Words by David C. Obenour
Further West of CBGB’s during the 70s another scene was growing in both weird and wonderful ways. The race riots in Cleveland had cleared out or reshaped much of the city, ushering in a low cost of living and a bleak outlook on American life. This outlook affected people in a number of different ways, but for those banging it out in garages it spawned an avant guard weirdness with a blue collar ethos.
At the early center of this scene was Peter Laughner. As a founding member of the celebrated band Rocket From the Tombs, he not only played with a number of the key players from the scene, he helped to bring in bands like Television from out of town – drawing more eyes and accolades to what was happening out by Lake Erie.
Peter Laughner is Smog Veil’s 5 disc comprehensive retrospective of the young musician’s short career, covering 1972 to his untimely death in 1977. The recordings include performances from bands that Laugner played in like Rocket from the Tombs, Cinderella Backstreet, Cinderella’s Revenge, Fins, Friction and the Original Werewolves, as well as a solo and collaborative recordings. Sourcing material from original compilations, bootlegs and various forms of unreleased and out-of-print recordings, the veil of rough and tumble aging and dated technology has been drawn to reveal an artist who’s output was cut tragically short. We talked to Smog Veil Record’s Frank Mauceri and Laughner researcher, Nick Blakey about the man and his music.
Off Shelf: How were you first introduced to Peter’s music?
Frank Mauceri: My first in-depth exposure was the Rocket From The Tombs retrospective we released nearly 20 years ago. From that, I know a serious exploration of his work was necessary, but had no idea where that would take the label.
OS: With David Thomas being the constant in Pere Ubu and Rocket from the Tombs, and a commanding personality both on and offstage, how would you define Peter’s contributions to those bands?
FM: Simple: a songwriter, a guitarists willing to share the spotlight with his fellow bandmates, an innovator. Actually, he should be most remembered as a songwriter as his contributions, especially “Ain’t It Fun,” is one of the the most enduring recognizable accomplishments. Everyone knows Peter for that song, and rightly so.
OS: Outside of the the more well-known and celebrated bands he’s been involved in, what resonated with you about Peter’s music?
FM: The diversity of his playing skills and songwriting. I always go back to the songwriting because it varies so much between folk and rock. He covered lots of ground with his work and I think the box set represents all aspects.
OS: Are there songs or moments from the boxed set that particularly stood out? Either in showing Peter as a person or as a musician?
FM: My favorite is the first LP in the set, the folk and barroom stuff he did. It represents Peter at his best, sharing the spotlight with a fellow musician, exploring his influences, and adding his own original to the mix. Perfect in every way in my book. In a way, he really stayed on this path his entire career, but electrified it. “Amphetamine” being the example of that, where folk ballads and storytelling take over the song.
OS: The boxed set includes a number of covers, including artists like Television and the Velvet Underground. Can you talk about the link between the Cleveland and New York scenes from that time period?
Nick Blakey: Peter may have actually been the first one to really establish the musical pipeline between Cleveland and New York for the “underground” scene, if you will. Northeast Ohio bands such as Raspberries and the James Gang had already been playing New York, but they were on major labels and making commercial music. Peter had been visiting NYC since he was a teen, and in 1974-77 was traveling there to see Patti Smith, Television, Talking Heads, etc. He also brought both Television and The Heartbreakers to Cleveland in 1975, and played at Max’s Kansas City as a member Pere Ubu in April 1976, surprisingly the only gig he ever played in New York. As a reference point, Dead Boys did not play New York until a few months later and Devo would not play New York until May 1977.
There is speculation by some his friends and former bandmates that Peter may have eventually moved there had he lived, though he once made the claim in a letter to a friend that he had resided there for a spell in the early 1970s, though we have been unable to confirm this.
Several of Peter’s friends, former bandmates, and associates eventually moved to New York, both permanently and not, including Stiv Bators, Robert Bensick, Adele Bertei, Cynthia Black, Johnny Blitz, Cheetah Chrome, Bradly Field, Anton Fier, Jamie Klimek, Nick Knox, Miriam Linna, Mary Ann Livchak, Tony Maimone, Paul Marotta, John Morton, Allen Ravenstine, Susan Schmidt-Horning, Tom Warren, and Tim Wright, among others. As John Morton once said, paraphrased, “Cleveland is a good place… to leave!”
OS: The press release includes a quote of Peter’s from a 1974 article where he claimed, “I want to do for Cleveland what Brian Wilson did for California and Lou Reed did for New York”. How do you think he contributed to that goal?
NB: It remains to be seen if he actually did, though morbidly and sadly one could say that by dying young at the time that he did he may have drawn some interest to himself and his and his associates’ music more so than if he had stayed alive. It’s really hard to say.
Not long after Peter died in 1977, the major labels swooped into Cleveland/Akron/Kent following punk’s rise and Devo getting signed to Warner Brothers after they moved to Los Angeles and the Dead Boys getting signed to Sire after they moved to New York. Pere Ubu were signed to Blank [Mercury] and Phonogram, and of the Akron bands, Bizarros to Mercury, Rubber City Rebels to Capitol, Tin Huey to Warner Brothers, etc.
Many folks will tell you that New York or Los Angeles were the epicenters in the USA at this time, with Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Washington DC showcasing important scenes as well but not being quite on the same level. However, Cleveland/Akron/Kent, and Northeast Ohio in general, had some incredible bands through to the 80s and even 90s playing a wide variety of styles. Many of them never made it out of the region, thus failing to gain more national exposure, but this does not make them less important musically.
OS: How did you initially make contact with Peter’s estate? Can you talk about their involvement in the process of pulling this boxed set together?
FM: We approached Tim Wright out of the blue and he was immediately receptive. When Tim passed, his lifelong partner, Mary Ann Livchak saw the importance of the work and was committed to moving it forward. Her assistance in every aspect of the project was crucial, and why not, she was there! I can’t imagine this project seeing the light of day with the quality level we achieved without the helping hand of both Tim and Mary Ann.
OS: A comprehensive boxed set of Peter’s career, what do you hope new listeners will hear from listening to these five albums?
NB: I can’t speak for the team, but certainly my hope is that new listeners will hear something worth expanding upon and exploring more of, be it Peter’s other bands which have releases out, i.e. Pere Ubu and Rocket From The Tombs, the music of Peter’s influences, or other Northeast Ohio groups such as Mirrors, Hy Maya, etc. As a bonus, if it inspires anyone to start playing music or to start writing, that’s even better!
OS: With all of the work involved in pulling it together, how do you hear Peter’s music differently now?
NB: I’ve probably heard too much of it to the point where it’s probably part of my DNA. I still love “Final Solution” however. [laughs]
OS: Getting into the weeds as deeply as you want, can you talk a little about some of the “sonic upgrades” that have been made for the boxed set?
NB: We used the master cassettes and reels as often as we could. When we couldn’t, we tried to get as close to the master as possible. In the case of the “Friction,” performance at the Pirate’s Cove on November 2, 1976, the master cassette was too damaged to use reliably, but luckily we had acquired 1st, 2nd, and 3rd generation copies from other sources that worked out beautifully.
The always incredible Sam Habash did extensive pre-mastering and restoration work fixing dropouts, crackles, pops, wow and flutter, tape chews, etc. before anything was sent to Jeff Lipton and Maria Rice at Peerless Mastering. Once there, Maria and Jeff worked their usual wizardry to clean things up even further. I remember when I was reviewing the finished master, the achievements they had made sonically on the live Rocket From the Tombs recording of “Ain’t It Fun” blew my head open, and the fact that you could practically smell and feel the room on the live tracks by Cinderella Backstreet from The Cellar was nothing short of breathtaking.