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Rocket From The Tombs

The scene in Cleveland was so small, and so easily could have disappeared without a trace, but here we are and it is widely celebrated by rock 'enthusiasts.' Between RFTT, the Electric Eels and the Styrenes (plus Pere Ubu and Dead Boys) you had a bona fide movement (it seems all you need is 3 bands to start a 'movement') that influenced 100s of future bands. What would you say was the 'conspiracy of fates' that resulted in such an original, fertile little scene?
First of all, the original three, the big three, were The Electric Eels, RFTT and Mirrors, not the Styrenes. Though related, Mirrors and the Styrenes were very different bands. The answer to your question is probably a synthesis of the following: Ghoulardi, the Velvets appearing at La Cave in 1968, the culture of the record store and the rivalry to be the most complete among those record stores, isolation and the fierce competitiveness it breeds, and, finally, probably some sort of sense of historical imperative - Cleveland being the 'birthplace' of rock n roll.

You once said: "This was the problem with punk. Punk was an imperialistic grab at someone else's culture fuelled by chicken-hawkers, multi-national corporations and a guy who wanted to sell clothes. It provided a dumbed-down template aimed at the lowest-common denominator that sold the Big Lie that art was something ANYBODY could do. Well it wasn't. It isn't. It never will be" - I think there are many Americans who agree with that statement, certainly punk progenitor Richard Hell, who McLaren openly admitted he stole from. Do you think UK punk was, largely, a "Big Lie?"
I don't know that I would go that far but it lacked authenticity. Now, when you talk to British people about it they will tell a different story entirely. They will make great claims for it and put it in a social / political context that makes it all sound very dramatic. OK, I got that. My response to that is: So what? None of that had anything to do with rock music, its evolution or aesthetic. Punk was a localized event in a small, out of the way country.

As individuals RFTT were 'incompatable.' Can that dynamic actually help the music (perhaps it provides tension?), or is it a complete side issue?
A side issue, really. I can definitely say it has been far more of a hindrance that a benefit. People like to think differently of course because it suits the template they prefer. If I was to be honest, I will tell you we used that excuse and that template to cover up things that needed to be covered up. In RFTT, as in Ubu, we don't spill the beans. We don't betray band members, past or present. It's none of your business.

How and when did the first incarnation of Rocket From the Tombs get together and how did it differ from the classic line-up of the band?
The principals in Version 1.0 worked at The Scene, a weekly entertainment paper, and the band started out as a promotional scheme for the paper as well as just something to do. The time was maybe late 1973 or early 1974. I can't remember. It differed totally in the personnel and determination to be a full-time band. The original was very MC5-oriented. As I remember we did the entire 'Kick Out the Jams' album. I played bass on 'I Want You.' The 'classic' line-up had large elements of Stooges, Velvets, Alice Cooper, and Kinks thrown in as well, and we were more focused on writing our own material.

How did that evolve into the "classic" lineup with Peter, Gene, Craig, and Johnny? What do you think each member brought to the band that was unique and who do you feel you had the most fruitful writing collaborations with?
Peter asked to join in the summer of 1974 because we had gotten to know each other and he wanted to work with me. From there it was a process of people leaving and joining. I can't remember how it all went down and why. The rest of this question is too much trouble to answer. I only have a certain amount of patience for this stuff.

It's easy for people like myself who weren't there to look back at the early Cleveland punk scene and see it in kind of a romantic light. How did you view the scene? Did it even feel like a scene at the time?
Yes, it felt like a scene but not in terms of fashion. It was about 100 people and the rivalries between bands were intense. There was alot of pressure to be good and to make each rare appearance count.

My understanding is that there weren't really that many people going out to see bands like Rocket From the Tombs at the time. What was the crowd like for one of your typical shows? What would you say was the peak of your popularity during Rocket's initial incarnation?
It depended. We managed to get support bills or special appearances which gave us access to larger audiences. On our own in a crummy little venue it might be something between 50 and 100. We were most popular at the end. Things were looking up when we stopped.

At what point did the end start to loom for the band? What sort of things led to that?
From late May / early June. Drug abuse. Juvenile stupidity. Lack of confidence.

I've read both that Stiv Bators was considered as a frontman/vocalist for the band, and that he actually was in the band towards the end. Which is true?
Stiv was never in the band. By May or June I was unhappy singing other people's songs, both the cover versions we did and songs written by others in the band. I liked singing my songs because I understood them but I felt like I was simply aping when I wasn't. I got an Ace Tone organ and started playing that and a sax that came from somewhere. Cheetah suggested Stiv for the band. He came to a rehearsal to audition but the consensus was that he wasn't right for the band. Then we had the Picadilly show and the band was clearly finished, except we had already booked a show at the Viking in August. Cheetah said he was forming a band with Stiv and asked if Stiv could sing a few songs at the Viking show, which we agreed to. When it came time, Peter and I left the stage to make way. Some guy, who undoubtedly wasn't there, wrote that I stormed off in a huff. Not true. The plan was that Peter and I would leave, then Cheetah and Stiv would do a foretaste of their band, which was to be called Frankenstein, I believe. Craig continued playing bass but Stiv went nuts, as was his style, and there was alot of flopping around on stage and mayhem. The show ended with Craig alone on stage, playing anyway. He put his bass down and walked off and that was the end of Rocket.

Stiv's involvement or lack thereof aside, I understand that towards the end you weren't singing very many songs in the set. How did that make you feel?
It made me feel good. It's what I wanted.

The liners to The Day The Earth Met The Rocket From The Tombs make the point that if this grouping had released an LP it would be seen in the same historical light as Horses, The Velvet Underground & Nico, Kick Out The Jams and The Stooges 1st - what do you think? Do you have any regrets about the fact that this group never made it to the LP stage and were never fully documented? Are there any other RFTT jewels hidden in the vaults?
Yes, I suppose it would have been a great record. So? There are many many great records that haven't been made. I am always proud to be counted among the Brotherhood of the Unknown.

How do you feel about The Dead Boys' version of "Sonic Reducer"? What was the idea of the sonic reducer?
I'm not keen on it - the vocals are overcooked - but maybe also it's because it's the source of the one piece of bitterness I have in my career. When Gene asked if they could use some of the RFTT material I told him he could have it all, take all the credit, but NOT for 'Sonic Reducer.' They could use 'Sonic Reducer' but they couldn't pile on the writer credits. But they did. Gene and I remain friends but he knows how I feel and we avoid the conversation. [Note: Due to Gene's efforts the writership of 'Sonic Reducer' was finally fixed.] I think I explained sonic reduction as well as it can be done in the liner notes.

How did you come to bring back Rocket after almost three decades? Did you ever think about reuniting the band in the past?
There was no moment of decision. A series of unique events led us to where we are today. It started with Disastodrome 2003. UCLA proposed a 3-day festival of my music in all its forms for February 2003. The event was to close with a Pere Ubu concert. We wanted something different to support the evening and Dave Sefton of UCLA wanted it to have some connection to me. The Day The Earth Met The Rocket From the Tombs cd had just come out and, on a whim, one of us suggested a reunion. Craig Bell, Gene O'Connor and I had been in touch alot during the putting together of that album. We all thought it would be something to do. Since RFTT had had a Spinal Tap-like procession of drummers during its short life there was no incumbent at that position. Pere Ubu's drummer, Steve Mehlman, was an obvious choice. The real problem was the second guitarist position. Gene was friends with Richard Lloyd and once Richard was suggested it was such an obviously right idea that we stopped there. Richard, it turns out, had a very powerful memory of the original Rocket From the Tombs. Peter Laughner had been instrumental in getting Television their first show outside of New York City in July 1975 in Cleveland and RFTT was support band. Richard says they remember us very clearly - that we seemed to be far too intense for our own good. In any case, Richard jumped at the idea. We did the show. It sounded good - rough at the edges, but good. Mainly though it was obvious that this could be a startlingly great band. Under those conditions we all felt obligated to give it a chance. We undertook a short tour in America in June 2003. That went great. We decided to give it one more go before we decided whether or not to continue as a "real" band. That was the tour in November-December 2003.

What do you think Richard Lloyd brought to the band?
What we were looking for was not a replacement for Peter. We did, however, want someone to act as the same sort of catalyst, and to act as the same sort of bridging agent for the far flung arms of the band's personality extremes, and to be a great and unique guitarist. Richard more than fulfills all these requirements. He does not play like Peter and I am not going to compare them. 'Unique' means one of a kind and incomparable. Both are unique.

For Rocket Redux you decided to release an album with (wonderful!) songs which were written many years ago.... how did you choose the songs to be included in the album?
That was the easy part. We simply recorded the live set in the same order we were doing it with the same encore, 'Life Stinks.' During the June tour we had alot of requests for a recording by the current band. After we decided to tour again someone suggested recording a cd for the purpose of selling it to fans at the shows. Richard volunteered his studio and services. We pursued the project with the idea of capturing the urgency of the live band. As we finished people started saying we ought to release the record commercially and things began to snowball from there.

When you released The Day The Earth Met... did you think that there'd be a new release or any new project involving the band?
No. Not at all. One thing simply led to another. There is no grand master plan. The only reason the band continues is because we all feel that it is going somewhere as an expressive unit and that it is worth pursuing. If that disappears or dissipates that's the end.

RFTT have been described as one of the godfathers of punk, a kind of a bridge between the Stooges, hard rock and a more arty sound. What's your opinion about that?
The same thing has been said about Pere Ubu - being a bridge from one thing to another. It seems that's my fate. Ah well. My views of punk have been set out elsewhere. I will summarize.
Punk was an imperialistic grab at someone else's culture fueled by chicken-hawkers, the marketing departments of multinational corporations and a guy who wanted to sell clothes in a sad little shop in London. It was an attack on American folk culture by foreigners no different from the 19th Century European imperialists swarming through India or the Congo. It provided a dumbed down template aimed at the lowest common denominator that sold a Big Lie that art was something that anyone could do. Well it wasn't. It isn't. It never will be. (I always had this problem at Rough Trade. No one believed that given one record to take to your Desert Island, I wouldn't hesitate a moment to choose John Cougar Mellenkamp's out-takes to any Smiths record. John Cougar was playing the music of his culture with an authentic voice, that Smiths guy, hard as he tried, could never disguise the stone cold fact that he was a foreigner and once removed from the True Moment. To his credit, that Smiths guy didn't try to exploit American culture. To the contrary, he was utterly English in his vision and execution. Only problem is, of course, I'm not English.)
We were not a punk band. We were a logical step along the progression and evolution of rock music. Our roots seem very obvious. People say the music was so angry you must have been rebellious. Yeah, I don't know. It seems to me, as I remember it, that what we were angry about was ordinariness. The mainstream rock bands who played in all the clubs were so ordinary and unambitious, were satisfied with so little when there so much that could be done. That's what I remember. That doesn't seem too punk to me.

There's always a kind of dark humour behind the songs, what is that due to? And what about the sci fi / b movie kind of image associated with the band (the cover of the albums and the artwork in general)?
Surely you've noticed the same humor throughout the history of rock music. I take as my inspiration and guide in this matter a song called 'Summertime Blues.' I'm sure you know it. Consider that line about the teenager taking his problem to the United Nations!?!?! That's the same First Person Removed narrative voice you find everywhere. Consider Heartbreak Hotel, one the of the finest examples of it. As for the sci fi thing, what are you going to do with a name like Rocket From The Tombs? As well, we all come from a generation when b-movie sci fi had a very strong voice in young American culture. See comments on Ghoulardi.

What kind of reaction from the crowd did you get while touring? Which kind of feedback from your performances?
Audiences were stunned and extremely happy.

How would you describe one of the bands show to someone that has never seen you playing live (me for example!?
It is truly one of the great rock experiences you will have. We wouldn't bother otherwise. The people in this band do not belong together. Touring with this band has been the most miserable experience of my life. The only reason I do it is because what we do on stage is so satisfyingly hot.

Where does the band's name come from?
In high school my buddy, Jon Luoma, and I made an 8mm stop action film about the invasion of earth by prune people from outer space. Clearly influenced by Zappa - pretty standard thing for high school students of the time (1970). The name of the film was 'The Day The Earth Met The Rocket From The Tombs.' Seemed like a pretty good name for a band when I got around to thinking about such a thing.

My favourite RFTT song is "Final Solution." What is it about? What is its history?
It's clearly influenced musically as well as lyrically by the Blue Cheer version of 'Summertime Blues.' You can sing the words of 'Final Solution' to the tune of 'Summertime Blues.' The scansion is exact. I remember listening to 'Summertime Blues' in Tim Wright's living room. He had two huge Voice Of The Theater speaker cabinets. I had the idea of reducing the song to its absolute minimum - a throb followed by an explosion of nothing but noise. I went to rehearsal and only Craig was there so I pounded out a rhythm on a speaker and sang the tune. I think the first performance of it was at a poetry reading Peter was doing at the Public Library downtown, out in the garden. He asked me to come up and I pounded on the podium at the propr moments as I recited it. As for what it's about? It's about being a kid and being able to stand apart and see the weirdness of it and recognizing that the 'angst' you are experiencing, in the end, is sorta funny.