A Dead Boy’s Tale from the Front Lines of Punk Rock
by Cheetah Chrome

It’s an age-old story in the annals of rock & roll: boy discovers drugs, boy falls in love with (i.e. becomes addicted to) drugs, drugs nearly kill boy. Rocket from the Tombs and Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome’s tale falls very much in line with this plot. His new autobiography, A Dead Boy’s Tale from the Front Line of Punk Rock, relates his rags to, er, nicer rags story from his very humble beginnings in Cleveland to his rise to prominence as, if not one of rock’s most well-known guitarists, then at least one of its six-string progenitors. That path was winding and bumpy, filled with many a pothole—often dug by Chrome himself.

Chrome was born Eugene O’Connor in 1955 and grew up in the projects of Lakewood never knowing his father. Despite showing intellectual aptitude, he fell in with a rough crowd and was soon drinking, pill-popping and getting stoned before, during and after school. He eventually dropped out of school all-together. During this time, though, he also discovered his real love: playing guitar. His poor mother was cool enough to realize this and spent what little spare cash she had on a series of axes for her delinquent son. By the time he was 15, Cheetah was playing in bands, meeting future Rocket from the Tombs and Dead Boys drummer Johnny Madansky (a.k.a. Johnny Blitz) around this time.

The rest as they say is history, and it’s better that you read it for yourself than for me to try to encapsulate the entirety of his story in a couple paragraphs. Chrome is lucky to come out the other side alive. Hell, he’s lucky to have made it out of Lakewood. However respected Rocket from the Tombs may be these days, if Rocket guitarist Peter Laughner hadn’t introduced Chrome to Stiv Bators, he probably never would have left Cuyahoga County. It was Bators’ sagacity that got the band to ditch Cleveburg for the Big Apple.

Following an intro from Legs McNeil, the Dead Boys’ story takes up the bulk of the book, and is the most revelatory, mostly for the band’s roguish rock-star behavior. Most of us typically think of punk rock as the antithesis to corporate rock and the hotel-bashing, groupie-corralling, ant-snorting bands purveying such ilk. But even before they released their first record (Young, Loud and Snotty), the Dead Boys had management (CBGB owner Hilly Kristal), roadies and, at times, tour buses just like the big boys. And they exhibited the same sort of loutish behavior, even when they found themselves as openers that no one knew.

What’s a little disappointing, however, is that while Cheetah is able to remember the particulars of every drug cocktail he ever took, he doesn’t share any great insights. Rocket’s existence was brief, but his descriptions of David Thomas make it sound like he barely new the guy. And he treats the reunion of RFTT as little more than, say, some Casualties gigs. Similarly, often times his stories seem merely anecdotal, contributing to his story’s general arc, but rarely transcending being more than just barstool yarns.

This isn’t to say that A Dead Boy’s Tale isn’t a good read. Chrome has outlived many of his friends and contemporaries (Laughner, Bators, Sid Vicious, Johnny Thunders, most of the Ramones, etc.), and the book illustrates how remarkable that is. And he was still doing battles with his demons as recently as a few years ago, despite going through rehab, getting married and having a son. His rock & roll story could easily have become a cliche, but his plain telling of it—neither glamorizing or really condemning the things he’s done—insures that is as unique as the music he’s created.
Stephen Slaybaugh