If a professional musician was never a personal friend, you’re likely to have never wanted to hear demos, band practices, gigs recorded from the audience, radio broadcasts, and tapes made at home. But if the musician is Peter Laughner, an extraordinary singer/songwriter and a feral guitarist from Cleveland, Ohio, the only studio records are the first two Pere Ubu singles (“Thirty Seconds over Tokyo / Heart of Darkness” and “Final Solution / Cloud 149”)—on which he played guitar but didn’t sing—made shortly before he was fired from the group he’d founded with David Thomas. Laughner’s deep-dive alcoholism and other preferences made it impossible for him to stay in any band long, and pancreatitis killed him in June 1977.
He was 24.
By then he already had made a larger than life impression in the Cleveland area and beyond, and the first compilation of songs performed by Laughner and friends, a 12 inch EP with seven tracks, was released by Koolie Productions in 1982. Twelve years later Tim/Kerr followed up with a double LP/CD, 18 tracks this time, Take the Guitar Player for a Ride—after the chorus in Laughner’s “Amphetamine.” And now, following a ten year search and recover effort by Smog Veil’s Frank Mauceri, we have the largest and most sonically advanced collection of Laughner’s work (apart from Pere Ubu and Ubu’s 1974-75 predecessor, Rocket from the Tombs, the largest collection of which, now out of print, is also a Smog Veil recording). Perhaps the first thing to say is that you shouldn’t get rid of your Koolie or Tim/Kerr set if you’re lucky enough to have one. Each contains tracks that aren’t on either of the other two; the complete Peter Laughner is still ahead of us.
But in 2019, these 5 records and 56 songs, along with the accompanying 100-page collection of interviews with and by Laughner, and his many record reviews, are the best place to start. Besides making up the most comprehensive collection to date, they dispel at least one of the myths that have sprung up about Laughner: that Laughner, solo and in all his bands spent so much time covering other people’s songs because he didn’t have more faith in his own.
He was the product of a white suburban music scene in northeastern Ohio that few know about or care to remember. A lot of musicians, including Laughner, clerked in record stores where the center of gravity was the import bin, English and German (krautrock) bands especially. The Velvet Underground was history, and no one knew what Lou Reed would do next. The Stooges fell apart, came together, then were gone; the New York Dolls didn’t last long. The West Coast was too distant, and trips to New York few and far between. James Brown and Funkadelic were cool but remote for white musicians who lived and breathed not soul and R&B but the straight up rock and roll of Elvis and Little Richard. Led Zeppelin was the most popular rock band in the world, and deservedly so, but it also represented the tail end of the ’60s, didn’t it? If you believed the future lay elsewhere, you might prefer to watch Roxy Music on TV or soak up Kevin Ayers’s June 1, 1974 through headphones. Oh, and David Bowie.
Most Laughner stories have to do not with his music but with his drinking and doping, but it’s useful to keep this long-gone time and place in mind. The destructive myth was advanced by Laughner’s ex-wife Charlotte Pressler in “Those Were Different Times” (CLE Magazine, 1978), an absorbing memoir about the Cleveland music scene in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and also by Lester Bangs, whose well-known obituary for Laughner identifies him quickly as a rock musician, a rock writer, and a rock fan, but otherwise is devoted almost entirely to his lethal habits.
In the first and most obvious place, Laughner never covered material to please anyone but himself, exploring other musicians’ songs to learn from them—as this box set makes abundantly clear. But the records also show that the very idea of a cover is inadequate for a musician as alert and versatile as Laughner. Who wrote the song is, at the moment it’s sung and played, irrelevant, what counts is sincerity of engagement, novelty of interpretation, quality of performance. Lo-fi as Laughner’s performances usually were, he never gave a song written by himself or anyone else less than all of his considerable musical intelligence. The weaker songs are failed experiments (his own “Solomon’s Mines” and “I’m So Fucked Up”) or works by artists he hasn’t had enough time to assimilate thoroughly (the Modern Lovers, Richard Hell, Television). The Velvet Underground material is a special case. The vocals are usually less compelling than his fiery guitar work, though Laughner’s “The Story of My Life” is the only successful version I know of a Velvets song sung by anyone outside the band.
The songs Laughner chose are steps forward, backward, and sideways in a nonstop musical adventure that veered between urbane country and hardcore rock, and when he sings Mott the Hoople’s “One of the Boys,” you can almost hear him working on his own songwriting. His richly declarative north Ohio voice is especially enthusiastic about the meeting of “boys” with “choice,” and sure enough, we hear this shadow rhyming echoed in “Cinderella Backstreet” when he sings “Play those blues / that you learned from the English dudes.” The song’s an elegy for a girl, a place, and the band he fronted for “One of the Boys.”
Oddly enough, considering all the bands he played in—seven on these records alone—the collection suggests that, apart from Rocket from the Tombs, bands weren’t really congenial to Laughner and vice versa, and not only because of his love affair with stimulants. His other bands, despite the competence of the musicians, didn’t seem to inspire the singlemindedness that characterized Laughner in Rocket, in a small group, or when alone with a tape recorder. (Two exceptions, Friction’s shockingly beautiful violin led version of Richard Thompson’s “Calvary Cross” and the Finns’ razory take on Brian Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire,” are not included in the Smog Veil set.)
Among the most compelling duo performances are “Down at the Bar,” a sequel to Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” that is also an exhilarating guitar race with bassist Deborah Smith; “Amphetamine,” a Carnival of Souls like excursion with reed organist Don Harvey; “Baudelaire” and “Sylvia Plath,” short stories beautifully intercepted with bassist Albert Dennis; and “Rock It Down,” a folie à deux in which he plays a mean guitar but leaves the singing to Adele Bertei. The final disk in the collection, recorded in his bedroom the night of June 21, 1977, is an excellent and chilling example of how good Laughner could be by himself. He had been in and out of the hospital with a failing liver for months, but his voice is vibrant throughout, if rough around the edges, and the 13 songs include one of his loveliest sketches, “(Going to) China,” and possibly the best other version of Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues.” Laughner was dead the next day.
Whatever the configuration, there’s nothing in this set to justify a belief that Laughner lacked confidence in his own songs. Misfires and misses, sure. But his guitar, like his voice, is never less than clearly dedicated, and his own best tracks are as good as any of the songs by Reed, Bob Dylan, Lowell George, Tom Verlaine, Jonathan Richman, maybe even Johnson. They’re fully qualified to be in rotation with the musicians from whom Laughner learned, not to mention the musicians who learned from him—Pere Ubu, the Dead Boys, the Pagans, the Kneecappers, Guns N’ Roses. He loses nothing in comparison—he gains.
I’ll close with a single example of Laughner’s special kind of excitement. “Sylvia Plath” is addressed to the suicidal poet’s possibly less committed audience, and most of the rhymes play off her last name: “math,” “half,” “glass,” and, my favorite, “When you check out of this hotel, Jack, / you’re nothing but an autograph.” By the song’s end, he’s established a five beat meter which the words in the next to last lyric exemplify: “Aw, let’s see you do one thing as graceful as Sylvia Plath,” followed immediately by “Let’s see you do one thing as senselessly cruel as Sylvia Plath.” By violating the emotional direction of “graceful” and the song’s meter—crowding 4-1/2 syllables into space for 2 without changing the beat, “senselessly cruel” enacts in musical time what the words alone only say. Craft like this keeps you listening, or moving, and there’s plenty more of it in these marvelous records.