Peter Laughner (Pere Ubu, Rocket From The Tombs, Cinderella Backstreet etc.)


11. Okt. 2006, 17:36

As I mentioned Peter Laughner in my last journal entry, I thought I'd write a post about him for anyone who isn't familiar with his solo output. His story is pretty tragic, really. Most of us will know of him through his involvement with Rocket From The Tombs, the proto-Ubu band from which Pere Ubu and Dead Boys sprang from. He was on the first couple of Pere Ubu singles - you can read his liner notes to 30 Seconds Over Tokyo/Heart Of Darkness on this brill site - but sadly he and the band parted ways before the first full-length release. David Thomas, of course, always refuses to talk about him, but it's well known that Laughner had serious drink and drug problems. In fact, his problems were so serious that Lester Bangs eventually told his old mate to keep away from him, as he believed he was committing a slow suicide. Laughner was also reportedly getting something of a fascination for hand-guns...

These issues forced his departure from Pere Ubu although one of his greatest songs, Life Stinks, made it onto The Modern Dance.

Peter Laughner wrote:
Life Stinks,
I like The Kinks
I need a drink
Life stinks.

Ah, unless you know the song in question then lyrics never quite work when they're disassociated from it, do they? It's a great song, though, particularly Laughner's version on the posthumous compilation Take the Guitar Player for a Ride, where he sounds spookily close to Captain Beefheart. It's an angular howl of anguish from a literate and talented young song-writer. I'm big on songs with confessional and deeply personal lyrics, there's something deeply wonderful about a singer/songwriter whispering all their frailties almost directly into your ear, it's one of the things which makes music the most direct and powerful art form. Another Laughner song in this vein will doubtless be known to pretty much anyone who reads this post, I'd wager. The song in question being Ain't It Fun, which was covered on Guns N' Roses' covers record "The Spaghetti Incident?" was also released as a b-side by Dead Boys, who naughtiily claimed a song-writing credit for it. As far as I'm aware (and I may well be wrong here), that song is all Laughner...and Dead Boys set a precedent for this kind of dishonest wankery with their cover of Sonic Reducer, another (thoroughly excellent) song from the RFTT days. David Thomas was reportedly furious about this, he told them they could take whatever they wanted as long as they didn't pile on the song-writing credits for that one track.

Back to Ain't It Fun, though... One of the things I can never quite work out is whether it's a condemnation of hedonism (and the associated chemically-altered behavioural traits, or a celebration of it. It's tempting to project your own values on a song like this, but to be honest, I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

I mean, look, you have to bear in mind why Laughner was so permanently wasted. Much like his good pal Lester Bangs - who he openly cited as being a mentor and major inspiration for his rock writing - he was an absolutely massive fan of Velvet Underground and Lou Reed. He loved Reed to the point that he wanted to be him, but had to settle with being as much like him as he possibly could. To this end, he dressed like Reed, and even developed the same drug habits - he makes speed references in his rock criticism, and even wrote a song called Amphetamine. It's clearly his attempt at matching certainly strongly brings VU to mind, particularly the vocal melody.

Another thing to consider is that one of the last things he ever recorded was a cover of See No Evil...on this home recording he kicks off by remarking that 'this one, you've gotta get the words':

Tom Verlaine wrote:
I understand all
destructive urges
they seem so perfect
I see... I see no.... evil.

So, I do tend to believe that Laughner approached Ain't It Fun from two opposing directions. It's not just a bitter condemnation of substance abuse, it also glorifies and revels in it. This dichotomy makes it a far more potent and interesting song. It also gives us a valuable insight into why Laughner didn't live long enough to fully realise his huge song-writing talent. Fucksakes, he was only 24 when he died, he didn't even make it to that bullshit cliche age of 27.

I feel that I want to wrap this up now, although there's an awful lot more that could be said. I'd like to point out how well-read he he penned songs about Baudelaire and Sylvia Plath. About how he auditioned for Television when Richard Lloyd quit the band for three days, and how that oddly connects with Lloyd taking Laughner's place in the recently reformed Rocket From The Tombs. As I say though, time to wrap this up for now.

Recommended Listening:
If you've not heard of Laughner before and are interested in checking him out, then here's where to start:

* The Day the Earth Met the Rocket from the Tombs : Rough recording of an important and under-appreciated band. It took RFTT almost 30 years to cut a proper full-length record, and if you're interested in that then you need to purchase Rocket Redux.

* Creem Offices 1976 : As this short list is intended as a 'primer' for those unfamiliar with Laughner, I'm trying to veer away from recommending obscure boots. Apart from this's the tits! For some reason, I've never been able to find any info about this boot on the net. Just had another quick look, and I can see a recent article on an Italian site which I'll go and run through Babelfish after I post this - for all the good that'll do. At least it'll give me a laugh. I think this is an amazing document, two important figures in music sitting in the Creem offices, getting pissed as farts and playing songs in a charmingly wreckless manner. The tape seems to have been intended to be passed on to friends - there are frequent mentions of Patti Smith, for example.

Their love of music - and of VU in particular - permeates the whole thing. Ok, get this...the first song on the tape is a really great track called 'Drug Store Cowboy/ I'm So Fucking Bored'. Now it's split in two, with Lester taking the first half. Laughner gets to sing his half but - 20 seconds before the end - you can make out Bangs begging him to play Sister Ray. He manages to squeeze in another plea for Sister Ray before the song ends, too. This is a constant motif throughout the entire recording, Bangs is absolutely desperate to do Sister Ray, and they end up performing it normally, and "backwards and upside down." And, seriously, Bangs goes on and on and on about Sister Ray during this boot - and listening to this recording again of late really helped reinvigorate my interest in VU. To put all this over-excited pleading in context, bear in mind that White Light/White Heat was released in 1968, and this boot was recorded in 1976!

* Terminal Tower : I think this would be a really nice staring place for those interested in Pere Ubu and/or Laughner, although both The Modern Dance and Dub Housing are absolutely essential for any music collection. This is the easiest way to get hold of Laughner's Ubu contributions.

* Take the Guitar Player for a Ride : This is the only collection of Laughner's work available now - I think it's still available anyway - although there's been a comprehensive box-set mooted for years. It's a real pisser when the promised box-sets for under-valued artists like Laugher or Godz get caught up in tedious legal problems, or simply never materialise. While we're waiting for the box-set, this is a decent representation of his work, and will give you a feel for how gifted he was as a guitar player and songwriter. You may want to supplement this with the "last recordings" boot which is dated June 21st 1977 - some of the tracks from that boot appear on this collection. Laughner's speaking voice is very rough on the "last recordings" collection. To be blunt, you can tell that he's completely physically fucked. It can be very hard to listen to for that reason...he also chats between songs, which makes the whole thing feel even more deeply personal. And then at the end, he realises that the tape is running out and so squeezes in a very brief rendition of Summertime Blues. The story is that he then went to sleep, and died of acute pancreatitis.*

Now, the really interesting and extremely poignant thing about that is the way it again (obliquely) connects Laughner back to Rocket From The Tombs and Pere Ubu. You'll recall that I mentioned earlier how Laughner appears on the first two Ubu singles...well, one of those songs was brought with them from their RFTT days - namely Final Solution - and was actually musically and lyrically based on Blue Cheer's cover of Eddie Cochran's Summertime Blues. Thankfully, I'm not enough of a twat to end this post there, with a smug-as-fuck ellipsis.

* The handsomeproductions site states that there is some debate over this, and that he may have in fact died a day later. Handsomeproductions also date the tape as the 22nd rather than the 21st, which would make sense as Laughner makes reference to 'everyone else being asleep.'

Recommended reading:
Handsome Productions : Sadly, there's not a huge amount of information about Laughner on the web. There's another Laughner site, but if I recall correctly it has pretty much the exact same info on it. Few things on handsomeproductions that you don't want to miss:

Liner notes for the first Pere Ubu single - Mentioned earlier in this post, but repeated here for the sake of tidiness..nicely written, and I feel it also illustrates the influence the Beat generation had on Bangs, and in turn the influence Bangs had on Laughner.

Lester Bangs' obit for Peter Laughner : A tough read, particularly when you take into account Bangs' accidental death. He talks about wanting to turn his back on drugs in this article, but died by accidentally over-dosing on prescrtiption drugs a few years later.

Laughner's Creem articles : Interesting reading, particularly as Laughner was involved in the remarkable New York scene. For instance, it's very interesting to read his comments about Patti Smith's live performance of "My Generation" with John Cale, which was originally released as a b-side, and which is now forever strapped to Horses as a bonus track.


  • bboes

    excellent. take the guitar player... has always been a heart-felt favorite since i discovered it in the mid-nineties. great post.

    17. Okt. 2006, 4:35
  • pjb

    Thanks for this post. I've been meaning to track down more Laughner stuff for a while, and I'll definitely have to do that now.

    18. Okt. 2006, 2:36
  • hickorywind

    Great write up, very enjoyable!

    18. Okt. 2006, 7:13
  • neilbombd

    Hey thanks for the responses, I'm glad someone read and/or enjoyed that. Could probably have done with another draft, as I was knackered and having a drinky-poo while writing that. Enjoyable day, though, I find him a very interesting figure...and I tend to be drawn to the relatively unknown in that way, particularly when it feels that they [i]shouldn't[/i] be so obscure. The tragic thing here is that Laughner's legacy exists almost completely in less-than-perfect recordings, he had [i]very[/i] litle studio time under his belt. And yet a song like Amphetamine is absolutely crying out for some adept production. It's obviously a gem...or a 'rough diamond', that would be a more appropriate phrase. The fact that he was so strongly drawn to art-rock and folk - and his clear skills at guitar playing and song-writing - would have made him a very accomplished and important figure, had he lived longer. I don't doubt that for a second. He still seemed a bit unsure of his own talents, sometimes relying a little too strongly on his influences. Sylvia Plath...I mean, there's a perfect example of the skill he had, it's a wonderfully touching piece of music. And then he can knock out similarily catchy up-tempo stompers like Rock It Down.

    18. Okt. 2006, 15:39
  • neilbombd

    Here's something interesting, there's an interview with David Thomas here where he's talking about the reformed Rocket From The Tombs....I'll paste in the bit where he quotes from Charlotte Pressler's article, and also talks about why Cleveland was so creative. Note that David Thomas' presentation on Ghoulardi is available on Ubu Projex, and is an excellent read - you can also find a Ghoulardi clip on YouTube. Charlotte Pressler's full article can be found on teh handsomeproductions site. -- [quote][b] What exactly happened in Cleveland during the early-Seventies to make it such an insanely creative spot? Most people think of these years as a bit of a black hole for outsider rock 'n' roll - how come it was so different in Cleveland? Was the fact that The Velvet Underground had pulled through there a couple of times really that significant?[/b] A lot of things came together in one place and one time. I'm tired of going thru the story but I'll give it a shot one last time. (1.) It was a unique generational window. Charlotte Pressler described it best in her piece, Those Were Different Times. I quote the first few paragraphs. This is a story about life in Cleveland from 1968 to 1975, when a small group of people were evolving styles of music that would, much later, come to be called New Wave. Misleadingly so, because that term suggests the current situation, in which an already evolved, recognized New Wave style exists for new bands to aim at. The task of this group was different: to evolve the style itself, while at the same time struggling to find in themselves the authority and confidence to play it. And they had to do this in a total vacuum. The whole system of New Wave interconnections which made it possible for every second person on Manhattan's Lower East Side to become a star did not exist. There were no stars in Cleveland. Nobody cared what these people were doing. If they did anything at all, they did it for themselves. They adapted to those conditions in different ways. Some are famous. Some are still struggling. One is dead. There are questions I would like to know the answers to. Why, for example, are so many of the people in this story drawn from the same background? Most of them were from middle or upper-middle class families. Most were very intelligent. Many of them could have been anything they chose to be. There was no reason why they should not have effected an entry into the world of their parents. Yet all of them turned their backs on this world, and that meant making a number of very painful choices. First, there was the decision not to go to college at a time when the draft was still in effect and the Vietnam War was still going on; and several of these people were drafted. Most of these people did not marry; those that did generally did not have children; few of them worked jobs for very long; and the jobs they did hold were low-paying and dull, a long ways from a career. Yet they were not drop-outs in the Sixties sense; they felt, if anything, a certain affection for consumerist society, and a total contempt for the so-called counterculture. The Sixties drop-outs dropped in to a whole world of people just like themselves but these people were on their own. You can ask, also, why they all turned to rock 'n' roll. Most of these people were not natural musicians. Peter perhaps was, and Albert Dennis, and Scott Krauss; but John Morton and David Thomas and Allen Ravenstine and Jaime Klimek would probably have done something else, if there had been anything else for them to do. One can ask why there wasn't; why rock 'n' roll seemed to be the only choice. I would like to know too the source of the deep rage that runs through this story like a razor-edged wire. It was a desperate, stubborn refusal of the world, a total rejection; the kind of thing that once drove men into the desert, but our desert was the Flats. Remember that the people who did this music had an uncompromising stance that gave them no way up and no way out. It was the inward-turning, defiant stance of a beleaguered few who felt themselves to be outside music, beneath media attention, and without hope of an audience. It seems that the years from 1974 to 1978 in Cleveland were a flash point, a quick and brilliant explosion, even epochal, but over with and done. No amount of nostalgia can bring those years back; they were different times. Still, I can't imagine living any other way than the way I learned to live in Cleveland during those years. We found it hard, in 1975, to imagine that anyone would live to see the year 2000. It's not that hard to imagine it now. What's become hard to imagine - but then why would we want to recapture it? - is the timeless, frozen, quality of life as we lived it in 1975, in the terminal landscape of Cleveland, with our drivenness, our rage, and our dreams of breaking through. (2) Cleveland was, in the early 70s, a nexus for all music. Record shops competed for the new and cutting, for the complete and final word. Almost everyone I can think of who was in a band was working in a record store. Not only the college radio stations but even local commercial FM stations played radical music. So the scene in Cleveland was compact, informed, tough and protected from any threat of fame or acceptance. (3) We were the Ghoulardi kids. It's been suggested by any number of us that the Cleveland/Akron event of the early 70s was attributable in large part to his influence. I was ten in 1963 when he went on air and 13 when he left Cleveland in 1966. After him I believe that I could only have perceived the nature of media and the possibilities of the narrative voice in particular ways. Describing how he devastated the authority of the media, and of the Great and the Good, how he turned the world upside down, would take too long and would be too hard to translate-- a dumb slogan or two, some primitive blue screen technique, and a couple firecrackers for 90 minutes on the TV every Friday night, how unsafe could that be? You have no idea. He was the Flibberty Jib Man. (4) Don't dismiss the power of The Velvets. Yes, it was a big deal. It changed lives. Every band in Cleveland in the early 70s could do Foggy Notion, for example-- all that unreleased stuff that would later appear on bootlegs-- but learned from cassettes. Doing Sweet Jane was such a rube thing to do it came to be a litmus test for naffness-- like doing Smoke On The Water or something. Bands from AKRON would do Sweet Jane![/quote]

    18. Okt. 2006, 15:49
  • jcjohnson63

    this was very interesting.thanks.i enjoyed the interview with david thomas. i came in backwards.i love the dead boys and stiv bator's solol work,etc. but enjoyed guns n roses cover of ain't it fun.heard rftt and loved that as well.sorry i am late on this.

    3. Apr. 2008, 2:21
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