"We just did what we did. We had fun," says Rocket From the Tombs guitarist Cheetah Chrome. Quite a terse summation for a group whose importance to underground rock has expanded exponentially through the years. Like that of many a lost band, excavated and spit-shined over time, Rocket's story is 90 percent myth and 10 percent hazy memories of the actual participants, none of whom was given a snowball's chance in their heyday.
Close to three decades later, that's all changed: Rocket From the Tombs is heralded as a punk forefather, and the band's upcoming reunion gig at the Beachland Ballroom is one of the most anticipated shows of the year.
This is a long way from the band's origins in Cleveland's industrial underbelly. The group first blasted off in June 1974, when David Thomas -- then a semi-notorious Scene scribe known as Crocus Behemoth -- and bassist Craig Bell refashioned their satirical bar band under a new moniker, plucked from a short film Thomas had made. Guitarist and budding rock writer Peter Laughner approached Thomas about joining. Then Gene O'Conner (a.k.a. Cheetah Chrome) answered a newspaper ad, and the "classic" Rocket lineup went at it full force -- for eight months and about eight gigs, and with a few different drummers. They ended up with a handful of live tapes and demos for posterity. Talk about your comet-like flameout.
Two offshoot bands, Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys, went on to some fame, cementing the influence of their precursor. Laughner moved to New York City, where he tried unsuccessfully to join Television; his heavy drinking led to death from liver failure in 1977. Calendars flipped, rock rolled on.
But something funny happened on the way to the Beachland. Though Rocket From the Tombs never knocked out a proper studio session, those quickie recordings survived, making the rounds among underground tape traders for decades. The legend spread like molasses -- slow and sweetened. A notorious 1990 vinyl bootleg, Life Stinks, now fetches hundreds on eBay. In February, Smog Veil Records, in tandem with Thomas, finally released the first official Rocket From the Tombs CD, The Day the Earth Met Rocket From the Tombs.
The album, consisting of live recordings and a tape the band recorded for airplay on WMMS, attempts to re-create what might have been the Rockets' debut album. If a proper debut had been unleashed in 1975, the liner notes imply, who knows what could have happened? Certainly there was a zeitgeist floating around the world in those years, and Rocket had caught that wind. There's a desperate destruction palpable in every tune on Earth, with Laughner and Cheetah's guitars shooting sparks, and Thomas's voice squealing and raging with a terror not found in the disaffected stance of most new-wave singers. But there are also dramatic, depressed ballads -- the kind not often explored by the Rocket's contemporaries. And amid all the drunken, bored, steel-town rocking out, there is a lyrical sarcasm that is pure wise-ass Ghoulardi goofiness.
While scrounging up all those old tapes over the last few years, Thomas got back in touch with Cheetah and Bell. Then in February at UCLA, a three-day showcase of Thomas's various projects offered a chance for a reunion gig. A good time was had by all, so they planned a short seven-show tour to coincide with the CD release. Former Television guitarist Richard Lloyd was added to play in Laughner's place.
The band's return couldn't have come at a better time: After years of anonymity, Rocket From the Tombs -- and in some measure its Clevo cohorts of that era, the Electric Eels and the Mirrors -- has come to represent the matchstrike for the entire worldwide punk explosion of the 1970s and beyond. Theirs is the biographical plotline for the curious way in which post-'60s rock and roll innovators were doomed to obscurity by their birth in places out of the industry loop -- places such as Cleveland. In 1975, this town was neither glamorous nor all that much fun. The few clubs scattered around the East Side catered to cover bands. The squares split to the 'burbs. Big steel booked, leaving unemployment rates high as ever. The Flats, then referred to as the Wasteland, resembled a deserted battlefield. Amid all this, Rocket From the Tombs would gather in its West Third Street loft and crank up the amps, to be heard over the Wasteland's empty lots.
"Well, that sounds a little dramatic," says Thomas. "We sort of liked the way it was. We spent a lot of time at our loft and paid nothing for it then. It was all a playground, inspiring. It was our civilization."
The Rocket's legacy grew slowly out of these inauspicious surroundings. The first wave of the band's myth revolved around Laughner: His hard-to-find pre- and post-Rocket output of mostly brayed balladry, his writings for Creem, and his untimely death have all been mythologized. (The story of his recording Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil Blues" on a four-track the night before he died is one of the most chillingly tragic tales in music history.)
Laughner was long perceived -- rightly or wrongly -- as the heart and soul of the band, so the idea of a Rocket reunion seems blasphemous to purists. "Look, don't come. I don't care," Thomas says. "No band is any one person. Anyway, we're not re-forming. There's no new material. We're all losing money on this. We just like the chance to play the songs again. The strength of the band was that we had four good songwriters. But that doomed us too, because we were the sort of people who don't compromise. We still fundamentally dislike each other. We've already broken up seven times in four practices. But when we play onstage, it's pretty electric."
Thomas remains uncomfortable with the "punk forefathers" tag his band is often saddled with. "We were in the line of the development of rock music," he says. "We were being selective with what we built on -- the MC5, etc." Plus, it's well established that Rocket was an art project -- dressing up in tinfoil and exploring Captain Beefheart-like freakouts was the norm. "That's why I describe punk rock as counter-revolutionary. Punk wanted to stop growth. For us, all the bloated stadium stuff of that era wasn't incentive or disincentive; it was just another world we never even thought about entering."
"We were incredibly naive," Cheetah says. "All that big-time star stuff seemed unattainable. We knew we weren't going to be the next big thing. We knew it wasn't going over with the normal folks. Rocket had more to do with an Irish pub jam. If we made back our beer money at the end of the gig, we were happy."