Rocket from the Tombs is indeed a legendary outfit but in a slippery, paradoxical manner. As a band, their run book-ended the summers of 1974 and '75. During that time, they played around 10 shows, recorded a radio broadcast, and never released any official material. But the band is important for two reasons. Number one: the band's sound. There is no more perfect missing link between the proto-punk of the Stooges/MC5 and the punk/post-punk of the late '70s. Reason number two: the band's personnel, who would go on to form two wildly influential bands. Founding members David Thomas and Peter Laughner would dissolve Rocket to form Pere Ubu, while guitarist Gene O'Connor and drummer John Madansky would adopt the stage names Cheetah Chrome and Johnny Blitz, respectively, and assemble the Dead Boys. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Mid-'70s Cleveland was a hotbed in a bubble. The Mirrors and the Electric Eels, contemporaries of Rocket, are also regarded as forefathers of punk, art-punk, and post-punk, though the three bands were disparate in sound. Boil it down and it was just a handful of working-class, fatalistic weirdos laying the groundwork for what would be a fertile if short-lived scene. As is so often the case with seminal music scenes that flame out, these artists were posthumously hyped to extremes, when, in fact, the number of people who actually saw the bands perform in the mid-'70s might have been as few as 100.
In 1974, Thomas was calling himself Crocus Behemoth. He and bassist Craig Bell retooled a bar band with self-destructive savant Laughner. O'Connor and Madansky jumped on board, and Rocket from the Tombs was born.
A man of considerable um "stage presence," Thomas was always into the theatrical aspects of rock-and-roll (Pere Ubu was named after Alfred Jarry's The Ubu Trilogy -- groundbreaking satirical plays from the 19th century), sometimes performing while covered head-to-toe in tinfoil. His distinctive love-it-or-hate-it howl/cackle was so intense that different vocalists were tried out for Rocket (including a very young Stiv Bators, who would go on to sing for the Dead Boys), but the band settled on Thomas and his singing would later become one of the defining factors in Pere Ubu.
The heart of Rocket from the Tombs and the burgeoning Cleveland scene, however, was Peter Laughner. A Lou Reed-obsessed autodidact with a dangerous penchant for chemical abuse, Laughner was also a music writer and poet. He was responsible for bringing many New York bands to Cleveland, including Television, with whom he was also obsessed and tried to join. Rumor has it that he pulled a gun when turned down by that band. While writing for Creem, he began a chaotic friendship with the granddaddy of rock-and-roll-as-writing-as-rock-and-roll, Lester Bangs. When Laughner died of pancreatic failure in 1977, Bangs composed an uncomfortably personal obituary for The New York Rocker, which survives Bangs, also a casualty of excess, as perhaps his best piece of work. And to give you a lifestyle perspective, not many 24-year-olds die of all-out pancreatic failure.
Incompatible forces broke the band apart in the summer of 1975. Thomas and Laughner's vision, whatever you would call it (seeing as how it formed the basis of the unparalleled Ubu), and the sleazier lean of O'Connor and Madansky did not mix.
Regardless of the band's eye-blink tenure, several classics were written and performed by Rocket from the Tombs -- songs that would be reworked into staples by the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu. The Dead Boys' "Sonic Reducer" and "Down in Flames" started life as Rocket songs. And Laughner's depraved and moving "Ain't It Fun" would be given a serious makeover as the hard-rock pillar of the Boy's second album, We Have Come for Your Children. Laughner and Thomas would take "Final Solution," "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," "Life Stinks," and "Heart of Darkness" out of the Rocket repertoire and into the Pere Ubu world (though Laughner would quit Ubu after their second single to pursue his more Dylan/Stones tendencies). The subsequent years would see cover versions by an odd slew of artists (some of whom probably had no idea who Rocket from the Tombs was). "Heart of Darkness" was part of Mission of Burma's show set and is documented on the live The Horrible Truth About Burma. Peter Murphy covered "Final Solution" on his solo album Should We Fail To Fall Apart. Living Colour covered the same song on a 1990 single, and an incorrectly credited "Ain't It Fun" is featured on Guns N' Roses' pathetic attempt at street-level integrity, The Spaghetti Incident.
Bootlegs of Rocket from the Tombs material were the only option before 1990, when Life Stinks, an LP of a February 1975 radio broadcast, was released, only to quickly disappear. Then, in 1994, Take the Guitar Player for a Ride, a thorough overview of Laughner's recorded work, was issued on the Tim Kerr label. It wasn't until last year that a document of Rocket from the Tombs proper would see the light of day. The Day the Earth Met Rocket from the Tombs is a double LP/CD of demos, radio broadcasts, and two live shows. Released on Smog Veil Records, it is the first widely available overview of the band's first phase.
The version of Rocket that's playing the Hi-Tone CafÇ Saturday night is about as close to the original lineup as nature will allow. Thomas, Bell, O'Connor, and drummer Steve Melmen are in tow, and the Laughner perch will be occupied, ironically, by Television's Richard Lloyd. In February 2004, Smog Veil will release Rocket Redux, a cherry-picked selection of live recordings from the 2003 tour. n