Rocket from the Tombs – Barfly

Dead at 27, in 1977, Cleveland rock musician and junkie alcoholic Peter Laughner casts a giant shadow on punk and alternative music. One of the most important pioneers of the 1974-1977 punk era who did not hail from New York, Laughner had his fingers in everything that mattered in Cleveland. His legend – except for a couple of early Pere Ubu 45s and an out of print collection of demos and live takes titled Take The Guitar Player For A Ride – revolves around his early live abortion of a band, circa ’74-’75, called Rocket From the Tombs.

RFTT is the essence of proto-punk, spawning two important and better-known groups: the aforementioned Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys. Much ink is spilled about the New York scene, but Laughner’s short-lived clusterfuck anticipated the “punk” sound and attitude as much as anything going down on the east coast in the first half of the 1970s. Influences include the Stooges, MC5 and Alice Cooper.

Fast forward to 2004, when surviving members and a couple of  “new faces” – most notably the legendary Television guitarist Richard Lloyd – entered the studio and re-recorded a batch of songs on a CD called Rocket Redux. What was redux was RFTT’s only existing work, in all of its messy and poorly recorded glory, songs which had only been officially released two years prior on the compilation album, The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From the Tombs. Redux cleaned up 12 of those tracks and, in doing so, raised a giant “what if?” Both albums are essential listening, filled with disturbing lyrics and noisy guitars on songs like “Frustration,” “So Cold,” “Amphetamine,” “Life Stinks” and  “Ain’t It Fun” (“Ain’t it fun when you’re always on the run/ Ain’t it fun when your friends despise what you’ve become/ Ain’t it fun when you get so high that you, well, you just can’t cum/ Ain’t it fun when you know that you’re gonna die young?”) Laughner predicted he would die young, and then fulfilled the prophecy, leaving behind a messy corpse and an even messier legacy.

After Redux was released, followed by a well-received tour, the newly constituted band decided they were having a good enough time to return to the studio and cut a CD of all new material. The freshly minted result, Barfly, retains the dark lyrics of the early years, but tones down the reckless, harsh and hopeless noisescapes. These men are wiser and slightly realigned, but that doesn’t mean this record lacks up-tempo punk rock songs. What was once ferocious is now merely aggressive.

The opener, “I Sell Soul,” is three minutes of manic noise with Lloyd tearing it up on guitar while lead singer David Thomas, in his imitable high pitched voice familiar to Pere Ubu fans, sings about…something. Not all of the songs, however, are indecipherable. Thomas, a superior yet sometimes disturbing rock lyricist, spins songs about unfulfilling or unrequited relationships, referring to sailing on “the ship of fools on the bloody waves of a thousand wounds” (“Six and Two”), or asking a girl he has his surreptitious eye on, “So why don’t you have a boyfriend? Why do you live alone? I guess you’re damaged goods. Just what are you doing here?” (“Pretty”).  Throughout the entire 11 songs, the rhythm section, particularly Cheetah Chrome, perfectly complements Thomas’ mood swings and Lloyd’s guitar leads, which though quintessential Lloyd also pay homage to, among others, Laughner and the Dead Boys. Sprinkled throughout are lyrical references to feces, banging heads against the wall and Britney Spears. A couple of the songs could be mistaken for slower tempo Dire Straits recordings – albeit with an avant-garde edge (“Butcherhouse 4” and “Good Times Never Roll”) – but the album delivers its knockout punch with punky tunes such as “Anna” and “Maelstrom” (the closest approximation to the original RFTT), or the oddball song, “Birth Day,” with lyrics that tie together some of the themes throughout (“If I choose to maybe lose/ If I choose to maybe live the blues/ I could sail this ship of fools/ I could sail all alone/ When I wake up/ When I wake up darling/ I pray that just maybe then you’ll be gone”).

In the end, if you approach this record looking for the legend you may be disappointed. Proto-punk, like Peter Laughner, is long dead. But if you appreciate creative and accomplished musicians with impeccable underground rock pedigree and chops (the album features some of Lloyd’s most inspired work in years), grizzled veterans who were there at punk ground zero and have lived to tell their tale, then this charming grower of an album will be for you. Call it retro-punk.

Rocket From the Tombs