Manhattan Death Trip
by David Thomas

Be wary of self-proclaimed authorities on cultural events who were not participants in those events, who collect gossip, rely on the memories of the disgruntled and are ever eager for a sensational interpretation of the inconsequential or mundane. A band is a marriage. As with any divorce of a husband and wife, a split yields multiple, often contradictory narratives. If one party remains silent and only one point of view is aired then that narrative can be amplified or reinforced by the prejudices of any Buttinsky. Worse is a gruesome He Said / She Said back and forth. The self-proclaimed authority is not an impartial observer, standing aside the fray. His own desire to be recognized as an authority encourages him to uncover and reveal controversy that only his own unique insight has made him privy to.

I won't describe breakdowns that happen within the band dynamic. The creative moment itself is a hidden place. It is the eye of a hurricane encircled by the chaos of the human condition. The system defies understanding. Language is ill suited. That any schmo who happens along qualifies as an authority is risible.

For decades I have refused questions about Peter Laughner. I wanted no part in perpetuating the Manhattan Death Trip that enveloped Peter and eventually killed him. I am quoted in a recent lengthy history of his life. Close examination shows these to be statements cut and pasted from old sources.

I met Peter in 1973, maybe 1974 – the exact dates are hazy. At the time I had a small reputation as a writer for The Scene, a weekly tabloid magazine. He introduced himself at The Grapes Of Wrath, a folk club opposite to the Viking Saloon on Chester Avenue. Sometime later, possibly the early summer of 1974, he asked to join my band, Rocket From The Tombs. I was pleased to welcome him. He thought I should have different musicians and set about reconfiguring the group.

What has never been told of the story of RFTT is the nature of my disengagement from it. Peter crafted good songs but I did not agree with them as statements and the imitative nature of many of them bothered me. It became increasingly impossible for me to sing his songs convincingly. I proposed making our own record in the spring of 1975. Peter lobbied for us to record, instead of our own material, a song called 'Wild In The Streets' recorded by a New York singer / songwriter named Garland Jeffries. I didn't see the point in that. Peter suggested a Rolling Stones cover. I abandoned the idea altogether and my interest in RFTT waned. Rather than sing songs I could not serve well, I said I no longer wanted to be the band's singer and that I would concentrate on playing the organ and sax. The end for me was nigh.

After RFTT, in the way of these things, I visited Peter and his wife Charlotte Pressler. On one visit I described my plans for Pere Ubu. Tim Wright was teaching himself to play a six string Dan Electro bass. Peter asked to join. I had mixed feelings about it. We were friends, he was a great player and, no doubt he'd be helpful in assembling a new group but, with the RFTT experience fresh in my mind, I explained that Pere Ubu was my band, I would do the singing and we would not be doing other material.

Alcohol and drugs ate away at Peter. He started carrying a gun. His behavior became increasingly erratic. He announced that his doctor had told him that if he didn't stop drinking and taking drugs he'd be dead in a year. Tim and I had long talks about the situation. I'm sure others were also involved but my memory is hazy on specifics. The others in the band were Tom Herman, Dave Taylor and Scott Krauss. In any case, Tim and I were the driving force in the group at the time and that's what I recall. We agreed that we were enabling Peter's behavior by inaction and that we were not prepared to sit back and watch him die.

We had a band meeting at Tim's apartment. It went like this. "Peter, we think that maybe we've come to a..." Peter jumped in, Guys, I want to leave the band. Over the years this entire episode has been reduced to the simplistic 'David fired Peter.'

I swore vengeance against New York. We would play shows and I'd stand there staring down audiences at CBGB's or Max's, saying in my mind, "OK, you rubes, this is how it's done!" When Peter died I was furious and said some intemperate things. The song 'Humor Me' describes the rage I felt.