On stage, he was a beast of a bassist, whipping his long, sweaty dreadlocks around as he pummeled through songs such as "My Own Summer (Shove It)." Offstage, he was more likely to channel Charles Bukowski, penning poetry with Gustav Mahler symphonies playing in the background.
That's how many in the music world will remember the yin-yang personality of Chi Cheng. He lived his life like a classic Deftones song: thoughtfully quiet in one moment, furiously explosive the next. The widely admired bassist for Deftones, the Grammy-winning rock band from Sacramento, died April 13 from injuries sustained in a November 2008 car accident. He was 42 years old.
Immediately after his death, tributes to Cheng flooded social media. Those included tweets of remembrance from rock stars of the highest order: Former Guns N' Roses members Slash and Duff McKagan, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, No Doubt's Tony Kanal, Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda, Cypress Hill's B-Real, Skrillex and others. "Rest in Peace Chi Cheng. You fought the good fight," read a tweet from Duran Duran.
Deftones fans from around the world, meanwhile, left thousands of R.I.P. posts for Cheng on Facebook. The outpourings came from such far-flung locales as Thailand, Russia and South America. Cheng had called Sacramento home for the past two decades and was beloved both for his rock star status and for the positivity he strove to bring in the world. He was a practicing Buddhist who sometimes draped a Tibetan flag over his bass cabinet.
He held a poetry reading with proceeds going toward Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He volunteered and jammed with the kids at the Wind Center for local homeless youths. Cheng always had the heart of a beatnik. While other rock stars might have blown some of their record advance money on fast cars and other hijinks, Cheng splurged on rare Bukowski manuscripts.
He studied creative writing and art at California State University, Sacramento, before Deftones started blowing up the hard-rock circuit in the early 1990s. Cheng released a poetry CD, "The Bamboo Parachute," in 2000.
"Writing was always more natural to me," said Cheng, in a 2005 interview with The Bee. "I've always been a poet that's been in a band, vs. being a band guy that wants to be a poet." Cheng tended to downplay his musicianship, saying he got his Deftones gig more for his looks than guitar skills.
But Cheng lacked neither in technique nor taste. His rolling, muscular bass lines were at the heart of Deftones' heavy and ethereal sound. He played with his fingers, not a pick, and propelled such tracks as "Root" and "Engine No. 9" with a head-banging fervor. His nimble bass lines in the band's biggest hit, "Change (In the House of Flies)," added a layer of complexity to a song that thrived on soft-loud dynamics.
Cheng's playing was never about simply mirroring Stephen Carpenter's chunky guitar rhythms or Abe Cunningham's propulsive drum licks. Cheng found his own musical lines and wove them through the songs as a heavy, low-frequency counterpoint.
Whether Cheng wanted to admit it or not, he carried the respect of his fellow musicians, exemplified by a two-night concert in 2009 held at Hollywood's Avalon nightclub to raise money for Cheng's medical expenses. It featured a gathering of hard-rock royalty. The all-star jam included Metallica's Robert Trujillo ripping through Cheng's bass lines on Deftones' "Engine No. 9" and Motley Crue's Tommy Lee bashing drums during "Headup." Members of Cypress Hill, System of a Down, Slayer, Linkin Park and others also participated in this megawatt homage. Cheng, who was born in Davis and raised in Stockton, was simply a well-loved person, especially in Sacramento.
When Deftones wasn't rocking a stage in some part of the world, Cheng carried on like a regular Sacramento homeboy. You might find him at a midtown poetry reading, or grabbing a drink at the Swiss Buda Bar, or supporting his friends at a local music club. He was never too cool to deny a picture for a fan, or sign an autograph for the star-struck.
No wonder Cheng's death hit especially hard in Sacramento. Many friends and fans had hoped over the past four years that Cheng would somehow make a miraculous recovery and wake from his semi-conscious state. That wasn't meant to be, and more than 150 people descended on Cesar Chavez Plaza the day after Cheng's death to light candles and share stories.
A Chi Cheng memorial concert will be held Sunday at Harlow's, featuring some of Sacramento's key musicians paying homage to Cheng. An even larger tribute concert is being planned for the coming months. Deftones has carried on since Cheng's accident.
In 2009, Sergio Vega, the bassist for Quicksand and a friend of Cheng's, was welcomed into the band, which kicks off a new tour Saturday in Texas. These will be some emotional shows for band members and fans alike.
"There will be a hole in our lives where Chi once was," said Carpenter in a band statement. "But that will be filled every day with all of our love and memories we all have in our heart. He will always be here because of love."
A key reason behind Deftones' longtime success is the way the members operate more like a family than a band. That family might get a little dysfunctional at times during long tour stretches and marathon recording sessions, but they have been bound like brothers since the late 1980s. And that family includes a new generation.
At an October show at San Francisco's Warfield Theater, Cheng's teenage son, Gabriel, played bass on "Root" with the band. With his long hair flying and fingers racing around the fretboard, it was a mirror image of his father 25 years ago.
"That's my man right here," said singer Chino Moreno, wrapping his arm around Gabriel after the song. "That's a little doppelganger right there." Cheng might be gone, and many of us will miss him, but his everlasting spirit is in the right hands.
Call The Bee's Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.