Rocket Redux

These days it's not uncommon for a musical artist's career to last not much longer than it takes to nuke a burrito. In this climate of millisecond shelf lives, it's hard to judge an artist's impact. Disposable pop stars are manufactured, exploited and forgotten with such assembly-line efficiency that it would be hard for them to leave much of an influence, even if, and that's the proverbial big "if," they had any talent.

Cleveland pre-punk band Rocket from the Tombs -- not to be confused with Rocket from the Crypt, the San Diego band whose name is an homage to the Ohioans -- had an existence no longer than the average half-life of the Barbie and Ken dolls of today's pop world. RFTT performed together for a mere eight months in the mid- 1970s, never released a record and played about eight shows in Cleveland to a total audience of a couple of hundred souls.

So why is this band getting back together? Why is this band daring to not just play their local bar and expect anyone to care, but also go on a national tour?

Well, there's the little matter of the songs they wrote, which include "Sonic Reducer," "Down in Flames" and "30 Seconds over Tokyo." All of these first went on to a new life and greater recognition in the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu, bands that arose in the wake of RFTT's splashdown, and two groups that helped launch the word "seminal" toward its current status as rock-crit cant. And the RFTT legend grew exponentially when the tunes were later picked up by the likes of Guns N' Roses, Pearl Jam, the Replacements and Wilco, to name only a few. (Their legacy got another boost last year with the release of The Day the Earth Met Rocket from the Tombs, a cobbling together of practice tapes and live tracks captured complete with poor sound quality.)

Back in RFTT's heyday, Cleveland had a scene that was much like the band's legacy in that it defined both "compact" and "important." RFTT singer David Thomas says it was unique in that virtually all of the small number of bands active then and there -- a total of about 100 people in all -- became legends. "Electric Eels, the Mirrors, Rocket from the Tombs, those were the three main bands," Thomas recalls over the phone from his home in northern Pennsylvania. "There were a few others that were going on at the time that were all good." Among those there was the former blues band 15 60 75, known to Clevelanders as "the Numbers Band," which at one point included both Chrissie Hynde's brother Terry on horns and Devo co-founder Gerald Casale on bass. Before hightailing it to London on a one-way ticket, Hynde was also on the scene.

Thomas doesn't believe this ferment could have taken place anywhere but Cleveland. First, the city teemed with warped kids, all thanks to the cracked sensibilities of a local TV station's Elvira-like horror-movie host. Thomas calls his "the Ghoulardi generation." "He was totally anarchistic and it totally warped the whole generation that produced the '75 Cleveland experience," Thomas says.

Then there were the artist-friendly realities of the crumbling Cleveland economy. "It was all extremely Midwestern, extremely rehearsed, which you don't get in New York," he says. "It's too expensive to rehearse there."

Then there was what Thomas calls a hothouse effect. Small scenes often offer the highest stakes. "It was a very intense atmosphere and you didn't get to play out much," he says. "If you screwed up it got around among the hundred people and you'd be totally humiliated."

On the band's outsize reputation, Thomas is unburdened by false modesty. "If you look at most 'Top 50' punk songs of all time, RFTT had a really high proportion of them for a band that didn't exist for a very long time. The reason is that we were phenomenally good, exceptionally, uniquely good."

The band's primary lineup during their original life span in 1975 consisted of Thomas, who then went by Crocus Behemoth; Peter Laughner and Gene O'Connor on guitars; bassist Craig Bell; and drummer Johnny Madansky. After the Rocket's implosion, O'Connor renamed himself Cheetah Chrome and with Madansky, a.k.a. Johnny Blitz, went on to form the Dead Boys. Thomas dropped his stage name and formed Pere Ubu, which continues as a working band to this day. The 2003 version of RFTT replaces Laughner -- who died of liver failure at 25 in 1977 -- with Television's Richard Lloyd, and Pere Ubu member Steve Mehlman subs in on drums.

Rocket's resurrection began in Los Angeles in February when, at Thomas's suggestion, they got together to play a one-off show at a traveling exhibition he curated called the Disastodrome! Festival. Seven early-summer shows up north followed, the smash success of which prompted the current tour.

"The reaction has been phenomenal; people who should know better are really dumbstruck by it," Thomas says. "The two main papers in Chicago have long-established music writers (Jim DeRogatis of the Sun-Times and Greg Kot of the Tribune) that are old men who should know better and they were just wandering around stunned after the show, mumbling to the booking agent how it was the best show they had ever seen. (Kot wrote: 'Rocket From the Tombs is not just the great lost proto-punk band of the '70s. It's one of the best bands of the 21st century too.') [Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke] wrote on their Internet site that it was the greatest show he had ever seen by one of the greatest bands he had ever imagined." (Well, not exactly, but pretty close. Here's some of what he did write: "No one else in American rock, underground or over, in 1974 and '75, was writing and playing songs this hard and graphic about being fucked over and fighting mad. No one else is doing it now.")

So Thomas isn't alone when he claims his is "a very good band live." "That's one of the reasons we're continuing it," he says. "As Richard [Lloyd] pointed out, you don't get to be in great bands every day, so you may as well not walk away if it's still moving somewhere."

And where it goes from here is anybody's guess. "We're very early in the process," Thomas says. "We're like a boy band put together artificially in February. We haven't written any [new] material yet; we don't know if we can write any material. During the course of these tours, we're getting to know each other and then we'll decide if we want to be a real band. It's not a foregone conclusion that we can write together -- we don't know if there's any magic there. That's why we keep saying it's not a reunion, we're just doing this. It's pretty high-maintenance; it's a pretty volatile group."

After all that, can you still be wondering why you should care about an obscure band from three decades ago? Punk's getting old, and the originators are dying at the same rate the early bluesmen did. Those who survived the self-induced ravages of their twenties are now coping with both their aftereffects and the ravages of time. You don't get too many chances to see rock and roll history come to life, and Joey Ramone, Johnny Thunders and Stiv Bators won't be, well, rocketing from their respective tombs anytime soon. And this is a band that not only predated and influenced the punk movement but also added significantly to its canon. Add to the mix Richard Lloyd from Television, a band that dates from CBGB's esteemed class of '77, and you've got a multi-stage rocket on the launchpad primed to hit the (marquee) moon.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Timothy J. O'Brien