- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2003

The Internet rumors said Cheetah Chrome was dead. But the guitarist and singer is very much alive, as is Rocket from the Tombs, the band that launched his career.

One of the original architects of American punk rock, Rocket from the Tombs, which visits the Black Cat on Sunday, reunited in February of this year after 28 years apart. David Thomas, the group’s lead singer, initially downplayed the “r” word and says he’d take it day by day. Now that the band has stuck together for a June tour and kicked off a series of dates in November, the “company line” is wearing thin.

Fans, critics and even the five members of Rocket from the Tombs want to know: Is it a reunion? “It’s leaning more in that direction,” Mr. Chrome says. “We’ve been asking ourselves that same question.”

He takes a moment to think, then decides: “If no one dies by the end of the month” then it’s fair to call it a reunion.

He’s only half-joking, at least according to published reports of volatile interpersonal relationships. During February’s rehearsals, the prickly personalities led to some heated disagreements. Press reports tend to overplay the rifts between members, says Mr. Chrome during a phone interview before a show in Portland, Ore.

“Despite the rumors, we genuinely do have affection for each other,” he says. “The music outweighs any unpleasantness.”

Rocket from the Tombs endured a series of lineup changes during its original incarnation from 1974 to 1975. A short-lived blast of fierce energy, the group is remembered for its intense performances and wicked ways with a lyric. “I don’t need anyone/Don’t need no Mom and Dad/Don’t need no pretty face/Don’t need no human race,” laments Mr. Thomas on “Sonic Reducer.” The songs screamed “no future” before the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten would make the phrase a punk prophecy in 1977.

After the breakup, Mr. Chrome and drummer Johnny Blitz formed the Dead Boys, which lit up the burgeoning New York punk scene with rerecorded versions of “Sonic Reducer” and “Down in Flames.” Mr. Thomas, then performing as Crocus Behemoth, started the more experimental Pere Ubu with guitarist and vocalist Peter Laughner. Pere Ubu began to build its legacy with versions of “Life Stinks” and “30 Seconds Over Tokyo.”

Mr. Chrome and Mr. Thomas are just two of the pilots for this refurbished Rocket. Craig Bell returns on bass and vocals. Steve Mehlman of Pere Ubu plays drums, and guitarist Richard Lloyd of New York City’s Television joins in place of the late Mr. Laughner.

Everyone is still getting to know each other after so many years apart, says Mr. Chrome, born Gene O’Connor.

“We’re all very different people and we like to do different things,” he says.

After years of a hard-edged lifestyle in New York, Mr. Chrome settled in Nashville, Tenn. He describes himself as “kind of a homebody, curmudgeonly” figure who records original songs in a basement studio, takes care of the yardwork and goes out to have a pint of beer now and then.

“The one thing we have most in common is the songs,” says Mr. Chrome, 48. “The same passion is still there.”

That passion was rekindled in 2002 following the release of “The Day the Earth Met Rocket from the Tombs,” a collection of demos and live material. The disc, the first authorized release from the band, received overwhelming critical praise. The response to the collection of reissues and the series of June 2003 shows prompted the band to record its current live set. “Rocket Redux,” produced by Mr. Lloyd, is sold at the group’s shows and will be released in stores early next year.

A new record has to push the band into “reunion” territory, right? Not according to Mr. Thomas, who declared on the Pere Ubu Web site that Rocket from the Tombs won’t qualify as a band until it writes original songs. It might be time for Mr. Thomas to give in. Mr. Chrome says bits of new material are taking shape during sound checks and in hotel rooms.

What about the rumor that Mr. Chrome succumbed to substance abuse and the excesses of the punk-rock lifestyle? It was just a prank by “some guy” in New York City, says Mr. Chrome, who adds, “I’ve been a good boy since 1996.”

• • •

The “creative pairing of the month” award goes to the David Bowie/Macy Gray tour, which comes to the George Mason Patriot Center on Sunday. Like the young Mr. Bowie, Miss Gray chases her impulses down untraveled paths. She concocts funky, earnest music for people who’ve tired of cookie-cutter R&B.

The “least creative pairing of the month” goes to rock radio station WHFS. Lumps of coal come in more varieties than bands that will appear at the annual HFSMas Nutcracker concert. Today’s sold-out testosterone fest, also at the Patriot Center, features AFI, Blink-182, Chevelle, Hoobastank, Korn, The Offspring and Staind.

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