On This Page:
David Thomas of Pere Ubu Talks abut Pete in a recent interview
An obituary for
Peter by the late
Famed Cleveland rock writer Jane Scott remembers Peter five years after his death
Current Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter John Petkovic remembers Peter 25 years after his death
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Of course, many words were written about Peter Laughner, during his brief lifetime and in the years since his death. Here is a fairly comprehensive collection. Use the links on the left side to navigate this page.
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Charlotte Pressler was Peter Laughner's wife. He was the mad fool of the Cleveland punk movement- the person that everyone knew was the true genius and the person that nobody could stand to be around. She wrote a wonderful memoir about the beginning of the Cleveland scene, which was very much an art scene.
-- Rock Music Pundit Greil Marcus
Those Were Different Times
by Charlotte Pressler
A Memoir Of Cleveland Life: 1967-1973
This memoir, originally intended as the first of a three-part series, was written in 1978 and first published in CLE Magazine, version 3A; it appeared in PTA (Pittsburgh's Top Alternatives) ©1979. Part II: Getting in Shape (The Life and Death of Cinderella Backstreet, Ratman and Bobbin: The Eels in Columbus , Free Beer Night with Mirrors at the Clockwork Orange , The Buying of the Plaza) and Part III: Extermination Music Night were never written.
Special thanks to Jim Ellis and CLE Magazine.
Erik Bloomquist, age seven, Plaza child, whose father owns, with Allen R avenstine, the building at 3206 Prospect Avenue, was having trouble with his book report. He had chosen Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince, far above his grade level, and the big words kept getting him stuck. I told him that the story was originally written for adults, and that one of my teachers had read it to us, but not until we were in the sixth grade. "Well," Erik said, "I could have picked an easier life."
This is a story about life in Cleveland from 1968 to 1975, when a small group of people were evolving styles of music that would, much later, come to be called "New Wave." Misleadingly so, because that term suggests the current situation, in which an already evolved, recognized "New Wave" style exists for new bands to aim at. The task of this group was different: to evolve the style itself, while at the same time struggling to find in themselves the authority and confidence to play it. And they had to do this in a total vacuum. There were no "New Wave Nites" at local clubs; in fact gigs of any kind were rare, and usually attended only by the bands' closest friends; the local media for the most part ignored these bands; nor was there yet a national network; there were few fanzines; there was no Radar, no Stiff, no CBGB, even. The whole system of New Wave interconnections which makes it possible for every second person on Manhattan 's Lower East Side to be a star did not exist. There were no stars, in Cleveland , then. Nobody cared what these people were doing. If they did anything at all, they did it for themselves. They adapted to those conditions in different ways. Some are famous. Some are still struggling. One is dead.
This is not a complete history of Cleveland bands; it is closer to a personal memoir, and concerns the people I was acquainted with and the events I witnessed. Some important figures, like Brian Sands, are left out for the simple reason that I did not know them. I hope they will not construe this as a slight on their contributions. This is strictly, also, a Cleveland story. The Akron story, equally important, is one I cannot write. Though I lived in Akron for six months once, I never knew it from the inside.
It is, then, a fragment of the history of a period which saw a tremendous explosion of energy; irrevocably determining the character of many people's lives, including, of course, my own. If you look for my subjective reason for writing this article, it is there. When you grow to be twenty-eight, and realize that you have been living a certain way for ten years now, and that you are likely to go on living this way for the rest of your life, because you can no longer imagine what it is like to live any other way, you naturally begin to ask yourself how this happened. How it happened is the subject of this article -- just the facts, ma'am.
But there are questions I would like to know the answers to. Why, for example, are so many of the people in this story drawn from the same background? Most of them were from middle or upper-middle class families. Most were very intelligent. Many of them could have been anything they chose to be. Jaime Klimek and Paul Marotta would have made fine partners in a law firm. David Thomas planned at one time to be an English professor. Peter Laughner would have made an excellent journalist. John Morton is an excellent visual artist. There was no reason why they should not have effected an entry into the world of their parents. Yet all of them turned their backs on this world, and that meant making a number of very painful choices. First, there was the decision not to go to college, at a time when the draft was still in effect and the Vietnam War was still going on: and several of these people were drafted. Most of these people did not marry; those that did generally did not have children; few of them worked jobs for very long; and the jobs they did hold were low-paying and dull, a long ways away from a "career." Yet they were not drop-outs in the Sixties sense; they felt, if anything, a certain affection for consumerist society, and a total contempt for the so-called counterculture. The Sixties drop-outs dropped in to a whole world of people just like themselves; these people were on their own.
You can ask, also, why they all turned to rock n' roll. Most of the people I will be talking about here were not natural musicians. Peter perhaps was, and Albert Dennis, and Scott Krauss; but John Morton and David Thomas and Allen Ravenstine and Jaime Klimek would probably have done something else, if there had been anything else for them to do. One can ask why there wasn't; why rock 'n' roll seems to be (except possibly for the visual arts) the only living art form these days.
I would like to know too the source of the deep rage that runs through this story like a razor-edged wire. It wasn't, precisely, class-hatred; it certainly wasn't political; it went too deep to be accepting of the possibility of change. The Eels, perhaps, came closest to embodying it fully; but it was there in everyone else. It was a desperate, stubborn refusal of the world, a total rejection; the kind of thing that once drove men into the desert, but our desert was the Flats. It should be remembered that we had all grown up with Civil Defense drills and air-raid shelters and dreams of the Bomb at night; we had been promised the end of the world as children, and we weren't getting it. But there must have been more to it than that.
I can't begin to answer these questions; I can only raise them. Perhaps the facts will suggest answers. It should be clear from this story, though, that what is now going on in Cleveland is in many ways different; and that, when the next great explosion of energy comes, it too will be different.
Peter Laughner is the central character in this story; not only because he was central to the Cleveland underground in those years, but also because I was his wife, and saw things through his eyes. And that, of course, is my second reason for writing this article; maybe in this mass of facts is some clue that explains things. One always asks why.
Part One: Origins
La Cave was a small basement club on Euclid Avenue near East 103rd, a short walk from Case Reserve. In the middle Sixties, when the folk revival was in full swing on the college campuses, and racial tensions were still low enough that college kids felt safe in venturing two blocks into the ghetto, it had become the folk music center of Cleveland . Josh White, etc., had all played there. But around 1967-68, when acid-rock began to replace Odetta in the dorm rooms, lesser-known rock bands began to appear at La Cave as well. Some quickly went on to larger venues. One that never did, that became in fact something like the La Cave house band, was the Velvet Underground. Cleveland was one of the Velvets' better cities; and among the core of loyal fans who could be counted on to show up for each performance were two West Side kids, still in high school and thus technically underage for the club. They usually hung out in the back room between sets, listening intently while Lou Reed strummed his big Gibson stereo and talked about chord progressions and life on the road, An uneasy, tentative friendship began to grow between Peter Laughner and Jaime Klimek. Peter invited Jaime down to hear his band.
Peter had decided at thirteen that he wanted to play rock'n'roll. He had asked for and gotten an electric guitar, and had talked two friends into playing with him: Russ Williams on bass and Craig Ferrier on borrowed snare-drum. The band had grown since then (it had helped enormously when Craig, one Christmas, got a proper set of drums), and now consisted of Dan Pilske on vocals and harmonica, Rob Stewart on lead guitar, Russ Williams (later Don Harvey) on bass, Craig Ferrier on drums and Peter on rhythm guitar. They began as a white blues band, whence the name "Mr. Charlie," but they soon branched out from their repertoire of Yardbirds and Stones. After Trout Mask Replica came out, the band played their blues Beefheart-style; but the main influence on Peter was Lou Reed. Reed's guitar work had shown Peter what music could do; it opened up for him what he always called "possibilities."
So the band worked up a thirty-minute, feedback-filled version of "Sister Ray," at the close of which Peter generally leaned his guitar against the amp and walked away, letting it scream. They did originals, too; there was a quasi-blues Peter had written called "I'm So Fucked Up"... It wasn't your average high school band, but they did get a few gigs. One that Don Harvey's father had gotten for them turned out to be the classic room-full-of-old-people-who-expected-a-dance-band night. They weren't a responsive audience. One middle-aged woman reached for Peter's amp cord as he was going into a particularly atonal solo. He told her he'd kill her if she pulled the plug. The band got paid not to play, and left. The night Jaime heard them they were playing for a canteen at Bay High. He went away impressed (and still thinks it was the best band Peter ever had).
Jaime himself was learning to play, thinking about starting a band. It wasn't something he had thought he would do; Jaime, unlike Peter, had never liked old rock'n'roll. Chuck Berry didn't interest him; long solos built out of blues licks had no appeal for him; jazz left him cold; most bands bored him. But the Velvets were different. For him, too, they opened up possibilities. He thought it over and decided to do something along those lines. His friend Jim Crook showed him the E and A chords, and Jaime started writing songs. He worked hard on making a tape of them, and sent it to Jim, who was in the Army. It got blown up by a mortar shell before Jim could hear it. (This was 1969).
It was about this time that a Lakewood High sophomore with an impressive, vaguely European appearance walked into the Disc Records Westgate store, where Peter clerked after school, and ordered about half the ESP jazz catalogue from him. Peter, naturally, struck up a conversation with him. In Cleveland , but especially on the West Side , people grow up starved for signs of intelligence in the outside world, believing in its existence the way an apostate priest believes in his God, a faint, mystical possibility that manifests itself largely by its absence. The upshot of the conversation was an invitation to Peter to join the boy and some of his friends in a movie-making project. So Peter found himself one rainy Saturday at Euclid Beach Park ; it had been closed for some time and nobody could figure out a way to get in. There was the awkward stiffness that arises when six or seven people are waiting for someone else to get things going. John Morton, a tall, beefy high-school kid with peroxide blonde hair down to his shoulders, wearing secretary-blue eye shadow and giant earrings shaped like Pepsi-bottle tops, decided to oblige. He picked up a brick, a five-pounder, and threw it at a friend of his, Davie McManus, slight, lame, immaculately dressed, who threw it back. They played catch for a while, throwing hard, their friend Brian McMahon watching with approval. Peter was uneasy. He was familiar with the spidery, obliquely verbal attempts at mind control practiced by his friends, but this was something new, a cultivation of the potential for physical violence. Later, they filmed John Morton breaking up a card game, overturning a table and stomping things into the ground. Later still, some nuns chased them out of there.
Time passed: Peter got to know John Morton and his friends; Jaime wrote songs and practiced his guitar; Peter's parents had his bedroom soundproofed so Mr. Charlie could practice there.
A vignette from 1970: Jaime walks into the old Disc Records store at 221 Euclid Avenue , holding his fifteen-year-old sister Karen by the hand, wondering if the Loaded album has been released yet.
Graduation from high school was now imminent for all these people; there were decisions to make. Jaime, who had attended West Tech, abandoned high school after a brief stint at Lakewood , and went to live in 1971 in a Clifton Boulevard apartment with his mother, his sister Karen and his brother Andrew. He started to form his band. Jim Crook, who had at last gotten out of the Army, was the obvious choice for lead guitar. Michael Weldon was collared and told he was a drummer. Craig Bell, who was in love with Karen, wanted to move in, and Jaime said "OK, if you're going to hang around, you're going to be in my band. We have lead and rhythm, do you want to play bass?" The band's name, they decided, would be "Mirrors." The full band practiced for six months; then Craig got drafted.
John Morton graduated from high school and went to live in a house in Strongsville . Brian McMahon and Davie McManus were always with him. One night, as Morton tells it: "Me and Davie , or me and Brian, or me, Brian and Davie went to see Captain Beefheart, and Left End were playing. And they were real bad. And I said that we could do better than that. We started practicing on the back porch. I played guitar and Brian played piano cause he didn't want to play guitar. We figured Davie could sing cause he didn't do anything else. We had our ideas about playing anti-music back then." They called themselves the Electric Eels.
The other guys in Peter's band had never liked him very much. They all smoked a lot of dope and did a lot of acid; they liked to stay back from situations, calculating their next move. Peter drank instead, and was too full of restless energy, too full of scraps of knowledge picked up from William Burroughs and The Magus and the backs of album jackets to stay back from things long; he was always going in ten directions at once; twitching from impatience, he was looking for the great burst of energy that would set everything in heaven and earth right. The other guys were going to college; Peter only wanted one thing, and that was to be a musician. When his class graduated in 1970, Peter gigged around for a while as an acoustic performer, then in 1971 went to California .
California , to Peter, was an animated corpse. The casualties in Berkeley were everywhere; it was impossible to avoid them at whatever hour of the day or night you walked up to Sproul Hall to play and pass the hat, you would have to pass them; it was as if a truck had come down Telegraph Avenue dumping bodies; half-alive, they curled up against the walls, sucking on their orange juice, waiting for the coming of the Acid Messiah, who seemed to be taking his time. The weather, clear and mild for what seemed like endless weeks, lacking definition; there was nothing to put your back against. People whispered "negative energy" when you mentioned the Velvets. He stuck it out three months and returned to Cleveland .
Mirrors, meanwhile, had found a replacement for Craig Bell; another friend, Jim Jones, who was living with his parents in a suburb remembered as East Nowhere ( Mayfield Heights ), filled in on bass. One of the Velvet's songs memorized at La Cave had been "Sweet Sister Ray," an unrecorded sequel to "Sister Ray." Mirrors learned it, and Jaime remembers their activities at this time as consisting mainly of "smoking a lot of dope and playing a lot of 'Sweet Sister Rays.'"
They were, in fact, following what will be a familiar pattern: frequent practices, intense seriousness, no audience interest, and no gigs. What gigs they did get were due to Michael's friendship with the man who ran the Lakewood YMCA teen dances. There is some confusion about who played at these: Jim Jones says he never played one; Craig Bell remembers playing only once, in 1972, when he was home on leave. What is not in doubt is that the gigs always went badly and no one ever made any money; Mirrors insisting the Lakewood teens could perfectly well dance to "Foggy Notion," and that even if they couldn't, they were going to hear it anyways; the Lakewood teens replying with their feet that Mirrors could play it all they liked; they didn't have to listen. Mirrors' response to that was to smoke even more dope and retreat, slowly and imperceptibly, into a defensive shell, composed of the belief that there was no one out there, and never would be, and that it didn't matter because they were all fools anyhow. It was a belief that came more and more to color the band's actions as time went on; which perhaps would make it impossible, later on, for them to take advantage of opportunities when they did arise. They would come to be a reclusive, aloof band, suspicious of the outside world, seemingly indifferent to their audiences. But this attitude took years to harden; perhaps at this time they were simply waiting for Craig Bell to get out of the Army.
The Eels were even more underground; it is hard to say whether they were even a band in those days. "The Electric Eels" seemed more to be the name of a concept, or perhaps a private club, with John, Brian, and Davie as members. The Eels may have practiced, but never tried to play out. And though John Morton was beginning to be known as a visual artist, the Eels collectively were known mainly for their potential for random violence. For example: at one point John and Davie were living in an apartment on Madison Avenue, in almost-Lakewood, a neglected backwater of the West Side full of cheap apartments and failing storefront businesses. They decided to have a party. John had built a room-sized construction in the dining room of the apartment, a sort of jungle gym of two-by-fours, over and under and through which the guests had to crawl to get to the kitchen, the refrigerator, and the beer. As the party progressed, this became more and more difficult. At first things went smoothly, though; I remember Davie, entranced by "The Man Who Sold The World," which had just been released, making sure all the guests heard it. But a little later, what may have been a fight started between John and Davie . Davie wound up pinned to the balcony of the second-floor porch by John, who was threatening to throw him off. No one was sure whether it was a serious fight, or just Eel experimentation; but everyone knew that Eel experimentation was capable of including actually throwing Davie off the porch. No one wanted to intervene. I don't remember whether John actually did throw Davie off the porch; he may have.
John tried art school several times: Chicago , the School of Visual Arts , and Cooper in Cleveland . It never worked out for him. The pressure was building up, and, about 1972, he decided to make a break. He moved to Columbus to get away from his life in Cleveland ; he was successful enough in this to live across the street from the Columbus art school for a year without knowing it. Brian and Davie knocked around Cleveland for a bit; the Eels were, temporarily, broken up.
Peter had been, for most of this time, frustrated and at loose ends. He had looked up Russ Williams when he got back from California , but Russ was married, and working a lot of hours at the gas station, and his wife didn't want him in a band. So he went back to solo acoustic work, combining traditional songs with Velvets material. He made a certain name for himself among the folkies, but there were a lot of audition nights and not many gigs (after all, "What Goes On" doesn't really work on the folk guitar). Peter took to snapping at the audience, calling them fools for not paying more attention to music they might never hear again. What he really wanted was a band, but there seemed to be nobody who would play his music. He envied Jaime at times; what Jaime was doing with Mirrors was in some ways what he would have liked to do. But Peter, unlike Jaime, could never have put up with the slow process of teaching non-musicians to play; he wanted people who were already competent. Though Peter never valued technical skill for its own sake, it was for him a necessary pre-condition for making music. There was another problem as well; Peter's outbursts were giving him the reputation of being difficult to work with.
But Bill Miller, the Mr. Stress of the Mr. Stress Blues Band, had heard Peter play, and found him interesting; always on the lookout for young guitar players, he asked Peter to join his band. A lot of talent had passed through Stress's bands, most notably Glenn Schwartz, who had made a national reputation for himself before his religious conversion. So it is not surprising that Peter accepted Stress's offer.
Peter played with Stress for four or five months, Friday and Saturday nights at the Brick Cottage. Stress has been called a Cleveland institution, which is not a compliment but a description of his role; like other institutions, he provides stability in changing times. Stress's show almost never varied. Most of the crowd knew his jokes by heart. They had been coming to hear him for years, and would keep on coming to hear him. The small, dim room was always jammed; Monique, the one barmaid, hopelessly over-worked. But Stress, knowing his comfortable reliability might become too predictable, always provided himself with a foil in the band. His guitar players, usually young and untried, drew people who wanted to see who Stress was going to come up with next. Peter Laughner, with his grimaces and raw, almost violent solos, was one of the more interesting.
He didn't seem to really fit in with the rest of the band. It wasn't that he played too much or covered up the other musicians, but he stood out from them. His solos were never long; he never played scales or filler; but they were jagged, rough; they refused to integrate themselves. There were some personal conflicts as well. Peter was impatient with Stress; he was tired of doing the same sets over and over. He wanted to introduce more rock'n'roll material and he wanted to sing some of it. He was trying to get Stress to record, and to play-some out-of-town gigs; things Stress was not willing to do. Stress came to suspect Peter was trying to steal the band away from him; in any case he was finding him difficult enough to work with. All of this led, in the fall of 1972, to a relatively amicable (as these things go) axing. Peter was at loose ends again.
Those Were Different Times
David Thomas, John Morton, Michael Weldon, and Peter Laughner, clockwise from top left.
It was after Peter had left the Mr. Stress Blues Band. He was living on Page Avenue in East Cleveland , working for his father as a tape machine repairman and playing occasionally with a bluegrass band. Brian McMahon was living around the corner with a girl Peter'd known since high school; the Eels were broken up and he was spending his days watching game shows and playing Kinks albums. Now Brian's girlfriend Kristen had these four cats: completely untrained, they preferred the space behind the bathtub to the litter box. which used to infuriate Brian. When he caught one, he'd wedge it behind the stove and turn the oven on to broil and leave it there for a while to teach it a lesson. This made Peter, who had had cats since childhood, very upset. "You can't condition a cat!" he'd shout. Whereas Brian thought that Peter, who was starting to flirt with a glittered-up version of bisexuality, was being silly; having settled the question for himself in his own straightforward fashion, he thought Peter should either go gay or shut up about it, but in any case find out where he stood.
So there was a lot of tension in their friendship. Once when they'd been drinking beer all day and went out to get more, Brian suddenly picked up a full six-pack and threw it hard at Peter. But most of the time they got along. They drank a lot together; they could both put it away pretty good. One night Peter somehow got hold of some cocaine, and they drank beer and did cocaine through the night. About four in the morning they decided to get something to eat. Now the advantage of living on Page Avenue was that the Crystal Barbecue was right at the head of the street; cheap, a little seedy and open twenty-four hours, its fluorescent lights were generally a little brighter than you wanted them to be by the time you wound up there, but the ribs were good. So as they walked up the block, Peter saw some parking meters, a not uncommon sight in East Cleveland , which has as stringent a set of parking regulations as Cleveland Heights does. He'd seen them many nights before, and mainly he had ignored them and gotten expensive tickets, but this night something in him snapped and he decided to do them all in. He went to his truck for his tool kit, got out a hammer and punch, and started in on breaking up all the parking meters in East Cleveland . As he was finishing on the third one, the police ( East Cleveland police are very efficient) pulled up with the handcuffs ready. Peter spent the night in jail, but his father bailed him out and he was home for the next night, which was Christmas Eve, 1972.
Life was a little easier in those days. We were younger, our bodies were still resilient, we knew there would be someone to pick us up each time we fell. There were fewer consequences; we could get by on less. And there was no pressing need to actually do anything; it was enough to know we were artists. We were nineteen and twenty and twenty-one.
There was an important change coming over Peter at this time. For some time, though he secretly longed to have a band, he had been convinced there was no future for him in rock'n'roll. Now he was beginning to believe it was possible again.
Most of that fall and winter he was casting around for musicians, unsuccessfully. One meeting would have consequences later. Peter put an ad in the Plain Dealer musicians' classifieds looking for "real punks," and a couple of kids named Gene O'Connor and Johnny Madansky answered. They were real punks. Gene had grown up with his mother in the projects on West 25th Street , and at the age of nineteen had already fathered two illegitimate children. Johnny had grown up on Buckeye Road , where the main amusement seems to have been to drink a six-pack of beer apiece, steal a car, and try to run down dogs. Gene played a mean Stooges-sound guitar, and Johnny could get a lot of pounding out of his twin-drum kit. They played with Peter a couple of times. Under Gene's influence, Peter bought his first and only Marshall amp, which he used for a rendition of "Auld Lang Syne" played at midnight New Year's Eve; other than that, nothing came of their meeting but he kept their phone numbers just in case.
It was the beginnings of the phenomenon called "glitter rock" that made Peter think seriously about doing rock'n'roll again. Now I suppose that, apart from the New York Dolls (who were "not really"), the glitter bands are remembered the way one remembers a fart at a formal dinner, an embarrassment about which the less said the better. But at the time, people felt differently. We may have forgotten what a wasteland the early Seventies were for music; but they were awful. The radio was well down its long slide into AOR programming; the hippies were aging fast; heavy metal a la Uriah Heep dominated the teen scene; people were making a big fuss over Leon Russell and of course there was the continuing series of Mud Festivals. Besides this flat, predictable debris of a decaying counterculture, there was nothing else, except a few years-old records by the Velvets, the Stooges, the MC5... and all those bands had broken up. Lou Reed had made one solo album and was in hiding. Now we have a counterweight, in the form of New Wave; in those days, the choice seemed to lie between pre-dental studies on the one hand and "Teach Your Children" on the other. (The illusion, of course, persisted that the two were incompatible).
The leading rock magazine, Rolling Stone, seemed to think this was a fine state of affairs. Sixties punk, and what experimental rock there was, they called "primitive" and "unlistenable;" they liked technological sophistication, being distant cousins of the guy who is real amazed when the sound seems to travel from one speaker to the other. So Peter had not only given up on rock'n'roll; he had given up on rock magazines as well, until somehow he ran into his first issue of Creem.
Creem these days is only the shell of what it was; its writers still go through the same moves, but in an increasingly empty and unconvincing way. Then they were fresh and exciting. They were writing about music the other magazines ignored; printing articles on the Velvets and Stooges, blowing away in a deliberately snotty-adolescent way the solemn jive of the counterculture; pushing for the new, the experimental, the obscure. Peter, reading this magazine, discovered there were other people out there who still called themselves rock'n'rollers, who loved the music he loved. And when David Bowie made Hunky Dory, and then did the Ziggy Stardust tour, and brought out Lou Reed, and got the Stooges to reform, it seemed to Peter that the moment had at last arrived when the music he loved would finally be accepted.
It is important to know this about Peter's personality; it is part of his tragedy: acceptance meant everything to him. Jaime Klimek, working away at his songs, endlessly practicing with a band of non-musicians, could ignore, or at least could believe he could ignore, his lack of acceptance. The Eels may have known that since they were more of a threat than their audiences, they were more in control. But Peter had a deep need for approval; he could feel real only if he saw himself reflected in other people. As long as he was alive, he had great difficulty bringing out his original songs. He was convinced that no band would play them, and that, even if a band could be found, no one would want to hear them. The bands he was associated with, and especially the bands he led, always played a great deal of cover material; they were underground jukeboxes. It was easier for him to play Richard Thompson and the Seeds and Lou Reed's songs; they were known to be good, but who knew that about Peter Laughner?
If glam-rock had not come along in 1972-1973, it is possible Peter would have committed himself totally to traditional music. He was always eclectic, and could find the depths in any style he played; he would have been good. But the glitter phenomenon meant to Peter that he could play rock'n'roll again with something other than the four walls to hear him; though this rock'n'roll was not his original style. The Beefheart-blues had gone, to be replaced by "Transformer." Peter began wearing makeup, and satin clothes, and platforms; he flirted incessantly with homosexuality. This about-face naturally caused some head-shakings and mutterings among his traditionalist friends, who wondered where the person they had known four months ago had gone. One can wonder if he was ever deeply committed to the glam-rock style; when the fashion changed, he committed himself equally thoroughly to punk. But Peter was only superficially a trendy; it was only that, whatever he did, it had to be in a style that would be accepted, and for that reason, he invariably adopted the fashions of the moment.
Since I had some bearing on the events that followed, I must now intrude on the story. Peter and I had married on his return from California , and as his wife, I followed him in his fads. He was encouraging me to begin an affair with a young lesbian named Natasha whom we had met at the Brick Cottage. Though I could never go through with it, I strung her along for a while, and so it happened that she and I went in 1972 to a gala art opening at the New Gallery. Among other events there was an electronic band called Hy Maya scheduled to play. Natasha and I were walking along, looking artistic, when suddenly there was a blood-curdling scream from the floor above. We, and everyone else, stopped dead and stared at the tall, beautiful girl who then leaned over the upstairs landing and said in a quiet voice, "The Hy Maya performance will take place in ten minutes."
So we, and everyone else, went upstairs to hear them. I liked what they did: broad, free sound constructions flowing into each other. But for Natasha (and therefore for me, since I was playing along), the main interest was Cindy Black, the girl who had screamed. I decided to find out how I could get in touch with her, and after the Hy Maya performance, went up to talk to the band. There were two members, one, a tall guy with a long black beard, looked too scary to get near, so I talked to the other one, whose name, I found out, was Bob Bensick. Bensick gave me his phone number, and invited me to get in touch, which I did not do. But the more I thought about it, and the sillier play-acting at lesbianism looked, the more it seemed that the person who really needed to call these people was Peter. So after a little persuasion, he called up Bob Bensick and asked him if he needed anybody to play with him. Bob said no, he and Allen Ravenstine had a pretty tight thing going, but there was a group of people who had regular jams at a house on 23rd Street downtown, and they were always looking for people to play with. So Peter called them up and one Sunday night went down to jam. When the jam was finished, Peter asked the rest of the group (Albert Dennis, Rick Kallister, and Scott Krauss) if they wanted to start a band. They said, "Sure. " A month or two later, they were playing at the Viking under the name of Cinderella Backstreet. They were the people Peter had been waiting for: accomplished musicians, but open to new music. Most of them had originally come from the Sandusky-Norwalk-Milan area of Ohio , and had followed each other into Cleveland . The move got started in this way:
In 1967-1968 there had been a band called The Munx. Denny Earnest played guitar, his younger brother Billy played keyboards, and a high-school-age Bob Bensick played drums. Albert Dennis was the equipment manager. Billy was a child prodigy, a thirteen-year-old virtuoso, and the rest of the band wasn't half-bad either. Denny's mom acted as their manager; thanks to her push, and to the musicianship of the band, they got a lot of gigs. The band opened for the Velvets once at La Cave, and Lou Reed is supposed to have been very impressed, especially by Billy's playing. They transformed themselves into the Sheffield Rush in 1969, and then broke up for a time. Denny went to California with his girlfriend Judy Spencer, a black, classically-trained soprano with a powerful voice and an equally powerful appetite for tequila. The rest of the band were getting out of high school and getting ready to leave town.
There had been younger kids, too, friends of the band, who looked on Bob and Denny as their role models, who practiced their instruments and looked forward to being in their own bands. So when Bob Bensick married and moved to Lakewood , and when a little later Denny and Judy returned from California and moved into Cleveland , the friends of the band followed: Scott Krauss, Leo Ryan, Pat Ryan, Albert Dennis. They met people in Cleveland : Tony Maimone, Cindy Black, Rick Kallister, Tom Herman, Allen Ravenstine. They became a loosely organized association of jam bands, occasionally pulling together to play out under Denny's direction, in a group featuring Judy Spencer's singing called "Froggy and the Shrimps." Their lives revolved around three buildings. There was a brownstone apartment at 36th and Prospect; Tony, a struggling guitar player, lived there until he moved to Florida, and Tom, called T or T-Bone owing to his spare, 6'4" frame, a girl called Darlene, who claimed to be a mulatto, and several more-or-less groupies, girls with feathers and rhinestones and red lipstick, whose number included Cindy Black for a while.
There was the house at 23rd Street , an old frame building dating from about 1910, sandwiched between a factory and a photo lab between Payne and Superior . Scott Krauss moved in there and painted his bedroom black. Denny and Judy shared a room. Albert lived on the third floor with a cat and a red telephone; he was very reclusive in those days. Leo Ryan moved in, and one night after a fight with his girlfriend, tore his room apart, smashed all the furniture, punched holes in the plaster, and then painted a few memos to himself on the walls, among them "Fucken Dumbass." Ever after known as the Fucken Dumbass Room, it was never used again. The first floor held two practice rooms filled with snarled black cords, a bathroom that, by common consent, was never entered, and a big communal kitchen with a scarred, filthy red linoleum floor and a leaky refrigerator. On the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, after Rick Kallister moved in, there was always a box marked "Rick" holding a loaf of bread and three or four hard-boiled eggs. Apart from that, the refrigerator wasn't used much; Scott and Cindy (who had become close) seem to have lived mainly on Doritos and potato salad from the Convenient on Twelfth Street. The house had a big front porch on which, in the summertime, you could sit and listen to the catcalls drifting over from the City Jail, two blocks away.
The third center was Bob Bensick's apartment in Lakewood. Bensick, by this time, was no longer the straight-ahead rock drummer he had been with the Munx. He was learning keyboards, experimenting with electronic music and jazz-rock; he was also (basically for something to do) taking art at Cleveland State, where he found himself, to his surprise, one of the stars of the department. Bensick, though his own bands have never been very successful, has always had a gift for putting people in touch with one another. He began to introduce the Cleveland State art crowd to the downtown music crowd, and a loose but fruitful association sprang up which still continues. According to Allen Ravenstine, he was also responsible for Allen Ravenstine. The story, as Allen told it to me one night, goes something like this:
"The thing that's really great is that I can trace -- helps me very much to keep my ego separated from letters from Spain -- I know exactly when this career started. It started the day Bob Bensick moved into the floor below me in the house in Lakewood, 1296 Cook Avenue. Bensick moved in and he liked to smoke pot, so that helped, and I met (Scott) Krauss the night that I met Bensick, hit it off with him right away. And Bob used to take these fuzztones and rewire them so they were oscillators; he had these little black boxes, and he played them for me; and I used to get stoned and go down there, and I'd fiddle around with these black boxes. And then after a while he'd start playing his flute, and I'd just play with the black boxes. And they were neat, I mean they made neat noises, and I'd never messed around with any kind of electronic instruments before. I'd tried millions of times to be a guitar player and just never could get the discipline together. I hated all that crap where my fingers had to get calluses, and I had to endure all this excruciating pain while my fingers were learning to stretch that far, and put up with the bloody fingertips till they got the calluses, and that trash; I really couldn't deal with it. It was too much regimented work that I wasn't into. But I liked the idea of playing music. So I'd just fool around with these boxes, and after a while I had three or four of them, and one day Bob just said, 'Hey, you, know you can get a whole bunch of those little black boxes in one big box, and they call it a synthesizer.'
Well, I still had the inheritance from my parents, so I bought one. And it was great, 'cause I lived in Mentor in this little house in the country, three acres of wooded lot, and a river running through the front yard, couldn't see the house from the front road, it had a big hill, used to get snowed in at least two or three times every winter, even with my four-wheel drive Jeep. And I spent two years out there not working, and just playing the synthesizer. And for the first few months, I actually like punched a card, I actually worked eight hours a day with it. I'd get up in the morning, and get real stoned, and play it all day while the other guys, there were two other guys living in the house, and they'd go to work. I'd play the synthesizer all day, and when they came home, I'd quit. Cause they -- there was no point in boring them, really. And then they moved out, and I lived there alone for a year and a half , and I just played with it. I didn't really work as hard as I did in the beginning. Toward the end I worked less and less; and then I suffered a great kind of apathy about it till I moved down here (the Plaza), and there was so much more energy down here, just generally, that I started to work with it more."
(On the Formation of Hy Maya)
"We had this big room in that house; I don't know what it was for. It was like a sun porch that somebody had framed in, real nice; it was too big to be a regular room. It was a big rectangle that had steps down to it, while everything else was on the same level, so it obviously started out as something other than a room. And it was a perfect room to set up band equipment cause it was real long. So Bensick and I -- I had that EML 200 that I have now, and then I had the keyboard that I have now, the little -- looks like a touch-tone phone -- and he had an Acetone organ and a 200, and he plugged those two together. And we had a big PA system, we had two of those Voice of the Theaters, in that little room, one at either end playing at each other, and we were in the middle. And we used to just do crazy things, we just jammed all the time. He'd come out and then we'd play for a couple hours, just straight, just go with it. And after a while we actually formed a band. And Albert (Dennis) joined the band, and he played string bass; there were two synthesizers and a string bass. It was real great. And after a while, I had about a twelve-dollar sitar, homemade, that Bensick had built. And we'd put a pickup on it, and ran it through a synthesizer, and I played it with a stick that I'd put a few tacks in and a rubber band around it, and I'd bow it, and run it through the synthesizer. It was amazing, made incredible noises. And we played a job at that Firelands College, out by Sandusky, the three of us; first time in my life I'd ever played out. No, we also did an art show at the New Gallery -- one of those times was the first time I'd ever played out, and it terrified me. So I drank I think like maybe closing in on half a gallon of dry sherry, and didn't feel anything from it; and then the minute the performance was done I was blind, and I don't remember anything afterwards. The whole thing caved in all at once.
(He remembers Cindy screaming at the New Gallery)
"That was really good, maybe the high point of Cindy's career. She was with us, I think maybe just for decoration; we told her, we said, 'We're ready. ' And she said, 'Well, you know, how should I get their attention?' And we just said, 'Oh, I don't know, be creative. ' About three seconds later I heard this blood-curdling scream. And it worked. There were a lot of people there...
(On their performance)
"It probably was impressive, just from the sheer audacity of it if nothing else, cause neither of us -- oh, I don't know, Bob was trained as an artist, I suppose he knew what he was doing: but, you know, I'm just a primitive, and that was a real primitive primitive, that one.
"I guess we did some other stuff; now I remember we did one at Cleveland State where I didn't play anything. I just ran the lights. And they had knobs, so it was like a visual synthesizer, I just fooled around with that.
"I slowly infiltrated Bensick's world, and it really is my world. Everything that is now me directly stems from that: the friends I have, owning this building (the Plaza), everything stems from the day he moved into that apartment. Which is why I know, like the whole thing has nothing to do with me. It's all fate, there's no doubt in my mind, cause I can trace it, to the day it all started and I had nothing to do with it. I mean I did not control Bob Bensick moving into that house, and my whole life stems from that."
Hy Maya seems to have been a very loose band. It's hard to pin down the membership, let alone the dates. There was an electric and an acoustic Hy Maya; at various times, Bob and Allen; Bob, Scott and Albert; Bob, Allen and Albert were the members of the band. Perhaps it's truest to say that Hy Maya was Bensick's name for his way of doing music; and that if you shared his style at the moment, you also were in Hy Maya. It is certainly true that all these people were very adverse to tight formations. They were young, and still learning; Scott Krauss in particular was wary of commitments because he doubted his abilities. They preferred loose jams; they were not anxious to pin down things any further. Cindy Black has said in a letter: "As far as I am concerned, the most constructive time took place during the events preceding the collapse of Hy Maya, when we all met randomly at Allen's cottage to smoke, drink, discuss new music etc.... No one was overly concerned with recording contracts, press, egos, etc. Just simply being kids."
Peter, obviously, was coming from a different place. He wanted a tight, committed band that would stand shoulder-to shoulder against the world, a duplication of the camaraderie he imagined had existed in his high school band. He wanted a band that would play out several nights a week, get press, get known; though he never mentioned a recording contract, he may have had this in mind too.
It is possible that if the jam band that night at 23rd Street had realized what Peter was thinking, they would have turned him down. But they thought he meant a band along the lines of Froggy and the Shrimps; five or six people all used to each others' styles who would work up four sets in a week and play out for fun. Peter said, "Let's have a band," and they said, "Sure." Rick, Albert, Scott and Peter worked up some songs, and played the Cooper School of Art midwinter party under the name of Space-Age Thrills. It was a good party: Tom Yody, the Cleveland artist, made his entrance by riding his motorcycle into the center of the room; our friend Donald Avery came as a nun, complete with lipstick and pectoral cross made of tampons, crayon-reddened at the ends. The rest of the band must have felt that it would be fun to play with Peter. A little later, Darlene and Cindy Black were worked into the band; as the Leatherettes, their jobs were to sing backup and look good. They were better at the latter than the former; in their feather boas, rhinestone-studded cutoffs, and low-cut lace and velvet tops, they were beautiful, but chronically off-key. The band's name was changed to Cinderella Backstreet, a name Peter had possibly derived from "Cindy Black"; they were now, Peter felt, officially a band, ready to take off. Probably the rest of the band had still not grasped what Peter had in mind; as they came to realize the difference between Peter's approach and their own, tensions would develop that eventually split the band apart. But for now, they had landed the Wednesday night slot at the Viking Saloon, we were moving into the house at 23rd Street, Raw Power was due to be released, and everybody was feeling pretty good.
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* * *
David Thomas Talks About Rocket From The Tombs
(And His Friend Peter, On Whom He Is Very Reluctant To Comment...)
On The Occasion of the
Long-Awaited release of
"The Day The Earth
Met The Rocket From The Tombs"
An interview by David Keenan
Aside from Pere Ubu (which was spawned from it), Cleveland's only real legitimate claim to house the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame is a band that will never be inducted there. In fact, it was 15 years after the group broke up that a semi-legitimate album of their material was released and that was only in a limited edition (after having been only available as a bootleg cassette for years). This was Rocket From the Tombs and it's mainly known as being a mutant daddy to Ubu and the Dead Boys. It was also a mutant papa to punk rock as well as spawning a number of famous and infamous talents, all packed into one band.
Originally, singer David Thomas started the band in May 1974 as kind of comedy act though even later the group would have a good grasp of theatrics. A gifted and reckless guitarist/writer named Peter Laughner showed up at some of these farce-filled gigs, jammed with the band and joined soon after that in September. Thomas and Laughner would make a new more musical lineup that included Gene O'Connor (guitar), David Bell (bass) and Johnny Madansky (drums). O'Connor had known Laughner before and been in a band with him. Madansky was also in a band with O'Connor called Slash. Bell had recently left another veteran Cleveland band, the Mirrors.
Looking back on these tapes now, how do you feel about them?
I'm not sure what you mean. Am I nostalgic about them? No. Am I embarrassed or shy about them? No. Do they reveal anything to me? No. I suppose one of the problems has always been that this phase of our history has never been made public. We started out dedicated to hard, groove rock. Midwestern garage rock. We remain dedicated to hard, groove rock. Midwestern garage rock. This is the foundation but like many foundations maybe it rests unnoticed. You have to remember the Prime Directive: Never repeat yourself. At all costs, and beyond any reason or logic, keep moving. So we made this music in 1974-5. It's hard, groove rock played with passion and unwavering dedication. Isn't that what you're supposed to do? And once you've proved that you HAVE the Right Stuff you move forward or you slip backwards. Only the dead remain secure.
What exactly happened in Cleveland during the early-Seventies to make it such an insanely creative spot? Most people think of these years as a bit of a black hole for outsider rock 'n' roll - how come it was so different in Cleveland? Was the fact that The Velvet Underground had pulled through there a couple of times really that significant?
A lot of things came together in one place and one time. I'm tired of going thru the story but I'll give it a shot one last time.
(1.) It was a unique generational window. Charlotte Pressler described it best in her piece, "Those Were Different Times." I quote the first few paragraphs.
"This is a story about life in Cleveland from 1968 to 1975, when a small group of people were evolving styles of music that would, much later, come to be called "New Wave." Misleadingly so, because that term suggests the current situation, in which an already evolved, recognized "New Wave" style exists for new bands to aim at. The task of this group was different: to evolve the style itself, while at the same time struggling to find in themselves the authority and confidence to play it. And they had to do this in a total vacuum. The whole system of New Wave interconnections which made it possible for every second person on Manhattan's Lower East Side to become a star did not exist. There were no stars in Cleveland. Nobody cared what these people were doing. If they did anything at all, they did it for themselves. They adapted to those conditions in different ways. Some are famous. Some are still struggling. One is dead.
"There are questions I would like to know the answers to. Why, for example, are so many of the people in this story drawn from the same background? Most of them were from middle or upper-middle class families. Most were very intelligent. Many of them could have been anything they chose to be. There was no reason why they should not have effected an entry into the world of their parents. Yet all of them turned their backs on this world, and that meant making a number of very painful choices. First, there was the decision not to go to college at a time when the draft was still in effect and the Vietnam War was still going on; and several of these people were drafted. Most of these people did not marry; those that did generally did not have children; few of them worked jobs for very long; and the jobs they did hold were low-paying and dull, a long ways from a "career." Yet they were not drop-outs in the Sixties sense; they felt, if anything, a certain affection for consumerist society, and a total contempt for the so-called counterculture. The Sixties drop-outs dropped in to a whole world of people just like themselves but these people were on their own.
"You can ask, also, why they all turned to rock 'n' roll. Most of these people were not natural musicians. Peter perhaps was, and Albert Dennis, and Scott Krauss; but John Morton and David Thomas and Allen Ravenstine and Jaime Klimek would probably have done something else, if there had been anything else for them to do. One can ask why there wasn't; why rock 'n' roll seemed to be the only choice.
"I would like to know too the source of the deep rage that runs through this story like a razor-edged wire. It was a desperate, stubborn refusal of the world, a total rejection; the kind of thing that once drove men into the desert, but our desert was the Flats. Remember that the people who did this music had an uncompromising stance that gave them no way up and no way out. It was the inward-turning, defiant stance of a beleaguered few who felt themselves to be outside music, beneath media attention, and without hope of an audience. It seems that the years from 1974 to 1978 in Cleveland were a flash point, a quick and brilliant explosion, even epochal, but over with and done. No amount of nostalgia can bring those years back; they were different times. Still, I can't imagine living any other way than the way I learned to live in Cleveland during those years. We found it hard, in 1975, to imagine that anyone would live to see the year 2000. It's not that hard to imagine it now. What's become hard to imagine - but then why would we want to recapture it? - is the timeless, frozen, quality of life as we lived it in 1975, in the terminal landscape of Cleveland, with our drivenness, our rage, and our dreams of breaking through."
(2) Cleveland was, in the early 70s, a nexus for all music. Record shops competed for the new and cutting, for the complete and final word. Almost everyone I can think of who was in a band was working in a record store. Not only the college radio stations but even local commercial FM stations played radical music. So the "scene" in Cleveland was compact, informed, tough and protected from any threat of fame or acceptance.
(3) We were the Ghoulardi kids. It's been suggested by any number of us that the Cleveland/Akron event of the early 70s was attributable in large part to his influence. I was ten in 1963 when he went on air and 13 when he left Cleveland in 1966. After him I believe that I could only have perceived the nature of media and the possibilities of the narrative voice in particular ways. Describing how he devastated the authority of the media, and of the Great and the Good, how he turned the world upside down, would take too long and would be too hard to translate-- a dumb slogan or two, some primitive blue screen technique, and a couple firecrackers for 90 minutes on the TV every Friday night, how unsafe could that be? You have no idea. He was the Flibberty Jib Man.
(4) Don't dismiss the power of The Velvets. Yes, it was a big deal. It changed lives. Every band in Cleveland in the early 70s could do Foggy Notion, for example-- all that unreleased stuff that would later appear on bootlegs-- but learned from cassettes. Doing Sweet Jane was such a rube thing to do it came to be a litmus test for naffness-- like doing Smoke On The Water or something. Bands from AKRON would do Sweet Jane!
Rocket From The Tombs almost seem now like some kind of early testing ground for the new punk rock/avant rock. Their impact seems to be more in the way that they infected other groups - Pere Ubu, Dead Boys etc - was there something so intense and charged about that grouping that meant it would always be an unstable entity? Does the fact that its legacy is so fractured bother you?
RFTT was always doomed. Everything from Cleveland was doomed. RFTT is totally inconsequential and irrelevant. Pere Ubu is totally inconsequential and irrelevant. That is the power of Cleveland. Embrace, my brothers, the utter futility of ambition and desire. Your only reward is a genuine shot at being the best. The caveat is that no one but your brothers will ever know it. That's the deal we agreed to.
Looking back at the lyrical pre-occupations and the casualties that resulted, that whole scene seems an intensely nihilistic/apocalyptic one - would you agree with this perception? What was it that fuelled such nihilism? Or was it just an as-serous-as-your-life approach to art?
I don't know what drove it. Of course we were serious. What kind of question is that? It was a compact and isolated group of people. The rivalries were intense. The disdain for anything anodyne was immediate and severe. It was a hothouse environment. Lots of the people lived on the urban frontier. Allen, Peter and all the crew at the Plaza were real urban pioneers. It could get weird. And we were young. We had turned our backs on the hippies and we had rejected the safe course thru college. (Until just recently no Ubu member had ever graduated from college-- or even lasted more than a year! And we were smart kids and EVERYBODY went to college in those days.) So we were drawn to art and in the early 70s rock music was the only valid art form. Rock music was the cutting edge. If you were good you went into rock. If you were 2nd string, if you were not quite good enough, then maybe you wrote or painted or made films. Who cares?
How do Pere Ubu and Rocket relate? Are the Ubu seeds to be found in Rocket or would you say Ubu's project was distinctly different?
I don't know. They relate because Peter and I went on to form Pere Ubu and so for us it was a continuum. For Scott Krauss, for example, or Allen Ravenstine, or Tom Herman, it was not.
Were you consciously trying to bring the techniques of the avant-garde to rock music? Was it as theoretical as that or was it more to do with taking rock 'n' roll at its word and freaking with it?
Rock is the avant garde. There was no question of taking one to the other. This is a racial problem. Because you are a foreigner you don't understand the nature of rock music as a cultural voice, as the American folk experience, so you are always looking to interpret it in alien terms. This was the problem with punk. Punk was an imperialistic grab at someone else's culture fueled by chicken-hawkers, multi-national corporations and a guy who wanted to sell clothes. It provided a dumbed-down template aimed at the lowest-common denominator that sold the Big Lie that art was something ANYBODY could do. Well it wasn't. It isn't. It never will be. (I always had this problem at Rough Trade in any Desert Island Disk debate-- no one believed, that given one record to take, I wouldn't hesitate a nanosecond to choose John Cougar Mellenkamp's out-takes to any Smiths record. John Cougar was playing the music of his culture with an authentic voice, that Smiths guy, hard as he tried, as great as he was, as much as I liked what he did, could never disguise the stone cold fact that he was a foreigner and once removed from the True Moment.)
How do you feel about The Dead Boys' version of "Sonic Reducer"? What was the idea of the sonic reducer?
I'm not keen on it-- the vocals are overcooked-- but maybe also it's because it's the source of the one piece of bitterness I have in my career. When Gene asked if they could use some of the material I told him he could have it all, take all the credit, but NOT Sonic Reducer. They could use Sonic Reducer but they couldn't pile on the writer credits. But they did. Gene and I remain friends but he knows how I feel and we avoid the conversation. I think I explained sonic reduction as well as it can be done in the liner notes.
What do you think of the subsequent near-deification of Peter Laughner in the rock and fan press? What are your memories of him now? How important was his input/role in Rocket? What do you think he would have done had he lived? You ever read Lester Bangs's tribute to him? What did you think of that?
I have nothing to say to outsiders about Peter. Do what you want. Believe what you want. Use him for any agenda you have in mind. Leave me out of it.
Do you see a direct line of descent from RFTT through to your current stuff?
Do you ever get sad and nostalgic for those "different times"? Could rock music ever be so free and full of possibilities again?
I am not nostalgic. Rock music remains the only music that is free and full of possibilities. All the endless variants of dance / ambiance are a dead end. Jazz suffers on without the human voice and rose as far as it could under that restriction many years ago. World Music is MOR background music for TV shows about women's problems. No, I am not nostalgic. I still walk the narrow road. Say, how's things in YOUR town?
About the "RFTT" Scene....
What made this scene so unique was that there was no scene at all then. As Charlotte Pressler noted:
There were no "New Wave Nites" at local clubs; in fact gigs of any kind were rare, and usually attended only by the bands' closest friends; the local media for the most part ignored these bands; nor was there yet a national network; there were few fanzines; there was no Radar, no Stiff, no CBGB even. There were no stars in Cleveland then. Nobody cared what these people were doing. If they did anything at all, they did it for themselves.
Although they had done some demos (one of which would appear on a Peter Laughner CD, years after his death in 1977), the only recorded work that's now available of the band is a series of radio broadcasts that were also released years later.
The material and the sound of the band would be carried over later to both Ubu and the Dead Boys (even though the Dead Boys would wind up with a lot of Rockets material, Thomas decided to disown almost all of it). Thomas' shrieking singing (which would later become a staple of Ubu) caused so much head-shaking in the band that they brought on Stiv Bators briefly to sing while Thomas played keyboards and sax. This didn't work out for long so Thomas was singing with the band again- they decided that Bators was such a poser that Thomas was the better choice. Still, since the rest of the band weren't sure of him, they split the vocals on most of the songs, which were mostly written Laughner and O'Connor. Madansky was replaced briefly by Wayne Strick who was fired after he kept ripping off the band's equipment. Somehow this disparate crew got opening gigs ranging from Iron Butterfly to Captain Beefheart to Television (who Laughner actually joined briefly).
Since their only recorded legacy is a radio broadcast, the sound quality isn't polished but then again that's never what the Rockets were about. The inspiration and perspiration was more than live and still holds up today. Stooge covers start and end the album, just as they did in concert. The mad guitar roar is pure Detroit- sure enough the band tried unsuccessfully to shop their tapes to the MC5's first manager, White Panther leader John Sinclair. The sound of the Rockets is much more ferocious than Ubu or the Dead Boys. Still, they didn't give up the original theatrics or art that the band started with. The Stooges "Raw Power" was their intro for the shows for Thomas to come out. "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" was still pretty disturbing and twisted even before Allen Ravenstine turned it into more of a horror-show in Pere Ubu. "Final Solution" was another Thomas song and another brooding, existential rant that Ubu would again rework- not surprisingly, Bators and company didn't want to have anything to do with these songs. Also interesting is the way they copped sources into their songs: Bell's "Muckraker" from Bowie's "Jean Genie" and the intro from "Down In Flames" from the Who's "Pinball Wizard."
Eventually, "creative differences" broke up the band around the summer of 1975 as it got as bad as having backstage fist-fights. Laughner (who liked to do traditional stuff like "Route 66" and Dylan) and Thomas wanted different things for the band than O'Connor and Madansky (who were more into glam). O'Connor (Cheetah Chrome), Bators and Madansky (Johnny Blitz) would later form Frankenstein, which would become the Dead Boys (who found some measure of fame and infamy). "Ain't It Fun" would become one of their best-known songs, among a number of Rockets songs they used. Laughner and Thomas would find a group of like-minded guys to form the artier Pere Ubu (initially as a one-off project). Ubu's first single would be "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," a Rockets favorite. Laughner would quit the band soon after, forming a number of other groups. Laughner, like Bell, would also get a number of writing assignments including a number of reviews for Creem. Later, after Laughner's death in June 1977 (from pancreatitis), the band would include the Rockets' "Life Stinks" on their debut album. According to the Pere Ubu box set, Bell lives in New Haven ( Connecticut) "to make more music and work on the railroad." Such is the stuff that becomes of legends.
I'd say that their finest moment came from a little speech that Laughner gave during a radio broadcast of the Rockets. The rest of the band were fiercely against him saying it but he got his way. He described the session that was being broadcast (and would become the Life Stinks album).
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* * *
Peter Laughner is dead.
by Lester Bangs
Perhaps the name means nothing to you. If it doesn't I would hope that you would read this anyway, because one of the reasons I am writing it is that there is more than a little of what killed Peter in me, as there may well be in you. This is a magazine created by rock writers about rock musicians for rock fans, and Peter was all three. Before dying on June 22nd at the age of twenty-four of acute pancreatitis, he founded Cleveland, Ohio's original legendary underground rock band, Rocket from the Tombs. They played an amphetamine-driven blend of Velvets-Stooges, and Peter dashed off lyrics on the order of "I can't think / I need a drink / Life stinks." Later they more or less mutated into Pere Ubu, who can be heard (including guitar solos by Peter) on the first Max's Kansas City album. I found it interesting that when they were interviewed in a recent issue of this magazine, they didn't mention their deposed founder once.
But then, perhaps they were being kind. Peter was a great writer as well as being a gifted musician. You can get some idea of his style from what was probably the best thing he ever had published, his review of Lou Reed's Coney Island Baby in the March 1976 issue of Creem:
This album made me so morose and depressed when I got the advance copy that I stayed drunk for three days. I didn't go to work. I had a horrible physical fight with my wife over a stupid bottle of 10 mg Valiums. (She threw an ashtray, a brick , and a five foot candelabra at me, but I got her down and beat her head on the wooden floor.) I called up the editor of this magazine (on my bill) and did virtually nothing but cough up phlegm in an alcoholic stupor for three hours, wishing somewhere in the back of my deadened brain that he could give me a clue as to why I should like this record. I came on to my sister-in-law: "C'mon over and gimme head while I'm passed out." I cadged drinks off anyone who would come near me or let me in their apartments. I ended up the whole debacle passing out stone cold after puking and pissing myself at a band rehearsal, had to be kicked awake by my lead singer...before dropping six Valiums (and three vitamin B complexes, so I must've figured to wake up, or at least that the autopsy would say my liver was OK).
That is more than just the braggadocio of a post-teen druggie. I believe that the key to Peter's life and death, at least insofar as they apply to us, can be found in that autobiographical review. Later on he reminisces about his college days: "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'...plus I had a rock band and we played all these songs, fueled pharmaceutically...In this way I cleverly avoided all intellectual and creative responsibilities at the cleavage of the decades...Who needed the promise of college and career? Lou Reed was my Woody Guthrie, and with enough amphetamine I would be the new Lou Reed!" I originally met Peter via what was to be the first of many three A.M. phone calls. I had been listening to White Light/White Heat at the time; he told me he was listening to Berlin. It was the kind of thing of which long friendships were born. Later he visited me often in Detroit, 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. At the end of one of our all-night sorties Peter ended up back in the hospital in Cleveland, and even wrote about it in a Rory Gallagher story for Creem. Peter was in the hospital a lot during the last two years of his life, in fact. Around the time I moved to New York from Detroit (last fall), he called me up and told me that the doctors had informed him that he was going to die if he didn't stop all drinking and the use of drugs. "It's gonna hafta be Valium and grass from here on out," he said. "Shit, you gotta have something'." But it was also around this time that his midnight phone calls began to take on a creepy tinge. Sometimes he would be mush mouthed on morphine or pain pills, sometimes hoarse from a few days' bout with speed and cognac and beer. On one visit in the fall, he no sooner walked in the door than he plunked himself down in the middle of the living room floor, pulled a pint of Courvoisier from his pocket, asked for a can of Rheingold from the refrigerator, and began chasing one with the other as fast as a he possibly could. It was at this point that our macho buddy drink and drug rituals began to me to seem a little formularized. We ended the night with me speeding my brains out dashing off inferior reviews of records I barely began to listen to, Peter on the couch in a drink-and-Valium coma. The next time he came to town the first thing he did was ask for my PDR-he had a pill he wanted to look up. He didn't even know what it was, but he wanted to shoot it. I advised him to slow down a little, so he settled for another coma from orally ingested liquor and codeine and Valium. By this time I was beginning to have reservations about a lot of aspects of our friendship, so before he hit town the next and last time, I laid it on the line: I told him that I thought he was committing suicide, and that I couldn't subsidize it by getting high with him any longer. I said that I would see him but wouldn't drink with him and that he couldn't stay here. I didn't say that I was afraid of him dropping dead on my floor. He promised to abide by my wishes. He didn't. The next and last time Peter hit town he had his father (almost literally) in tow. I walked into my apartment and there they were: father and son, business suit and black leather, both drunk, both smiling in their horror. It was a tableau worth more words than I have. He told me his father was Sgt. something of the New York police force, and I believed him, and asked Sgt. something what the hell he was doing in my house. Things got a little hostile, then things got confused, then he left almost as soon as I realized who he really was, though I may be ascribing to him furtiveness he did not really possess, leaving me alone once again with Peter. I was getting ready to form my own band at the time, so we spent the afternoon trying to work up arrangements to go with lyrics I'd written. The music came quick and fast, because Peter was brilliant, but he had a little bottle of wine he kept taking nips off of. I did not have the guts to say anything about it. Jamming the next day we got totally shitfaced, and he gave me some Dalmanes, which are approximate to Librium, before rushing out the door, where he met my girlfriend on the way in. "I just gave Lester some Dalmanes," he breathlessly told her, "so you better go up and check on him because he may be dead! I gotta go see Patti Smith." That night was the occasion of the Punk magazine benefit at CBGB's at which the well-known incident of Peter trying to push his way onstage to jam with Patti's group and getting kicked off by Lenny Kaye and her brother occurred. J. D. Daugherty said that for the rest of the night Peter just stood around the club seething in wounded rage, glaring at everyone with splintered red eyes. He came by my place to drop off something he'd borrowed (every time he visited me he borrowed something, always an album or a book or a pair of sunglasses to take away as some kind of memento or fetish...) next day, and when I saw him down in the street (because I wouldn't let him up here) he looked terrible: dressed in his usual Lou Reed uniform of black leather jacket and gloves, he also had on a red T-shirt with holes cut into it by scissors, and a really corny imitation black leather plastic hat that I hadn't known he'd taken the night before (Lester's dead but I'm wearing his hat), which he begged me to let him wear back to Cleveland. I said no, and told him that he could buy one just like it for five dollars at Korvette's. He thought I was making fun of him; his state had been and was such that he couldn't tell the difference between the real thing and a piece of apparel that got me laughed at when I wore it to CBGB's. He looked at once ghastly and pathetic, the T-shirt and askew cap creating a nightmare Little Rascals effect of some horribly diseased eight year-old. I got really angry and lit into him: "You're killing yourself just so you can be like Lou Reed and Tom Verlaine [who doesn't even take drugs, but was Peter's idol], two people who everybody in this town knows are complete assholes!" It was the last time I ever saw him. It would have been the last time anyway, because had he called again I was planning to tell him that my own will-power was too flimsy: I could not trust myself to be around him and not get drunk or take drugs, so I had no choice but to never be around him. To tell the truth, being his friend had become so harrowing and ugly that I was looking for an out anyway. When he went back to Cleveland he checked immediately into the hospital. I saw Patti a couple of days later and asked her about the incident at CBGB's, and she said: "It's nothin'. Peter's all right, everybody gets thrown off our stage." I called up his mother and told her to relay the message that Patti was not mad at him; she later wrote me that when she did, it was the only time she saw him smile. Now he is dead, and I hope you don't take this as mere sentiment or another antidrug lecture. I would just like to try to preserve some of the meaning of Peter's life and death for those of us both in and out of the scene he immolated himself to emulate. I especially would like to direct it at a certain little Cleveland asshole who laughed when I went to CBGB's the night of Peter's death and told everyone about it. Because this kid's death was not meaningless, he wasn't just some fool who took too many drugs and so what because we all knew it was coming. Peter Laughner had his private pains and compulsions, but at least in part he died because he wanted to be Lou Reed. That certainly was not Lou's fault; it was Peter's. Though he was a casualty of the times, he brought it all upon himself. In a sense Peter reminded me of a character in an old Terry Southern story, "You're Too Hip, Baby." It was about a guy in the bohemian scene in Paris around 1960, who followed all the jazz musicians, poets, and hipsters around, took all the right drugs, did and said all the right things. Eventually he became so rigidly correct that another hipster dismissed him with, "You're too hip, baby. I just can't carry you anymore." And there is something of that aspect of Peter in myself and almost everyone I know. Inasmuch as today I would not walk across the street to spit on Lou Reed, not because of Peter but because Peter's death was the end of an era for me-and era of the most intense worship of nihilism and deathtripping in all marketable forms. (And perhaps just one more signal that the twin concepts of nihilism and the antihero have had it. What began with The Wild One and James "nobody understands me" Dean, ran with increasing vehement negativism up through the Stones and Velvets and Iggy has finally culminated in the ersatz jive of groups like Suicide who are not just oppressive and offensive but so boring that they lead you to think that it may be time to begin thinking in terms of heroes again, of love instead of hate, of energy instead of violence, of strength instead of cruelty, of action instead of reaction.) But I suspect it's also the beginning of an era-the "new wave" can boast it's first casualty, and given the predilection of this scene for drugs and general destructiveness you can bet there'll be plenty more. It seems just too corny to say that you might prefer to give yourself over to life and the pursuit of positive energies. I recall sitting around my mother's parlor with one of my old speed-shooting buddies in 1971, telling him I was going to try to give up drugs (of course I didn't) and haltingly explaining: "Well...it's just...I kinda wanna devote myself to life..." I was embarrassed. He laughed for fifteen minutes. Three months later he was dead. But if Peter Laughner died in part for my sins I tell you now that I will never take amphetamines again (all they ever make me write anymore is crap anyway) and if you wanna kill yourself you can too but stay away from me because it's just too sad, besides which I haven't got the time. Perhaps the best epitaph I could offer Peter comes from the conclusion of his own Coney Island Baby review: "Here I sit, sober and perhaps even lucid, on the kind of winter's day that makes you realize a New Year is just around the corner and you've got very little to show for it, but if you are going to get anything done on this planet, you better pick it up with both hands and DO IT YOURSELF." Good-bye baby and amen. You know what? I don't care that he's dead. That's what I wrote in a letter to his sister-in-law after finishing the above, and then I went out and mailed it to her, but walking down Sixth Avenue something in the sunlight struck me, a glint in the leaves made me dizzy, the sounds and the feel of breath and being lifted me above myself right into the middle of the street, and I don't know if Peter was looking down on me then but the sky was crying warm blood, and it may have been only that pounding in my veins at the ecstasy of being alive. See because when all is said and done I don't care that he is dead, although I do feel a certain complicity, because other than that there would be only anger left, anger at life and anger at our blood that spills out of our weakness into troughs of uncaring. If I let myself get started I will only begin to rant and threaten those who glamorize death, but there is a death in the balance and you better look long and hard at it you stupid fuckheads, you who treat life as a camp joke, you who have lost your sense of wonder about the state of being alive itself, I AM OUT FOR YOU, I know who you are and I'll shoot you down with weapons at my command and I don't mean guns.
An ultimately this lance of blame must turn back upon myself, whom I have nothing to say in defense of, any more than I can honestly say I will never take drugs again because of Peter Laughner, which would only be a terrible insult to his memory. Realizing life is precious the natural tendency is to trample on it, like laughing at a funeral. But there are voluntary reactions. I volunteer not to feel anything about him from this day out, but I will not forget that this kid killed himself for something torn T-shirts represented in the battle fires of his ripped emotions, and that does not make your T-shirts profound, on the contrary, it makes you a bunch of assholes if you espouse what he latched onto in support of his long death agony, and if I have run out of feeling for the dead I can also truly say that from here on out I am only interested in true feeling, and the pursuit of some ultimate escape from that was what killed Peter, which is all I truly know of his life, except that the hardest thing in this living world is to confront your own pain and go through it, but somehow life is not a paltry thing after all next to this child's inheritance of eternal black. So don't anybody try to wave good-bye.
-New York Rocker, September-October 1977
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Fan records Laughner tapes
By Jane Scott
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Friday, July 16, 1982
rock writer Jane Scott was a big fan of Pete's.
“I only met him once. I saw him play at the Pirate’s Cove five or six times, though, back in the winter of ’76. I couldn’t forget his guitar. It was amazing. He was so honest,” said Doug Morgan.
Morgan was a high school student from Chagrin Falls then. Today he is 24, the same age that guitarist/singer/poet Peter Laughner was when he died in his sleep five years ago.
Morgan has done what many others have told you that they were going to do. He put out a 12-ince EP of Laughner’s tapes.
The seven-song album on Koolie Records, just called “Peter Laughner,” is a good representation of the many aspects of Laughner’s short life. John Sipl helped mix it at Kirk Yano’s After Dark Studio.
They are not studio songs with hours of recording expertise behind them. You can see where better apparatus would have helped. But the feeling and the sincerity come across and remind you again of how much we have lost.
One, “Rag Mama,” recorded by Laughner on a Nakamichi cassette at his parents’ home in Bay Village, is rather lightweight but catch and fun, an up tempo ragtime. One, “Dinosaur Lullaby,” is an instrumental, rather dissonant. It was recorded live at a WMMS “Coffeebreak Concert,” as was my favorite on the LP, “Baudelaire.” Laughner had been a dinosaur freak since he was 5. Laughner sings “I felt myself set free in a world without weather” in “Baudelaire.” This was written in the summer of 1973 when Laughner lived with a bunch of musicians in an old house on E. 23d St. The house is gone, too.
The rather traditional “Lullaby,” an acoustic slide guitar piece, was engineered by Allen Ravenstine with Albert Dennis on bass, as was the captivating “Sylvia Plath.”
“Peter wrote songs that were almost letters to people,” said Richard Clark, a close friend who wrote the foreward on the album cover. He’s the Richard referred to in “Dear Richard,” where Laughner sings, “Get away from that window, Richard.”
“I had just broken up with my girlfriend. I was over by the window, but I was just trying to stay cool on a hot night,” said Clark.
“Hideaway” is a love note to bassist Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads.
“Peter and Tina spent a rainy day together in New York once, sitting up in a loft, reading books and eating apples and listening to records. He had kind of a crush on her,” said Clark.
These two songs feature Susan Schmidt on rhythm guitar, Deborah Smith on bass and Anton Fier on drums. (The two women have gone on to Chi Pig. Fier is with Pere Ubu and the Golden Palominos.)
Laughner would have gone on to be an important rock star, many of us feel.
“The talent, inspiration and desire to make it happen were all there … when he was right, and when he wasn’t, Peter Laughner was the sound of the streets … No fancy solos, no frills, no posing, just straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll,” wrote his first boss David Frost in the San Antonio Express-News. Frost, now of KRTU-FM in San Antonio, had hired Laugher here at Disc Records.
“Peter was capable of making a bridge between underground music and songs played on the radio,” said his former wife, Charlotte Pressler, reached in New York. “The album is surprising. To some people Peter was the first of the punks. But he was very versatile. They selected some of Peter’s favorite songs.”
Laughner was ahead of his time, lyrically, believes Clark, once a third-floor neighbor of Laughner’s at the Plaza, 3206 Prospect Avenue.
“He was so uncompromising in his subject matter and style. He was a pioneer. He would go down to see Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground at old LaCave when he was 14 or 16 and practically hang out all night. Peter wanted to combine literary quality with rock ‘n’ roll. He did it in a time when a club owner would hand you a play list with Grand Funk songs and Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’ “
Morgan has his own band, Neptune’s Car, but once played in the Human Switchboard and lived at the Plaza. Laughner’s parents, Luke and Margaret (Pat) Laughner, gave Morgan the rights to publish the songs.
Mrs. Laughner also gave Peter his first guitar.
“It was a Christmas present when he was 14. He looked at the package and at first thought it must be a machine gun. He put it in a closet. Then one day he got mad at something and hit it and liked the sound of the music. Then he practiced and practiced and practiced,” Mrs. Laughner said.
The family soon soundproofed his downstairs bedroom, the one where he was found dead on June 22, 1977. The coroner’s ruling was natural causes, but it was known that he had acute pancreatitis and severe liver problems.
Laughner’s first band was Mr. Charlie while at Bay High School. The others were Cinderella Backstreet (Rick Kalister, Dennis, Scott Krauss, Cindy Black and two backups called the Leatherettes); Cinderella’s Revenge (Eric Ritz, Schmidt and Smith); Rocket From the Tombs (David Thomas, Gene O’Conner, John Madansky and Craig Bell); Pere Ubu (Thomas, Thom Herman, Tim Wright, Krauss and Ravenstine); Peter and the Wolves (Herman, Black, Krauss and later Adele Bertei); Friction (Schmidt, Smith and Fier).
Laughner spent most of his space building up his favorite local groups – Jimmy Ley, 15-60-75 and Mirrors – when he wrote an article for this page in October 1974.
“A lot of people didn’t know how generous he was. Almost every musician was welcome to climb up on the stage when he played. He bought Adele her first guitar and gave me my first one,” said Clark.
“Peter brought Television to Cleveland for its first gig out of New York City, at the Picadilly Inn, and he did it out of his own pocket.”
Unfortunately there was a dark side, too. Laughner tried to live up to what he thought was the rock ‘n’ roll musician’s life-style.
“When he finally figured out his mistake it was too late. Ironically Lou Reed has cleaned up his hard-drug habit and conquered alcoholism, too. So has Peter Townsend. Peter just wasn’t as lucky as Reed and Townsend and Eric Clapton,” Clark said.
Everything Laughner worked for was beginning to happen just as he died, said Anastasia Pantsios, a co-worker at the old Zeppelin and Exit magazines. “He turned us onto Patti Smith years before her records were out. But he also wrote about English folk artists Richard and Linda Thompson.”
“Peter’s spirit never faltered, even to the end. He was still creating, planning, looking to the future,” Laughner’s father wrote to a devoted fan.
In fact, the night before he died Laughner was up all night recording music. He wrote “Going to China,” his mother’s favorite. His final words on a paper surrounding the cassette were “Dawn in the twilight zone, 6/21/77.”
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Recalling a rocker
whose time never came
Plain Dealer Reporter
It was 25 years ago that booze, drugs and a rock 'n' roll myth took Peter Laughner to an early grave.
Don't feel bad. Peter Laughner isn't a household name; he never was. But to those who saw him play guitar and sing his guts out, Laughner might've been a household name - had he not died at 24.
In the 1970s, Laughner founded two of Cleveland's most important bands, punk pioneers Rocket From the Tombs and Pere Ubu. He co-wrote "Sonic Reducer," "Final Solution" and "Ain't It Fun" - songs covered by everyone from Pearl Jam to Guns 'N Roses.
More than that, he believed in himself and inspired others to do the same, says guitarist Rick Kalister.
"He was the most enthusiastic guy I ever met," he says. "He would light up a room."
Creative sparks definitely flew when Kalister met Laughner in 1973.
"I was jamming with some guys at this house on Superior and East 23rd," says Kalister. "We were just regular guys playing blues tunes."
"Not Peter. He walks in, dressed in black, wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses," he recalls. "We start jamming and he starts jumping around, doing Pete Townshend windmills, going absolutely nuts."
There was a method to his madness: Laughner was hell-bent on injecting some life into a stagnant music scene in Cleveland.
Within days, he and Kalister had formed Cinderella Backstreet, the first of many Laughner-led bands that hit the stage running.
"Back then, you basically had cover bands who played songs everybody wanted to hear," says Kalister. "Peter was hip to new music and was going to play it, regardless of who came."
Most shows were in front of a few people, in gritty bars like the now-closed Viking Saloon, which was near Cleveland State University.
But Laughner was on to something, says former Plain Dealer rock reporter Jane Scott.
"Peter was three steps ahead," says Scott. "He knew what was happening, and he became an advocate for it."
Scott recalls Laughner - who also wrote about music for Creem and The Plain Dealer, among other publications - dragging her to see Bruce Springsteen's first area show, in 1973.
"Bruce was totally unknown, except to Peter. He kept on saying, 'This guy is the next big thing,' " she says. "Peter was really a New Yorker trapped in Cleveland."
By 1976, Laughner almost was a New Yorker flat out. He often traveled to Manhattan to soak in its burgeoning punk scene and to hang out with its icons: Patti Smith, Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine of Television.
"He auditioned for Television," says Dead Boys guitarist Jimmy Zero. "The word was he got the gig but was afraid to move to New York. At heart, Peter was a well-to-do kid who couldn't leave his hometown."
Still, Laughner brought a bit of New York to Cleveland. He convinced Television and seminal punk band the Heartbreakers to play their first out-of-town gigs here. More importantly, he inspired Cleveland musicians to greatness.
"Peter was a dreamer who dreamt for everybody," says his father, Luke Laughner, from his home in Sarasota, Fla. "He'd tell people, 'You're as good as anybody. Now, go do it.' "
His confidence and leadership stemmed from his upbringing, says Anastasia Pantsios, who photographed Laughner often.
"He grew up in Bay Village in a well-off family that supported his every effort," she says. "He had self-confidence. He was a leader."
After co-founding Pere Ubu in 1975 with singer David Thomas, Laughner led the band into action. Within months, Ubu had released two singles, "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" and "Final Solution," on the band's own label. An amalgam of brains and brawn, the little discs that could turned the punk world on its head.
"Back then, bands didn't dream of putting out their own records," says drummer Scott Krauss. "We did and, thanks to Peter's contacts, we started playing New York."
The only thing faster than Pere Ubu's rise was Laughner's fall.
"He worshipped Lou Reed," says Pantsios. "That meant doing every drug Lou did. One morning, he called me at 7 a.m. just to tell me that he had shot up [heroin] for the first time."
Within months, Laughner became so erratic that he was kicked out of Pere Ubu.
"He'd be totally out of his mind, waving his gun around like a madman," says Krauss. "We couldn't take it anymore."
Within months, Laughner was in and out of hospitals, suffering from liver problems. But he didn't let up. Even after he was told to stop drinking or die, Laughner made a beeline to the Flats club the Pirate's Cove. He drank until he passed out, according to Pantsios. Laughner also played on, but couldn't keep a band, says Kalister, who played with Laughner at the Eagle Street Saloon in May 1977.
"He was lying on the stage, screaming, 'I can't get no satisfaction,' " Kalister recalls.
It was Laughner's last show. On June 21 of that year, at his parents' house, he recorded a tape of originals and songs by Robert Johnson, Richard Thompson and Lou Reed. The following day, he died in his bed from acute pancreatitis.
For years, Laughner's death received more attention than his music. It was immortalized in stories and books, including a famous eulogy by legendary rock scribe Lester Bangs that celebrates his life, but also chronicles his downward spiral.
Then, in 1993, a collection of Laughner's songs, "Take the Guitar Player for a Ride," brought him notoriety as a poetic songwriter. His role as a rock 'n' roller and a prime mover in America's punk scene was recognized earlier this year with the release of a CD of Rocket From the Tombs material.
"There's this outsider quality to his music that resonates with people, especially those familiar with his life," says Dave Sprague, a New York rock critic for Variety and the Village Voice.
"When most people do it, it's contrived. But Peter's songs take on a different meaning when you hear lyrics like, 'Ain't it fun when you're gonna die young.' "
"Here's a guy who romanticized about tragic heroes, and by doing so, became a tragic figure," says Sprague. "He didn't realize that Lou Reed exaggerated his drug use to create an image."
That, says Jimmy Zero, is what killed Laughner.
"He was so talented," Zero says, adding that he also wasted his talent. "If only Peter would've been content being himself, he might have achieved greatness."
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