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
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.