It’s 1975. “This song is called ‘Ain’t It Fun You’re Gonna Die Young,’” the singer says. “It’s dedicated to Jane Scott, ‘cause she’ll stay forever young, forever sixteen. She won’t die young.” When Peter Laughner died in the summer of 1977 at 24, Scott, a writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, admitted that she didn’t know the young singer, songwriter, and guitar player very well (read the full article here). He’d been a fixture in the Cleveland music scene, a member of Rocket from the Tombs and Pere Ubu.
Laughner, Scott was certain, “had the talent and the vision to write and produce his own albums. He could have been a national artist.” Lester Bangs describes Laughner’s frightening addictions to drugs and alcohol in another obituary. Scott’s plain-spoken elegy for the Lycidas of the Cleveland punk scene, though not as poetic as Bangs’s essay, is no less true and poignant. Laughner, obsessed with Lou Reed, would no doubt have appreciated Scott’s precision and simplicity: “I didn’t know Peter as well as many of you did, but I, too, feel that I have lost a friend.” Laughner’s name has never disappeared entirely. Gene O’Connor, better known as Cheetah Chrome (and Laughner’s co-writer on “Ain’t It Fun”) took the song with him and recorded it with The Dead Boys in 1978. Guns N’ Roses covered it again in 1993, and, when David Thomas and Chrome reformed Rocket from the Tombs in 2003, the song lived again, this time with Television guitarist Richard Lloyd filling in for Laughner. But that 1975 demo—the muscular, Alice Cooper-like riff, the brittle guitar solo, the withdrawn and deadpan lyrics—is, for rock critic Clinton Heylin, “the definitive version,” complete with a dedication for someone who, Heylin writes, “as predicted, did not die young.” It’s a reply to The Who’s “My Generation,” a broken mirror of a song: “Ain’t it fun when you’re always on the run,” Laughner sings. “Ain’t it fun when your friends despise what you’ve become.”
I kept hearing that demo, Laughner’s Stratocaster and overdriven Twin Reverb, as I read Glenn Head’s Chicago: A Comix Memoir, just out from Fantagraphics. Like Derf Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer, it’s a story about teenage America in the 1970s. Aside from their stylistic similarities—the debt they own to Kurtzman and Crumb, for example—both artists explore the same dark, suburban corners that obsessed Laughner and his bandmates. This is cartooning as sharp and corrosive as anything you’ll hear on a Stooges or Patti Smith Group record. But even in black-and-white, it’s easy to imagine the mustard-yellow sedans, dark wood paneling, orange shag carpet, olive green bellbottoms and turtlenecks. Glen, the book’s protagonist, hides in his room, its walls covered in posters. Hendrix and Mr. Natural. Copies of Bijou Funnies, Arcade, and Zap Comix, and Naked Lunch (page 11).
After he graduates high school and leaves New Jersey to study at The Cleveland Institute of Art, Glen antagonizes his professors. “Fuck it, man . . . . There hasta be something else . . . . ” he insists to one of his classmates (33). If he could only decipher the patterns in those comix and in Burroughs’s novels, maybe he could, as he puts it, “start over . . . . ” (33). He gives it a shot in Chicago, where he survives thanks to the kindness of a stranger named Aaron. But the comix underground he’d dreamed about isn’t there, either. The maps were wrong. Or maybe he misread them. If there’s no way out, the only place to go is back home to New Jersey.
While still in Chicago, Glen manages to get some work thanks to Skip Williamson, even meets Robert Crumb at a party. The hangers-on, the sycophants are here, too, hovering over Williamson and Crumb. Dismayed, Glen realizes the comix scene—at least what little he’s seen of it—is “just like high school!” (82). Glen admits, “I had imagined things a little . . . . differently”: a paradise of freaks, grass and free love, a “Cartoon Commune” complete with Crumb and his banjo (see pages 81-83). Despite Williamson’s generosity and encouragement, Glen returns to Madison, where he eats ice cream, smokes, and plays with his dad’s .38. Like a polyester, proto-punk Roderick Usher, Glen, naked, wanders alone through the gloomy halls of his suburban home. He’s got nothing left but himself and the family photos that haunt him.
This is the page I keep coming back to, one that Phoebe Gloeckner alludes to in her Introduction (5):
For the last five pages, Glen has been firing bullets at the walls, the eaves. He notices a book of photos. “A coupla bullet holes here ‘n’ there,” he thinks, “. . . . but overall . . . . ” (119). Despite a fresh hole near his “dad’s forhead,” Glen notes, “Looks like they all got away clean . . . . ” He closes the book, tosses it. Head fills the page with a single, large, rectangular panel, then partially conceals it with seven smaller inset panels. I can’t think of another page in comics that treats the possibility of suicide quite like this—not as an act of violence but of erasure, a denial so complete and destructive that it moves backward and forward in time, taking with it ancestors and descendants simultaneously.
“Drawing in its deepest sense is handwriting,” Otto Benesch writes of Rembrandt, “an immediate emanation of personality, of its rhythm of life and its creative faculty” (Benesch 30). That “rhythm of life” pulses on this page as a dense tangle of lines and patterns take shape into a unity that Glen, for now, fails to see. If Glen is the resigned singer of “Ain’t It Fun,” the page itself is the graphic equivalent of Coltrane’s “sheets of sound,” a Madelon Vriesendorp cityscape, a still from Jacques Tati’s Playtime, a glittering Jack Smith sunset with fake fur and costume jewelry. This could be the end, an act of self-destruction, but these dense images, like a still, certain voice, seem to say, No. Too soon. Not yet. Fuck it.
Rembrandt, A Girl Sleeping; Study after Hendrickje. A plate from Rembrandt as a Draughtsman.
Benesch argues that the “simplest” gestures, “which give direct expression of personality, are just the right ones” (31). That comes later, in the future, at the end of the book, as Glen—maybe no less troubled than he was as a kid, but alive and still making art—sits with his daughter. Read the book and you’ll see.
I don’t know if there’s any beauty in “Ain’t It Fun.” There’s plenty in Glenn Head’s Chicago, but the reader, like Glen himself, has to search for it. It’s there, hiding beneath those posters, under the carpet, on the streets of the Loop or the sidewalks of Madison, New Jersey. Laughner knew the answer to the question he asked again and again in that demo–“Ain’t it fun when you know that you’re gonna die young?”–but it’s here, too, in the pages of Head’s book. “Forever young”? That comix utopia? Of course they’re both illusions, but, then again, who cares? For Glen, kindness and friendship and family are still possible. Add a bottle of ink, a couple of pencils, a notebook, maybe a cat. Life? It’s sometimes hidden, but it’s enough.
Otto Benesch. Rembrandt as a Draughtsman. London: Phaidon, 1960.
Glenn Head. Chicago: A Comic Memoir. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2015. Print.
Clinton Heylin, “Searching for Peter Laughner” in Peter Laughner & Friends, Take the Guitar Player for a Ride. Portland: Tim Kerr Records, 1993. CD.