By Ed Staskus
As the Me Decade was winding down, I discovered I was poor as a church mouse. I owned lots of dog-eared books, some clothes, and a broken-down car. I didn’t have any money in the bank because I didn’t have a bank account. When the time came for me to leave Prospect Ave. for better prospects, it was past time. I didn’t have a clock, but I could tell.
I moved out of the Plaza Apartments because I couldn’t make the rent, which wasn’t astronomical by any means, but considerable enough for me. I moved into a Polish double in Asia Town with a roommate and my Siamese cat. The house was behind another house with no driveway or garage, but the rent was heaven-sent. The kitchen was small to non-existent. The living room was large and the bedrooms fair-sized. The neighborhood was a mix of old-timers, students, and Chinamen. It was quiet, too, with little of the vice and violence that made Prospect Ave. menacing.
In the 1870s the avenue steamrolled past Erie Street, which is now East 9th St., and kept going until it reached East 55th St. That’s where it stopped. “Lower Prospect, closer into downtown, went commercial long ago, but Upper Prospect, east of say 14th or 22nd, stayed residential longer,” says Bill Barrow, historian at the Michael Schwartz Library at Cleveland State University. Lower Prospect is where lots of downtown entertainment is now, including Rocket Mortgage Field House, where the NBA Cavaliers play basketball, and the House of Blues.
At the turn of the century the Rose Building was built at East 9th St. and Prospect Ave. There were only four cars in the city. Everybody else walked or rode a horse-pulled streetcar. It was called Rose’s Folly because everybody believed it was too far from Public Square, even though it was less than a mile.
The Winton Hotel was built in 1916 on the far side of East 9th St. It was highfalutin. It was renamed the Carter Hotel in 1931, suffered a cruel fire in the 1960s, but was renovated and renamed Carter Manor. I never set foot in it. The Ohio Bell Building went up in the 1920s before the Terminal Tower on Public Square was built. When it was finished it became the tallest structure in the city. It was the building that Cleveland’s teenaged creators of Superman had the Man of Steel first leap over in a single bound. The cartoon strip appeared in their Glenville High School newspaper, The Daily Planet.
Before Superman ever got the nickname, the Man of Steel was Doc Savage. There were dozens of the adventure books written by Lester Dent. When I was a kid, I read every one I could get my hands on. Doc Savage always saved the day. Nothing ever slowed him down, not kryptonite, not anything.
In the 1970s Prospect Ave. wasn’t a place where anybody wanted to raise kids. Nobody even wanted to visit the place with their kids in tow. The street was littered with dive bars, hookers, and bookstores like the Blue Bijou. There was heroin in the shadows and plasma donation centers opened in the morning light. The junkies knew all about needles and got paid for their donations.
The Plaza was around 70 years old when I moved in. There was ivy on the brick walls and shade trees in the courtyard. There were day laborers, retirees, some no-goods, college students, beatniks and shiftless hippies, artists and musicians living there. “The people who lived in the building during my days there helped shaped my artistic and moral being,” Joanie Deveney said. “We drank and partied, but our endeavors were true, sincere, and full of learning.” Everybody called her Joan of Art.
Not everybody was an artist or musician.
“But anybody could try to be,” Rich Clark said. “We were bartenders and beauticians and bookstore clerks with something to say. There was an abiding respect for self-expression. We encouraged each other to try new things, and people dabbled in different forms. Poets painted, painters made music, and musicians wrote fiction.”
The punk band Pere Ubu called it home. Their synch player Allen Ravenstine owned the property with his partner Dave Bloomquist. “I was a kid from the suburbs. When we bought the building in the red-light district in 1969, we did everything from paint to carpentry. We tried to restore it unit by unit.”
The restoration went on during the day. The parties went on at night. They went on long into the night.
“I remember coming home at four in the morning,” Larry Collins said. “There would be people in the courtyard drinking beer and playing music. We watched the hookers and the customers play hide-and-seek with undercover vice cops. In the morning, I would wake up to see a huge line of locals waiting in line in front of the plasma center.”
When I lived there, I attended Cleveland State University on and off, stayed fit by walking since my car was unfit, and hung around with my friends. Most of us didn’t have TV’s. We entertained ourselves. I worked for Minuteman whenever I absolutely had to. The jobs I got through them were the lowest-paying grunge jobs on the face of the planet, but beggars can’t be choosers.
I spent a couple of weeks on pest control bending and crawling into and out of tight spaces searching for rats, roaches, and termites. My job was to eliminate them with pesticides. The sprays were toxic. The bugs ran and hid. I tried to not breath the white mist in.
I spent a couple of days roofing, trying not to fall off sloped elevated surfaces that were far hotter than the reported temperature of the day. The work was as unskilled as it got, which suited me, but I got to hate high places. My land legs were what kept me going. I didn’t want to fall off a roof and break either one of them.
I spent a couple of hours jack hammering, quitting in the middle of the day.
“If you don’t go back, don’t bother coming back here,” the Minuteman boss told me. “Hit the road, Jack,” I said, walking out. I wasn’t worried about alienating the temporary agency. Somebody was always hiring somebody to do the dirty work.
The Plaza was four stories and a basement, a high and low world. Some folks were lazy as bags of baloney while others were hard-working. Some didn’t think farther ahead than their next breath while others thought it was a Lego world for the making.
“I had a basement apartment in the front,” Nancy Prudic said. “The junkies sat on the ledge and partied all night long. But the Plaza was a confluence of creative minds from many fields. It was our own little world. Besides artists, there were architects and urban planners. My kids grew up there.”
Some kids didn’t grow all the way up. Some of them didn’t last long. They moved on one way or another. One of the kids was Pete Laughner.
He was from Bay Village, an upper middle class lakefront suburb west of Cleveland. He wrote songs, sang, and played guitar. He was “the single biggest catalyst in the birth of Cleveland’s alternative rock scene in the mid-1970s,” Richard Unterberger said. He led the bands Friction and Cinderella Backstreet. He co-founded Rocket from the Tombs. “They were a mutant papa to punk rock as well as spawning a number of famous and infamous talents, all packed into one band,” Dave Thomas said. After the Rockets crashed and burned, he teamed with Dave the Crocus Behemoth to form Pere Ubu.
Pere Ubu’s debut show was at the Viking Saloon in late 1975. Their flyer said, “New Year’s Eve at the Viking. Another Godamn Night. Another year for me and you, another year with nothing to do.” Pete had a different take on it. “We’re pointing toward the music of the 80s.”
When he wasn’t making his stand on a riser, Pete was writing about rock and roll for Creem, a new monthly music magazine which was as sincere and irreverent as his guitar playing. The magazine coined the term “punk rock” in 1971. “Creem nailed it in a way that nobody else did,” says Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth.
He played with the Mr. Stress Blues Band in 1972 when he was 20 years old. They played every Friday and Saturday at the Brick Cottage. Mr. Stress called the squat building at Euclid Ave. and Ford Rd. the “Sick Brick.” When he did everybody called for another round. Monique the one and only barman ran around like a madwoman. “The more you drink, the better we sound,” the stocky man on the mouth organ said.
Mr. Stress was a stocky TV repairman by day. The lanky curly-haired Pete Laughner was in disrepair day and night. He wasn’t part-time anything. He wasn’t like the other sidemen. His guitar playing was raw and jagged. While the band was doing one thing, he seemed to be doing another thing.
“He only ever had three guitar lessons,” said his mother.
“He was so energetic and driven, but his energy couldn’t be regulated,” said Schmidt Horning, who played in the Akron band Chi Pig. “It could make it hard to play with him. He was so anxious and wouldn’t take a methodical approach.”
Pete was already in bands in his mid-teens. “Peter was my boyfriend when we were 15,” Kathy Hudson said. “He still had his braces. He was with the Fifth Edition. They were playing at the Bay Way one time and he wanted them to bust up their equipment like The Who. The others weren’t down with it.”
Charlotte Pressler was who Pete married. “From 1968 to 1975 a small group of people were evolving styles of music that would, much later, come to be called ‘New Wave’. But the whole system of New Wave interconnections which made it possible for every second person on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to become a star did not exist in Cleveland,” she said. “There were no stars in Cleveland. Nobody cared what they 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.”
Before Pete died, he stepped into a photo booth in the Cleveland Arcade, one of the earliest indoor shopping arcades in the United States. He was wearing a black leather jacket and looked exhausted. He sent the pictures and a note to a friend. “Having a wonderful time. Hope you never find yourself here.”
He played his kind of music at Pirate’s Cove in the Flats, along with Devo and the Dead Boys. “We’re trying to go beyond those bands like the James Gang and Raspberries, drawing on the industrial energy here,” Pete said. He played at the Viking Saloon, not far from the Greyhound station, until it burned down in 1976. Dave Thomas was a bouncer there, keeping law and order more than just an idle rumor. He wasn’t the Crocus Behemoth for nothing.
Pete wrote to a friend of his in 1976. “I’m drinking myself to death. No band, no job, running out of friends. It’s easy, you start upon waking with Bloody Mary’s and beer, then progress through the afternoon to martinis, and finally cognac or Pernod. When I decided I wanted to quit I simply bought a lot of speed and took it and then drank only about a case of beer a day, until one day I woke up and knew something was wrong, very wrong. I couldn’t drink. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t piss or shit anything but water. And then the pain started, slowly like a rat eating at my guts until I couldn’t stand it anymore and was admitted to the hospital.”
The rat was pancreatitis. If you lose a shoe at midnight you’re drunk. Pete lost shoes like other people lose socks in the dryer. He didn’t need any shoes where he was going. It was the beginning of the end of him. It didn’t take long. He wouldn’t or couldn’t listen to his doctor’s orders. He went back to his old pal, booze.
“Peter could do whatever he wanted to do,” said Tony Mamione who played bass in Pere Ubu. “He was instrumental in crafting the Pere Ubu sound, but, even at such an early age, had a deep understanding of all kinds of music.”
Tony and Pete met when they lived across the hall from each other on the third floor of the Plaza Apartments. “I had just moved in and would play my bass and Peter heard it through the walls and knocked on my door. We started talking and he went back and grabbed his guitar and some beer, and we started jamming right away.”
Pete was as good if not better on the piano than the guitar, even though the guitar was his rocket ship. One day he found a serviceable piano at a bargain price and bought it. He and Tony picked it up to take back to the Plaza. “Here I was driving his green Chevy van down Cedar Ave. and there he was in the back of the van rocking out on the piano,” Tony said. “He was so special, a pure musician.”
After they coaxed dragged muscled the piano up to the third floor, they had some beers and the next jam session started.
“I want to do for Cleveland what Brian Wilson did for California and Lou Reed did for New York,” Pete said in 1974. “I’m the guy between the Fender and the Gibson. I want a crowd that knows a little bit of the difference between the sky and the street. It’s all those kids out there standing at the bar, talking trash, waiting for an anthem.”
They would have to wait for somebody else. Pete Laughner died in 1977 a month before his 25th birthday. He was one year younger than me. He didn’t die at the Plaza Apartments. Neither of us was there anymore. He died in his sleep at his parent’s home in Bay Village. There’s nowhere to fall when your back is against the wall, except maybe where you got up on your feet in the first place.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”