Andrew Russ bought his first records by Pere Ubu, the groundbreaking Cleveland new wave band, while attending Ohio University in the early 1980s. These albums, from the now-defunct Haffa’s record store on West Union Street, introduced him to the work of Peter Laughner, the gifted and fast-living guitarist/singer/songwriter/critic who played with Ubu early on.
Laughner died of pancreatitis in 1977, aged 24. More than 40 years later Russ, now a research engineer/scientist with the Ohio Research Institute for Transportation and the Environment (ORITE), is helping keep his legacy alive with a richly documented five-album boxed set, released in August by Smog Veil Records. As a longtime fan based in Ohio, Russ was well-placed for archival research on Laughner’s comet-like career.
“I liked his music, and he was definitely a writing talent,” Russ explained. “And I was a little bit interested in what his role was in everything (going on in the ’70s Cleveland music scene).”
Laughner’s death ended an erratically brilliant musical journey. In the space of about a dozen years starting in Bay Village Junior High, he bounced in and out of a slew of bands, ranging from blues to glam-rock, none lasting long. “He would start with a band, and it would break up after six months, and that was pretty much his pattern,” Russ observed. “Each of his bands would have kind of a different concept, and maybe he would get tired of the concept and want to move on to something else.”
Laughner also wrote sharp-edged, sometimes prescient reviews for publications including Cleveland’s Scene, Star, Exit and Zeppelin, and the national magazine Creem.
Various tapes of Laughner had been circulating since his demise. Russ had been in contact with a fellow enthusiast named Nick Blakey, who served as lead researcher on the boxed set.
“We corresponded, and we traded some tapes,” Russ recalled. “And we started talking a lot about Peter and Rocket From the Tombs” (another landmark Cleveland band in which Laughner played).
Russ and Blakey connected with Tim Wright, now deceased, a bandmate of Laughner’s who served as a kind of artistic executor; and with Frank Mauceri of Smog Veil, to start gathering materials for the Laughner set. Russ worked on unearthing Laughner reviews, write-ups on his bands, ads for shows, and the like. His search started at OU’s Alden Library and led him to places including Cleveland Public Library and Bowling Green State University as he followed up clues from microfilmed back numbers.
The set’s book includes samples of Laughner’s reviewing, in which he often praises great acts that weren’t always appreciated at the time. He raves up the New York Dolls’ first album, and Television’s “Marquee Moon,” and Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Pour Down Like Silver.” He also skewers Kiss as “an average burger boogie band,” noting that “nothing stinks worse than phony degeneracy.”
The set’s music, culled from over 30 hours of tape, may be a revelation for those who know Laughner mainly from RFTT and Ubu; they showcase a superb guitar player, an eloquent songwriter, and a born showman with astute taste in covers. He takes on tunes by Dylan, Lou Reed, Jackson Brown, John Sebastian, Michael Hurley, Tom Verlaine and Jonathan Richman, to name a few; he also knocks out fine versions of Jimmie Rodgers’ “T For Texas,” a couple Robert Johnson numbers, and Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.”
Live tracks include such Laughner bands as The Original Wolverines, Cinderella Backstreet, Fins, RFTT and Friction. Laughner’s acoustic side – he’s a natural bluesman/folkie – is displayed in “coffee break concerts” aired on Cleveland’s WMMS radio, and on home recordings including an intense set of tunes taped at his parents’ home just before he died.
“Each of these records kind of shows a different aspect of what he was doing,” Russ said. And the bio materials show a complex artist, full of contradictions but clear on some essential points: Like the little girl in the Velvets song, his life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll; and while New York City was maybe his favorite place, he loved to cheerlead for Cleveland.
“(As a critic) he was certainly on the track of what was creative, and also in advocating for creative stuff, and in developing the local scene,” Russ said. “When Rocket From the Tombs did their broadcast on WMMS with their demos, Peter did a little monologue about how, essentially, you can get your band together and do this, too.”