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Words by Peter
| Words about Peter |
Pictures of Peter |
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.
* * *
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
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
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
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
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 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
Thomas, John Morton, Michael Weldon, and Peter Laughner,
clockwise from top left.
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
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
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
"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.
back to top
* * *
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"
by David Keenan
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
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
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"
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
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).
back to top
* * *
by Lester Bangs
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
* * *
Fan records Laughner tapes
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Friday, July 16, 1982
rock writer Jane Scott, now deceased, 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
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
The rather traditional “Lullaby,” an acoustic slide
guitar piece, was engineered by Allen Ravenstine with
Albert Dennis on bass, as was the captivating “Sylvia
“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.
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
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
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
“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
* * *
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
"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
"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
The only thing faster than Pere Ubu's rise was
"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
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
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
Cleveland legend Peter Laughner: the rock star you never knew
Added June 18, 2017
John Petkovic, The Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- This could have been a very different story. The
person you are reading about could have been a household name, a
Cleveland legend, a rock star.
The story could have gone something like this:
"Peter Laughner sets his guitar down and walks off the stage after
completing a two-hour set that spans five decades and 18 albums...
beginning with his pioneering start in Cleveland, where he sparked
the music scene, all the way through the songs that made him into a
rock 'n' roll legend."
Except Peter Laughner's story didn't go that way.
His career barely spanned five years. He never released an album in
his lifetime. And his rock 'n' roll legend came about the tragic way
- when booze and drugs claimed the star whose time never came at the
age of 24.
But 40 years after his passing - June 22, 1977 - Laughner remains
one of Cleveland's most compelling and confounding stories.
In his brief but wired career, he co-founded a number of acclaimed
bands, including Rocket from the Tombs and Pere Ubu. He played on
"Sonic Reducer," "Final Solution" and "Ain't It Fun" -- songs
covered and quoted by everyone from Pearl Jam to Henry Rollins to
Peter Murphy to Guns 'N Roses to Wilco.
More than that, he believed in himself and inspired others to do the
"He put his heart and body into everything he did and he got others
to join him," says Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome.
Chrome was 18 when he answered a newspaper ad placed by Laughner for
a guitarist and drummer to play in legendary Cleveland band Rocket
from the Tombs. Within hours, they were indulging in Laughner's
favorite past times.
"I brought (drummer) Johnny Blitz with me and we met Peter at some
dumpy bar on St. Clair and started drinking," he says. "Then we to
their loft and jammed for three or four hours... And there would be
Peter giving it his all even if there was no one there to see it."
There was a method to it madness: Laughner was hell-bent on
injecting some life into a stagnant music scene in Cleveland.
"Back then you basically had cover bands and the idea of doing
originals was such a foreign concept," says Rocket from the Tombs
bassist and Laughner's roommate, Craig Bell. "But Peter had big
ideas and the enthusiasm to pull them off."
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 Anastasia Pantsios, a
Cleveland Heights photographer and writer who became close friends
"He was a catalyst for the area," she says, referring a music scene
that came to rival the New York and London thanks to the Dead Boys,
Cramps, Devo, Mirrors, Pere Ubu, Tin Huey, Pagans and Electric Eels.
"And he was a big supporter of the music scene -- and music as a
Laughner -- who also wrote about music for Creem and The Plain
Dealer, among other publications -- dragged her to see Bruce
Springsteen's first Cleveland show, in 1974, at the Agora.
Most of Springsteen's shows around the country were opening slots
for bigger bands - since many of his headlining gigs ended up
getting cancelled due to paltry ticket sales.
"I remember him telling me, 'You have to see this Bruce Springsteen
guy,'" says Pantsios. "There were about 200 people there and a lot
of them came because of Peter."
Unlike most denizens of the underground, Laughner had his foot in
two worlds - and often walked through the doors of WMMS, when The
Thundering Buzzard was making a name for itself as a national
springboard for music.
"Peter was an honorary member of WMMS," says John Gorman, who served
as the station's program director during its heyday. "He was always
turning us onto the newest music."
Sometimes it took a while - like when Laughner tried to turn famed
WMMS deejay Kid Leo on to Springsteen.
"Leo thought the songs were too long and that Bruce sounded too much
like Dylan," says Gorman. "But Laughner was persistent."
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.
"Peter came back with Patti Smith's first single and said, 'You have
to play this' - and we did," says Gorman. "Cleveland was a breakout
market at the time, not just because it was a 'market,' but because
of the enthusiasm of people like Peter."
By 1976, Laughner almost was a full-time New Yorker.
"He was jamming with Television and supposedly was going to join the
band," says Chrome. "But he ended up coming back to Cleveland."
Still, he 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," his father, Luke
Laughner, now deceased, told The Plain Dealer in 2002. "He'd tell
people, 'You're as good as anybody. Now, go do it.' "
His confidence and leadership stemmed from his upbringing, says
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 and was a leader."
"He was also very supportive of women playing music," she adds,
referring to Cinderella's Revenge, a Laughner outfit that featured
female musicians Debbie Smith and Sue Schmidt. "The era was hostile
for women in rock 'n' roll, but Peter encouraged them because he
didn't see things like the average person."
After co-founding Pere Ubu in 1975 with singer David Thomas,
Laughner led the band into action. In a 1975 interview with
then-Plain Dealer reporter Jane Scott, he proclaimed, "We're
pointing toward the music of the '80s."
Within months, Ubu 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 turned the punk world on its head.
"Back then, bands didn't dream of putting out their own records,"
former Pere Ubu drummer Scott Krauss told The Plain Dealer in 2002.
"We did and, thanks to Peter's contacts, we started playing New
The only thing faster than Pere Ubu's rise was Laughner's fall.
"He worshipped Lou Reed, which meant he had
to try every drug Lou did or had maybe done," says Pantsios,
referring to the singer-songwriter who left an intense on the
Cleveland music scene, including Laughner, beginning in the 1960s,
when the Velvet Underground performed two dozen shows at the
legendary La Cave. "Peter had what the French would say is a
nostalgie de la boue
- nostalgia for the gutter," adds Pantsios.
"He was this nice upper-middle class kid from Bay who glamorized
being poor so wanted to live a down-and-out lifestyle."That's not to
say that he was always chasing Charles Bukowski-like myths.
"He taught me fine cooking and how to use wine
and butter and he loved all kinds of music - and could play it - and
he had great taste," says bandmate and roommate Bell. "It's sad that
the whole myth of drinking and drugs and an early death at 24
overshadows what he was really like."
Laughner romanticized tragic figures and, in the
process, became one.
"I remember one time he brought the Heartbreakers
to Cleveland," says Pantsios, referring to the band led by Johnny
Thunders, who died of drug-related causes in 1991. "He partied with
them all night after the show and then called me at 7 a.m. to tell
me that he had shot up for the first time because he 'wanted to feel
what it was like to be part of that scene.'"Laughner's drug and
alcohol intake increased. So did his obsession with guns. He 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," according to Krauss. "We couldn't take it anymore."
Even trips to New York started devolving into
"The Dead Boys were playing CBGB and Peter came
out for it," says Chrome, referring to a show at the legendary
Manhattan club a couple month before Laughner's passing. "We had to
do an early show because Patti Smith had a late show booked. So,
after our set, me and Peter are there watching her and then I see
him go to the bathroom and he comes back and just walks up on the
stage. Why? Who knows."Laughner was pushed off the stage by Patti
Smith's guitarist Lenny Kaye and thrown out of the club.
"I stuck around and hung out even after they
locked the doors of the club and then there's this banging on the
door at 4:30 a.m. and it's Peter yelling, 'Is Cheetah there?' So I
opened the door and we took off and drank at my place until 10 a.m.
and then he took off - and it was the last time I saw him."
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. He also played on,
but couldn't keep a band, says Rick 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 once told me in an interview for The Plain
It was Laughner final 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.
"I got the call from his mother at 6 a.m. to tell
that he was dead and I was shocked," says Pantsios. "We all knew he
wasn't well. But, still, somehow if he could've gotten through the
drugs and alcohol and survived and burst past his idols he would've
been this really important music figure."
Death is never timed well. But, sadly, Laughner's
passing came just as the 1970s music scene was taking off, says Mike
Hudson, singer of Cleveland band the Pagans.
"It's not fair that Peter's death coincided with the launch
of the Cleveland scene in the 1970s," says Hudson. "There's no doubt
he would've been the biggest star to come out of Cleveland. He could
play guitar and sing and was a song-writer, but he was also a great
Laughner was also enamored with rock 'n' roll
myth - the kind that all too often presents a distorted picture that
exaggerates and glamorizes drugs and drinking to create an image.
"He was totally influenced by Lou Reed and so you
feel the need to outdo your idols and take it to the next level,"
says Hudson. "So then you feel the need to outdo them and take it to
the next level and it killed him."
There was a posthumously-released EP of
Laughner's music released in 1982 that introduced him to a new wave
of music fans.But 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 international acclaim as a poetic
songwriter. His role as a rock 'n' roller and a prime mover in
America's punk scene was cemented with the posthumous release, in
2002, of a CD of Rocket From the Tombs material - which WMMS
originally aired in 1975, after much prodding from Laughner.
"He was a suburban kid from Bay Village who lived
all too brief," says Gorman. "If only people could hear all those
tapes of the music he made while he was alive they would see that
Peter should've become a star."
Smog Veil Records has been working on such a
project. Florida-based record label has been obsessively collecting
tapes and photos and info on Laughner with an eye toward a
definitive multi-album release.
"We continue to research and create our archive
of recordings, writings, and other memorabilia created by Peter and
his friends and bandmates," says Smog Veil owner Frank Mauceri. "But
until we reach some level of completion of our research, we're not
yet ready to release the results of our work."
It has been a labor of love that reaches back to
1999, according to Nick Blakey, a Boston resident who also runs a
Peter Laughner Twitter account.
"I started becoming fascinated with the Cleveland
music scene around 1991 and the more I digging the more I became
fascinated with Peter's work," says Blakey. "There's the myth and
the reality of Peter Laughner - and then there's the place between
two. The myth is classic death cult type stuff, because he died
young and tragically. But there are also the songs, like 'Aint it
Fun.'"The song, which was covered by Guns 'N Roses, features the
"Ain't it fun
When you're always on the run
Ain't it fun
When your friends despise what you've become
Ain't it fun
When you get so high that you, well you just can't (expletive)
Ain't it fun
When you know that you're gonna die young?"
"But it's important that people realize that he
was all kinds of things -- not just a proto-punk or a guy who died
young," says Blakey. "He was as eclectic a musician as you'd find
and a great writer and, just as important, a catalyst for the
Cleveland music scene."
"He was another character in a great group of
characters and he believed in those characters and really wanted to
make something happen because he had passion and fire," adds Bell.
"And even now looking back 40 years it still saddens me to think
about this, because the story could've been so different..."