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Revival Meeting: The Chrome Cranks



Getting the band back together is one of the most tired clichés in rock ‘n’ roll. Indeed, few images are more pathetic than that of a squad of long-in-the-tooth never-say-dies stumbling back onstage one more time, vainly attempting to rekindle their post-adolescent glory waaay too many years after the fact. When he looks in the mirror, how the heck does a graying Iggy Stooge or Johnny Rotten reconcile the guy he sees with the one he can no longer be; the young gunslinger who burned with hormonal angst, hoped he’d die before he got old? It just seems wrong, the whole middle-aged “comeback” thing. And yet there was I, your mild-mannered music editor, about to contribute to this very epidemic by putting my own adult dignity on the line in front of a paying audience. Was I insane?

A little background. For the better part of the 1990s, I was the singer and guitarist of the Chrome Cranks, a four-piece band that—quoting my writer bio here—blended the blues and punk with all the subtlety of a concrete road saw. During our hectic time together we released five albums, toured Europe and North America incessantly, appeared on several movie soundtracks, and even had one of our videos played on primetime MTV.

Guitarist William Weber and I started the band in the late ’80s in our hometown of Cincinnati. In 1992, after trying to figure out a sound and dithering endlessly with unsuccessful lineups we finally moved to New York, where we recruited former Honeymoon Killers leader Jerry Teel as bassist. With a succession of drummers we started playing out, released a couple of singles, and before long had a pretty healthy buzz happening on the Lower East Side. After our debut album came out in 1994 ex-Sonic Youth/Pussy Galore drummer Bob Bert joined and we went into overdrive, touring like Vikings, building a considerable following, and pumping out records like rounds from an automatic. The band didn’t radically reinvent rock music or anything, but we definitely had something special.

“The Chrome Cranks had an impossible-to-ignore sound: the snarl of punk, the pained howl of the blues, the immediate rush of classic garage rock,” writes former Time Out New York music editor Mike Wolf. “In their music you could hear all of these things, yet there was nothing even vaguely retro going on—onstage the group was so piercingly in the moment that it was almost unbearable. Watching them play felt freeing.”
But unfortunately artistic success alone doesn’t pay the bills. And as far too many others know, playing music—especially the commercially uncompromising kind—is a tough way to make a living. Combine this with the myopic, Ahab-like vision of me circa then, plus a vanload of unhealthy passive-aggression, and you have yourself a ticking time bomb. A Metallica-style band therapist beyond our means, we finally imploded in the spring of 1998.

After the breakup the rest of the guys kept playing, in other bands. I tried to put something new together but by then my rock ’n’ roll heart had given out, and the idea of spending a couple of years on the couch sounded just fine. I did what so many recovering rockers do: got married, grew a beard, moved upstate, got a divorce. Ho-hum. Somewhere in there, though, I reconnected with writing and took some refresher courses. From there I ended up getting jobs at a couple of newspapers and eventually signed on with Chronogram in 2006. By then I had become a full-on junkie for musical knowledge but yet I wanted nothing whatsoever to do with actually playing music, especially rock ’n’ roll. The very thought was a painful reminder of my crushed dreams. And anyway, I told myself, playing rock ’n’ roll was for kids. Anyone in my age bracket or above and still doing it was either tilting at windmills or punching the clock. Best, then, just to grow up and move on.

Of course I was in denial. Deep down, I would’ve given absolutely anything to have the band back together. But I hadn’t spoken to most of the guys in years, and the idea just didn’t add up against the person I thought I’d become.

And then something weird happened. In 2007 Atavistic Records put out Diabolical Boogie, a two-CD set of Chrome Cranks demos, videos, and rarities. The renewed interest from the release held a revelation: It seemed that although the group had never even glanced the mainstream, we’d definitely left an impression in some spots. A lot of younger bands, especially in Europe, were citing the Cranks as an influence, even performing and recording our songs. I did some interviews to promote the album and was repeatedly asked about a possible reunion. Still, I told anyone who asked it’d be the proverbial cold day in Hades before we ever got back together.

And yet temperatures—and people—can change considerably over time. In the wake of the buzz from the album the four of us ended up reconnecting through the web. We’d all moved on from the ill winds of the past and now were even able to laugh about them. William was back in Ohio, but the rest of us were living in the New York area. The reunion thing came up again and I decided, what the hell, if we were ever going to do it it’d better be now, before we were too old. I wrote up an e-mail asking what the others thought about maybe doing a couple of shows, crossed my fingers, and hit the send button.

Amazingly, everybody was into it. I couldn’t believe it. On our MySpace page we added a simple line about planning some reunion gigs for 2009. And just a few days later there was a message in my inbox from a promoter in France asking if we’d like to headline a night at the Nuits Sonores festival in Lyon that May. She was offering us what would’ve been insane money back in the day, plus plane tickets, separate five-star hotel rooms for the entire three-day festival, and free meals in the very crucible of French gastronomy. Um, okay. We booked some other shows; a warm-up in Kingston, plus one apiece in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

They say this stuff is like riding a bike, but for me it’d been almost a dozen years. And though I’d done my best to take care of myself over time I was now middle-aged, after all. But I threw myself into it, relearning the songs next to the stereo and jamming with Bob and Jerry on Saturdays. It was wobbly going at first, but when William finally arrived in April it was the ’90s all over again as soon as he plugged in and we hit the first tune. Whatever it was the four of us had had as a band was absolutely still there—in full, earsplitting, diamond-hard spades. Unbelievable. Okay, then, time to go show these kid bands how it’s done.

But as our return loomed I couldn’t help but ask myself: What reason did I have to once again be making such ungodly noise? Heck, I gave up being that blue black-haired, coiled spring long ago. What did I have to be angry about now? It’s all too clear when a performer is going through the motions, and I didn’t want to puncture whatever legacy we had. Was I going to feel like an idiot, screaming and jumping around again with my battered guitar? Another side of me, however, was crawling out of my skin, couldn’t wait to give the world a fresh kick in the ass.

Which bring us up to the first show in Kingston on May 2. Gulp. But somehow as I got ready I found myself oddly at peace. It was like everything was happening just exactly as it was supposed to; this was where I was meant to be. I walked on stage, the set started, and it was just like opening the front door and stepping outside. Nothing felt idiotic at all. It’s weird to talk about, but as soon as the music begins something takes over and, pretentious as I’m sure it sounds, I kind of become someone else and black out. The less I remember, the better the show tends to have been, and later I don’t remember much of this one. What I do recall is that the band played like the same demons we were way back when and had no problem getting our point across. It went by in a flash, and we left Kingston a blackened, smoking hole.

When it came Gotham’s turn I guess I was a little antsier, as I only got about four hours’ sleep the night before. But, yet again, the first song started and—Bam!—that master switch went on. We became a raging rock machine and flattened the room. The next day, reviews on the web said we’re even better now than we were the first time around. The following gig in Brooklyn turned out to be the best one yet, a sold-out sweat-fest of orgasmic, communal catharsis that ended with multiple encores and an extremely messy stage.

The final show, in Lyon the week after, was held at a sprawling complex normally used as a produce distribution center. I had some amp problems during soundcheck, something that would’ve severely rankled me in the old days but this time barely registered. The stage was inside an open-walled affair about the size of an aircraft hangar, and when we went on it was totally packed. The set swung like an atom bomb, and when it was done the ballistic crowd still wanted more. The promoter said we were the hit of the festival. It all felt like a dream, the best dream. Still does.

So where does this leave the Chrome Cranks? I honestly can’t say. There’s been some chatter about more dates overseas, and I’d love to make another record. We’ll see. Whatever does or doesn’t happen, having been able to make music once again with three of my best friends is still more than I could’ve wished for. And it was all somehow easier, far more enjoyable than before—but not at the expense of the music; I don’t have to be perpetually pissed-off for the shows to be great. Perhaps I never did. Before all of this I wouldn’t have believed it, but it’s true: If you did it in a past life, you can doubtlessly do it again in the next. Maybe the one after that, too.

They say you can’t go back, but I’m not so sure you really ever really leave. You just go around the block, and return if and when you want to. And whoever that “someone else” is, wherever he’s been, I’m glad he’s back. Or at least not so far away. I’ve also learned that even though I’m no longer an angry young man there’s still plenty to be angry about as I get older; it’s just different stuff. So yeah, I’m 44 years old and I’m still screaming. You got a problem with that?

The Murder of Time, a career overview featuring rarities and remastered tracks from the Chrome Cranks’ first three albums, is out now on CD and limited double-vinyl gatefold LP on Bang! Records.

The Chrome Cranks at the Nuits Sonores Festival in Lyon, France on May 22. Photo by David Rodriguez.
  • The Chrome Cranks at the Nuits Sonores Festival in Lyon, France on May 22. Photo by David Rodriguez.
Cranking it at Backstage Studio Productions in Kingston on May 2.
  • Cranking it at Backstage Studio Productions in Kingston on May 2.

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