Hearts Full of Napalm

Three decades after the fact, L.A.'s Streetwalkin' Cheetahs make good on that old Detroit Rock City promise

 Taking their nom de rock from the opening line of Iggy & the Stooges' punk classic, "Search and Destroy," the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs -- an L.A.-based quartet -- tried to change the world by sounding like a cross between the aforementioned musical metaphorical morons and their Detroit brothers-in-protopunk arms, the MC5; with 16 tons o' first-generation '70s punk bands (the Ramones, the Clash, the Buzzcocks, blah blah blah) tossed in over the top. . . .

-- The Rolling Stone Official History of Rock 'n' Roll; 1951-2009

Trouble is, it's 1999, and as undeniably great as Detroit's 1969 Grande Ballroom scene actually was, it's sad to say that neither Iggy & the Stooges nor the MC5 has ever even been nominated for possible induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Of course, three out of the 10 main guys in those bands are dead, and -- with all due respect to the still-recording Iggy Pop and the MC5's "Brother" Wayne Kramer -- none of 'em ever made the record industry the kind of real money that, say, Rock Hall of Famer Billy Joel did.

Rock 'n' roll doctrine: "Most bands nowadays have roots that go back maybe five years. We're not geniuses. We're just creating something out of something that came before."
Rock 'n' roll doctrine: "Most bands nowadays have roots that go back maybe five years. We're not geniuses. We're just creating something out of something that came before."

The point being that while you'd think all this "Four (or Five) Great Musicians! Three Great Chords! And then put some precious bodily fluids on the walls, rama-lama-fa-fa-fa" would be as common as homemade sin in these premillennial daze -- seeing as how it's only the Pictionary definition of "rock 'n' roll" and all -- it just ain't. Over the last 30 years, this cool fool has heard at least 5,283 bands described as "sounding like the MC5"; L.A.'s Streetwalkin' Cheetahs are the first to make good on that promise.

For recorded evidence, listen no further than the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs' latest album, Live on KXLU (Triple X). Aside from the note-perfect, duel-guitar rave-up cover of the MC5's "Looking at You," this recorded straight-to-DAT document of a typical Cheetahs live show is so relentlessly high-energy that it's hard to believe you can actually buy it over the counter without a prescription. Throw in a pair of strong originals ("None of Your Business" and "Satisfy"), a 15-minute workout on the Stooges' "Funhouse" and three bonus (studio) tracks produced by one of the band's spiritual godfathers -- the aforementioned Mr. Wayne Kramer, hisbadself -- then throw something down your skinny neck, and call it Saturday night.

Typical show? Just ask anyone who caught the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs' still-smokin' performance at Emo's during Austin's South by Southwest convention last March. You could even ask Rolling Stone's David Fricke -- who walks around lookin' like the Fifth Ramone, so you know he ain't too shy to tell you what's really happening, Mr. Jones -- who gave the Cheetahs' flipped-disc a four-star rave in the mag after seeing these four cats take it to the Texas stage that fateful night.

Tonight, however, this feline foursome of guitarist/vocalist Frank Meyer, guitarist Art Jackson, bassist Dino Everett and drummer Mike Sessa find themselves firmly ensconced in an inexpensive rehearsal studio deep in the heart of Hollywood, polishing material for several of their upcoming projects.

"We've got 12 to 15 songs ready for our next album, which is going to be called Waitin' for the Death of My Generation," says Meyer. "It'll be comin' out on Triple X. Wayne Kramer's going to produce it, and we're going to start recording in November and December. Then we're gonna back up [former Runaways front woman] Cherie Currie for an album that she's cutting for Triple X. That'll be out next year, too." (The Cheetahs previously backed Currie on a 1997 remake of the Runaways' "Cherry Bomb," b/w the band's own anti-anthem, "Burn, Silver Lake, Burn.")

In the meantime, the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs and their local Motor City-minded counterparts, the equally brilliant BellRays, will each contribute four original songs, as well as respective covers of the Flamin' Groovies' "Slow Death" and Ray Charles' "I Don't Need No Doctor," to an album titled Funk, Rock & Soul that's set to be released on the Cold Front indie label this month. (The two bands split a Christmas single, with the Cheetahs throwing down on Fear's "Fuck Christmas," just last year.)

And then back to the future: The Cheetahs' "Small Town Killer" is scheduled to share space with tunes by kindred souls Electric Frankenstein, the Candy Snatchers, and the B-Movie Rats on a vinyl single for the Reptilian indie label later this year.

But first, the band is going to provide sonic support to veteran punk-metalurgist Jeff Dahl on a version of "Cafe Avenue" that's earmarked for a forthcoming Hanoi Rocks tribute LP. (Note: This is an autobiographical song, from Finland's version of the New York Dolls, about working as a rent boy/teenage prostitute.) Naturally, Wayne Kramer is going to produce that, too.

Kramer and Dahl are also slated to provide extra guitar firepower to the Cheetahs' rendition of Little Richard's seminal "Tutti Frutti," which they intend to record during the same session.

When the Cheetahs roar into a rehearsal version of the latter tune, Todd Westover of Toothpick Elbow, and Doorslammer fame bursts through the studio door and starts doing the Cretin Hop around the room. Derek Christensen of the B-Movie Rats drops by to lend a wry smile, too.

Between songs, the in-studio conversation can range from the album that Sonny Boy Williamson cut with the Animals two weeks before he died and the underrated greatness of Thin Lizzy's twin guitar assault to the illegibility of Flipside magazine and how the '80s metal band London (unwitting film stars of The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years) is still hanging around L.A. under the Spiders and Snakes name -- minus the irrepressible Nadir D'Priest, though.


Obviously, the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs are dyed-in-the-black-leather-jacket music fans. So what single piece of pop memorabilia would they each like to own?

Jackson: "The guitar that Chuck Berry played on 'Maybelline.'" Everett: "Sid Vicious' bass." Meyer: "The 'General Lee,' that 1969 Dodge Charger from The Dukes of Hazzard." Sessa: "I don't want for anything."


"We're not some kinda Detroit tribute band!" snorts Meyer, addressing the obvious question. "The early Detroit, New York, London and L.A. scenes are what pulled us all together."

"We recognize the roots," Everett interrupts. "That's the difference between the '70s punk bands and the '90s punk bands. Most bands nowadays have roots that go back maybe five years. We're not geniuses. We're just creating something out of something that came before."

"That's why we like to team up with our heroes," Meyer interjects. "We did that single with Deniz Tek from Radio Birdman and New Race; we did that tour backing [former New York Dolls guitarist] Sylvain Sylvain for three weeks earlier this year; and we're going out on tour with Wayne Kramer. We're going to play first, and then we're going to be Wayne's back-up band on all the dates."

"We're trying to send kids back to some cool records," Meyer continues. "We're obviously coming from a different place -- one with more soul roots -- than most [modern] bands. But we're still just playing old-school rock 'n' roll. Yeah, we wear our influences on our sleeves. We're not ashamed of that. We're all those things and more."


Okay, then, who's your favorite dead person?

Jackson: "Audrey Hepburn." Meyer: "Frank Zappa." Everett: "Allison Hayes, the star of Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman." Sessa: "My Dad and Malcolm X are tied."


So what's your favorite musician's joke?

Jackson: "This kid wants to be a bass player, so his dad says, 'Okay, but you have to take lessons.' So he goes to the first lesson, comes home, and his dad asks, 'What did you learn today?' He says, 'The E string.' Next day, he comes home, and his dad asks, 'What did you learn today?' He says, 'The A string.' Third day, he comes home, and his dad asks, 'What did you learn today?' He says, 'Nothing. I had a gig.'"


"We first got together after this porno awards show back in 1995," recalls Everett, explaining the band's origins. "This porn actor was there telling us about how he was making this great techno-new-age-goth-alternative album, and we just looked at each other and said, 'If this guy can be making records, why not us?'" In truth, while Everett had once backed the late shock-rocker G.G. Allin, and Sessa has been playing professionally since 1979, but the Cheetahs are guitarist Art Jackson's first band.

"Art had a tattoo of Johnny Thunders on one arm and one of Winnie the Pooh on the other, so he had to be in our band," cracks Meyer. "Seriously, though, my real motivation came from looking at my record collection. I had all this other stuff by other people, but nothing that was my own. And one of the reasons we've been so prolific [starting with the Heart Full of Napalm EP and the Overdrive album cut for Alive in '96 and '97, respectively] is that the punk audience needs to have new records all the time, so we keep making 'em so we can keep touring. I mean, we all have day jobs to pay the rent, but we split everything four ways, so -- through touring -- this band is completely self-sufficient."


So when you're not on the road, what three things are always under your beds?

Jackson: "A gun, a cat and dirty laundry." Meyer: "A cat, underwear and a remote control." Sessa: "My bed's five feet off the ground, so my drums, my books and my CDs." Everett: "Just a lotta dirt."


"We're not trying to change the world," says Meyer, suppressing a chuckle. "Our goal is to enjoy ourselves and raise the standards for live shows. All those so-called 'alternative' bands' shows were so boring -- everybody just standing there staring at their shoes. They became just as bad as what they were rebelling against. I'm not talking about using stupid props and flash pots. We're not doing that. We're not wearing silly costumes, and we don't do choreography. We're into high energy, and that means moving around onstage 'cause that's how the music makes us feel.

"It's fun to see [local] bands again after we've come though [their towns] on tour. They're all moving a lot more onstage after we've been through. We're not competing with them, though. We're just trying to make it better for the audience. Our props are rafters, poles, amps, glasses, tables, anything in the club. We want our sets to start like a train taking off and end like a train wreck."

"You've gotta give audiences something they can't get on the record," Jackson observes.

"And each show is different because each audience is different," adds Everett.

"Actually, apathetic audiences have gotten some of our best shows," says Meyer, laughing. "Playing for 10 people who aren't even looking at the stage, that's when you learn a lot about working an audience. Personally, I'd rather see people walk out than just be complacent. At least that way, they'll remember us."


So who would you kill and in whose name?

Sessa: "Hey, I thought you said you only had 1,800 words."

The Streetwalkin' Cheetahs are scheduled to perform on Saturday, September 25, at the Hollywood Alley in Mesa, with Destroy Your Generation DJs. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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