One of the most difficult parts of being a rock critic (I mean, besides the whole not having any money and never getting laid thing) is writing a good review. I mean, bad reviews come easy: just be really snotty and condescending, throw in some venomous drivel about how music really doesn't mean anything anymore. In my Night Times days, back when this magazine was actually printed on paper, before www.NightTimes.com, before anybody really knew what the hell a dot-com was, I was knocking off about four negative concert reviews a month. I would just stab the latest Pearl Jam rip-off or Lillith Fair headliner with my poison pen, so I could feel better about myself. It required very little tact or skill....And, hell, these days, when the tastes of the majority of the young music-buying public is dictated by the whims of Ryan Seacrest, being a pessimistic asshole of a rock critic must be easier than ever.
When attending a show that we actually enjoy, however, rock critics are at a loss. How many ways are there to really tell a reader, Hey assholes! Listen to this goddam band! Sure, we can pound our slowly balding heads with our thesaurus, trying to find new ways to wax eloquent, but, ultimately, we find ourselves wishing that we hated the show.
I only ramble about this because, at the request of Night Times editors, I attended the Cheetah Chrome gig on April 24th in Long Beach, and surprisingly, had a good time. If you don't know who Cheetah Chrome is, well, dammit, shame on you. He was the guitar player for the Dead Boys, one of a handful of bands that played alternative rock back when that term actually meant something. They consider the Ramones and the Sex Pistols peers. They're legends! They recorded classic punk songs, including "Sonic Reducer" and "Caught With The Meat In Your Mouth" (One of my all-time favorite song titles). Now, long after they broke up, and members of the band actually are dead boys, Cheetah Chrome is still onstage, happily playing the role of genuine rock and roll survivor.
I saw him play with the band, Sweet Justice at, Alex's Bar (2913 E. Anaheim St. in Long Beach), a total shithole. I mean that as a compliment. Alex's features bad art, sketchy people, and you can only enter it through an alley that resembles the setting for a rape scene in any bad 70's cop show. This is the kind of place where punk rock is meant to be played, where it actually seems far more relevant and meaningful than when you see it at some clean, corporate-sponsored amphitheatre. The crowd was an interesting mix of true music fans and scary bar regulars there to either compare tattoos or prison records.
The opening band, El Nada, a Latino punk quartet, featured a drummer that did the majority of the vocals, various equipment problems, and possessing an innate ability to really bore the audience. [Sorry, my snotty condescension shines through yet again. Back to my thesaurus to find a synonym for "This show kicked ass!"...]
The apathetic audience was immediately awakened by Cheetah's Punk Rock 101 Class. Cheetah Chrome and his backing band, Sweet Justice, played musical pinball through songs from various phases of Cheetah's musical musings. The music was played with heart, melody, and quite a few lovely harmonies (a phrase not often found in a punk review). The set spiraled and then ended, predictably, with the Dead Boys' signature tune "Sonic Reducer." The vocals for this classic were provided by the unfortunately-named Steve Miller, who sings for the evening's headlining band, Electric Frankenstein. [I should, for the sake of honesty, admit that I did not stick around for the headliners' set, because I was mainly there to see Cheetah and because the assholes at my day job scheduled me to work early the next morning. Electric Frankenstein's website describes them as the "hardest working band in punk rock" so, maybe I was better off missing them. See? Snotty condescension is all over this. There's no escaping it, even when I'm writing something nice.]
Miller, to be fair, seemed cool said some gracious words about the Dead Boys before beginning. He seemed to be loving the experience, as did the band and an unidentified female from the audience who jumped onstage, grabbed the guitar player's mic and sang backup on the last chorus. It was all good fun, an amazing set from a genuine musical legend. Unfortunately, there's nothing really mean and snotty I can say about Cheetah's portion of the show. I only wish it had lasted longer, and we'd gotten to hear more songs. I mean, when a guy's been doing a form of music, in various incarnations, for damn near thirty years, someone should have the courtesy to make him a headliner!
Cheetah Chrome is one of the few old punk rockers that doesn't come off looking slightly embarrassing. Let's be honest, there are very few sights in the life of a rock and roll fan worse than seeing some guy in his 50s, with an awkward Mohawk and squeezed into tight leather. (If only some of the older Alex's Bar regulars realized this.) Sensibly dressed and featuring a freshly shaved head, Cheetah Chrome still looked like he could rock!
Sweet Justice, a trio from LA featuring local music scene veterans Frank Meyer, Bruce Duff and Chris Markwood, were also excellent. Their set started with a lucid instrumental (definitely a rarity for a punk venue), and then they started cooking. Cheetah did most of the vocals, with his nice, raspy Keith Richards-like voice, a whiskey-and-cigarettes-for-breakfast wail; the true mark of a genuine rock and roller.
Cheetah and the band have only been playing together for this quick, week-long west coast tour (and should consider playing together for much longer--they are so tight that they sound like they've been together for years). Good musicians seem to immediately click together onstage, and the boys from Sweet Justice obviously love to play this stuff. Their enthusiasm was infectious.
More info on Cheetah and the tour can be found on www.cheetahchrome.net