Author Adele Bertei Rewrites the Legacy of One of Cleveland's Underground Punk Icons
Writer and author Adele Bertei revisits the ghosts of Cleveland’s 1970s punk scene in her book “Peter and the Wolves,” which focuses on her time spent with the mythologized Peter Laughner. Laughner was a founding member of the influential “avant-garage” band Pere Ubu and performed with members of The Dead Boys and Rocket From The Tombs. Before his untimely death in 1977, he and Bertei bonded as outsiders in a decaying Midwestern city.
Re-releasing her first book
Bertei’s memoir debuted in 2013 and was out of print until it was re-released this past fall.
Smog Veil Records put out a five-CD box set that commemorated her friend’s life and legacy more than 40 years after his passing.
Bertei was impressed with the box set, which collected years of photographs, bootlegs and other memorabilia that painted a fuller picture of the “live fast, die young” rock star.
“Before that happened, there was this identity of Peter,” Bertei said. “[It was] finally coming out that he wasn’t this macabre rock ‘n’ roll casualty that people were making him out to be. Having known him, I was just blown away.”
She contacted the Chicago-based independent record label, which began in 1991 to spotlight underground artists in Cleveland, who then released a new paperback version of her book with its Laughner box set.
The compiled music and memoir serve to revisit and redefine the legacy of the Cleveland rock star.
Meeting an outsider musician
Bertei met Laughner in Cleveland. The first chapter of her book is called “Terminal City,” and she describes the region as declining and ripe with racial tensions in the 1970s.
“Cleveland has always been an intensely segregated city,” Bertei said. “It has come back in full force, in many ways, but there are still so many things about Cleveland that break my heart, and segregation being one of them.”
In mid-century America, particularly in Northern cities like Cleveland, the economy began to slow, causing many city residents to move to the suburbs as city manufacturing job opportunities became scarce.
In the ‘70s, Cleveland’s population decreased while white residents flocked to the suburbs. Because of issues like housing discrimination and redlining, many Blacks in Cleveland stayed in the inner city, but it had become like a ghost town.
The racial divide and economic hardships were prevalent during this time.
Bertei said she felt like an “anomaly” as a queer white girl who grew up in Cleveland with mostly Black peers.
She sang gospel with these girls in the reformatories where she spent her adolescence, and she said this united them across racial lines.
When she met Laughner, she was taken with his openness toward Black music, particularly Motown, early soul and blues.
“Being outsiders is what drew us together as friends,” she said. “He was a mentor. He was a friend. He was a protector. He was also a badass.”
Bertei and Laughner came from different backgrounds. She was a ward of the state, grew up in reformatories and foster homes, and became emancipated at age 17.
He lived in the lakeside Bay Village area.
The industrial decay and grit of the Rust Belt served as the backdrop for their journey together as artists, with music being a common thread that held them together.
She met Laughner one night at a blues jam at a Cleveland Heights venue. Bertei sang a Janis Joplin song, and Laughner complimented her voice.
She recognized him from his band Cinderella Backstreet—his white T-shirt, black leather jacket, blue jeans and Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses were a distinctly punk-rock look.
She wrote in “Peter and the Wolves” that Laughner was “the most talked-about musician in Cleveland,” so she knew who he was before they met in person.
Laughner gave Bertei his phone number, and soon after, she visited his apartment where he introduced her to his music collection and assortment of guitars.
She wrote in her book that Laughner “incited strong opinions” but that his bad-boy reputation didn’t align with the humble person she got to know and, eventually, live with.
Bertei said Laughner’s father was a World War II veteran who gifted his son with guns and encouraged him to drink, shoot and be tough.
Laughner worked at a record store, which Bertei describes as an escape from his father’s strong arm and expectations of who this young man should be.
These expectations undoubtedly shaped Laughner’s attitude and image as a gun-wielding subversive, but it also may have played a part in his downfall and addiction.
"Peter wrote ‘heart songs,’ many of which didn’t come to light. He felt confined about expressing that, that he would be considered weak.”Adele Bertei
Entering the punk scene
Northeast Ohio became a polestar for punk rock and artsy New Wave music in the ‘70s, with local bands like The Dead Boys, Devo and the Pretenders breaking out and producing international hits.
Cleveland’s Pere Ubu was a product of their industrial, Midwestern environment and became influential to experimental, underground music in years to come.
Laughner formed the band with David Thomas, Tom Herman, Tim Wright, Scott Krauss and Allen Ravenstine in 1975.
Though the group’s commercial success was minimal in the ‘70s when Laughner was a member, singer Thomas has kept Pere Ubu active through the present day as its only original member.
Bertei said Laughner would want to be remembered as “a catalyst” and musical force that helped create the band’s artistic style.
“There’s not a lot of guys in Cleveland at that time that were reading Alfred Jarry, who wrote the ‘Ubu’ plays,” Bertei said.
Bertei said Laughner encouraged Thomas to be an “eccentric frontman” and that they bonded over their similar taste in art and Laughner’s voracious appetite for reading and writing.
The 1976 Pere Ubu single “Final Solution” describes a “teenage wasteland” and captures the angst of existing in a rundown, rust belt city.
“To me, that song speaks so much of the haunted heart of Cleveland and of young men who cannot find purpose and turn to other things,” Bertei said.
Those “other things,” in Laughner’s case, included substances that would ultimately lead to his death in 1977 at age 24.
Losing a friend
“I had the feeling that I didn’t know if he would make it through,” Bertei said.
She said that in the ‘70s, her peers didn’t know how to get help for addiction or that Alcoholics Anonymous was a resource.
“It just wasn’t part of the zeitgeist, especially in rock ‘n’ roll,” she said.
While deep in the throes of his addiction to drugs and alcohol, Laughner moved back home to be with his family.
Bertei said his parents were both alcoholics, so moving in with them was probably the most “self-destructive” thing he could have done.
“I thought maybe he’d have a chance. Maybe he’d get clean,” Bertei said. “[But] he was back in his father’s clutches … it was an impossible situation for him.”
Laughner’s legacy is shrouded in darkness, and the perception by many is that he was suicidal and his songs reflect these ideations.
Bertei’s book aims to dispel this myth.
In a letter written to singer Ruby Port the night before his death, Laughner expressed a desire to soon visit Southern Ohio to rest and work on music.
Though his songs with Pere Ubu were often haunting and bizarre, Bertei said the music he truly loved was more subdued and soulful.
“He didn’t just listen to crazed … rock ‘n’ roll or punk. His tastes were so eclectic in music,” she said. “He was beyond genre.”
She said he got sequestered into a “box” of punk, but he loved folk singer-songwriters like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs.
The Cleveland milieu he was involved in hel9d him back from expressing himself this way in the years he was active as a musician, she said.
“I feel an obligation to tell certain stories because these people are gone. I’m not afraid to dance with ghosts.”Adele Bertei
“All artists are insane to a certain extent, but Peter wrote ‘heart songs,’ many of which didn’t come to light,” she said. “He felt confined about expressing that, that he would be considered weak.”
Moving to New York
Laughner and Bertei had dreamed of leaving Cleveland and moving to New York City.
They visited the city together and stayed at the home of storied music journalist Lester Bangs, who later wrote Laughner’s eulogy.
Bertei said they always wanted to start a band together in New York, but as Laughner’s addiction worsened and he became increasingly self-destructive, she had to remove herself from the idea.
Bertei’s interest in creating music of her own grew during her friendship with Laughner.
They briefly played in a band called Peter and the Wolves, and after his death, she decided to pursue her own musical dreams in New York, alone.
“When he died, it was so heartbreaking. I had to take off for New York, leave Cleveland behind, and carry on what we had hoped to achieve together in New York City,” she said.
Finding her place in the music scene started innocently, she said, from Laughner inviting her into his world.
“I need to carry on what he would have said in his work through my own work as an author and as a singer-songwriter."Adele Bertei
Moving to New York during the heyday of punk in the United States opened new doors for her, and she could see dozens of women artists flocking there at the same time in the late ‘70s.
“Not just from across the country, but from Berlin, from Paris, from London,” she said. “So it was a very exciting time to be a woman artist in New York City and in the U.S.”
Finding her voice
Bertei went on to become somewhat of a counter-culture icon during this time, making music with Brian Eno and reading poetry on the same stage as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.
She later toured with Tears for Fears and her all-girl band the Bloods and wrote songs for artists like Lydia Lunch, Matthew Sweet, the Pointer Sisters and Sheena Easton.
She said Laughner “ran the gamut” in music that he loved, and his broad taste—from blues to R&B and “heart music”—has been a great influence on her work.
She cites him as a mentor and having a profound effect on her as she struggled to find her place.
“I need to carry on what he would have said in his work through my own work as an author and as a singer-songwriter,” she said.
Bertei said that she thinks of Laughner often and feels that he would be a radical, valiant singer-songwriter in this moment of great change throughout our country and world.
He helped give her the courage to perform and was a big supporter of women musicians in a time when women were ostracized from the rock scene.
Bertei now lives in Los Angeles and works as a writer, director and musician.
Her friendship with Laughner during a time of great socio-economic hardship in Cleveland, and their bond over music and an outsider way of life, plays a part in Bertei’s quest to redefine Laughner’s legacy and tell his story authentically through her work.
“The ghosts of Cleveland are very important to me, both family ghosts and Cleveland’s history, the ghosts of many women artists that I’ve really loved that were great co-conspirators in New York, many women who died very young, they speak to me,” Bertei said. “I feel an obligation to tell certain stories because these people are gone. I’m not afraid to dance with ghosts.”
Bertei will release her new book, “Why Labelle Matters,” about Afrofuturism and women singers in March.