The best '70s punks were the nutjobs who could be as easily reviled as loved, and Stiv Bators was the nuttiest of them all. But Bators was more than just an opportunistic wang-wagger. It's getting easier by the year to argue that Bators and the sonic extension of his shwantz, the Dead Boys, were the blueprint for what's currently considered punk rock. Around late 1975, they took the Rust Belt runaway of the Stooges, tightened up the raw riffs, and revved it all with modern ADD gears. They were more genuinely brutal than the Ramones. And for all of Johnny Rotten's apocalyptic staring, Bators was staring down bikers and nuclear nightmares before the Sex Pistols were even a band. The brazen performance and hilarious lyrics of the Dead Boys' 1977 classic Young, Loud, and Snotty hold up better than Never Mind the Bullocks when it comes to convincing unbelievers of the power of punk.
Of course, even before that, Cleveland's original acorn of anarchy, Rocket From the Tombs -- featuring future Dead Boys Cheetah Chrome (guitar) and Johnny Blitz (drums) -- was making a similar racket, though it was of a more collegiate bent. "There was a kind of scene in Cleveland around '74-'75," explains Zero, "based around the Mirrors, Electric Eels, and Rocket, mainly. But it was pretty horrible. I didn't know these people; they moved in different circles. I liked what they were doing, but I didn't like them. They were really snobby assholes, hanging around talking about Marcel Duchamp. Stiv and I just wanted to be in a rock-and-roll band."
Rocket guitarist Peter Laughner wanted to get Bators to sing, but that legendary cult band was falling apart. "Peter introduced us," says Chrome. "We decided to go have a few beers. When he picked me up, [Bators] had a Fender guitar case with him. I say, 'What's in the case?' He says, 'Take a look, you'll love it!' So I open it, and he's got a bottle of vodka, grenadine, coke -- y'know, everything. I thought, hey, this guy's all right. Anyway, he never did a show with Rocket, they were having so many problems. And Stiv and I were hanging out so much, it was a natural progression. We were like brothers." Thus from the entrails of Rocket rose Frankenstein, a name none really liked, but it stuck for a couple of months.
It's a curious chronological occurrence that this weekend's Stiv Bators tribute and Dead Boys reunion events at the Beachland and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should happen mere months after Rocket From the Tombs' own improbable reunion. Compared to an interview Chrome gave at the time, he is more guarded now and seems still shaken by Bators's accidental death 14 years ago. He had survived all the wild, drug-gulping years, only to be hit by a car in June of 1990, while he was walking across a Paris street. He shook it off and walked home, later dying in his sleep of internal injuries. One likes to imagine that he was waving his man crank at the time, in defiance of all the irony.
Given his reputation as a mouth-shooting audience baiter, Bators seemed destined to get his ass kicked to death one day. "He was such a little hustler," Chrome says. "You didn't know if he was serious or not. He could make a fool out of you in a second."
"It was the same thing that motivates most entertainers -- a need for attention," Zero says. "He loved the people that shocked him, so he wanted to do that -- shock people. I remember someone asked him, 'Do you like black people?' And Stiv said, 'No, not at all.' But we weren't white supremacists. Stiv hated everybody -- black, white, European, gay, straight, women, men, everyone. I mean, he didn't mean it, he just didn't trust people. And it was a double-edged sword. Since he didn't trust you, he felt enabled to do whatever he pleased. So in turn, he wasn't trust-worthy. But he changed and got much better as he got older."
Exacerbating the usual band tiffs, the Dead Boys soon found themselves the remaining new rock band in the fast-dwindling Cleveland scene. "Nowadays, people think it was this hotbed," Chrome recalls. "But it was abysmal, mostly cover bands doing Bad Company. There was nothing going on in Cleveland. It looked like it was hit by a neutron bomb."
Frankenstein had broken up by early '76. Bators started taking trips to scope out New York City, as the underground press had been touting that scene. "Stiv met the Ramones right away, and they loved him," Zero says. "Joey Ramone helped him set up a show. And then he renamed the band Dead Boys. Then we just started to go there like once a month to play shows, around the fall of '76. I'm not being cocky, but once we started playing there, we felt two things: One, the people in that scene are really nice, not like those assholes back in Cleveland who think they're great artists. And number two, only the Heartbreakers and the Ramones could scare us. We could take this shit over."
And take it over they did. With the wildest stage show on that circuit, the band quickly drew the attention of Sire Records, which snatched up the band for a two-record deal. Sounds kind of calculating for a bunch of drunks.
"It was more just pursuing adolescent dreams," Zero explains. "We just wanted to become the people we admired growing up -- the Rolling Stones, Stooges, MC5. But Stiv had ambition. He didn't care about money whatsoever. It was really more self-esteem issues -- not to get too Dr. Phil on you. He was an only child. And -- I don't think he'd mind me saying this, because we used to laugh about it -- but Stiv was not the most attractive teenager. He was the kid the cool kids picked on. He never in his life weighed over 100 pounds. So he realized early that the only way he was going to get laid was being in a band -- and it worked! Here's five guys who couldn't get laid in a whorehouse with a fistful of fifties, and all of a sudden it was an avalanche of women."
Then the usual crap caught up: drugs, fights, lousy record deals -- drugs mostly. "We went our separate ways in late '79," Zero recalls. "We became evil people. Cocaine came into it heavily. You can't live the way we did. You're exhausted, and you can't be creative. We went into the second record (We Have Come for Your Children, 1978) with only about three completed songs. Then Sire was pulling the plug on us. We were out of gas."
Then came the mugging and stabbing of drummer Johnny Blitz, which sent the Boys packing back to Cleveland, except for Chrome.
Despite the haze of drugs and dashed dreams, Bators was undeterred. By 1980, he had ditched all the band's original members and tried to do occasional, doomed "Dead Boys" shows with a new lineup that would eventually populate his first solo record, Disconnected (Bomp). "Then he really fell apart," explains Zero. "He went out to L.A., did the solo record, and formed a kind of '60s garage band called the Wanderers. He called and asked me to join. I asked if he could give me 24 hours to think about it. I knew the second he hung up he thought, 'If he needs to think about it, fuck him.' I didn't hear from him for a while."
Bators eventually landed in London, where he formed the first punk "supergroup," Lords of the New Church, which featured former Damned guitarist Brian James, ex-Sham 69 bassist Dave Tregunna, and drummer Nicky Turner. The band's gothic-laced '80s garage sound found some success, but ultimately it burned out. The old Cleveland pals, meanwhile, had stayed in touch; Chrome was an honorary roadie and encore guest guitarist on some Lords shows.
"Y'know, your emotions fade," Zero says. "By the mid-'80s we started being really good friends. We tried a bunch of Dead Boys reunion things through the late '80s, but they were pathetic -- and we're going to be pathetic again at this Beachland show," he adds, referring to this Saturday's tribute to Bators, which will feature performances by Cobra Verde, the Sign-Offs, and others, as well as a set from remaining Dead Boys Johnny Blitz, Cheetah Chrome, Jeff Magnum, and Zero. (The Rock Hall event takes place Saturday afternoon, featuring a Q&A with the surviving Dead Boys, as well as video from a pair of 1977 concerts at CBGB's in New York.)
Bators's last months were spent with his girlfriend Caroline in Paris, "living an Elvis lifestyle without the money," Zero says. "He called me one day and said, 'There's this museum across the street from where we live. I think it's called the Loover.' But boy, they were deeply in love. Stiv was totally monogamous at that point, which amazed anyone who knew him. He had figured out a lot of things, just not drugs yet. I knew these serious badass motherfuckers in Cleveland who cried for a week after he died. At his funeral in Paris, the London Hell's Angels showed up en masse."
"It took me a good five, six years to get over his death," adds Chrome. "I still miss him a lot."
Decades-on rock-band reunions are the time when family members who disapproved of their sons' vocation show up to finally concede some props. But for the Dead Boys, it was always a family affair.
"Our parents would always come to shows," says Zero. "One time we went to Swingo's after a show. My mom's at the bar, my father to her right, and Stiv next to him. Stiv's with these two gorgeous blondes. I look closer, and one of them has Stiv's dick out, and she's tugging at it while he's talking to my father! I'm thinking my dad has got to be seeing this, and he's going to kill Stiv. So after dinner, I was going to apologize to my dad. But my dad -- this conservative Republican executive for General Motors -- says to me, 'Jimmy, I now really understand why you're in a band.'"