Adele in 1977 by Nan Goldin


Peter Laughner is one of those ‘what could have been’ rock & roll stories, and nobody knew that potential better than Adele Bertei, who shared a house with Peter in Cleveland and collaborated on projects. In her new revised edition of Peter and the Wolves, Bertei debunks the image of Laughner as “the punk poster boy for the ‘live fast, die young’ ethos of rock & roll”. Both celebratory and unflinching, the book, published by Smog Veil, is a tribute to the impact Laughner’s friendship had on Bertei’s own career. Richie Unterberger spoke with Adele Bertei for PKM. 

Of all the cult artists in rock history, there may be no musician who had as little to show for his talent on commercially available discs as Peter Laughner while he was still alive. Sure, someone like Nick Drake sold few records in his lifetime, but at least he got to release three finely produced albums. Skip Spence’s idiosyncratic genius might have burned briefly, and his psych-folk masterpiece Oar might have allegedly been one of the lowest-selling LPs in the history of Columbia Records. But at least he got to put out a full-length solo record on a major label and play an important part in early records by Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape.

In contrast, the only music Laughner released before his 1977 death was found on Pere Ubu’s first couple of singles, which were scarcely heard at the time outside the deep rock underground. If you were part of Cleveland’s emerging punk/new wave scene, you knew he’d been in several bands, including Rocket from the Tombs, whose explosive pre-punk featured (like Pere Ubu) a young David Thomas. You also knew he was a skilled singer-songwriter who echoed one of his heroes, Lou Reed, in his deft blend of forceful hard-rocking angst and aching vulnerability. But if you were outside his scene, you had only the accounts of those who were there to validate his legend.

Fortunately, that’s changed with the release of numerous posthumous Laughner recordings in the last few decades, most notably last year’s five-disc career retrospective box on Smog Veil. His legacy is brought to yet more vivid life by a new book from someone who was not only there, but also worked closely with Laughner in the final years of his life.

In a slim volume of about 100 pages, Adele Bertei’s Peter and the Wolves mixes memories of her artistic awakenings as she emerged from a troubled adolescence with her experiences alongside Laughner, who was kind of a mentor when they were roommates in Cleveland. Bertei was also part of one of Peter’s final musical projects, the Wolves, before moving to New York and making a mark on that city’s no wave scene as a vital part of the Contortions.

In some ways this was an exciting time to be around Laughner, who did a great deal to encourage Bertei’s entry into the world of professional musicianship and increase her knowledge of rock music in general. He was also as prey to the demons of substance abuse and rock and roll excess as any dissolute superstar, though without the accompanying commercial success and widespread recognition. It’s disheartening to read not only tales of his reckless behavior (some involving guns he shot in their apartment), but also how he sabotaged his prospects in numerous musical projects, almost as if he had a fear of success even on an underground level.

Bertei celebrates his best qualities, as well as interactions with celebrated figures like Television and Lester Bangs. But she doesn’t shirk from detailing the sordid and tragic aspects of his life, although she didn’t get dragged too deeply into those before moving away from Cleveland. After playing organ and guitar with the Contortions, she sang lead with the all-women punk-punk band the Bloods, released solo records, and sang with numerous artists, ranging from Thomas Dolby and Tears For Fears to Culture Club.

Bertei has also been active over the previous few decades as a film director and writer, and offers some of her past and present work on her website, I interviewed her about Peter and the Wolves shortly before its publication in fall 2020.

PKM: Peter and the Wolves was originally published in 2013 in a limited edition of 200, and is now coming out in a revised edition by Smog Veil. What inspired you to write the memoir, and are there differences of note between the first and second editions?

Adele Bertei: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a pathologist because I was fascinated about why and how people die. The unfairness of it. I’ve lost so many people I was close to, who passed way before they should have, usually from complications related to alcohol or drugs. Peter was the first loss, and a huge one. I needed to do a forensic on the why of it.

And Peter was being portrayed online as the punk poster boy for the “live fast, die young” ethos of rock & roll, with some accounts bordering on the ghoulish. I couldn’t let that public identity be the finality of him, since I knew him differently…we were close friends, and he had a profound effect on my life. Although he embraced this doomed persona in songs like “Ain’t It Fun,” there were many layers to the guy.

That first edition was never properly published or released to the public, only to my Kickstarter donors and friends. The Smog Veil box set inspired me to take another deep dive into the story. It’s hard for me to specify differences in the two versions, but I can say there’s more clarity, with some extras and photos that haven’t been seen before. And the more I write, the more I fall in love with writing, with language as a tool of discovery and revelation…a process that flowed through this revision.

PKM: Peter Laughner’s work is by now known to a fairly sizable group of underground rock fans, but not too much has been written about his life and career, although the material with the recent box set made more details available. What did you most want to convey about him that wasn’t widely known?

Adele Bertei: That Peter was so much more than a fuck-up. Besides being a brilliant musician, he was a champion of women artists, which didn’t fly so well in the male-dominated rock scene. We’re all such complex creatures, yet we have a tendency toward seizing on something about a person, usually the most sensational, and it becomes a meme through repetition; “I hear he or she’s ______… “ you know, fill in the blank. It’s not like identity politics is something new, it’s always existed, and reputation is one form of it.

In part, the book is also about this idea of identity, my own as well. How the persona we create and its reinforcement by others can trap us like it did Peter. Having lived with Peter, the gentler side, the singer-songwriter was the stronger, but it’s not what the Cleveland scene wanted or expected from him…many wanted to reinforce the fuck-up because it was far more entertaining, like watching a car wreck.

Peter was so much more than a fuck-up. Besides being a brilliant musician, he was a champion of women artists, which didn’t fly so well in the male-dominated rock scene.

PKM: The book evokes the feel of Cleveland’s rock community as the mid-’70s were turning to the late-’70s. What did you feel were the most crucial elements in generating a distinctive alternative/underground Cleveland rock sound, in a city that was much smaller than and geographically remote from the scenes in cities like New York? For Peter, what about the Cleveland scene could have helped and/or hurt him?

Adele Bertei: When I think about Cleveland in the 1970s, I think about Manchester in the UK, the similarities. Both cities were once industrial boom towns, but by the mid-’70s, both looked and felt like afterthoughts…forgotten, desolate. Haunted in a sense. While bands like Pere Ubu and Devo were busting through the torpor of all that boredom and emptiness in Cleveland, the same was happening in Manchester with bands like the Fall and Joy Division, a roar against the seeming futility of a future that held no place for imagination…for life, even. That ghostly feeling of Cleveland fed Peter’s poetic side. The scene and its rigid ideas, coupled with his romanticism of the tortured artist, hurt him terribly.

PKM: Peter invited you to be part of his band the Wolves after hearing you sing “Piece of My Heart” at a blues jam. What do you feel he heard in your voice and approach that made him want to collaborate with you? Was it an instinctive move reflecting generally what he gravitated toward?

Adele Bertei: I think he heard and saw something extremely different than the norm he was used to in Cleveland. I was hardly your typical girl. I often passed for a boy, was gender-fluid decades before it became a label. And I was a white girl who’d spent many years in Cleveland reformatories singing gospel music with Black girls…my voice carried that story. There was nothing aesthetically punk about me at the time, unless the Dead End Kids look could be considered punk…my look was scruffy boys’ suits and newsboy caps. I was different, and he was drawn to different. This explains why he was initially taken by David Thomas, who was also an outlier in sound and vision.

Adele by Pia Rossellini

PKM: The eclecticism of Laughner’s musical tastes comes through strongly in the book. So many musicians from that era and sort of scene are described as primarily or exclusively listening to the likes of the Stooges and the MC5. But, as you detail, he was enthused about lots of music that wouldn’t be classified as “pre-punk,” like Richard Thompson, Gram Parsons, and reggae. While that broad range is part of what draws listeners to his work now, could it have made it difficult for him to fit into a punk/new wave movement where raw energy was prioritized and more folk/country rootsy influences relatively untapped, at least at its outset?

Adele Bertei: Yes, I talk about this in the book. He could play circles around all the guitar players in Cleveland…he loved his instrument and what it could do, how far it could reach and move…not just in an impulsive, aggressive way but in the way Robert Johnson pulled such beauty from the instrument…that beautiful, soulful way. Punk is about a primal raw energy…Peter could play a punk song from a coma! He out-punked the hardest-core punks. But for every “Amphetamine” there were three ballads…a “Baudelaire,” “Cinderella Backstreet,” and “I Must Have Been Out of My Mind.”

“Baudelaire” – Peter Laughner:

I listen to those songs now and it occurs to me that if he’d been able to break free from his persona and his addictions, he would have become a very important songwriter. It’s still difficult to listen to Nocturnal Digressions, the tape he made the night he died. His voice was so ragged from it all. Just heartbreaking.

PKM: One of the most interesting things to learn from the book was that “Peter’s admiration and support for women musicians and artists made him the anomaly among most of Cleveland’s boys’ club, with their attitude that girls were pretty appendages, there to support boy-brilliance and serve their masters.” Unfortunately, that attitude’s still sometimes found today. In your long career in music and the arts, have you found attitudes have progressed from where they were 40-45 years ago, or is there still much to learn from Laughner’s example?

Adele Bertei: I know plenty of guys who enjoy playing music with women today, but the record business, the majors…wow. They had their moments, like in the 1990s when fierce women artists could be heard on the airwaves…Tori Amos, Queen Latifah, Alanis Morissette, MC Lyte, Lauryn Hill. But today? Take the hit song “WAP” for instance, by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. Number One on the Billboard charts, talking about Wet Ass Pussy. The message being, talk about pussy and girl, watch the clouds rain coin!

I’m hardly anti-sex, but here’s the thing…do you think if these women were singing “White Ass Perps throwing brown babies in cages,” Atlantic Records would give the song a half-penny in promo? Read Dorothy Carvello’s book Anything for A Hit which exposes the sleaze of Ahmet Ertegun’s reign at Atlantic Records and their promo of “WAP” makes sense. I warn you though, you’ll need a good long shower after reading that book.

Do you think if these women were singing “White Ass Perps throwing brown babies in cages,” Atlantic Records would give the song a half-penny in promo?

The music we hear on the radio is socially engineered to create a zeitgeist around what we should value, how we should be. We’ve taken a long detour away from the dignity and truth of 1960s Dylan, of Marvin Gaye and Labelle in the 1970s. Musical messages, when distributed widely, affect culture in a huge way. Peter loved the political songwriters of the 1960s, Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs. Dylan. Odetta. I wonder what songs he’d be writing today if he were with us.

“Cinderella Backstreet” – Peter Laughner:

PKM: As talented as Laughner was, it seemed hard for him to fit himself into a path that would have carved out a lengthy career. He seemed reluctant or afraid to go solo, yet at the same time ran through a lot of bands without staying too long in any. Being unable to go solo or be in a band long enough to make a mark seemed to hinder his prospects. In your view, why didn’t Peter commit himself to one of these directions more, and is it possible that he wasn’t in the right era to make a greater mark?

Adele Bertei: This is only an opinion…insights about Peter that pertain to me too, in terms of what it takes to be an artist. Peter was overly concerned about what people thought of him, and you can’t be if you want to succeed. This goes right back to the idea of being trapped by an identity you can’t seem to escape from.

A quote by Virginia Woolf summed it up in the 1920s, yet feels apropos to Peter and to us all, I think. Especially to artists. She said, “The eyes of others are our prisons; their thoughts our cages.” One might say Woolf committed suicide because she felt she’d never be able to break free from the incarcerating eyes of English society and its expectations of her, and she couldn’t bear to live with that fact. Her work is woven through with themes around identity.

Peter loved the political songwriters of the 1960s, Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs. Dylan. Odetta. I wonder what songs he’d be writing today if he were with us.

Punk was a jailbreak from the cages, from the roles we’re meant to embody in our societies. But punk also had and has its restraints and conventions. Peter couldn’t break out of the prison-persona he’d built, which was reinforced by most people he knew, and others he didn’t know at all. When it came time for him to follow his instincts, to go solo…when that seemed the logical path left to him, he no longer had the strength to pick the lock.

PKM: As a related question, when some musicians such as yourself moved to New York to have a greater opportunity to make an impact, he seemed unable or unwilling to make such a move, despite having connections there like Lester Bangs. Why might he have been so reluctant? Was there something like a fear of success that played into it?

Adele Bertei: Based on my own experiences as a recovering alcoholic, I think the severity of his addictions had everything to do with him not following through on that dream. He desperately wanted to move to New York, but he was insecure with musicians he admired, like Patti Smith and Verlaine, and would “take courage” in alcohol and whatever drugs he could lay his hands on, then blow it mightily while under the influence. Maybe he didn’t have a clue about how to quit…and I didn’t know how to help him since I was also addicted. His drinking had become such a part of him that the thought of living without it may have scared him. It certainly scared me…I depended on it. Drinking and drugs crippled me for many years.

We didn’t know anything about Alcoholics Anonymous back then. Sobriety was the hardest thing I’ve ever undertaken but also the greatest blessing of my life. In many ways, Peter’s story is a cautionary tale about addiction…the courage it takes to overcome it, and what happens when you can’t. Or should I say, won’t.

Adele by Johnny Rozsa

PKM: Although much of this predated your close friendship and musical collaboration with him, Peter had an odd and sometimes rocky relationship with one of his closest musical associates, David Thomas. It’s interesting when you write about how Thomas “understood he needed Peter’s genius to accomplish something great.” What were the most important things Laughner and Thomas got from each other, and what made it hard for them to continue to work together?

Adele Bertei: Peter was as much of a front person as David, so it wasn’t meant to last. I can’t tell you how David felt, but I know Peter really liked him, considered him a good pal…until he wasn’t. I imagine them gravitating toward one another because they were both extremely literate, interested by scenes like Dada and the poèt maudits…like Alfred Jarry, father of Ubu. And I imagine Peter lit a fire under David to keep stretching beyond the norms, to embrace the more surreal aspects of his nature as an artist. Peter was good at seeing people’s potentials, and how he might help them. He was extremely generous that way.

PKM: The Wolves didn’t last long, due in part to reasons you detail in the book, including Laughner’s instability at the time. What kind of potential do you think the group had, both as far as what the band could achieve and your role in it, if it had been able to stay together longer?

We didn’t know anything about Alcoholics Anonymous back then. Sobriety was the hardest thing I’ve ever undertaken but also the greatest blessing of my life. In many ways, Peter’s story is a cautionary tale about addiction…the courage it takes to overcome it, and what happens when you can’t. Or should I say, won’t.

Adele Bertei: That’s difficult to say. Although we did one show without Peter, I never had the intention of keeping the band together after he left, had no ambitions for that band other than wishing the best for the other guys. The band had no future without Peter. Soon after he passed, I left for New York.

PKM: This is another hindsight question that might be difficult to answer so many years later, but as you wrote, “I can’t imagine Tom Verlaine not considering Peter for Television.” Peter knew their music very well, from the time of the “Little Johnny Jewel” single, when they weren’t known much outside New York. Rocket from the Tombs shared a bill with Television in Cleveland in July 1975, well before Television’s first album came out. How do you think he and Television might have sounded had he joined?

Adele Bertei:  I can only imagine being in a room where Verlaine and Peter played solos off of each other like Verlaine and Lloyd did, which was very hard to beat. Lloyd is a phenomenal player. In retrospect, although Peter’s guitar skills were more than up to the job, I imagine it never would have worked, since Tom is a unique front man and so was Peter. Even though he idolized Verlaine, and Richard Lloyd too, if he’d joined Television he quickly would have buckled under the pressure of suppressing his own musical personality in service to Tom’s.

[Note: Nick Blakey’s thorough story on Laughner’s relationship with Television, including clarification of rumors/reports that he actually briefly replaced Richard Lloyd, is available here .]

PKM: While much of the book celebrates Laughner’s best qualities, like his generous gift of a Duo-Sonic guitar to you, it doesn’t ignore his more troubling traits, like his alcoholism and recklessness with guns. What were the most difficult parts of the book to write and relive, and did you feel they needed to be told to present an honest portrait?

Adele Bertei: I did feel the good and the bad needed to be told, of my own part in it too, as a cautionary tale. It’s like the song by George Harrison, “Beware of Darkness.” We all have both sides…the painting by Raphael of St. Michael Vanquishing Satan? You see who is vanquished, yet is still alive. The sadness, the darkness is always the most challenging to write because you need to travel into it, to be vulnerable in order to be guided by it into the light of understanding. The gun stuff was hard because of my own deeply personal experiences. The writer Jean Genet once said, “To escape from horror, bury yourself in it.”…some deep forensic pathology there.

PKM: You wrote that “Peter idealized artists for their risky self-destruction as much as their work, believing one must travel into the heart of darkness to create something of consequence.” As a possibly related observation, you wrote Richard Hell “was a bona fide nihilist and junkie—admirable to Peter for all the wrong romanticized reasons.” This idealization didn’t work out well for Laughner, and I don’t think it does for anyone. This might be impossible to answer, but why do you think Peter felt this way, and would his talent have been different without those inclinations?

Adele Bertei: That’s hard to say really. On one hand, addiction promises oblivion and on the other, it destroys the curiosity and the will to embrace life on its own terms. It’s complicated, different for everyone who succumbs to it.

PKM: Describing your move to New York, you wrote, “If Peter couldn’t show up for his own dream, I’d do it for both of us.” Did writing the book put into relief some differences between you and Peter? Perhaps that you had the strength to survive, take a risk in moving to New York, and thrive, and that somehow Peter wasn’t able to do that?

Adele Bertei: Peter’s childhood and my own is a study in contrasts. He was an only child reared in a posh Cleveland suburb by upper middle-class parents who doted on him. He led a very sheltered life and never wanted for anything. I believe the only job he ever held, and briefly, was at a record store. His parents supported him. My childhood was a series of abandonments, foster homes, and reformatories. By the time I met him, I’d worked so many jobs…at a Veteran’s Hospital, a Salvation Army, and on the assembly line at a Ford plant. I was super-resilient because I had no other choice, and it’s a miracle I survived. Peter was sheltered, did not have this resilience. Instead, his parents conditioned him to be reliant on them, not on himself. It’s almost as if he had to create his own disasters, to see if he could survive them.

PKM: And had he been able to go to New York, what kind of music might he have made, and what directions might he have followed?

Adele Bertei: That’s hard to answer. If he’d found his way to a sober community, had made different choices early on, I bet he would have made a mark as an incredible singer-songwriter.

PKM: You relate how before you met Laughner, Patti Smith had a considerable impact on you, even before you heard her music, from reading her writings. As much as Peter helped your entry into a musical career, do you think you would have started on that path soon at any rate, whether through the influence of Smith or other inspirations?

I was super-resilient because I had no other choice, and it’s a miracle I survived. Peter was sheltered, did not have this resilience. Instead, his parents conditioned him to be reliant on them, not on himself. It’s almost as if he had to create his own disasters, to see if he could survive them.

Adele Bertei: Probably. But it was hard for a woman to take off alone to live in New York in 1977. New York was so dangerous at the time…the murder rate was through the roof. And yet, many brave women did move there, inspired by Patti Smith and musicians like Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads. I may have moved to NYC having not known Peter, but all the lessons I absorbed by his presence in my life prepared me to take that risk. Peter gave me an unforgettable rock & roll education, and it’s all there in the book.

PKM: The book doesn’t cover your lengthy post-Cleveland career with the Contortions and other acts, and as a solo artist. However, what do you think were the most important things you brought into those activities that Laughner helped you to develop?

Adele Bertei: Fearlessness. On stage performing, and as a singer. I don’t think I would have been so brazen on stage without having worked with him. His belief in me bolstered my confidence as a musician and performer. We all need our champions. None of us walk this road alone, and if it wasn’t for him, I may never have had the confidence to pursue that dream.

PKM: There are few if any artists other than Laughner where there was such a disparity between the quality of their music and the slim quantity of available recordings. That situation has now changed, of course, with the box set, and other releases like the vintage Rocket from the Tombs recordings [as heard on Smog Veil’s The Day the Earth Met the Rocket from the Tombs]. What do you think Peter would have made of this posthumous acclaim, and how well do you feel archival releases like the Smog Veil box set document his talent?

Adele Bertei: I nearly wept when I saw Smog Veil’s box set. After all this time, finally, a definitive collection of Peter’s recordings instead of disparate leaks of bad quality cassette tapes with no context. Working with Peter’s estate, Smog Veil put years of work into the box set, and it’s a thing of beauty…not only a collection of his work, but such a tribute. Peter and the Wolves is a stand-alone book, but also a companion piece to the box set and I’m very happy to be working with the Smog Veil team. They get it…they care. Peter never created the chance for himself to get into a great studio with an amazing producer, which is a shame. But I can tell you, between the box set and the book, he definitely approves.

PKM: As the second edition of Peter and the Wolves goes into circulation, I’m sure you’ll be asked whether you’re planning to write another book, or books, documenting your career in music and other arts after moving to New York and hooking up with the Contortions. Are you planning or working on any such volumes?

Adele Bertei: I’m presently working on the follow-up to Peter and the Wolves, a memoir which begins in NYC in 1977 with my joining the Contortions…the working title is No New York. The scene of artists and musicians I discovered in New York at the time was not only fascinating, it was unique in that no other avant-garde scene in history had as many women working and playing as equal participants to the guys. I believe the presence of so many women artists made the guys in that scene reach that much further. And no other women writers have given us accounts of that scene…. there was so much crossover in 1977 between the Warhol gang, punk, no wave and hip hop. The stories in the next book scan a little over a decade, concluding with my exit from the corporate music business.

This is potentially going to sound nutty, but I hang with ghosts. They compel me to tell their stories. Ghosts have never scared me. They have so much to teach…if we dare to listen.

And I have another book called Why Labelle Matters coming out via the University of Texas Press in the spring of 2021. I’ve got stories…and a few more ghosts waiting in the wings, counting on me to come through. This is potentially going to sound nutty, but I hang with ghosts. They compel me to tell their stories. Ghosts have never scared me. They have so much to teach…if we dare to listen.

“Amphetamine” – Peter Laughner: