Monday, June 13, 2011

Peter Laughner

While waiting for the Peter Laughner box set that I really do believe Smog Veil is going to release one of these years, I've been downloading as much Laughner music as I can find online. The other day, it was a live recording of Peter's post-Pere Ubu band, Friction, via French blogger Dr. Faustroll. Then I discovered that the same blog had a link to Setting Son, an acoustic solo recording from '76 that I'd had earlier but lost when my iTunes took a dump and sent 70 percent of my downloaded music to the widowmaker. Today, I found an artifact that's been at the top of my want list for the past seven or eight years, the Clinton Heylin-compiled Take the Guitar Player for a Ride, via The Unblinking Ear.

You should also be aware, discriminating listener, that Smog Veil sez they're down to their last copies of the essential release The Day the Earth Met Rocket From the Tombs, which compiles the pioneering work of the band Laughner co-led with David Thomas that contributed personnel and repertoire to both Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys -- so you know what to do. While you're at it, if you're reading this, you probably can't live without The Shape of Things, the cassette-recorded chronicle of Laughner's very last performance with Ubu, either, so you should cop from Ubu Projex posthaste.

Having said all of that, I have to also say that I'm more than a little ambivalent about Laughner the man, who besides being a key facilitator of the fascinating mid-'70s Cleveland underground rock scene, was also a spirited (if highly self-indulgent) Creem magazine scribe who copped licks from St. Lester the same way he did from his musical mentors before dying from acute pancreatitis brought on by fairly indiscriminate alcohol and drug abuse when he was just shy of 25 years old. For a skin-crawlingly evocative portrait of Laughner near the end of his tether, read Ubu keyboardist Alan Ravenstine's short story "Music Lessons," anthologized in The Da Capo Book of Rock and Roll Writing. It's the prose equivalent of watching a car wreck.

I consider Laughner's death at such an early age as tragic a waste as, say, Hendrix checking out at at 27, Keith Moon at 32, or Bangs at 33. From my old guy's perspective (I'll be, um, 54 in a couple of weeks), it saddens me that as much as all of the above accomplished before shuffling off this mortal coil, in a just universe (or at least one where their self-destructive impulses could have been held in check), they'd have just been getting started. I feel the same way about the people I knew personally who died too young for the same stupid reasons. And saying something like "It's the rock 'n' roll lifestyle" cheapens both their senselessly shortened lives and rockaroll its own self. Tell it to Chuck Berry. (Who?)

Musically, while he was an enthusiast and connoisseur of a lot of other sounds (blues, Detroit, garage rock, Euro art rock), Laughner inhabited the territory roughly delineated by Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Richard Thompson, and Tom Verlaine. It's revealing that after making major artistic statements with Ubu on their first two singles, he reverted to playing sets of mostly covers. Like a lot of musos I know, Laughner was as much of a fan as a player. On Setting Son, after covering Dylan's "Visions of Johanna," he sings his very own subterranean homesick blues on two versions of "The Junk Man," which is _not_ about "H" like you might think. Speaking of which, while Laughner took pleasure in taking the piss out of Uncle Lou in print, in the manner of his writing inspiration Lester, it's noteworthy that the last song he sang with Pere Ubu was Lou's "Heroin."

Laughner came closer to capturing Thompson's somber vibe than anyone save Bob Mould on Workbook, and he could wring a Stratocaster's neck in the manner of the Brit folk-rocker, too. For proof positive, listen to Friction's version of "Calvary Cross" (which also appears on TTGPFAR). He idolized his contemporary Verlaine, and might or might not have been considered as a replacement for Richard Lloyd in Television, depending on whose story you believe. (Besides taking their name from a Marquee Moon song, Friction covered "Prove It" and the Verlaine-ized version of Roky Erickson's "Fire Engine," too.) But his own songs like "Ain't It Fun" (which Stoogeaphilia _will_ play again, so help me Ceiling Cat), "Amphetamine," "Cinderella Backstreet," "Dear Richard," and "Don't Take Your Love Away" can more than stand up to their inspirations. One can only speculate what additional treasures Smog Veil's long search will reveal when they finally get off the dime.


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