New life in 'Tomb' for punk icons


November 28, 2003


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).


*10 p.m. Saturday
*Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace
*Tickets, $15
*(773) 478-4408

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 this reunion?

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 tour."

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 really are.

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.