Rocket from the Tombs never
released an album during its lifetime, and it lasted only a year and a half
before disbanding in late 1975. But the group has come to be recognized as
one of the first American punk bands, and during a memorable reunion tour
last summer, it proved to be worthy of its venerated legend.
Billing itself as "The World's Only Dumb-Metal Mind-Death Rock & Roll
Band," the band was formed in Cleveland by singer David Thomas (who
portrayed a character named Crocus Behemoth) and guitarist Peter Laughner
(the two went on to co-found Pere Ubu), and it featured guitarist Cheetah
Chrome (a k a Gene O'Connor, who later moved on to the Dead Boys).
ROCKET FROM THE
TOMBS, NERVES, METHADONES
*10 p.m. Saturday
*Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace
Laughner died as a result of drug and alcohol abuse in 1977, but the new
version of Rocket reunites Thomas, Chrome and original bassist Craig Bell
with current Ubu drummer Steve Mehlman and guitarist Richard Lloyd, best
known for his work with Television. Their last show at the Abbey Pub was one
of the best I've seen in the last 10 years, and they return to the venue for
an encore performance Saturday night.
I spoke to Thomas about the reunion and the future of the group before
the start of the current tour.
Q. We've talked many times, David, but I never thought I'd be
interviewing you about Rocket from the Tombs coming back. I saw the first
show at the Abbey Pub a few months ago, and it was amazing. What's behind
A. Well, I did a three-day festival of my music at UCLA in
February called Disastrodome. We needed support for Pere Ubu, and we wanted
something unusual, not just some band. Somebody came up with the idea of
Rocket, because Gene and Craig and I had been talking during the process of
putting that compilation CD together ["The Day the Earth Met Rocket from the
Tombs"]. It seemed like a good idea, and we drafted in Richard Lloyd, who
was the only real choice to fill in, and the show was fun; we had a great
time. It was rough, but it was good, so we thought, "Oh well, let's do a
We did a short thing in June, and it was just supposed to be Cleveland
and New York, but then people heard about it and added things. That sort of
grew, and there was a good reaction to it and the band was really good, so
we were thinking, "This is really a good band." It just sort of grew from
that. We weren't going to come back to Chicago, but Sean [Duffy] at the
Abbey sort of insisted.
Q. Are you looking at this as a band with a future?
A. That's the next step. We keep on saying, "This isn't really a
reunion yet." There's a point that's coming after this tour where we have to
say, "Are we going to be a real band and write material and do all of that
stuff?" It's not a band that's come together organically; it's almost like a
boy band, where it's kind of been put together. We've been sort of dancing
around each other and kind of eying each other and thinking, "How do we feel
about this, and do we really want to do this?" If we survive this tour--it's
pretty brutal--then we have to start to write. It's an open question,
because who knows if we can write together.
Q. So many of those songs were fueled by a particular attitude
at a particular age -- it was teenage angst.
A. We didn't have teenage angst. We might have been angry, and we
might have been impatient, but we weren't really angsty. It's far too
intellectual for what we were doing. We were angry.
Q. Well, there's plenty to be angry about again today.
A. I don't know. At that point we felt that there had to be a
movement that was going somewhere. Things were kind of stodgy around where
we were, and we heard all of this other stuff that was pretty exciting that
was being done. Now is a period in pop culture that has never happened.
Maybe it happened back in the '20s or '30s, where pop culture has remained
stagnant for like 15 years. Youth fashion hasn't changed for at least a
decade. If you play MTV in 1990 and you play it in 2003, they're wearing the
same damn stupid clothes, and that has never happened in my life time. You'd
have to go back to the early days before the evolution of pop culture to
find something that's so static.
Q. There's a notion forwarded by the Chicago literary magazine
The Baffler that any form of genuine rebellion or youth culture is now
instantly turned into a commodity, a marketing pose.
A. That was the function of punk: to stop the evolution of rock
music and shoehorn it into some sort of corporate, marketable, youth culture
boutique. That's what punk was.
Q. But you've always been a wonderful anachronism: You've been
telling me for years that you still believe that rock is art, and you've
been defiantly noncommercial in every guise you've ever taken on.
A. Not out of choice, it's just that I'm not good enough! But I
like doing it. [Laughs] There's always room in the margins to operate
differently. The notion that you can't do that is self-serving. All you have
to do is accept that you're not going to get rich and nobody's going to like
what you do. There's plenty of margin to operate in, that's not changed. As
far as being angry, I just don't like doing what everybody else does. I
guess I'm kind of a rebel, though I love authority as well. I love
structure; I don't like chaos.
Q. I know, but there's such a different persona that comes over
you when you perform with Rocket from the Tombs. You seem cranky and hostile
and angry onstage--frightening in a way--though we all know how lovable you
A. That's the kind of material it is, so that's what you do. And
if we continue with Rocket as a rock band in that way, then you would
concentrate on that end of your thing. My other vehicles aren't really
designed to handle anger; that's not the purpose of them. But I can do
angry! I don't want to be sounding like some angry white man, but I'm a
non-conformist, and there's plenty of room for non-conformists.
Non-conformists tend to get angry at conformism.
Q. Does it take a toll on you to become this character Crocus
Behemoth every night?
A. No. Rocket is the easiest thing since I did the West End in
London. I don't sing all the songs! [Laughs] The songs are good, and we
never did those versions. In Rocket originally, when I wrote "Sonic Reducer"
with Gene, I had already decided to stop singing, so I never sang that song,
and it's one of my great songs. The versions of "Final Solution" and "30
Seconds Over Tokyo" are different from what Ubu does, and I only sang those
songs like maybe eight times. I never got tired of that stuff because we
never did it long enough. I don't see it as reclaiming anything; it's just
part of what I do.
Everything that I've done since then has been based on the fact that I
was the singer in Rocket from the Tombs and that I proved to anybody who
needed to be proved to that if I wanted to just do hard, unrepentant rock
music that I could do it, that I have the right stuff. It's just confusing
to people because only a few people in Cleveland ever knew that that was
part of my foundation. I don't see it as reclaiming; I just see it as,
"Here's a part of what I do." I don't see it as retro or going back to my
youth; it's just, "This is who I am as well as 'Mirror Man' as well as
anything else I've ever done."
Q. You've always been anti-nostalgia. Not to be melodramatic
about it, but is it weird to have the ghost of Peter Laughner hovering over
this project? Many of those songs were his. Whenever I've interviewed you,
you've always been reluctant to talk about Peter.
A. I don't talk about Peter. Peter is far too complex an issue
with the people who knew him and the tragic stupidity, the stupid tragedy of
his death, the waste of everything, and everybody sitting around and having
to endure a year of it before he actually died. And the mythologizing that
goes on about it, that was the very thing that killed him -- the fact that
he bought into that "burning the candle," Lou Reed/Velvet Underground
mythology ... well, Lou Reed is alive, and Peter is dead. That's no
criticism necessarily of Lou Reed; one doesn't want him dead. But it's a
criticism of self-destruction and nihilism, and I don't want to glorify
Peter for that. Even when I tell people that it was a total waste and a
stupid thing, that turns into a glorification of it. So the only thing to do
is to not talk about it, and lots of his friends don't talk about it.
Q. This is why it's inspiring to see you guys onstage, looking
relatively healthy, and kicking ass the way that you do. There's the thing
to glorify: You can be a cranky old man and be just as angry and rock just
as hard as a cranky young man.
A. Yeah! Richard Lloyd is just an astonishing guitar player, as
well as a cranky old man [laughs]. But Richard also plays on this cranky
thing; there's a bit of a persona going on. He'll say on the bus, "Watch
out, here comes Mr. Grumpy." He plays on that.