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RIP, Charles Rocket
Remembering a giant of the Providence underground

We lost a dear friend when Charles Rocket died unexpectedly on Friday, October 7. For many, many people who lived in Rhode Island in the ’60s and ’70s, Charlie was a hero and an inspiration, an artist who truly pushed the envelope. Jorge (Rudy Cheeks) would have never had the life he’s had if he hadn’t met Charles 35 years ago. Jorge’s path in creative work — the things that really matter to him — wouldn’t have happened if Charlie hadn’t demonstrated how anything is possible, that you can truly follow your dreams.

Charles Claverie came to Rhode Island in 1967 as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. He made an instant impact on campus, becoming the emcee at almost all RISD events, and with the painter, Dan Gosch, forming Rhode Island’s environmental superheroes, Captain Packard and Lobo. They appeared at Kentucky Fried Chicken openings, and unannounced and uninvited at a General Assembly session. This was captured in the film Captain Packard and Lobo Visit the State House.

Charlie was studying filmmaking and created films like Tits and Trucks. Jorge (who had become part of Charlie’s band, the Fabulous Motels) remembers seeing it in 1970. It was basically spliced footage of trucks driving down the street and images of a woman jiggling her bare breasts, shot tight so that all you saw was from her shoulder to just above her navel. The soundtrack was Charlie and Dan talking. Dan tried to get Charlie to reveal the identity of the woman, and Charlie refused to do so. Jorge had never seen anything like this coming from an artist around here.

Continuing to perform with the Fabulous Motels (virtually the RISD house band from roughly 1971-73), and getting involved in other projects with Charlie, it was astounding to experience the range and intensity of his talent. He drew people to him. At a 1972 gig, a young, sort of geeky high school student came backstage to talk with Charlie about playing the accordion (the Motels must have been the only rock ’n’ roll band of that era featuring not one, but two accordionists, Rocket and Stevie Thunder). Charlie was incredibly patient, kind, and encouraging with this young kid, who couldn’t believe he was meeting a professional rocker who played the accordion, too. The young man may have never forgotten that encounter.

This would be true of almost anyone who came into contact with Charlie, the performer, around that time. His artistic life and real life were bound together. His marriage to his beloved wife, Beth, took place aboard the USS Massachusetts in Fall River. It was an amazing party. Some younger players from Providence, the Hamilton Bates Blue Flames, featuring a fresh-out-of-high school tenor saxophonist, Scott Hamilton, and bassist Preston "Pinky" Hubbard (who would later go on to Roomful of Blues and the Fabulous Thunderbirds), performed the music.

After the Motels disbanded, Charlie stayed in Rhode Island for a few more years. Jorge remembers him entering a demolition derby at the old Seekonk Speedway. A film crew was dispatched to capture the event and Charlie (who was a great driver) probably would have placed better if he hadn’t been playing to the cameras with his long white scarf fluttering outside the window, a la Isadora Duncan.

He did a number of odd jobs, including being one of the first bartenders at the legendary Leo’s (he and Phillipe, respectively 6’5" and 6’4", were considered the tallest bartender duo in town). He gave Phillipe the name for his sports column, "On the Ball & Off the Wall." Charlie also briefly managed a nightclub in East Providence. On April 1, 1974, he invited Jorge and a few other Motels to "perform" at the club. For some reason, the upper management did not take to the ensuing Marx Brothers-like scene, and Charlie was relieved of his job a few days latter.

Finally, Charlie got a gig reporting the news at WPRI (Channel 12). One may wonder how someone with absolutely no journalistic background could become a TV news reporter. Charlie’s riveting screen presence had to be the primary reason, but being a brilliant and a quick study allowed him to credibly pull this off. Of course, none of this was surprising to his friends. We always believed that Charlie could do anything.

There were not enough opportunities in this little state for someone with the outsized talents and charisma of Charles Rocket. A news anchor job lured him to Colorado Springs, and when he later moved to Nashville, the network affiliate insisted Claverie was too weird a name. Picking from a number of suggested monikers, he chose "Charles Kennedy."

Then came what we all hoped would be the big break. Charlie was selected to star on Saturday Night Live for the 1980-81 season. He would anchor "Weekend Update." He would finally get the type of audience that his talent demanded and deserved. But this was the year that Lorne Michaels left in a disagreement with NBC. Jean Doumanian took over and hired some very bad writers. Charlie was stuck in the middle, trying to do his best in an increasingly untenable situation. Those who knew Charlie were not surprised to find that his best SNL moments were the "Rocket Reports," filmed skits of his own design. Before the season ended, he blurted out the F-word and was tossed off the show.

Moving to Los Angeles, Charlie appeared in dozens of films in supporting and starring roles, and more than 50 episodes of different TV shows.

But that’s just the "Hollywood career" stuff. To his thousands of friends and fans here in Rhode Island, Charlie was the kindest and most generous type of person. We loved him without reservation, and he gave us that love back. He was a towering figure in the underground arts scene in the Providence of the 1970s. He heavily influenced Talking Heads, the Young Adults, and dozens of other bands. Those who were active then will tell you that Charles Rocket, in many ways, helped create the template for the underground/hipster/bohemian art scene here and elsewhere. We love you, Charlie. Our hearts are with Beth and Zane, and the rest of Charlie’s family and family of friends. He was our hero.

TEE US UP

P&J were treated to a wonderful afternoon of golf last week at the lavish Warwick Country Club. It has a view that would make Save the Bay’s present and past heads, Curt Spalding and Trudy Coxe, die in envy.

Wearing our plus fours and argyle knee socks, we were the guests of three of the most wired-in, heavy-hitting lobbyists in the state: Joe Walsh, former Warwick mayor and the most generous and hospitable host; the lovely and fragrant Faye Sanders; and George Nee of the RI AFL-CIO, a protégé of Cesar Chavez.

As everyone knows, P&J can be bought quicker than a quart of Jim Beam in downtown New Orleans, and probably at half the price. So we consider our duty to note how we, too, have succumbed to political influence, and now have not one bad word to say about Messrs. Walsh and Nee, or Ms. Sanders, and will go into the tank in a heartbeat to defend any of their concerns in this space.

Isn’t this how extracurricular favors are paid back in the Biggest Little?

Boys and girls, get a clue. Swinging the driver and nearly killing every tree on the course to gain political access is hardly the way of life in Vo Dilun. Although Phillipe and Mr. Nee did take a total of $2 apiece off Joe and Faye, which ensures our eternal devotion to whatever cause they represent.

"The best things in life are free, but you can keep them for the birds and bees, just give me money." And a better put-ting stroke.

Send raucous pranks and Pulitzer-grade tips to p&j@phx.com.

The Phillipe & Jorge archives.
Issue Date: October 14 - 20, 2005
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