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Wednesday, February 10, 2021

An Excerpt From 'Peter and the Wolves' by Adele Bertei on the Brief, Brilliant Life of Peter Laughner

Posted By on Wed, Feb 10, 2021 at 11:56 AM

ADELE BERTEI, PHOTO BY JOHNNY ROZSA
  • Adele Bertei, Photo by Johnny Rozsa

In 1974, Peter Laughner, the legendary musician from seminal local acts Rocket From the Tombs and Pere Ubu, wrote in the Plain Dealer that, "I want to do for Cleveland what Brian Wilson did for California and Lou Reed did for New York."

Chasing and emulating those stars, Lester Bangs wrote three years later in an obituary for Laughner, who passed away at the young age of 24, was in some small way part of his demise: "Peter Laughner had his private pains and compulsions, but at least in part he died because he wanted to be Lou Reed. The 'new wave' can boast its first casualty."

Laughner's brief but influential career has experienced a revival in recent years, including through a five-LP box set from Smog Veil Records released in 2019 that brought previously unpublished recordings to light.

Smog Veil has also recently republished a memoir from Adele Bertei, a musician, writer, actor and artist who was friends, roommates and bandmates with Laughner. She first self-published the book in a limited run in 2013.

In a New York Times article on the "excavation of a rock 'n' roll tragedy," Bertei said, "If he had been able to sober up and shake off the whole Cleveland attitude and stigma that hung around him and just really concentrated on his music and gotten the hell out of there, I think he really would have been one of our major talents in America."

In Peter and the Wolves, named after the band Laughner and Bertei were in together, she "recounts her friendship with the late great Peter Laughner, Cleveland's answer to all things underground and punk in the 1970s. The book is Bertei's intimate recounting of the musical education she received from Laughner; of their complex artistic kinship, and the vivid trajectory of the 'live fast die young' ethos that extinguished the light of a radiant rock and roll heart."

Bertei decamped to New York shortly after Laughner's death. There, she began what's become a lengthy and notable career, beginning with the Contortions and a prominent role in the early No Wave art and music scene of late 1970s NYC. She was also a member of The Bloods, considered to be the first all-out, all-female rock band, before European DJ adventures and a return to the States and a record deal with Geffen as a solo artist. She's sung backup vocals for the Culture Club, written songs for the Pointer Sisters, made films and, in recent years, has published columns and her memoir.

In this excerpt, republished with permission, Bertei talks about her early friendship with Laughner, shares her memories of Laughner's private life compared to his public persona in the local scene, and gives insight into a singular talent lost far too soon.

Peter and the Wolves is available now at smogveil.com. Enjoy a curated Spotify playlist here.

click to enlarge PETER LAUGHNER, 1976. PHOTO BY CYNTHIA BLACK
  • Peter Laughner, 1976. Photo by Cynthia Black

I'd heard about a place in Cleveland Heights where local musicians held blues jams on Friday nights. Cleveland spawned many great musicians, yet few would propel themselves out of the local scene. Blues bands and cover bands were the norm. Legendary Robert Jr. Lockwood (rumored to have been the stepson of Robert Johnson) played often. The Mr. Stress Blues Band didn't really impress me, but the Tiny Alice Jug Band sure caught my attention. Their fiddle player could burn a circle around Paganini, and foxy little singer Peggy Cella stood out on lead vocals. 15-60-75, also called the Numbers Band, featured stunning musicians backing charismatic singer Robert Kidney. From the Akron and Kent area, the band included Chrissie Hynde's brother Terry, a beast on the saxophone.

While bussing tables at Isabella's restaurant in University Circle, one of the waiters told me about a local blues jam; if the players approved the look of you and you knew a song in their repertoire, they'd let you get up and sing. I picked something I imagined they might know, "Piece of My Heart" by Janis Joplin, and rehearsed until I felt secure enough to try my luck.

I made my request to the bass player. When the band kicked into a version close to Big Brother and the Holding Company's, I grabbed the mike and started to wail. It was an out of body experience, and the applause of the small crowd signaled I'd actually pulled it off. I collapsed into a chair, shaking, ready to drink my nerves away when a guy in a black leather jacket approached our table.

He had pale skin, dark wavy hair, eyes masked by Wayfarer sunglasses. A lean figure in tight indigo Levi's, his new white t-shirt peeked from beneath the open leather. I noticed a little space between his front teeth as he smiled, and he removed his shades, exposing mischievous eyes searching mine as he said, "You're really good."

I blushed and thanked him. He told me he played guitar, humbly, assuming I didn't know who he was.

"Do you wanna hang out and uh, maybe sing with me sometime? Maybe with the new band I'm putting together?"

I'd hardly forgotten Peter performing at the Change as lead singer, guitarist, and point of focus in Cinderella Backstreet. Three years later, there he was in the flesh, telling me he liked my voice. He gave me his phone number scrawled on a matchbook, put his shades back on, and walked out. Every head in the bar turned to follow.

No other guy in Cleveland struck as cool a style as Peter Laughner. The Plaza is an apartment building on Prospect Avenue. A jumble of several architectural styles, the Plaza served as the alternate nexus to Coventry for artists and musicians. It was Cleveland's poor stepsister to New York's Chelsea Hotel, hence a natural fit for Peter, who lived at the Plaza with his ex-wife Stella for a time. The building had been constructed to house the mistresses of Cleveland's earliest millionaires, John D. Rockefeller among them. I lived there for a short time and had met several people Peter had played music with. I'd heard the stories. He was the most talked-about musician in Cleveland, notorious due to his brilliance on guitar, his transgressions with drink, drugs, and guns, and for leaving every band he'd ever begun in a trail of bad blood. Twenty-two years old and he'd already served as catalyst to three of the best-known underground Cleveland bands: Rocket From the Tombs, the Dead Boys, and Pere Ubu. He incited strong opinions and stronger epithets; Peter the Genius, Peter the Asshole, Peter the Legend, the Drunk, and the Fool. The legend didn't compute with the guy I met that night, who was sweet and humble. A true gentleman.

I guess you could say we made a good match when it came to our reputations. No other girl on the scene had as bizarre a reputation as did I. Before I met him, I'd done time in detention homes and foster homes, on the streets, in reformatories. Held jobs at a Veteran's Hospital, on the assembly line at Ford Motors in Lorain, reading to the blind, sorting clothes at Sally Army. Twenty years old and I carried more stories than Pliny the Elder, with not a chip but a brick of attitude on my shoulder. Behind the airtight mask of a little OG, I was intact and impervious to hurt. Or so I thought.

Beneath the swagger I was petrified of people I admired, especially an artist like Peter, and it took a few days for me to call him. In case he'd meant what he said about my voice, I had to follow through, take the chance. I pulled my nerves together and dialed. He invited me over to his place in Cleveland Heights, off of Coventry — a block away from where I lived.

I arrived at the appointed time buzzing with nervous energy. Peter greeted me with a warm smile, gesturing me into an empty living room adjoining the large dining room where his entire life was set up. A life clearly devoted to music.

"This is where it all happens," he said.

***

Peter's apartment was spotless, and I held cleanliness in high regard, having learned to appreciate order after my mother's cyclone of destruction. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd drummed it into me as well; at Marycrest, we had to wash the floors beneath our beds on hands and knees. Every morning, a nun would come by with a glove — a white glove! — and run a fingertip across the tiles, and woe to thee if a speck of dirt appeared on the cotton of Christ's bride. A tortuous exercise yet perverse as it may sound, it gave me a feeling of comfort. If you can't control what life pitches at you, cleanliness grants a semblance of control, some order to fall into when life knocks you off balance.

Against one wall was a nubby 1950s couch and lining the other, an elaborate stereo system and music gear — a reel-to-reel tape recorder, a few assorted amps, and a collection of guitar pedals. The focal point was a lineup of stunning guitars. He had a classic Stratocaster, a Telecaster, two beautiful acoustics, a Les Paul, a Gibson ES-335, and a Dobro. I don't think I've ever seen an instrument as impressive as that Dobro. It seemed more precious art object than musical instrument — until I heard Peter make it sing. Peter introduced his guitars as if they were human; this one was made in 1959, the headstock is yadda and the fingerboard yadda. . .. All Greek to me, but fascinating to hear him recite details about each instrument as if they were intimate friends.

Fronting two stacks of records were Patti Smith's Horses and Fripp and Eno's No Pussyfooting.

A 1950s blonde coffee table held neatly stacked magazines: Creem, Crawdaddy, and Punk on one side, opposite a local DIY newspaper called The Buddhist Third Class Junkmail. Peter wrote for Creem, a gig he'd scored not only with his writing chops but also through his friendship with the reigning bard of rock and roll journalism, Lester Bangs.

To the air between us he offered up a pretty guitar with reverence, as if it were a holy artifact. A guitar with a rosewood neck, like Tom Verlaine's, he said proudly. Verlaine was the lead singer and guitarist in the band Television.

I hadn't yet heard their music, which set Peter to shuffling through a pile of 45s as I continued inspecting the room. Above the stereo equipment was a black and white photograph nailed to the wall by a switchblade. A skeletal man. An Auschwitz inmate? It was Lou Reed in his Metal Machine Music phase. On another wall, he'd stapled a slip of paper with a scrawl; "It's so cold in Alaska." The Alaska line was from Lou's Berlin LP — the most depressing rock and roll album ever recorded, yet compellingly poetic. The maiden voyage of punk cabaret.

Books were piled neatly around the room. Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Dylan Thomas, Anne Sexton, Burroughs, Malcolm Lowry, Kerouac, Patti Smith. Scanning his record collection, I saw the Kinks, Richard and Linda Thompson, Nils Lofgren, Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man. Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf, Phil Ochs, Tim Buckley, Laura Nyro, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Stones' Exile on Main Street, Dory Previn, Lotte Lenya, Roxy Music, Eno.

Peter's taste ran the gamut. I'd learn that Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Gram Parsons, Television, and Richard Thompson were always given precedence when whatever high he was on reached its ultimate peak. He was into jazz too, but it didn't feature much in our friendship. Soon enough, I'd experience an instructional jazz moment through someone Peter would introduce me to in New York City.

He snapped a plastic disc into the opening of a 45 and placed it oh so carefully on the turntable. The stereo system was high-end. A Marantz. Parents Luke and Margaret Laughner lived in the tony suburb of Bay Village, and price tags were insignificant when it came to their only son's desires.

"Television's first single," he grinned, cueing up.

As the room filled with Fred Smith's eerie bass line, Peter beamed, motioning for me to sit in the center of the couch — the perfect listening position for the speakers to bring forth the magic. The track was "Little Johnny Jewel," and from the first pings of Tom Verlaine's guitar, I knew I was in for something extraordinary. I closed my eyes, imagining a flock of birds pecking notes from starlight in this brand-spanking-new music, an otherworldly rock defiant of genre or label. Billy Ficca kicked in with the beat and the guitars began to chime like church bells, with Richard Lloyd's notes echoing Fred's bass line and Verlaine's voice coming on all awkward and angular, like the voice of puberty cracking. Words of boy-longing tumbling from a brain strung out on Mickey Spillane, science fiction paperbacks, and symbolist poets. The music perfectly matched a voice that didn't have much to do with singing and everything to do with poetry.

I glanced over at Peter. He was nodding in bemused approval to the lyric, "I want my little winghead!"

***

After the record finished, he asked if I wrote songs. I happened to have the lyrics to a song I'd written about my ex-girlfriend, a simple melody with a girl-group kind of chorus of da doo ron rons. When he asked how I started singing, I told him the story of Grandma Jo, teaching me how to harmonize to the Boswell Sisters.

Grandma Jo played stride piano, a highly rhythmic style popularized during Prohibition. She had that driving left-hand of stride, keeping the beat on the bass with a volume that could cut through the ruckus of the speakeasies. How my Irish Grandma learned to hammer the keys like that was a great mystery, but boy, could she play, by ear and like a soul possessed. She'd pick up a melody with her right hand after hearing it only once, her mean left pounding out a bass line worthy of Fats Waller. She may have met some traveling musicians making their way east to New York in the 1920s and decided that stride was the rhythm for her. I once thought she was a boogie-woogie player in the style of Meade Lux Lewis. That is, until I heard Fats. I can see her now, bouncing on the piano bench, black pin-curled hair, and bright red lipstick staining a dangling unlit cigarette. She was created for music. Her hands tap-danced over the keys with irresistible rhythm.

Grandma Jo was a single mother, raising my mom on the tips she made playing piano in the speakeasies. Imagine being a single mother in the 1930s. Unless you were a streetwalker or a scullery maid, you were out of luck and in line at the soup kitchen, making Grandma Jo as professional a musician as they came. She took my toddler mom to the speaks with her, sat her in a basket beneath the piano where her little hands hung on to a piano leg, feeling the vibrations of Grandma working the keys. Kitty's dance steps no doubt resonated with those early rhythms. Grandma Jo taught me about rhythm when I was old enough to hold a hand of playing cards. We'd play gin rummy, trading beats on the kitchen table with our plastic cards, she pushing me to beat out a cross-pattern to hers and we'd go on happily for hours. Rhythm is in the blood, she'd say with a wink, signaling that I was in on the secret.

My musical education continued at Blossom Hill. We had the choice of attending Catholic or Baptist services, a no-brainer. I loved reading stories of the Catholic saints, but it was gospel music that showed me the way to march those saints right on in. And then, to pull them up and out by the roots — the saints transfigured into notes and the notes, my Holy Grail.

Peter enjoyed hearing these stories, would coax them out of me as the drink flowed. I felt comfortable telling him about the antics in reformatories where we queer girls called our kind of love "playing the game." The "game" made it easier for straight girls to play along — if it was just a game, then no harm done when you're emancipated and return to your boyfriend on the "outs." But for many of us, it wasn't a game. I told him about Blossom Hill, where we created families from the same need as the darlings the world would later discover in Paris Is Burning and Pose.

On the flip side of my l'il Pimpin' act was the pathetic waif act I could never have pulled off with my OG sisters on the Hill. Marycrest, a convent school for "Wayward Girls," was run by the same order of nuns responsible for Ireland's Magdalene laundries — the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. Same order as Baltimore's convent reformatory, House of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls, once home to teenage Billie Holliday, where she received tutoring in choral singing. At Marycrest, my playing orphan worked like magic. Sister Veronica loved hearing me sing the embarrassing "Where Is Love?" and "Who Will Buy?" from Oliver! These wide-eyed, pathetic performances meant an extra dessert, another hour of clarinet practice, an amorous hair brushing by Sister V. — and a burgeoning lesbian pedigree. Maybe it was my comfort around telling these stories that allowed Peter to reveal his gentle side — the lonely that clung to his edges. Despite our vast childhood differences, we connected on the same terrain of lonesome.

***

Peter reminded me of Nan as we talked through the nights. Although I was trying my best to catch up, I was painfully uneducated compared to him. Reformatories don't exactly have well-stocked libraries, or in the case of Blossom Hill, classes above a junior high level. The childhood loss that enraged me most had nothing to do with being abandoned — it was the lack of a decent education that haunted, leaving me in a constant state of resentment with an I can take care of myself attitude that forbade a reach toward formal education. This would have shown vulnerability and need, two feelings abandoned kids work hard at obliterating. My approach was based on following my curiosity, whatever shimmer of interest on the page proved capable of pulling head and heart. I thought, to hell with the GED, to the poverty and laziness of intellect I imagined it signaled. In truth, I was petrified I'd fail the GED, since I knew nothing of maths and sciences. My outside bad-ass was inside more Jude the Obscure, yearning for Christminster.

Once emancipated from the Hill, I hit the library and read everything I could get my hands on — the Brontës, Hemingway, Henry Miller, Maya Angelou. Violette Leduc, Nikki Giovanni, and Rita Mae Brown — Rita, a mandatory balm for every budding lesbian in the 1970s. The exhilaration of Rimbaud arrived courtesy of Patti Smith. Other poètes maudits awaited my discovery via Peter. Delmore Schwartz, Bukowski, the French Decadents. I was crazy about all things French. I'd later discover certain guys in the music scene were reading Ayn Rand, getting off on her sexed-up capitalist white male superiority, while Peter was reading Walt Whitman, James Baldwin, and Anne Sexton.

***

Peter described The Buddhist Third-Class Junkmail Oracle as the brainchild of a Cleveland poet named d.a. levy. levy had been arrested several times on obscenity charges for handing out copies of his poems to minors. One of his works — "Suburban Monastery Death Poem" — is a compelling rendering of Cleveland during the 1960s, its themes still prescient today. levy bore a striking resemblance to Rasputin; imprisoned and shell-shocked, he gazes toward us from a photo as if asking, WTF am I doing here? Unable to acclimate to this world, he shot himself at twenty-six years old.

I read levy's agit-prop poetry while Peter set up his Telecaster, plugging into his Fender Twin amp. He played a series of ballads. All mournful. The dark "Baudelaire" reflected a weary isolation, yearning for mysticism and secrets in the presence of sylphic beauties. "Sylvia Plath" skated between serious and crass, and "Amphetamine" could have been lifted from a Velvet's rehearsal, with the opening line, "Take the guitar player for a ride, never in his life been satisfied." Another of his songs, "Rock It Down" had a verse about two sisters "doin' it." I tried not to blush while telling him how cool the song was. Being so close to a master musician, the torque of notes moving from his hands, through the guitar and into my nervous system felt like the earth reversing its turn. To play like that — how much time had he spent practicing? When he showed me how to play scales on the guitar, I understood how mastering an instrument, or any art form requires a commitment to a solitude I was not ready to embrace.

Peter strummed a few chords and asked me to try out my lyrics. We wrote a song there and then, recording it on his reel-to-reel tape recorder. Aside from a bit of cognac, the night was excess-free, with none of the aggression, gunplay, or ass-holery tied to his rep. That night I met a true artist, a guy who lived for music, literature, and poetry. And shocking as it felt, he seemed genuinely interested in what he heard in my voice, and the stories I had to tell.

I'd placed my copy of Jean Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers on Peter's coffee table to impress him. And before my departure, he played an Édith Piaf record, Non, je ne regrette rien, and gave me a paperback bio of her life. I fell in love with her voice at first trill. He asked if I wanted to meet up again that same week... to listen to music, to make more of our own.

Having arrived at his place around four in the afternoon, I left after midnight walking on ether, a new constellation of lights shimmering beneath my skin.

***

I'd taken a job at my second Salvation Army and began hanging out with Peter. One night while we were listening to music and drinking cognac, I took my first bump of methedrine. He didn't offer — I saw him snort a line, so I asked, eager to try anything he'd lay claim to. The night became a jag of intense conversation, white lines on the table like so many guitar strings. I played rhythm guitar, rudimentary E-A-D chords beneath his lead, the meth coursing through my head and hands as I shaved the strings in a blur as fast as hummingbird wings. I liked the drug's effect, the race of shiny thoughts bursting to be expressed in the moment. My stories wrestling with his for airtime, we laughed as the words bumped and shimmied between us.

He played a track from the Roxy Music album For Your Pleasure, "Editions of You." I'd heard noise-music before, like the Velvet Underground discord of "The Black Angel's Death Song," but not like this. Peter explained it as the genius of a Brit named Brian Eno, unleashed on an electronic box of assorted oscillators called a synthesizer. For Your Pleasure's foldout album cover featured Eno dressed as a Cruella de Vil faerie queen. Mesmerized by Eno's image and sound, I needed to hear everything, and Peter owned most of Eno's recordings: Here Come the Warm Jets, No Pussyfooting, Taking Tiger Mountain, and a new release, Another Green World. As the speed progressed on its course, the music became more heated, Iggy and the Stooges style — "Down on the Street." He showed me how to pedal a lethal guitar chord along with the track. Next came the MC5, founders of the White Panther Party screaming, "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!" from the turntable. He told me they'd broken up and were all junkies. Guitarist Wayne Kramer had gotten busted selling drugs to a Fed and was now in jail. Peter opened Punk magazine and pointed to a photo of Patti Smith. She wore a large button that read FREE WAYNE KRAMER.

Dawn followed that shiny night with the speed wearing off and my first Valium nose-diving the energy. The music followed suit, downshifting to Richard and Mimi Baez Fariña's petrifying ballad of white supremacy, "Bold Marauder" from Reflections in a Crystal Wind. Joni Mitchell's The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Dylan's Blonde on Blonde. Watching Peter dozing, the Gibson hollow-body in his arms while I daydreamed of the new possibilities provoked by him and the music I was hearing. He looked content. Innocent. A far cry from the raving, drunken maniac of myth. I wanted to smooth his cheek in a gesture of thanks but didn't dare. I left him to the sound of Eno singing "Everything Merges with the Night."

***

I never felt any sexual tension around Peter. He treated me like a friend from the very beginning, was never condescending, and didn't objectify women in person, although occasionally he did in song due to boy's-club groupthink. His girlfriend at the time was a quiet librarian. Ex-wife Stella was a fellow rock journalist and brainiac. People say she and Peter were quite the volatile pairing. When I met Stella, she launched into a monologue about the Peloponnesian War, my brain scrambling to understand why. Stella clearly operated from the head, where Peter steered more from the heart. His women were the antithesis of the rock and roll groupie-types you'd imagine a legendary rocker bedding. If he was a womanizer, he sure kept it hidden during our friendship.

Some claim he was into S/M. I'm not buying it. He was a dedicated follower of rock fashion, hence the nods to bondage. Then there was Lou Reed — days and nights when he lived and breathed Lou Lou Lou — only Lou. He fetishized Lou. If it were something he thought Lou might get up to, Peter would damn well try it on, sartorially and otherwise, hence the photos of him trussed like a turkey in a jacket of chains. The idea of sexuality defining the everything of a person's being — he seemed to resent it as much as I did — and my being queer was a non-issue. I'd be surprised if he had much sex at all in his short lifetime. Peter was a melolagniac. He got off on music.

Flying your 1970s freak flag before dark in Cleveland was never a smart move. One of the drag queens I performed with at the Change was murdered by her 'straight' married plumber boyfriend in the parking lot of a gay bar called Twiggy's. No matter how Lou Reed's Transformer may have cavorted with Bowie's Ziggy Stardust in the airwaves and on stages, once you stepped outside of your gay ghetto, you were treated like vermin, especially when it came to family. I had a foster sister beat the whites out of my eyes when she discovered I wasn't just nipping into the parent's booze at our all-girl pajama parties. Some boys in Cleveland's rock scene played dress-up glam gay — as long as it was counterfeit. For those of us who resisted daytime camouflage as our authentically bent selves, we were treated like glittery dust mites; fascinating for a moment, but not enough to keep the crowd from kicking you deeper beneath the bed.

The über-straight punk and avant-garde music scene of Cleveland never would have accepted a fag in their midst, just as a faerie bairn never could have walked beside Peter's father, the hard-drinking WWII army colonel Luke Laughner. Some nights I'd gaze over at Peter and notice how graceful he looked, especially when we were listening in deep to an incredible piece of music. Sometimes he'd knot a kerchief around his neck, like the Belleville thugs of Brassaï. Or lounge around cat-like in a kimono, reading. And I'd wonder if being queer was the biggest secret he carried, his bisexuality a Calvary cross he had to bear in secret due to the scene's homophobia. He'd allude to it sometimes, went as far as telling me he'd been with a guy, but I never mustered up the nerve to delve into it with him. Loving girls — well, my preference never blinded me to beauty. I see him as I did then, a parallax view of St. John the Baptist as rendered by Caravaggio; lithe upper torso and milky white skin, St. John gently cradles a lamb while raising aloft a crown of flowers. Savior and lamb, on earth in wolf's clothing.

Playing along to Lou Reed's Transformer, singing together on the chorus of "I'm So Free," crooning "Perfect Day," the joy coming off of him was visceral. Sometimes, as the night rolled away from us and his melancholy entered the room through his voice, his guitar, I imagined him feeling the sentiment of another watcher — the boy in Bowie's "Lady Stardust" who sings, "I smiled sadly for a love I could not obey."

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