Rocket from the Tombs
Rust Never Sleeps
by Nate Knaebel

The story of Rocket From the Tombs is perhaps one of the most iconic in the pantheon of American punk. Indeed, there’s something undeniably inspiring about five misfit weirdos from Cleveland, Ohio (of all places) devising a racket as singularly creative, strange and confrontational as that spewed by the Rocket during the band’s brief nine-month existence from 1974 to 1975. With the line-up comprising bassist Craig Bell (of The Mirrors), singer David Thomas (a.k.a. Crocus Behemoth), and guitarists Cheetah Chrome and archetypal live-fast-die-young punk poet Peter Laughner—along with a rotating cast of drummers that included at one point future Dead Boy Johnny Blitz—the band conflated the artistic tendencies of the Velvets and Captain Beefheart with the slash-and-burn power of the Stooges and the MC5, wrapping it all up in neo-apocalyptic Rust Belt decay. What emerged wasn’t so much a blueprint for a sound, but rather a statement on behalf of doing away with the notions of blueprints all together. A drug- and booze-fueled blurring of influences, ideas, opinions, tastes and attitudes created a musical tension that remains as exhilarating today as it was nearly 40 years ago.

From the classic line-up would eventually evolve two of the most important bands in American underground rock history in the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu. While the Dead Boys had a rather brief tenure in their own right, the towering role they played in the creation of an American punk identity and sound is indisputable. Pere Ubu, meanwhile, remains a juggernaut of rock experimentalism some 35 years after forming. In 2003, Rocket from the Tombs reunited, in revamped form, with Television’s Richard Lloyd filling in on second guitar in place of Laughner, who died in 1977 at the age of 24, and longtime Pere Ubu drummer Steve Mehlman on drums. The group played a string of shows celebrating the release of The Day the Earth Met the Rocket from the Tombs, a collection of live recordings and demos from the band’s original tenure. With the recorded output of the original unit practically nonexistent, The Day the Earth represented the bulk of what is available (rerecorded versions of these tracks would appear in 2004 as Rocket Redux). The band went dormant again for another several years, but entered Suma Studio in Painesville, Ohio, in 2009 and started working on songs for what would become the first-ever official Rocket from the Tombs album, the 11-track Barfly.

I recently spoke with Thomas about, among other things, the band’s new life and new album, why it’s helpful for cranky old men to have a band, his enduring love of the MC5, the slippery slope of trying to pit art against rock, and the genius of Cheetah Chrome.

The story of Rocket From the Tombs is fairly well known at this point, but I don’t think many people know the details of how the band got back together. Can you explain that process to our readers?

David Thomas: UCLA wanted to do a three-day festival of my music. Part of that was the Mirror Man opera, a Peru Ubu show, the Kidney Brothers and a bunch of stuff. And we were looking for someone to open the Pere Ubu show. At the time, The Day the Earth had just come out, and somewhere along the line there was this notion, “Well, what about Rocket from the Tombs?” I mean it’s part of my history and it sort of made sense.

We were all back in Cleveland, and by “all” I mean me, Cheetah, and Craig. In the Rocket story, the drummer has always been sort of very Spinal Tap–ized. There’s never really been one that’s lasted more than a few months. So the first problem was the drummer, but that was obvious because Steve (Mehlman) was perfect for it. The next problem was the second guitar player, because obviously Peter (Laughner) was dead. We knocked around a couple of ideas for people, but Cheetah was very clear that Richard Lloyd would be perfect for it.

As you probably know, when Rocket opened for Television on their first show outside New York City in ’75, they were pretty much scared of us. After our soundcheck, they were walking around saying, “These people are animals.” Richard was impressed and he says that from that day he thought to himself, “I’d like to play with these guys.”

The original band was together for less than a year and you’ve been together now longer.

DT: Far longer! Even with the number of times we’ve broken up since 2003, any period during that period is longer. I think it was eight months or six months that the classic band, the one that everyone knows, was around.

Why do you think the original run of the band was so brief?

DT: Alcohol and drug abuse. Juvenile stupidity. Lack of confidence. Fierce passions. Incompatible personalities bonded together by being in a great band that could not hold it together because it was going in so many directions at once. Maturity now only means that the still existing incompatibilities are manageable.

Was there a tension in the band between the avant-garde angle for which you’re known and that led to Pere Ubu and the more knuckle-headed punk that resulted in the Dead Boys?

DT: Not really. Many of the “arty” things in songs came from Cheetah as well as everybody else. This is one of the fundamental misconceptions—or lack of perceptions—that perverts the understanding of the Cleveland scene of that time. All the bands loved arty, and all the bands loved a good pop-rock song, so all the bands did rock or pop as well as weird. There may have been varying degrees in the mix, but all of them had the same point of view. We didn’t pigeonhole ideas or styles or sounds. We were inventing it as we went along without reference or concern as to what we were inventing.

That said, there’s no denying that the Dead Boys are a much more rudimentary band than Pere Ubu ever was, so it’s easy to see why people gravitate toward that template, false though it may be.

DT: The template is in a way a religious belief. There’s little point to arguing against faith. The reason the template has power is that it is used to justify a particular neanderthal vision of rock music. I don’t recognize the division between rock and art. Bo Diddley didn’t recognize it. Are you telling me that “Heartbreak Hotel” wasn’t highly arty? Those who fear meaning are the ones who cling on with bloody fingers to the template.

Clearly the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu are very different bands. For the sake of discussion, let’s reduce the two bands to me and Cheetah as exemplars. The two of us can find plenty of common ground musically. Rocket from the Tombs didn’t get resurrected for purposes of making money. It was essentially because Cheetah and I liked working together. Cheetah likes my singing and my words, and I like his guitar playing. Craig is a delight as a bass player in this band, and he writes good songs, but without the connection between Cheetah and me, Craig’s talent wouldn’t have been enough to make it work. Cheetah and I could have easily continued working together after the original Rocket. The difference comes from what happened next. I chose to surround myself with a certain kind of musician. Cheetah chose a different sect. Cheetah could have been a guitarist in Ubu surrounded by the same musicians I chose. He would have been a good partner to Tom Herman (as was Peter Laughner). I have sat down with Cheetah and worked on new material. I don’t remember many times that he played a guitar idea that I found unusable, certainly no more than any other Ubu guitarist over the years. Cheetah is open-minded.

So let’s look at Pere Ubu a moment and my role. It would be useful to note that at the beginning of every album I have lobbied for more hard, straight ahead rock song ideas. Many of the more infamous arty songs that Ubu has recorded have not been my ideas. I don’t disown them. They weren’t shoved down my throat by any means, but I am not Mr. Arty.

Given the choice between a “Nonalignment Pact” and a “Lost in Art,” I’d choose “Nonalignment Pact” seven out of ten times. Think about the Dead Boys with me writing the lyrics. Imagine them with Ubu players in the band. All of a sudden Cheetah’s history begins to look different and the template is exposed. I have all the respect in the world for Cheetah.

Given that you never recorded a proper album in the ’70s, what motivated you to decide to write and record new music?

DT: Well, we were playing together and we liked playing together and it was sort of an obvious idea. Otherwise, we’re going to be a cover band of a band that existed for seven months, which given the people involved didn’t really make any sense. What would the point of that be? Once we determined that we really liked playing together—when we weren’t fighting—making new music was pretty much in the cards.

We started writing songs not long after the first show (in 2003). Right around then, we started getting together. I went down to Cheetah’s place in Nashville and we spent some time together. We got together two or three times between then and January 2009, when we started recording. We would write some material, and then something would happen, and then nothing would happen. And then we’d get back together and write more material. And then nothing would happen.

So are you and Cheetah the primary songwriters?

DT: No, no, no. That first time with Cheetah, I don’t know why it was just him and me. That was really informal. It wasn’t meant to be exclusive. No, the material has been written by everybody, in the classic way of sitting in a room staring at each other and saying, “Well who’s got an idea?” People would bring ideas and other ideas would just generate from not knowing what we were going to do next. But by the time any particular song was done, it was fairly clear that it was a group effort. And we determined before we started that songs would be group songs. There was never any question of that.

The original band came from a specific post-Stooges, post-MC5 place with a myth of the decaying Midwest. What is the current zeitgeist of this band? Where is Rocket from the Tombs coming from now? You’re different individuals now, and it’s certainly not 1974.

DT: Where does any band come from? We like playing together. The dynamic of the band is really pretty much the same as the dynamic of the band back then. There’s the same conflicts, the same diversity of interests, the same everything. Everybody is from Cleveland except Richard—we can’t help that about Richard. Well, he’s from Pittsburgh, so that solves that problem. Pittsburgh is our hated rival, but at least it’s out there in the Midwest.

We didn’t think about “why.” Why does any band do anything? What’s the zeitgeist for any band? We’ve all got bad attitudes and we’ve reached a late stage of life with those bad attitudes intact and untarnished, undiminished, and unrepentant. And those bad attitudes are individually different. That’s the zeitgeist: we’re a bunch of old guys that maintain bad attitudes. Usually you become grumpy old men in the neighborhood that shout at the cats or something, but we have a rock band, so we don’t have to shout at cats.

The new album was recorded in Ohio. Did everyone being back on their home turf have an influence one way or another?

DT: Oh I don’t know. Do you want more mythology about Cleveland? I mean, that’s our home, the band’s home. If we recorded in 1975, we probably would have recorded at the same studio. They were the studio. The only reason we might not have recorded there is we would have been scared, because at that point, they were just top of the heap in the country. Where else are we going to record, Nashville? No offense to Cheetah, but it was clear as a Cleveland band that’s where we work.

Does Rocket From the Tombs offer you personally an outlet that your other projects might not?

DT: All my projects offer outlets that others don’t, which is why I do them. Rocket from the Tombs is a rock band. Pere Ubu is a rock band as well. Since Rocket has come back that also coincided with my desire to do more adventurous things with Pere Ubu. The Pere Ubu cycle is sort of well established: we’ll do something arty and we’ll do something rocky and then we’ll do something arty. But with Rocket, it’s freed me to send Pere Ubu off on ever more adventurous paths. Pere Ubu can do anything. Pere Ubu is the greatest band that ever existed. It literally can do anything, and this incarnation of it is astonishing at what they do. Rocket is an astonishing band too, and if you ask me which one I love more, it would be a toss-up. It would be fascinating to have a battle of the bands one day.

Who would win?

DT: I think we’d beat each other to a pulp and end up on the stage exhausted. They’re both brilliant bands. I feel lucky to be in both and I’m equally proud of both. It’s like children, you’re not supposed to have a favorite. I like the people in both bands equally.

I quite like the song “Sister Love Train” on the new album and I was curious about the two versions and how that came about. What was the decision behind that?

DT: As usual in “my” bands the decisions are pretty loose. Basically, it came about because Steve said we should do it much faster, and I said, “Alright, let’s try it.”

“Sister Love Train” to me is a tip of the hat to a Cleveland band called The Outsiders, who were a very Cleveland synthesis where they decided to put Motown horns with English rock stuff. I told Andy (Diagram, the trumpet player on the song) to download “Time Won’t Let Me,” study the horn pattern, and do what the horns do.

When Steve said we have to do this faster, I began to think that these would be two different homages, one to the Cleveland sound of the ’60s and one to the Motor City, MC5 sound. I had Steve do backing vocals a la the MC5, which I’ve always loved, that whaling. I loved it all my life and always wanted to steal it. “Homage” is a fancy word in this context, but I can’t think of another one. It’s a double-barreled homage.

Do you look at all into the future with this project or are you just content to let it happen as it will?

DT: This is the oldest question I’ve ever been asked. They started asking me this question basically two months after Pere Ubu started. Basically, it’s “how long are you going to last?” I want it to last as long as it’s producing good stuff, and with the people involved, it will always produce good stuff. That’s easy. It’ll either blow apart tomorrow or it’ll go on for another 40 years or however long any of us are alive. It’s not a commercial venture, like Pere Ubu or any of the other damn things I do. I’m not doing it to have a career. I do it because it’s brilliant. I know you’re not supposed to say that about your own music, but I do. I have no false modesty.