The Rocket From The Tombs Story (1973-1975)

by Jon Allan, Late Night Magazine, 2001

This album [The Day The Earth Met The Rocket From The Tombs] is more than just an artifact of a specific time and place. It offers a tantalizing glimpse at one of the greatest albums never recorded. Many of us - fans of this arcane sub-chapter in the history of rock music - are convinced that had Rocket From The Tombs survived long enough to record "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," "Sonic Reducer," and "Final Solution," as well as lost classics like "Muckraker," "So Cold" and "Amphetamine," the resulting record would, today, be ranked alongside the MC5's Kick Out The Jams, Patti Smith's Horses and the Stooges' Raw Power as seminal albums of the punk era. This collection of demo and live material is the closest we can get. Still, after 26 years worth of mythologizing, it provides ample proof that during their all too brief existence few bands rocked harder or closer to the edge.

Urban Pioneers and Billion Dollar Babies

By 1973 David Thomas had acquired a measure of local celebrity while writing under a number of aliases for Cleveland's The Scene magazine. The most prominent of these, Crocus Behemoth, had evolved into a full-fledged alter ego. Later that year he and fellow Scene employee Kim Zonneville (Charlie Weiner) formed The Great Bow-Wah (Death) Band, a loose assembly of recruited musicians deployed on promotional hijinx. A more purposeful effort at making a band produced Rocket From The Tombs. (The name derived from a short, Zappa-inspired film made by Thomas and high school buddy Jon Luoma called "The Day The Earth Met The Rocket From The Tombs.")

RFTT debuted June 16, 1974 at the Viking Saloon, a rock club downtown owned by Thomas' friend and housemate Dick Korn. The lineup was Thomas (vocals, bass), Zonneville (bass, vocals), Glenn "Thunderhand" Hach (guitar, vocals) and Tom "Foolery" Clements (drums). The set consisted of nearly all the Kick Out The Jams album. Some of the originals, inherited from the Bow Wahs, were farcical or satiric in nature. The addition of singer / guitarist Peter Laughner several months later focused and then transformed the group.

DAVID THOMAS - I think I met Peter at the Grapes of Wrath (a folk and blues club opposite the Viking Saloon) and he knew who I was because of my column in The Scene. We would run into each other and have some drinks and pass the time and one day he asked to play in RFTT. Somewhat dumbfounded I, of course, agreed.

Laughner probably tried harder than anyone to turn the dysfunctional loners of the Cleveland "underground" into a cohesive "scene." Along with Mirrors founder Jamie Klimek, he was at the ground zero of Middle America's punk explosion, the series of Velvet Underground concerts at Cleveland's La Cave Club in 1968 and 1969. Klimek and Laughner were among the earliest and most vocal, local proponents of Total Velvetization. Ironically, Laughner's catholic tastes left him open to almost everything, it seems, except his own very great abilities, and while he included a selection of his own songs in every band he fronted, insecurities caused him, in the words of ex-wife Charlotte Pressler, to become an "underground jukebox." Joining RFTT only a few months after the final break up of his own Cinderella Backstreet, he found in Thomas someone who shared his enthusiasms, who shared his need for a serious band, but, maybe more importantly, someone who did not share his doubts.

A period of restructuring, of expansion and contraction, yielded the classic RFTT lineup. It survived less than eight months yet it was responsible for some of the greatest and most influential punk songs of all time.

Guitarist Gene O'Connor (Cheetah Chrome) and drummer Johnny "Madman" Madansky (later Johnny Blitz) were kids from the city who shared a love of overdrive groove rock and general chaos. They played in bands called Slash and Sarah Blue, covering the New York Dolls, Alice Cooper and other glam/hard rock acts. Laughner met them a couple years earlier when they answered an ad in the paper.

Bassist Craig Bell, an original member of Mirrors, and who also wrote for local 'zines, knew Laughner from his visits to Mirrors rehearsals. He brought to RFTT a catalog of sharp-edged songs in a Kinks-meets-Velvets style. For a few weeks he held his position in both bands before Klimek fired him for wanting to play with "the enemy."

CRAIG BELL - After I returned from the Army in 1974, I took a job driving a taxi in Cleveland. I took a call to go down to one of the worst tenements on the West Side one evening and as I pulled up to the building, out walked one of the weirdest guys I had ever seen. He was dressed from head to toe in a silver suit and silver boots, with long, bright red hair, and chrome aviator sunglasses (although it was about nine o'clock at night). He hopped in the back seat, and told me to take him to Twiggy's, a trendy eastside bar. Once we arrived, he fumbled around in his pockets to pay the fare and came up ten cents short. I told him not to worry about it and we both went on our separate ways. Some months later, when I was asked to audition for RFTT, it was my first introduction to Gene O'Connor. We all ended up at a coffee shop afterwards. Something had been bugging me all the time we'd been playing together. Finally, over a cup of coffee, and some get-to-know-you conversation, I looked Cheetah dead in the eye, and said 'Hey, you son of a bitch, you owe me ten cents!" Rehearsals began in earnest in early December of 1974.

CHEETAH CHROME - I had the music for "Down In Flames," "Transfusion," "30 Seconds," "Never Gonna Kill Myself Again" and "Ain't It Fun," and we started matching them to Croc and Pete's unfinished lyrics. I think the first thing we tried was probably "So Cold," as it reminded those guys of Alice Cooper and they wanted us to feel at home! It became apparent quickly that we had a bunch of pretty damn good songs! Plus, Peter was a great band leader, listened really well and caught a lot of good things. He really drilled us at practice, doing it over and over till it sounded like something. Everybody pitched in ideas, all five of us, we tried 'em all, and we got along well back then. It felt like a real team.

The retooled Rockets debuted at the first "Special Extermination Music Night," December 22, 1974 at the Viking Saloon. The headliners were The Electric Eels. The Mirrors opened. This was first and last time the three bands shared the same stage. The Rocket set included the originals they had just worked up, including Thomas' "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," a psychodramatic retelling of the Doolittle Raid on Japan. Add the all-needles-are-on-red sonic overdrive of "Down In Flames" as well as "What Love is" and the Beefheartian "Life Stinks."

Others Talk About It, We Do It

Still, there was the problem of gigs. The Cleveland rock scene served an entrenched oligarchy of cover bands. But Laughner, being on good terms with dj Kid Leo (mc for the Special Extermination Music Night), accomplished an end run. WMMS agreed to broadcast a tape to initiate a series of Sunday night programs dedicated to local bands. Peter borrowed a reel-to-reel, someone brought in a reverb unit and on the night of February 18, 1975, RFTT recorded 12 tracks live to tape.

CRAIG BELL - We recorded it in our rehearsal loft on West 4th St. It was a large space, maybe 20 x 50, which suited our purposes considering the volume we played at. I recall we put Cheetah's Orange amps all the way at the back of the room with a mic facing them so the rest of us could hear what we were doing. I was in charge of the Sunn 6-channel mixer along with turning on and off the 2-track tape machine to which it fed. Considering the primitive acoustics and limitations of our situation, I think we got quite a great tape out of it.

It was broadcast the following Sunday with commentary from Laughner.

CRAIG BELL - Peter, being in high spirits, and never a shy man, was very verbose before and after the playing of the tape. But I'll always remember, in his closing statements, how he basically told everyone out in the listening audience not to be afraid, and don't care what anyone else thinks, and in his words keep, "doing it for yourself."

PETER LAUGHNER - The reason we did this tape, and the reason that WMMS is gonna broadcast this stuff, is to tell you that YOU CAN DO IT TOO! I mean, anybody can make a tape as long as they've got a little bit of stuff together, and it should be original. Because records today are made by formula; they shove the right Pavlov impulses down your throat and into your ear, and if you don't hear that formula, and if you don't feel the way producers of records today want you to feel, and you want to make a record, you gotta do it for yourself! Which is what we did with this thing, you know? It's not studio stuff, but it's a valid statement we made about what we were doing one night at our loft, just going crazy...

Rockets had their largest audience ever, and with Thomas' club connections, particularly at the Agora where RFTT opened for the recently reformed Iron Butterfly, they were getting few but steady gigs. There was even a one shot Rocket From The Tombs Mutual Admiration Society Newsletter. More importantly, the new songs kept coming - among them two of the most important anthems to come out of punk rock's first wave, Final Solution and Sonic Reducer.

A Ticket For A Sonic Reduction

DAVID THOMAS - The idea of "sonic reduction" occurred to me as I wrote "Final Solution" and then I wrote "Sonic Reducer" because it was a cool idea (sonic reduction!) and I figured I ought to make more of it. As for WHAT it was... I remember it had something to do with a synthesis of much sound into a moment of clarity.

"Final Solution" was written by Thomas as a response to the Sherlock Holmes mystery The Final Problem. "I had the flu and I was reading Sherlock Holmes between bouts of fevered hallucination," Thomas said. "All I could think of for what seemed like days was that if there's a final problem there's got to be a final solution." Over the years there's been much speculation as to who the song is about...

DAVID THOMAS - It's not ABOUT anyone. If anything it's more like an autobiographical angst-projection. My mom did throw me out because I wouldn't wear pants that fit - I used to wear them so that the legs rode high above my ankles. I wanted to write a song as a followup to Blue Cheer's version of "Summertime Blues." Tim Wright was the band's soundman sometimes and he had huge Voice of The Theater speakers in his living room. I remember hearing it over and over at cranked levels. I wrote the words to that tune. I went to Craig and described what I wanted musicaly - "Summertime Blues" reduced (sonic reduction!) to the minimum - a throb and then a big burst of noise and then back to a throb.

CRAIG BELL - I was at the rehearsal loft and David was the second to arrive. He said, "I have this new song, let's see if we can work something out" and started reading off the lyrics while pounding his hand on top of an amplifier. As we worked it out, I started playing a bass riff timed to his tempo, and by the time the rest of the band arrived, we had worked out the basic structure of Final Solution. After some more tweaking that day, Peter had added the outro and that pretty much was it. As for who it was about, isn't it about all of us?

Still propelled by the momentum of the WMMS broadcast, Laughner determined to generate attention from a record label and set out to enlist the aid of Lester Bangs. Then editor of Creem magazine (for which Laughner had begun to write), Bangs was a champion of all that was unacceptable, obscure and just plain out of control in rock 'n' roll. With tape in hand, and Bell in tow, Laughner headed for Detroit.

CRAIG BELL - The trip to Michigan was quite an experience. We drove up in a rented van from Cleveland and stayed with Lester at Creem's offices in Birmingham. By this time, Peter and Lester had gotten to know each other quite well, and Lester was very enthusiastic upon hearing our tape. He told us that he would forward it to Murray Krugman, who at that time was one of the producers of Blue Oyster Cult. All of this subsequently happened despite the fact that during one of the evenings we were driving around in the van, while making a sharp turn, I managed to roll Lester around the back of the van like a ping-pong ball. All I remember about the trip to John Sinclair's home is that the White Panther bread truck was in the garage and I don't recall if we met John or not.

Rockets rehearsed several times a week and played out when they could.

CHEETAH CHROME - The shows were usually pretty intense, Crocus could work himself into a pretty good frenzy back then, occasionally doing the "gator", rolling around on the floor, wearing that judges robe, or graduation robe, or whatever the hell it was. Peter used to say some pretty off the wall stuff, leaving the audience shaking their heads. Craig used to say we needed to buy him a leather gag!

CRAIG BELL - I also remember Cheetah coming out wearing a dog collar on a chain. Part of Crocus' stage apparel was a long choir robe, which was immediately drenched in sweat. Between that and his sopping-wet hair, I was assured of it never being a dry night, since I always stood behind him.

Nobody knew it then but a gig at the Berea Community Center in April proved to be the beginning of the end. Not only was it the last time that the Thomas - Laughner - Bell - O'Connor - Madansky lineup played together - Madansky's girlfriend wanted him to leave and he left soon after - but it also marked the appearance of Steve "Stiv" Bators on the periphery of the band.

The Center Cannot Hold

CHEETAH CHROME - Pete used to talk about this little guy named Steve Bators, but we didn't meet until a gig in Berea where Stiv and Jimmy Zero were talking to Blitz and my girlfriends while we were on stage, which got us pretty po'd. We were ready to start something with them, but Pete was like "No, that's this guy I've been telling you about," and we ended up talking and going out for drinks the next night. Pete always said that once I met Stiv, he knew Rockets days were numbered.

Wayne Strick, the younger brother of some of Bell's friends, would replace Madansky and proved to be a better drummer than is heard on the surviving Piccadilly tape (see below). He served the band well until the end but in the meantime The Agora, in conjunction with WMMS, set up a "Heavy Metal Showcase" and RFTT needed a drummer. Bell's replacement in Mirrors, Jim Jones, suggested fellow record store clerk Don Evans. This May 5th show is the source of a number of bootleg tapes. Five songs were professionally recorded and the last two, "Down In Flames" and "Search & Destroy," were broadcast the following Sunday. Although the show was a success and featured strong new songs, frontman David Thomas found himself at a crossroads.

DAVID THOMAS - Peter sang some of his songs. Craig sang his own songs. I sang mine plus some of Peter's but I was getting insecure about my singing. I had to sing in ways I wasn't into - melody was not my thing-- and I was still relatively new to stage sound. There may have been something going on behind the scenes as well. In any case I wanted to sing less so I picked up an Ace Tone organ and Peter had a sax I started playing.

A place was being cleared for Bators, an Iggy disciple late of the Akron covers band Mother Goose. RFTT was mortally wounded and beginning to drift.

CHEETAH CHROME - I always thought Crocus sang pretty good, I mean, he wasn't exactly a crooner, but it worked on a lot of our stuff. When we tried to do more melodic stuff, it kind of became a big point. To be honest, I wasn't crazy about Stiv's voice back then, he didn't have enough balls, which used to drive me nuts. Crocus definitely had balls.

Laughner, enamored with Garland Jeffries' "Wild In The Streets," a song touted by some critics as America's answer to Street Fighting Man, wanted to release it as a single.

CHEETAH CHROME - He even tracked down Garland to ask his permission. I remember cuz' we were surprised he was listed in the NYC phone book. We tried it a few times (this was with Stiv singing), but I personally hated it and it never really came together. I would have preferred one of the Roxy Music songs that we did (Remake Remodel, Sea Breezes), but on the B-side.

That Laughner lobbied to record a cover speaks less about renewal and more about how far the band had drifted. RFTT headed off to the Thomas family farm in Pennsylvania for a long 4th of July weekend hoping to achieve a degree of cohesion.

CHEETAH CHROME - Yes, for one brief weekend the bucolic setting of Franklin, PA was disturbed by loud music, gunfire, a drunk pig, and drunker Rockets. I remember seeing the Fire Department orchestra play on the town green on the 4th, and trying to ride a horse that absolutely hated me bareback whilst drunk off my ass. We found "Poet Hub", the only black poet in Franklin, while in town on a beer run. He came out to the farm with us and almost had tears in his eyes when he heard us play, it was so long since he had heard R&R without having to drive to Pittsburgh or wherever.

CRAIG BELL - My most vivid memory is seeing Cheetah and Stiv riding horses (you can imagine in what condition). What a sight! We rehearsed in Dave's parents' barn and seemed to draw a fairly good crowd from the locals. Where they came from, I have no idea.

Down In Flames

PETER LAUGHNER - Entertainment is fine, but there has to be something beyond that. It may sound pretentious to talk about making art statements, but it is possible to make an art statement with music.

In April, when Television and the Patti Smith Group held their now legendary five week residency at CBGB's in New York City, Laughner was there, front and center, bowled over by Tom Verlaine. He lobbied for Cleveland as a showcase for their first shows outside New York and worked to convince the Piccadilly, a trendy downtown club, to put up the cash. July 24-25 was secured, and Rockets was set to open. What was meant to be a triumph became instead a portrait of a band on the verge of blowing apart.

Considering the state of the band - O'Connor and Bell scuffled in the dressing room, and two members dropped acid before going on - the tape of the July 24th show is remarkable, proving to be the debut of "Read It And Weep," "Amphetamine" and "Sonic Reducer." As he launched into the opener, "Sonic Reducer," O'Connor fell over backwards but continued to play on his back. "I didn't miss a note!" By the time they came off stage the fabric of the band was torn beyond repair and while there were no physical confrontations, O'Connor remembers that "a lot of very nasty things got said - everything came to a head that night."

CHEETAH CHROME - Me and Wayne were still in our teen angst stoner phase back then, and that annoyed the "adults" (Pete & Croc were 22) to no end. Blitz leaving because his girlfriend didn't want him in the band was another thing.

One final show was arranged, a double bill with Mirrors at the Viking Saloon in early August. It's unclear if this was meant as a farewell, but that's what it became. It was the first and last time Bators appeared on stage with the band.

CRAIG BELL - This was definitely the last Rockets show. Toward the end of the set, Cheetah brought Stiv up on stage to sing. David immediately left the stage. We launched into a song, I believe it was "Down in Flames/Search and Destroy." Somewhere toward the end of it, while Cheetah and Stiv were thrashing around on the floor, Peter gave up the ghost and walked offstage and I found myself still playing along, while watching these two rolling on the pines. I finally put down my bass, shrugged my shoulders, and walked away. And that was the end of Rocket From The Tombs.

CHEETAH CHROME - I don't remember if anybody from Rockets talked after that, it was weird. Looking back, with a little perspective, it really was an honor to play in that band. We didn't realize at the time that we were one of the first punk bands, we just played what we felt. It's like that Faces song "I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger,.." I'm just happy that the music has stood through the years, and that people are finally getting to hear it. It deserves it, because we kicked ass. Everything else was just kid stuff.