An Interview with Craig Bell of Mirrors and Rocket From the Tombs

In the early '70s, before terms like "punk rock" and "alternative" were even used, Cleveland was home to a small but influential scene of groundbreaking rock bands. Craig Bell was an important part of two of these bands: Mirrors and Rocket From the Tombs. Born in Almira, New York, on February 22, 1952, Bell moved to Lakewood in 1961. And it was as a kid in Lakewood that Craig first realized he wanted to be a rock & roll musician. "I went to see Ferry Cross the Mersey over at the Beachcliff Theater with my friend Dave Davis," Bell says. "I think we sat through it like five times. That to me was when I said to myself I'd really like to be in a rock n roll band."

Eventually Bell hooked up with Jim Crook (keyboards, guitar), and fellow Lakewood High School alumni Michael Weldon (drums) and Jamie Klimek (guitar, vocals) in 1971 to form Mirrors. The band needed a bass player and, despite not knowing how to play, Bell accepted the job. "Jamie told me, 'here's the E string, the A string, the D and the G. You figure out the rest for yourself'," Bell says.

Heavily influenced by underground bands like New York's Velvet Underground, Mirrors was an anomaly in the Cleveland music scene. Bell says, "To my knowledge, I can't think of any other band in the Cleveland area that was doing that kind of stuff at the time we started doing it." The band played a couple of gigs before Bell joined the army, in 1972. Paul Marotta briefly filled in on bass before switching to keyboards, and Jim Jones (future guitarist for Pere Ubu) became the next bass player.

In 1974 Bell finished his time with the army and rejoined Mirrors. Bell, Weldon, and Klimek were now living together in a house near W. 65th and Lorain, and the band began playing out more often. "We had almost a residency at The Clockwork Orange for a couple of months," Bell says. "We did every Tuesday night or something. We were pretty much ignored by people until we started playing at the Clockwork Orange. When we played there we actually started getting people to come see us."

One of the people who saw Mirrors was Rocket From the Tombs guitarist Peter Laughner, who would eventually ask Bell to join his band. "This was towards the end of my time in Mirrors. At that time Mirrors wasn't really doing anything. We weren't even practicing. When Peter asked me about working with him in Rocket From the Tombs I had a discussion with Jamie to just say, 'Look, I'm in Mirrors. This is the band I want to be in. But if we're not going to do anything, I'm going to do something with these guys for a while.' And so I was basically fired. Jamie sent me a letter and told me my services were no longer needed in Mirrors, which was a shame, but that's what happened. I never really knew exactly what the deal was from his perspective; I just know I wasn't in the band anymore."

In addition to Bell and Laughner, Rocket From the Tombs also included vocalist/founding member David Thomas (aka Crocus Behemoth), guitarist Gene O'Connor (aka Cheetah Chrome) and drummer John Madansky (aka Johnny Blitz), who was later replaced by Wayne Strick. Of his time playing with Rocket From the Tombs, Bell says, "That band probably lasted, what, 16 or 18 months? It was great when we were doing it, and when we were focused on getting together the demo tape that got played on the radio or getting ready to play the show at The Agora that got played on the radio. That's all we did. That stuff became the basis for the whole legacy of Rocket From the Tombs."

Bell did more for the Rocket From the Tombs legacy than play bass and add the occasional vocal, though. He also contributed several songs, including "Muckraker" and "Frustration", which were Bell compositions for Mirrors, and "Read 'Em and Weep", written for Rocket From the Tombs. Bell also co-wrote one of Rocket's best known songs, "Final Solution", with David Thomas. "I wrote a bunch of things, those are just the ones that got used," he says.

While Rocket From the Tombs is today regarded as a highly influential and important band in the history of punk rock and alternative music, they never achieved much critical or commercial success. Bell says, "I don't think we ever saw ourselves becoming popular. We wanted to make music and play wherever we could. I remember the tape we made we had given to the producer for Blue Oyster Cult. Nothing ever came of that, obviously, but we were striving to be more successful than we were. You can always look back and see what went wrong where, but at the time I just don't think anyone was really looking at the big picture. I know I wasn't. I can't really speak for anyone else."

In August of 1975, Rocket From the Tombs split into two bands. David Thomas and Peter Laughner formed Pere Ubu, while Gene O'Connor and original Rockets drummer John Madansky started a band called Frankenstein, which eventually became The Dead Boys. Bell was asked to join both bands, but said no. He explains, "At the time I wanted to do my own thing. I didn't know what that own thing was, but I just had to move on and try something else."

In 1976, Bell left Northeast Ohio for Connecticut. He says, "I got a job with Amtrak out on the east coast, so I moved to New Haven and lived out there until 1989." But Bell still had the music bug, and soon was playing in a new band, The Saucers. The Saucers put out singles in 1979 and 1980, did some recording, and mutated into The Bell System. Bell continued playing gigs all up and down the east coast until 1988. "I got to the point where I'd had enough," says Craig. "At that time my wife Claudia and I decided to move out here to Indiana. She was also playing with me in some of those later bands. For a number of years I didn't play any music, but eventually we just started playing around for fun. Now we're on the verge of starting to play out again with the band we have here. It's like in The Godfather, you can never really leave the family."

Further proving that you can't leave the family, in 1996 the seeds for a Rocket From the Tombs reunion were planted. Bell says, "I was approached by Jimmy Zero of the Dead Boys. He was getting together this presentation to put on at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame about the history of Cleveland music. The Rock Hall approached Jimmy to talk about the punk era or whatever you want to call it, and he asked me if I wanted to be involved in that." Bell agreed, and the performance was actually the first time a full electric band ever played on stage at the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame.

After the performance, Bell says he and former Rocket/Pere Ubu vocalist David Thomas got together. "David played this tape for me of our last show at The Piccadilly. I didn't know this tape had existed up to this point. He asked me, 'What's this song here that you're singing?' I listened to it, and it was "Read it and Weep", but I hadn't played it or even thought about it in so long that I couldn't remember the title. It was a couple days later that I sent him an email to tell him the right title."

Bell continues, "The upshot of that is it led to a CD coming out. We had been bootlegged forever; our stuff had been on the radio, cassette tapes had gone around the world. Someone even put out an album in the mid '80s of that stuff, but all that had nothing to do with us." Compiling and cleaning up some previous material, 'The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From the Tombs', was released in 2002 by Smogveil Records.

Then, in February of 2003, most of the band got back together to play live at a music and arts festival Thomas was putting on at UCLA called Disastodrome. Bell, Thomas, and Cheetah Chrome were joined by guitarist Richard Lloyd (of New York proto-punks Television) and drummer Steve Mehlman, who was playing with Thomas in Pere Ubu at the time. Original drummer John Madansky sat the event out, and sadly original Rocket guitarist Peter Laughner had passed away in 1977. Bell says, "We thought it was going to be a one-off thing. Richard Lloyd and Cheetah had been friends for many years, and he was a perfect fit. So we did that show and thought that would be it, even though we really enjoyed doing it."

Buoyed by the success of that oneoff gig, the band embarked on a six-city tour in June of 2003. Next they went into Richard Lloyd's studio in New York to record their live set. The result was the 'Rocket Redux' CD released in 2004, again on Smogveil Records. Almost 30 years after breaking up, Rocket From the Tombs finally released their debut studio album. And there is talk of a follow-up of new material. Bell says, "It's a possibility. Some ideas have been passed around."

Whatever happens, Bell has few regrets about his music career. Mirrors and Rocket From the Tombs may never have sold millions of albums, but the music of both bands has had a profound impact on the punk and alternative rock scenes. Not just in Cleveland, but around the world. Rocket From the Tombs songs like "Sonic Reducer" and "Final Solution" have been covered countless times, and the group's reunion tour exposed them to a whole new generation of music fans. Says Bell, "I remember thinking to myself when we were playing somewhere and there was this sea of young faces, 'where were your parents when we needed them?'"
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Volume 2, Issue 5, Posted 08.35 AM / 08th March 2006.