Terry Reid - Biography
By Bob Fagan
During his short life, Peter Laughner was instrumental in the birth of the mid-70s new music scene in Cleveland, OH. Laughner was an occasional reviewer for Creem magazine and a drug-and booze-abusing buddy of fellow Creem writer Lester Bangs. Ironically, Laughner may have first come to the attention of music fans outside the Cleveland area via his obituary in Punk magazine, written by Bangs. Bangs struggles to make sense of Laughner’s life (not to mention his own), and vacillates wildly between his sorrow at Laughner’s demise and his anger at Laughner’s near-suicidal capacity for drugs and self-destruction. That appetite for drugs and alcohol would, for better or worse, define and largely set the limits of Laughner’s musical career.
Laughner’s most influential band was Rocket From The Tombs, which numbered David Thomas and Cheetah Chrome in its lineup. Rocket From The Tombs never released anything on a major or even a minor label, but it’s members would go on to form bands that defined the punk and post-punk scene in Cleveland and eventually (and to a lesser extent), in New York City. Guitarist Cheetah Chrome would co-found The Dead Boys, perhaps the Midwest’s first punk band. And David Thomas and Allen Ravenstine (and Laughner for a brief time), founded Pere Ubu, a post-punk band almost before punk had happened.
Laughner was an avid and learned music fan, and most of the Cleveland area bands he formed played at least as many covers as original compositions. It’s said he was deeply insecure about his own songwriting and, struggling and failing to find a way to rise above his influences, he both treated and fed his self-doubt with copious amounts of alcohol and speed. For all his self-doubt, Laughner was an excellent guitarist and a serviceable singer, comfortable writing and playing in multiple idioms. “Baudelaire” is an acoustic, Dylan-inspired song rich with vivid imagery. “Dear Richard” takes dead aim on Richard Thompson’s strat-strangling style, while “Lullaby” could be a track from a John Fahey album. “Life Stinks,” which appears on the first Pere Ubu LP (The Modern Dance, 1978 Blank Records) is a speed-driven rant with humorous couplets (“Life Stinks/I like the Kinks”) that mock its own nihilism. Perhaps Laughner’s greatest strength as a songwriter is the depth to which he was able to expose and lay bare his own fears, desires and addictions. This strength wasn’t restricted to his songwriting, moreover, anyone who hears his shrieking, atonal guitar passages on “Dear Richard” can recognize the sound of art born of great pain and tribulation.
Laughner’s move to New York City resulted in very little music and very much alcohol and drug abuse. Rumors of his once being considered as possible replacement for Richard Lloyd in Television seem to have little or no basis in fact. In increasingly poor mental and physical health, Laughner soon retreated to his parents’ home in Cleveland. The years of prodigious drug and alcohol intake had taken a heavy toll on his body, and he died in his bed on June 22, 1977, of acute pancreatitis. On the eve of his death, he recorded a selection of his favorite songs into a cheap boombox cassette player. Most chilling was a rendition of Robert Johnson’s whistling-by-the-graveyard classic “Me and the Devil Blues.” His voice a whiskey croak, his slide playing surprisingly strong and sure, Laughner owns the song as it owns him. Hard as it is to listen to, knowing his fate, you can’t turn away from its power, and his chuckling aside - “I don’t care where you bury my body after I’m dead and gone.” – can’t but leave the listener wondering if he knew he was out of time. He was found dead in his bed the next day. His tombstone reads, “Play on, Beloved Son.”
For years bootleg tapes of Laughner demos and live shows with his various bands were traded between fans. A collection of the best of this material was issued in 1994 (Take the Guitar Player for a Ride TimKerr Records); it is unfortunately now out of print. Handsome Productions sells numerous compilations of Laughner recordings drawn from a wide variety of bands, including demos, radio broadcasts and audience and board tapes form live performances, and even the fabled deathbed collection (Nocturnal Digressions, 2008 Handsome Productions). Rumors of a Peter Laughner boxed set persist. Improbably enough, Rocket From The Tombs reunited in 2003, with original members Thomas, Chrome and bassist Craig Bell, joined by Steve Mehlman on drums and none other than Richard Lloyd replacing Laughner on guitar. One can easily imagine Laughner and the Devil walking side by side, chuckling at the ironies.