Young, Loud and Still Snotty
An Interview with Cheetah Chrome from punk icons Dead Boys

by Lee Sobel

Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Dead Boys moved to New York after meeting The Ramones where they quickly became mainstays at punk club CBGB's. Owner of the club, Hilly Crystal, became their manager and got them signed to Sire Records. After two excellent albums, the band folded. Some 40+ years later, the band is still legendary. 

Cheetah Chrome was the guitarist in Dead Boys and back in the day he was a fearsome looking character who could play the shit out of that guitar. I've read hundreds of rock 'n roll memoirs and if you haven't read it, I highly recommend Cheetah's book that he wrote himself that came out in 2010. A few years after his book was published, I interviewed him for a book project I was working on that I abandoned that was to be about New York City in the 70's. This interview has never before been published. Cheetah was candid and easygoing and if you want to know what being at CBGB's in the punk rock era was like, he's the man.

Lee Sobel: The first time you came to New York from Cleveland to play CBGB’s, had you been to New York before?

Cheetah Chrome: I had been there for a couple hours when I was like ten or something.  Me and my mom were taking a greyhound bus up to Connecticut from Ohio and we stopped at Port Authority for like an hour or two, it’s a layover, change buses. I walked outside and looked around, that was it.

Lee Sobel: Port Authority was pretty disgusting, wasn’t it?

Cheetah Chrome: Well, you know, I barely remember. I just remember being pretty impressed by the way it looked just like the movies.  

Lee Sobel: What year did the Dead Boys first come to New York to play CBGB’s?

Cheetah Chrome: It was 1976, it was August or September, I’m not sure which.

Lee Sobel: What were your first impressions of New York City at that time?

Cheetah Chrome: It was pretty cool because we were staying at the Taft Hotel on Times Square on 51st Street. We had just seen TAXI DRIVER and a lot of those characters like the old drummer guy with the shoe polish in his hair

was one of the first people I saw when we got out of the van. It was pretty cool. I always tell people there are two versions of New York and one was the pre pooper scooper law.

Lee Sobel: When did that pooper scooper law happen?

Cheetah Chrome: It was probably like 1977-78 that they made the pooper scooper law, but before that, I mean it was everywhere.

Lee Sobel: Yeah, you would walk down the street and step in shit like five times, right?

Cheetah Chrome: Yeah, or you would smell it everywhere. Between that and the garbage, garbage was always out on the street. The

whole place had a different aromic atmosphere.  It did even in 1978-1979. It was definitely different than Cleveland.

 

Lee Sobel: What was the Taft Hotel like?

Cheetah Chrome: For some reason it felt like you were on a ship. It was really, really weird. The rooms were really tiny and it was old fashioned kind of like being in a 40's movie.  It was a really old school hotel. I don’t know how the hell we ended up there, somebody had been there before, it was cheap. It was actually pretty nice, but it was so tiny, everything was typical New York. New York hotels are half the size of those all over the country anyway no matter where you stay.  

Lee Sobel: What else do you remember about Times Square and pimps, hookers, drug dealers, etc?

Cheetah Chrome: Yeah well you know you walk out and you see everybody wandering around. It was great people watching, but when you come the first couple of times, it’s so overwhelming that you don’t really take in individual things at all. It takes you awhile before you realize that guy is a pimp, that guy is a drug dealer, know what I mean? After you’re there for six months, all of the sudden you just stop, pick them out of a lineup, but at first it’s kind of like everybody is the same, they are all these New Yorkers. You want to go talk to all of them. I remember being told, "Oh New York is real unfriendly" and then we got

up there and everybody was great. The only people I’ve met that are as nice are down here in Nashville. New York was like the friendliest people in the world. All it takes is a couple of minutes to get to know them, but that’s it. Once you do, forget it. Everybody keeps their distance until they know where you’re from, that’s it. Just so they know you’re not trying to pull something, they’re good with you.

Lee Sobel: Being that you guys were from Cleveland and pretty tough looking, when you were hanging out on the streets, or you were in Times Square or anything like that, would people fuck with you ever?

Cheetah Chrome: Nah. Even though we weren’t from New York, we were city boys, so we were pretty street wise anyway. We very much had a gang mentality where we were, all of us against the world. Usually people who saw us figured out pretty quickly we were all one unit and if you fucked with one of us, you fucked with all of us. We didn't really have gangs in Cleveland like in New York.

Lee Sobel: You guys were pretty tough, but In 1978 your drummer Johnny Blitz was brutally stabbed by a gang. Do 

you think that part of the problem with the whole Johnny Blitz thing was that Johnny didn’t really think twice about fighting with those guys. Do you think that there was a racial tension thing going on at that time? 

Cheetah Chrome: Never been firmly established that they were Puerto Ricans. The thing was that they were in a car and they kind of swerved at Johnny coming down 2nd Avenue, a bunch of guys in a car. Johnny was standing and getting ready to cross the street and these guys kind of swerved the car at him and some people. It was one of the girls that yelled at the guys in the car. Then the car stopped and they all piled out. But they very well could have been Italians from Brooklyn. It wasn’t ever established because the guy disappeared. There’s one guy that Johnny and Mike were 100% sure died. They never found him, never materialized at all and nobody could figure out how he disappeared so quickly. What happened was that these guys somehow knew some guy at this bar Little Peter's, do you remember that place

down there, it was right on the corner of 5th … maybe 4th Street and 2nd Avenue, and… that place was a little bit connected. This happened probably… it wasn’t after closing time, this was still during… we had left CBGB’s when it was still open. It was probably sometime between one and four in the morning this happened. One of the guys came out… whoever came out and hit Johnny with a baseball bat, apparently came out of Little Peter's. Speculation has always been that that probably was where they took this guy and he somehow disappeared from there.

Lee Sobel: So you’re saying this guy just stepped out of this bar, he had nothing to do with the people in the car?

Cheetah Chrome: That’s weird, we don’t know. I mean,

it seemed like they knew, it was the impression that it was their guy. We don’t know if these guys were on their way there or if they were from the neighborhood. These guys disappeared. One of them apparently got really badly hurt and never materialized at a hospital or a funeral home as far as we know. Nobody was ever charged.  The only person who was ever charged in the whole thing was Michael Sticca. He was charged for stabbing Johnny. Whatever happened, somebody higher or somebody knew somebody or something, there was definitely more to it than we knew about it.  

Lee Sobel: You guys certainly proved that old adage, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere, right?

Cheetah Chrome: I haven’t been there long enough to really judge the place in years. In the past five years, I haven’t been in New York for more than two days in a row so I don’t know.  It’s been awhile since I actually spent any real time up there.

Lee Sobel: When did you officially move to New York?

Cheetah Chrome: Probably around May of 1977, I finally went up there and stayed up there.  The funny thing was there was a blackout we missed, we got a gig out of town, we were in Toronto during the blackout. But, Son of Sam, that was later like July. I remember being at Max’s and a friend of mine comes over to me and goes "You know that Son of Sam guy, they said there’s a yellow Volkswagen, there’s one parked around the corner."  So we were watching the crowd making sure nobody pulled out a gun. This is at Max’s. About a quarter of the way down the block, you could see a yellow Volkswagen. They thought he was going to hit a club next so why not Max’s? 

Lee Sobel: What kind of fans did you guys attract in those days and did you have some real lunatics that you had any problems with? Did you have stalkers or any of that kind of stuff?

Cheetah Chrome: For the most part, we got kids from Long Island, Queens and Jersey. You’d get this periodic drunk jock from Long Island that didn’t know to act. You’d usually get in a fight with one of them, but for the most part people cleared away from us. It was all mixed in with the people from Manhattan. The cool people from Manhattan couldn’t fill the club, so there were definitely a lot of bridge and tunnel kids.

Lee Sobel: Were the Dead Boys the most popular band on the CBGB’s scene at that time?

Cheetah Chrome: A lot of bands could sell out CBGB’s. There were only a few that could do it for 4-5 nights in a row, but we weren’t the only one that could do that. I wouldn’t say we were most popular. We probably played there most often because Hilly managed us.

Lee Sobel: Tell me your first impressions of CBGB’s and the owner Hilly Crystal.

Cheetah Chrome: My first impression was that I stepped in dog shit at CBGB's. For the most part, Hilly was great. We really liked Hilly. At first he seemed kind of, not grumpy, but not overly friendly. After we played, he really liked us and he came over and started talking to us. He was a big music fan, he really did

love music so that was a big ice breaker with him. I got to know Hilly very well to a point where we were friends right up until he passed away. The first time we walked in, it was the old stage, they still had pool tables. In the beginning when we went there it was usually half full or like nobody there. It was a good while before we actually packed the place out. It was probably within a six month period, I think it was even after they had changed the stage, before we really started getting people in there. The old place, the old version when we first started going there, I don’t think I ever saw that place packed.  

Lee Sobel: You really kind of arrived on the scene at the right time, didn’t you?

Cheetah Chrome: Yeah. We played the old stage maybe three times and they remodeled it.

Lee Sobel: Is that when he put in the new PA?

Cheetah Chrome: Yeah, the new PA, the new stage, and that was when we came back and were "Wow, look at this." That was about the time that we actually started spending time in New York so that was pretty cool. That was when I got to see every band in the world during that period.

Lee Sobel: Let’s talk about sex and drugs in the 70's.

Cheetah Chrome: All kinds of debauchery went on.

Lee Sobel: Was Stiv much wilder than you?

Cheetah Chrome: I wouldn’t go that far. Stiv always went with all these straight girls. He had nights when he was crazy and all that, but when it came to girlfriends, he would always have these nice ones you could take home to mom. 

Lee Sobel: You were the craziest one in the band?

Cheetah Chrome: Yeah, I would say probably. I would go crazy when it came to girls.

Lee Sobel: At some point heroin made its appearance on the scene and was pretty prevalent and pretty cheap, right?

Cheetah Chrome: Well, heroin was around before we got there. Heroin made its appearance in the early 70's. The first thing that impressed us when we got there was the drinking age was 18. 1976, I just turned 21 and, of course, then I get there and the drinking age is 18. In Cleveland I couldn’t drink until earlier that year. I mean, I could get into bars, I had a fake ID.

Lee Sobel: So the drinking age was not 18 throughout the whole country, it was just in New York?

Cheetah Chrome: Only New York, or maybe in New Orleans or something.  

Lee Sobel: So, you were going to tell me about heroin…


Cheetah Chrome: Back then, the main choice of drugs in Ohio and all that was probably mostly pills, mostly Tuinals, Seconals and Valiums. When we got to New York, I was always more into the downers, blow or pot. That was always my thing. Heroin, I was kind of hinky about because I didn’t want to get hooked. You always had guys like Thunders that would try to get you to do it. I was always kind of like I know how I am, I’m going to end up. I don’t need to be doing this stuff, I'll like it too much. I’d done it a few times, I knew what it was like, I don’t need to be doing this. Once the boredom started setting in later on after Johnny Blitz got stabbed and the band was breaking up that I started to get into it more and more.

Lee Sobel: Did you feel invincible like nothing is going to get me?


Cheetah Chrome: I cover this in my book a lot, you don’t see it happening to you really, even if you only get high once or twice a week. If you get high more than once a month, it’s already setting in. If you do it more than once every six months, it has already got you.  Once you get high every couple of days, your body is already developing an addiction for it and it’s only a matter of time. Closer together you do it… you don’t realize there’s always a day where you… if you don’t do it, it’s still in your body, so you‘re not going to get sick till the next day. You don’t associate it. Then you don’t feel good and you think "Oh man, I’m getting a cold, it couldn’t be the dope." The valiums are even worse because the valiums stay in

your system a little bit longer so you don’t associate that. Back then it was like valiums aren’t addicting, well turns out they were worse.

Lee Sobel: What was the street quality of heroin back then? How did that work in terms of getting decent quality heroin?

Cheetah Chrome: There was plenty of it around all the time. In ’78-’79 was a couple of the best years during that time for it. I don’t know what it’s like now because now we’ve got troops on the ground in the spot at the source.  

Lee Sobel: So what you’re saying is there is a connection between soldiers coming back from Vietnam and the heroin that was hitting the streets?

Cheetah Chrome: Well there was back then during the early 70's. During the mid 70s, for some reason all the stuff started coming in from Iran or Afghanistan. I don’t even know where that was coming from, but that was some of the purest stuff that had been around in years.  Now, I wouldn’t even know where to go in New York to find any, but it’s got to be all over the place because we’ve got guys coming back constantly from there.

Lee Sobel: Did you know about The Lot?

Cheetah Chrome: Yeah, between 7th and 8th and Avenues D and C. There was a big empty lot, some people had some shacks in there and stuff. That was more like in the early 80's. It wasn’t really in the lot, it was all across the street. There was the blue tape, green tape, no credit and black and blue. 

Lee Sobel: What is all that? Names of dope?

Cheetah Chrome: Yeah. The Lot was where a lot of people hung out, but basically all the runners would hang out in the Lot, but then they’d run into the buildings to get the stuff.

Lee Sobel: People were self medicating because today, you feel depressed, you go the doctor and they give you a pill, they weren’t doing that back then, right?

Cheetah Chrome: No, not at all.

Lee Sobel: Do you think some people were getting high because they had maybe some clinical problems that they had no way of finding out how to take care of them or do you think that people got into drugs recreationally and for fun and then got hooked?

Cheetah Chrome: I don’t know, probably a good chunk of both. I can only speak for myself on that, but I never went into it with any kind of an attitude that I was self medicating or had any problems. I thought I was fine.  

Lee Sobel: But you said you were bored and also you were frustrated with the band breaking up, right?

Cheetah Chrome: Yeah, but at the same time, every day was filled with activity. I didn’t feel depressed. It wasn’t like I was sitting around saying "What am I going to do, the band broke up." It was like okay, this is screwed, but we’ll get past it. Looking back on it now, probably yeah, I probably actually was, but I actually found that drinking was more a symptom of that for me than anything because that started the earliest. 

Lee Sobel: Are people surprised that you’re a nice guy? Because you looked so scary back then.

Cheetah Chrome: Yeah, people seem to think… they seem to always be surprised, yeah.

Lee Sobel: Have you ever thought about how you would deal with your son if your son is kind of ever in the shoes that you were in at that time and what would you try to do to help your son? Have you ever thought about this?

Cheetah Chrome: Oh yeah, of course.

Lee Sobel: You didn’t really have a dad around, right?

Cheetah Chrome: No, not at all.

Lee Sobel: So you kind of have an opportunity to be everything for your son that your father wasn’t there for you, right?

Cheetah Chrome: Exactly. It means more than anything to me, it’s a big part of our relationship.

Lee Sobel: Have you ever thought if you had been your dad, would you have done anything or could you have done anything differently to help you when you were coming up and having some things getting into dope and stuff like that?

Cheetah Chrome: My father definitely could have had a big effect on that for me. It’s hard to say because I would have been a different person if I had a father. I was teaching myself things on the street. I had to learn how to fly. So, I would say that…

I’m just guessing, but then again my father, I know, was an alcoholic so if he had been around, it could have actually been just as bad or worse; there’s no telling. I never met my father. I’ve never even seen a picture of him. He’s this kind of mystery guy that when I was growing up, I never even knew anything about him til I was told 15 years ago. My mom just always said "Oh he was a druggie, he was no good," blah, blah, blah. Got more details as I… my wife was real curious about it, she kept bugging my mom, "Well you got to know, he’s a dad, we’re going to get married, he’s going to have kids, he needs to know where he comes from."  So, there’s no telling. You always think a father’s influence would be positive on a kid, but you never know, it depends on the father.

Lee Sobel: Do you think that a lot of the people who were in the punk rock scene were drawn to it because their parents were a bit out to lunch and not really supervising them?  A lot of people that you knew, do you feel that they really didn’t have much of a family to go home to?

Lee Sobel: Have you ever thought if you had been your dad, would you have done anything or could you have done anything differently to help you when you were coming up and having some things getting into dope and stuff like that?


Cheetah Chrome: My father definitely could have had a big effect on that for me. It’s hard to say because I would have been a different person if I had a father. I was teaching myself things on the street. I had to learn how to fly. So, I would say that… I’m just guessing, but then again my father, I know, was an alcoholic so if he had been around, it could have actually been just as bad or worse; there’s no telling. I never met my father. I’ve never even seen a picture of him. He’s this kind of mystery guy that when I was growing up, I never even knew anything about him til I was told 15 years ago. My mom just always said "Oh he was a druggie, he was no good," blah, blah, blah. My wife was real

curious about it, she kept bugging my mom, "Well you got to know, he’s a dad, we’re going to get married, he’s going to have kids, he 

needs to know where he comes from."  So, there’s no telling. You always think a father’s influence would be positive on a kid, but you never know, it depends on the father.

Lee Sobel: Do you think that a lot of the people who were in the punk rock scene were drawn to it because their parents were a bit out to lunch and not really supervising them?  A lot of people that you knew, do you feel that they really didn’t have much of a family to go home to?

Cheetah Chrome: Yeah, I mean, there was definitely out kids. People that were looking for some place to fit in… that was a definite part of the punk scene, sure. Not everybody was an outcast or loser, but even the ones that would have been considered cool kids in high school or something like that, didn’t fit in with the normal kids. They might not have been the outcasts or picked on, but they still didn’t fit in. Funny thing is, that didn’t happen in New York, it was happening in London, it was happening in Cleveland, it was happening in Frisco, it was happening in L.A. and to a certain degree it was probably happening in Atlanta or

Houston, but it was years before punk actually caught on. They really made it hard for… if the record companies would have had more patience where they had their eye on an artistic level instead of on a monetary level, punk would have actually… the bands would have gotten a lot more support.  I kept telling them, it takes a long time for it to get to Des Moines, Iowa and for Lincoln, Nebraska… it’s going to take awhile before they get it.

Lee Sobel: The record companies just didn’t want punk to succeed, did they?

Cheetah Chrome: They wanted flavor of the month. They were real happy with the status quo. They wanted new wave. I didn’t see any geniuses in the record business, I saw these greedy assholes.

Lee Sobel: What do you remember about when AIDS first made its first appearance in New York?  Do you remember hearing about that?

Cheetah Chrome: I was actually in Boston when all that came out.

Lee Sobel: You were living in Boston?

Cheetah Chrome: Yeah, I had moved up to Boston.  That was where I first heard about it and so it was kind of scary to hear about it.  Everybody, I understand, assumed they had it because as soon as they mentioned having drug abuse everybody was like "Uh-oh."

Lee Sobel: Did you know any heavy drug users who did get AIDS?

Cheetah Chrome: Oh yeah. One of my best friends, Spacely, he died from it. There was a ton of people who had it. At first it was supposed to be gays, Haitians and IV drug users. That was the joke for awhile… what was the hardest part about having AIDS? Convincing your parents you were… 

Lee Sobel: I’m wondering if you have any crazy stories that you didn’t put in your book… stuff that you witnessed or experienced that was very symbolic of how crazy that time was?

Cheetah Chrome: Yeah, there is one funny thing… I ran into Tina Weymouth at the memorial for Hilly when I was up there and she called me over and reminded me of the time we were hanging out at CBGB's drinking and we went outside and there was a guy outside of the Palace Hotel and he was just laying there on the street and somebody said "Are you dead?" Tina went over and was looking at him and she goes "I can’t tell if he’s breathing," so I reached into my pocket and took out a switch blade, and stuck it into his hand. He didn’t move or bleed so I knew he was dead and put away the switch blade. Tina was just kind of "Did that really happen?" I was like yeah it did.  

Lee Sobel: That’s how you checked to see if he was alive, you cut his hand and he didn’t bleed?

Cheetah Chrome: Yeah, I stuck my switchblade in his hand.

Lee Sobel: CBGB’s actually had a kitchen? And they actually sold food at one point?

Cheetah Chrome: Yeah.

Lee Sobel: And there’s that famous story about Stiv jerking off in the chili, is that true?

Cheetah Chrome: Can you see Stiv standing there jerking off in the chili?

Lee Sobel: I definitely can.

Cheetah Chrome: I can’t. The story always was one the Dead Boys… I was like "C’mon do you really think the Dead Boys would have a circle jerk over a pot of chili?"

Lee Sobel: Obviously you were friends with Sid and Nancy, right?

Cheetah Chrome: I wouldn’t say friends, more of acquaintances. I mean, I hung out with them a few times and they were just kind of… really kind of boring, so…

Lee Sobel: Really kind of boring?

Cheetah Chrome: Yeah. Sid was always sitting around "Oh, I’m going to kill myself if I don’t get my drugs."  

Lee Sobel: One of the things you talked about in your book was that infamous meeting when Sire Records was telling you to change your image and the sound and the name of the band. You said it really pissed you off that some of the guys were willing to go along with it, and that Stiv was more of a career oriented music guy…

Cheetah Chrome: Yeah, he was way into it, but at the same time if you look at what he did after that, the first immediate thing he did was went into solo which was all power pop.  That was kind of the direction he was wanting to go in.

Lee Sobel: At some point the gang mentality changed, right?  Is it because you guys got to be famous and got signed and all that? Did that sort of change the dynamic in the band?

Cheetah Chrome: Yeah. The biggest mistake, I think, at the end of it was we always used to kind of say we had a benevolent dictatorship where me and Stiv would run things, but the other guys you’d listen to what they had to say. When Hilly became our manager, we kind of took the attitude, "Well okay, now that’s off of us" and, unfortunately, everybody had an equal say and it never should have gone in that direction because some people should just always be followers and other people should always be leaders. They should know when to shut up. That was when the problems began because Hilly didn’t really know who to listen to, he wasn’t sure who was the one that really knew what the band was about. He was taking direction from people who were talking out of their ass.

Lee Sobel: Did some people in the music industry look down at the fact that you had Hilly for a manager because he was really a club owner and not really a music business guy?

Cheetah Chrome: Yeah, but they looked down on almost everybody anyway. Looking back, Hilly did the best he could with what we gave him to work with. Peter Crowley wanted to manage us, too. I’ve always been kind of curious about where we would have gone, if we had gone with Peter because his first thought was to take us to England like he did with Wayne County. With Hilly we got New York and CBGB’s, and if we went with Peter, we’re going to get Max’s and England. I don’t know if that would have been good or bad.

Lee Sobel: When did you finally leave New York?

Cheetah Chrome: For good, 1996.

Lee Sobel: What prompted you to leave and how do you feel about New York now? Was it just that you’ve done so much in New York, you needed to get away from it completely?

Cheetah Chrome: Yeah. I really got cleaned up and I was ready for a change. I wanted to get back into music. I have a friend who lived down here, he had his little studio in his house, we were going to do some demos so I came down here, was supposed to be here two weeks and now here I sit.

Lee Sobel: Do you miss anything about New York?

Cheetah Chrome: Yeah, New York. The way it used to be. I mean, New York now, I wouldn’t move there now.

The End.

(c) Greasy Kidstuff Magazine 2020