Cleveland’s vital and unsung punk scene would not be complete without a chapter on Peter Laughner. Laughner, who died in 1977 at the age of 24, co-founded legendary bands Rocket from the Tombs and Pere Ubu, among others. An amazing singer and songwriter, he has received little recognition. After being moved by Laughner’s posthumous and out-of-print “Take The Guitar Player For A Ride” collection, PKM’s Todd McGovern set out to find the man behind the myth. He spoke with those closest to Peter, including Cheetah Chrome, Richard Hell, Craig Bell, Miriam Linna, Anton Fier, and Adele Bertei, among others.
Playwright Tennessee Williams wrote, “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” Actor Michael D. Roberts, best known as “Rooster,” a streetwise pimp and informant on 1970s TV show Baretta, said of his native town, “Cleveland is a hard town to truly love. Live here long enough and you accept it as you do a cellmate in jail.”
Some cities are known for their music scene or their sound. Detroit had Motown; Seattle had “grunge; Minneapolis had both funk and college rock. What did Cleveland ever have? Sure, it had Harvey Pekar; it had Jim Brown and The Raspberries, but it was too beat, too beaten down, too uncool to have a “scene.” What it did have in the late Sixties and early Seventies were a lot of local bands, playing dive bars with sets consisting of mostly cover songs. It had Midwestern kids who had seen the MC5 and The Stooges and were trying to make something their own.
Cleveland also had Peter Laughner. Laughner formed over half-a-dozen bands in his short 24 years, but only two have any name recognition. The first, Rocket From the Tombs, lasted just over a year. They had a loud, distorted sound on par with The Stooges and an incendiary live show, but didn’t release an album or even any singles. Pere Ubu, co-founded by Rocket From the Tombs members Laughner and David Thomas, remain a band today, but Laughner was only around for their first two singles before being kicked out. A year later, he was dead at age 24.
After reading the well-known eulogy written by Laughner’s friend, Lester Bangs, I listened to a posthumous release of his music and was struck by Laughner’s voice and the poignancy of his songwriting. “Take The Guitar Player For A Ride,” released in 1994, is a collection of 15 lo-fi rehearsal, live, and demo recordings. It is long out-of-print, but available on YouTube:
It contains original songs by Laughner, including “Amphetamine,” “Baudelaire,” “Sylvia Plath,” and “Life Stinks,” as well as covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson and Neil Young. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy definitely heard “Amphetamine” and I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that Paul Westerberg may have lifted a line or two from Laughner, as well.
Some may argue that Peter Laughner’s output was minimal, that he relied too much on cover songs to be considered a great songwriter. Others may put him on a pedestal, idolizing him for fulfilling the rock-’n’-roll cliche that it’s somehow cool to drink heavily, shoot heroin, and die young. Me, I just got totally hooked on his songs and that voice!
I needed to know more about him, this shadowy figure who came and went way too soon. What follows are the recollections of some of Peter Laughner’s closest friends, bandmates and other Cleveland musicians.
Peter Laughner was born in 1952 in Bay Village, Ohio, the only child of Luke and Margaret Laughner. Bay Village, about 15 miles west of Cleveland, had a population of about 7,000 during Peter’s childhood. After receiving an electric guitar for Christmas when he was 14, his parents soundproofed his bedroom and shortly afterward, Peter formed his first band, Mr. Charlie, which lasted through high school.
Don Harvey (Life-long friend and member of Laughner’s high school band, Mr. Charlie): Peter was an only child. His parents were very indulgent and doted on him. I think they were alcoholics and I believe his mother was also manic-depressive. I think she was on lithium or some other drug. Both of his parents had major issues. His father was a little bit grumpy. I couldn’t say that I took a liking to them. I liked Peter a lot more.
Rene Duer: (High school friend, ex-housemate): I became friendly with Peter and his crowd of friends in Bay Village. And then I started going over to Peter’s house with his friends to listen to music. We’d get fucked up and listen to the Velvet Underground and Cecil Taylor. It was great.
His parents were crazy drunks and they argued a lot, but they loved Peter. They indulged his every whim—probably not to his benefit. Peter was an only child. He didn’t have playmates built into his life. And he was weird! But he wasn’t bad looking or anything. He just had way too much energy for the times to be socially acceptable.
Adele Bertei: (Roommate and singer in The Wolves, Peter Laughner’s last band): Peter’s father brought him up as a “man’s man,” schooling him on how to drink like a man, shoot like a man. He gave Peter guns as presents. This created a deep conflict for Peter, since his primary mode of being was extremely gentle. When I initially lived with him, he was more of a skinny rock & roll boy who loved to drink and indulge in drugs occasionally, like so many others.
Don Harvey: I used to go over to his house and sleep over. We’d stay up late…he really enjoyed turning other people on to new music. I remember the first time I heard [Captain Beefheart’s] Trout Mask Replica was in his living room. He just put the headphones on me. He did the same with all the Velvets albums and Neil Young. All the classic blues artists. He wasn’t just into one genre. Back then, people who liked The Byrds were also listening to Coltrane and Indian music as well. There was a lot of eclecticism going on back then.
Charlotte Pressler (Peter Laughner’s ex-wife): It is important to know this about Peter’s personality, it is part of his tragedy: Acceptance meant everything to him. Peter had a deep need for approval. (*From the Clinton Heylin’s Velvets to the Voidoids: The Birth of American Punk, Chicago Review Press, 2005.)
Robert Kidney (Founder, guitarist and lead singer of 15-60-75 aka The Numbers Band): Peter was a curious person, a very intuitive person. He was not what I would call a music fascist. He was interested in all kinds of music and he understood and enjoyed all kinds of music. He was mainly interested in rock & roll, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t listen to other things.
Tony Maimone (Bassist, Pere Ubu): My first memory of Peter? He was across the hallway in my building one day and heard me playing. He came right over with a guitar, a bunch of records and a six-pack of beer.
Miriam Linna (Friend of Peter, drummer for The Cramps and The A-Bones, co-founder of Norton Records): The first time I heard of Peter – I happened to be listening to the radio, WMMS, and it was some kind of lunchtime acoustic concert. Peter was playing and at the end, he gave out an address, saying “write to me for information.” So, I wrote to him. He actually took the time to respond. Imagine, a person I don’t know at all wrote me this great letter!
May 31, 1975
Your missive was received with considerable cheer at this end, myself, Rocket guitarist with short black hair and hollow-body Gibson, being laid up in the hospital due to a drug-related accident. Trying to rest and repair a broken blood vessel in my sinus,
O sweet phenobarbital and codeine, while outside, the summer begins and turn the streets into viscous, pregnant avenues of possibility and our recording studio date draws perilously near, but no good to stand up and strike a chord, but if it’s suddenly going to shower my guitar with half-pint of blood, although the dramatic effects would be considerable…
So that was the first letter I received from him. We became friends. He was sincere – straightforward; he’d say what he thought; he wasn’t conniving. It was all pretty intense. When you got in the car with him, it was a death-ride. It was exciting as hell to be around that guy.
Craig Bell (Bassist for Rocket From The Tombs, member of Mirrors and other Cleveland bands): Peter was very intelligent, very talkative and very inquisitive. I lived with he and [former wife] Charlotte for about a year – right around the time I joined Rocket From the Tombs. I loved hanging out with Peter. He was always up for adventure. He was well-read and was willing to sit and talk. And talk and talk about anything you wanted to talk about. Especially music and poetry.
Don Harvey: Peter turned me onto all these books when we were growing up – Burroughs, Kerouac’s On the Road. Also, I came out [of the closet] in 1972 or ’73. Peter never had a problem with it. It was a great relief, knowing I had friend who was OK with [my being gay]. I was and am very grateful for that.
Craig Bell: He was also a great cook; he taught me a lot about cooking. He could really whip up a dinner. I’ll always remember just standing in the kitchen and he’d be cooking. He’s what you would call a nervous cooker. He’s always looking at it, fussing with it, but all the time, he was talking. Talking and talking about whatever the fuck we were talking about, you know. But I’d just be standing there and maybe we’re drinking a beer or something, but he’s just cooking and it smells so good and it’s such a wonderful memory.
Cheetah Chrome: (Guitarist, Rocket From The Tombs, Dead Boys) I remember the time he got busted for licking beer off of a well-known groupie’s tits – his wife caught him and broke his nose with a platform shoe.
MUSIC AND THE STAGE
Craig Bell: Peter easily moved between acoustic and electric guitar. He could play in many different styles. He was a marvelous guitar player. His writings could be stuff as hard as “Ain’t It Fun” and “So Cold” as delicate as his song “Baudelaire” or “Sylvia Plath.”
Tony Maimone: Peter was bursting at the seams with his wild energy…super confident, super intense, and totally cocksure of himself. He was a great storyteller, a really good showman, and a real live wire. Of course, he had a lot of inner problems. They killed him, didn’t they? Goddamnit! You know when someone as talented as that goes down, man, it really shakes your world. Peter was nothing but generous and kind.
Rene Duer: Musically, Peter was into everything…He was insatiable and not a snob about what he would listen to. That said, once he decided he didn’t like something, that was that.
He also didn’t see the barriers that other people saw. He kind of suffered for that, too, in the way he approached people. Sometimes he’d come out and say bluntly, “I’m interested in you!” Sometimes they’d freak out and run away from him. He just wanted to connect with anybody he found interesting.
“I remember the time he got busted for licking beer off of a well-known groupie’s tits – his wife caught him and broke his nose with a platform shoe.” – Cheetah Chrome
Richard Hell (Writer, musician, former member of Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids): What I do remember is a manic, drooling bleary-eyed drunk trying to get next to me because he thought we had something in common. I dismissed him. He’s associated in my mind with Bangs, another person Peter idolized, and with whom he definitely had a lot in common, but who became his friend. It’s only after they both died and I could see past their overbearing come-ons to the work they produced that I’ve gotten to appreciate them. Laughner’s works, like Lester’s, are, if sometimes messy and self-indulgent, incredibly real and soulful. Among them are performances that will last. (Richard Hell on Peter Laughner, SPIN, August 2, 1998)
Adele Bertei: What I do know for sure: Peter’s guitar playing was extraordinary, up there with all the greats. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Richard Thompson, Tom Verlaine, Joni Mitchell, Bob Quine, Robert Johnson. He could play any style or genre. Peter rocked all hell out of every song he played, including the most mournful. He had “it”, the animating rhythmic and melodic force alive in the DNA of most brilliant musicians, black and white.
Anton Fier: (Drummer, Pere Ubu, Friction, Golden Palominos) In my opinion, Peter’s talent was mostly unformed….primarily because he died before finding his own voice, musically. He had impeccable taste and a vast knowledge of “obscure” musics at a time when such knowledge was very hard to come by. At various times, he wanted to be Jimmy Reed, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Tom Verlaine. Every artist has influences, but Peter didn’t live long enough to either move past these influences or combine them in a way that formed a unique vision.
Tony Maimone: Peter was a writer. I remember he was doing articles for Creem magazine, stalking Lou Reed. Peter had this whole other side – the side that was a writer, the side that could quote Dylan Thomas, the side that knew his Raymond Chandler backwards and forwards, the side that could sit down with some writers and totally hold his own.
Miriam Linna: Peter was a real poet…and to be able to combine that with melodies that direct themselves into your heart?…That’s a rare talent.
On August 2, 2019, Smog Veil Records will release complete works of Peter Laughner. The five LP/five CD box set also contains a 100 page hardbound book of photos and Laughner’s writings. For compete song listings and additional information about this long-awaited collection, please visit: Smog Veil Records
In the early-to-mid 1970s, there was a melding of music and art happening, all underground, in Northeast Ohio. Inspired after seeing a Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band concert, local artist and musician John Morton formed electric eels. In Kent, Robert Kidney had formed 15-60-75 aka The Numbers Band in 1969. The band remains together to this day and plays all over the region. At Kent State University, art students Jerry Casale and Bob Lewis met fellow student Mark Mothersbaugh and put their theory of de-evolution to music, forming the satirical and surrealist band, DEVO. Also in art school at Kent State was a young Chrissie Hynde.
“Midwestern Teen Mutants”
In 1974, Laughner wrote in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “I want to do for Cleveland what Brian Wilson did for California and Lou Reed did for New York.”
John Morton (Founder of electric eels, writer, visual artist): It wasn’t a scene. It was a bunch of kids playing disparate music, wormholes apart from each other. We all knew of each other but all the bands I was around were in separate compartments generating their musical statements in isolation.
Craig Bell: In 1971-74…the bands that got paid the money were the bands who played four sets a night of whatever the Top 40 hits were of the day or the Beatles and Stones. The scene in Cleveland was pretty much… a cover band scene.
Tony Maimone: It was just beginning to bubble across Ohio. You had the Akron scene, which was starting to bubble with bands like Tin Huey and the Bizarros and Devo. Up in Cleveland, you had Rocket From the Tombs. David Thomas was the doorman at the Viking Saloon and that was a place where things were starting to happen.
Robert Kidney: A little later on in the 1970s, things began to change. The underground scene in Cleveland began to develop a different sound; it wasn’t borrowing so much as trying to generate something that was original. One of the bands was Rocket From the Tombs.
Rene Duer: There was a great scene in Cleveland at the time, which was kind of surprising. Then again, not all that surprising, given the legacy of Alan Freed all the musical people in Cleveland. There were a lot of great soul clubs – Leo’s Casino on Euclid Avenue had all the great soul acts. Acts came to play Cleveland to try out…I remember seeing Bruce Springsteen when he was nobody. He played in a tiny university gym with maybe 1,000 people – tops.
“When I was younger, the Velvet Underground meant to me what the Stones, Dylan etc. meant to thousands of other midwestern teen mutants.” — Peter Laughner*
At 14, Peter formed his first band, Mr. Charlie, with some high school friends. Like most local bands at the time, Mr. Charlie’s setlist consisted of songs from the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Velvet Underground, and the Beatles. They played a few originals, including a blues-influenced song written by Peter called, “I’m So Fucked Up.” Friend and Mr. Charlie band member, Don Harvey, said, “We didn’t have that many gigs. We mostly played in Peter’s bedroom. We had some gigs at Bay High School. We did a number of private parties.”
Upon graduating from Bay Village High School, Peter formed Cinderella Backstreet. The band, heavily influenced by Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, also played covers by Bob Dylan and Richard Thompson along with some original songs. They played their last show in August, 1973. Then, Laughner quickly formed Cinderella’s Revenge, which didn’t even make it a full year.
In the summer of 1974, Peter was playing a weekly solo show at a folk club. One night in between sets, he wandered over to The Viking Saloon, a famed rock venue near Cleveland State University. A new band, Rocket From the Tombs, was playing its first show. Fronted by Crocus Behemoth, whose real name is David Thomas, Rocket From the Tombs was billed as “The World’s Only Dumb Metal Mind-Death Rock & Roll Band” and presented by Thomas as a joke band, a parody. They played songs from the 1950s-1960s, rewritten for 1974. Laughner saw potential for a real rock band and as his ex-wife Charlotte Pressler said in From the Velvets To the Voidoids, “Peter pushed Crocus to take himself seriously as a singer and songwriter.”
Shortly after Laughner joined Rocket From the Tombs, most of the band’s members were let go. Laughner placed an ad in the paper, looking for a drummer and guitarist. An 18-year-old Eugene O’Connor (who became Cheetah Chrome) answered the ad and brought along his friend, drummer Johnny Madansky, who became known as Johnny Blitz. They met Laughner at a dive bar for drinks. After getting properly lubricated, the trio then jammed for hours, cementing the new line-up. Around the same time, Peter convinced Craig Bell, who played bass for popular local band, Mirrors, to also play with Rocket From the Tombs. Practicing cover songs and writing original material, the music was high energy garage rock. By December, the new Rocket From the Tombs was ready to take their show public.
Craig Bell: When David [Thomas] started Rocket From the Tombs, it was much more light-hearted and loose, not the Rocket From the Tombs that everybody knew from the bootlegs and the cassettes that floated around for 30 years before any official releases came out. Peter joined that band with David and then he and David decided to break that band up, change the guitarists, bassist, and drummer and get people who were more in tune to a more serious, straight-ahead rock thing that they envisioned, with writing original songs and things like that, and that’s where I came into play.
When we got serious, it was a challenge, in a way, from the local radio station, WMMS. They had this thing called “Coffee Break Concerts” where they would bring folk singers on or a small combo and they would do, what you might call more “Americana- type stuff.” Nothing like really rock or anything, but more like Buffalo Springfield, Simon and Garfunkel kind of stuff. Peter had been on those shows a couple of times, doing blues and that kind of stuff. He had a talk with them, like ‘why aren’t you supporting some of these people, bands like Mirrors, the Electric Eels, and Tin Huey?’ They sort of said, “Well, do you have a recording?” Peter said, “So you’re saying that if we had a recording, you’d play it?” And they said, “You bring a tape down here, we’ll play it.”
Peter took [the recording] down to the station and they played it. It was on a Sunday night at 8:00. It was a big deal and it got us a lot of notice and helped us with some high-profile gigs at that time. We felt like it was a trajectory that was going off. So we took that tape to Lester Bangs of Creem magazine, who was a friend of Peter’s. He played it for the producers of Blue Oyster Cult. Their comment on it was, “Oh, it’s kinda derivative,” which in hindsight, if you listen to that stuff, you can hear our influences. Hell, we did two Stooges songs. It sort of took the air out of our balloon. We never got it together to go into the studio and try to make a record.
Cheetah Chrome: Peter was great to work with. In fact, Pete taught me how to rehearse a band, getting the song right and then once you have it the way you want doing it five more times. Damn, we worked hard in that band! I can see where some people might have found him a bit extreme, but Blitz and I never scared easy, we loved him!
Miriam Linna: Onstage, Rocket From The Tombs were scary and dangerous. It always seemed that they’d already had an argument, like they’d had a really big fight and they were all coming on stage angry. You just knew you were about to be part of something very visceral and exciting.
Peter was a wiry guy, usually wearing a black leather jacket and shades. Onstage he was really direct and serious. Full on! When he was doing the solo thing, he was a bit more personable. But with the band, it was just about them being loud and so aggressive! They were powerful. The band played live shows all over the Cleveland area, primarily at The Viking, while also opening up for bigger draws at the city’s famed Agora Theater. In February 1975, they went into the studio, recording nine original songs (four of which would later be released on Dead Boys albums; two by Pere Ubu), as well as covers of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy.”
Rocket From the Tombs lacked a natural lead singer. Even though Laughner encouraged David Thomas as front man, Thomas couldn’t hold a tune and howled rather than sang. O’Connor and Craig Bell insisted on a change and a fan of the band who had been the lead singer of another band (Mother Goose) was recruited. He was from nearby Youngstown and went by both Steve Machine and Stiv Bators. Unfortunately, the other band members thought he was too much a clone of Iggy Pop and he was quickly let go.
Cheetah Chrome: I think we (Rocket From the Tombs) had two things, good songwriting and the fact that we didn’t sound like anyone else. At the time we were active, it was all Bowie and disco; we stood out, and not necessarily in a good way.
The band had a dual personality that led to it splitting in the summer of 1975. Laughner, Thomas and Craig Bell viewed Rocket From the Tombs more as an art rock band while O’Connor and Madansky were more “let’s rock at all costs.” Thomas, O’Connor, and Laughner split the job of lead vocals, but in the end, the internal rifts were not sustainable. And while they lasted just over a year, Rocket From the Tombs did compose three of punk rock’s biggest blasts of sonic energy: “Sonic Reducer,” “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” and “Final Solution.”
The band fragmented on stage as well into mutually exclusive sections with each member singing his own songs. Peter sang rock & roll covers like “Route 66” and “Fire Engine,” and his own songs like “Amphetamine.”
In the summer of 1975, Rocket From The Tombs was splitting apart. The end came in July. Peter had arranged for Television to play two nights in Cleveland, with Rocket From the Tombs opening. It would be the band’s last shows.
“Rocket From The Tombs were scary and dangerous. It always seemed that they’d already had an argument, like they’d had a really big fight and they were all coming on stage angry. You just knew you were about to be part of something very visceral and exciting.” – Miriam Linna
When Rocket From the Tombs broke up, they did so along their internal fault lines, with Peter Laughner and David Thomas (along with Rockets sound man Tim Wright) founding the avant-garde art rock band Pere Ubu and Gene O’Connor and Johnny Madansky joining Stiv Bators, Jeff Magnum, and Jimmy Zero to form the Dead Boys. Craig Bell moved to New Haven, CT to work for Amtrak, and soon formed Saucers with future Miracle Legion singer Mark Mulcahy on drums.
Stiv Bators (Lead singer of The Dead Boys): The Pere Ubu crowd hated us because we were just ‘Fuck art, let’s rock and roll!’ But Laughner, he understood us, he liked us, and he understood the art crowd ‘cause he was a writer. He was right in between. He tried bringing New York to Cleveland so bad, but Cleveland couldn’t understand it. I really believed in Peter. Of all the people in Cleveland, Peter was the most hip. Peter made me believe in myself. *
This early version of Pere Ubu, who along with Thomas, Laughner and Tim Wright (soon to be replaced by bassist Tony Maimone) included guitarist Tom Herman, drummer Scott Krauss and Allen Ravenstine on synthesizer, was a mix of pure garage rock and experimental art music, producing a dissonant and abstract sound. Pere Ubu was as much an art collective as it was a band, with its members all interested in moving music and art in a new and different direction. The band’s first two singles, though, “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” and “Final Solution,” were blueprints for the coming punk rock scene. They were the only recordings on which Peter Laughner participated. Shortly after their release, he was kicked out of the band for his worsening drug habit.
Pere Ubu – “Final Solution”
Tony Maimone: [Laughner] and David were butting heads and I remember when Pere Ubu went out to New York the first time [to play a festival at Max’s Kansas City], Peter was so excited and out of his mind about everything, he was cutting coke up on the bar and just being outrageous and I think it was that incident that was used against him.*
David Thomas (Co-founder of Rocket From The Tombs, Pere Ubu): “I broke the band up because Peter was doing too many drugs and…It was becoming not worth it. That set the pattern in Pere Ubu which is whenever we want to change, the band breaks up.” *
After he was kicked out of Pere Ubu, Laughner formed a few other short-lived bands, including Friction and The Wolves, working with Anton Fier and Adele Bertei, respectively.
Anton Fier: I played drums with Peter in Friction, Peter’s band after Pere Ubu. Friction, in many ways, was a Television cover band. The name of the band was taken from a Television song. We played songs by Television, Richard Hell, and The 13th Floor Elevators (though we did the Television arrangement). And this was long before “Marquee Moon” was released. We also did a couple of Richard Thompson/Fairport Convention songs. Those fit in because there were arguably similarities to Tom Verlaine’s playing style. It almost seemed like Peter’s songs were there to fill out the set.
There were really two versions of Friction. The first was a trio with Peter and Tony Maimone and me. We rehearsed a lot and played one gig at a private party. Tony then left when he was asked to join Pere Ubu. The second version was a quartet with Debbie Smith on bass and Susan Schmidt on rhythm guitar and violin. This version played a lot of gigs at Pirate’s Cove.
Tony Maimone: There is hardly any of his music out there. It’s a miracle there is what there is! Peter’s highest card was what he would do live. He was pretty undeniable live. There’s no real video of him that I know of. He’s like Robert fucking Johnson, you know! There’s a few pictures, there’s a few recording, but that’s it!
Don Harvey: Part of the mystery is that very little of his music was released other than privately circulated tapes. There was one record that came out, Peter Laughner on Cooley Records, sometime in the 1980s, then there was “Take the Guitar Player For a Ride.” He did a lot in the Cleveland scene and then was gone very quickly. I think that’s the problem. Had his recordings been out there earlier, I think he would have had more of an impact.
Beneath his bravado, Peter didn’t have that much self-confidence in his own stuff, which is probably why he didn’t bring it out much. One of Peter’s problems was that his bands didn’t last long or he didn’t last with them! I’m sure that when he was drinking a lot that made him more difficult to work with.
“He’s like Robert fucking Johnson, you know! There’s a few pictures, there’s a few recordings, but that’s it!” Tony Maimone
DRUGS, DOWNFALL, AND DEATH
Laughner’s addiction was spiraling out of control and he was in and out of the hospital with liver problems. Told to quit drinking or face an early death, Peter continued to drink. The night of June 21 at his parent’s house, Peter recorded a tape of originals and songs by Robert Johnson, Richard Thompson and Lou Reed. In the early hours of June 22, 1977, Laughner died in the bedroom of his parents’ house from acute pancreatitis. He was 24 years old.
Anton Fier: Two days before Friction’s first gig as a quartet, Lou Reed was playing in Akron. Peter asked me if I wanted to go with him to meet Lou, as he was going to interview Lou for Creem magazine. After the show we went to the Holiday Inn where Lou was staying. It was then I found out the real reason we were there: There was no interview. Peter was there to sell Lou an ounce of pure crystal meth. I didn’t get to meet Lou…he sent his road manager to deal with the purchase….which took until noon the next day to complete. There was much sampling of the goods – I was awake for the next three days.
Rene Duer: I’ve often asked myself why Peter couldn’t get out of his own way and just move to New York. Why he couldn’t do that? I don’t really have an answer. I think part of him might have been afraid of how things would go if he ever left Cleveland. Part of that was he was afraid of his own destructive powers. He really could have been an enormous star. But, on the other hand, he did spawn a lot of enthusiasm in Cleveland and he has become a legend. So maybe he was just fulfilling his destiny.
Robert Kidney: I remember we played at a place in Cleveland called “Pirate’s Cove.” I was there with my band and Peter showed up. He took me out to his car to show me his new chrome-plated .38. I said, “Why are you carrying a gun.” All he said was, “Well….” I assumed that, other than wanting to carry a gun cuz it was cool, he may have felt threatened by what he was into. I’m not sure, nor would I say what he was into. But there were rumors of him being into heroin. It never really mattered to me one way or the other. I was more worried about the fact he was carrying a weapon and what that might lead him into. Once you buy a weapon and carry a weapon, whatever that reason is, it’s not good.
I think his downfall was the fact that he bought into the rock & roll mystique, 100 percent. He was “old-school” so he carried a weapon like old blues guys carried.
Rene Duer: The gun was a prop for him. Peter was a great actor, he dressed a certain way. He had the right props. He’d have a pack of cigarettes. He would never smoke! He was the star of his own movie, 100 percent of the time! He could play any role he wanted to play. He got fucked up and caught in his own play is what happened.
He had great social skills, and then he didn’t. It depended on who you were dealing with, which Peter showed up. Was it friendly Peter? Or was it badass Peter? Was it Peter who wants to borrow money from you? He had a lot of characters he used to represent himself. Here’s Peter wearing a white shirt and blue jeans, strumming his acoustic guitar late at night. That wasn’t the same Peter who was out there carrying a gun, six hours earlier.
He had already been hospitalized for pancreatitis once when he was living with me. He would get up and drink Courvoisier and eat the top half of yogurt and that would be his food for the day. He had a major drug problem and most of it was alcohol.
Adele Bertei: His self-destructive behavior escalated as more of his so-called friends betrayed and abandoned him. My opinion, from having lived with and played with him, is that he couldn’t handle his boredom with people so he’d act out, causing bad feelings and creating an escape route for himself. He was bored by little minds and lackluster talent. He was drawn to the ‘other’, people who weren’t rock or punk status quo. He played with, and supported, women musicians and wasn’t afraid to be singular, sometimes feminine. Rock misogynists in the Cleveland scene weren’t having it. Locking into any specific identity can be lethal to the spirit. Others locked him into an identity that he helped build but didn’t have the strength to escape from.
Miriam Linna: Near the end, It all happened pretty rapid fire. In the spring of 1977, Peter traveled to New York to visit me at my apartment on 12th Street. He was with Lester Bangs, Richard Lloyd, and [photographer] Stephanie Chernikowski. Richard had just recorded a solo demo and they were excited about it and wanted to come over and play it for me. They came over and put the recording on. I was sitting with Stephanie talking and after a while was like, “Where’s the guys?” I look in the kitchen and they are cooking up heroin and shooting up. In my kitchen. That was a shock to me. I just was completely horrified. But what was I going to say? Peter’s my hero!
We got into a cab, where were we going? It wasn’t Max’s because we could’ve walked there. It wasn’t CBGB because we could’ve walked there. Maybe it was the Ocean Club or somebody’s apartment? I forget where we were going, but it was a beautiful spring day and the windows were all open and everybody was feeling really good. Lester was sticking his head out the window with the wind in his face. It just seemed to be a really great moment. And that’s the last time I saw Peter.
Don Harvey: I saw him about a month or so before he died. I was in Gainesville, Florida – my first year of grad school. He was in really bad shape. It was a really unsettling experience.
It was the spring of 1977 and I was studying for finals. At some point previously, I’d mentioned to Peter that he should visit. One night he called around 10:00 p.m. He had stolen his parents’ credit card, bought a ticket to Orlando and flown down. “Would now be a good time?” I was like, “Uh, OK”. No notice. Then about 3:00 a.m. in the middle of a thunderstorm, there was a knock on my door. He had rented a car and drove up to Gainesville.
He wasn’t the same person. He was really a mess. So my last memory of Peter wasn’t very good. He pulled a gun on me and it was just weirdness. At that point, I think he’d done an incredible amount of damage to his system.
Toward the end of June, my dad called and said, “By the way, did you know that your old friend Pete Laughner died?” I was stunned. I tried to get in touch with Peter’s parents, but they really didn’t want to talk. Part of the problem was when Peter came to visit, they had called me and asked if he was there. He made me lie and tell them “No.” I felt a huge amount of guilt about all this stuff for years.
Cheetah Chrome: How would I like to see Peter remembered? He seems to be remembered pretty well as it is, I’m glad of that. A bigger audience maybe, but Rocket From the Tombs and Pete have been remembered far longer than we ever imagined. Hell, we thought we were huge failures at the time.
Charlotte Pressler: Peter did have a real death-wish…It was a form of suicide. I hate that stuff…that early-death romanticism. I can’t tell you how much I hate it. *
Luke Laughner (Peter’s father): “Peter’s spirit never faltered, even to the end. He was still creating, planning, looking to the future.” (“Fan records Laughner tapes, Jane Scott, Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 16, 1982)
Adele Bertei: His father’s quote is hardly accurate. I see it as more evidence of his father covering up the truth of Peter possibly wanting to leave the planet the night of the farewell tape. His father would never have admitted it being an overdose, intentional or not, because it would have reflected badly on him. It could have been accidental. We’ll never know.
“Peter’s death, for me at least, was laughably predictable. I didn’t realize how much Peter’s death affected me till years later.” – John Morton
Anton Fier: Peter never felt comfortable enough in his own skin to be himself or never felt his own material was the equal of the music he loved. My experience working with him was ultimately frustrating because I believed in his talent more than he did, perhaps. I had expectations that we would create our own music and I saw him self destructing before my eyes and felt helpless to stop it. Peter wanted to die. He was on a mission. He wanted to be a legend like his own heroes and for better or worse, he succeeded.
Richard Hell: Real winning is giving it all away and that’s what Peter did. I don’t mean killing yourself, though that’s always a risk, I mean giving whatever you have to give without holding back. Laughner gave it all away not only through his pained, charismatic performances but to the people around him who needed it in other ways. Laughner didn’t believe in himself very deeply, but he is a legend in Cleveland for his generosity in recognizing, in the most unlikely places, people with possibilities and then encouraging them. (Richard Hell, SPIN, August 2, 1998)
Craig Bell: Within a month [of Peter’s death], it was the middle of the night and I woke up and I look in the doorway and there’s Peter, leaning against the doorway, just looking at me. “That’s weird,” I thought, and went back to sleep. Next morning I said to Rene, “You know, I think I saw Peter last night.” And she said, “So did I.” There are other people also, who said they saw him…after he died. It was a strange…..It was just fucking strange. I can remember it right now as plain as if it happened last night. It’s just one of those things.
John Morton: Peter’s death, for me at least, was laughably predictable. I didn’t realize how much Peter’s death affected me till years later. I did start an art piece that consisted of handwritten suicide notes on legal paper within a month of his death.
I did know the circumstances of his death as related to me by the person who went on his last run with him. Peter got out of the hospital with the doctor’s advice never to drink alcohol again because of the severe risk of death. He (and my unnamed friend) got drunk on Jameson’s, shot Ritalin, shot heroin, shot his gun off in the backyard of his new girlfriend’s digs in suburban Northeast Ohio somewhere where the police were called. He went home to his parents where he had taken up in his high school bedroom again and woke up dead from pancreatitis.
“Ain’t it fun when ya
know you are gonna die young?”
Well, Peter? Was it?
*From the Clinton Heylin’s Velvets to the Voidoids: The Birth of American Punk, Chicago Review Press, 2005.
“Amphetamine“- Cheetah Chrome sings this version on RFFT’s 2003 REDUX CD.