Soon, there’ll be a vanload of grizzled punks barreling over the passes between Washington and Idaho, Idaho and here. Veterans of battles unknown to most, they’re waging a war less weird than the other one going on right now: the war to save your soul through rock ’n’ roll…
Cheetah Chrome (aka Gene O’Connor) is good fun to talk to, like an uncle who’s taken some uncommon turns in his life. Things a kid growing up in the Midwest could only dream about, like being in bands that smeared their music in the face of established norms. When Chrome joined Rocket from the Tombs, punk wasn’t even on the radar, but Cleveland, Ohio, in 1974 was all about disaffected youth getting fed up with arena rock and AM gold. Along with fellow Clevelanders The Electric Eels and the Mirrors, RFTT would prove a short-lived experiment in pushing off the fuzzy sound then blanketing the United States.
RFTT was begun as a sort of comic performance statement by singer David Thomas (aka Crocus Behemoth), but when local music fanatic Peter Laughner demanded to join, the collaboration began to bear weight as a band. Chrome remembers his own entry into the fold “through an ad in the paper, The Plain Dealer.”
“Laughner put one in because he had just joined Rocket From The Tombs—up until then it was like they didn’t really take it serious. Me and Blitz [Johnny Madansky] were playing together at the time, and we were a guitar player and a drummer looking for a band. They had Velvets and Stooges in their ad…”
Former Mirrors member Craig Bell came in on bass, and the revised chemistry pushed the band beyond the native brand of cover bands—which might explain why it wasn’t at all easy to score gigs in their hometown, Chrome says.
“Except for a few receptive club owners, The Viking and The Angora were the only places that would have us, and luckily they were both good clubs. We didn’t play places that we didn’t figure that we’d go over, there was no point.”
And there wasn’t much camaraderie with fellow underground types at the time, either.
“Really the only time I ever had contact with those people, except for Craig and John [Bell and Morton, respectively, of the Electric Eels] was at gigs. We’d bump into each other, obviously,” Chrome laughs, “but it wasn’t one big hug.”
Maybe it was the combined local alienation and that same feeling on a larger stage that made the Rocket from the Tombs output of that brief period, 1974-75, cut so close to the disaffected heart. The tunes written during this period have since become punk anthems: “Sonic Reducer,” “What Love Is,” “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” “Down In Flames” and the Laughner staple “Amphetamine.” RFTT material wasn’t well documented at the time, aside from a few home and live recordings and a session at legendary Cleveland radio station WMMS. Anything recorded then and (scarcely) available today was the result of hard work and luck, but not necessarily the result of the do-it-yourself movement, Chrome explains.
“The spirit was very much there, but I don’t think it was the beginning of DIY,” Chrome says, laughing. “Technology was really primitive and expensive. You didn’t have digital workstations, you didn’t have the little four-tracks, even—you had two-track. When you’re taping yourself, you’re pretty much out of the market unless you went into a studio. Plus you didn’t think of it in those terms. We just did it because we wanted to…It was never supposed to last through the eons or anything like that. It was just there and that’s what we did and we always figured we’d do more. But circumstances take control, you find yourself spiraling and next thing you know you’re in a different band.”
By 1975, Cheetah said RFTT had “an overall loss of sense of direction. People splitting off into factions.” Then it was no more. David Thomas formed Pere Ubu with Laughner, and Chrome formed The Dead Boys with sometime RFTT singer Steve (aka Stiv) Bators. On June 22, 1977, Peter Laughner’s lifestyle caught up with him in the form of acute pancreatitis. He passed away just before turning 25.
RFTT became a sincere legend, kept alive via word-of-mouth, and in songs covered by the likes of Mission of Burma, Wilco, Pearl Jam and even Guns ‘N Roses. Decades later, 2002 saw the release of The Day The World Met The Rocket From The Tombs on Smog Veil Records, a killer 19-track offering that includes rehearsals and live gigs and “too many bootlegs that were just deteriorating in quality.”
“David decided it made sense to follow up on it,” Chrome recalls. “And how I ended up getting re-involved was looking [Rockets] up on eBay and buying stuff on my own. All of a sudden I get this e-mail from Dave saying he wants to do liner notes, and then I found out he had the actual original masters, which aren’t that great, but they’re better than any of the bootlegs.”
“But there’s only so much you can do with it,” Chrome continues. “It was never meant to be put out as a record, it was meant to be a one-shot thing on the radio.”
It also spun into a RFTT reunion in Los Angeles and now a full-fledged reunion tour, with Richard Lloyd of the band Television filling Laughner’s guitar role.
“We’re old friends,” Chrome says about enlisting Lloyd, “and he’s actually got a Rocket connection, because we played with Television back in ’75. That had a lot to do with it. He’s a personality that fits in. We thought it was going to be the one gig, and it turned into this.”
Chrome is filling in on Laughner’s songs for the tour and for the recording of a new RFTT release, re-doing their signature tunes “properly.”
“It was almost like, why do we gotta re-record these songs? We get so many requests from fans at shows for studio material that at first we decided we’d just put this out as a merchandise item, and it came out so good that we decided, hell, do it!”
Chrome remembers Laughner warmly, recalling that “especially in the context of the times, he was always somebody special.”
“We had a lot in common. We both wore our hearts on our sleeves and acted like jackasses periodically. I fairly say I represent Peter in keeping up his end,” Chrome laughs.
“It’s where I come from, it’s home, it’s one of those nice things about playing with this band. They’re homeboys.”