Violent infighting, vicious personality conflicts and diametric musical tastes are unlikely tenets upon which legendary bands are formed. But it's the exact formula ("stable as nitroglycerin," to quote founding member Dave Thomas) that launched Cleveland proto-punks Rocket from the Tombs into the annals of rock history.
The band played less than a dozen shows (many not even to completion, as members would break their instruments and engage in fistfights midway through), never recorded a proper album, and existed for less than a year before finally imploding in 1975.
They would likely have faded into obscurity forever were it not for the groups that formed out of their ashes. Like Jeckyl and Hyde finally separated into distinct entities, singer Dave Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner formed the avant-garde art-rock outfit Pere Ubu while guitarist Cheetah Chrome and drummer Johnny Blitz formed the rawest of CBGB's staples, the Dead Boys.
Collectors have long sought bootlegs of RFTT's sparse catalog, not just because of the band's venerable spawn. RFTT's inner turmoil was matched only by the intensity they turned outward, and they rank high on rock historians' all-time lists. The songwriting was solid, evidenced by the fact that both the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu are best known for Rocket songs ("Sonic Reducer" and "What Love Is" for the former, "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" and "Final Solution" for the latter).
Countless bands cite RFTT as an influence and one-local heroes Rocket From the Crypt-even borrowed the band's name in homage.
Cleveland's Smog Veil Records exposed RFTT to a whole new generation last year by releasing a critically acclaimed retrospective, The Day the Earth Met the Rocket from the Tombs. But the real shocker for fans was when the band-featuring original members Thomas, Chrome and bassist-vocalist Craig Bell-reunited to tour in support of the release.
"I was more surprised than anyone," says Chrome, laughing-his demeanor far more affable than faded photos of the sneering right-hand man of a bloody Stiv Bators-Dead Boys front man-might suggest. "I hadn't talked to Dave since we broke up. As far as I was concerned, Rocket was way in the past."
Though it's a bit hazy, he remembers the night they broke up: "I was hanging out with Stiv and he was like, "Man, these guys are fucking weird, this is bad,' 'cause no one in the band said a single word to each other the whole night.
"That's all I remember-being there, me and Stiv, and a big fucking headache."
Chrome says he was more surprised that they've decided to do it again, this time launching their tour in San Diego. The current incarnation of RFTT also includes Television guitarist Richard Lloyd and Ubu drummer Steve Mehlman. The band is releasing a studio recording of their live set entitled Rocket Redux and has even discussed writing new music. Though it sounds dandy, there's still trouble, and they're nowhere near paradise.
Thomas claims the band broke up no less than three times during their first rehearsal last year and that hot-blooded rows-onstage and off-are still commonplace.
Chrome downplays the infighting, but admits animosity still exists.
"There's guys in the band-like Richard and Steve-that are really the glue that holds us together," he says. "Being around Craig is great, 'cause he's just an old buddy from back home. And Dave-well, Dave's a guy I didn't talk to for about 30 years."
Also present-in fact, sharpened by nearly three decades of indulgence in their own projects-is the strange stylistic dichotomy that made RFTT's music so great. Chrome says neither takes the upper hand.
"It's always there, but the main thing to remember is Rocket was always a rock 'n' roll band. It was just the individual members pulling this way and that. RFTT can never be as artsy as Pere Ubu or as raw as the Dead Boys.
"As a band now, we're not even writing music yet, so you can't tell for sure, but it's definitely gonna be totally rock 'n' roll. Pere Ubu gets a lot of flak for being all artsy and crap-hell, I'm one of the worse ones, constantly calling 'em a bunch of art fags-but they are still a solid rock band when they wanna be."
And just what does Chrome think of the band so smitten with RFTT they borrowed the name?
"To be honest, I don't think I've ever heard them," he says. "I though the name was really funny the first time I heard it. I just don't listen to much new music.
"I just feel bad that, now that we're back, they gotta change their name."
Rocket from the Tombs performs with the Von Bondies, The Weekend Blacks and the Manifolds, 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 17. $12. 619-232-HELL.