Photo by Tom Hearn
Photo by Tom Hearn
When I was about 13 years old, my life was about as far removed from normal as it could be. I was trained to show the world that it was perfect, that we, as a family, were perfect and by most accounts, to the casual observer, my life did seem pretty idyllic. Sure, there were those that recognized the subtle differences in me. The way I carried myself, always on guard. The fear I had of drawing attention to myself or being different in any way. But my strongest desire, one that trumped every bit of that fear, was to be who I really was. To break free from what I was forced and expected to be and leave all of those fake and phony and ridiculous lies behind. I was so tired of hiding. At only 13, suffice it to say, I had experienced far more darkness than any kid should ever have to. I was looking desperately for a light. Some kind of life-preserver to hold on to. I found it in my friend, Chris.
For whatever reason, he saw the truth in and about me. He became a friend and mentor. He never pried, but he just seemed to know why I never wanted to go home. He was a confidant and a salvation. I’ve often wondered if I’d have made it through those years alive if I had not found him. Chris was also the person that showed me what music meant.He showed me what the punk scene was and how it made a person feel. In every single song he played for me I knew that every word, every note was changing me. I understood beyond doubt it was going to be a large part of what saved me. There is never a day that goes by that I don’t think of him and send him thanks.Chris left this world over a decade ago, but he left me this gift. When I found out I was going to be seeing and interviewing Cheetah Chrome, I thanked him and thought of how he’d have been so fucking thrilled about this. The Dead Boys were one of the first bands he ever played for me. And songs like Sonic Reducer and I Don’t Wanna Be No Catholic Boy ( I changed it to girl. I was forced to go to Catholic school and even sang it to Sister Judith, my Principal once.) were songs we’d scream out the window at the top of our lungs as we drove around town. They were our theme songs.
I’ve been so blessed and lucky with this blog. The people I’ve gotten to interview and see have been people I’ve loved musically for a very long time. I write exclusively about music that means something to me. Despite that, this was different. Maybe it’s because The Dead Boys were my first taste of freedom from a life I’d so hated and feared. Maybe it’s because Cheetah and I have both struggled in this life and come out better for it. And maybe it’s a little reminder of my friend, Chris. Most likely, it’s a combination of all three. But this was the first interview I ever did that I got teary thinking about it.The Dead Boys meant that much to me. And I won’t ever forget how lucky I am to be here today, a person who made it through the worst of the worst and was stronger for it. Just like Cheetah Chrome.
Cheetah grew up Gene O’Connor in Cleveland Ohio, with very little financial stability, but with a Mother that believed in him. In fact, it was she that worked her ass off so that he could have his first guitar. He began his rise to fame in the proto-punk band Rocket from the Tombs, where he and fellow band mate Johnny Madansky (a.k.a. Johnny Blitz) eventually left to form the band Frankenstein with singer Stiv Bators. This band eventually became the Dead Boys.
The Dead Boys relocated from the midwest to New York City on the advice of Joey Ramone. The band quickly became famous for not only their sound, but their stage antics, which were loud, and often filled with everything from profanity to Stiv slashing himself bloody with the microphone stand. The Dead Boys became a fixture at CBGB’s and were signed to Sire Records, who encouraged them to change their look and sound and become more mainstream. This was a huge factor in the band’s breakup.
Since the breakup of the Dead Boys, Cheetah has remained extremely relevant in the world of music. He still tours with Rocket From The Tombs and is very active with his solo career. In addition, he has played with countless other bands and musicians over the years and remains one of the most important guitarists in music. Cheetah is also an accomplished and critically acclaimed author, after his 2010 memoir ” Cheetah Chrome: A Dead Boys Tale From The Front Lines Of Punk Rock” was released. Cheetah and the Dead Boys were also featured in the 2013 movie titled CBGB , about the influential Bowery club that launched the careers of bands such as Blondie, The Dead Boys and the Ramones. In fact, Hilly Kristal, the club’s owner, managed the band.
Despite his well documented drug addictions and relapses, Cheetah has come out the other side. He is an author, a musician, a mentor and most importantly, a father, which he says is his proudest achievement in his life.
Cheetah is on tour with his incredible band, which include Bass player Enzo Pennizzotto (Joan Jett and the Blackhearts), guitarist Jason Kottwitz (Sylvain Sylvain and the Sylvains) and drummer Chris Alaniz (Sylvain Sylvain and the Sylvains). This is one hell of a talented backing band, and all of these musicians really play hard and play well.
When I sat down with Cheetah at Cafe Nine in New Haven, I was sitting with a man I idolized. However, within seconds of meeting him and being greeted with a warm hug, my nervousness was gone. Cheetah was intelligent, well-spoken and incredibly kind. After our interview I was treated to one of the best live shows I’ve seen in quite some time. And when the band played Sonic Reducer, I shed a little tear and raised my glass to my friend, Chris. I’m sure he was around that night, somehow.
J. The Dead Boys have meant everything to me as far as music goes. I favored the band over many others in the scene at the time. Did you ever feel there was competition between the bands in the punk scene? I’ve heard that during other interviews on occasion.
CC. The Dead Boys were a very competitive band as far as making music went. I mean, we always wanting to take the fucking house down when we played live, so there was sort of this competition within ourselves to always do that. As far as with other bands? We got along with all of them, The Ramones, The Dictators, Blondie. We liked them all. There was never a competition between us. We wanted to be the best, but it wasn’t about competition with these other bands.
J. Your songs were sort of like my theme songs at age 13-15. As a girl who was forced to go to Catholic school, I don’t wanna be no Catholic boy was something I sang everyday. I even sang it to my Principal once. That didn’t go over so well. Were you raised Catholic, too?
CC: I’m glad you understand that Catholic school shit. You sort of have to live through it to understand it. We were all altar boys if you can believe that. But we were the kind of altar boys that were drinking the wine!
J. The Dead Boys were such a huge influence to other bands and were truly one of the greatest bands in the punk scene, but I feel you don’t often get the credit you deserved. How do you feel about that?
CC: We were definitely overlooked sometimes. When we moved here from Cleveland, people sometimes called us Johnny-Come-Lately, things like that. A lot of times we were overlooked by the New York critics because we weren’t artsy enough for them. The press always took the side of the artsy bands in New York. We were too rock n roll for them I think. Sorry if we were a good band. I mean, we really kicked ass. It’s like the CBGB movie, a lot of bands were pissed off that we were in it more than they were. But Hilly was our manager for God’s sake.The movie was about the club itself. Our lives and Hilly’s were intertwined. I’m sure we may not have always been the best part of Hilly’s life, but we were a part of it. And that’s what that movie was about.
J. Tell me about how the Dead Boys got started.
CC: During the last months of Rocket from the Tombs, I was hanging out with Stiv a lot.He really wanted me to quit Rockets and put a band together. But the band was doing well, getting established. Stiv was taking me from a good band. I wasn’t about to just quit, but I saw that the band was probably nearing the end. Stiv and I were like fucking long-lost brothers right off the bat. I felt more comfortable with the kind of music he wanted to play. Stiv and I sort of saw eye to eye on the kind of band we wanted to be. I grew up in the projects. I didn’t need a fucking safety-pin to be punk. I just was, it was in me, you know?
Peter Laughner was a big part of the art part of Rockets. I was more the Detroit Stooges guy. Peter kind of wanted to be Richard Thompson with a fuzz box.
J. I love Richard Thompson.
CC. I do, too, but I wasn’t about to get up there with an acoustic guitar at that point in my life.Stiv and I just fit, you know?
J. I read that your mother was a hugely supportive of you and your goal of being a musician. What do you think your life would have been like without her support.
CC:It would have been horrible.
J. Do you think you’d have gotten as far as you did without her support?
CC: No. I don’t think I would have. I grew up in the projects she was a bookkeeper in a restaurant and she busted her ass for me. It took me a really long time to realize just how hard she worked for me and how much she did for me. The last ten years or so of her life, I was in a good place, and I’m glad we spent them together and was able to thank her. I made her happy for the last ten years of her life. I gave her a grandson. That made her really happy and when she passed, I can honestly say we were like best friends.
Her support meant everything. I miss her. My son is my only close blood relative. My son is doing very well. He’s on the heads list at school. He plays soccer, ice skates, he’s a handsome little bastard. He’s my hero. Everything I’d want him to be. Everything I wasn’t.
J: Is he musical?
CC: Not so far. I tried , but he’s not ready. I’ve gotten him a guitar. He’s only 11, now. He says it doesn’t feel right to him right now, and that’s ok. I didn’t play until I was 15. But he can do anything he wants. I’d be happy if one day that was something we could share, but I just want him to be happy.Like my Mom did with me. She got me my first guitar and helped me along and as long as I was making progress she was proud of me. One of my favorite things that I remember was the time I got a big stretch limo to take her to come see us at the Agora. The only problem with that was she told me that the only person that saw her get out of the limo was the drunk on the corner! She was proud, though. And I’m proud of my kid.
J. The record executives thought punk was going to just fade away. In fact, the big shots at Sire records wanted you to change the band. What happened with that?
CC: That’s what broke up the Dead Boys in the first place. Seymour Stein told us basically to kick ass out there and do what it was we’d been doing. So we just kept on trashing hotel rooms and doing what a lot of other bands were doing, but we were doing that shit way better. So Seymour, he called us into his office from the road and me and Jeff got beers on the way. Jeff used to say is this going to be a one beer or two beer meeting? I knew this would be a two. He said “Guys, I bet a lot of money on punk rock, and I was wrong. So, I think if we are going to continue our relationship, you need to reconsider your music, your image and possibly even the name of the band.” and I just looked at him. One of the other members asked Seymour what he had in mind. And I looked at him and said “You’re fucking even entertaining this shit? Because the first thing you’re going to have to do is to find another guitar player.” and I walked out. I knew at the time the media wasn’t reaching the heartland. It hit Cleveland maybe 3 months after New York and California, Texas in 6 months and it never hit places like Idaho. It was going to take time to get to middle America, we were going to give it time. These guys didn’t understand that. And punk didn’t ever die. They’re still selling fucking converse and skinny jeans in the mall. These bands are still making music. The belief that punk was dead may have cost me a record contract, but punk never did die.
J. Did you ever consider giving up music?
CC: I knew I would never give it up. I couldn’t. The more I think about it, the more I realize that playing music defines me as a person. It’s who I am.
J. When Stiv passed, it must have been extremely difficult for you. How did you handle that?
CC: When I realized what happened, it felt like ice was in my blood. I just felt numb. He was supposed to be in New York in a week. We were going to do a new project together. I was all sober and proud of myself and ready to go. But I dove into the deep end of the pool after that and I didn’t recover for 5 years. I’m just glad I recovered at all. He was my brother. Closest person ever to me. The initial shock of it was fucking bad. Besides my Mother, it was the hardest death for me to face. It’s funny, because Stiv and I had this dynamic. And I kind of have some of that with Jason (Kottwitz, guitarist). Stiv was born on October 22, and Jason’s birthday is October 21. Kind of strange. But, yeah, losing Stiv was really bad.
J. Who have your musical influences been?
CC: You, know, I guess I grew up on The Beatles and The Stones in the 60’s. And I dove right into the punk thing. But since then, nothing really. I mean, the 80’s kind of sucked. The 90’s kind of sucked. I guess I don’t really follow music. These guys in the band have to tell me who it is they’re listening to. I guess making music is enough for me.
J. Do you guys plan on putting out any new music?
CC: Yeah. We’ve got two songs just about ready to go.
J. I know some of the guys from the band Dead City. I loved the album that you did with them. The Dead Sessions. How did that come to be?
CC: I knew Joe Dias from Lost Generation. We played a lot together over the years and we just worked well together. That album came out really well. It’s a really good album. We were supposed to tour and I relapsed. I feel really bad about it. They were good guys and I wish them nothing but the best. I hope I get to see them again. But yeah, I Walked With A Zombie, all of it. It’s just a really good album.
J. I know how you feel about Trump. Did you ever imagine that he would actually win?
CC: I had to imagine him winning.But I tried really hard not to. Because it’s so horrifying. I certainly thought, Holy Shit , there’s a lot more stupid people than I thought there were. But the truth is, he’s going to hang himself. He’s going to trip over his dick. He’s going to. He just can’t keep his mouth shut or his ego checked long enough not to.
J. What do you think of the people he’s appointed so far?
CC: It’s like having the Joker get elected to office and picking his sidekicks. It’s like a fucking cartoon. He can’t talk to anybody without pissing them off. He’s a media whore. War with him is almost inevitable.
J. I’m sure you’ve read about the increase in hate crimes in this country. Many of them have aligned themselves with Trump. What do you think? It’s getting worse?
CC: The thing is that everybody thought race relations had improved., but I saw some guy on television saying that it’s always been there, but the good thing is now they are all wearing these stupid Trump hats and it’s really easy for us to recognize them and walk away. He’s right.We know who the fuck they are now and we can just stay the fuck away from them.
J. Do you think we, as citizens are going to be able to stop him?
CC: People are going to stop him, but I don’t think its going to be without blood shed. I’ve never seen it this bad in my life time. I still can’t really even digest it. And Giuliani, that fucking little freak. These people are even worse! They all want to take away social security, ruin the working class. It’s just really bad. But I don’t think we can or will let him get away with the worst of it. We can’t.
J. How about the tour? Where are you heading next?
CC:We’re doing a Japanese tour and a West Coast tour in February. We’ve spent a lot of time in Europe this year.We may go back. A lot of good things coming.
J. How did you get together with your current band?
CC: Enzo (Pennizzotto) and I knew each other, I ran into the Joan Jett roadies at the airport and the rest is history.I waited around for Enzo, we hung out and talked about playing together and it just fell into place. He was in Joan Jett and The Blackhearts. We’ve been playing together since 2006. We had a good reunion and the rest is history. Jason (Kottwitz), I met him when he had a band called Flamethrower. Chris (Alaniz) was around the music scene. He was just really good, too.
Jason: I was in a band called Flamethrower we did a Dead Boys tribute for Halloween. And a bunch of promoters wanted us to do it again, and somehow we got Cheetah to come.It all came together from there.
CC: The cool thing was whenever I stopped playing my guitar and Jason was still playing it sounded just like me.It was like I was still playing! I’m really glad I ended up with these guys. These are really some of the best guys I’ve ever played with.
Cheetah Chrome is a living legend. More importantly, he is a kind and thoughtful man, bandmate, musician, father and really decent human being. And just like Chris is looking down and enjoying watching me do what I love, I can guarantte that Cheetah’s Mom and Stiv are watching Cheetah and smiling. With a hell of a lot of pride about what he’s battled and overcome.