A guy who calls himself Cheetah Chrome? You'd expect him to be punk.
You'd be disappointed.
But much to my aghast, Mr. Chrome (born Gene O'Connor), legendary '70s punk rocker, founding guitarist of Rocket From the Tombs, and later the Dead Boys, is almost nice enough to be my dad—where's the potty mouth, the scorn, the "You-suck-fuck-you!"-ness of yore? Then I start doing the math in my head, and I realize that, at 49, this guy really could be my dad—like Billy Zoom, Johnny Rotten or Jerry Nolan, except for the Nolan-being-dead thing.
His voice is scratchy after an all-night game of poker and a pack of Pall Malls, but behind that ripped-up jukebox, he's just a big sweetie. He's ready, O'Connor tells me, to play Alex's Bar in Long Beach Friday night, a place where a grandpa like him could get hurt. I ache with sympathy just thinking about it.
"It's brutal," the relic admitted. "If you haven't done it in a while, it takes about two to three gigs to get up to speed. You get sort of an adrenalin rush when you do it, and if you haven't done it in a while, you really feel it."
And after a quarter-century as an enigma wrapped in bandages, wrapped in a shroud, maybe Rocket From the Tombs is finally off life-support. It's hard to believe, given all the hoopla around the recent excavation of some vintage live tracks, but they were a band for less than a year before fragmenting into the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu back in 1975, then turning to dust. Even after reuniting started feeling good, when their peers got rich (the Sex Pistols), found God (Social D discovering Johnny Cash) or just soldiered on (like X), Rocket From the Tombs stayed reasonably broke and obscure. Until finally re-forming last year, they were one of the bands you name-checked to be cool, one of Cleveland's unsung hero bands—from the same town with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but sonically on a different planet.
"It was a really good band. It's a shame we didn't stay together the first time," O'Connor tells me in a cigarette-y rasp from his home in Nashville, explaining why Rocket From the Tombs imploded. "It's really people with nothing in common except music. It got very hard to be around one another."
This, plus the fact that Rocket From the Tombs write new music slower than X (hey Zeus, anyone?) apparently accounts for O'Connor going it solo. At Alex's, he'll be backed by LA-based Sweet Justice, featuring the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs' Frank Meyer on guitar, 45 Grave's Bruce Duff on bass, and ex-Bellrays bulwark Chris Markwood on drums.
"We got to kind of know one another over the phone," O'Connor says. "Turns out I had some free time, so why not? They've all had tapes and song lists for weeks."
Blah, blah, blah. If Rocket From the Tombs has been defibrillated back to life, then why is Cheetah Chrome talking like he's laid out on a slab? But whatever. The band's recent Rocket Redux disc is actually pretty excellent, with a shredding reprise of their original "Sonic Reducer," plus the rippingly new "30 Seconds Over Tokyo."
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Still, as an interview subject, O'Connor is kind of a dud. I try to rile him, liven things up, asking about Rocket From the Tombs guitarist Peter Laughner's cancer death years ago—which should have sealed Rocket From the Tombs in its crypt but somehow didn't. But all I get is mushy stuff, exactly the kind of emotions all the brash '70s punks would have ridiculed.
"It's been so long. Every so often, I'll stick a CD on, and that's when I miss Peter," O'Connor says with a lugubrious sigh. "I've gotten really used to playing gigs without Peter. Richard [Lloyd] ably fills his shoes."
As he yammers on, I finally realize O'Connor hasn't been a misbehaving Dead Boy for a good, long while. "We're all middle-aged," he eventually admits. The Dead Boy has become a Man.
Cheetah Chrome plays with Sweet Justice, Electric Frankenstein and El Nada at Alex's Bar, 2913 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 434-8292. Fri., 9 p.m. $10. 21+.