A Dead Boy Lives

How a volatile junkie named Cheetah Chrome survived Cleveland's notorious punk scene

Jan 5, 2011 at 12:00 am

A few years ago, a young musician was heard talking about how he wished he had been around to experience the underground music scene of the 1970s in Cleveland, Ohio. The words tumbling out of him were tinged with romanticism; he imagined that it was very much like Paris in the 1920s or San Francisco in the '60s, with groundbreaking music pouring out of every Midwestern basement and corner bar.

He's one of a devoted handful who have constructed a cult around that scene over the last three or four decades since whatever it was actually happened. New York author Clinton Heylin made 1970s Cleveland a significant part of his book, From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World. He traced the very roots of punk rock, art rock, and new wave in part back to a group of noisy, decidedly out-of-the-mainstream bands who were knocking around a Rust Belt city on the skids.

And Pere Ubu, formed by ex-Cleveland Scene writer David Thomas (known at the time as "Crocus Behemoth") in 1975, became in the eyes of many influential writers a sort of planet around which other bands revolved. Thanks for that go largely to Thomas' self-mythologizing and persistence, which has kept his band going with various lineups even today.

But myth and reality differ.

Pere Ubu may have been the intellectual art rockers, but it was the Dead Boys — the most straightforward rockers of the bunch — who came closest to going mainstream. Their often surprisingly poppy tunes were fueled by inchoate rage and the reckless cynicism that became earmarks of punk rock.

The Dead Boys released a pair of albums on a Warner Brothers subsidiary before they imploded in a flurry of fists, broken motel furnishings, demolished vehicles and shattered bodies.

"People always say, 'Oh, someone should make a movie about it,'" says Cheetah Chrome, the former guitarist for Rocket From the Tombs and the Dead Boys.

If anyone does make that movie, they now have a solid starting point: Chrome's new autobiography, Cheetah Chrome: A Dead Boy's Tale From the Front Lines of Punk Rock. Whether Cheetah would live to tell any tales was as much in doubt as whether he could recall them.

The book's origins stem from a single chapter he dashed off at the urging of a friend, who offered to pitch it to publishers. "The next thing I know, they were making me an offer, and I'm like, 'Damn, now I've got to write the book.'"

And write it he did — doing so without a co-author or researcher, and using the Internet to jog his mind about chronology. For a guy who candidly admits to partaking in a comical amount of drinking and drugging, it's a stunning achievement: more than 350 pages' worth of drunken, violent and often funny rock 'n' roll escapades, recalled in vivid detail. It's the first real, close-up glimpse of an era shrouded in legend.

The anti-cover band

Anyone who knew Cheetah Chrome back in the day would consider him an unlikely chronicler of a scene that was studded with articulate brainiacs like David Thomas. Born Eugene O'Connor, he grew up in the Lakeview projects near Cleveland's West 25th Street, jumped from school to school, and lost interest in education when he started to hit clubs and concerts as a teenager in the early '70s. At 17, he dropped his horticulture studies and moved on to vague plans of pursuing music. By the time he played with his first significant band, Cheetah was already known for his hot temper, his drinking and his propensity to hit first and think later.

Cleveland's local scene in 1972 was dominated by cover bands that emphasized technique and polish. That meant being able to sound exactly like Led Zeppelin. And Bad Company. And Deep Purple. And Lynyrd Skynyrd. The most admired of them held court as many as seven nights a week at big rock rooms like downtown Cleveland's old Agora, or nearby joints such as the Corral and the Utopia. Some of them attracted nearly a thousand kids on a Wednesday or Thursday night — every week.

Cheetah had a voracious taste for music, and he liked some of what these bands played. "They were all imitating somebody else," he remembers. "It was hard to tell who was good and who wasn't when they're all doing the same Doobie Brothers song."

His tastes were much wider-ranging than his hard-ass punk reputation would suggest. He was blown away by a young Skynyrd playing at the old Smiling Dog Saloon on West 25th, and he went home to learn all their tunes. "That was punk rock back then," he says. "They were hillbillies from the South. They got drunk, they got in fights."

But he was more enamored of the Stooges and the Velvet Underground — and the club owners and booking agents who controlled the local rock scene decidedly were not.

Around that time, a small group of similarly inspired musicians found each other floating around such eclectic downtown Cleveland clubs as the Viking Saloon, Otto's, and the Piccadilly. They'd play occasionally at a short-lived little club called the Clockwork Orange, across from the police station on Payne Avenue — painted orange on the outside and foil-lined on the inside. But mostly they would just hang out, often drinking at a college bar called the House of Bud on Euclid. It's where David Thomas made his performance debut at a Scene-sponsored night out, after winning the pizza-eating contest.

They rehearsed more than they gigged, in ramshackle downtown lofts and abandoned industrial spaces accessed by haunted elevators, in a Warehouse District that was years away from being habitable, let alone fashionable.

And everybody was going to concerts.

"At the time, you didn't appreciate it because it was normal," remembers James Sliman, a regular on the scene who had hung out at shows since his mid-teens. "But it was a really unusual time. Roxy Music and Alex Harvey and David Bowie and all the cool bands would come over from England. Back then, all the record labels had offices in Cleveland and gave parties after concerts, and the radio stations would sponsor parties."

The Piccadilly penthouse club, with its glam-rock scene, hosted early concerts by such hip underground New York bands as Television, the New York Dolls and the Heartbreakers, providing a road map for musicians who wanted to do something besides cover tunes. The shows were often booked by Peter Laughner, a Bay Village, Ohio, musician with wide-ranging and mercurial enthusiasms. He traveled back and forth between Cleveland and New York, cross-pollinating the scenes.

Cheetah met John Madansky through a classified ad. They bonded as a couple of roughneck teens and formed short-lived no-name bands that played around Buckeye and Woodhill — "crappy little neighborhood bars that didn't even have an ad in the paper," Cheetah says today. It was during this time that Cheetah picked up his nickname, taken from a 1973 Stooges lyric: "I'm a street-walkin' cheetah with a heart full of napalm." It's also when Madansky was rechristened "Johnny Blitz."

In early 1975, David Thomas decided to transform Rocket From the Tombs — until then something of a satirical band — into a serious project. Laughner came on board, and Blitz and Cheetah were recruited. Cab driver Craig Bell played bass. At the start, the disparate musicians clicked musically.

"I was Cheetah's girlfriend when Rocket From the Tombs was going on, and I was at all the rehearsals," remembers Nora Jones Daycak, who met Cheetah in the lobby of the Agora when both were teenagers. "I saw the songs being worked on and ideas floating around. There was such a great vibe going on between David and Peter, Cheetah and Johnny. There was something new going on. You could just feel it. It was because they were writing songs, and that hadn't been done a whole lot in Cleveland."

Their noisy, formless creations, featuring Thomas' anguished bleating (once described by a more mainstream local musician as sounding like "a pig being castrated"), were unlike anything any other band was playing. They weren't in much demand, although they landed opening slots on Left End and Iron Butterfly concerts, thanks to Laughner's tireless promotion.

It didn't last long. The band disintegrated by the end of the year, with members disagreeing about whether Thomas' voice was "interesting" or just awful. Meanwhile, a savvy self-promoter named Stiv Bators had made his way up from Youngstown, Ohio, and begun ingratiating himself into Cleveland's underground scene.

"There was dissension in the band, and things blew up," says Bell. "Cheetah wanted to bring Stiv in as the singer and have David be keyboard player and multi-instrumentalist. That wasn't going to fly. At the very last gig at the Viking, Stiv comes up to do a song, and David walks off. Stiv starts jumping around and Peter leaves, and finally it evolves into Stiv and Cheetah rolling around on the floor and guitar feeding back, and I went, 'This is where I leave.' And I put down my bass, and that was the end of the band."

But it was just the beginning of the Cheetah-Stiv partnership.

The culture of junkies

Bators had become a legend in his hometown of Youngstown for his Iggy Pop-emulating stage antics. Offstage, he was affable, amusing — and calculating, with his eye always on the next opportunity. He saw he wasn't going to find it in Youngstown.

At the same time Rocket collapsed, Stiv, Cheetah and Blitz regrouped with rhythm guitarist Jimmy Zero and bassist Jeff Magnum to form a band they dubbed Frankenstein. They played, they fought, they broke up, they got back together, and they renamed themselves the Dead Boys. Their friend James Sliman, by then 20 years old, signed on as the band's manager.

And in 1976, as tales of the Sex Pistols began wafting over from England and newly dubbed "punk rock" became the next big thing, the Dead Boys signed to the Warner Brothers subsidiary Sire.

Their first album, released in 1977, was aptly titled Young Loud and Snotty. In the decrepit Warehouse District, they came upon the perfect setting to photograph the record's cover.

"We went downtown looking for a place to do the cover," remembers Blitz's younger brother, Billy Madansky. "We were walking around on West Sixth, and I found an alleyway, but they had to climb through an iron gate to get to it. The photographer put his camera through a gate so you couldn't see the gate, just the alleyway. To make it more punk, I grabbed a few bottles that winos had left in paper bags and busted them on the ground where they were standing. I remember Jimmy Zero complaining, 'Hey, you almost hit me with a flying piece of glass!'"

By then, the band was already looking past Cleveland, whose music scene would revolve around proficient cover bands for a few more years.

Prodded by Ramones frontman Joey Ramone, the band began its migration to New York. Sliman moved in the fall of 1976, followed shortly after by Cheetah. The Dead Boys started gigging around New York, where their adrenalized music and Bators' lewd antics drew packed houses at the hottest clubs. CBGB, a dump on New York's Lower East Side, was ground zero for a scene that included bands as diverse as the Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads. It also became the Dead Boys' home base, where hard drugs were dangerously plentiful.

"The more they got into the New York scene, the more distance there was between me and them because they were starting to get into the heroin," says Daycak, a hairdresser who had given the Dead Boys their first punk haircuts and hooked them up with one of her clients, Cleveland Plain Dealer writer Jane Scott, who was more open to new and noisier music than many Clevelanders.

"Suddenly, I was not so cool because I didn't want to stick a needle in my arm," Daycak says. "Once they hit New York and started into heavy drug use, there was a lot of violence going on. You could see they were going to implode. Cheetah had a good heart. He drank, but he's Irish. But I would hear stories that he would crack a beer bottle over people's heads. That wasn't the Cheetah I knew."

With hindsight, Cheetah sees things much as Daycak does.

"In New York at that time, there was a whole culture of musician junkies and their girlfriends and friends that enabled that," he says. "It was a different time, and there was a different attitude about it. It was becoming hip. In Cleveland, any kind of heroin was crap, and it was expensive. Cocaine was around; we'd get some every now and then. But we did a lot of downers, and we drank like fish. We'd go out to Catawba Island and take handfuls of sopors [sleeping pills] with Catawba wine and pass out, spend the night in jail."

That was kids' stuff compared to New York. The band signed a management deal with Hilly Kristal, who owned CBGB. He joined the race against time to move the Dead Boys' career forward before they self-destructed.

"When Hilly signed them, he said these guys are nuts and wild," says Sliman. "He said, 'You have an apartment. I'll pay the rent, and you can be their tour manager. They listen to you.' But when I saw what things were turning into with them, I knew I was going to use it as a stepping stone, and that's what I did."

The Dead Boys were living up to their reputation, and they didn't have to try very hard. An old friend from Cleveland named Fuji had become a roadie for the band. He recalls how they would incite fights that would spill into the audience. "Usually Bators started it, or Johnny did it, just to watch someone else fight," he says. "You could egg Cheetah on to do anything. I can picture Johnny sitting there with his cigarette going, 'Come on, Cheetah — do it.'"

The drinking and drugs rapidly escalated.

"On the road, Cheetah was a little crazier," Sliman says. "In addition to being drunk, he would take so much speed, I don't know how he's alive. It was so obvious when he was on speed, which was every show. Some people said it made him a more intense guitar player. But that stuff screws up your timing inside your body, so I don't believe it made him a better guitar player. I think it just made him a crazier guitar player. The other guys weren't doing a lot of speed, but they all used to drink a lot every single night."

"On the road it was easy to get high," says Fuji, who, like Cheetah, battled addiction for nearly two decades. "It was easy to get drugs. Some people know when to stop. A lot of us didn't know when to stop."

Despite the media attention being lavished on punk rock, things quickly went off course for the Dead Boys. A U.K. tour found the band growing apart. "I think that was the start of their downfall," says Fuji. "They went from being friends to individual egos. Attitudes changed, personalities were changing. People were talking behind people's backs, trying to impress other people."

The second Dead Boys album, We Have Come for Your Children, was cut in early 1978 at Criteria Recording in Miami, the studio associated with the BeeGees' disco comeback. It didn't go well, thanks in part to the studio's in-house drug dealer, who kept everyone persistently strung-out.

Just as troubling: The label wanted a more mainstream sound — a sound the Dead Boys were uninterested in and incapable of pulling off.

"The label never gave them a fair shake," says Fuji. "I don't know if they could have. The records sucked. But they could play live. I remember being at the sound board and just being blown away, they were so good."

'The wrong Dead Boy died'

By the time the second record was released, the fracturing band had a bigger problem, the result of their gift for causing random trouble: Johnny Blitz and a group of friends had exchanged insults with a carload of Puerto Ricans on New York's Lower East Side. One of them plunged a knife through Blitz's chest and left him for dead.

For Blitz's brother Billy, it was his first trip to the Big Apple.

"Stiv picked me up at the airport with these two chicks, Tish and Snooky, who were in a punk band," he recalls. "They started shooting moons out of the taxi. I'm looking at the cab driver, and he's freaking out. And I'm just some young kid who's never been out of Cleveland. Me and my dad had to go to the police station in New York, and they brought out [Johnny's] clothes in a bag. They were shriveled up from all the blood."

With Blitz hospitalized for months, the Dead Boys sputtered to their death by 1979. Sliman and Fuji moved on to other bands. Bators made some solo records and eventually formed Lords of the New Church with Brian James of the seminal British punk band the Damned. Jimmy Zero returned to Cleveland and formed Club Wow, who mostly played locally.

And Cheetah stayed in New York and did drugs — lots of them — occasionally pulling himself together for a musical project. The Dead Boys reunited in 1987 for a few shows, including one at Lakewood's Phantasy Theatre. Cheetah was so wasted before the show that an irritated Jimmy Zero sat as far away from him as possible during a TV interview taping backstage.

Meanwhile, some of their cohorts didn't make it. Rocket From the Tombs and Pere Ubu co-founder Peter Laughner drank himself to death in 1977 at the age of 24.

Bators, the Dead Boys' savvy, ambitious vocalist, died after being hit by a car in Paris in 1990; he was 40.

Cheetah doesn't remember much about the 1990 tribute concert for Bators at the alternative rock club Babylon a Go Go, which stood on Market Avenue, across from what is now the Great Lakes Brewing Company. That night, roaring drunk before the doors even opened, he threw wayward air punches at anyone who looked at him cockeyed, hurled insults at Bators' old friends while they performed, grabbed the mic for a rambling and bitter diatribe about how Cleveland hadn't supported the Dead Boys, and threw a bottle at a writer's head.

"The wrong Dead Boy died," some whispered as they dodged Cheetah's flailing fists.

But Bators' death, Cheetah's descent into drugs, and the other Dead Boys' dropping into obscurity didn't dampen their legend. Their first single, "Sonic Reducer," was covered by Pearl Jam at the peak of their fame and appeared on a limited-edition live recording. In 1993, Guns N' Roses covered another Dead Boys tune, "Ain't It Fun," on their album The Spaghetti Incident and included it on a greatest-hits compilation the following year.

Cheetah Chrome had co-written both songs. When he got the phone call telling him that a $15,000 royalty check had arrived, he picked it up and blew it all on drugs.

By 1995, he says, "I was pretty miserable. I wasn't getting high anymore, no matter how much drugs I took. I was lonely because I had alienated everybody."

That year, the Dead Boys' lingering reputation led to an offer for a European tour. Hilly Kristal and Genya Ravan, who had produced the first Dead Boys album and remained a friend of Cheetah's, forced him to go to rehab instead.

Shortly after he cleaned up in 1995, he traveled to Nashville to do some recording with a friend. On that trip, he met his future wife, Anna, and he never left Nashville. They married in 2001 and had a son together in 2005.

In his book, Cheetah is open about having had a few relapses, especially with alcohol. But he's a far cry from the man he used to be. He says he's been completely sober for three years. Today, the intelligence and wit that were concealed by drugs and alcohol for so many years shine through in his book, in conversation, and on the string of informed comments on current events he posts to his Facebook page.

In recent years, other bands — from Overkill to the Supersuckers, and from Rollins Band to Saves the Day — have paid tribute with their own versions of Dead Boys songs.

The band reunited for a Cleveland show in 2004, playing to a Beachland Ballroom packed with fans mostly too young to have heard the Dead Boys back in the day. Around that time, Rocket From the Tombs also reunited for a pair of concerts. (A new album, recorded at Painesville's Suma studio, will be out next spring.)

Last year, Cheetah formed a new band called the Batusis with former New York Doll Sylvain Sylvain, another survivor of the 1970s scene. They released an EP with echoes of both members' old high-energy rock and they toured extensively, hitting the Hamtramck's Smalls in July. They just finished recording their full-length debut, a feat Cheetah celebrated by taking his family to Disney World.

The living Dead Boys are scattered now. Johnny Blitz lives near Toronto. Jeff Magnum stayed in New York. Jimmy Zero still lives in Cleveland. They aren't active in music, and they don't stay in touch. Fuji, who gave up band life and became a vascular technician, just moved back to Cleveland from Florida. James Sliman is a successful publicist in New York.

And Cheetah Chrome surprised everyone who knew him by living to write about it all.

"He's lucky to still be around," says Billy Madansky, who could just as well be referring to his own brother. "He beat the odds."

Anastasia Pantsios writes for Cleveland's Scene, where a version of this article originally appeared. Send comments to [email protected].