The annals of Rock and Roll are full of unsung heroes and tragic figures; when the game is to fly high and fast, casualties are inevitable. Even so, Peter Laughner stands out as an artist who died far too young at age 24 having released no recordings–indeed, having never really been properly recorded. Laughner is best known as a member of Rocket From the Tombs, the Cleveland pre-punk group that eventually splintered into Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys (taking Laughner songs like “Life Stinks” and “Ain’t It Fun” with them). Various home and radio recordings have appeared over the years by Laughner with and without RFTT. On August 2nd, Smog Veil Records–whose 2002 release The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From the Tombs remains the essential document of that band–is releasing the most comprehensive collection yet, an eponymous five LP/CD set recorded between 1972 and 1977.
Peter Laughner includes solo performances as well as recordings with his various groups like The Original Woverines, Fins, Friction, and other collaborators including the legendary critic Lester Bangs. A live version of “Ain’t It Fun” is the lone track featuring RFTT. The set includes numerous recordings that have come to light over the last decade, along with much better sounding versions of tracks that appeared on earlier compilations like Take The Guitar Player For A Ride, which this release has supplanted as definitive. Though, even with that, there are differences–the version of “Amphetamine” on the current release is musically richer and features different verses than the one on Guitar Player, but both are valid and worthwhile.
The collection includes a mix of original songs and covers. Laughner’s best known songs are the punk rockers made famous by the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu. Peter Laughner includes some others in this vein, but also includes several solo ballads that reveal his gifts as a story teller and observer, barroom tales mixing grit and sentimentality as heavy drinkers are wont to do.
Laughner wore his influences on his sleeve, so it is unsurprising to hear so many covers of songs by Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and Tom Verlaine (Laughner was, very briefly, a member of Television when Verlaine and Richard Lloyd were squabbling; Lloyd, ironically, has played in latter day incarnations of RFFT). I was a bit surprised, though, to hear how deep his blues roots went. I knew his version of Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues,” recorded in his Cleveland home on June 21, 1977, the night before his death, but I hadn’t heard his version of “Heistation Blues” or most of the recordings on Peter Laughner that showcase his excellent slide technique. One of the real treasures of the set is the disc that collects that last session from Laughner. They way I had romantically imagined it, Laughner recorded the Johnson tune and then died. Actually, he recorded a few songs after that. The last one, at least as presented here, was actually “Summertime Blues.” I suppose that, in its way, the upbeat Eddie Cochran chestnut represents a swan song no less poignant.