When the owner of the Crypt, an Akron club that's now defunct, gave over the reins to the Rubber City Rebels some 25 years ago, he had little notion of how much the club would change. Home to numerous disco and cover bands, the Crypt became a place where regional punk acts could hone their chops. It was reputed to have been the first punk club in the Midwest, and while it lasted for only a year, it became an important part of a formative period in the history of the Akron and Cleveland punk scenes.
"We couldn't play anywhere, so we just walked in, and the guy said, 'Take the goddamn club. I don't want to run it anymore,'" recalls Rubber City singer-guitarist Rod Firestone, who has reunited the line-up of guitarist Clic, bassist Donny Damage, and drummer Mike Hammer for two reunion shows. "We said, 'Great.' We didn't have to do what the club owner wanted. [Devo's] Mark [Mothersbaugh] was my landlord. We lived in the apartment next door to him, in this building in Akron. We became friends, and I had this band. He would come out and do sound for us and sometimes add sound effects for us. When we got the Crypt, we had Devo, the Dead Boys, Pere Ubu, and the Bizarros play. We also tried to get bands as they traveled through on their way to New York to play at our club."
At the time, the Rubber City Rebels (who were named by Dead Boys singer Stiv Bators) were just coming into their own. Previously a cover band called King Cobra, they decided to start playing punk/new wave as a reaction to the more popular disco movement. With the assistance of Mothersbaugh, the Rubber City Rebels incorporated a tire theme into their sets and photo shoots.
"[Devo] gave me the idea of the industrial thing and how that worked for us in a Liverpool kind of way," he says. "What is Akron? At the time, it was these rubber plants. Everybody worked for a rubber plant. You had the four companies -- Goodyear, Goodrich, Firestone, and I don't know, whatever the other one is. Everybody worked for one. It was such an unsexy thing. We just decided to go with it. Since there was no future in Akron anyway, that just seemed like a good way to go down in flames."
By the winter of '77, the Crypt was having problems. It lost its liquor license. The extreme cold ("it got down below zero for 30 days in a row," Firestone recalls) resulted in dwindling crowds, and it eventually closed. But by that time, the Rubber City Rebels had started to play regularly at CBGB's and considered moving to the East Coast. To Firestone, however, the beaches in California looked more appealing than the boroughs of New York.
"I didn't like New York much," Firestone says. "It was too hard. I figured it would be nice to go out to California. We packed up my wife's station wagon, and we went out first and scouted. We got this apartment down on Venice Beach, not knowing what it was like. We called everyone, and eight guys came out in a van with all the equipment. We all stayed in this apartment, with no furniture. We just slept on amps and stuff."
Before long, the Rubber City Rebels were headlining at the Whiskey and other clubs on the Sunset Strip. They initially had a deal with Sire Records, but label owner Seymour Stein wanted the group to go to New York to record, and when they balked, Stein retracted his offer.
"We didn't want to go back [to New York]," Firestone says. "Seymour said, 'Boys, if you don't wanna record, that's fine with me.' We said, 'Wait a minute.' But he said goodbye. That demoralized the band."
When the Sire deal fell through, the band was temporarily put on hold. Two of its members moved back to Ohio. Firestone recruited two new members, and the group put out a self-titled record in 1980 for Capitol Records. The record got great reviews, but didn't sell, and the band finally petered out by 1988. Afterward, Firestone stayed in L.A. and did some work on soundtracks. Then he and his wife decided that they didn't want to raise a family in L.A., so they moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he works as a computer programmer. He didn't think of reuniting the Rubber City Rebels until a promoter for a Las Vegas festival contacted him about bringing the band back together. Firestone called his old bandmates, and they agreed to do it. Even though that gig has since fallen through, Firestone says he's excited about playing in Akron and Cleveland and hopes to book a West Coast tour sometime during the summer.
"We all want to do it, just for the sake of doing it," Firestone says. "We're getting all the old equipment together, and we even got some of our old roadies. The support we're getting -- from the old bands who have heard of us and the younger people who think of us as one of the golden-age bands -- is really inspiring to us."
Given that the band will have limited time for rehearsing, the reunion shows might be a little rough. But at least one thing will remain constant.
"We always have a tire in the drumset, and we'll probably have some other tire-related accoutrements," Firestone says. "I don't think we'll get the blimp to fly over, though."