If you were a young weirdo in Cleveland in 1975, you didn’t have many options for music. The MC5 and the Stooges, the Midwest’s last major hopes for rock and roll, had broken up, and the Velvet Underground were a distant memory; the golden age of garage rock, when three pounding minutes could make anyone a star, was farther away, and New York and its art scene seemed farther still. There were a couple of strange little local bands like the Mirrors, but they weren’t up to much. And it was Cleveland.
Yet by some miracle the members of Rocket from the Tombs managed to find one another. (If their name seems familiar, that’s probably because Rocket from the Crypt called themselves after it.) David Thomas, also known as Crocus Behemoth, was a journalist who’d started a version of RFTT a couple of years before; Peter Laughner was a Velvets fan and singer/songwriter; Craig Bell was a taxi driver and veteran of both the Mirrors and the US Army (not a band) who had a serious Bowie jones; Gene "Cheetah Chrome" O’Connor and Johnny Madansky were glam-rockers too. They learned some of their favorite songs, like the Velvets’ then-unreleased "Foggy Notion," and wrote a bunch of their own clever, philosophically brutal material. "Ain’t it fun when you know you’re gonna die young?" they sang. "Life stinks, life stinks, life stinks." "Guitar got a sound like a nuclear destruction." "No turning back on a suicide ride." "I’m never gonna kill myself again." They sounded like the Stooges gone to art school: savage and single-minded, but also self-consciously bizarre, especially when Thomas sang in a voice that suggested an elephant fainting. They played whenever they could, though Cleveland in 1975 was no place to rock if you weren’t a cover band.
By August of that year, RFTT had dissolved. Being young weirdos in Cleveland wasn’t enough to hold them together, it turned out. They’d never had much of an audience — their biggest break had been opening for Iron Butterfly. They’d never recorded their album, or even a single. They were just another band of freaks who never got it together.
And there the story ended, or might have, except that they turned out to have a legacy. O’Connor and quasi-member Steve "Stiv" Bators went on to form the Dead Boys, and they took a couple Rocket songs with them, "Ain’t It Fun" and "Sonic Reducer." Thomas and Laughner took a few more with them and formed Pere Ubu; their first single, on their own Hearpan Records, was the Rocket holdover "30 Seconds over Tokyo." It was one of the first singles of what we now know as American independent rock — or rather, one of the first that led directly into punk. (Laughner died in 1977 of pancreatitis; Thomas still leads Pere Ubu.) The word spread: ground zero for Midwestern art punk was this strange little band who’d left the tape rolling a few times.
The first actual Rocket from the Tombs record appeared around 1990, a bootleg LP called Life Stinks. Then two songs crept out on Pere Ubu’s Datapanik in the Year Zero box set, and a couple more on the Laughner retrospective Take the Guitar Player for a Ride, and now they finally have an album of their own: The Day the Earth Met the Rocket from the Tombs, on the Nevada label Smog Veil. With 18 songs (and a fragment of "Satisfaction") assembled from two live shows and a radio tape recorded in their rehearsal space, it’s a fuzzy and dusty but invaluably potent piece of history.
Part of its power comes from the sparks thrown off by its clash of sensibilities. O’Connor and Bell are the rockers, shouting out "Sonic Reducer" and riffing violently; Laughner is the dreamy visionary who tries to build on the Dylan tradition of pop-lyrics-as-poetry; and Thomas is the wild card, developing a vocal attack that’s as distinctive as Lou Reed’s or Iggy Pop’s and transmuting "Summertime Blues" into the apocalyptic images and noise splashes of "Final Solution." The most striking thing about The Day Earth Met . . . , though, is its sense of isolation. Rock has almost never been this convinced that it’s alone. The band had no contemporaries, no hope of reclaiming the Midwestern-rock moment they’d barely missed, and no thought that there might be more of the same to come after. All they had was a few months when their common alienation kept their real differences at bay: "30 seconds and a one-way ride," as they put it.