After a hard rain, Gene O'Connor is vacuuming out a minor flood in the basement of the Nashville house he bought over a decade ago. He's also busy with the role of Mr. Mom -- potty-training his 20-month-old son, Rogan -- and worried about the prospect of his 93-year-old mother going into the hospital.
But O'Connor leads a double life: He's also Cheetah Chrome, the punk-rock legend with a legacy built on stints in Rocket From the Tombs and The Dead Boys.
Chrome's current Southern domestic tranquility is a far cry from Cleveland in 1974, when he answered a classified ad placed by guitarist Peter Laughner. The resultant band, which included David Thomas (later of Pere Ubu), became proto-punkers Rocket From the Tombs. "David already had them around as a goofy, Bonzo Dog Band type of thing," Chrome says. "But they were trying to get more serious about it, looking to do the Stooges kind of stuff."
While the original RFTT was short-lived, a recently reconstituted version of the band released an album, The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From the Tombs, on Smog Veil Records, and performed in Pittsburgh earlier this year. Joining Chrome and Thomas in the reunion-tour lineup were Craig Bell, Steve Mehlman (also of Pere Ubu) and Richard Lloyd of Television.
"Richard and I met when Rockets played their first gig in New York City," Chrome recalls. "When I first moved to Nashville, he played a gig here. I was having dinner at the sushi bar across the street, and happened to notice his name on the marquee. It was the first time we'd seen each other in many years, and we got back in touch." Lloyd was eventually brought in as a replacement for deceased original guitarist Peter Laughner. "He was the perfect guy, plus we go back to 1975."
But it was only a year after that first meeting with Lloyd in New York that Chrome left RFTT to hook up with a different Clevo punk outfit -- The Dead Boys, fronted by the charismatic Stiv Bators. Despite lasting only a few years on Sire Records, the group was responsible for much-covered cult hits such as "Sonic Reducer" and enjoyed brief success thanks to the much-publicized phenomenon of CBGB's. "You'd come and play this little dump, and two months later, you're famous," Chrome says. "The people there were very enthusiastic about music. If the audience liked you, they'd call you back right away. They didn't waste any time." That legendary club recently closed its doors after a protracted battle. "I hate seeing that building go, it was historic. Now it's got a huge college dorm over it and yuppie bars across the street," Chrome laments.
Chrome's learned a couple lessons from his time in the Dead Boys. For one, don't deal with the men in suits. "The suits are there to totally mess you around, and over the years it's just gotten worse," he says. "I'd much rather just play live gigs. But if you're not going to get much money to begin with, you're better off dealing with small labels who are at least in it for the music. Frank at Smog Veil is a good man."
Despite a similar aversion to lawyers, Chrome did call on one when Italian upstarts Cheetah Chrome Motherfuckers toured the States. "People would call me up from around the country wanting to get on their guest list, and I told them I'm not playing in that band. I had to tell [the band] they're infringing on a copyright -- either change the name, or put 'not from the Dead Boys.'" (Cheetah's latest backing band, longstanding New Jersey group Black Angels, is also involved in a dispute with Austin indie rockers of same name.) "But then if we sued them, what would we get, two amps and a drum set?" he jokes.
But if Chrome is bitter about the music business, he's equally skeptical about any long-term effect the ideas of the early punk scene ultimately had. "Well, they're selling those tight black jeans at JC Penney. And a lot more bald guys are shaving their heads," he jokes. "Some of the stuff I hear on [Nashville] college radio is good, but it isn't going anywhere. Kids are listening to some good music, but mixing in a whole lot of shit.
"Just like we were," he relents. "Looking back at those days, a lot of those punk bands sucked, too."
Cheetah Chrome & The Black Angels with You Have Ten Seconds (featuring Jeff Lamm of Half Life) and The Cheats. 10 p.m. Fri., Nov. 24. 31st Street Pub, 3101 Penn Ave., Strip District. $10. 412-391-8334 or www.31stpub.com
Once Dead Boy, now dad: Cheetah Chrome