Graded on a Curve:
Peter Laughner,
Peter Laughner

In the annals of punk rock, Peter Laughner has really been more of a mythic figure than a prime musical influence. While he was a member of two crucial Cleveland punk bands (Rocket from the Tombs and Pere Ubu), his recorded output has been somewhat slight. The key word in that last sentence is output. Smog Veil’s eponymous 5LP/5CD box set makes plain what heavy-duty Laughner heads have long known; he recorded a whole lot, but just had very little commercially released, even posthumously. This enlightening and highly digestible labor of love from a diligently Ohio-focused label expands his output in both size and range. Featuring a 100-pg hardcover book, it’s one of the best multidisc sets of 2019.

Ten years is a long time. Certainly not in the grand sweep of history, but the statement still rings true; we denote blocks of ten years as decades, and a decade is how long Smog Veil has been working on Peter Laughner. Ten years can build up a whole lot of anticipation, and by extension, unsurmountable expectations, but that’s not how it transpired here.

Up to the eve of its release, there seemed to be hardly any hubbub attached to this project, which fits with Laughner’s essentially underground stature. If you know and care about the man’s work, you likely know a lot about early punk, and there’s a good chance you knew this set was in production. Anticipation likely resulted, but in keeping with the circumstances of Laughner’s life, it was probably best to not get too optimistic.

24 years is 14 more than ten, but in demarking the span of a lifetime, it’s not very long at all, at least in modern terms. And 24 years is how long Peter Laughner lived. A big part of his mythic stature stems from his death from acute pancreatitis, a condition that indicates that he drank (and yes indeed, drugged) himself to death. Since then, many have surely romanticized his demise, but he’s just as often simply one more entry in rock ‘n’ roll’s long list of casualties.

However, punk mavens who took the plunge into his released material were privy to a substantial talent. There was the self-titled ’82 LP on Koolie Productions, the 45s with Cinderella Backstreet (on Forced Exposure, ’87) and Fins (Singles Only Label, ’92), the ’93 2LP Take the Guitar Player for a Ride on Tim/Kerr and the 2002 2LP The Day the Earth Met the Rocket from the Tombs on Smog Veil, the latter two essentially the crown jewels in Laughner’s discography.

Until now, that is. For decades, Laughner’s legacy was secured by his participation on the first two brilliant Pere Ubu 45s, and it was given a major boost with the Rocket from the Tombs reissue in ’02, as that set’s documentation rescued one of the great unrecorded proto-punk bands (since reformed), a group that splintered into the Dead Boys (but first, Frankenstein) and Ubu. But as mentioned above, Laughner was in both Fins and Cinderella Backstreet (and Cinderella’s Revenge), plus Peter & the Wolves, Friction, and lastly, simply the Wolves. But before all this, he was in the Mr. Stress Blues Band.

That may seem an odd bluesy turn in the biography of this punk legend, but one of Peter Laughner’s finest attributes is how it illuminates its subject as a multifaceted music lover (and in the book, a talented music writer). In fact, the first LP in this collection, titled Fat City Jive and dating from 1972, will throw many listeners a curveball as it presents Laughner as a rough and tumble folkie.

Culled from two radio sessions (“Coffeebreak Concerts”) from station WMMS, one on each side with the Original Wolverines the band on the first (Mike Sands from Mr. Stress plays piano for both sessions) the opening “Hesitation Blues” instills a certain Holy Modal Rounders vibe that only gets reinforced by a version of Michael Hurley’s “Eyes Eyes” on side two.

But along with a few originals, Laughner lingers into all sorts of sweet nooks including Bob D., Little Feet’s “Willin’,” Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Jimmie Rodgers, the Insect Trust (cementing his youthful u-ground sensibility), and two from his friend Terry Hartman (who shared billing on Laughner’s recorded debut, the still obscure self-released Notes on a Cocktail Napkin LP from ’69.

It’s notable that the second radio session includes two Velvet Underground numbers, plus “These Days,” which was obviously learned from Nico’s Chelsea Girl, as writer Jackson Browne hadn’t released his version yet. This nicely weaves into record two, titled One of the Boys, which moves from the folkie zone into a full-on rock band experience via Cinderella Backstreet/ Cinderella’s Revenge, and with everything recorded live (in surprisingly decent sound quality).

It’s here that the punk lovers are going to perk right up and say fuck yeah, as the opening dive into VU’s “Rock & Roll,” complete with Cynthia Black’s killer mellotron, is an inspired delight leading into an equally spirited “One of the Boys” (Mott the Hoople underscoring the glam in Laughner’s thing). But it’s really the versions of “All Along the Watchtower” (with the nod to Hendrix) and “Heroin” that steal the show (on record two, anyway) as they hit the perfect balance of reverence and personal stamp; “Heroin” is a really hard song to cover well, and this is one of the best I’ve ever heard.

There’s only one Laughner original on One of the Boys, but that scenario markedly changes on record three, titled Pledging My Time and covering ’73-’77 as the man swings into home-recorded solo mode (or with accompaniment from Albert Dennis and Wally Wefel, something close to it). Save for one by Robert Johnson, one by Dylan and a co-write with Adele Bertei (later of James Chance & the Contortions), it’s all his stuff.

Another of Peter Laughner’s strong points is its lack of unwieldiness. Instead of the maxed-out CD archival set info-dump this set could’ve became (as this is far from everything in the Laughner tape library), each LP in this collection connects like a standalone album, and this is especially the case with Pledging My Time as it spotlights Laughner’s skill as a songwriter. “Cinderella Backstreet” opens the proceedings, with “Baudelaire” and “Sylvia Plath” driving home a literary approach that’s reminiscent of Patti Smith.

Record three also amplifies the influence of Dylan (the impact of Lou can’t really be emphasized further), and it sets in motion a sort of back-and-forth on Peter Laughner between solo expression and band action before delivering a gut punch with record five. Appropriately, record four is titled Rock It Down (covering ’74-’77) and it features material from Fins, Rocket from the Tombs (but only one song, the immortal “Ain’t It Fun,” later covered by Guns & Roses), and Friction, with some duo action with Don Harvey (from the “Ann Arbor Tapes”) and Bertei (from the “Secret Session”).

Commencing with a version of “What Goes On” (a sonic upgrade from the Singles Only Label 45) that’s brought a smile to my face every time I’ve played it yet, Rock It Down is a straight-up blast establishing that Laughner did a helluva lot of living in his short life. And of its nine selections, five are originals including the jewel-like “Amphetamine.” Dylan gets covered, as does Television (“Prove It”) and Jonathan Richman (“Pablo Picasso”).

Nocturnal Digressions is record five, and it’s not a smile inducer. Home recorded the night before Laughner died, it’s not a bum trip either, but it does deliver that aforementioned wallop. It also connects to the prior records in interesting ways. Like Fat City Jive, it’s covers heavy (only three of the 13 selections are by Laughner), but the interpretations (more than mere covers, even in his final hours) really span the landscape of his interests.

There’s Robert Johnson, Van Morrison (“Slim Slow Slider” from Astral Weeks, beloved by Laughner and his friend Lester Bangs, whose eulogy from New York Rocker is included in the book), two by Television, two by the Stones, interestingly, two from Jesse Winchester, Richard Hell, one more by Lou, and in a fitting sort of nod back to the stripped down R&R impulse that started it all (perhaps; Laughner formed his first band, The Fifth Edition, in late ’64-early ’65), Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” for the finale.

It can’t be emphasized enough that Peter Laughner was made for music fans by music fans, and it’s a beautiful retrospective bookend with Smog Veil’s The Day the Earth Met the Rocket from the Tombs. Rather than trying to entice folks with nearly everything the guy ever recorded, it elects instead to tell a coherent story. It’s one with a tragic ending, but more importantly, it makes clear that the claims of brilliance for Peter Laughner are far from unfounded.


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