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.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.
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.
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  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!).