Peter Laughner, the ancient and seemingly mythic Cleveland rocker who died young and whose story is intertwined with three of the city’s most iconic rock bands (Pere Ubu, Rocket from the Tombs, and Dead Boys), has been long overdue for an official, high quality release. So now—thunk!—here it is. At long last. Thank you, Smog Veil Records.
Last Friday five CDs in black embossed sleeves encased within a heavy duty box dropped in my mailbox. There are no Pere Ubu tracks here, even though I think it would have been appropriate to include “Final Solution” and some of those iconic early singles Laughner wrote or played on. But this is not about Pere Ubu—this is Laughner-purest shit.
This set is 100% Peter on vocals, mostly over solo acoustic guitar but sometimes with a backing band, doing his cherished songs. The best ones—like the haunting mini-epics “Amphetamine,” “Sylvia Plath,” and “(My Sister Sold Her Heart to) The Junkman” are his.
But let’s back up a minute shall we?
I used to live in Cleveland, Ohio, from 1990-2002. That’s 13 to 26 years after Peter Laughner died from acute pancreatitis, which is a disease of alcoholism. (Now it’s been 42 years since Laughner slipped into the eternal in his childhood bedroom in the wee hours of the morning, June 22, 1977.)
Peter must have been hitting the sauce super hard all along. ‘Cuz man oh man did I drink my way through my time in Cleveland. Drank heavy. Did lots of drugs. It caught up with me too but, fortunately, no pancreatitis, and it took 25 years until I was in my 40s. So think about, for a second, how much of a mad kamikaze Laughner was to not even even make it past age 24. To have a broken down old man alky body and still be in his 20s?
Acknowledging that, this box set is surely a miracle. And there are way more well-recorded tracks (Laughner was a frequent in-studio guest of the local commercial radio station WMMS) and fewer lo-fi recordings (thank goodness) than I was expecting. There’s no arguing that this definitive set is eminently listenable from start to finish.
So….recap: Laughter dies at age almost 25 in 1977. Barely sees punk get going. Contributes impactfully to the genre’s ascent all the while being an insatiable drug and alcohol sponge. Leaves behind quality stuff… This dude was freaking motivated!
When I received this box set I thought, okay, here’s my chance to use Peter Laughner to tell people what Cleveland is about. To get, ya know, all meta and shit about the meaning of Northeast Ohio. This is after all the dude who was ballsy enough to tell the late, great Jane Scott of the Plain Dealer that he wanted to do for Cleveland what “…Brian Wilson did for California and Lou Reed did for New York.”
Then I looked at the box set track list. It’s mostly covers!
Of the 56 tracks here, there are many many tunes from other artists. From Bob Dylan to John Sebastian to Jimi Hendrix to Van Morrison and even, gasp!, Jackson Browne, Laughner’s repertoire is pretty much identical to that of my Boomer uncle’s cover band. Yet the particular songs by these artists are not always the obvious choices. Each is elevated by Laughner’s masterful and subtle guitar playing. All the same, it turns out the music is merely a bed for Laughner’s incredible voice. Clear, emotional, oftentimes disarmingly jovial, and always his own.
And then there are the Lou Reed songs. So much Reed! And Tom Verlaine. Two guys who seemed big in the 1970s but whose work (outside of VU and early Television) really has not stood the test of time in my opinion.
So…what does this mean? There’s precious little CLEVELAND, OHIO in Peter Laughner’s oeuvre at all.
Is Laughner merely the patron saint of Boomer cover bands in Tommy Bahama shirts and cargo shorts?
That’s when I realized: Peter Laughner and his short life are not a lesson about Ohio or drugs or punk or anything except great rock ’n roll songs that mean something.
Much like another rock great who died young, Kurt Cobain, Peter Laughner was—besides being a junkie brat—a player, a seeker, a connector, a collector, a superfan and a believer and promoter in what he loved.
Peter could instantly see and hear the burning flame of rock ’n roll where others couldn’t, and he worked fast at a time when media moved so slowly.
Now, thanks to this box, I know who Peter Laughner is: he’s a benevolent ghost. Oh he might have been a corporeal being at one time—for 24 years he definitely was—but for the past 42 years he’s been a spectral reminder of that something very important and elusive. Rock ‘n roll at the peak of its evolution. Punk rock at its start.
A family secret, passed down from rocker to rocker.
A note about this box set: while I didn’t solicit this, a lot of friends worked on it like Ron Kretsch, who designed the booklet, and Anastasia Pantsios, who knew Laughner and whose photos appear throughout.
The booklet deserves special mention because it’s so fabulously entertaining to read and re-read. Peter Laughner was something of a budding music journalist (like I said this guy was motivated) and his record reviews have held up pretty damn well. His Lou Reed interviews…. well enough with the Reed already okay?! Just kidding. Lou Reed as much as I loathe him was crucial to the Laughner ethos.
It’s also great to see the ancient Laughner show fliers and ads. There was so much more creativity brewing during the mid-‘70s rock ’n roll ‘malaise’ period in small towns like Cleveland than has been properly credited.
Finally, big ups to Smog Veil’s Frank Mauceri who bankrolled the Peter Laughner Box Set. This couldn’t have been cheap and there’s no way anyone’s getting rich off this, but what a gorgeous, listenable, shockingly upbeat collection and labor of love.
There is goodness in the world.
The CD & LP box sets come out on Friday, August 2nd, 2019. The tracks will be released digitally on January 3rd, 2020. Mark your calendars.