Cheri Lovedog’s Prey for Rock & Roll is a valentine to being an everyday rock musician, toiling away night after night, never getting famous but loving every sweaty, ear-splitting moment of your time onstage along with the off-stage drama that goes with it. With Gina Gershon (Showgirls), Drea de Matteo (The Sopranos) and Lori Petty (Tank Girl) in a tough and sexy all-girl band, tattoos everywhere, and an addictive, dirty LA-rock soundtrack, this 2003 film is one that I’ve watched over and over!
I met Cheri at her shop, Lovedog Tattoo Studio (Santa Cruz, California), to find out all about the tattoo artist who wrote this semi-autobiographical punk rock opera.
When Cheri left the Coast Guard and landed in Los Angeles in 1978, she wasn’t sure what to do with herself. “I had no [job] skills,” she admitted. “I could write and I could draw and I could make a mean cocktail.”
She also wanted to make cash, so she found work as a bartender just as punk rock was exploding onto the streets of Hollywood. “It was a whole movement — art, music, poetry and fashion.” She soon started hanging out at the infamous Sunset Strip fixture, The Whisky, where she fell in love with punk rock. “I could do this,” she thought to herself, so she got some girls together and started a band. She wanted an all-girl band because “there are enough guy bands.” Citing L.A. punk idols X as a major influence on her music, she wrote songs that were “raw and poetic; in-your-face but not just screaming. There were layers, texture.”
Over the next decade and a half, Cheri’s band played gigs with “everybody who made it big: The Muffs, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Jane’s Addiction, L7, Hole… We did all right — we weren’t playing Tuesday nights at midnight — but there are the bands that make it and those [like us]: always gigging, keeping the scene alive locally but never popping out of the top. Record labels looked at us but always said they didn’t know where to put us.”
With her fortieth birthday approaching, Cheri took a hard look at her life. “I’d spent all my life in bars and clubs. I didn’t want to be 60 years old, still hanging out at clubs. I had to say, ‘It’s not going to happen. Time to move on to Plan B.’ ”
Cheri returned to her hometown of Santa Cruz, planning to concentrate on writing and playing in bands there. She was once again faced with the problem of deciding what to do for work. Cheri had gotten a lot of tattoos and had drawn designs for friends’ tattoos, so her girlfriend at the time told her, “You should tattoo!” She began by tattooing her girlfriend, quipping “I figured it out on her butt.” Despite the questionable quality of her early equipment, she practiced on friends and, buoyed by the gay community, gradually improved and upgraded her machines. “It wasn’t a big transition from drawing, but I was stylistically limited.” She learned as she went along. Even after she opened her own shop and brought in other artists, she says she continued to learn from them. Today her preferred style to work in is old-school American traditional. She lists Bob Roberts, Hanky Panky and Sailor Jerry as influences.
With her tattoo business thriving, Cheri still longed take her writing to the next level. She had written for L.A. Rock Review, having a regular column at one point, and had also been writing about her life in short stories and in her songs, but was trying to figure out what to write next — maybe a book? While she admits it was unlike her, she paid a visit to psychic Sylvia Brown, who she credits with helping her see her future more clearly. “She told me, ‘You’ve got to do both. You should write and do music.’ “ Cheri went home and changed her whole life — she decided to write a play. “I wanted to narrate and incorporate music performance.”
One day, a writer from NYC came into the tattoo shop. As they chatted, Cheri told her about the play she was working on. “Send me what you’ve got,” the woman said. Cheri did, and the woman — writer/producer Robin Whitehouse — told her that she clearly didn’t know how to write a play, but she offered to help Cheri if she was willing to come to NYC. Cheri pounced on the opportunity and flew to New York to do a playwrights’ apprenticeship of sorts, attending plays and script readings and accepting Whitehouse’s advice, benefiting from her experience.
When it was ready, Whitehouse produced the play and managed to have it staged at legendary East Village house of punk CBGB’s. There had never been a play at CBGB’s before, but they were already set up for the live performance aspect of it. They performed early enough in the evenings that bands would still come in and play afterwards as usual.
The play, Prey for Rock & Roll, which condensed the events of many years into a short period of time and consolidated many people’s stories into a few characters, got a great reaction from both audiences and critics, as well as magazines such as The Advocate and Time Out. “What intrigued them,” Cheri said, “was that it was put on at CBGB’s, and that we actually played music. The story about a character coming to terms with turning 40 resonated with people. It had incest, rape, and other heavy issues, but with dark humor. Women wanted to laugh at these things. Music is a lifesaver. It allows you to purge yourself. Some people become junkies or crackwhores, some turn to music.”
As a healthy buzz grew around the play, people began to approach Cheri wanting to adapt it into a film. “One company wanted to take out the gayness and cussing, and wanted to [replace the original songs with] covers!” Producer Donovan Mannato was the only one who seemed to “get it.” With the wheels set in motion, the perfect production team was assembled. Alex Steyermark, who had worked on the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, was chosen to direct. Stephen Trask, also from the Hedwig team, came on board to produce the musical arrangements and soundtrack. Steyermark wanted Gina Gershon to star, and she had been looking for a rock film to work on. Drea de Matteo, who had originally been asked to play the character of “Tracy” in the play but had to pass because of conflicts in her shooting schedule as sexy Jersey girl Adriana La Cerva on The Sopranos, jumped at the chance to play the role in the film. Lori Petty (of Tank Girl and Point Break fame) and other top-notch acting talents rounded out the cast. The actors had to learn to play well enough to look convincing on screen, and Gershon sang all the vocals herself.
In preparation to play a tattoo artist by day/local rockstar by night, Gershon researched and chose her own designs, which were applied with makeup. Only two of the fake tattoos match Cheri’s real ones: the backpiece of Justice pulling down her blindfold, (styled after the Lady of Guadalupe); and the letters on her fingers spelling out “PRAY” on one hand and “PREY” on the other. “I use [the word] ‘prey’ as in, victim of rock and roll,” Cheri clarified. “It consumes you. But in a good way. Or maybe not.”
The film brought a lot of attention to her tattoo shop and put it on the map. “Some people come here to get tattooed just because they’ve seen the movie,” Cheri said, though the increased success of her business hasn’t taken away from her drive to continue writing.
Cheri also wrote and directed the film Jesus Factor (2009), a dark comedy about a transgender character from a family of born-again Christians. “It deals with religion, family, gender, love and etiquette — or lack of, “ Cheri told me as she stepped outside the shop to smoke a cigarette. She’s also written a book of short stories called Write Louder and is a proud member of the Zingara Charter of the Devil Dolls Motorcycle Club. You can keep up with Cheri’s latest projects on WriteLouder.com!
While Cheri hasn’t become hugely famous (yet!) for being a musician or a tattooer, her writing accomplishments have made it all worth it. “If I die tomorrow,” she said, “as a writer, I’ve satisfied something.”
1115 Soquel Avenue
Santa Cruz, CA 95062
Article and photos of Cheri by Miss Psychobilly Bass
All other photos supplied by Cheri Lovedog