History is unmade at night: In 1975, Rocket From the Tombs had all the ingredients, from the coolest name (shades of Edgar Allan Poe fronting the Shadows of Knight or 13th Floor Elevators) to the darkest, most desperately unforgiving sound (“All the pretty living dead/Pretty egos to be fed”). With the Stooges and Velvets for role-remodels, a payload of achingly funny-brutal-mortifying songs (“Never Gonna Kill Myself Again,” “Down in Flames”) and Cleveland’s rust-belted heart/wasteland as ground zero, Rocket From the Tombs were the little engine that exploded. Breaking up without releasing so much as a single, the band molded its legend from debris and fallout, raining down the years in the form of rumor, fable, and ultra-scarce bootlegs. But they might have taken that nocturnal underground-man-overboard trip a little too far: Though the remnants regrouped as the deathless Pere Ubu (David Thomas and the late Peter Laughner) and the feckless, tinny Dead Boys (Gene “Cheetah Chrome” O’Connor and the late Stiv Bators), when you mention RFTT to all but the most diehard obscurantists, all you’re likely to get is a puzzled or smirking response: “Don’t you mean Rocket From the Crypt?”
So the 27-years-overdue The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From the Tombs may finally dispel that confusion—or like any great punk album, strew more. Culled from demos and live performances that have circulated among fanatics on fourth-generation tapes and the only-600-records-pressed vinyl boot Life Stinks (a steal at the 20 bucks I paid a decade ago, with copies selling for upward of $150 on eBay last year), it’s possible that The Day the Earth has only been pried from the Ubu Projex vaults because proliferating CD-R knockoffs of the material were flooding the market, such as it is. With as near to decent sound as homemade recordings and the band’s distort-o-rama performances will allow, The Day the Earth is a napalmed cornucopia of lost and found claims to immortality: the slab-happy decomposition of “So Cold” and the yowling, thalidomide-baby flipper-punch of “What Love Is,” Laughner’s exquisitely self-destructive signatures “Ain’t It Fun” and “Amphetamine,” covers of “Search & Destroy” and “Foggy Notion” that more than hold their spleen-machine own, alongside future Dead Boys anathema-anthem “Sonic Reducer” and Ubu anti-standards “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” “Life Stinks,” and “Final Solution.”
Not all is bliss in Tombsville, though: The decision to keep the album to a single disc has meant choosing a few inferior performances with better sound. Or maybe of greater “historical interest”: documenting part of Rocket’s final show, where Thomas had been edged out—well, sideways—as frontman, while Laughner and O’Connor took over his numbers. But there was no replacing Thomas, the spazzed-out monolith who called himself Crocus Behemoth and sounded exactly like a man rolling around a cramped stage in an XXX-large graduation gown should. Skinny-voiced Laughner was no match for the strangled, Fatty-Carbuncle misfit’s hell of “Final Solution” (“Girls won’t touch me ’cause I got a misdirection”), though it worked fine for his own gladhand-deathwish material à la “Amphetamine” (with its streak of hopeless romanticism as wide and bewildered as Mott the Hoople’s “I Wish I Was Your Mother” fused with “All the Young Dudes”).
Also, there are small birth-of-a-punk-nation moments and sentimental dedications which have been left off, like the touching little motivational speech Laughner gave on a 1975 WMMS broadcast: It’s reprinted in the sleeve notes, but just isn’t the same on the page as in that flushed, defiantly well-meaning delivery. (The missing link between Lester Bangs and Kurt Cobain, Laughner wore his clown-aesthete paradox of inspirational nihilism like a torn-out, still-beating heart stapled to his sleeve.)
Ex-Mirror Craig Bell’s “Muckraker” is a foppish vaudeville stab at glitter-rock, worth preserving mainly for his madly affected pronunciation of “secret headquarters.” (If Pee Wee Herman and Todd Haynes collaborated on Velvet Goldmine, this would be its theme song.) But to hear Rocket’s “Seventeen” today, at once a Alice Cooperish toss-off and a hot template for the about-to-be-born Sex Pistols, is to feel the combustive spontaneity of a moment where from Cleveland to London an identical blunt-trauma impulse held sway.
The Rocket Saga stands as a story of what might have been: a mix of riotous elements (populist, dadaist, teen-revanchist) that coulda-shoulda resonated beyond the fringes of subculture. In the context of RFTT, Thomas’s raw-meat bellow and Laughner’s corny Dylan/Reed/Richard Thompson rock-poet tendencies have more alienated-youth-market potential than in their subsequent Pere Ubu incarnation. Unless it’s an aging critic’s fantasy that “Amphetamine”—its bridge of sighs spanning Fairport Convention’s “Meet on the Ledge” and Bob Barker’s The Price Is Right (“You got to come on down”)—might have stormed the charts as some ’70s Teen Spirit cri de coeur. (Punk’s answer to “More Than a Feeling”?!) And a strangled “Oh, god” moan leaps out from the middle of “Ain’t It Fun,” where no amount of guitar heroics can soften the blow: the outline of a future that’s been used up before it’s even begun.
“What’s become hard to imagine,” David Thomas has written, “is the timeless, frozen quality of life as we lived it in 1975, in the terminal landscape of Cleveland, with our drivenness, our rage, and our dreams of breaking through.” The intensity of those dreams, the rip and tear of presence and absence in this music, brings it all streaming back: here at last and gone for good.