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Punk before the uniform: Rocket From the Tombs in Cleveland, 1975
Bradley Fields, courtesy of Jim Clinefelter
People out on the streets
They don't know who I am
I watch them from my room
They just pass me by
I'm not just anyone
I'm not just anyone

-- Rocket From the Tombs, "Sonic Reducer"

Cleveland was never exactly shut out of American popular music. Everybody played there, which is why "Hello, Cleveland!" became a rich joke. The rusted-out home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had great radio into the 1970s, a holdout for progressive FM. What it didn't have was an audience for its own music: The city emptied into suburbs at night, leaving behind cheap rent and cover bands. So when one of the first New York punk groups, Television, played there in 1975, guitarist Richard Lloyd was surprised to find an opening band that was as angry, original, and volatile as anything he'd ever seen.

"Rocket From the Tombs were out of their minds," Lloyd says now, speaking over the phone from New York. "They were like exuberant kids, over the top. They got in a fight during sound check, and I thought, 'Man, I don't even know if they're going to make it to the show.' I still get that feeling with them. It's like one of those marriages where you hate each other but the sex is too good."

He should know: Rocket From the Tombs are back by nothing close to popular demand, having reunited this summer and enlisted Lloyd on guitar (he recorded their forthcoming "live" album in his studio). After breaking up and getting back together a reported eight times this year alone, they make their Minneapolis debut Thursday at the 7th St. Entry, three decades after wrapping themselves in aluminum foil and declaring, "Life Stinks." If you know that song, or any of the others, it's probably through the two bands that Rocket From the Tombs became: David Thomas, the wild-haired singer who called himself Crocus Behemoth, took "Life Stinks," "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," and "Final Solution" for Pere Ubu, which he fronts to this day. Cheetah Chrome took "Sonic Reducer," "Ain't It Fun," and "Down in Flames" for the shorter-lived Dead Boys, who relocated to New York with onetime Rockets Johnny Blitz and Stiv Bators. (Neither group has any relation to the San Diego band Rocket From the Crypt, whose wiseass appropriation of the name might be better known than all of the above.)

Calling these songs "punk classics" seems inadequate: They were in many ways the first real punk songs. Where Lou Reed was cool, and Iggy just crazy, Rockets were vulnerable and enraged, singing bluntly about feeling shut out or lost, but with the pride of losers who never had a chance. In the 10-month life span of their definitive lineup, they played less than a dozen gigs, produced no studio recordings, and never left Cleveland. Yet they became a cult rumor in modern music precisely because they grappled so well with the meaning of life, as all great punk bands do.

The song credits have been years in the revising, and didn't turn up officially until last year's little-heard but essential retrospective of demos and live tracks from 1975, The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From the Tombs (Smog Veil). Among the many surprises of that time capsule was the newly complicated authorship, combining two to four names where you might expect only one: Besides Thomas (who, for instance, wrote the lyrics to "Sonic Reducer"), Chrome, and bassist Craig Bell, who joins the others in this reunion, there was guitarist Peter Laughner, who does not. Though vocals rotated among the musicians, it was Laughner who sang, "Ain't it fun when you know that you're gonna die young," and famously made good on the promise in 1977, dying of liver failure at age 24. In epitaph, his friend Lester Bangs wrote that it was the end of "an era of the most intense worship of nihilism and deathtripping in all marketable forms." And you can understand, in retrospect, why Lloyd wouldn't let Laughner join Television after the hard-living punk freed himself from Rockets (and then Pere Ubu).

"Just like Sid Vicious," Lloyd says. "I made an assessment, and then I backed off. To me, I was just as out of control. But Peter had some other streak, an inner sort of violence that did him in. But he wrote some incredible, poignant, beyond-ironic stuff."

Laughner contributed the heartbreakingly lovely, quiet-loud melodicism of "Amphetamine" (his song about being too young for rock), and the rarely credited pop coda on "Final Solution" (Thomas's song about being too ugly for girls). Today those songs sound more like what local, independent rock blossomed into than anything by the band's contemporaries. Laughner's guitars, along with Chrome's, were noisier and weirder, too--more like Can than the Velvet Underground. Old photos show a group almost suspended out of time, a diverse set of individuals cobbling their fashion sense--a leather jacket here, Beefheart hair there--before punk became a uniform.

"We really had very little in common besides Rocket From the Tombs," admits Cheetah Chrome today, speaking over the phone from his home in Nashville. "I was probably 19, turning 20 in the band, one of the little rock and rollers that hung out all night, a stoner. There was the little art scene down at the Plaza, which was an apartment building downtown on Coventry, but that was more the David-Peter type crowd. I wasn't really part of it."

What the band briefly found together, in Laughner and each other, was something more like a common feeling: Fuck everyone else; let's do this ourselves. "There's a good chance we were one of the first punk bands," Chrome says. "But we just did what we did. There was nothing planned or structured about it. And that was what killed it eventually."

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