cheetah chrome

Downstairs at Toronto’s Bovine Sex Club, Cheetah Chrome’s perched on a destroyed sofa. This basement is the kind of place that can destroy any illusions that might be out there about what it means to be “backstage” or “in the dressing room.” Outside, the air is heavy and humid, but the basement hideaway Cheetah’s been given is no relief.

It’s a tight, hot space with a ratty leopard print carpet that looks like it’s had a thousand nights worth of drinks spilled on it. It’s hard to tell how big the room really is, because every corner is rammed with so much junk that aside from a calculator and a mannequin, every object just blurs together as one.

If Cheetah minds, he doesn’t say so, but then again, he’s no stranger to the bowels of the backstage beast. Playing guitar hero in the cult acclaimed Rocket from the Tombs and Dead Boys, Cheetah’s credentials make him a heavyweight in the punk rock realm. After the Dead Boys’ demise in 1980, Cheetah appeared alongside Nico and later formed the Ghetto Dogs. He’s since struck out on his own and released a solo record, Alive in Detroit on DUI Records.

His younger self of the 1970s would be surprised to meet the Cheetah Chrome of today, as he never expected to live past the age of 30. But it’s not quite time for Cheetah to open up about his past, present, and future. In fact, the reason he’s extended an invitation into the Bovine’s basement is to talk about what we’re not going to talk about: No drugs, no debauchery.

“They’ve made me out to be some sort of caveman,” Cheetah says as he explains his caution around the media. His disdain for the press isn’t helped by having been interviewed by reporters who insist on asking why he disbanded the Cheetah Chrome Motherfuckers, a 1980s Italian hardcore band that he was never a member of. And sure, the Dead Boys are just as known for their anthem “Sonic Reducer” as they are for their antics on and off stage, which have garnered pools of ink in the past, but Cheetah’s a family man now, having settled in Nashville with a wife and kid, and honing in on drink and drugs isn’t a story he’s interested in participating in, as he’s long been ready for the world to see beyond that.

Upstairs and on stage, as the first chord is struck, it’s obvious that Cheetah was made for rock n’ roll. His guitar sounds like it’s strung with razor wire. He plays with his eyes closed, head lolling back and forth, and it only takes a few seconds of watching him to know he’s gone. Once Cheetah’s got that guitar in his hands, that’s it. There’s been one moment he’s been waiting for all day, and now he’s in it and isn’t about to let go.

It’s then that it becomes obvious what he really wants the world to see: That Cheetah Chrome is a guitar player.

The next day Cheetah’s recording a live-off-the-floor session at Hamilton, Ontario’s Grant Avenue Studio with the Screwed, a punk cover band known around Toronto as something of a super group consisting of Cleave Anderson (Battered Wives, Blue Rodeo), John Borra (A Neon Rome, Change of Heart), Steve Koch (The Viletones, The Demics), and Steve Saint (The Sinisters).

The Screwed are already at the studio. A couple of them are hanging around outside, smoking cigarettes and waiting for Cheetah to show up. Hey, it’s not rock n’ roll if it starts on time.

Finally, Cheetah arrives, but just as the band’s ready to get going he nips down the street for a quick beer at a homely little bar that looks more like the lobby of a seedy apartment building.

“The last time I was in Hamilton we stayed at somebody’s house,” he says at one point. “Everybody was very nice, we got very drunk, but the next morning there was just so much bird shit on the fuckin’ car. We were driving down the road and I was going like, ‘Guys, I am not riding in this car another mile,’ you know? Seriously. You couldn’t just wipe it off. It was on the side windows. It was everywhere. It was depressing.”

The day’s slow pace pays off. When Cheetah gets back to the studio, his guitar is a chugging monster, unbridled and audacious. The rest of the afternoon is spent recording one track, and though it’s full of stops and starts – mainly for cigarette breaks – it’s done in time before Cheetah and the Screwed are to record their set in front of several invited guests.

Before the show goes down, Cheetah finally gets the time to sit down for an interview. Although he’s cautious about the media, he’s no prima donna. In fact, he’s outgoing, laid back, and likes to laugh. Despite his gripes about the media, when asked what he wishes everyone would get over, his answer doesn’t hold a hint of venom.

“Jeez, my red hair and my baldness,” he says, laughing. “Probably the baldness. You know, if you look like an asshole bald, shave your fuckin’ head. I wish more people would just follow that. It would be so simple.”

Three decades ago, when Cheetah was getting his start as a guitar player, he believed his future was either leading to factory work or to being a frustrated musician. The latter has partially come true, though the frustration is no longer there.

“I will say the guitar, that was always my thing,” he says. “I don’t think people got the point that I was way more interested in playing the guitar than wearing the clothes. I didn’t even care about making damn records. I just wanted to play the guitar. I was fine doing it at home. But the only way to make money was you had to leave the house,” he laughs. “So I did that.”

Set up with a home studio, Cheetah’s been working on new material that he promises will be released in the near future, just as soon as he figures out how to get it out there. Never having been interested in towing the line for the music industry (the mainstream agenda of the music biz is what caused the Dead Boys’ split, and in 1996 a solo album produced by Genya Ravan who did the seminal Young, Loud and Snotty went unreleased due to problems with the label that was to be releasing it), Cheetah says that online technology makes for a much more artist-friendly environment these days.

Since he considers his relationship with the music business to be non-existent and has no interest in shopping his music around, Cheetah is giving serious consideration to doing an online release for his next album, which is a collection of songs he’s written over the past twenty years.

It’s music, not money, that motivates him, and he puts his songwriting right up there with his family. Getting married, he says, was a decision he never felt more positive about, and out of it came his son, now two years old, who Cheetah considers his “best friend.”

Though it sounds like domestic bliss, Cheetah admits that his familial settings haven’t always made it easy to get to work on his music.

“For a while it really drove production to a halt, you know? I’ve been lucky enough because guys like Guns N’ Roses and Pearl Jam have been (covering Dead Boys) songs, so I got some income from that and it frees me up to have time to write a song. I don’t work, but my wife works and there just never seems to be time to sit down and write songs. There’s always something going on.”

“I’ve finally found time. Lately, now that my son’s two, I can take him down to the studio and he knows not to break things. Now I give him his mic, I turn it off, but I play the song, he has a mic, and he yells in his mic. It’s coming through the speakers but it ain’t on the tape, so I get my work done and he has a good time. Someday I’ll have to tell him that he’s not really on there [laughs], but I mean, that’s what’s so great about fatherhood and what agrees with me about it is he’s such a little buddy.

“He’s just like me. We’re very similar. I remember holding him when he was about a year old and I looked deep into his eyes. He looked at me and it was like we have the same soul.”

Now that Cheetah’s struck a balance between the dissonant and the doting, he says another challenge he’s dealing with now is still easing himself into the transition of being a front man and a lyricist. Always happy to be the guitar hero off to the side of the stage, his solo work means getting familiar with being dead center.

“I don’t carry a book around where I’m jotting down song ideas,” he says. “I’m a fuckin’ guitar player, so to me, I really enjoy playing guitar and that’s all my peaks and everything for me is doing that. I’m starting to get good at it, with the vocals and shit like that, but…playing guitar is totally natural to me. Totally natural to me.”

“Getting up there and singing it myself, I mean, I can do it, but it’s a stretch. You’re trying balance an egg on your head and trying to wink at the girls and there’s too much going on. All of a sudden the rock n’ roll I love so much becomes work. But I’ve just gotten used to it just because it’s the only way I seem to be getting along, you know?”

After having seen him both in a live venue and a studio setting, he seems to be doing more than just getting along as a vocalist, although undoubtedly fans won’t mind so much where he’s standing on stage, just as long as he’s there. –Liz Worth

  1. Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
    …..and Cheetah:

    STILL Loud.

    STILL Snotty.


  2. …and still the man!


  3. he’s my hero!