Peter Laughner – Peter Laughner

Ain’t it fun when you’re gonna die young? Tragedy has always been an integral component of the rock ‘n’ roll equation, having experienced its share of unsavory ODs and twisted collisions and hapless chaps simply boarding the wrong charter flight. It’s a magnet for gifted fuckups, and its history is littered with them.

Peter Laughner, a pivotal figure in the development and vitality of Cleveland’s 1970s underground rock scene, was more gifted than most. He was a true music fan – dedicated, opinionated, enthused and energized. During his all-too-brief lifetime he played in numerous bands, and wrote music reviews for various publications including Creem. He once wrote in The Cleveland Plain Dealer that he wanted to do for Cleveland “what Brian Wilson did for California and Lou Reed did for New York.” Yet he only appeared on two records released during his lifetime: the first two 7” singles by Pere Ubu.

Yet here we have a 5-LP/CD box set of Peter Laughner recordings (plus a bonus 7” EP that came with pre-orders and quickly sold out). There’ve been a handful of other collections released over the years, of bootleg quality for the most part and long out-of-print. This diligently compiled overview, consisting of demos, bedroom recordings, radio appearances and live tapes excavated from an array of sources, and mastered/upgraded to the best possible sound quality, is by far the most complete overview to date, tracing Laughner’s brisk trajectory through the center of the ‘70s.

Peter Laughner’s heroes clearly enraptured him and informed his own material, much of which can stand proudly next to the myriad songs by said heroes (“the music that saved my life”) that he covers across the span of these five discs, including but certainly not limited to Van Morrison, Jonathan Richman, Lowell George, The Rolling Stones, Jimmie Rodgers, Michael Hurley, Jackson Browne, Robert Johnson and Jesse Winchester. The Velvet Underground wins the prize for the act most covered by Laughner here, with Bob Dylan a strong second. (Tom Verlaine makes a spirited sprint toward the title near the end, with Television presumably inspiring Laughner’s 1976 band Friction which included drummer Anton Fier.) In fact, the majority of the songs collected herein are covers. But in this case, it’s a non-issue. Laughner makes them his own. His fervor for the music and admiration for the songs and songwriters render his versions essential, sometimes definitive. (Except when he plays Dylan, wherein he sounds just like Bob Dylan, who obviously had a tremendous impact on him.)

Laughner’s approach and influences, not to mention his restless variety of bands, strikes me as very similar to Alejandro Escovedo’s, with Escovedo’s longstanding connection with Austin mirroring Laughner’s with Cleveland. Alejandro also struggled with many of the same demons that doomed Peter Laughner, almost dying from hepatitis C, but overcame them and has survived, still touring tirelessly and recording great music to this day. Peter, sadly, was not as fortunate.

Laughner recorded and released a collaboration with Terry Hartman, Notes on a Cocktail Napkin, in 1970, purportedly selling the albums personally for a few bucks a pop. The first disc of this package picks up a couple of years after that with two separate live radio sessions for Cleveland FM station WMMS: the first half with hillbilly country-folk/blues trio The Original Wolverines, complete with “whorehouse piano,” and the second half just Laughner accompanied by said pianner plunker Mike Sands. The affable, informal dialog/banter, including the plugging of upcoming shows at local bars, has a feel similar to Kevn Kinney’s many appearances on Georgia Tech’s WREK.

The second disc puts the spotlight on Cinderella Backstreet, Laughner’s engagingly hypnotic rock band (one of many) charging through three Velvet Underground songs, along with rousing takes on Mott the Hoople and Dylan/Hendrix (a spooky and absolutely essential version of “All Along the Watchtower”) from what sound like sparsely attended bar gigs from 1973. By the time Cynthia Black’s feedback freakout coda to “White Light/White Heat” crash lands, it sounds as though there’s maybe four people other than the band that braved it to the end. A recklessly chugging original, “I’m So Fucked Up,” performed by subsequent concern Cinderella’s Revenge, is tossed in for good measure and lives up to its name.

The song “Cinderella Backstreet,” arguably Laughner’s greatest composition, opens Disc 3, the same solo home recording that made it onto a scarce Forced Exposure 7” in 1987 and a similarly rare Tim/Kerr Records Laughner compilation in ’94. If you’re lucky enough to have the latter, you’ve heard many of the demo and home recordings collected on Discs 3 and 4 of this set (the aforementioned “White Light” detonation was previously heard as the B-side to the Forced Exposure 7”, as well), but the upgrade in sound quality gives these versions a clear edge. I mean, you gotta keep in mind, they are lo-fi, at best 4-track recordings, and there’s some tape hiss and the levels aren’t always superb but the intimacy and honesty they convey is chilling. As Laughner notes in his intro to Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues,” recorded in the middle of an autumn night in his bedroom in 1976, “There’s nobody else around but the microphone.”

These two discs offer the most Laughner originals of the set – solo and duo recordings on Disc 3 and primarily live band tracks on Disc 4 from short-lived ensembles The Fins (featuring drummer Scott Krauss, formerly of Cinderella Backstreet and later of Pere Ubu), the aforementioned Friction and incendiary Ubu/Dead Boys incubator Rocket From the Tombs. Disc 3’s stripped-down cuts (“First Taste of Heartache” “Sylvia Plath” and “Down at the Bar” are prime examples) give ample proof that Laughner was an outstanding singing poet of the Young Dylan school, and the acoustic slide guitar instrumental “Lullaby” amply showcases his considerable dexterity on the instrument. The subsequent disc’s galloping rockers are intense and dense and wild, prompting visions of these dark barrooms and disorderly late nights from decades prior, wishing you could’ve been there among the few taking it all in. How many of them realized at the time what lightning was erupting right before their eyes, and how alive it would all sound closing on 50 years later?

“I hope in two years I’m still alive,” Laughner sings forlornly in “(My Sister Sold Her Heart To) The Junk Man,” written with a young Adele Bertei (later a Contortion, Thomas Dolby collaborator and solo artist, among other endeavors). The solo home recording of it included here was put to tape in early 1977. Peter Laughner died a few months later, on the second day of summer from pancreatic failure brought on by severe drug and alcohol abuse. He was only 24. The 13 songs that comprise this set’s fifth disc were recorded in his bedroom at his parents’ house in Bay Village, Ohio very late on the night before his death. Accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, a six-pack of Genesee and some Lucky Strikes, with a ragged, prematurely aged voice regularly pushed beyond the cracking point, he connects all the dots between folk music, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, poetry and punk, all the music that so deeply inspired and motivated him. No other ears heard it in the moment, yet as rough as he sounds Laughner puts his all into it, introducing or briefly explaining the songs to an unseen future audience on the other end of the tape recorder, as if he’s packing a personal time capsule… packed, indeed, until the tape runs out during the last chords of a frantic one-minute romp through “Summertime Blues.” And that’s it. It’s over.

The breadth of this material, all captured to tape within a mere five-year span, is tremendous, encapsulating virtually every vital aspect of rock music circa early-to-mid 1970s. Peter Laughner may be long gone, and may not have posthumously attained the interest and notoriety of, say, Nick Drake or even Chris Bell. But if you purport to care anything about rock ‘n’ roll, or if you believed in it at any point in your life, you owe it to yourself to hear this.

Peter Laughner
Peter Laughner
[Smog Veil]