Even though the proto-punk act Rocket from the Tombs only played around town for about a year before dissolving and then essentially spawning Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys, the band left a huge impression. That's something that Rocket bassist Craig Bell says he's constantly reminded of when he meets fans.
"The band really means something to people," he says via phone from his Indianapolis home, where he had just returned after a tour with his hard-rock outfit the Down-Fi. "People come up to me all the time and tell me they never thought they'd hear Rocket from the Tombs play, and they're so happy we still tour. For me to be involved with this band now and know that we can still get together and create music is a gift that keeps on giving."
The group was certainly a volatile entity. Led by singer David Thomas, a burly singer who called himself Crocus Behemoth back in the early days, the original line-up also featured guitarist Peter Laughner, an iconic punk figure who died in 1977, guitarist Cheetah Chrome, and drummer Johnny Blitz.
"Peter [Laughner] was a catalyst," says Bell. "He could get people together and point them in a direction collectively. He and David got together before the rest of us and took what the band was then and made it more serious. Peter brought Cheetah and Johnny and myself into the band. His personality brought things together like that. He was a tremendous influence. He never got to find his true place that he deserves not only in the Cleveland music scene but also in music generally. "
While the group never recorded a studio album, songs such as "Sonic Reducer," "30 Seconds over Tokyo," and "Final Solution" ended up in the repertoires of the band's offshoots and became underground hits. While Rocket officially reconvened in 2003, Bell says the seeds for a reunion were planted in the late '90s when Thomas started going through old tapes of live performances. Thomas found a live recording of one particularly significant show — a gig at the old Piccadilly Inn, when the group played with New York avant-garde rockers Television.
"Until I heard it, I didn't even know it existed," says Bell. "David took that and the old recordings that had been bootlegged forever and he put out [2002's] The Day the Earth Met the Rocket from the Tombs. It was supposed to be a one-off deal to just get clean renditions of our songs and add the newly found material. It came out and was great."
The album received enough attention that Rocket regrouped to play the Thomas-curated Disasterdrome concert at UCLA in 2003.
"The one-off show turned into a little tour that summer and a national tour that winter," says Bell. "We went to Germany and did a festival, and we started doing some recordings, and it just snowballed. One step led to another, and we just kept doing things. It was so much that the band reconvened and kept moving forward from where it left off."
The current line-up, which features a few Clevelanders (guitarists Buddy Akita and Gary Siperko and drummer Steve Mehlman) in addition to Thomas and Bell, did a tour of Europe in May that had a rocky start because Thomas became ill, and the band had to postpone several shows. Bell says the experience enabled him to bond with the newer members.
"The four of us spent ten days together in a youth hostel in Berlin," he says. "We went to this rehearsal space in old East Germany, and we rehearsed and waited for David to recover. We had a chance to live together and play together. This band is everything it should be. These guys are true Clevelanders. They come from that Cleveland mindset that really is what Rocket is all about. Things change. Over the years, we have had a lot of people in the band. Having Cheetah retire last year was saddening. He's a very big part of this band. He said the road doesn't agree with him. He's our guitarist emeritus, but nothing is permanent. If he wants to come back, he will be welcome."
Given that the band's earliest recordings were only available as bootlegs, it's a wonder the band's music has continued to hold up. Unlike other proto-punk acts such as the New York Dolls and the Stooges, Rocket from the Tombs didn't benefit from a record label deal. But Bell says the songs speak for themselves and still resonate for a reason.
"There's a lot of honesty there," he says. "There's a lot of truth. There's no slick production. It's just five guys getting together in a loft and pouring their hearts into these songs, and that shows. This is really raw emotion. This is real rock 'n' roll. This is what our heroes did. We wanted to be like our heroes. Once we got back together and started playing again, we couldn't just set it aside. It had too much potential. There was too much there. And there's a lot left in the tank that we can move forward with. It's been a slow process, and I've felt every one of the last ten years waiting for the next step to be taken."