Graded on a Curve: Rocket From The Tombs, The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From The Tombs

In sixth grade we were assigned to enact a scene from our favorite book. I decided, no kidding, to enact the leg amputation scene from 30 Seconds Over Tokyo. I sat in a chair at the front of the room, said grimly, “I’m ready,” then commenced to scream bloody murder. For like two minutes. Needless to say, I freaked out both teacher and fellow students, and flunked to boot. I still think it was a gross miscarriage of justice. It was, after all, my favorite scene. And I may well, at that moment, have invented performance art.

In hindsight, I wish I’d had Rocket From The Tombs’ musical psychodrama “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” to enact that day—that really would have messed with some heads. Or “Life Stinks,” “Sonic Reducer,” “Final Solution,” or any of the other great tunes the seminal punk band wrote and played live during its brief heyday (from mid-1974 to mid-1975) in Cleveland’s green and pleasant land.

Rocket From The Tombs—whose “classic” line-up included Peter Laughner on guitar and vocals, David Thomas aka Crocus Behemoth on vocals and alto sax, Craig Willis Bell on bass, Gene O’Connor aka Cheetah Chrome on guitar, and Johnny “Blitz” Madansky on drums—was originally a Thomas “joke” band until Laughner joined and talked Thomas into getting serious. RFFT played out rarely, and bequeathed us only demos, live recordings, and several radio broadcasts, being too shaky an edifice to ever record a real album.

The band was divided by factionalism (i.e., art punks vs. pure punkers), arguments over Thomas’ singing abilities, and drug problems, the common cold of rock bands. Chrome recalls a desperate attempt to mend fences at Thomas’ parents’ farm in Pennsylvania: “For one brief weekend the bucolic setting of Franklin, PA was disturbed by loud music, gunfire, a drunk pig, and drunker Rockets.” But RFFT’s problems proved insoluble, and the band finally packed it in following a gig at The Viking Saloon.

Most of the protopunkers’ best songs—“Amphetamine,” as I discuss later, being a heartbreaking omission—would soon wind up on LPs by the bands formed by RFFT’s warring factions after it imploded. To wit, Laughner and Thomas formed Pere Ubu, while Chrome and Madansky joined Stiv Bators—who briefly belonged to RFFT, but proved to be an even worse singer than Thomas—to form Frankenstein, which soon morphed into The Dead Boys.

Rocket From The Tombs “reunited” in 2003 minus Madansky and the brilliant Laughner—whose harrowing substance abuse problems (an acquaintance noted “he would even shoot up cough drops”) killed him in 1977 at just 24. Television’s Richard Lloyd filled Laughner’s shoes and Steve Mehlman took Madansky’s place behind the drums. RFFT II recorded most of The Tombs’ best songs on 2004’s Rocket Redux, a great LP but one that left me with a dilemma—namely, whether to review the poorly recorded “posthumous” album of RFTT demos and live recordings, 2002’s The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From The Tombs, or the polished Rocket Redux?

I finally opted to cover the former, despite its primitive sound quality, in the interests of history and because I dislike reunions, no matter how well-intentioned or how good the band sounds. I want my bands to be like the French poet Arthur Rimbaud; once they’ve vanished, to Abyssinia in Rimbaud’s case or wherever, I don’t want them back. Look at Thee Blatherer Patti Smith; she returned from the Abyssinia of Detroit, and all we got was bland hippie bunk. I wanted nothing to do with her “comeback,” or with The Velvet Underground’s reunion, or The Stooges reunion for that matter. Or even the reunion of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which took years of negotiations and some serious necromancy, seeing as how Jimi is dead.

The Day the Earth Met the Rockets From The Tombs includes two Stooges covers (“Raw Power” and “Search & Destroy”) and one VU cover (“Foggy Notion”) which I’m not going to talk about because both bands currently bore me to tears. It happens. Nor is there much to be said about the 14-second “Satisfaction,” which is just the slowed down intro to the played-to-death “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

I’ll tell you what doesn’t bore me to tears—“Ain’t It Fun,” a midtempo number that opens with one tear-it-up guitar and Laughner singing the great lines, “Ain’t it fun when you know that you’re gonna die young/It’s such fun/Such fun.” Then that guitar plays a long, hard-as-nails solo, Laughner stutter rocks, “Ain’t it fun when you just just just just can’t…ffffind your tongue,” and follows that by screaming, “Fun!” And howls as the band’s two guitarists go to town, one real loud and low and the other more high-pitched and piercing. The latter plays a meticulous solo before Laughner returns, followed by more caterwaul that ends the song. “Life Stinks” opens with an organ freak-out, has about six words that are sung by the cavernous-voiced Thomas, and is one long free-form scratch guitar-demento organ caterwaul the likes of which I’ve never heard. It goes on and on, as Thomas repeats “Life stinks,” and if this isn’t art rock at its best my name is Jon Anderson and I intend to sing Tales of Topographic Oceans to you, all 6,000 minutes of it, a cappella, whether you want me to or not.

I’m not thrilled by “Muckraker,” with the exception of its hard guitars, thumping groove, and long guitar freak-out, not to mention the way the vocalist sings, “She’s a muck-raaaker!” as the song slows to a guitar march ending in a bombardment of drums. But I love “Sonic Reducer,” bad recording and blurry vocals and all. The song is a triumph of pure propulsion over primitive recording techniques, with its cool backing vocals and a long instrumental section featuring both guitarists spazzing out until it slows, and the drums pound, and the vocalist sings over those guitars until the end.

Even better is “Never Gonna Kill Myself Again,” which The Dead Boys re-recorded under the inferior title “Caught With the Meat in Your Mouth.” It’s a total rave-up and rock’n’roll at its best, with its barbaric opening and stalking panther guitar riff and the singer saying he’s never gonna kill himself again. The ending is fantastic, the band’s twin guitars spraying notes all over the place, and those Clevelanders who were lucky enough to see this live probably promptly went out and threw themselves into their city’s famous burning burial pyre of a river, knowing their lives would be all downhill from there.

“Final Solution” is slow, vocals alternating with drum beats and big squalls of squealing guitar mayhem, until the great chorus (“Don’t need a cure/Don’t need a cure/Don’t need a cure/Need a final solution.”) Then the band sings, “Wooo wooo wooo wooo,” a guitar squeals feedback, and the song goes apeshit, an example of atonality and art punk at its best. “Down in Flames” could be a Stooges song, with the same stalking Charlie in ‘Nam guitar riffs and Thomas even phrasing his words like Iggy. Then comes a psychotic single-note-picking guitar solo, and it’s goodbye to the Stooges and hello to something far stranger. “Frustration” is great, with Thomas barking like a deranged seal as the song flies along, Madansky kicking keister on drums. Then comes some nice long guitar interplay between Laughner and Chrome followed by Thomas again, who finishes the song accompanied by a guitar that is truly twisted.

“Read It & Weep” features some sharp-edged guitar but is more melodic than most of RFFT’s material. I love the feedback guitar that segues back into the melody as the vocalist sings, “They told me again/And again and again” as the guitars take the song out. “Seventeen” is a big, booming anthemic tune, with great ragged backing vocals and Madansky torturing the drums and gigantic power chords that should dim cities and the singer giving it his all until the guitars break into a pretty but fractured instrumental interlude that takes the song out like a downed and sizzling power line.

“Amphetamine” is my album high note, a slow and beautiful ballad sung by Laughner, at first to the accompaniment of just an electric guitar. He sings, “Take the guitar player for a ride/He’s never once been satisfied/Thinks he owes some kind of debt/It’ll take him years to get over it,” then is joined by the band. The chorus (“I get so easily excited/Like having a party where you aren’t invited”) is both chilling and lovely, as is Laughner’s thin and tender voice. The song reaches a small crescendo only at the end of each chorus, and during the brief but frenetic guitar solo around the 4-minute mark, after which Laughner sings, “You’ve got to come on down/You’ve got to come on down/You’ve got to come on down/Me, I never hit the ground,” before repeating the chorus and the song ends. It’s a haunting tune, because as high as Laughner tried to stay he did hit the ground, and hard, and as Lester Bangs wrote in his clear-eyed essay on Laughner, “Good-bye baby, and Amen.”

“So Cold” opens with cymbals and some strange guitar picking, then turns into a tremendously loud rip-off of Alice Cooper’s “Eighteen.” Thomas bellows, then the guitars let rip, and let me tell you, those guitars sound vicious. “Pretty egos to be fed,” sings Thomas as the song picks up speed, and from there on in it’s Thomas and lots of deranged feedback as the song stops and starts and stops and starts until Thomas howls and the guitars make like The Stooges, playing some of the wildest freakback it has ever been my pleasure to hear. “What Love Is” also opens with some arty guitar play, which grows wilder and louder until the drums come in and the song kicks into overdrive. Thomas spits out the lyrics as the guitars spew feedback and the song motorvates along, until the two guitars commence a fantastic caterwaul, which reminds me of a Led Zep tune I can’t identify, blitzkrieging onwards and upwards, with a frazzled guitar taking the song to its close.

“Transfusion,” another Laughner tune, definitely opens in the Led Zeppelin vein, and is all bluesy and blowzy especially when Thomas comes in like what I imagine John Bonham might have sounded like had anybody ever been dumb enough to let him sing. I’ve never been wild about the blooz but I’ll make an exception just this once, especially when a guitar plays a razor-thin solo followed by titanic power chords and some twisted note-bending, until Thomas bellows, “I saw a little dog get hit by a car!” Then some voices whisper “You didn’t bleed” over and over again, and Madansky and Chrome keep the beat as the song gets quieter and quieter until it explodes at the end in some more blatant Zeppisms.

As for “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” it’s 6:42 of strangeness, opening with an odd guitar riff, then the song dissolves into a guitar caterwaul over which Thomas sings, “No place to run/No place to hide/No turning back on a suicide ride.” At which point the guitars take off, heavy as B-25 Mitchells or the bombs they dropped, with one guitar zooming off in a skittery, super-high-pitched solo that sounds like 1,000 chipmunks being electrocuted. Finally it ends and the song recommences at its original speed, with Thomas repeatedly bellowing “30 seconds over Tokyo” and then just “30” over and over, as the guitars screech and squawk like a rabid zoo and Madansky plays a great tattoo on the drums.

Rocket From The Tombs may have crashed and burned just like the plane of Ted Lawson, whom I portrayed in a great piece of method acting back at Maple Avenue High School. (The 1944 movie version of 30 Seconds Over Tokyo stars Van Johnson, and not to sound conceited but his screaming isn’t half as good as mine.) But they left behind a heap of great songs and one brilliant if flawed artifact cum album. Who knows what they might have become had they not self-immolated before ever getting out of Cleveland?

The Dead Boys and Pere Ubu went on to do wonderful things, but whenever I hear “Amphetamine” I hear a sound neither band ever picked up on, and the loss of that sound is a tragedy. If I could do my 6th grade reenactment over again it would be “Amphetamine” and the late Peter Laughner I’d be thinking about, and boy would I scream, and howl and wail, not in pain but in heartbreak.


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