The stage name Crocus Behemoth suggests a figure larger than life, a being of strength, power and size, but David Thomas is no longer Crocus Behemoth in many ways. He ditched the moniker not long after the band he took it for split in twain. Now, he looks more like a grizzled prospector from the late 19th Century, greatly slimmed with a bald pate, salty stubble on his face, and wearing a long, well worn black duster coat. Yet, once the music started, and Thomas began to sing, Crocus Behemoth returned, a unique voice unchanged by the ravages of time. In a way, he is a metaphor for Rocket From the Tombs itself, these days—deceptive looks hiding a power and energy that defy all expectation.
One could be rather snide about age and Rocket From the Tombs. They formed in 1974, and were defunct inside of a year with only demo tapes and two concert recordings to their name. This name was then spoken of in hushed and reverent tones by smart-asses who probably were never there in the first place, author included. They reunited in 2003, released a debut album in 2004, and only added a second disc to their name in 2011. It would be shamelessly easy to dismiss the endeavor as old men trying to recapture their rock and roll youth. Never mind Thomas’s career with Pere Ubu and his status as an elder statesman of outsider rock music. His legacy is written. Cheetah Chrome, partner in crime, also has his legacy established, as guitarist for the Dead Boys, and his own solo career.
When I saw Rocket From the Tombs perform on a warm December night in 2011, it was clear DavidThomas wasn’t trying to recapture anything. The way he performs with RFTT eschews all rock and roll glamour, Thomas checks lyrics on a music stand, sits down on a folding chair and sucks cans of Carling Black Label during songs where he passes vocal duties to Cheetah Chrome or Craig Bell, and sarcastically tosses aside the whole “encore” ritual—not that he could have left the stage with the crowd packed so tight around it. Meanwhile, the band plays protopunk riffs and rhythms with a practiced deftness that bands have tried to emulate for decades.
Not many bands with a nearly 40 year history can create new works that stand on par with the old. To anyone in the crowd unfamiliar with RFTT, songs like “Good Times Never Roll” and “I Sell Soul” off Barfly could easily pass for vintage numbers. However, it’s the old material that most of the crowd was there for: “Sonic Reducer,” “30 Seconds over Tokyo,” and “Ain’t it Fun,” and they reacted appropriately. The only thing missing was “Final Solution,” despite cries for it from the crowd. These were songs we all knew, standards of the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu repertoire. At the time, Thomas had recently finished a tour with the current incarnation of Pere Ubu, performing “The Annotated Modern Dance”—their first LP along side attendant singles, including “Final Solution.” This may be why RFTT skipped it.
Though we all knew the songs, they transformed in the hands of their originating band. “30 Seconds” was all the more menacing, though somewhat less atmospheric than Ubu’s take. “Sonic Reducer” was delivered more as a formality, though not robbed of its impact. As it started, an older, grizzled hipster type with the beard of a homeless drifter threw himself at the stage, and was tossed about a bit—the middle-aged version of a mosh pit, or slam dancing, or whatever they really did back in the day. The opening band certainly didn’t get half as warm a reception, proving that the old guard still can teach a thing, or two, I suppose.
Perhaps the only true nod to any sort of crassness to the event was Thomas’s sneering comment about his favorite part of the show—selling the merchandise from the stage. Thomas offered up their new CD, their old CDs, CDs they’d been given by other bands… I handed over $10 for a copy of Barfly, in a cardboard case not unlike a vinyl record of yore. As I passed the money over, I looked in David’s eyes, and told him I hoped to see him perform again. “Me too,” he said, and he sounded like he meant it. All theatrics and irony were gone in that moment, but it was fleeting, and he was exchanging pleasantries and plastic for dollars with the fans again. Maybe someone else got that same experience from it.