"The Flats had no bars; it was all steel mills. Cleveland was a very desolate place. The population was decreasing 5 percent a year, there was nothing there," says Cheetah Chrome, guitarist for seminal '70s punks the Dead Boys, a band that was the living, spitting embodiment of this desperation. "The English kids talked about growing up in Birmingham. Well, Cleveland was just like Birmingham. You had the exact same things that were facing the English kids. But because they were allowed to be more political than you were here, with the government being the way it is, that's why punk kind of broke over there first. But I think here is where it started. In places like Cleveland."
On streets like West 28th and Detroit, where Cheetah Chrome (a.k.a. Gene O'Connor) was raised. When he was a kid, he used to ride his bike through the Flats. Years later, he'd drive through those same streets with a wild-eyed punk named Stiv Bators on the roof of his car, bare-assed, mooning the world. Bators was trouble. Hell, Cheetah first met Bators when the latter was trying to pick up Cheetah's girlfriend. That was at a show by Cheetah's band, the legendary Rocket From the Tombs. The next night, they went out for drinks, and soon they formed a band of their own -- Frankenstein -- rounded out by Jimmy Zero, Johnny Blitz, and Jeff Magnum. Their motto: "Fuck art, let's rock." Frankenstein would become the Dead Boys, and the Dead Boys would become one of the most volatile acts to ever sweat up a stage.
"They fucking blew me away. It was so in-your-face, like somebody had set off an energy time bomb. It definitely exploded. I don't know how to describe it. You knew you weren't at a Fleetwood Mac concert," says Cheese Borger, a Cleveland punk rock fixture who played in the Pink Holes and who maintains the Clepunk website.
The band lasted only four years. It put out but two albums -- only one of which was all that good -- before being dropped by its label, disbanding, and scattering across the country. Cheetah eventually ended up in Nashville, where he lives now. Bators died in 1990 after being hit by a car in France, and he took the Dead Boys and all their unfulfilled potential with him to the grave.
Still, that first record, 1977's Young, Loud and Snotty, was a wondrously wasted, hard-on-the-hearing rebel yell that endangered eardrums only half as much as it endangered convention. It was five miscreants emptying their bladders all over the corpulent, sagging-jowled corporate rock that had the charts in a chokehold.
Even more combustible were the band's live shows. Bators would wag his manhood, gash open his arms, and combat the audience. The band would rip through pointedly repugnant, often misogynist anthems like "Caught With the Meat in Your Mouth" and "Catholic Boy (I Don't Wanna Be No)" without giving a second thought to who or what got hurt.
But all the violence, all the chaos, was as pointed as the glass shards that Bators would wound himself with. More than a group of Rust Belt malcontents lashing out at their own shitty existence, it was a crumbling of the barrier between artist and audience that pompous arena rockers had erected. It was proof positive that anyone could do this rock and roll thing, and thus reel in the empowerment that came with it.
"They inspired a ton of kids my age to pick up guitar and start bands," Borger says. "They planted the seeds, which is why punk rock became as big as it did. That's why, five years later, you could go see 30 or 40 bands."
Among those kids moved by the Dead Boys was Eric Davidson, the Cleveland-born frontman for Columbus's New Bomb Turks, one of the finest punk bands currently making the rounds.
"Their first record holds up as maybe the best distillation of that era," Davidson says. "If all of that was just dumb punking, it sure has had a lasting effect, as there are a gaggle of 18-year-olds around the country right now just discovering the Electric Eels, Rocket, and the Dead Boys through recent reissues, and the shit sounds current -- i.e., noisy, scared, and goofing. As far as Cheetah Chrome, he's so for real, he's gone full circle from dumb-fuck drunk to old war horse to inspiration to dumb fuck again. The guy's got stamina."
"The Dead Boys' influence is constant, because there's always some 12- or 13-year-old kid that's playing Young, Loud and Snotty for the first time. That's all across the country," says Joe Holzheimer, lead singer of the Chargers Street Gang, Cleveland's current kings of punk and third-generation Dead Boy descendants. "I think, more than anything, as far as we go, the anything-goes mentality that those bands had is kind of what we appreciate the most. They just pretty much kicked opened the doors and said that you can do whatever you want within punk rock, which is what we try to adhere to."
But if Holzheimer understands what the Dead Boys meant by all their misanthropy, he's one of the few twentysomethings who does. For as quickly as the Dead Boys curled rock and roll's lip into the "fuck you and yours" sneer that, more than anything else, is punk, corporate America took it to the bank, filing down its exposed molars in the process. Punk became an image, a fashion sense, something you could buy with a nipple ring and a bottle of hair dye. In essence, it became everything that it was born against.
"I hate to say it, but I almost wish I'd never started it, because it ended up giving power to the thing I was trying to destroy," Cheetah says. "Punk, believe it or not, was about art. I know we said, 'Fuck art, let's rock,' but we meant pretension and crap like that. But rock and roll is still art. You have to have a certain thing in your heart to do it. By pretty much making it where every idiot in the world with a bone through his nose, an earring, a dog collar, and two guitar lessons can get a record contract before somebody with talent, just because he happens to catch the right angle in a photo, is something that we ended up fucking helping to create."
Now Cheetah is making amends by helping to destroy it all once again. Returning to Cleveland for the first time since his partner in crime passed away, lured to town by the efforts of Borger and Clepunk.com, Cheetah is back to knock over punk's tombstones, to wake the Dead.
"We were the outsiders. We were the bad kids. We had an ax to grind. We watched The Wild One too many times," Cheetah says. "We weren't real political. More of the songs were about our dicks than the President. We just wanted to get out there and show that there was different shit besides frickin' Journey, you know? And that everything doesn't have to be so damn serious."
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