DON’T BE A DICK: Cheetah Chrome

Cheetah Chrome 2

A senior member of punk’s Class of ’76—via The Dead Boys, duh—offers life lessons, thoughts on the new CBGB biopic, advice on surviving in the music industry, and more.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

Cheetah Chrome and his band The Dead Boys never really got their proper due for their contribution to New York’s punk rock music. Founded in 1976 in Cleveland, Chrome and his buddies packed up the van as quick as they could and relocated to New York on the advice of Joey Ramone. They became a favorite at CBGB, but grew frustrated while all of their friends and scene mates were being handed record deals.

Finally signed to Sire Records at the tail end of New York’s punk movement, the label tried to get them to clean up a bit and polish off the rough edges to appeal more to Middle America—essentially remove the “punk” from punk rock. By 1979 they called it quits, although there was a subsequent reunion tour in 1987 and another one in 2004-05 (although by that point vocalist Stiv Bators was long dead).

Bad experiences aside, Chrome—born Eugene O’Connor—managed to soldier on with The Stilettos and Cheetah Chrome and the Casualties, and even reformed his pre-Dead Boys group Rocket From the Tombs in 2003. Now a partner in Nashville indie label Plowboy and still recording and playing shows across the country, Chrome is being reintroduced to millions on the screen: Rupert Grint (a/k/a Ron Weasley from the Harry Potter movies) plays him in the just-released film CBGB.    

Chrome is also releasing a seven-song solo record (titled Solo, on Plowboy) around the same time, culled from recording sessions in 1996 and 2010.

He took some time recently to speak with BLURT about his new record, his relationship with CBGC owner and punk rock kingmaker Hilly Kristal (who passed away in 2007) and having Harry Potter’s best bud play him in a movie.

BLURT: Let’s start out by talking about this EP that’s coming out. These are from two different recording sessions, right?

CHROME: Yeah, so basically they came out of stuff I was going to do for a solo record and we went up in the studio in Woodstock, NY (in 1996) and Hilly was the executive producer and Genya Ravan was producing. [Ed. not: Ravan was also the producer for the Dead Boys’ 1977 debut LP Young Loud and Snotty.] I brought my band from Nashville up and we did about a week’s worth of recordings. Hilly’s daughter sent me the master tapes and we went over them and said “I’d do this differently or change this one,” and we ended up taking the ones I wouldn’t change and finished them off. And there’s still some more stuff from those sessions that might come out.

Is it obvious which of these songs were from 1996 and which were recorded more recently or is it pretty seamless?

Yeah it should be. The recent stuff was done with me, Sylvain (Sylvain, from the New York Dolls) and the rest of The Batusis. We recorded that stuff and the label went on hiatus and the record didn’t end up coming out. Rather than trying to re-sell it we decided to split the recording sessions and make a solo record out of it. The Batusis is Sylvain and Lez Warner from The Cult on drums and Sean Koos of The Blackhearts on bass.

I was reading somewhere that the idea for the band Batusis actually came out of a meeting at an airport somewhere.

Yeah. The original Batusis record was Thommy Price and Enzo Penizzotto, both from The Blackhearts. I ran into Thommy at the airport, La Guardia, and we hadn’t seen each other in a while and he said “If you need a band let me know. We’re off the road with Joan (Jett) for a while.” So we did a series of gigs on the east coast with me playing alongside these guys from The Blackhearts. I called them for this project and they came down to Nashville and we did these four songs that came out on the EP (released in 2010). I loved working with those guys but they couldn’t tour because of Joan’s schedule. When it came time to do a five week tour, we got Lez on drums and Sean on bass because of their recommendation. He had worked with them in The Blackhearts. It worked out great and we toured all over the country and then went into the studio and did another 10 songs, but Smog Veil (their label at the time) decided they didn’t want to put out records. So rather than wait, we got permission to use the stuff and put it out ourselves. So when I ended up being partners with Plowboy Records here in Nashville I decided to give myself a contract.

Speaking of Plowboy, you’ve obviously had a lot of experience with various record labels of all sizes. When you and the others were starting up Plowboy is there anything you took from your experience of being on the other end of labels in setting it up?

Well, the industry has changed so much and it pretty much changes month by month now, so we just basically didn’t want to go old school. We sat down and all agreed that we wanted to be artist friendly. We didn’t want to be like the pricks I had dealt with. At the same time we didn’t want to be taken advantage of; we didn’t want to be stupid. We’ve got some newer artists coming out and some more established artists. We are willing to think outside of the box. We want to be as artist friendly as possible and still have our butts covered, you know? It’s working out pretty well.

I’m trying to remember what you wrote about your label experiences in your book. Did you have bad experiences with record labels?

Yeah! We were on Sire (laughs). I’ve actually got to go see Seymour (Stein, the founder of Sire Records) in a few weeks. He’s going to get some kind of award.

 So you have sensitivity to how artists are treated.

We were taken advantage of. We were at the ass end of a horrible time to sign a record deal. They extorted publishing from you in able to give you a record deal. I’m still trying to straighten out my publishing mess from 30 years ago. I don’t want to do that to somebody. It’s evil. It’s not your money so why take it, especially when you’re already getting your share? We’re trying not to do that (laughs).

So, don’t be a dick.

Exactly. Don’t be a dick. It’s a pretty simple philosophy and it works.(Below: the Plowboy crew.)

Shannon Pollard Cheetah Chrome Don Cusic Plowboy

You had mentioned earlier that Hilly was involved with that earlier recording session. Obviously you had a long, close relationship with him dating back to CBGB. How was it working with him as a producer?

Well, he was an executive producer so he mainly oversaw and paid for the studio time. But he did come in and hear the mixes and offered his advice. I think he did just fine. He had a good ear and knew what sucked and what didn’t. He gave the artists their freedom, so I would have been fine with him as a producer.

I’m interested in finding out what brought you to Nashville. You are so closely identified as being from Cleveland and New York.

I’ve been down here since 1996 and I came here to do demos. I was supposed to be here two weeks. I just liked the place in general, it’s a nice city. I had friends here and I just really liked the vibe of the place. I ended up meeting my wife here and loving the place. I haven’t regretted it for a moment.

It looks like the rest of the music world is finally catching on as well.

Yeah, it’s not just country at all. There’s a lot of rock and roll here. The indie scene was already around when I got here. You’ve got plenty of studios, amp and instrument rentals, you have everything you need to record here and it’s cheaper than New York. Plus you’ve got good restaurants and everything else you could possible want.

Just to switch gears, I’ve seen a couple of trailers online for the new CBGB movie. Rupert Grint is playing you. Did you spend any time with him so he could learn more about you?

Not really. He spent a lot of time watching the videos and when I was on set with him we met. I think he got the voice great. We were talking and I said, “You just need to mumble, because that’s how I talk.” He said, “That’s what I’ve been doing.” He was shocked to see that I still had scars from those days. They were shooting a fight scene and I said “I still have scars from when that happened” and I showed him. All of those people who were on that set really cared about getting as close to it as they could. They really love the project and I think the movie’s heart is in the right place.(Below: Grint in full costume.)

Rupert as Cheetah

Have you seen it yet?

I have, I liked it. Like I said, it’s made with love. It’s the story of Hilly, not really the club. I think people are thinking it’s about the club, but it’s about Hilly and how he got it started. If you go into it with an open mind, I think you’re going to find a pretty damn cool movie.

I was surprised reading some of the negative comments online by folks who haven’t even seen the movie yet.

What surprises me is that the same people who are upset with it because it’s not about the club, didn’t see the documentary Burning Down the House (about CBGB) when it came out. People are funny, what can you say?

When you were on the set did it look accurate? Did it bring up any old memories?

Oh yeah! If you walked up to the bar, you would swear you were at CBGBs. They had the original doors there, they had Hilly’s desk there and that’s where I used to sit and talk to him all the time. It was pretty cool. (Below: Chrome has a cameo in the film.)

Cheetah cameo in film

When punk first came out in the ‘70s it didn’t seem like something that was destined to last. Are you surprised that it’s still such a strong, viable genre three decades later?

I’ve always had an axe to grind about this because my band broke up after the record execs said “We got our money out of this thing, but punk’s not going to last so we’re moving on to the next thing.” I said at the time “You’re wrong; stick with it. It just takes time for it to hit Middle America.” Back then you didn’t have the Internet. Back then they didn’t have the patience, didn’t want to wait and looked what happened. If they would have stayed behind The Dead Boys for the long haul, I think they could have made a lot of money… And I don’t think it was just the record executives. Some of the band members can take the blame too. They didn’t have the faith and couldn’t stick it out.

And you guys attempted a reunion once or twice…

There were a couple of reunions. We were a mess. I’m trying to think of a better word, but that’s what it was: we were a mess.

This solo record comes out in November, so what are your plans after that?

I don’t know. I miss playing gigs, so I want to do some of those. You know musically, I’m not trying to make it in the music business anymore; I am in the music business now. I just do it. Whatever happens, happens. I will always play live and I will always play on records.

 Cheetah Chrome book

[Cheetah/Plowboy photos: Anna O’Connor; other images from CBGB film stills]

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