Graded on a Curve:
Adele Bertei,
Peter and the Wolves

The musical achievements of Adele Bertei are extensive and varied, with her youth spent in Cleveland and her first band the Wolves featuring the legendary Peter Laughner. However, Bertei’s credits extend beyond the musical, with her memoir Peter and the Wolves, its second edition released last autumn by Smog Veil Records, covering those formative Cleveland days. The slim, attractively designed and captivating volume makes splendid reading for Women’s History Month, which might seem odd given Laughner’s prominence in the title and the tale. But make no mistake: Adele Bertei tells HERStory with poetic flair and an unflinching feminist perspective. It’s a brilliantly informative read.

My introduction to the music of Adele Bertei came through her Acetone organ playing as a member of the Contortions, who were the first band sequenced on the No Wave movement-establishing Brian Eno-produced compilation No New York; the bands following them on the LP were Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, featuring Lydia Lunch on guitar and vocals, Mars, which included China Berg and Nancy Arlen on guitar/ vocals and drums respectively, and D.N.A., with Ikue Mori on drums.

Hearing No New York roughly a decade after its release, the music impacted my consciousness as uncompromising, certainly the equal in this regard to anything I’d listened to from ten years hence. It was occasionally brutal, particularly in the case of the Contortions, but more often was methodically punishing, a sound to be endured as it was absorbed and in turn heightening the listener’s fortitude (if the record wasn’t just quickly rejected and jettisoned; my purchase of No New York, the one I still own, was a pristine used copy).

Circa those initial spins, New York City had yet to shed its image as formidable and even dangerous, so that No Nork York’s blend of attitude and cacophony allowed me to bask in the allure of the city as a place to survive rather than flourish. Taking in the contributor photos on No New York’s back cover, it seemed these individuals weren’t thriving but were suffering a taxing existence to varying degrees of success (therefore, the nature of the sounds) and it felt obvious that the participants could’ve came from no place other than NYC.

But of course, wrong. My perception and assumptions were marred by romanticization, a normal thing for youth. As detailed in this book, Adele Bertei was not from NYC but Cleveland, another locale many punk fans have romanticized deep into adulthood, me included. But one of Peter and the Wolves’ finest qualities is that Bertei doesn’t glamorize the city and era, while at the same time avoiding a jaded retroactive viewpoint.

Peter and the Wolves is many splendid things at once. It is the story of a queer woman in a hostile era entering a subterranean scene that could still be unwelcoming, in terms of gender as much as sexual orientation. It is an enthusiastic testimonial to the lifesaving nature of art, foremost music but also literature; reading this book refreshed my own memories of many hours spent breathing the musty air of secondhand bookshops, with Grove Press and New Directions editions providing an education far beyond what was taught in school.

The book effectively expresses the appeal of booze and drugs, specifically their usefulness in the bending of reality, this outcome especially enticing for those plagued by the anxiety of inadequacy. By extension, it depicts the obvious dangers posed when the use of those substances is not just excessive but prolonged.

And Peter and the Wolves serves as a corrective to the outsize reputations of a couple Cleveland titans, namely electric eel John Morton (who was prone to tantrums and frequently and publicly acted the bully) and Pere Ubu’s Crocus Behemoth aka David Thomas (quite the control freak and a misogynist toward Bertei).

There is nothing vindicative in these disclosures or even a trace of settling scores, but rather Bertei making plain her direct experience with what’s already been established elsewhere; that in the 1970s, rock music was a male-dominated scene. Amid this boy’s club, the friendship of Bertei and Laughner is refreshing. Described as a mentor, crucially, he was an encourager and not a groomer, with her portraiture of their relationship in its initial phase a joy to read.

It also makes Laughner’s early death freshly tragic (as did Smog Veil’s box set devoted to the man, which amongst its riches offered “Rock it Down” by Laughner and Bertei from the “Secret Sessions” tape recorded in 1977) and reemphasizes that he was so much more than just a rock casualty. But as mentioned above, while Laughner is a major figure this memoir, the story is fully Bertei’s, with the chapters depicting Cleveland and her youth spent as a ward of the state truly engrossing. They reveal that her artistic curiosity began prior to meeting Laughner, with their friendship simply intensifying it.

Prior to Laughner’s death, Bertei had moved to NYC, with the pages devoted to her activities on the night she learned of her friend’s demise amongst the book’s most riveting. Shortly after, the description of the funeral is terribly affecting. But as the chronicle of one woman’s survival, its pages spiked with her no-nonsense feminism, Peter and the Wolves is ultimately an inspiring read.

The seeds of the sheer diversity of Bertei’s artistic achievements, e.g. recording with the Bloods, singing on records by Thomas Dolby and Whitney Houston, writing songs for Lydia Lunch and Sheena Easton, acting in and directing films, and of course writing on the page, is right here in Peter and the Wolves. Her next book, Why LaBelle Matters (yes, about the soul vocal group) is due March 23. I can’t wait to soak it up.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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