Saturday, July 08, 2006

We have the Technology

The subjects of my last post, Richard & Linda Thompson, have, perhaps surprisingly, collaborated on various occasions with Pere Ubu singer David Thomas. Richard Thompson plays guitar on Thomas' first two non-Ubu albums, The Sound of the Sand and Other Songs of the Pedestrians and Variations on a Theme, from 1981 and 1983, respectively. There's a brief, amusing anecdote related in the liner notes to Thomas' Monster box-set, which collects his first five solo albums, in which, by the time of his fifth, Blame the Messenger in 1986, he and the band he'd assembled for that record look around and realize that they are essentially Pere Ubu. They start recording again as Ubu, and the first album after this was 1988's The Tenement Year.

Carl Wilson of Zoilus has been guest-blogging some over at Said the Gramophone. Yesterday he posted an excellent piece on Pere Ubu's "We Have the Technology", probably the best song from The Tenement Year:
This is the Pere Ubu of 1988, when it had regrouped after David Thomas’s more-scorned-than-heard, “eccentric nature-boy” solo years. Now David Thomas lived in what he considered an exile in England, making albums such as Monster Walks the Winter Lake, a metaphoric suite about the breakdown of communication in a marriage. In those songs, he portrayed a failing marriage as a third entity, a Frankenstein pastiche of “parts that don’t matter,” a hulk that comes lumbering between two people, silencing them, dominating the horizon. And in the first years of the reanimated Pere Ubu this theme persisted: Where to turn when the dynamic between people is beyond their control, when it wrenches the torch from their hands and blazes through the village? It needn’t be a marriage; it could be a band.


As so often, in a group that always made its art from the parts that weren’t supposed to matter in culture, from B-movies and sci-fi novels and comics and Germanic freak rock and abandoned buildings and obsolete synthesizers and dinosaur books, Pere Ubu digs for inspiration in the trash: Here it’s the opening sequence of the boneheaded 1970s TV show The Six-Million-Dollar Man, in which the surgeons intone over the prone body of the astronaut, “We can rebuild him. We have the technology.” [...]

But David Thomas isn’t a kid any more. He doesn’t want to fight cartoon threats, or even, for awhile, his pet cultural apocalypse. He wants to talk to his wife. What is that monster made of? It’s made up of moments, intervals at which no one rises to the occasion, or all parties are too stubborn to prevent the inevitable crash.
I've never been able to catch Pere Ubu live, but a couple of years ago I did manage to see Thomas with a band of local musicians here in Baltimore at the Ottobar, as part of Morpheus Records' 10th Anniversary celebration. Morpheus has distributed some Ubu releases, such as the live The Shape of Things, as well as the utterly fantastic Jimmy Bell's Still In Town from 15-60-75 (Thomas has called this "the only good album by anybody ever", which is obviously a trifle excessive, but the record is still pretty damn awesome). Anyway, Thomas is a huge presence, and before his set he bitched out the girl handling the Morpheus table (she took it remarkably well, basically laughing it off). The show was a little ragged, but they did play "We Have the Technology" and it was a definite high-point of the night.

Elsewhere on Pere Ubu, Simon Reynolds has been posting his footnotes to Rip It Up & Start Again and this week posted the notes to the chapter concerning Ubu and the Cleveland scene. These also highlight Ubu's humanity. First, in contrast to the Dead Boys:
Compare the direction Pere Ubu pursued with what happened to the other ex-members of Rocket From the Tombs. Taking the punk side of RFTT to the max, they became The Dead Boys, fronted by Stiv Bators (who had briefly displaced David Thomas as RFTT’s singer), a weasel-faced Iggy Pop-wannabe who mimed suicide by hanging himself onstage. Moving to New York and latching onto the CBBGs scene, The Dead Boys were briefly infamous for their misogynist songs (“Caught With the Meat In Your Mouth”), Vicious-like cartoon-psychosis, and puerile penchant for carrying switchblades. Where The Dead Boys thought it a real, er, gas to sport Nazi imagery (Bators legendarily shaved a swastika into a girlfriend’s pubic hair), Pere Ubu decided to cease playing “Final Solution” live, in case anyone took the song (actually inspired by a Sherlock Holmes short story!) as pro-Nazi. In essence, the Dead Boys were like the Sex Pistols if they’d been entirely composed of Sid Viciouses and Steve Joneses.
And on original member Peter Laughner:
A man who died, said Lester Bangs, because he wanted to be Lou Reed so badly [...]. Although 'Final Solution' got included on the first Max's Kansas City album, Pere Ubu were also too humanist to really fit even the New York arty but death-tripping version of punk. They had no truck with those who flirted with the void, however poetically. . .
Some of the other footnotes touch on Thomas' occasionally dubious ideas of blood and nation and culture, which I talked about in this post from May. Reynolds quotes from the same interview in The Wire that I did, as well as much else. I like this concluding bit about Ubu's peculiar brand of "Americana":
Thomas also talks often about working with American archetypal themes and images--the railroad, the worried man, the river. Ubu liked to use already-famous song titles, like ‘Sentimental Journey’, ‘Stormy Weather’, “West Side Story”, while “My Dark Ages” turned The Beach Boys inside out: “I don’t get around/I don’t fall in love much.” Perhaps this confusion--art or folk, bohemia or populism--is at the core of rock, its undecidable essence. Perhaps the best stuff manages to be both at the time. In this respect Pere Ubu were, as Mark Sinker argues, a bit like The Band “if they had ended their [1966] tours with Bob Dylan by deciding to invent an urban American music based not in borrowed snatches of the rural past but in intuited fragments of the city future.”

Thomas: “Images are created--seminal things like Heartbreak Hotel. That image has possessed writers endlessly from the moment it was heard—I’ve written probably a dozen songs on Heartbreak Hotel. Read [Greil Marcus’s] Mystery Train, it’s all about this passing on of communal images. Down by the River—the notion of the river, the rail, the worried man. The worried man stretches back hundreds of years. Worried Man Blues by the Carter family in 1920 probably has roots back in Babylonia”. (Devo, incidentally, did a cover of “Worried Man” in Neil Young’s Human Highway movie, in a scene where they play workers whose job is to handle nuclear waste!).


Scraps said...

Variations on a Theme also (if I recall correctly) features Henry Cow's woodwind player and drummer, Lindsay Cooper and Chris Cutler, each of whom is wonderful and utterly distinctive. Cutler, in particular, I wish did more rock music; he plays with a beautiful clattering style that, though he is an avant-gardist, works very well for rocknroll, as can be heard on a couple of Peter Blegvad's solo albums. (Cutler is also the force behind Recommended Records and the author of the book File Under Popular.) (Forgive me if I'm telling you stuff you already know.)

However. The cd reissues of the Thomas solo albums, for reasons known only to David Thomas and Jehovah, are not just remixed but slathered with instrumentation that wasn't there on the original records. That's Thomas's prerogative, of course, but I can't listen to them in that form.

Also, he has deep-sixed the charming live recording he made that I am now (goddammit) forgetting the name of -- was it Winter Comes Home? -- a recording that showcased his wonderful loopy monologues besides having fine versions of a few of his songs; there is an offhand dismissal of it in the liner notes to the box set of his solo stuff.

Richard said...

I knew that Cooper and Cutler played with Thomas. I've been listening a fair amount to Henry Cow and Slapp Happy lately. And, actually, I just bought Cutler's book last week--looks really interesting.

I didn't know that Thomas' solo albums had been altered like that. I know that Thomas is adamant about it being the artist's prerogative to change stuff like that, and I agree on principal, but still tend to question the results. I guess, for me, ignorance was bliss. I have liked the cds.

The live album you're trying to think of, is that Meadville? The version I have of the Monster box includes it, but I do recall reading that with the reissue it would be dropped. Thomas' preemptive attitude about potential complaints being basically "tough shit". Meadville is great, especially the weird "Surfer Girl/Stand By Your Man" sort of rant. Funny, he played that when I saw him, right down to the little jokey asides, and I was briefly disappointed because I'd taken the recorded version as having been relatively spontaneous. I got over it.

I wonder, do you know if the alterations to the solo albums were for the original release of the Monster box, or for the recent reissue, which drops Meadville.

Scraps said...

The alterations were made to the cds in the original box reissue. Don't know about the recent one.

Not Meadville. The record I'm thinking of is one Thomas specifically disavows (effectively). I am paraphrasing here, but in the notes for the box he says something like, "for those of you wondering about Winter Comes Home, it never existed."

I love Slapp Happy so much. The two wonderfully different recordings of the second album (Casablanca Moon or Acnalbasac Noom or Slapp Happy, depending upon which version and edition you have) are a great pop artifact. I can't choose a favorite between them; the one recorded with Faust has a more coherent sound as an album, the other distinguishes the songs more from one another, emphasizing their aspect as form exercises or pastiches. I love the differences in the lyrics and arrangements between the two recordings, and the ones I prefer are about evenly split between the two recordings. I still listen to each of them frequently.

Richard said...

Winter Comes Home, right. His full note on that is: "BTW WINTER COMES HOME does not exist. According to the Authorized View it never did exist and, so, it never will exist. Those who claim to own copies are troublemakers. Report them to the Grocery Police."

Since I didn't know what that was (I think I originally thought it was just a song, since I knew he'd consigned a couple of Ubu songs to oblivion), I didn't miss it. He's a strange dude.

I actually haven't heard a lot of Slapp Happy, but what I have heard, I like. Once I get one of my three non-functioning turntables to work, I should seek out some of this stuff. Are those albums on cd? Seems like stuff Recommended would have reissued...

Scraps said...

Turntables.... I have just about given up having a turntable in my life.

All the Slapp Happy stuff has been reissued. The one with Faust was reissued by Recommended. The original release (though recorded after the Faust one) was reissued by Virgin UK, coupled with one of the Slapp Happy/Henry Cow collaborations, Desperate Straights. (A great pairing.) The first album, Sort Of, was reissued by Blueprint.

Another oddity in the Pere Ubu discography, which I don't remember seeing noted anywhere, including the box set of the early albums: they dropped "Use of a Dog" from Song of the Bailing Man (which is my apparently somewhat eccentric choice for favorite Pere Ubu album).

Richard said...

The main reason I want to have a working turntable is because of the occasional thing not available at all on cd. Lick My Decals Off, Baby being one example. (I bought a copy o the LP just in time for my turntables to not work, so I STILL haven't heard that album...)

Thanks for the info on Slapp Happy. I'll search some of that stuff out. I have Desperate Straights and I like it a lot.

My Thirsty Ear cd of Song of the Bailing Man has "Use of a Dog" on it. I know some changes were made to The Art of Walking, but those are mostly additions....

Scraps said...

Hard to believe Decals still isn't available. It was a Restless/Retro reissue, and a lot of those seem to be in limbo, unfortunately.

Prof. Drew LeDrew said...

First, thanks for the wonderful (and so not superficial) commentary. Just wanted to note that Greil Marcus' upcoming book, due next month, has a long, discursive, and occasionally enlightening essay on David Thomas that you might find of interest. I haven't been able to deal with most of the rest of the book, though, and I count myself a fan. It's called THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME: PROPHECY AND THE AMERICAN VOICE. Not too portentious, eh?

Richard said...

Hi. Thanks for the compliment and the heads up on the book. I'll look out for it.