Cheetah Chrome: A Dead Boy’s Tale from the Front Lines of Punk Rock: By Cheetah Chrome, 368 pgs. By Todd Taylor

Jun 03, 2011

I don’t want this comment to hurt the sales of this book, but here goes: Cheetah Chrome sounds like a decent guy who lucidly tells rock’n’roll tales. The writing is clear, organized, and well edited. The tone is humble and matter-of-fact. If you’re expecting a tortured, grandiose, or “punk rock” style, you’ll probably be disappointed. For me, it was a refreshing and riveting rock autobiography that I’ll proudly display between Lemmy’s White Line Fever and Tim Russert’s Big Russ & Me on my bookshelf.

I had the pleasure of watching Cheetah read a section of this book at one of our local record stores, Vacation, and his lucidity—especially after reading in detail how many drugs he’d ingested and alcohol he’d drank over the years—was perhaps the most surprising aspect of his reading. (Truth be told, I’m tired of the bloated egos, bloated self-importance, and drug-bloated bodies of punk rockers who turn to writing when the royalty checks stop rolling in. Cheetah is, thankfully, not among their ranks.)

The book covers Cheetah’s entire life, beginning with his troubled childhood, jumping around from school to school in Cleveland (along with a happy stint in a greenhouse). It takes you through all the pre- and post-Dead Boys years and ends with current-day, in-recovery, struggling-with-sobriety, happily-married Cheetah.

On the topic of drugs, Cheetah paints himself as a doped-up imp. He’s mostly loveable but a more than a little happily hapless: “Our buddy had works and offered to shoot us up… Although I had done it [intravenous drug use] before, I’d never done it with heroin. But weak with boredom, I finally said, ‘Why the hell not.’” Drugs drip throughout this book, but their constant presence is less bravado and more the style of a poorly thought-out plan, to wit: “Ignoring dosage instructions was to become a lifetime pattern when it came to drugs.” So many pieces of the Cheetah puzzle fall into place with that one sentence.

The book’s subtitle is a “Dead Boy’s Tale” and Cheetah delivers in spades about the band that put him on the musical map. I was already a fan of the band and knew quite a few stories about their recordings, but I hadn’t realized how street-tough they actually were. In a random incident, someone in their group of friends called another citizen an asshole on the street. This citizen, unfortunately, most likely had mob connections. Dead Boy Johnny Blitz was beaten with a baseball bat and stabbed five times in the neck and chest. He was DOA when he arrived at the hospital, but was revived went through a five-hour operation to save his life. One doctor refused to perform the surgery because Johnny was wearing a swastika pin. (The Dead Boys got more than their ration of shit over the years for being dopey enough to use the swazi as a shock tactic from their Jewish recording engineer and also Sire label head Seymour Stein, so let’s leave it at that. Late ‘70s punk was a different world and the Dead Boys weren’t racist fucktards.)

What separates bio-handjobs and bio-fluff from a book worth purchasing? Regret and unforgivable actions laid plain. Although Cheetah doesn’t openly regret much, this one’s a doozey. Alcoholism is pretty much present in every page of this book after Cheetah turns eight, but it’s the screech of a guinea pig that continues to haunt him. He was much older to know better, blackout drunk, and living in a room that wasn’t on the ground floor: “The guinea pigs started screeching behind me. Without even thinking, I reached in, grabbed one, and threw it out the window… This was an animal that I loved. It was my pet. When I came around the next morning I was devastated… To this day I feel like a monster when I think of it.”

Another compelling aspect of the book is that Cheetah loved his mother very much all throughout her life and isn’t afraid to say it. As she lay dying in the hospital, he writes, “I walked down the hall to her room, and went over to her, got down on my knees, and put my arms around Mom, crying and just saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ over and over.”That’s not punk. That’s not tough. That’s just human.

The only head-scratcher with this book applies to most first-wave punks and their child-like, naïve, and contentious relationships with the major music industry. There is no shortage of mentions in the book of the Dead Boys wrecking hotel rooms, taking flights, being placed on planned tours and in sold-out stadiums—with most of the tabs being picked up by the major label Sire. How could they not see the other shoe about to drop when Seymour Stein’s gambit of signing so much punk in the early days didn’t net a handsome return? “Seymour then went into a spiel about how he had bet his wad on punk rock, and he had been wrong. How it wasn’t happening, it wasn’t going to happen, and if we wanted to change our image, our style of music, and quite possibly the name of the band!” Okay, that I get. No indies at that time. Bands would rather play music than run bands as businesses. There were few options to the majors. But, decades later in 1996, Cheetah still shopped projects to the majors because CBGB’s Records didn’t have big enough distribution. It’s sorta Stockholm-Syndromey for me. Again, it’s not anything against Cheetah. It’s just that this attitude is emblematic of an entire generation of punks and it comes up again and again in these rock bios. (To Cheetah’s credit, he gives big ups to Smog Veil Records, a Cleveland independent that’s currently treating him right.)

The last memorable aspect of this book? Cheetah’s geekish gearheadedness. He can—and has—tuned his guitars and then all of the band’s instruments, to the dial tone of a phone. Highly recommended. (Voyageur Press / MBI Publishing, 400 First Ave. North, Ste. 300, MPLS, MN5 5401,

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