photos courtesy of Adele Bertei
Musical Tour of an Underground Legend
Book excerpt by Adele Bertei
Interview by Jason Gross
Not too many people can brag that early on, they were in a band of no wave legends (the Contortions) and would go on to work with Debbie Harry, the Pointer Sisters and a slew of pop-new wave legends like Tears for Fears, Culture Club, Thomas Dolby. Singer/songwriter/keyboardist Adele Bertei can claim all that as bragging rights though. Even before no wave, she started out in Cleveland, meeting up in the mid-70's with that industrial city's mythic underground rock leading light, guitarist/writer Peter Laughner (aka founding member of Rocket from the Tombs, Pere Ubu). The two of them would join forces in the band the Wolves. Brief as their collaboration was (Laughner would die in '77, not long afterwards), it left a lasting impression on Bertei, leading to the recent book about her time in Cleveland and working with Laughner, appropriately titled Peter and the Wolves, available via Smog Veil.
First, we have an exclusive interview with Bertei for more on her thoughts on Laughner and then in a book excerpt, she meets up at Laughner's apartment to see his impressive record and book collection and get an earful of a special single.
PSF: What do you see as Peter's legacy today?
AB: Until recently, when most people discussed Peter Laughner in rock's underground circles, his legacy revolved around the tragedy of his early death and his notoriety as a self-destructive loser. What I'm about to say are my truths and my insights about Peter, and those who knew him may have a completely different take.
To me, he was so much more than the myth he created. He was actually a sensitive and gentle guy, as opposed to the maniacal, gun-slinging f-up of legend. And he was one of the most brilliant guitarists having ever graced the planet... His melodic reach on guitar was astounding.
Normality is nothing to aspire toward, and brilliant art is never normal. But as much as Peter was talented, he also longed to be accepted, so he went along with the punk ethos of the times, could out-punk them all, as evident in a song like "Ain't It Fun." Playing to the crowd can absolutely murder your particular talent. Many great artists talk about this, for instance, Bowie, and I'm paraphrasing, but he said 'you should never play to the gallery,' which is something most artists don't learn early on. That it's the individual will to express something you do not see being expressed around you that leads you to your particular expression as to who you authentically are in aspect to the world. It takes courage. Bowie thought it was dangerous to make work to fit other people's expectations... That, in itself, is a death knell, and we see it everywhere around us now, the corporatization of art and music.
And envy is a killer too, if we're insecure. When people shine too brightly, others get pissed off. So you cover yourself in drugs and alcohol to ward off the evil stepsisters, and Peter gave in to addiction because he could not muster the requisite courage to be his authentic self, a singer/songwriter in the tradition of Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Phil Ochs. To not play to the crowd. Addiction has destroyed so many brilliant talents. This idea that one must become completely addled by drugs and drink in order to bring back the pearls of art... Based on my own experience as a creator, I feel it's a myth that begs debunking. For instance, take Arthur Rimbaud, reborn and idolized in the 1970's by nearly every outsider musician and many a poet, due in large part to Patti Smith. Peter had a similar reputation, sans the artistic output, as a debauched rebel, drunkard, provocateur. But it takes clarity to make searingly beautiful work. Rimbuad didn't write his Une Saison en Enfer while smashed on absinthe, fighting with Verlaine in Belgian squalor. He wrote it in the comfort of his family home in Charleville, with his mother and sister serving him meals at his writing desk.
The more truthful legacy of Peter is a cautionary tale about being an artist. The courage, the discipline, the clarity it takes to reach outside the normalcy of society's expectations to create something of consequence in this world.
PSF: What kind of lasting impact do you think Peter made on you that you still carry with you today?
AB: Peter's life and death taught me about the importance of discipline and solitude, of love for your art, and clarity, and what I've just spoken of... the courage to be authentic. To embrace your wounds and speak through them... to make beauty from pain. To not allow the wrongs of the world to invade your soul.
I continue to make music, but not often in public. My love affair with language has begun in earnest, with storytelling on the page. My own insecurities prevented me from creating work for decades, and I also suffered from addiction and cherish my sobriety daily. It makes me laugh, embarrassingly so... I remember thinking that getting high graced my singing voice with the power of a Billie Holiday, but now I listen back to the early days when I was performing as a singer--high as a kite--and realizing, oh no, I sounded horrendous!
Peter also taught me that it's okay to have enemies. Wanting to be loved by everyone is absurd, and artists, actually people in general are not required to be polite to idiots with bad intentions. I recently heard an amazing poem about this in The Crown...unfortunately spoken by Margaret Thatcher, but nonetheless on point, written by a Scot, Charles Mackay.
You have no enemies, you say?
Alas! My friend, the boast is poor;
He who has mingled in the fray
of duty, that the brave endure,
must have made foes! If you have none,
Small is the work that you have done.
You've hit no traitor on the hip,
You've dashed no cup from perjured lip,
You've never turned the wrong to right,
You've been a coward in the fight.
PSF: I know it's speculating but if Peter hadn't died or lived a bit longer, what do you think he would have done?
AB: Had he licked his addictions, I believe he would have become an important American singer songwriter in the tradition of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. And he'd be revered as the amazing guitarist he was, along with players like Clapton, Page, Hendrix, Morello, etc.
PSF: Do you think the archival solo recordings that came out of Peter's work capture his essence?
AB: I think they do, in a very garage-band sort of way. Smog Veil worked tirelessly on putting that collection together, and it's such a beauty. Unfortunately, Peter never went into a proper studio to record his original songs, with a good producer and team of musicians. In my opinion, his best songs were his ballads; "Baudelaire," "Cinderella Backstreet," "I Must Have Been Out of My Mind". Who knows, maybe I'll cover a few someday.
PSF: Ideally, who do you think Peter is jamming with in the afterlife?
AB: Knowing Peter, he's hanging with Phil Ochs, Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie, Big Mama Thornton and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, George Harrison, Laura Nyro, and Warren Zevon. Imagine that jam session!
Peter and the Wolves excerpt
No other guy in Cleveland struck as cool a style as Peter Laughner. The Plaza is an apartment building on Prospect Avenue. A jumble of several architectural styles, the Plaza served as the alternate nexus to Coventry for artists and musicians. It was Cleveland's poor stepsister to New York's Chelsea Hotel, hence a natural fit for Peter, who lived at the Plaza with his ex-wife Stella for a time. The building had been constructed to house the mistresses of Cleveland's earliest millionaires, John D. Rockefeller among them. I lived there for a short time and had met several people Peter had played music with. I'd heard the stories. He was the most talked about musician in Cleveland, notorious due to his brilliance on guitar, his transgressions with drink, drugs, and guns, and for leaving every band he'd ever begun in a trail of bad blood. Twenty-two years old and he'd already served as catalyst to three of the best-known underground Cleveland bands: Rocket From the Tombs, the Dead Boys, and Pere Ubu. He incited strong opinions and stronger epithets; Peter the Genius, Peter the Asshole, Peter the Legend, the Drunk, and the Fool. The legend didn't compute with the guy I met that night, who was sweet and humble. A true gentleman.
I guess you could say we made a good match when it came to our reputations. No other girl on the scene had as bizarre a reputation as did I. Before I met him, I'd done time in detention homes and foster homes, on the streets, in reformatories. Held jobs at a Veteran's Hospital, on the assembly line at Ford Motors in Lorain, reading to the blind, sorting clothes at Sally Army. Twenty years old and I carried more stories than Pliny the Elder, with not a chip but a brick of attitude on my shoulder. Behind the airtight mask of a little OG, I was intact and impervious to hurt. Or so I thought.
Beneath the swagger I was petrified of people I admired, especially an artist like Peter, and it took a few days for me to call him. In case he'd meant what he said about my voice, I had to follow through, take the chance.
I pulled my nerves together and dialed. He invited me over to his place in Cleveland Heights, off of Coventry--a block away from where I lived.
I arrived at the appointed time buzzing with nervous energy. Peter greeted me with a warm smile, gesturing me into an empty living room adjoining the large dining room where his entire life was set up. A life clearly devoted to music.
"This is where it all happens," he said.
Peter's apartment was spotless, and I held cleanliness in high regard, having learned to appreciate order after my mother's cyclone of destruction. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd drummed it into me as well; at Marycrest, we had to wash the floors beneath our beds on hands and knees. Every morning, a nun would come by with a glove-- a white glove! --and run a fingertip across the tiles, and woe to thee if a speck of dirt appeared on the cotton of Christ's bride. A tortuous exercise yet perverse as it may sound, it gave me a feeling of comfort. If you can't control what life pitches at you, cleanliness grants a semblance of control, some order to fall into when life knocks you off balance.
Against one wall was a nubby 1950s couch and lining the other, an elaborate stereo system and music gear--a reel-to-reel tape recorder, a few assorted amps, and a collection of guitar pedals. The focal point was a lineup of stunning guitars. He had a classic Stratocaster, a Telecaster, two beautiful acoustics, a Les Paul, a Gibson ES-335, and a Dobro. I don't think I've ever seen an instrument as impressive as that Dobro. It seemed more precious art object than musical instrument--until I heard Peter make it sing. Peter introduced his guitars as if they were human; this one was made in 1959, the headstock is yadda and the fingerboard yadda. . .. All Greek to me, but fascinating to hear him recite details about each instrument as if they were intimate friends.
Fronting two stacks of records were Patti Smith's Horses and Fripp and Eno's No Pussyfooting. A 1950s blonde coffee table held neatly stacked magazines: CREEM, Crawdaddy, and Punk on one side, opposite a local DIY newspaper called The Buddhist Third-Class Junkmail Oracle. Peter wrote for CREEM, a gig he'd scored not only with his writing chops but also through his friendship with the reigning bard of rock and roll journalism, Lester Bangs.
To the air between us he offered up a pretty guitar with reverence, as if it were a holy artifact. A guitar with a rosewood neck, like Tom Verlaine's, he said proudly. Verlaine was the lead singer and guitarist in the band Television.
I hadn't yet heard their music, which set Peter to shuffling through a pile of 45s as I continued inspecting the room. Above the stereo equipment was a black and white photograph nailed to the wall by a switchblade. A skeletal man. An Auschwitz inmate? It was Lou Reed in his Metal Machine Music phase. On another wall, he'd stapled a slip of paper with a scrawl about it being cold in Alaska. I'd later discover that it referred to a song from Lou's Berlin LP, the most depressing rock and roll album ever recorded, yet compellingly poetic--the maiden voyage of punk cabaret.
Books were piled neatly around the room. Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Dylan Thomas, Anne Sexton, Burroughs, Malcolm Lowry, Kerouac, Patti Smith. Scanning his record collection, I saw the Kinks, Richard and Linda Thompson, Nils Lofgren, Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man. Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf, Phil Ochs, Tim Buckley, Laura Nyro, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Stones' Exile on Main Street, Dory Previn, Lotte Lenya, Roxy Music, Eno.
Peter's taste ran the gamut. I'd learn that Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Gram Parsons, Television, and Richard Thompson were always given precedence when whatever high he was on reached its ultimate peak. He was into jazz too, but it didn't feature much in our friendship. Soon enough, I'd experience an instructional jazz moment through someone Peter would introduce me to in New York City.
He snapped a plastic disc into the opening of a 45 and placed it oh so carefully on the turntable. The stereo system was high-end. A Marantz. Parents Luke and Margaret Laughner lived in the tony suburb of Bay Village, and price tags were insignificant when it came to their only son's desires.
"Television's first single," he grinned, cueing up.
As the room filled with Fred Smith's eerie bass line, Peter beamed, motioning for me to sit in the center of the couch--the perfect listening position for the speakers to bring forth the magic. The track was "Little Johnny Jewel," and from the first pings of Tom Verlaine's guitar, I knew I was in for something extraordinary. I closed my eyes, imagining a flock of birds pecking notes from starlight in this brand-spanking-new music, an otherworldly rock defiant of genre or label. Billy Ficca kicked in with the beat and the guitars began to chime like church bells, with Richard Lloyd's notes echoing Fred's bass line and Verlaine's voice coming on all awkward and angular, like the voice of puberty cracking. Words of boy-longing tumbling from a brain strung out on Mickey Spillane, science fiction paperbacks, and symbolist poets. The music perfectly matched a voice that didn't have much to do with singing and everything to do with poetry. I glanced over at Peter. He was nodding in bemused approval to the lyric, "I want my little winghead!"
After the record finished, he asked if I wrote songs. I happened to have the lyrics to a song I'd written about my ex-girlfriend, a simple melody with a girl-group kind of chorus of da doo ron rons. When he asked how I started singing, I told him the story of Grandma Jo, teaching me how to harmonize to the Boswell Sisters.
Also see this amazing 8 hour Spotify playlist inspired by the book
Thanks to Dina Hornreich for the tip about this.
Our interview with David Thomas
Our interview with Pere Ubu's Allen Ravenstine
Our article on the Peter Laughner boxset
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