“Don’t mind him. He’s my retarded brother”: A sarcastic joyride with Rocket from the Crypt

A Vivascene Featured Article by Jason Schreurs

“Ditch Digger / Ditch Digger / slap me some skin / leprosy’s fun / so let the good times begin.”
– “Ditch Digger” by Rocket from the Crypt

I’ll never forget the time I saw Rocket from the Crypt in Vancouver, BC at the now-defunct Town Pump. It was 1993 and lead singer/guitarist John “Speedo” Reis had just finished a hearty square dance in the mosh pit to the hopping-good refrains of their cow-punk classic “Boychucker” when a drunken patron knocked over some guy’s drink on the dance floor, bumped into a chick, sending her flying, and then continued to make a general nuisance of himself. Well “Speedo” promptly jumped back into the audience and hauled the troublemaker up on the stage. Once up there, he calmed down the unruly and ass-drunk patron with a few stern but reassuring words, then, as he sent the guy offstage and back into the crowd on his best behavior, “Speedo” leaned over into the microphone, and said, very matter-of-factly, “Don’t mind him. He’s my retarded brother.” Then, with straight faces, and horns-a-blaring, not missing a beat, the San Diego six-piece launched into “Ditch Digger,” the closest thing they ever had to a hit song.

The first time I crossed paths with Rocket from the Crypt was in 1991 at an all-ages show at some community hall in the heart of east Vancouver. It was on Main Street, right close to a porno theatre. At that time the band only sported traditional instruments and not a horn section (they would later add a saxophone and trumpet player), but they came out on the fluorescent-lit all-ages hall stage in matching red jumpsuits. I kinda thought something was up at that point. I could go into all the gentle nuances of the ways in which they made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, but suffice it to say that these riff-heavy rockers kicked some major ass. Blown away, approximately 165 punk rock fans walked away from the hall in a daze, past the porno theatre and out into a night that now included a very important, upstart rock band in their lives. Some of us would never let them escape our music nerd grasps.

When Circa: Now came out in 1992, the band was already being courted by a gaggle of major labels. They later signed to Interscope Records, along with their brother band Drive Like Jehu (who require their own separate article). Circa: Now was a landmark alt-rock record and Rocket’s patented horns and riffs sound (we are not talking ska here, by the way) catapulted them into sold-out shows and underground notoriety, which always quickly results in things like live television appearances and goofy music videos. A sarcastic collection of weirdo anthems with inside-joke lyrics that actually meant something (although “Hippy Dippy Do” might have just been about annoying hippies hanging out at the mall), Circa: Now was slopped together with Brylcreem and spittle and sneers and even more smirks. Maybe a misdirected wink or two, just to fuck with us.

The thing about Rocket from the Crypt (or RFTC, or, simply, Rocket) is they had absolutely no quantity control. Every song they ever cranked out in their dingy practice space or some makeshift studio was quickly released to 7” record or some random compilation album. In fact, they had a clause in their contract that allowed them to do EPs and one-offs with independent record labels (wonder whose idea that was?), so every reputable indie label, and a lot of non-reputable ones as well, would release their shit whenever it became available. Which was often and always. Because of this, we’d get “songs” like “Pure Genius,” perhaps the most distressing sounding 1:21 ever put to tape. And their two collections of odds and sods, entitled All Systems Go 1 and 2, are essential listening. In fact, if I was hard-pressed to recommend only two Rocket albums, these would be the ones. How many bands can you say that about? “Yeah, so don’t listen to the albums proper, go ahead and skip to their hodge-podge collections of throwaway singles.” But that is Rocket from the Crypt, a band that always strutted to their own beat, never compromised for anything or anyone, and had cheese-eater grins across their mugs the whole time.

The band’s later output was seemingly from atop the world, and with very few people noticing. Whatever fan base they gathered in their 15-minute alt-rock heyday had presumably forgotten about them and grown up to be complete stiffs who absolutely hate to have fun. Those people missed some of the best times a human being can have on this planet. The handclap-along and subsequent sing-along on “Return of the Liar,” from 2001’s Group Sounds? Shit yeah. That syncopated stutter-step on “I Can’t Feel My Head” off their last album, 2002’s Live from Camp X-Ray (not a live album)? Fuckin’ rights. “I can’t feel my head / oh, what a relief.” This kind of fun should be illegal, right?

If the reason Rocket from the Crypt broke up on Halloween night of 2005, amongst a chaotic dog-pile of really shitty looking costumes and rampant drunkenness, is because it just wasn’t fun anymore, then, yeah, I can deal with that. If they broke up because they thought they had run their course based on the assumption that no one seemed to care anymore, well that’s fucked and I’ll never forgive them for as long as I live. But I really can’t say why they decided to hang up the red jumpsuits, and the sequined white Elvis suits, and seal up the Brylcreem tubes. The only clue came in October of 2011 when the band reunited for an appearance on the children’s show Yo Gabba Gabba. “Speedo,” also known as “The Swami,” who was a recurring character on the show, was quoted as saying that Rocket from the Crypt is “only interested in playing to audiences of 5-10 people between the ages of 3-6 and will most likely never play as a band again.” Oh, really guys, because my son’s sixth birthday party is coming up and he loves his rock and roll? Fuckin’ please?

Full disclosure: when I interviewed “Speedo” for a Vancouver weekly I used to write for it was the worst interview experience of my life. I was young and inexperienced and went into the interview as a fanboy. “Speedo” chewed me up for breakfast. Every answer he gave was either fake or a total exaggeration of the truth. I had no idea, repeatedly asking him, “Really? Really?” I don’t think I realized he was toying with me until after the article was printed and I then was terrified to tell my editor. So I just waited for it to all go away and hoped nobody said anything about it. At the time I felt deceived, crushed even, by the little “Speedo” prank. Now all I can do is laugh, crank “Young Livers” (from 1995’s Scream, Dracula, Scream!) and hope I someday get to shake that silly motherfucker’s hand for schooling a young, wide-eyed journalist who now knows way better than to be a fan-boy while on the job. Nope, being a fan-boy should be reserved to those times when I’m off duty.

Okay, gotta go and listen to some Rocket now.

“Hey, we’re alright / we’re just lazy and out of sight / the young livers rule tonight.”
-“Young Livers” by Rocket from the Crypt

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*UPDATE: Rocket from the Crypt recently announced that they had reformed for some select live dates, including some high-profile rock festivals. Speedo told the San Diego City Beat, “If we’re going to keep playing beyond these couple of shows, we gotta reaffirm that this feels good and this feels fun and natural, and I’m confident it will.” On the prospect of a new album, Speedo teased on the band’s Facebook page that it would happen and that Dave Grohl would produce, later telling the City Beat, “I have no idea one way or the other. I just know that it is definitely something that I said we were doing.. but I’ve said a lot of things. I’ve said things that have been complete fabrications, in order just to be entertaining.” Always the prankster! Still, this news of more Rocket from the Crypt live shows and a possible new album just pleases me to no end.

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Five Rocket from the Crypt songs that will make you shake your rump and say “what did he just say?”

“Glazed” from Circa: Now
This 8-plus-minute closer on Circa: Now culminates in a fucking annoying and stupidly drawn out chant of “smoke pot, smoke pot, everybody smoke pot.”

“Killy Kill” from Circa: Now
“Killin’ ain’t wrong / killin’ ain’t wrong / killin’ ain’t wrong / killin’ ain’t wrong / killin’ ain’t wrong / killin’ ain’t wrong.” Huh, what’s this now?

“Come See Come Saw” from Scream, Dracula, Scream!
“Come see, chop our heads / although it’s toothless / come see, come saw, come dead ahead / now they’re useless.” Could this be anything other than nonsense set to a melodic refrain, leading into a driving riff and harmonized background vocals?

“Bucket of Piss” from Live from Camp X-Ray
On an album that was laced with political commentary about the Bush regime, they hit us with this little garaged-out ditty. “Bucket of piss / bucket of piss / make yourself useful / like a bucket of piss.” Wait, this one could have been about Bush, too, maybe?

“Heads Are Gonna Roll” from All Systems Go 2
The chant of “heads are gonna roll” repeats four times, then they add “if we can make them roll.” Quadruple rainbow! What does it all mean?!

“I’m Not Invisible” from Live from Camp X-Ray
The best thing about Rocket is that you often knew, amongst the inside jokes and goofball references, that there was a serious message under the layers, like on this tune about America’s fascination with invading other countries. “The sour truths and the vengeance sweet / memory is full but nothing to keep / so pull back those dirty sheets / let’s see that wet spot now.”

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Watch: “I’m Not Invisible”