Sunday, May 07, 2006

David Thomas and authenticity

Pere Ubu is one of my favorite bands, and I've always enjoyed reading interviews with their singer and sole constant member, David Thomas. He is highly intelligent and by turns charming, arrogant, unapologetic, provocative, irascible, funny--often all at once. I've never noticed much discussion about his various pronouncements about music (maybe I haven't been looking in the right places), but it strikes me that they would be currently unfashionable, to say the least. In the last of Carl Wilson's EMP round-ups, he quoted from his notes of some of the papers presented, including Thomas'. Given the nature of Thomas' talk (abstract here), it does on the face of it appear that he would have been at least as controversial as Stephen Merritt. Some of his remarks, as noted by Carl:
Rock is electrified folk music. It is not catholic but parochial, not a wide tent but a narrow road. It is in the blood. [...] The answer to 'Can foreigners play rock music?' is no. No. Not under any circumstances. But sometimes they can sure sound good if they don't try.
Carl notes also that his performance was so theatrical that no one "broke through ... to question some very questionable assumptions". But then he's been talking about this kind of thing for years, so maybe people just weren't surprised. Here he is in the April 1998 issue of The Wire (participating in that month's invisible jukebox):
In Britain, Roxy Music, alongside Bowie, helped British rock break with denim authenticity.
Yeah, well music can certainly wear different clothes, get a different haircut, have a different accent and pretend to be different people and get different scriptwriters. I'm not sure how much that has to do with music. You may be getting the picture that I reduce everything to real simple choices, because that's who I am. It's a desert island question, you get to choose one of two albums -- whichever Smiths album you consider the greatest, or the John Cougar Mellencamp album you consider to be the greatest, I have never met anybody who would take the Mellencamp album, except for myself. But I would kill myself if I had to live out my life on a desert island with a Smiths album. I would rather have John Cougar Mellencamp. I think ultimately that there is a basic blood difference in that Mellencamp in his blood has the music, but Morrissey doesn't. It's not his fault, he's got something else. It doesn't mean he is a lesser human being, it just means that he is not American. As much as people don't want to deal with this stuff you have to come to terms with the fact that some cultural idioms are specific to blood, or whatever you want to call it. If you have got to go see two reggae bands, this one's from Kansas City, the other is from Kingston, Jamaica, which one are you going to go for? It's simple.

So you don't think Europeans can rock?
Of course they can, and the groups that are so quintessential -- I mean, tell me whatever nation could have evolved Kraftwerk or Can? They are German! Or Roxy Music, Soft Machine, very English. But is it rock music? No. It is what it is. Modern electric music, fine.


Zydeco's appeal seems to be largely regional.
Well, music should be regional, it should speak directly of a specific place on the planet, of a specific geography, of a specific time, otherwise music is a function of merchandise and market. If it is not related to a specific geographical location, if it doesn't speak of a small community of people, then it isn't music. I have a real simple way of looking at things, so most of the stuff you hear on the radio by definition isn't music. I've got no problems, it's everybody else who has to deal with labels and confusion. I suggest to everybody that they adopt my model of thinking. It's easier this way.
I seem to recall a reader accusing Thomas of racism in a subsequent letter to the editor. Then also there was this interview in 2000 for a Russian newspaper:
5. Your art is a blend of rock, blues, folk, jazz and theater. Why do you call it "rock music"? Do you think the term is still relevant nowadays?

I call it rock music because that's what it is. Your question illustrates a number of prejudices shared by many. Rock music is the native music at the heart of American culture. Artemy Troitsky said to me, "The most ordinary rock band playing in a garage in Nebraska has an authenticity and urgency that cannot be found in even the best bands from England because they are playing their own music." Rock music is in my blood. It's not in yours. You presume too much to think it is. I do not claim Tolstoy. You cannot claim Elvis. Your question also presumes that culture is something that can be frozen in time. It presumes that rock music was never anything other than a youth phenomenon designed to sell clothes and provide tight-jeaned boys to chicken-hawkers. It assumes that what is popularly believed must define the reality of any situation. The Beatles will be a footnote in 50 years and forgotten totally in 100. Don Van Vliet, Sky Saxon and Brian WIlson will still be honored.

6. Many rock writers saw punk as being progressive at the time. You said, punk rock was invented to sell clothes. Can t this be applied to rock music as such which to a great extent is part of mass culture?

See above. Rock music is folk culture. SO the question needs to be re-arranged. For example, is Oasis a rock band? Clearly not. (1) They are not American and, (2), they do not show any evidence of emerging from a native folk tradition. I am a native American. We have a native culture. Maybe you don't want to give us one. Maybe you want our native American culture to be confined to granny sitting in a rocking chair in the Appalachian mountains or field Negroes singing spirituals as they pick cotton. WAKE UP! There are NO grannies sitting in rockers in the Appalachians. There are NO field Negroes picking cotton. Talking in terms of "mass culture" leads nowhere. Things are bought and sold. A particular widget does a good job of widgeting so it becomes very popular and sells many copies so other people start making widgets to sell. Is the original widget any less good at widgeting things? No. What if, after a while, the makers of imitation widgets, in order to sell more or meet the demand, start making the widget with cheaper materials? Eventually many bad copies fill the marketplace. Is the ORIGINAL widget any less good at widgeting? No. Counterfeit money devalues a currency but cannot devalue the gold that stands behind the currency.
So these ideas are pretty basic to Thomas' thinking on the subject. His own music over the past couple of decades appears to be explicitly a conversation with this, as he sees it, specific American folk idiom of rock music (for example, song titles are commonly recycled from rock's past). I agree that there are a number of questionable ideas at play here, and yet they are seductive. I can almost hear what he means in many cases. I don't think it's helpful to use a word like "blood" in this context, not if we mean literally genetics or something like that. But the idea that people of a certain time and place will naturally have more affinity for the music created in that time and place does not strike me as insane. There does seem to me to be something quintessentially American about a band such as, say, Modest Mouse that a non-American band would not be able to approximate, I don't think. I feel like I can hear the wide open spaces in their music, especially in the records they made before signing to Epic. (Incidentally, I would also go for Mellencamp over the Smiths, but I think that has more to do with the particulars of my musical life than with anything else, the sheer accident of history that means that I haven't listened to much of the Smiths.) I feel like I've been influenced by this notion, almost despite myself, feeling I could identify whether a band was American in their musical DNA. But then I don't know what to make of a band like the Rolling Stones in this respect--they've never sounded obviously English to me. That could just be because they were already part of the rock vocabulary before I was born. And certainly many of the American bands that followed would have taken their cues from them and not as much from the actual blues records that the Stones were so obsessed with. In some respects, of course, we're just talking about semantics. He calls American rock music "rock music"--the other stuff is something else, in need, I suppose, of its own name. But his assertion that it's not music unless it speaks of a particular place and time is more difficult to defend or understand. What is it then?

This is another, entertaining quote from that same issue of The Wire:
...there was this whole mania for labelling things, which also, incidentally, came in with the punk movement. If you are mainstream, you don't need a label. And Pere Ubu is the mainstream of rock music in 1998, just as we were in the mainstream in 1975. We remain within the mainstream of rock music. Other people have deviated off somewhere. Other people need labels. But Pere Ubu is a rock band.
I like the idea of Ubu remaining in the mainstream of rock as everyone else lost their way, and it seems to me that if you accept the notion of rock as a folk idiom as opposed to as "pop music"--and I'm often tempted to--then you can hear the evolution of this idiom, in part through listening to Pere Ubu over the last 30 years. But maybe the time has passed when it's possible to think of music in the terms that Thomas has defined, for music to come out of a specific time and place. I know that this is something that has been talked about a lot in the various rockism v. popism debates out there in blogland. For example, the discussion about M.I.A. (like here, here, and here) last year was very much centered on the question of whether her music came from anywhere, as well as the claims some boosters were making on the music. I enjoyed like hell reading all of the arguments, but I found it difficult to decide what my actual position was. Part of me wants to recognize and engage with a given scene, but I have a hard time actually doing so. I don't know if this is because I don't feel like I'm really from a place, or if it's because my approach to music began as a negation of the time I grew up in, a looking back to codified classic rock (were I a rock musician, I would almost certainly be doomed to creating "record collection rock"). Maybe approaching music exclusively in Thomas' terms, if we unpack the implications, is the problem. Is rock (or hip hop, or whatever) a folk music or is it "pop music" that theoretically anyone can make? Is it both, with questions of authenticity being more valid at some times than at others? Does this make any sense? I'm a pretty big Dylan fan, so I pretty much had to stop buying into projections of literal authenticity some time ago, but it was more difficult to completely shed notions of "the real"--like "real country" (not mainstream, natch) or "real hip hop"--even as I had nothing to base these on but recordings. It appears that my effective approach to collecting and listening to music is that it's all pop, whether I've realized it or not and even when I intentionally ignored or disdained actual popular music. Yet, when the claim is made (by whomever, and I see it again being made a lot these days) about the pisspoor state of music today (whenever "today" might be), it's usually recognized that, sure, yeah, there are always good records available, but a vitality is missing, a forward momentum. And that forward momentum has to come from somewhere, it's not going to magically appear as part of the pop smorgasbord.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Carl from here. I just noticed this post, and posted a belated link to it. (Sorry to be so slow!)

David Thomas's whole mode is patently provocative, presenting impulses and ideas in their most inflammatory forms - "some might say," he once sang, "that man's best friend is hyperbole." For instance, I can't imagine he really believes particular forms of culture are "in the blood," literally genetic, but he must feel that the use of that language will push in the right direction, like his claim that non-regional music is "not music." His way of theorizing fits into the 'pataphysical method of all his art, which is totally satirical and dead serious simultaneously to the point of absolute-zero-sum paradox: It is theatre designed to maximize spectator disorientation along selected vectors, and only self-expressive by subterfuge. I also suspect that if I said so to Thomas directly, he'd make me wish I'd never been born. If you never step outside the persona you've invented for artistic purposes does it continue being a persona? The weakest thing about recent Ubu albums - for all their amazing sonic and poetic qualities - is how concerned they are with these assertions of being rock, of being American, etc. It seems so petty compared to what earlier seemed like more of an interest in the nature and unnature of consciousness. On the other hand, Thomas might counter that in 1978, reality had not yet fully vanished into simulacra and so the mission was not yet about reclamation, which is debatable but, yeah, not petty. Still, his recent "solo" albums with the Two Pale Boys often seem more liberated and expansive, because (as European art projects, I guess?) they are not so much commanded to plant flags, even when they address similar themes. I'm eager to hear the upcoming Ubu disc, though. It's said to mark the start of a new cycle, and maybe that means easing up on the geographic fundamentalism.

The distressing thing is how many people take everything from him as schtick, and so - while he gets a free pass on statements that would get other musicians crucified (like certain ukelele-strumming New Yorkers), the creative and original thoughts about culture that pour out of him also get overlooked and lost. But of course his manner feeds that reaction.

May 19, 2006 3:06 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Hi Carl! Thanks for responding.

I agree with pretty much everything you say here, so I'm not sure exactly what it was in my post that you "mostly disagree" with (per your post linking to mine)--perhaps I did not make clear enough my ambivalence towards these ideas of authenticity, and the extent to which I was aware of the theatricality in his presentation. It's clear that Thomas enjoys being provocative. I know that some people can't get past the provocation to the "creative and original thoughts" underneath. (I've sent interviews with him to friends who have been immediately put off by his "arrogance", taking it a little too seriously, and thus missed the interesting stuff that had compelled me to send it in the first place.)

Anyway, one of the points I was trying to make is that I have been torn between the notions of rock as part of the folk tradition and rock as pop music--it seems to be both. I think I listen to it as pop music but have a tendency to think about it in terms of folk music (especially insofar as I am able to make sonic connections with actual folk music, like the music in the Harry Smith anthologies--although it's useful to recall that those recordings in particular were not made with the intent of preserving the folk tradition, unlike those made by Alan Lomax). Probably a false dichotomy anyway.

Incidentally, I also find his recent Two Pale Boys work more interesting and fruitful than the recent Ubu stuff.

May 19, 2006 4:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Carl again: Yeah, my "mostly disagree" was mostly overstated, but here are a few of the points of contention: While you probably can tell the difference between American and non-American bands (and I'd actually include the Stones there), David's main claim is that this is the difference between rock and non-rock, which doesn't really parse unless you agree that the Beatles, not to mention Led Zeppelin, aren't rock. Which would be okay by me - I don't have much invested in "rock" - but by that measure Pere Ubu isn't rock. (Certainly not, if early Roxy Music isn't rock.) His argument about rock is ultimately circular - whatever is American rock is rock and whatever is not is not. American = rock. But by that argument all American music after the advent of rock is rock unless it's regarded by totally subjective measures of not being worthy of being rock. Presumably David wouldn't say Britney Spears is rock, but she's an American using as many rock forms (along with others) as a lot of rock bands (who also don't use exclusively rock or folk forms). Gender and culture (in the sense we usually call "race") are left out of the argument in favour of region and geography. How many generations back do you have to go to get access to this geography, to have a claim on the "folk" tradition? Why is it okay for Pere Ubu to be acknowledgedly heavily influenced by B-movies and (regional) television but not okay for "pop" bands to be influenced by various parts of pop culture? It's kind of bad Benjamin - a reinvention of "aura".

I totally agree with you (if I get your drift) that his ideas about geography and sound have meaning. But I think this dichotomy of pop and folk is at this point exactly the wrong way to look at it. All folk culture is pop-infected, certainly including American rock, certainly including Pere Ubu. So both pop and rock are folk and non-folk. (And in some important ways pop is *more* folk, in its very populism.) There are aspects of Britney Spears - and certainly hip-hop - that are as close to American folkloric culture (I'll mention the medicine show, which is a tradition Ubu partakes in, too) as anything in the underground. He's taking his fascinating ideas about the inherent regionalism of music and tying them to a more widely accepted, rockist, snobbish idea of authenticity for the sake of getting them over, but that tie makes the scheme incoherent.

Not to mention the fact that the geography of America is varied enough that I don't see how "rock" unites them - what geography, what "old rocks," do his beloved Beach Boys have in common with Dock Boggs or the Ramones? Wouldn't they have more in common with Mexico? Wouldn't they each have more in common with other coastal or mountainous or, say, mid-northern urban regions? (Which I think is a rich subject for investigation.) His theory suggests more to me about how New Yorkers and Berliners have things in common, or Californians and other beach cultures. His choice to make it about Americanness is a conflation of blood and soil - there are vital things to be said about American culture and its music (and early Ubu identified them in the ways American transcendentalism is both a folk and an intellectual tradition, for instance) as well as about geography and music (as Ubu identified in industrial Cleveland, in the Great Lakes) but they are not the same thing. David collapses them, partly for shock effect, partly for intellectual complication, but partly in ways that are massively personal. His American nationalism didn't emerge in this way, as nostalgia and as "blood and soil," until he became an unwilling "exile" in Europe. Imagine if that hadn't been a personal and professional necessity (because of his wife's choices, and because Ubu always made more money from European audiences). It's always difficult to separate his ideas from what happened to Ubu, and in this area the stories seem massively tangled.

Sorry to go on and on. I've had too long to reflect on this stuff and it's never seemed quite fair to write about it professionally, so it comes out in these back and forths.

May 20, 2006 3:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, one more thing: I think that forward momentum shows up all the time. It might not be followed up on. But by that standard neither was Pere Ubu. Hang out with some 21-year-olds. They don't feel their scenes lack momentum.

May 20, 2006 4:51 AM  
Blogger Scraps said...

Thomas's position can't be refuted, because it can't be demonstrated. His argument depends upon the existence of something ineffable that he insists absolutely is there: an inevitable and inimitable feeling of geographic place in music; something that cannot be "claimed" -- another hyperbolic word he throws around -- by any outsider. I can believe that's how he experiences music, but he is unable to accept that most other people (to say the least) don't: no, they are simply not thinking correctly. He is using "rocknroll" in an entirely personal way: useful for polemics, less useful for conversation.

May 20, 2006 8:29 PM  
Anonymous Patrick said...

Thomas talks a whole load of shite. This one of the most ludicrous lines I've ever seen:

"The most ordinary rock band playing in a garage in Nebraska has an authenticity and urgency that cannot be found in even the best bands from England because they are playing their own music."

The idea is so stupid, with such a total lack of foundation, there seems no point in even bothering to challenge it...The Las, for example. Might as well say "The most ordinary writer writing in a shed in England has an authenticity and urgency that cannot be found in even the best writers from Ireland because they are using their own words." Just stupid.

October 21, 2007 8:22 PM  

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