Peter Laughner in early 1976, a little more than a year before his death Credit: Photo by Cynthia Black / Courtesy Smog Veil Records

Like all die-hard music geeks, I live for the moment when I first hear a song so spellbinding it stops me in my tracks. One of the most memorable in my life arrived thanks to The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From the Tombs (Smog Veil), a 2002 collection of demos and live recordings by Cleveland protopunk legends Rocket From the Tombs. RFTT existed for just over a year in the mid-70s and imploded before formally releasing any music, but its members cofounded weirdo art-rock outfit Pere Ubu and the best midwest punk band of the day, the Dead Boys—both of which incorporated a handful of RFTT songs into their sets.

When I snagged the comp, my young mind wasn’t yet warped enough for Pere Ubu, but I’d long since committed the Dead Boys’ catalog to memory. Though I’d already heard their ode to self-destruction, “Ain’t It Fun,” about a billion times, I got chills in the first verse of RFTT’s stripped-down live recording, sung not by Dead Boys front man Stiv Bators but by guitarist and Pere Ubu cofounder Peter Laughner.

Written by Laughner and Cheetah Chrome, “Ain’t It Fun” became a Dead Boys classic in the late 70s, then hit the mainstream in 1993 as the lead single from the Guns n’ Roses covers album “The Spaghetti Incident?” Neither version holds a candle to the raw magnetism of Laughner’s original: he slowly, deliberately delivers lines that teeter between winking nihilism and an out-of-control mental breakdown. “Ain’t it fun when you’re always on the run?” he sings. “Ain’t it fun when your friends despise what you’ve become?”

  • The version of “Ain’t It Fun” that appears on the 2002 compilation The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From the Tombs

Laughner died in June 1977 at age 24 from acute pancreatitis induced by alcohol and drug abuse, making another line from the chorus of “Ain’t It Fun” seem spookily prophetic: “Ain’t it fun when you know that you’re gonna die young?” He released only three recordings during his lifetime: the first two Pere Ubu singles, from 1975 and ’76, and a limited-pressing 1970 demo of a project with his friend Terry Hartman. And other than that 2002 RFTT collection and an out-of-print 90s compilation called Take the Guitar Player for a Ride that combines solo material and songs from a few of Laughner’s bands, little has been released for curious fans to explore. That changed last month, when Smog Veil dropped the staggering five-CD box set Peter Laughner.

The cover of the Peter Laughner box set
The cover of the Peter Laughner box set

Laughner pulled off a lot in his short time on Earth. He started playing in Cleveland bands when he was 14, and by the time he joined RFTT, he’d already started bringing edgy garage and glammy sounds to the rust belt—though people who were there, including Laughner’s ex-wife, Charlotte Pressler, saw no forward-thinking music scene to speak of in Cleveland. He helped shape rock ‘n’ roll culture through his larger-than-life, sometimes gonzo-style music writing for Creem, Punk, and Zeppelin. He auditioned for Television and almost made it. He wanted to put Cleveland on the musical map, so he encouraged local artists to pursue their dreams: he bought budding no-wave musician and writer Adele Bertei her first guitar, and he inadvertently shaped the Dead Boys by introducing Stiv Bators to Cheetah Chrome. After he passed away, friend and fellow scribe Lester Bangs eulogized him in “Peter Laughner Is Dead,” one of the most heart-baring pieces he ever wrote as well as one of his most eviscerating—he comes down hard on Laughner for his self-destructive excess, and because he saw so much of himself in his friend, he indicts himself too, as well as anyone else who ever bought into the heroic myth of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. In underground rock, all that adds up to a recipe for immortality, and more than four decades after his death, Laughner remains an indelible part of midwest music history, with a cult following around the globe.

More than ten years in the making, Peter Laughner celebrates Laughner’s music and legacy with 56 tracks recorded between 1972 and 1977, many of them previously unreleased, and a 100-page booklet filled with selections from Laughner’s writings, vintage photographs, articles about Laughner (including the aforementioned tribute by Bangs), and notes from one of the set’s curators, Nick Blakey (he shared the job with Andrew Russ). It also seeks to dispel some of the myths surrounding Laughner, even the ones he encouraged himself—they’ve variously cast him as a tragic hero, a Lou Reed wannabe, or a drugged-out rock ‘n’ roll casualty. “I think it starts with ‘Where’s the man, and where’s the myth?'” says Blakey. “Peter has been a hard one [to understand] because, number one, I wasn’t there. I can’t look at it any other way but from the filter of everything that’s happened after his death. . . . My MO has been trying to separate the myths and trying to correct them.”

Though no box set can fully describe who Peter Laughner was, this collection of songs—from radio performances, demos, club shows with his various bands, and home recordings—helps paint a portrait of a charismatic, immensely talented young artist. He had a poet’s knack for lyrics and a deep well of musical knowledge, with a repertoire that encompassed obscure blues, acoustic folk, and various strains of rock. To help tell his story, the songs on each disc are grouped by genre or approach (rock, folk, covers of old influences) rather than by chronology alone. In mid-70s Cleveland, bands had to play covers to get booked, but Laughner’s covers often come with unexpected twists—his dark take on “All Along the Watchtower,” for instance, is driven by Mellotron. Laughner’s originals provide the set’s most poignant and interesting moments, though, including “Cinderella Backstreet,” “Baudelaire,” and a previously unreleased version of RFTT’s “Amphetamine” (which might sound familiar to Wilco fans—Jeff Tweedy borrowed some of its lyrics for “Misunderstood,” the opening track of 1996’s Being There).

Throughout the box set, Laughner shares bits of knowledge about the songs or dedicates them to friends or colleagues, which lends the intimate, unpolished recordings extra warmth and makes them feel familiar and timeless. If you didn’t know that these tracks were decades old, you could picture him as a twentysomething booked to play your hippest neighborhood bar next week—where he’d blow everyone away. By the time you get through the final CD, “Nocturnal Digressions: 1977,” which Laughner taped alone in his bedroom the night before he died, it’s only natural to feel pangs of sadness at the loss of such a talented personality. Though no one can know what Laughner would’ve accomplished had he lived for even a few more years, his genius and passion are abundantly clear—it’s easy to imagine him attaining some of the success he craved, or even rivaling fellow poetic rockers Patti Smith and Richard Hell.

Incredibly, Blakey says that Laughner left so much material behind that he and Russ easily could’ve doubled the length of the box set (Blakey made a Spotify playlist of every song he knew Laughner had covered, and it runs more than 20 hours). “For a guy who didn’t even live 25 years, the impact that Peter had upon the people who knew him is astounding,” Blakey says. “So there’s a magnetism there, and he lives on through the music, through the songs, the imagery, the writing. And he left one hell of a trail of breadcrumbs that I’m still finding.”  v