Those Were Different Times
A Memoir Of Cleveland
Life: 1967-1973 (Part One)
by Charlotte Pressler
This memoir, originally intended as the first of a three-part series, was written in 1978 and first published in CLE 3A; it appeared in PTA (Pittsburgh’s Top Alternatives) ©1979. Part II: Getting in Shape (The Life and Death of Cinderella Backstreet, Ratman and Bobbin: The Eels in Columbus, Free Beer Night with Mirrors at the Clockwork Orange, The Buying of the Plaza) and Part III: Extermination Music Night were never written.
Special thanks to Jim Ellis and CLE Magazine.
Erik Bloomquist, age seven, Plaza
child, whose father owns, with Allen Ravenstine, the building at 3206 Prospect
Avenue, was having trouble with his book report. He had chosen Oscar Wilde’s
The Happy Prince, far above his grade level, and the big words kept getting
him stuck. I told him that the story was originally written for adults, and
that one of my teachers had read it to us, but not until we were in the sixth
grade. "Well," Erik said, "I could have picked an easier life."
This is a story about life in Cleveland from 1968 to 1975, when a small group of people were evolving styles of music that would, much later, come to be called “New Wave.” Misleadingly so, because that term suggests the current situation, in which an already evolved, recognized “New Wave” style exists for new bands to aim at. The task of this group was different: to evolve the style itself, while at the same time struggling to find in themselves the authority and confidence to play it. And they had to do this in a total vacuum. There were no “New Wave Nites” at local clubs; in fact gigs of any kind were rare, and usually attended only by the bands’ closest friends; the local media for the most part ignored these bands; nor was there yet a national network; there were few fanzines; there was no Radar, no Stiff, no CBGB, even. The whole system of New Wave interconnections which makes it possible for every second person on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to be a star did not exist. There were no stars, in Cleveland, then. Nobody cared what these people were doing. If they did anything at all, they did it for themselves. They adapted to those conditions in different ways. Some are famous. Some are still struggling. One is dead.
This is not a complete history of Cleveland bands; it is closer to a personal memoir, and concerns the people I was acquainted with and the events I witnessed. Some important figures, like Brian Sands, are left out for the simple reason that I did not know them. I hope they will not construe this as a slight on their contributions. This is strictly, also, a Cleveland story. The Akron story, equally important, is one I cannot write. Though I lived in Akron for six months once, I never knew it from the inside.
It is, then, a fragment of the history of a period which saw a tremendous explosion of energy; irrevocably determining the character of many people’s lives, including, of course, my own. If you look for my subjective reason for writing this article, it is there. When you grow to be twenty-eight, and realize that you have been living a certain way for ten years now, and that you are likely to go on living this way for the rest of your life, because you can no longer imagine what it is like to live any other way, you naturally begin to ask yourself how this happened. How it happened is the subject of this article — just the facts, ma’am.
But there are questions I would like to know the answers to. Why, for example, are so many of the people in this story drawn from the same background? Most of them were from middle or upper-middle class families. Most were very intelligent. Many of them could have been anything they chose to be. Jaime Klimek and Paul Marotta would have made fine partners in a law firm. David Thomas planned at one time to be an English professor. Peter Laughner would have made an excellent journalist. John Morton is an excellent visual artist. There was no reason why they should not have effected an entry into the world of their parents. Yet all of them turned their backs on this world, and that meant making a number of very painful choices. First, there was the decision not to go to college, at a time when the draft was still in effect and the Vietnam War was still going on: and several of these people were drafted. Most of these people did not marry; those that did generally did not have children; few of them worked jobs for very long; and the jobs they did hold were low-paying and dull, a long ways away from a “career.” Yet they were not drop-outs in the Sixties sense; they felt, if anything, a certain affection for consumerist society, and a total contempt for the so-called counterculture. The Sixties drop-outs dropped in to a whole world of people just like themselves; these people were on their own.
You can ask, also, why they all turned to rock n’ roll. Most of the people I will be talking about here were not natural musicians. Peter perhaps was, and Albert Dennis, and Scott Krauss; but John Morton and David Thomas and Allen Ravenstine and Jaime Klimek would probably have done something else, if there had been anything else for them to do. One can ask why there wasn’t; why rock ‘n’ roll seems to be (except possibly for the visual arts) the only living art form these days.
I would like to know too the source of the deep rage that runs through this story like a razor-edged wire. It wasn’t, precisely, class-hatred; it certainly wasn’t political; it went too deep to be accepting of the possibility of change. The Eels, perhaps, came closest to embodying it fully; but it was there in everyone else. It was a desperate, stubborn refusal of the world, a total rejection; the kind of thing that once drove men into the desert, but our desert was the Flats. It should be remembered that we had all grown up with Civil Defense drills and air-raid shelters and dreams of the Bomb at night; we had been promised the end of the world as children, and we weren’t getting it. But there must have been more to it than that.
I can’t begin to answer these questions; I can only raise them. Perhaps the facts will suggest answers. It should be clear from this story, though, that what is now going on in Cleveland is in many ways different; and that, when the next great explosion of energy comes, it too will be different.
Peter Laughner is the central character in this story; not only because he was central to the Cleveland underground in those years, but also because I was his wife, and saw things through his eyes. And that, of course, is my second reason for writing this article; maybe in this mass of facts is some clue that explains things. One always asks why.
Part One: Origins
La Cave was a small basement club on Euclid Avenue near East 103rd, a short walk from Case Reserve. In the middle Sixties, when the folk revival was in full swing on the college campuses, and racial tensions were still low enough that college kids felt safe in venturing two blocks into the ghetto, it had become the folk music center of Cleveland. Josh White, etc., had all played there. But around 1967-68, when acid-rock began to replace Odetta in the dorm rooms, lesser-known rock bands began to appear at La Cave as well. Some quickly went on to larger venues. One that never did, that became in fact something like the La Cave house band, was the Velvet Underground. Cleveland was one of the Velvets’ better cities; and among the core of loyal fans who could be counted on to show up for each performance were two West Side kids, still in high school and thus technically underage for the club. They usually hung out in the back room between sets, listening intently while Lou Reed strummed his big Gibson stereo and talked about chord progressions and life on the road, An uneasy, tentative friendship began to grow between Peter Laughner and Jaime Klimek. Peter invited Jaime down to hear his band.
Peter had decided at thirteen that he wanted to play rock’n’roll. He had asked for and gotten an electric guitar, and had talked two friends into playing with him: Russ Williams on bass and Craig Ferrier on borrowed snare-drum. The band had grown since then (it had helped enormously when Craig, one Christmas, got a proper set of drums), and now consisted of Dan Pliske on vocals and harmonica, Rob Stewart on lead guitar, Russ Williams (later Don Harvey) on bass, Craig Ferrier on drums and Peter on rhythm guitar. They began as a white blues band, whence the name “Mr. Charlie,” but they soon branched out from their repertoire of Yardbirds and Stones. After Trout Mask Replica came out, the band played their blues Beefheart-style; but the main influence on Peter was Lou Reed. Reed’s guitar work had shown Peter what music could do; it opened up for him what he always called “possibilities.”
So the band worked up a thirty-minute, feedback-filled version of “Sister Ray,” at the close of which Peter generally leaned his guitar against the amp and walked away, letting it scream. They did originals, too; there was a quasi-blues Peter had written called “I’m So Fucked Up”… It wasn’t your average high school band, but they did get a few gigs. One that Don Harvey’s father had gotten for them turned out to be the classic room-full-of-old-people-who-expected-a-dance-band night. They weren’t a responsive audience. One middle-aged woman reached for Peter’s amp cord as he was going into a particularly atonal solo. He told her he’d kill her if she pulled the plug. The band got paid not to play, and left. The night Jaime heard them they were playing for a canteen at Bay High. He went away impressed (and still thinks it was the best band Peter ever had).
Jaime himself was learning to play, thinking about starting a band. It wasn’t something he had thought he would do; Jaime, unlike Peter, had never liked old rock’n’roll. Chuck Berry didn’t interest him; long solos built out of blues licks had no appeal for him; jazz left him cold; most bands bored him. But the Velvets were different. For him, too, they opened up possibilities. He thought it over and decided to do something along those lines. His friend Jim Crook showed him the E and A chords, and Jaime started writing songs. He worked hard on making a tape of them, and sent it to Jim, who was in the Army. It got blown up by a mortar shell before Jim could hear it. (This was 1969).
It was about this time that a Lakewood High sophomore with an impressive, vaguely European appearance walked into the Disc Records Westgate store, where Peter clerked after school, and ordered about half the ESP jazz catalogue from him. Peter, naturally, struck up a conversation with him. In Cleveland, but especially on the West Side, people grow up starved for signs of intelligence in the outside world, believing in its existence the way an apostate priest believes in his God, a faint, mystical possibility that manifests itself largely by its absence. The upshot of the conversation was an invitation to Peter to join the boy and some of his friends in a movie-making project. So Peter found himself one rainy Saturday at Euclid Beach Park; it had been closed for some time and nobody could figure out a way to get in. There was the awkward stiffness that arises when six or seven people are waiting for someone else to get things going. John Morton, a tall, beefy high-school kid with peroxided blonde hair down to his shoulders, wearing secretary-blue eyeshadow and giant earrings shaped like Pepsi-bottle tops, decided to oblige. He picked up a brick, a five-pounder, and threw it at a friend of his, Davie McManus, slight, lame, immaculately dressed, who threw it back. They played catch for a while, throwing hard, their friend Brian McMahon watching with approval. Peter was uneasy. He was familiar with the spidery, obliquely verbal attempts at mind control practiced by his friends, but this was something new, a cultivation of the potential for physical violence. Later, they filmed John Morton breaking up a card game, overturning a table and stomping things into the ground. Later still, some nuns chased them out of there.
Time passed: Peter got to know John Morton and his friends; Jaime wrote songs and practiced his guitar; Peter’s parents had his bedroom soundproofed so Mr. Charlie could practice there.
A vignette from 1970: Jaime walks into the old Disc Records store at 221 Euclid Avenue, holding his fifteen-year-old sister Karen by the hand, wondering if the Loaded album has been released yet.
Graduation from high school was now imminent for all these people; there were decisions to make. Jaime, who had attended West Tech, abandoned high school after a brief stint at Lakewood, and went to live in 1971 in a Clifton Boulevard apartment with his mother, his sister Karen and his brother Andrew. He started to form his band. Jim Crook, who had at last gotten out of the Army, was the obvious choice for lead guitar. Michael Weldon was collared and told he was a drummer. Craig Bell, who was in love with Karen, wanted to move in, and Jaime said “OK, if you’re going to hang around, you’re going to be in my band. We have lead and rhythm, do you want to play bass?” The band’s name, they decided, would be “Mirrors.” The full band practiced for six months; then Craig got drafted.
John Morton graduated from high school and went to live in a house in Strongsville. Brian McMahon and Davie McManus were always with him. One night, as Morton tells it: “Me and Davie, or me and Brian, or me, Brian and Davie went to see Captain Beefheart, and Left End were playing. And they were real bad. And I said that we could do better than that. We started practicing on the back porch. I played guitar and Brian played piano cause he didn’t want to play guitar. We figured Davie could sing cause he didn’t do anything else. We had our ideas about playing anti-music back then.” They called themselves the Electric Eels.
The other guys in Peter’s band had never liked him very much. They all smoked a lot of dope and did a lot of acid; they liked to stay back from situations, calculating their next move. Peter drank instead, and was too full of restless energy, too full of scraps of knowledge picked up from William Burroughs and The Magus and the backs of album jackets to stay back from things long; he was always going in ten directions at once; twitching from impatience, he was looking for the great burst of energy that would set everything in heaven and earth right. The other guys were going to college; Peter only wanted one thing, and that was to be a musician. When his class graduated in 1970, Peter gigged around for a while as an acoustic performer, then in 1971 went to California.
California, to Peter, was an animated corpse. The casualties in Berkeley were everywhere; it was impossible to avoid them at whatever hour of the day or night you walked up to Sproul Hall to play and pass the hat, you would have to pass them; it was as if a truck had come down Telegraph Avenue dumping bodies; half-alive, they curled up against the walls, sucking on their orange juice, waiting for the coming of the Acid Messiah, who seemed to be taking his time. The weather, clear and mild for what seemed like endless weeks, lacking definition; there was nothing to put your back against. People whispered “negative energy” when you mentioned the Velvets. He stuck it out three months and returned to Cleveland.
Mirrors, meanwhile, had found a replacement for Craig Bell; another friend, Jim Jones, who was living with his parents in a suburb remembered as East Nowhere (Mayfield Heights), filled in on bass. One of the Velvet’s songs memorized at La Cave had been “Sweet Sister Ray,” an unrecorded sequel to “Sister Ray.” Mirrors learned it, and Jaime remembers their activities at this time as consisting mainly of “smoking a lot of dope and playing a lot of ‘Sweet Sister Rays.'”
They were, in fact, following what will be a familiar pattern: frequent practices, intense seriousness, no audience interest, and no gigs. What gigs they did get were due to Michael’s friendship with the man who ran the Lakewood YMCA teen dances. There is some confusion about who played at these: Jim Jones says he never played one; Craig Bell remembers playing only once, in 1972, when he was home on leave. What is not in doubt is that the gigs always went badly and no one ever made any money; Mirrors insisting the Lakewood teens could perfectly well dance to “Foggy Notion,” and that even if they couldn’t, they were going to hear it anyways; the Lakewood teens replying with their feet that Mirrors could play it all they liked; they didn’t have to listen. Mirrors’ response to that was to smoke even more dope and retreat, slowly and imperceptibly, into a defensive shell, composed of the belief that there was no one out there, and never would be, and that it didn’t matter because they were all fools anyhow. It was a belief that came more and more to color the band’s actions as time went on; which perhaps would make it impossible, later on, for them to take advantage of opportunities when they did arise. They would come to be a reclusive, aloof band, suspicious of the outside world, seemingly indifferent to their audiences. But this attitude took years to harden; perhaps at this time they were simply waiting for Craig Bell to get out of the Army.
The Eels were even more underground; it is hard to say whether they were even a band in those days. “The Electric Eels” seemed more to be the name of a concept, or perhaps a private club, with John, Brian, and Davie as members. The Eels may have practiced, but never tried to play out. And though John Morton was beginning to be known as a visual artist, the Eels collectively were known mainly for their potential for random violence. For example: at one point John and Davie were living in an apartment on Madison Avenue, in almost-Lakewood, a neglected backwater of the West Side full of cheap apartments and failing storefront businesses. They decided to have a party. John had built a room-sized construction in the dining room of the apartment, a sort of jungle gym of two-by-fours, over and under and through which the guests had to crawl to get to the kitchen, the refrigerator, and the beer. As the party progressed, this became more and more difficult. At first things went smoothly, though; I remember Davie, entranced by “The Man Who Sold The World,” which had just been released, making sure all the guests heard it. But a little later, what may have been a fight started between John and Davie. Davie wound up pinned to the balcony of the second-floor porch by John, who was threatening to throw him off. No one was sure whether it was a serious fight, or just Eel experimentation; but everyone knew that Eel experimentation was capable of including actually throwing Davie off the porch. No one wanted to intervene. I don’t remember whether John actually did throw Davie off the porch; he may have.
John tried art school several times: Chicago, the School of Visual Arts, and Cooper in Cleveland. It never worked out for him. The pressure was building up, and, about 1972, he decided to make a break. He moved to Columbus to get away from his life in Cleveland; he was successful enough in this to live across the street from the Columbus art school for a year without knowing it. Brian and Davie knocked around Cleveland for a bit; the Eels were, temporarily, broken up.
Peter had been, for most of this time, frustrated and at loose ends. He had looked up Russ Williams when he got back from California, but Russ was married, and working a lot of hours at the gas station, and his wife didn’t want him in a band. So he went back to solo acoustic work, combining traditional songs with Velvets material. He made a certain name for himself among the folkies, but there were a lot of audition nights and not many gigs (after all, “What Goes On” doesn’t really work on the folk guitar). Peter took to snapping at the audience, calling them fools for not paying more attention to music they might never hear again. What he really wanted was a band, but there seemed to be nobody who would play his music. He envied Jaime at times; what Jaime was doing with Mirrors was in some ways what he would have liked to do. But Peter, unlike Jaime, could never have put up with the slow process of teaching non-musicians to play; he wanted people who were already competent. Though Peter never valued technical skill for its own sake, it was for him a necessary pre-condition for making music. There was another problem as well; Peter’s outbursts were giving him the reputation of being difficult to work with.
But Bill Miller, the Mr. Stress of the Mr. Stress Blues Band, had heard Peter play, and found him interesting; always on the lookout for young guitar players, he asked Peter to join his band. A lot of talent had passed through Stress’s bands, most notably Glenn Schwartz, who had made a national reputation for himself before his religious conversion. So it is not surprising that Peter accepted Stress’s offer.
Peter played with Stress for four or five months, Friday and Saturday nights at the Brick Cottage. Stress has been called a Cleveland institution, which is not a compliment but a description of his role; like other institutions, he provides stability in changing times. Stress’s show almost never varied. Most of the crowd knew his jokes by heart. They had been coming to hear him for years, and would keep on coming to hear him. The small, dim room was always jammed; Monique, the one barmaid, hopelessly over-worked. But Stress, knowing his comfortable reliability might become too predictable, always provided himself with a foil in the band. His guitar players, usually young and untried, drew people who wanted to see who Stress was going to come up with next. Peter Laughner, with his grimaces and raw, almost violent solos, was one of the more interesting.
He didn’t seem to really fit in with the rest of the band. It wasn’t that he played too much or covered up the other musicians, but he stood out from them. His solos were never long; he never played scales or filler; but they were jagged, rough; they refused to integrate themselves. There were some personal conflicts as well. Peter was impatient with Stress; he was tired of doing the same sets over and over. He wanted to introduce more rock’n’roll material and he wanted to sing some of it. He was trying to get Stress to record, and to play-some out-of-town gigs; things Stress was not willing to do. Stress came to suspect Peter was trying to steal the band away from him; in any case he was finding him difficult enough to work with. All of this led, in the fall of 1972, to a relatively amicable (as these things go) axing. Peter was at loose ends again.
Those Were Different Times
It was after Peter had left the Mr. Stress Blues Band. He was living on Page Avenue in East Cleveland, working for his father as a tape machine repairman and playing occasionally with a bluegrass band. Brian McMahon was living around the corner with a girl Peter’d known since high school; the Eels were broken up and he was spending his days watching game shows and playing Kinks albums. Now Brian’s girlfriend Kristen had these four cats: completely untrained, they preferred the space behind the bathtub to the litter box. which used to infuriate Brian. When he caught one, he’d wedge it behind the stove and turn the oven on to broil and leave it there for a while to teach it a lesson. This made Peter, who had had cats since childhood, very upset. “You can’t condition a cat!” he’d shout. Whereas Brian thought that Peter, who was starting to flirt with a glittered-up version of bisexuality, was being silly; having settled the question for himself in his own straightforward fashion, he thought Peter should either go gay or shut up about it, but in any case find out where he stood.
So there was a lot of tension in their friendship. Once when they’d been drinking beer all day and went out to get more, Brian suddenly picked up a full six-pack and threw it hard at Peter. But most of the time they got along. They drank a lot together; they could both put it away pretty good. One night Peter somehow got hold of some cocaine, and they drank beer and did cocaine through the night. About four in the morning they decided to get something to eat. Now the advantage of living on Page Avenue was that the Crystal Barbecue was right at the head of the street; cheap, a little seedy and open twenty-four hours, its fluorescent lights were generally a little brighter than you wanted them to be by the time you wound up there, but the ribs were good. So as they walked up the block, Peter saw some parking meters, a not uncommon sight in East Cleveland, which has as stringent a set of parking regulations as Cleveland Heights does. He’d seen them many nights before, and mainly he had ignored them and gotten expensive tickets, but this night something in him snapped and he decided to do them all in. He went to his truck for his tool kit, got out a hammer and punch, and started in on breaking up all the parking meters in East Cleveland. As he was finishing on the third one, the police (East Cleveland police are very efficient) pulled up with the handcuffs ready. Peter spent the night in jail, but his father bailed him out and he was home for the next night, which was Christmas Eve, 1972.
Life was a little easier in those days. We were younger, our bodies were still resilient, we knew there would be someone to pick us up each time we fell. There were fewer consequences; we could get by on less. And there was no pressing need to actually do anything; it was enough to know we were artists. We were nineteen and twenty and twenty-one.