I’ve covered Peter Laughner’s song “Amphetamine” in almost every band I’ve played in since 1994. I first learned about the late Cleveland guitarist and songwriter—who died in the summer of 1977, when I was barely four years old—in Clinton Heylin’s punk history From the Velvets to the Voidoids. Shortly after I’d read Heylin’s book, I ordered a copy of Take the Guitar Player for a Ride, a now out-of-print compilation of Laughner’s songs released by Tim/Kerr Records in 1994. When my band heard “Amphetamine,” we immediately learned all five chords of it and added it to our set. (As it was the early 1990s, we appended a long, improvised section of guitar noise.)
After one of our shows, a friend said, “That new song is amazing. When did you write it?” A few days later I made her a cassette copy of an “Amphetamine” demo Laughner recorded sometime in the 1970s.
I’ve always felt a little haunted by Laughner, and when his name came up at a recent event spotlighting the new book by Richard Hell, I began to mull over my fascination with the founder of Rocket From The Tombs and Pere Ubu, a crucial part of late-20th-century American rock’s DNA who was closer to my parents’ generation than to mine.
“Amphetamine” opens with the line “Take the guitar player for a ride,” a line that re-entered the rock world in 1996, when Wilco opened their double album Being There with “Misunderstood.” In the fourth verse, Jeff Tweedy borrows a stanza from Laughner:
Take the guitar player for a ride
Never in his life been satisfied
Thinks he owes some kind of debt
Just can’t seem to get over it
Heylin’s book remains one of the best sources of information on Laughner, but Richard Hell’s new autobiography I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp includes a terrifying, moving portrait of his talent and self-destructiveness. Spin commissioned the proto-punker to research an article on his former acquaintance, and during his research, Hell notes, “A few things became clear: the quality of his taste and talent; the depth of his self-doubt and concomitant surrender to drugs and other means of self-escape (including sexual sadomasochism); and his generosity (he encouraged, and improved the lives of, many people in Cleveland). He was so pure and tainted at once.”
Hell read these passages on Laughner during a recent lecture at Harper College, the small two-year school in the northwest suburbs of Chicago where I teach. Standing at a podium in a lecture hall normally devoted to faculty meetings and sociology lectures, Hell described in luminous detail his memories—intimate recollections that, for a moment, we might have believed we shared with him. But it was an illusion. No one in the audience had ever met Peter Laughner, and very few of us had even heard his music. [...]