Better Than Deader: Reviews Of Recent Releases By Local Bands, Pt. 93
Peter Laughner - Peter Laughner - Smog Veil Records - 56 (or 61) songs - 5xLP box, 5xCD box (and bonus 7")
Here it is, the Peter Laughner box set, long-awaited for 15 or so years. It's a hefty thing here. On one hand, I feel like it's giving this box set more credit than I'm comfortable giving it to review it and only it this week, but at the same time, I am reviewing five records (or six, actually) and a book and an overall concept here, so…well, so be it. I'll start by going record by record, I suppose, and then onto the other stuff. You're about to see something you don't usually see in these reviews, which is paragraphs. That's right, I'm breaking my aesthetic for this thing. You're welcome, Laughner fans.
The first record is "Fat City Jive," comprised of selections from two WMMS Coffeebreak concerts Peter did in late 1972, which represents the earliest material here. The first half is with The Original Wolverines, which was Peter along with Mike Sands and Pete Sinks, both recruited from the Mr. Stress Blues Band. The second half is just Pete and Mike. You'll find here 17 folk-blues type tunes, all very competently performed. There's some Bob Dylan (the unreleased (at the time) "Please Mrs. Henry" and a straight version of "Love Minus Zero"), some older country and blues, some Lou Reed, basically what you'd expect. There's also two tracks by Terry Hartman, who Peter recorded a LP with entitled "Notes On A Cocktail Napkin" that I'd heard was supposed to be released as a standalone LP by Smog Veil at some point– will this happen or not, who knows– "Drunkard's Lament," which is pretty solid, and what was rather arbitrarily made the title track, "Fat City Jive," which is, I don't know, fine and all. There are even two, count 'em two originals on here, and wouldn't ya know it, they're probably the most interesting tracks here. "Solomon's Mines" is a nice love ballad and "It's Saturday Night (Dance The Night Away)" is a good sad tune ("I like sad songs," Peter admits in between this one and the next, a decent cover of "These Days"). It's a perfectly acceptable set here, though there are certain things that are kinda like, ok, I get why they'd play this on a live radio performance and all that, but why release it? There are alright tunes, but I don't know if it's really peak material.
This becomes even more glaring on the next record, which is the first "electric" material we here. This one's called "One Of The Boys" and consists mostly of covers performed by the group Cinderella Backstreet and one Laughner original by the spinoff group Cinderella's Revenge (this is a good name for a sequel, though not quite as great as the Cooler Marriage Counselors). This is the most unnecessary record in the set. The covers are good songs (Mott The Hoople provide the title track; the book describes it as "stunning," which is not so much what I would call it and also offers up that Peter named his cat after the group. Three of the six songs here are Velvets covers here because how on earth would they be anything else), but all of them go on way too long. You know what makes the original version of "Heroin" a good song? It's tense. It builds and it releases. Cinderella Backstreet's rendition stretches it out even longer than the Velvet Underground version ("quite a long time to play two chords," one pundit put it to me) and also removes a lot of that tension. Their "Rock & Roll" is dull, their "White Light White Heat," which they combine with a final noise freakout entitled "Call The Ambulances," starts with some promising guitar stuff but devolves into a pretty ordinary cover. Even the original on here, "I'm So Fucked Up," is really not great. The book explains that Peter wrote it when he was 16 and it was his first ever song, but so what? Supposedly, Lair Matic's first song was "I Laugh At Death" and he wrote that when he was 16, where's his box set? Seriously, I'd love a Lair Matic box set. The best track here is a version of "All Along The Watchtower," which Peter introduces as being "apocalyptic vision," and it's not bad. It goes on too long like everything else on this record, but it isn't bad. However, it doesn't save this particular LP from being the worst of the set. I think the Cinderellas should be included, but maybe one or two tracks, not this full record of jam-glam.
Funnily enough, it's followed by probably the best record of the bunch, "Pledging My Time," which is devoted to mostly acoustic solo home recordings. You know what else? Of the 11 tracks here, 9 bear a Laughner writing credit. Weird how that works, isn't it? Quality goes up when you're not spending the whole time doing covers? There's a nice mix of stuff here– some of Peter's "hits" like the semi-autobiographical "Cinderella Backstreet" and his pair of odes on tragic writers, "Baudelaire" and "Sylvia Plath," as well as some unreleased gems like the very Dylanesque "I Must Have Been Out Of My Mind" and "(My Sister Sold Her Heart To) The Junk Man" and "First Taste Of Heartache," a pair of melancholy ballads recorded in early 1977 (the former features the line "I hope in two years I'm still alive," which becomes rather harsh when you realize he didn't even make it through that summer). The covers are Robert Johnson's "32-20 Blues," rather amusingly recorded after a joint poetry reading with his ex-wife, and Dylan's "Pledging My Time," which is a nicely messy version. I do have a gripe at this point, though. Why are they naming the record after one of the covers on it? Same with the previous two. What, Peter's own songs didn't have catchy enough titles to function as album names? What gives? This one closes with the instrumental "Lullaby," which almost lives up to its name except that a lot of the slide noises are particularly harsh and disrupt the whole ethereal feel, but in a cool way. If they'd released this record on its own, this might've been a very different review you're reading, because this one is actually very good for what it is.
"Rock It Down" is a bit more hit or miss. Side 1 opens with a cover of "What Goes On," performed by Fins, which is fine and all, but I've never heard a cover of "What Goes On" that I actually enjoyed and this is no exception. I do like the drawn-out synthesizer ending, after which some member of the band (not Peter) asks the audience, "Didn't know where the ending was, did you?" After that is the only appearance of Rocket From The Tombs on this whole set, with an alternate version of "Ain't It Fun." Still a great song, but it doesn't top the version that's already out there. Also, I'd like to quote the genius Connie Voltaire and ask why is "The Day The Earth Met The Rocket From The Tombs" not in print? "That thing should be pressed like it's fucking 'Dark Side Of The Moon.'" A Smog Veil representative actually responded to Connie's query to say that the Fire Records version is in print, which isn't true, but whatever. It really should be in print, it's better than most of the stuff on this box set. Closing out the first side here is a long version of Peter's famous "Amphetamine," which is cool to hear, but not the best version out there. Like a lot of the aforementioned live stuff, it goes on way too long. Side B is mostly taken up by the band Friction, who do an assortments of covers and originals that are again, hit or miss. Laughner's "Dear Richard" is great, with its flashy guitar and hypnotic bass groove, the cover of "Pablo Picasso" does absolutely nothing for me and I'm a huge Modern Lovers fan. The final song on here, "Rock It Down," is a real weird one, with Adele Bertei on lead vocals and driven by a drum machine. It doesn't sound like anything else on this set, I'll give it that much.
The final LP of the proper set is the most controversial, I've found. "Nocturnal Digressions" was recorded by Peter in his room in Bay Village the night before he died. Smog Veil's historians raise the question of whether Peter knew he was not long for this world and recorded this as a final statement intentionally or it was just happenstance that he promptly died after recording it. I've heard some people say they think it's sick that this got released. I've heard others say that it's their favorite part of the whole thing. Somebody brought another factor into the argument about it: if Peter had decided to get a good night's sleep instead of staying up to record this and smoke and drink or whatever, maybe he wouldn't have died. Hard to know. Smog Veil didn't help their own case by putting just this record on white vinyl (the rest are on standard black) for no real reason. What, is it supposed to be death or ghosts or purity or something? What's the deal? White is the worst-sounding vinyl color as well, so it's really stupid. Looking at it just for the music, if these are the only existing recordings of some of these songs, I suppose they have a right to be included in this portrait. There's an interesting folky version of Richard Hell's "Blank Generation" and a couple Tom Verlaine tunes, as well as "Pale Blue Eyes," because if you couldn't tell by now, Peter Laughner liked the Velvet Underground (snakiness aside, it's a pretty good version). And "Wild Horses," 'cause why not. Peter's voice, raspy most of the time anyway, is pretty destroyed throughout the course of the tape. I think he even acknowledges it at some point, mumbling about how Lucky Strikes are great for playing guitar, not so great for singing. There are three pretty good originals on here: the reggae-tinged "Everything I Say Just Goes Right Through Her Heart," the bizarro slide-driven "The Next Room Of The Dream," and very melancholy "(Going To) China." "China" is immediately followed by Peter asking, "You didn't think I'd leave you with that, did you?" before ripping through a quick version of "Summertime Blues," which is funny in the context of the tape and…I'm not sure what in the context that he then leaves us forever with that.
Since I'm the type of idiot who got the bonus 7", I might as well review that too. Rest assured, if you missed out on getting this, you're not really missing much. There's a track from that time Peter recorded with Lester Bangs, entitled "Drugstore Cowboy/I'm So Fuckin' Bored" (Lester takes the first half and Peter the second, if you're curious) and that's probably the best thing on here. Why didn't they put that whole session out, huh? Yeah, I know it's a mess, I've heard bits and pieces of it. Still. There's "Venus De Milo," yes, another Tom Verlaine cover. The other side has two instrumentals and a Bo Carter song. It's a nice bonus item, but hardly essential.
So what's the take on the whole thing? Well, I don't know. There's some really good stuff, there's some not so good stuff. It raises the question about a release of this nature: are you trying to make a good record or an accurate record? Some of this stuff did not need to come out. But I get that they wanted to represent Peter's whole deal. This is kind of going to relate to my next point. The book has a couple different pieces (including Lester Bangs' famous eulogy) before the biography of Peter. This biography is a good one, to be sure, though far briefer than I thought it would be. Most of the 100-page book is dedicated to Peter's writing, mostly reviews (hey, one of us). There aren't a lot of some of the more unpleasant things I've heard about Peter in there. In fact, there are almost none. I know there were people who knew Peter but weren't spoken to for this project because they didn't have nice things to say and others who were asked but refused to talk about Peter at all because they had nothing nice to say. So we come back to this: a nice portrait or an accurate one? Don't know. I suppose all that considered, it was a better move to devote most of the book to Peter's writing rather than writing about him. I don't know how to wrap this up. It's an important historical document, for sure, but it's not everything. Again, you still need "Take The Guitar Player For A Ride" to get some "essential" Laughner tracks (I'm mostly referring to the other version of "Amphetamine," though I know there are other things on there that aren't on this). Maybe Smog Veil should reissue that as a more affordably priced sampler version of this thing. Again as well, you still need "The Day The Earth Met The Rocket From The Tombs" (Let's get that sucker back in print!). This isn't everything, and yet at the same time it's more Peter Laughner than you could ever possibly want. This is gonna be a "no rating" review. You'll have to weigh this one yourselves.
(smogveil.com, though they're sold out of the special version with the 7". You may still be able to find the full thing at a local record store.)
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