Rocket from the Tombs: Rocket heads for launch pad with retro punk blast

by Jeff Economy
Special to the Tribune
Chicago Tribune, May 30, 2003

Rocket From The Tombs
Seminal punk outfit Rocket From The Tombs is back, as the most famous band to never release a real recording, for a series of shows that might not amount to anything at all.

Rocket From The Tombs
With: Cobra Verde
When: 9pm Wednesday, June 4
Where: Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace (at Elston)
Price: $12.00 advance, $15.00 day of show; 773-478-4408

“Rocket From The Tombs is unforgiving and desperate.” From most bands, a statement like that would reek of hubris, a second-hand attitude worn like a thrift store beret. But coming from The Tombs’ vocalist and philosopher David Thomas, it’s the mission statement of a man who still believes that rock music is the avant-garde.

“There is only one cutting edge going at any one time, it is my belief, and I see no evidence that rock music has abdicated,” Thomas says. “Pop stars and industry suits don’t control culture. I am a rock musician. I pursue the manifest destiny of the rock musician. We will possess it all and we will civilize the land.”

Rocket From The Tombs originally existed for only about eight months in 1974-75, played less than a dozen shows, and never made a proper recording. They’re also considered to be one of the most important bands in punk rock history, despite the fact that until last year’s release of “The Day The Earth Met The Rocket From The Tombs” (Smog Veil), only a handful people outside their original Cleveland audiences had actually heard them.

Now, nearly 30 years since their last performance, the band has reformed. Original members Thomas, bassist Craig Bell and guitarist Gene O’Connor – aka Dead Boy Cheetah Chrome – return, alongside drummer Steve Mehlman and Television guitarist Richard Lloyd, filling in for original vocalist and guitarist Peter Laughner, who died in 1977.

“Rocket From The Tombs are absolutely central to an understanding of the origins of American punk,” says Clinton Heylin, who chronicled the band’s history in his 1993 book From The Velvets To The Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World. “I certainly see them as a seminal band, as important as Television or the Ramones in terms of actually leading somewhere, and exploring that whole underground American aesthetic. Despite the fact that the band disintegrated, ‘Sonic Reducer,’ ‘Ain’t It Fun,’ ‘Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo’ and ‘“Final Solution’ all went on to become punk anthems, and certainly anyone interested in American punk will immediately know those songs and see them as crucial parts of the story.”

When the band split, Thomas and Laughner went on to form Pere Ubu, and Gene O’Connor and drummer John Madansky formed the Dead Boys, each taking some of the Tombs repertoire with them. Had RFTT actually recorded an album it would likely have equaled the MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams” or the Stooges’ “Fun House,” but the only tapes made were demos and radio broadcasts. “I always thought they were the supreme irony because they broke up before they ever released a record, whereas just about all the punk bands managed to at least get a record out before they completely disintegrated.” Heylin says. “But in a way, the actual act of breaking up before making a record is in itself the ultimate punk statement.”

Thomas clearly took the lessons of his inspirations seriously, even going as far as to live in a commune run by the White Panthers, the late-60s radicals who began as an offshoot of the MC5’s fan club. He downplays the affiliation today saying “I was young, very young. I do remember it all seemed in some way quaint. It was detached from the present and always seemed to be running to catch up. I was not of their generation.”

His continuing enthusiasm for Motor City’s music is unmistakable. “The MC5 itself was a huge influence on me, particularly the Kick Out The Jams record. It wasn’t until decades later that I realized how completely it had shaped the way I listen.” Thomas says. “My wife was sitting there as I threw on my newly purchased CD copy and about 2 songs in she said, ‘This thing is a mess.’ And then for the next 30 minutes I listened to it ‘objectively.’ Yes, it’s a mess, I said. But that only goes to show that the last thing rock music is about is music.”

So why rekindle RFTT now? “It is the addiction to that passion that motivates us,” Thomas explains “It is the spectacle of that burning that you pay to see.” In the end, that spectacle may be all that’s left; the band will only be playing old material on this seven-date tour, with the future being treated with a “wait and see” attitude. “There is no reason we would not continue to play together, “Thomas says, but adds: “Nor is there a reason we would.”

So even if the future is unclear, RFTT’s present looks promising, even inspiring, with Thomas’ combination of passion, neutrality, and rust belt resignation encapsulating what made them punk icons in the first place. “We broke up 7 times in 3-4 rehearsals BUT we still played together and loved it. Not because we’re making any money on this thing– there’s no record to plug and we are all probably losing money or just breaking even doing it. We may not last long but during that time we will burn VERY brightly.”