say), he certainly is a fine writer and a strong wit, while describing his life. He is blunt, takes blame where it is his, rarely makes apologies, and even makes his ex-, the strong-willed Gyda Gash, look favorable despite their famously volatile time together. When he doesn’t like someone, however, he also does not hold back, such as the producer of the Dead Boys’ second LP, a colossal failure, the legendary (and wrong choice) Felix Pappalardi (who was later shot to death 5 years later by his wife).
It is ironic that Slash would supply the quote on the cover, rightfully stating Cheetah’s contribution to rock’n’roll. Their biographies are actually quite similar in thread (though Cheetah’s does not bludgeon the language with numerous repitions, as Slash does with “all things considered…). They are both from rough neighborhoods and family life, found solace in sex and drugs and music (specifically on guitar), are quite frank about their excesses, and have achieved a modicum of success. It’s true that Slash’s star rose higher, but honestly, if I had a choice between “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Sonic Reducer,” the latter would win every time. Cheetah intrigues me more and his book is definitely more satisfying (I will keep this one, and have just sold Slash’s hardcover at a garage sale for $1, if that helps give you an idea).
[At the Johnny Thunders memorial]
There are some cool B&W photos throughout (I’ve included a couple of my own here, that are not not in the book, so there), and the pages, well, they just fly by.
This is a joy to read, and I cannot recommend it enough to anyone who is interested in an early view of what would become punk rock and arguably, in the Dead Boys’ case, proto-hardcore. I want to personally thank Cheetah for being so forthcoming, bringing me joyous hours listening to him play, getting the chance to read about his life, and for being true to who he is, whether it’s in a pharmaceutical haze of his early days or his straight living now.
After you finish reading this, get Young, Loud and Snotty and blast it, and check out some of his other contributions (a discography would have been a nice addition, but here is one online: discogs.com/artist/Cheetah+Chrome).
Finally, I want to add that the forward to the book by Legs McNeil is a fun read not just because he was there and is a punk “name,” but he sets up, through personal experience, a view into Cheetah’s mindset.
And check for Cheetah’s new band, Batusis (with Sylvain Sylvain) who are touring.