Tragic Cleveland Legend- Long gone, but not forgotten
by Michael Freerix
"And I woke up to the taste of danger, feeling such a lot like Baudelaire."
Peter Laughner wrote songs about Charles Baudelaire or Sylvia Plath, or simply about how life 'stank.' Being a brilliant guitarist, he played in many bands in his hometown Cleveland, Ohio, although he was more interested in transporting New York-state-of-mind to Cleveland. Well, that did not work out. At least he could convince Tom Verlaine and his band Television to play in Cleveland.
Before his untimely death in 1977, hardly any proper recording of Peter Laughner's playing existed. He can be heard on the first single from Pere Ubu, a band he co-founded but he was dropped for being a too unreliable member, partly because of the huge amounts of alcohol he used to consume. But what he left behind otherwise was more than 20 hours of home recordings, which found proper release over the past 30 years.
Peter Laughner was a musician who felt deeply rooted in the sound of early Sun Records, that was "raw, sappy and poisonous to the mind." The real deal for him. But Cleveland in the mid-sixties must have felt very different from Memphis in the mid-fifties. The post-economic war boom had dried up, and half of the population had left the town. Factories stood empty, whole blocks of buildings unoccupied. The singer of Pere Ubu, David Thomas, described his home town in an interview: "There where lines of coal-trains full of coal, gas flames erupting, green smoke. Clark Bridge was surrounded by blast furnaces. The sky was all green and purple." Two times, in 1952 and 1969, the Cuyahoga River, that runs through Cleveland, was on fire.
Big parts of the Cleveland where marked by decay but the city was known to be a first-class-market for the music industry. Maybe that was because it had developed a highly influential radio scene that would play all kinds of music, which included black and white performers. In the city's record stores, customers would find hit records as well as obscure underground music. In one of these record stores, Peter Laughner would work after school, to make some money - to spend it on records. Quite regularly, international artists would play in the big halls, but the local music-scene grew quite slowly. That's because there was little to no clubs where small or new bands could play. There were a lot of small blue-collar bars in the industrial areas of the city, and there was the La Cave: a small cellar-restaurant which let folk-artists like Josh White, Odetta and Tim Buckley perform on a small bandstand in the back of the bar.
But the music-scene changed in the mid-sixties: the electric guitar became more important, and psychedelic music took the stage by storm. It was The Velvet Underground, that played in La Cave between the 26th and 28th of April, 1968. They had just released their second album White Light, White Heat. Laughner was already drawn to the band through their debut, The Velvet Underground and Nico. Now, he got backstage and listened to Lou Reed tuning his Gibson Stereo, while talking about songwriting and being on the road. Cleveland was a place where the Velvets were more welcome than other places. Lou Reed became sort of a role model for Laughner: "All my papers were manic droolings about the parallels between Lou Reed's lyrics and whatever academia we were supposed to be analyzing in preparation for our passage into the halls of higher learning. 'Sweet Jane' I compared with Alexander Pope, 'Some Kinda Love' lined right up with T.S. Eliot's 'The Hollow Men'... Lou Reed was my Woody Guthrie, and with enough amphetamine, I would be the new Lou Reed!"1
It was through Lou Reed that Laughner discovered opportunities that where incorporated in rock music. "You can hardly underestimate the influence of the Velvets," David Thomas recounted much later. "Every band in Cleveland could play 'Foggy Notion' in the early seventies. You learned from bootleg tapes. 'Sweet Jane' was sort of litmus test for bad taste, just like 'Smoke on the Water.' Even bands in Akron could play that!".2
Laughner bought himself a black leather jacket that became his second skin. On many pictures of him, it is part of his image. As a guitar player, he became sort of a human jukebox because he knew so many songs. His father had bought him his first guitar when he was thirteen and he practiced on it every moment of his life. It was his father too who made his room soundproof so that Laughner could practice in it with his first band, Mr. Charlie. In the beginning, they played blues-based music but that changed after he had seen The Velvet Underground. His bandmates where friends whom he taught how to play. Mr. Charlie played some gigs but nothing special. They were hired to play at a party, but only old people turned up, and that did not fit with the repertoire of the band. Finally, they were paid to stop performing.
It was his dream to become a full-time professional musician and to set up a serious band. Many times, Laughner played in his room all by himself, doing his own songs and covers. He recorded many of these sessions on his reel-to-reel tape recorder. His dad, who ran an electronics repair shop, had given that to him. His son would join him there as soon as he had finished school in 1970. Together, they would repair broken devices. For some months, he moved to Berkley, but soon returned to Cleveland as he felt bored in the sunny side of the USA. But it was difficult to set up a professional band there. Sometimes, he performed solo, sometimes as a duo, but most of all, he played acoustic.
A shift In rock music seemed to happen then in the early '70's. The Stooges dissolved, and so did the MC5 and finally even the Velvets ceased to exist. There seemed to be no space for adventurous and freaky music anymore. For a while, it looked like Laughner would concentrate on folk music, but then Glam Rock happened. David Bowie released Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and he played the Public Hall in Cleveland on September 27, 1972. And soon, Bowie produced the reformed Stooges and finally Lou Reed for his second solo album. Rock was back and Laughner started wearing make-up and dressed in mica clothes. He wanted to try something similar and put an ad into Cleveland's biggest newspaper,the Plain Dealer. He mentioned The Stooges there and got a reply from guitarist Cheetah Chrome, who was still Gene O'Connor back in those days. Drummer Johnny Madansky, later known as Johnny Blitz, joined them. They played together for a while, but nothing came of it. Years later, Chrome and Blitz would form The Dead Boys and make one of Laughner's songs, "Ain't it fun," popular but would team up with Laughner again before that.
Meanwhile, Laughner married his high school sweetheart Charlotte Pressler. Through her, he met Allen Ravenstine, who had inherited some money. With this, he had bought an industrial building where he lived and that was a rental rehearsal space for bands. Ravenstine (who played a homemade synthesizer) had a band with a drummer Scott Kraus, bassist/singer Albert Dennis and singer/multi-instrumentalist Robert Bensick who named themselves Hy Maya. They made improv rock and it was in this building that Laughner met Krauss, Dennis and guitarist Ricky Kallister, with whom he would jam on a regular basis. Finally, they decided to become a band, Cinderella Backstreet. Every Wednesday, they would play at the Viking Saloon' Finally, Laughner had got a regular band together. Though as a musician he was unfocussed, he was soaking up all kinds of influences from everywhere. Lou Reed was a staple, Bob Dylan was fascinating to him as ever, but on the other hand, British folk with Richard Thompson's band Fairport Convention made a mark on Laughner's playing style. Cinderella Backstreet was sort of in between these three, which let to them being ignored by the public. In a world where cover bands were getting gigs, their music was way too eclectic.
Finally, Laughner reunited with Chrome and Blitz, who had formed a band with an enormous singer, who called himself Crocus Behemoth, but ran by the name David Thomas. They played stoic, hard-driven rock music, Midwest garage rock. Immediately, Laughner liked them and soon joined the band, naming themselves Rocket from the Tombs, and they started to play Laughner's songs. But Laughner would write lyrics to Cheetah Crome's songs too, or the other way around. His lyrics were harsh and uncompromising. Take "Ain't it fun" for example- "Ain't if fun when you're always on the run/Ain't it fun when your friends despise what you become/Ain't it fun when you get so high, well, that you just can't come/Ain't if fun when you know that you gonna die young." Decades later, Gun N' Roses would do a cover of this song, based on the Dead Boys' version.
But there are other songs like "Sonic Reducer" and "Final Solution" that where written during these years. Many of these are apocalyptic, full of hatred and sheer coldness: "Buy me a ticket to a sonic reduction/Guitars gonna sound like nuclear destruction/Seems I'm a victim of natural selection/Meet me on the other side, another direction/Don't need a cure/Don't need a joke/Need a final solution." These songs became staples of these many bands Laughner would play with in the following years.
But despite this momentum, there was the other Laughner, the folkie on the acoustic guitar who retreated to his room, played and recorded his own songs and those of Bob Dylan, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Richard Thompson. One of his own songs was about the life of Sylvia Plath, a poet Laughner felt deeply connected to: "Sylvia Plath was never too good at maths/ but they tell me that she finished at the head of the class/and if she lost her virginity, she didn't lose it too fast/they couldn't hold any dress rehearsals for Sylvia Plath/Sylvia Plath/Came into Manhattan/She had crawled out of one cocoon where nothing ever happening/she said if I'm gonna be classless and crass/I'm gonna break up some glass/Nobody broke anything sharper than/Sylvia Plath/There is no romance in excuses/there's just a dance in the aftermath."
In an interview from 1975, Laughner describes his view on music: "What we try to achieve with our music is to change the perspectives of the people. If the people leave our shows only slightly altered, then we achieved something. Rock 'n' Roll was a way to get people to start something. It made you think. Now it is only a way to have a good time, to lull you to sleep. Entertainment is great, but it should contain some meaning. Maybe this sounds silly, but I think it is possible to create some art with music."3
The years in between 1974 and 1977 where his most fruitful, although he ended up in the hospital several times. He started writing about music for Creem and for other magazines. That's how he met Lester Bangs, who became a friend and hero for Laughner. Bangs remembers his first call from Laughner, in the middle of the night at 3AM. Bangs was listening to White Light, White Heat while Laughner was listening to Lou Reed's Berlin. "It was the kind of thing of which long friendships were born," Bangs remembered.1 Later, Laughner visited him often in Detroit, where Creem had its headquarters. "And it never seemed odd to me that absolutely every time we got together, we wound up blitzed out of our skulls on booze or speed or both; nor did it occur to me to wonder exactly what sort of friendship it might be in which both parties had to be totally numbed to be around one another."1 And musically, it clicked between them both as they wrote songs together. Bangs wrote the lyrics, and it amazed him how fast Laughner would write the music. Later, Bangs moved to New York, where he would often meet with Laughner. This is how Laughner met Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, who played guitar in Television' Laughner wrote his song about Boudelaire after he had heard Television for the first time in New York. He would even form a band named after a Television song, called Friction. In 1975, Laughner would hang out at CBGB's and got the meet the local music scene. One of his songs from that era, "Hideaway" was about a rainy day in New York he had spent with Tina Weymouth, bass player in the Talking Heads. Both would only read books, eat apples and listen to music endlessly. One wonders if Weymouth ever heard this song.
By this time, Lester Bangs was beginning to have reservations about a lot of aspects of their friendship, so before he hit town the next and last time, Bangs laid it on the line for him: "I told him that I thought he was committing suicide, and that I couldn't subsidize it by getting high with him any longer."1
Back in Cleveland, Laughner performed regularly with Rocket From the Tombs. They even where got radio airplay. But the band had too many-single minded personalities, so they split up only one year after forming, only officially releasing their music many years after the fact.
But from the ashes of Rocket From the Tombs, Pere Ubu arose, with David Thomas and Allen Ravenstine and his EMS 200. Scott Krauss and guitarist/bassist Tim Wright joined along with guitarist Tom Herman. The band drew heavy inspiration from Captain Beefheart, but wanted more experimentation, moving away from just simple rock. On their own label, Hearthen Records,' they released their first singles: "30 Seconds over Tokyo/Heart of Darkness" (1975), and "Final Solution/Cloud 149" (1976). But Laughner was kicked out of the band for his erratic behavior: "We were playing in New York and Peter drew a line of cocaine on the bar counter, then pulled out a pistol and slammed its grip on the counter and shouted: 'Now everybody check your guns!'" drummer Scott Krauss recalled.2 Laughner then took a job at Dome Records, a record-shop where the local punk scene gathered around. He quickly assembled some musicians to form Friction. But his steady intake of drugs and alcohol made it difficult for others to keep up with him. Bass player Sue Smith remembers: "He drank a couple, got on stage and started to play, whatever he wanted. He changed songs out of the moment and didn't care, if we could follow. He was absolutely unpredictable, and it was way too powerful to work with him." 2
Peter and the Wolves was the last band he was involved with. Adele Bertei was their singer. She had got her first guitar from Laughner as a present when she was 15. In a book she published about her life, she remembers this as "the coolest shit time of my life."3 Bertei was an orphan, raised by foster parents. Laughner, only slightly older than her, became her mentor. After his death, she moved to New York, where she joined bands like The Contortions. She was the one who led Brian Eno through the nightlife the then the No Wave scene, which was documented in the No New York sampler that Eno produced (and Bertei appeared on with the Contortions). Bertei then formed the all-female band The Bloods and later rose to fame as singer on the recording of "Hyperactive" by Thomas Dolby.
But all this happened after Laughner died. He was one of a kind, full of impulses, starting ideas and pushing them with a lot of energy, before he just dropped them and turned to something else. Stiv Bators, who formed the Dead Boys with Cheetah Chrome and Johnny Blitz (both from Rocket From the Tombs), remembers: "Peter was the coolest guy you could know of in Cleveland. Peter was responsible for believing in myself. I thought I was way off with what I was doing, but Peter said: 'No you are absolutely right!' He brought me in touch with Cheetah, to form the Dead Boys, and his soul was involved, but he was much too artistic. That was his problem, he used to sit between all chairs." 2
There is only one good recording of him playing guitar in the studio, on the Pere Ubu tracks "Final Solution" and "Heart of Darkness." There. his edgy, spinning-into-ethereal-highs playing style can be heard. But his gritty, self-destructive songwriting can be heard in his home recordings. Even "Life Stinks," which Pere Ubu recorded on their debut album, is in his own version way more brutal and honest, as the lyrics suggest: "Life stinks/I'm seeing pink/I can't wink/I can't blink/I like the Kinks/I need a drink/I can't think/I like the Kinks/Life stinks." This is a man singing, who used to quote the French poet Paul Verlaine in his record reviews: "In dreams begin responsibilities." He was recording until his last moment. It seems he was making music against all odds, against the times he lived in, and against being forgotten. His ex-wife, Charlotte Pressler, has her own view on him. "For many, Peter was kind of a bridge-builder in between the underground an the hits coming from the radio. Others think he was the first Punk. But Peter had many facets."2
- Lester Bangs "Peter Laughner is dead" (Creem, 1977)
- Liner notes to Peter Laughner Take the Guitar Player for a Ride, Tim Kerr Records, TK 9312043
- Adele Bertei Peter and the Wolves (Smog Veil Books 2020)
- Punk 45: Extermination Night In the Sixth City - Cleveland, Ohio: Punk And he Decline Of the Mid-West 1975-80 (Soul Jazz)
- Punk 45: Burn Rubber City Burn! - Akron, Ohio: Punk And he Decline Of the Mid-West 1975-80 (Soul Jazz)
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