Rocket From the Tombs at Abbey Pub

June 6, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic


A footnote to a footnote in rock history, Cleveland's Rocket From the Tombs billed itself as "The World's Only Dumb-Metal Mind-Death Rock & Roll Band," but it has come to be recognized as one of the first American punk groups.

The combo never released an album during its lifetime, and it lasted only about a year and a half before disbanding in late 1975. Singer David Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner formed Pere Ubu, and guitarist Cheetah Chrome and drummer Johnny Blitz started the Dead Boys.

That divide symbolized what made Rocket From the Tombs great: Both reformed rock critics, Thomas and Laughner brought a super-smart art-rock sensibility to the band, while Chrome epitomized the sheer stupidity and unbridled energy of the rawest punk.

As part of what's shaping up to be a summer of memorable reunions, the proto-punk legends performed at a packed Abbey Pub on Wednesday on the second night of a six-city tour celebrating a new compilation of historic demos and live tracks, "The Day the Earth Met Rocket From the Tombs." For a bunch of old geezers, they rocked with vengeance and intensity.

This reunion "will not last long, but during that time we will burn VERY brightly," Thomas had promised. "It is the spectacle of that burning that you pay to see."

This Rocket featured two stand-ins, but as ringers go, they were impressive: Television guitarist Rich-ard Lloyd filled in for Laughner (who died of drug and alcohol abuse in 1977), and current Ubu drummer Steve Mehlman took the place of Blitz (who is otherwise missing in action). But the magic came from the three original members.

Bassist Craig Bell (later of the Saucers) provided a subtle and slinky bottom as a clean and sober Chrome (known to his mom as Gene O'Connor) showed up the virtuosic Lloyd through the sheer volume and passion of his playing. Then of course there was Thomas.

When fronting Rocket From the Tombs, the hulking giant portrayed a menacing character he called Crocus Behemoth. A notorious perfectionist, the 49-year-old singer tapped into sublimated adolescent rage, glowering at the fans, howling at his bandmates and stomping the floor with his cane.

Thomas only broke character twice, grinning when he rubbed Chrome's shaven dome and playfully head-butting Lloyd during one particularly fiery solo, but it was enough to indicate that he considered the whole thing a blast.

If some of the 30-year-old songs seemed dated or dismissible, others were as vital as if they were written yesterday, and on these signature numbers, the group shined.

The frightening wartime drama "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" and the teenage misfit anthem "Final Solution" were later recorded by Pere Ubu, while "Sonic Reducer" was claimed by the Dead Boys to become one of the key anthems in the first wave of punk. They never sounded better, but just as great were a pair of nearly forgotten Laughner tunes, "Ain't It Fun" and "Take the Guitar Player for a Ride."

After 10 songs and one rip-roaring encore ("Life Stinks"), it was over, and Thomas sat on the edge of the stage to sell T-shirts and posters while the other musicians signed fans' treasured totems.

It was the sort of show where an hour of music seemed like all you'd ever need to hear again, and where everyone wanted to leave with something to remember it by.