Box set reveals his many sides
by Robert Jaz
Appropriately self-titled, the recent Peter Laughner release is a 5 disc (plus book) set that has been meticulously researched and compiled in an almost detective-like fashion--and in fact was over 15 or more years in the making--celebrating and illuminating the artistic legacy of a man whose actual studio recordings released number only two singles. So, with A & B sides considered, that is an incredulous total of 4 mingy tracks. However, Peter Laughner was no ordinary mug and these were no certainly no ordinary tracks:
Hearthan Records– HR101, 1975
A Side: "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" (6:21)
(Written By Thomas, O'Conner, Laughner)
B Side: "Heart Of Darkness" (4:44)
(Written By Thomas, Laughner, Krause, Wright, Herman)
Hearthan Records– HR102, 1976
A Side: "Final Solution" (4:38)
(Written by Bell, Herman, Krauss, Laughner, Taylor, Thomas, Wright)
B side: "Cloud 149" (2:32)
(Written by Herman, Krauss, Laughner, Taylor, Thomas, Wright)
Laughner was fittingly born in 1952 at Bay Village, to the West of Cleveland, in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.1952 was also the year of one of the largest fires for The Cuyahoga River, then notoriously renowned as one of the 20th Century's most polluted rivers in the United States.
Fire, industrial debris, chemical effluvium and natural watercourse work as a beautiful metaphor for feeding into the Laughner mythos and his prodigious talent of head and heart. Constantly seeking out literature, art, poetry, and music for inspiration and influence, Laughner's initial formation of a band, The Fifth Edition, which began around 1964-'65 and evolved to become Mr. Charlie and would become the earliest of many bands started, stopped, joined and departed by him.
As a huge Pere Ubu fan, and despite forty years plus ownership and thorough knowledge of their discography, as well as subsequently having a healthy obsession of the Cleveland (and NYC) music scenes from the late '60's and into the '80's, there was no preparation to wrap my head around just how much I actually didn't know about Laughner's work- how he connected the dots to create the whole picture. That is, until now.
The journey of the Peter Laughner box set travels the years of 1972-1977 and is arranged in a loosely configured chronological way, necessary to give some order to what otherwise is a labyrinthine of a career trajectory.
The vast amount of material that includes his multitude of bands, live radio appearances, home recordings, live venue recordings, cover songs, rehearsals and of course, his remarkable original compositions and solo recordings. It's all deep and at first overwhelming, but on repeat, it becomes sublime and remarkable.
Laughner had an outstanding ability at covering material from which he would then mutate, massage and redistribute to put his own stamp on. Represented are songwriters spanning genres from Jimmy Rogers, Jesse Winchester and Lowell George to Lou Reed, Ian Hunter and his good friend, Tom Verlaine. Peter, who covers an incredible unreleased Tom Verlaine song called "Come On In (Whatcha' Doin' on Them Stairs)", was considered as a replacement guitarist for the band Television when Richard Lloyd briefly left the group around 1975. Though it denied by Lloyd, it makes perfect sense that Laughner would be considered for the spot since Verlaine was a friend and Laughner was definitely no slouch on the instrument.
On his own, Laughner skillfully adept at many guitar techniques and styles, ranging from finger picking folk, blues slide and 12-string chime to glam rock power chords or Velvet Underground avant noise. His voice was also a part of his charm. It's magnificently enjoyable with a slight mid-Western twang, but never overbearing, pretentious or grating. Without ever knowing him, somehow his cheerfulness and great-guy-to-pal-around-with personality emerges over and over. Even when the lyrics or music is dark, Laughner's soul shines with intensity.
Trying to pick out highlights in such a trove is hard but several tracks stand out and show different sides of Laughner's work:Disc One, 1972- Fat City Jive- "Solomon's Mines" (Recorded 1972 with The Original Wolverines)No less expansive is the box set's accompanying book, which is strikingly detailed. Through photographs, gig flyers, recollections, essays and Laughner's own many incredible album reviews and articles, a clearer idea of just how much Laughner was able to accomplish is apparent. As a teenager subscribed to CREEM, I readily was familiar with the magazine's writings from Patti Smith or Peter's best buddy Lester Bangs (who later eulogized PL), but aside from his slightly familiar name, I had no idea how many reviews Laughner contributed.
Peter met Charlotte Presser in 1969. They fell in love and were married in 1971 when they returned to Cleveland after a brief relocation to the Bay Area. Musically, an exploratory and happy time for Peter, who already had a solid love of the Velvet Underground, but he wrote this country folk original in 1971. It seems obvious that it is a love song for Charlotte, as he mentions he would never give up his true love for all the wealth of "Solomon's Mines." As a young man he was clearly also able to dip into literature and history for lyrical material to use in his songs.
Disc Two, 1973-1974- One Of The Boys- "I'm So Fucked Up" (Recorded live May 11th, 1974 with Cinderella's Revenge at The Viking Saloon in Cleveland)
Peter's very first song, which he wrote at age 16 and a great example of youthful angst, as well as Peter's proto-punk/rock and roll side at its finest. One of the only surviving recordings of this song which Peter frequently would perform with his various bands in a relentless Velvet Underground (who he worshipped) styled groove. While Peter always loved performing covers from his favorite performers such as The V.U., Mott The Hoople, The Stones and The Stooges, including this song allowed him a chance to showcase his own original that was easily on par with songs by his heroes.
Disc Three 1973-1977- Pledging My Time, "Baudelaire" (4 track recording circa August/September 1976)
Peter's love of various beautiful melodic guitar styles such as those used by Richard Thompson and his friend Tom Verlaine, are apparent here along with Peter's literary and poetic influences that had been popularized by Patti Smith and Van Morrison (especially on Morrison's Astral Weeks, from which Peter would later record a song from "Slim Slow Slider"). Here, Peter sees himself as a continuation of the many young, tragic romantics who made their mark on the history of the arts.
Disc Four 1974-1977- Rock It Down, "Amphetamine" (Peter Laughner and Don Harvey 1976. From The Ann Arbor Tapes)
Lou Reed had "Heroin" and Peter had "Amphetamine." This version of one of Peter's better known songs is exquisite and also features some of his most memorable lyrics i.e. "Take the guitar player for a ride/He's never once been satisfied." Showcased as a duo, with Peter on guitar and Harvey on reed organ, bass and backing vocals. Peter incorporates his own quasi-autobiographical Dylanesque surrealism with his affection for Verlaine's songwriting journeys.
Disc Five 1977- Nocturnal Digressions, "Me and The Devil Blues"
This disc contains Peter's final bedroom recordings recorded on the last night before he died. In his final month of life, he had been warned against continuing to drink as it could kill him, but he never stopped and also continued to do hard drugs in what usually is a symptom of slow suicide. His ex-wife Charlotte has said that Peter always had a death wish, but in a romanticized way. Yet, he had moved back in with his parents and his father Luke claimed he was happy and still making plans for his future. Peter had never stopped loving and playing the blues, although he choose to cover this creepy Robert Johnson song with lyrics such as:
"When you knocked upon my door
And I said "hello Satan
I believe it's time to go."
Peter Laughner may have decided the guitar player was taking his last ride.
Whether solo or in a duo, in bands that have lesser known reputations (i.e. The Mr. Stress Blues Band, Cinderella Backstreet, Fins and Friction, named after a song by Television) or in bands that are highly influential (Rocket From The Tombs and Pere Ubu, who at times skirted with success and recognition), to the Cleveland underground rock scene, Peter Laughner was The Ubiquitous Agitator, The Legitimate Spark Plug and The Legendary Friend.
In episode number 16 of season number 4, which aired on January 10, 1980, the television series In Search Of... featured one of only two episodes written by series host Leonard Nimoy. In this episode, Nimoy travels to France to find an answer to his self-proclaimed obsession with legendary painter Vincent Van Gogh. Nimoy sought to find answers as to whether the artist was truly insane or was there something else which drove him to his life of astounding creativity, impetuous actions, hallucinations, depression and eventual suicide.
While seeming wildly absurd to draw comparisons between a historically significant Dutch painter whose works sell for eight figures and are easily recognized by the general masses to that of a young man located in a city that had industrial towers, a river that would catch on fire and lose 23.6 percent of its population, there are similarities. Not unlike Van Gogh, during his lifetime, Laughner barely received any great recognition or financial reward. Van Gogh painted his interpretation of the colors he saw in nature. Laughner interpreted the sounds and words he heard and cherished. Van Gogh shot himself and slowly died of his wounds. Laughner did too many drugs and continued to drink after repeated warnings to stop or it would kill him.
Van Gogh began as an artist in 1880, and created a large body over 900 works ending in 1890. Laughner made a vast number of recordings between the years of 1969 until his death in 1977. He died at the age of 24.
"...his work was not accidental, it was an act of choice and use of skills which he had worked hard and long to acquire." -- Leonard Nimoy from In Search Of... on Vincent Van Gogh.
The Peter Laughner box set is available from Smog Veil Records.
Adele Bertei's Peter Laughner book excerpt
Our interview with David Thomas
Our interview with Pere Ubu's Allen Ravenstine
Our article on Rocket From the Tombs
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