Peter Laughner - Peter Laughner - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Peter Laughner - Peter Laughner

by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:2019-08-09
Peter Laughner - Peter Laughner
Peter Laughner - Peter Laughner

Chances are you’ve heard of Pere Ubu or Rocket From The Tombs. However, the name Peter Laughner may not necessarily ring a bell. But he was instrumental in forming both groups. Beyond that, he’s a shadowy peripheral figure, dimly associated CBGB’s Punk scene as a possible replacement for Richard Lloyd in Television. Those familiar with Lester Bangs may know Laughner was a friend and fellow music critic for Creem magazine. Laughner is also known as a Rock & Roll casualty. He died at the shockingly early age of 24 from acute pancreatitis due to severe alcohol and drug abuse. For deep music aficionados though, he’s not only a seminal catalyst on 70’s Alternative Rock but a blistering raw talent of unrealized potential.

Laughner left no albums or official recordings behind. And that includes his legendary work with Rocket From The Tombs. What we have are rehearsal tapes, live recordings and bedroom demos. All what we now call Lo-Fi. But there’s quite a trove, some of which was released on a compilation entitled, Take The Guitar Player For A Ride. Take The Guitar Player sold poorly and went out of print quicker than you can shoo a fly off a ham sandwich. But it did give you a window into Laughner’s prodigious talents.

Fortunately, the Smog Veil label has released a generous 5- disc box set delivering the goods on one of Rock’s best kept cult secrets. Cleaning his recordings up like never before. He may have died young and in obscurity, but he was a demon wizard on the guitar. And when he set his mind to it, a hell of a songwriter.

It’s clear Laughner wanted to be Lou Reed. But he also had a serious hard-on for Television (a band he be-friended, championed and helped book nationally). But that’s the tip of the iceberg. Laughner had insanely eclectic tastes. Behind the Punk swagger, Laughner was a closet Folkie who dug Robert Johnson, Jimmy Rogers, Jesse Winchester and Dylan to name a few. And in spite of his Lou Reed fixation, when Laughner opened his trap, he sounded like himself. A ragged voice that could sneer or cut you to the bone with hoarse vulnerability. Beneath the biker jacket-n-shades façade, there was clearly a well-read sensitive guy who thought and felt deeply.

Disc 1 is an introduction to Laughner’s eclecticism. Things kick off with the Billy Smythe version of ‘Hesitation Blues’, which Laughner merrily introduces as a sad tale of “drunkenness, drug abuse and depravity”. These recordings derive from a local radio station on-air concert. While known more for Punk, Laughner clearly loved his Country and Folk. The setlist includes songs by Arthur Crudup, Jimmie Rogers with a bit of Dylan, Lou Reed and Lowell George thrown in for good measure. His original, ‘Solomon’s Mines’ precociously melds all these influences together. ‘Eyes Of A New York Woman’ is one of the more off the wall choices, a song taken from a Thomas Pynchon novel. Laughner sounds particularly invested in, ‘Drunkard’s Lament’. Amid all these tongue in cheek numbers, he really lays his heart on the line here. Lines like, “the life I lead is a lonely sad life,” are clearly coming from the gut. It’s not the sort of thing you often hear on the airwaves. Another unexpected highlight is his touching version of Michael Hurley’s ‘Eyes, Eyes.’ Despite how all over the place his tastes are, Laughner is remarkably focused. This is particularly evident in his original, ‘It’s Saturday Night (Dance The Night Away)’. “I like sad songs,” he remarks. And it’s clear from this little ode to Sam Cooke, that sad songs are his element along with being a DIY guitar god. These recordings also capture how charismatic and enthusiastic Laughner could be.

Disc 2 features live recordings pre-Rocket/Ubu. The set includes blistering versions of Reed’s ‘Rock & Roll’, ‘Heroin’ and ‘White Light/White Heat’. Laughner’s playing is stellar. He could play like Clapton one minute or Tom Verlaine or Robert Johnson the next. Also, on display is a one-of-a-kind version of, ‘All Along The Watchtower’. He dedicates it to Hendrix but says “we’re going to take it in a different direction’. And indeed, he does. This sounds more like a The Stranglers meets Suicide. I only wish Smog Veil included Laughner’s fantastic version of Richard Thompson’s ‘Calvary Cross’, a highlight from Take The Guitar Player For A Ride.

Discs 3 & 4 focus mostly on Laughner originals. Laughner was reportedly insecure when it came to his own songs. He needn’t have been. In fact, it’s his originals that keep me coming back for more. The Dead Boys and Guns-n-Roses made ‘Ain’t It Fun’ Laughner’s most well-known song. And lyrically, “Ain’t it fun when you know you’re gonna die young,” proved frighteningly prophetic. The song is a complete Stooges influenced death trip and it can’t be argued that Laughner was hell-bent on one.

It’s Laughner’s ballads, however, that possess unexpected power. While they owe a lot to Dylan and Reed, they are potent stuff. ‘Amphetamine’ is the jewel in the rusty crown. A nine-minute epic of poetry and melody. Up there in quality with Dylan and Van Morrison. ‘Cinderella Backstreet,’ ‘(My Sister Sold Her Heart To) The Junk Man’ and ‘First Taste of Heartache’ are all sure to please fans of Paul Westerberg or Big Star. ‘I Must Have Been Out Of My Mind’ might just leave a lump in your throat. A gorgeous song that possesses a maturity well beyond Laughner’s years. It all goes to show that as a balladeer, Laughner need not have felt so unsure of himself. He was as adept at songcraft as he was on the six strings. ‘Sylvia Plath’ and ‘Baudelaire’ drop some weighty literary names but are far more personal than the title suggests. Both are priceless and touching. Laughner classics. In addition, his delicate slide guitar on the instrumental, ‘Lullaby’ is breathtaking and moving.  

The 5th disc is entitled, ‘Nocturnal Digressions’. The title comes from Laughner himself. And it’s a heavy listen. It was recorded late at night June 21st, 1977.  Laughner was found dead in his bed later that morning. He finally succeeded in drinking himself to death. It could be construed as a suicide note if Laughner was conscious of the fact this was his last night on earth. But who can say for sure if he was? Regardless, Laughner’s singing his guts out. There are incredible acoustic versions of songs by Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell. A heartfelt rendition of Van Morrison’s, ‘Slim Slow Slider’. A ragged and moving stab at the Stones’ ‘Wild Horses’. Before launching into ‘Me And The Devil Blues’ he astutely quips that Robert Johnson was the“Shakespeare of the Blues.” And then lives up to that Blues legend by serving up his own incredible rendition. A true testament to Laughner’s skill.  

He calls Lou Reed’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ one of the most beautiful songs he’s ever heard and wonders if he can do it any justice. He does. Gorgeous and unforgettable. At one point Laughner knowingly changes a line to, “I had this sad life that I just couldn’t keep”. And it positively sends a shiver.

His three originals on Nocturnal Digressions seem to suggest he was aware the jig would soon be up. Enough doctors had warned him to lay off the booze. The morose Psyche Folk of ‘(Going To) China’ in particular sounds like dirt falling on the casket. “I’m gonna dig myself into the earth,” he confesses. It’s the tape’s most unsettling moment and Laughner seems to be aware of it. “Aw, you didn’t think I’d leave you with that did ya?” he jokes afterwards. Then he ends the session by launching into a defiant version of Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’.  

I admit it’s quite unsettling listening to this last disc knowing Laughner would be dead a few hours later. And despite how ghoulish it seems, there is still something inexplicably life-affirming about the performances captured herein. Whether he knew it was his last night or not, he was certainly a lonely soul. And was hoping someone, somewhere would listen to this tape.   

In addition to all this, the hardbound book meticulously compiles Laughner’s published writings and record reviews. And those only sweeten the deal for a 5 disc package that will set you back a $100+. But it’s more than worth the price tag. This is priceless and rare stuff. If this set does one thing, it celebrates Laughner’s life. As oppose to morbidly romanticizing his early demise. When one rifles through 5 discs of recorded material it’s hard to believe all this was cut by a kid who didn’t even make it to 25. And that’s where the real tragedy hits home. Peter Laughner was one talented son of a bitch. He could play a versatile range of styles in his own unique style. True, his lyricism owed a lot to Dylan and Lou Reed but name me someone who wasn’t influenced by them?  Despite his influences, Laughner’s songs are uniquely his own. I’m a massive fan of Big Star, The Replacements and Bill Fox’s Shelter From The Smoke. And on all those fronts, Peter Laughner’s originals hit the sweet spot. And more. I cherish this stuff.

As imperfect as it all is, this is all we have of Laughner. And it’s something to be grateful for. If you don’t know his stuff, welcome to the punk as shit world of Cleveland’s answer to Hendrix and Lou Reed.

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Wow! Great review and had no idea this existed or that so much of his recorded work did. I've been aware of the Take The Guitar Player For A Ride compilation but have never heard it. Not sure I will ever get a chance to lay my hands on this...

Wow! Great review and had no idea this existed or that so much of his recorded work did. I've been aware of the Take The Guitar Player For A Ride compilation but have never heard it. Not sure I will ever get a chance to lay my hands on this either, but sounds very compelling. I know he wrote 'Life Stinks' on the first Pere Ubu LP, but that's the closest I have come. Given all the people that have died at 27, losing him at 24 is all the more tragic.

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