Friday, July 13, 2018

The Dead Boys in 2018

The present-day Dead Boys
I recently (July 3) saw the re-formed Dead Boys, with only two original members, Cheetah Chrome (guitarist) and Johnny Blitz (drummer), and a Stiv Bators stand-in by the name of Jake Hout.  It is in a way an ambivalent feeling to see long-gone punk bands re-form in their old age, and I wasn’t expecting too much from this version of the Dead Boys.  However, they were far better than I thought they would be.  Mainly, it was just great to see Cheetah and Blitz play those old tunes.  They did all the first album Young, Loud, and Snotty (1977) (possibly omitting their cover of “Hey Little Girl”; I can’t remember now), plus a few from We Have Come for Your Children (1978), along with “Detention Home” (the crowd didn’t seem to know the latter song as well, as it appears only on the lesser-known Night of the Living Dead Boys LP [1981]). Having a Stiv lookalike singer is of course is a bit of a strange idea at first, but he does do a spot-on imitation vocally and was quite good, initial feeling of disconnect aside.

Of course, no one is going to come close to the real Stiv.  I am lucky to have seen him (with the Wanderers in 1981 or so).  When I saw Stiv, he did most of his Dead Boys moves: took a swig of beer then spat it onto the audience; put his head in the bass drum, etc.  The only thing he didn’t do, compared to the Dead Boys CBGB video, was the lunch-meat thing; otherwise, it was his Dead Boys act.  Hout did not do most of these specific things, but moved a lot like Stiv and as noted can “do” his voice well.  Funnily enough, it was the bass player who is apparently supposed to be the stand-in for Jimmy Zero (who was the second guitar player in the original band) (in other words, they seemingly transposed the current bass guy for the old 2nd guitarist, visually speaking), and so wore a new-wave tie, and had roughly the same hairstyle.  The crowd was predominantly older punks in their 30s, 40s, and 50s (maybe even their 60s, a few of them), but some younger 20-somethings too.

But for me, again, the main thing, I was just glad to see Cheetah Chrome play those guitar parts and sing backup on “you know that I’m just a dead boy,” etc. — and Blitz play those drum parts.  The songs were really tight and come across as great classics live, played by their originators.  It is interesting to be reminded how much the DBs get from the Stooges, primarily the Williamson period (say, 1972-74), but also a little bit from the Ron Asheton albums (1969-70).  People think of the DBs as epitomizing 1977 punk, and in a way they do, but they came out of the break-up of the Cleveland band Rocket from the Tombs, who started in 1974, and so when you look at the history of punk, there really is a continuity from the late 1960s, to the early 70s, to the late 70s, which has not much to do with England (I say this because in many people’s minds, even some punk historians, London still looms overly large).

An interesting moment at this show: one of the openers was Craig Bell, who was in Rocket from the Tombs, and when the DBs played “Ain’t It Fun” as an encore, a song written by Rocket’s Peter Laughner and originally played by that band, Bell could be seen off to the side mouthing the words.

A couple of related thoughts: The Dead Boys are often seen as being nihilistic, perhaps avatars of what today might be termed “drunk punk” — songs devoid of political content instead focusing on sex/drugs/rock’n’roll or what have you.  The DBs definitely have this element to them (it predominates even, perhaps), but many of their songs in fact do comprise sociopolitical comment on their time, particularly on the second album.  In an interview quoted in David Ensminger’s recent book The Politics of Punk (2016), Cheetah Chrome goes so far as to say, “I always tried to get more political stuff into things, used to say we played ‘dick’ songs: they were all about sex and partying. ‘Ain’t Nothing To Do’ I always considered a political song. ‘Not Anymore’ was a definite social statement. I used to rag on Stiv because, of course, as soon as he gets in the Lords of the New Church, it was all political!” (p. 3).

Aside from the Stooges, Cheetah in another interview (October 2017) mentions as a major influence the MC5, an often overtly political band: “The MC5 really sang about the issues. They nailed it. They put it in music we could rock out to, and the exact same problems are still here today. The only thing different now is we’re not under a draft. How long that will last, who knows. The MC5 would be just as relevant now.”  Not that everything has to be overtly or ideological political, or that there isn’t joy in simple heavy rock’n’roll music (of course there is!), but I sometimes lately see claims (in social-media threads, for example) that original or “real” punk was (or should be) only about the music, or that punk is now threatened by the supposed evils of “political correctness” (see Steven Blush, “KILL YR IDOLS”).  Reframing punk as apolitical is not a realistic move (in my opinion), and Cheetah’s comments show that it never was quite the case, even in the earliest iteration of what we now recognize as American punk per se.

Nor is this to say what side of the political spectrum punk is inherently on (it varies wildly at times, or among different factions in place and time and generation; that is one thing Blush is correct about), and, for that matter, it becomes near impossible to say what punk “authentically” means.  I do, though, have my own thoughts about all this.  Perhaps an essay for another time.  For now, I will sum up by saying that the Dead Boys, even reduced to two original members, are still a powerful live band whose songs I think are currently somewhat overlooked in the history of rock’n’roll.


The original Dead Boys, c. 1977

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