Pretend the band Pere Ubu broke up just now. The proverbial visibly-shaken town crier bursts onto the balcony and bellows, “Pere Ubu is dead!” Such a scenario would mark the end of one of the most impressive careers in the history of American rock music. Though the band has suggested––both facetiously and seriously (as is the Ubu way)––that its primary achievement is its stunning “loss to longevity ratio” (nearly forty years of existence without even a crossover hit to hang its hat on), it undoubtedly belongs in the American rock pantheon. Yet in the proverbial plaza below, the news does not spread swiftly among the people. Rejoinders of “Long live Pere Ubu!” do not rise up from mournful crowds. There are no crowds. I can understand why, sure, but the explanations don’t make it any less of a shame.
I don’t want to dwell on those explanations, however. I want to focus on the explanation for the band’s longevity in spite of its failure as a money-making venture: It’s been creating timeless music since its inception. I believe that long after rock and roll has run its course, Pere Ubu’s uncompromising and panoramic vision of it being not only capable of, but well-suited to, complex and original expression, will be recognized as one of the most vibrantly conceived and uniquely executed in the form’s history.
The band’s vision comes out of a specific interpretation of that history, so it must be addressed. While I know the intricate interplay of trends, forces, and conditions is probably a more accurate frame for a history than the actions of any individual, I’m going to take up Great Man Theory for the sake of (relative) brevity and use Bob Dylan’s early musical evolution as an exemplar. He’s a major figure in the strain of American music Pere Ubu is descended from––one of the first musicians to make a convincing case for rock and roll as a type of sonic literature. (The loose definition of something with “literary qualities” I’ll be using for this piece: that which represents and reflects on the human condition.)
Bob Dylan & The Rise Of Sonic Complexity In Rock Music
Dylan’s self-titled debut album is often viewed as a modest warmup for the discovery of his generation-defining songwriting skills on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. It’s almost all covers and probably isn’t something I would recommend to anyone on its own merits, but it did one important thing: establish Dylan as part of a lineage of American folk music. The covers suggested he had studied his forebears and was versed in the tradition. As I’ll get into, Pere Ubu is an extension of that same tradition. While that might sound like an absurd thing to say about a band that rarely even uses an acoustic guitar, it starts to make sense when contextualized by the ways Dylan built on that foundation.
After synthesizing his vision and influences on Freewheelin’, Dylan’s next major musical development was Bringing It All Back Home, which features the rollicking electric sound he would pursue to legendary effect with his next two albums on one side of the LP and the folky acoustic sound he was already known for on the other. While one might argue he separated them for a reason, I think what came after proves the more important choice to take note of is their inclusion on the same album. The two forms were beginning to be blended into a continuum.
Bruce Springsteen spoke at Dylan’s induction into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. “… the way that Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind,” he said. That jibes with Dylan’s claim that rock and roll alone “wasn’t enough … There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms … but the songs weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.” Dylan’s achievement was less the freeing of the mind than the unification of mind-freeing poetry and body-freeing rock and roll, expanding the range of expressive possibilities for each.
I can’t blame people of the time for mistaking Dylan for a pure revivalist based on his early work. Though he increased the poetry and ambition of folk lyrics and modernized their content, he delivered his anthems for the issues and passions of the day through well-worn melodies over traditional chord progressions and finger-picking patterns, rarely using more than his voice, an acoustic guitar, and a harmonica. It certainly must’ve seemed like he would be content to revive and update––but never break from––folk’s conventional confines. Who could’ve seen “Like A Rolling Stone” (Highway 61 Revisited) or Blonde On Blonde coming? Not many people manage to play both Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. Dylan did. He threw the switch, and then…
When Dylan “went electric,” it was easy to understand the reaction like this: Fans of his heartfelt folk songs became angry about his “sell-out” to “commercial” rock music. In the years since, that understanding has been complicated. Reports of Pete Seeger attempting to ax a power cable at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival during Dylan’s electric set turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Seeger has since claimed that he was merely complaining about the distortion in Dylan’s voice, which distracted from the lyrics he felt were important. Others say they were not protesting the ideas of rock and roll and electric instrumentation themselves, but the concert venues’ low quality soundsystems and the cavalier nature of Dylan’s performances, which, with a full band, sounded loose and chaotic compared to the hushed intensity of his solo acoustic sets.
I’d like to simplify the understanding again. Whether disgruntled fans were reacting to ideology or sonics is irrelevant. Music is an auditory medium––sonics are ideology. Take The “Judas!” Incident. For those who don’t know, briefly: In between songs at a 1966 Royal Albert Hall concert, a member of the audience shouted “Judas!” at Dylan during the electric portion of his set. In response, Dylan turned to his band and said, “Play it fuckin’ loud!” What I suspect he knew (or at least intuited) that those booing did not was that the chaos, distortion, and loose, cavalier playing were the point. His solo acoustic sets were intense and intimate in part because they were sonically straightforward. Acoustic guitar strums mainly provided a backdrop for the delivery of lyrics. His harmonica playing, though it added some sonic complexity, was also being played by him and could not be played while he sang. The lyrics-based narratives may have been complex and poetic, but they represented just a single dominant element of a larger sonic narrative that had the potential to be far richer. Dylan recognized and began fulfilling that potential.
“Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’––I just might tell you the truth!” ––“Outlaw Blues” (Bringing It All Back Home)
Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) narrator asks lots of questions––about identity, war, freedom, responsibility, etc. At the time, some may have seemed rhetorical (e.g., “How many times must the cannonballs fly before they are forever banned?”). Maybe it inspired listeners who viewed it as a protest song to imagine themselves as the titular Wind, the Wind of history blowing towards a more progressive and peaceful era. Unfortunately, infuriating though it may sometimes be, the answers to many of those questions have been proven again and again to be located somewhere between tragically convoluted (“How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?”) and outright unknowable (“How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?”).
As the temporal distance from the question-asking became greater but the proximity to satisfying answers remained static, Dylan’s songs became more opaque and mysterial, reflecting less the questions or answers themselves than the sense of disorientation and displacement a person might feel when contemplating them (or trying to ignore them or even just living in a world in which they exist). Dylan accomplished that sonically by adding jangling pianos, spectral organs, propulsive rhythm sections, and bursts of lead guitar shards to his arrangements. All the instruments sounded, wildly and at once, sometimes amplifying the thrust of the lyrics and vocals, sometimes complicating or contradicting it. The Wind, perhaps once assumed to be a simple but powerful force moving steadily in one direction, was revealing itself to be more like a slew of tornadoes tearing through a hurricane. Though listeners might get sucked into a specific vortex now and again or, mercifully, end up in the eye of the storm, they are spit back out into the wider chaos before long and left reeling.
Dylan’s earlier work is often characterized by fairly overt separations between the political and cultural (The Times They Are A-Changing’s title track, “With God On Our Side,” “Masters Of War,” etc.), the absurdly goofy and surreal (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Free,” Another Side Of Bob Dylan’s “Motorpsycho Nitemare” and “I Shall Be Free No. 10,” etc.), and the poetic and seemingly personal (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” Another Side Of Bob Dylan’s “Ballad In Plain D,” etc.). It got harder to tell the difference as his sound and lyrics evolved. He and his band seemed to be performing surrealistic protests to personal affronts and absurd poetry about goofy politics. On Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde especially, there are few moments in which listeners are obviously supposed to laugh or cry or feel inspired. (The rather confounding title of the Highway 61 Revisited song “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” speaks to this.) Phrases are turned––inside out (“The Post Office has been stolen and the mailbox is locked”––Blonde On Blonde’s “Stuck Inside A Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again”). Tropes (the gangsters, gamblers, and Biblical characters of Highway 61 Revisited’s title track, for example) are flipped like flapjacks, flying so high at times that they collide with a ceiling fan and are flung against a wall, splattering batter across the floor (“Food was flyin’ everywhere, I left without my hat”––Bringing It All Back Home’s “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”).
It would be understandable to claim that the meaning of Dylan’s lyrics of the period is obscure or ambiguous. I’d argue, however, that the meaning is not ambiguous––the meaning is ambiguity. What he’s getting at is slippery and confusing (“… something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is––do you, Mr. Jones?”––Highway 61 Revisited’s “Ballad Of A Thin Man”). It’s loose in the Wind. He can grab hold of it for a moment, but it’s gone before he can get a good look.
On “Visions Of Johanna” (Blonde On Blonde), he invokes the good ol’ “highway blues,” but pins them to… Mona Lisa, who wouldn’t even know what an American highway is. Then again, even if she did, she might have trouble recognizing Dylan’s version of Highway 61 as one. On “Highway 61 Revisited,” it’s where Louis XIV advises a mobster to dump multi-colored shoe strings and defective telephones. It’s where the sun-soaked bleachers for observing World War III will be set up. Then there’s that imitation police siren’s giddy whine––how does that factor into this? Is the narrator a cop? Is law enforcement showing up to investigate all the bizarre activity? If so, that’s kind of a buzzkill (or, perhaps more accurately, a complication) to the myth of open road freedom. Keep in mind, however, that Dylan is revisiting Highway 61, and as often happens with revisitations, unexpected depths are revealed. This place (idea?) is a lot weirder, funnier, and scarier than cultural memory and expectation might lead one to believe.
Plus, Dylan’s revisiting not as a revivalist, but as a re-interpreter reimagining “Highway 61” as a kind of metaphysical carnival where each quavering stab of electric guitar ripples through the grounds, distorting the scene like a heat haze. Throughout the album, he further complicates and recontextualizes the swirls of sounds and images by shifting points of view, sometimes examining the route on a map, other times allowing himself to get caught up in the historical, folkloric, and mythological detritus along the side of the road. Still other times he stops to have a conversation with a hitchhiker.
These are the lyrics of the second half of the last verse of Highway 61 Revisted’s “Tombstone Blues:”
Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you, dear lady, from going insane––
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge.
The narrator wishes he or she could, but presumably cannot. A plain, folksy melody will not suffice. (Recall the song’s opening line: “The sweet, pretty things are in bed now, of course.”) The lady is going to have to go insane and experience the pain of coming to terms with the uselessness and pointlessness of what she knows. As such, rather than that pined-for plain melody, she gets the humongous, vertiginous bent note on electric guitar that kicks off the transition between chorus and verse, which is followed by a bunch of mangled licks that sound like they’re trying to wrangle a bull in somebody’s brain. That guitar playing doesn’t just sound cool. It’s not just transitional filler. It’s an essential element of the song’s sonic narrative. Perhaps it represents the cognitive dissonance created by the narrator’s sporadically non-sequiting streams of strange statements and outlandish images (the ghost of a famous outlaw knitting a bald wig for Jack The Ripper, head of The Chamber Of Commerce, as just one example) and experienced by the lamented “dear lady.” Pulsing behind this psychodrama is drumming as dogged as it is simple. Does it reinforce the relentlessness of the bewildering image flood, or is it comedic counterpoint––absurdly blunt compared to the complex lyrics and their nuanced interaction with the lead guitar playing?
Though one could argue about the answer to that question and with that interpretation of “Tombstone Blues” generally (which is to the song’s credit), I think it’s tough to dispute how essential and intentional ambiguity and confusion are to the music and lyrics. The ending of “Desolation Row” (Highway 61 Revisited) is perhaps the strongest evidence for this. The narrator reveals that the surreal parade of characters he or she has introduced are all part of an artifice. They were people mentioned in a letter about a broken doorknob that he or she “had to” rearrange the faces of and rename. Like… what the fuck? This is coming from a lyricist who cut to the heart of many critical issues of his time. He knows how to get at things. Plus, all the lyrics that came before easily could’ve stood alone, intriguing and impressive. But Dylan goes out of his way to incorporate an act of concealment and abstraction, to point out the skewed, fractured approach of a narrator whose mind, it now seems fairly clear, is in ruins. Even the stock question “How are you doing?” sparks paranoia. Future correspondences (which the narrator admits he or she may not even be able to read) will be accepted, but only if mailed from Desolation Row, a “place” the character just essentially conceded exists only in his or her head. If Highway 61 is a state of mind, perhaps what lies off its last (only?) “exit” is Desolation Row, a positive feedback loop of disintegration.
Yet amidst all this Wind, the lead guitar is utterly dignified, its runs and fills often fitting a little too perfectly, bordering on stateliness. Is this mockery? Definitely possible. The grandeur could be alluding to the delusional nature of the narrator’s poetic aspirations (or those of the lyrics themselves, for that matter). Then again, given how often confusion and disorientation show up on the album (nearly every song, but the sensation is summed up most succinctly on “From A Buick 6:” “I need dump truck, baby, to unload my head!”) and the soaring nature of the song’s harmonica solos, it seems likely Dylan has (also) found a nobility or heroic tragedy in his characters’ attempts to make sense of the world. Of course, the most fun interpretation is: both.
The specifics are debatable, as is whether or not this makes for more satisfying music than something like “Masters Of War,” but it’s hard to imagine being convinced Electric Dylan is less sonically “literate” than early Dylan.
“It is obvious that (the history of) Pere Ubu should not be thought of in terms of a linear development … Unfortunately, most criticism - of Pere Ubu, of many other folks - assumes that words have one meaning, that desires point in a single direction, that ideas are logical; it ignores the fact that the world of language, noise and desire is one of lack, insecurity, interruption, struggle, blundering, disguises, ploys, embarrassed grins.” ––Ian Penman in New Musical Express, via Pere Ubu’s website, UbuProjex.com
While I believe Dylan’s best work will always have a place among the great triumphs of American rock music, I wonder if, from a “long after rock and roll has run its course” perspective, his legacy might lie as much with the vistas he revealed as the locations he traveled to. He “kicked open the door to your mind,” according to Springsteen’s Hall speech. Indeed. Turns out there’s a whole world out (in?) there. Word of this world spread. The Velvet Underground incorporated noise and dissonance, Jimi Hendrix unlocked the electric guitar’s expressive potential, Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band introduced free jazz elements and declared that the time signatures, they are a-changin’, etc.
Pere Ubu, like Dylan, studied its forebears. Absorbing the vanguard of the form and resolving to push further, the band has concocted a brilliantly baffling bathtub brew of muscular guitar riffs, groovy rhythms, found sounds and field recordings, splattery synthesizers, and wildly imaginative vocals. Conceptually, the murky disorder of Electric Dylan and those that followed him is part of the primordial soup out of which Ubu’s “distinctive narrative architecture” emerges. Founder, lead singer, and sole consistent member David Thomas has described it as “… an idiosyncratic mixture of the observational, the self-participatory, and the Intrusive Other, by which I mean the notion that the telling of a story should involve the incorporation of additional, intrusive POVs [points of view] that might run in parallel or at some angle to the central narrative, crossing it, intruding, overlaying, contradicting, deprecating, or even ignoring it. In other words, mayhem.”
Noticeably, that approach blends what some might consider “high art” (musique concréte, Intrusive Others, etc.) with “low art” (catchy riffs, mayhem, etc.). In addition to presumably inspiring the band’s “avant-garage” label for itself (a combination of “avant-garde” and “garage rock”) and “too art for the pop world … too pop for the art world” quip, it’s akin to Dylan’s blending of folk (“high art”) and rock (“low art”). The band has elaborated on this characteristic of its sound, as frustrated as Dylan was with those unable to understand it as a natural progression: “… ‘avant-garage’ was a useful term to adopt in that it summarizes what has always been considered to be the bipolar schism of Ubu: art and pop. Now, we have never considered these poles to be in any way significant. We like pop music. We like ‘art’ – difficult – music. What’s the big deal? We love hard groove rock with hooks and choruses and all that stuff. We love making abstract noise and playing with structure and narrative. What exactly is so strange about any of that?”
Though Pere Ubu’s music rarely sounds “traditional,” it is part of a long-running tradition that has incorporated innovations both musical and technological to more meaningfully and accurately reflect human experience through sound. Whether it’s early blues and jazz, poetic garage rock, or arty post-punk, the music and musicians striving towards that goal could be seen as part of a folk art continuum. (Perhaps Pere Ubu is the Riemann to early folk musicians’ Euclid in the geometry of American music.) Thomas has insisted, in fact, that Pere Ubu has “always been a folk band” and “always dealt with folk imagery.” (He’s described Pere Ubu’s early output as “folk music of the Urban Pioneer Movement,” which refers to the repopulation of “blown-out inner cities” in the early 1970s.) He once said that “music should reflect a regionalism and it should have an accent and it should be about where you come from and the things you see.” It should be like a vacation photo album enthusiastically shown to friends to help explain “the things you feel and hope and dream.”
Rock And Roll As Folk Expressionism
“Yet by 1978 [Pere Ubu] had achieved what no other group would even attempt, before or since, they had become the world's only expressionist Rock `n` Roll band, harnessing a range of rock and musique concrete elements together in a sound which drew its power from, and worked on, levels of consciousness previously untouched by popular music. The music Ubu made in 1978 was heart and soul, body and mind, in one.” ––Andy Gill in New Musical Express, via UbuProjex.com
“Art is the means to express the non-linear, non-logical nature of consciousness since [its] language is the same as the language of the mind: metaphor, sensation & vision.” ––Pere Ubu
During its Historical Era (defined at UbuProjex.com as the period beginning with its first single, 1975’s “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” and ending with its fifth full-length studio album, 1982’s Song Of The Bailing Man), Pere Ubu poured on the POVs with calculated abandon, hurtling towards Mayhem, embracing contradiction as the only truth, compelled by the certainty that it was possible to make rock music as bizarre and terrifying and mundane and hilarious as reality, a realm where verses are not always followed by choruses, melodies take weird turns and end up well outside the song’s key––which itself has started wondering what, if anything, it’s supposed to unlock––and, as often as not, chasms are found where it seems logical a bridge should be.
In 1976 (pre-internet, keep in mind), Thomas and collaborator John Thompson identified a cultural phenomenon they called “Datapanik,” a state of “data overload” wherein “information [becomes] a weapon to be used against us as notions of value and meaning are ridiculed in a storm of confetti” and “all ‘new’ information will only serve as a sedative-like drug” making “inevitable” the rise of “a junkie culture” in which “dataflow can be the only social imperative” and “discrimination, or any other [hindrance] to dataflow, must become anathema.” Representing and engaging with this sonically required stuffing “as much data into as small a unit of time/space as possible” while remaining “in adequate control of what’s going on,” which includes knowing “when to let go of your artifice and allow it to be mugged by reality,” according to Thomas.
On Historical Era albums especially, Pere Ubu allows its narratives of human experience to be “mugged” by the “reality” of Datapanik in a fashion similar to, but more radical than, how Electric Dylan allows his narratives to be “mugged” by the “reality” of Wind. Individual POVs within songs shape or shatter circumstances and illustrate or obfuscate sensations. Jumps from one POV to another recontextualize the narrative, providing at turns ironic distance and immersive detail. Masterful control (or intentional lack thereof) of these techniques in carefully calibrated (or purposefully out-of-whack) combinations allow the band to operate as both actor and director, disciple and god.
New Picnic Time’s “Small Was Fast” is a great example of Pere Ubu’s ability to wield chaos.
Thomas’s main character flutters in like the ghost of the world’s worst would-be opera star. “IIIII WAAAIIITED FOR YOUUUUUU…” he or she moans amidst an oppressive, wordless background chant and restlessly churning guitar. He or she slurs something indecipherable, then enthusiastically intones, “Was small! Was fast!” Impersonating a slide whistle, the character then repeats the same two phrases, but with a melody that angles sharply upward at the end, creating the sensation of a question. “Was small? Was fast?”
As these squawks and squeals burrow into the background, a fidgety organ solo surfaces, but goes nowhere. Perhaps sensing imminent disaster, the character reenters the scene, laughing off the “misstep” and launching into an insipid (and seemingly improvised) speech of some sort that begins with encouragement to “notice the house” on a hot day and ends with darkness bearing down on them before she or he gets sleepy (correlation or causation, who knows…). “I got ssslleeeeeeeeeepyyy!” is delivered in a style similar to that of the opening lyric.
That doesn’t exactly spur the song toward coalescence, so the bassist jumps in and grinds out what could be called a solo, but only because there isn’t a better word for the brief jumble. Luckily, it buys enough time for the character’s incoherent neuroses to resolve into a militaristic chant: “I waited! I waited! I waited for you!” The wistfully creepy way that sentiment was presented earlier has given way to a bitter anger––over the wasted time, the broken heart, whatever it might specifically be. Confrontation. Catharsis.
Or perhaps not (for long). In the middle of the tirade, all previous sounds are suddenly extinguished and replaced by a high-pitched whistle that recalls––but does not precisely mimic––the “IIII WAAAIIITED FOR YOUUUUU!” melody, a plinking toy piano, and a few other sonic doo-dads that complete a Fisher Price industrial park soundscape. The opening lyric and melody are then reprised, but this time from an echoey distance, as if the character is delirious and running through a factory while someone else, situated above on a catwalk, observes them from across the building with a discomforting mixture of amusement and sadness.
With a particularly staticky buzz from the synthesizer, the band begins playing in full-force again, but only for a few bars, as the bassline breaks from the time signature and the song bounces into a ditch. The end.
Obviously, there’s quite a bit more sonic “data” stuffed into “Small Was Fast” than, say, “Tombstone Blues”––but to what effect? I think it’s fair to say that both songs could have something to do with some sort of mental distress. “Tombstone Blues” is a rock song about such a thing. The lyrics explicitly feature a “hysterical bride” and a woman who won’t be kept from “going insane.” Plus, they disorient the listener by (dis)placing known historical figures in unusual contexts. I suggested earlier that the lead guitar playing and drumming on the song could deepen and refine a cognitive-dissonance-based interpretation. However, it’s unlikely I would’ve associated them with cognitive dissonance if the song had different lyrics or was purely instrumental. Under those circumstances, they probably would “just sound cool.” The artistry of the song’s lyrics is still the primary driver of its overall sonic narrative (even with the increased scope and complexity of its arrangement compared to Dylan’s earlier work).
“Small Was Fast,” on the other hand, is not really a song about something––it is something: a sonic representation of a mental breakdown that uses the syntax of rock in the same way Noam Chomsky used the syntax of English to create the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Much like that sentence has a subject, verb, and modifiers, the song has a jagged chord progression for electric guitar, rhythmic drumming, backing vocals, and solos. Yet the overall effect of both is discombobulation. That sensation is never referred to in the song’s lyrics––it’s created by the gestalt of the music. Though the song does not literally sound like a mental breakdown (what does a mental breakdown sound like, really?), it does evoke panic and neurosis with sound in a manner reminiscent of how this painting does so with color and shape.
“The goal should be to capture the unique and distinctive voice of the individual as he struggles to cobble Meaning together out of a soup of confusions, contradictions, hopes and fears, information and misinformation. Such is the nature of real life. Real life is the only worthwhile ambition for Art,” Thomas has written. “Music … should imitate the way humans feel,” he once told an interviewer. “Nobody on the face of the planet has ever thought ‘My baby’s left me, I feel so bad.’ It’s impossible to think that simply. It’s more like, ‘Oh, my baby’s left me… and oh, geez… this floor is awfully dirty … Whose gonna do the dishes? … The grocery store is closing in ten minutes… This is what human life is about. It’s full of contradictions.” (That juxtaposition of emotional turmoil and mundanity appears in Lady From Shanghai’s “Mandy,” in which a character is “all shook up” by both his or her “baby” and “the thousand things [he or she] should be doing.”) “We had sensations and feelings that were beyond our ability to express in the usual form that we had been taught. We looked for a sound, a style––something would give us the language that we needed,” he said. “We [sought] to create something like that.”
More specifically, Thomas has said he approaches singing as “a mirror of consciousness” that “should be true to the process of thought” and avoids “stylisms that [he considers] artificial.” Elsewhere, the band elaborates on this method, adding that he lacks “any interest in melody,” which “can take too long and can be too simplistic to accurately reflect the human experience.” Its synth players’ techniques are similar, generally favoring texture over melody and rhythm. The band’s stance on visual art is relevant here as well: “All visual art cripples the imagination. The only good visual art is bad looking.” From such perspectives, attempts to simplify, beautify, or perhaps even clarify that which is complicated, ugly, or ambiguous would be to misrepresent it.
The way “Small Was Fast” recontextualizes its narrative, creating a multifaceted view of it within a single song, adds insight and value as well. When the song’s main character first appears, he or she provokes aversion with creepiness and a seemingly unstable emotional state. The band’s deranged performance adds to the effect. Yet after adjusting to the unusual character and music, it becomes apparent that something traumatizing may be underlying the bizarreness (the “I waited … I waited for you!” outburst), which could elicit sympathy for the character. Before too long, however, the sound that has immersed and made itself accessible to the listener disappears and the character is far away (the “Fisher Price industrial soundscape” section). Empathy drains away as observation of the character from this new vantage point makes them start to seem weird again.
It reminds me of taking time to get to know a person that initially seems odd. After adjusting to his eccentricities, he can be fun to hang out with––until it’s in a less intimate social situation. Observing him from the perspective of those with less context, one can understand why others might be put-off, and, right or wrong, begin wondering if he were actually worth vouching for and spending time with. This “Intrusive Other” POV allows for a fuller understanding of the character and his surroundings.
The Art Of Walking’s “Go” works similarly. The initially optimistic main character insistently intones self-helpy odes to the quotidian like “Here’s to the small things that give pleasure” and “Here’s to the everyday things that bring a smile” over a workmanlike chord progression. However, this devolves into strange and ambiguous statements like “My hands are complicated thoughts … but my feet just wanna go.” Soon enough, the song’s bottom end has dropped out and thin, howling winds and a buzzing synthesizer conjure the image of a desert. The character is walking through it, mumbling to someone (me? his- or herself?), “What’s the bus that goes by here?” Does this alleged bus route even exist? Before things get too alienating, however, the sparky riff of the verse returns and with it the realization that all is not lost. Maybe “the smallest victories” are “often the biggest” after all… That may well be true, but it doesn’t diminish the tantalizing prospect of a big victory, nor the taunting frustration that comes with frequent failures to achieve one.
The song is an idiosyncratic articulation of vacillations between hope and hopelessness, optimism and pessimism, and self-assurance and confusion. The motivational marches of the verses crash into the droning existential crises of the choruses cyclically. The middle of the song is an ugly struggle between the gloomy dissonance of the synthesizer and the inspirational surge of the guitar––a conflict that eventually frays out and scrapes to a stalemate. “The smallest details, the finest points… They all add up,” the exhausted character flops out at the end. One can hope they do, but also has to wonder whether that adding up is positive or negative. Maybe all the “details” and “points” add up to a crushed spirit.
The band explains such interplays further: “Nearly every Pere Ubu song is funny in some way and meant to be funny. Often at the same time as being tragic. That’s because the passions and obsessions, fears and desires, of human beings are funny when seen from a particular Point of View. You, the reader, are funniest just at the point you feel least funny. … [You are] no less tragic because of [your] humor. But [you are] also no less humorous because of [your] tragedy. This is not irony. It is humanity. Human beings… ya gotta love em!”
In the above quote about the tragicomedy of Pere Ubu songs, the band notes that a person or situation can be both tragic and comedic (or, I would add, relatable and alienating, hopeful and hopeless, etc.) “at the same time.” Though the often nonlinear nature of the band’s narratives can make time a tricky subject, I can at least say that the examples I’ve given so far have relied on different parts of the given song to suggest that (i.e., time passes in the song, if not necessarily in the song’s world). However, listeners willing to challenge their own assumptions without explicit prompting from the band will find additional instances that muddle binaries between “opposing” feelings.
The Modern Dance’s “Sentimental Journey” is a bleak soundscape of urban disillusionment populated seemingly-solely by a lackadaisical loner who mumbles and sputters things like “Table and chair and tvs and books and lamps and other stuff. It’s home. It’s a rug it’s a home it’s a rug it’s a window. I don’t… Phhght!” He or she is disgusted with these things, spitting and moaning amidst showers of shattering glass, scribbly synth squalls, dejected, decrescendoing fuzz guitars, murderous vocal murmurs, and the mournful bleats of free jazz horns. It calls to mind the type of smoldering insanity brought on by crushing loneliness and crippling isolation. The song makes me feel empty and gives me the creeps––and with good reason. It’s hellish. It’s alienation incarnate.
Yet how absurd is the phrase “alienation incarnate?” Does anything that pure actually exist? Not according to the six year old son of a Pere Ubu interviewer. One might assume “Sentimental Journey” would scare a child. In fact, he found its sound effects hilarious and laughed his way through it. Now his parent, who was once transported to a place of “deeper desolation” by the song, considers it “one of the funniest” he or she has ever heard––and with good reason. The song’s depiction of “deeper desolation” is ridiculously over the top.
Of course, that does not diminish the appropriateness of the initial reaction. In the throes of an emotional moment, feelings can be as intense as they are in “Sentimental Journey.” A bit of perspective and fresh air might be all the song’s character needs, but in the subjective space of his or her mind, life probably does seem pointless and the world probably does seem like it’s ending. Regardless of whether or not it’s rational to have those feelings, they exist.
The song generates the reactions it does because it throws itself completely into the task of evoking the often extreme nature of this type of experience. In doing so, it allows listeners both to be immersed in the intense anxiety and, if they are able to wrench themselves from conditioned expectations, appreciate its absurdity from an outsider’s less-subjective point of view. The song is a two-way tunnel. One way leads deeper into the morass of the human mind and heart; the other, outward and upward for a detached god’s eye view of that same thing. The band responded to the interviewer’s story about the six year old like this: “Kids understand hyperbole. Listen to a kid’s conversation – it’s all exaggerations. And for the record, both of your reactions to [“Sentimental Journey”] are now correct. Before your son’s intervention your reaction was unbalanced.”
I had a similar epiphany while at a Pere Ubu show. The band was playing “Vacuum In My Head” from Raygun Suitcase, which features one of Thomas’s finest vocal performances. It’s built around a startling trilling of the word “but” in the lyric “But I’ve got a vacuum cleaner in my head. It sucks up everything I know.” It always sounded to me like a bout of epilepsy right before a blackout from which one would awaken an amnesiac aware only of the vacuum and its effect. In other words, all the amnesiac would know is that he knows nothing. Disturbing, right?
From my perspective, sure. But much to my surprise, whenever Thomas trilled at the show someone standing in front of me couldn’t stop giggling. It seemed totally inappropriate at first, but as the show went on, I began to think of it as another example of what Thomas meant about allowing the band’s work to be “mugged by reality.” That noise is chilling and jarring, but it’s also goofy and humorous. Who trills a word that starts with a “b,” anyway? (There’s even a part in the studio version in which Thomas trills and then says “whoops,” as if he knows it’s funny.) Maybe the song is less sinister than I initially thought. It could be about, say, blacking out after a night out drinking. (The unusual time signature and lyrics about not being “tongue-tied” around a love interest support such an interpretation. Each acute guitar chime could be another strong drink, etc.) The unexpected reaction of that audience member has given me a new, more comprehensive way of thinking about the song.
Tilting The Cup
“I wish we could take this moment and freeze it. To come back again and again and again. To hold it to the light. To turn it in our hands to study all the angles. To find out how and why it's gotta go the way that it goes.” ––”We Have The Technology” (The Tenement Year)
This is Thomas explaining what he calls elsewhere the band’s “conceptual career” in which “songs are moments frozen from a stream which keeps flowing.”
Perhaps more than any other single factor, this approach to career accounts for Pere Ubu’s longevity and enduring creative spirit. There are infinite angles from which to view “The Cup,” but the band has embraced the task of depicting it from as many as possible. “… the foundation of Pere Ubu … is the ability to produce brutal groove rock. That’s the base camp from which we launch expeditions. But because we have proved we can do it we don’t have to keep proving it every subsequent album. The mission is/was to go forward from that point,” it has said.
It’s been obvious the band could do “brutal groove rock” ever since an exuberant guitar riff exploded out of a tense knot of lashing neuroses on “Non-Alignment Pact,” the first song on its debut album, The Modern Dance. With the release of “I Will Wait” (Dub Housing), “49 Guitars & One Girl” (New Picnic Time), and “Misery Goats” (The Art Of Walking) the obvious became undeniable. As such, it wasn’t long before the band began to mutate.
A reductive but useful way of tracking its early evolution is through the “noise collages” of the Historical Era albums––“Sentimental Journey,” “Thriller!” (Dub Housing), “A Small Dark Cloud” (New Picnic Time), arguably about half of The Art Of Walking, etc. “Sentimental Journey” is, more or less, a conventional––if molasses slow––rock song with an unusual vocal performance and arrangement. It’s a structurally sound building with grotesque graffiti all over it. Three albums later, The Art Of Walking contains about as many dilapidated soundscapes as conventional (by Ubu standards) rock songs. One of the former, “Lost In Art,” finds Thomas yelling “I WANT MY SHOES!” like an attention-starved toddler over little more than a snoring synth and mindlessly bashed snare drum. With little melody or structure and talking and shouting in place of singing, the song (like much of the album) is nearly completely unhooked from rock orthodoxy, which, rather than anchoring the music, hovers around it like a ghostly vapour.
Then, just when it seemed to be on the verge of floating too far into the clouds of abstraction to ever set foot on solid ground again, the band pulled an about face and released the lean and propulsive Song Of The Bailing Man. It transformed itself from an amorphous blob into an intricate machine capable of producing songs that were tidy and tightly constructed, if still somewhat oddly shaped. As tautly wound as The Art Of Walking is loosely sprawling (while some songs on that album seem to lack time signatures, those on Song Of The Bailing Man relish hairpin-turning from one to another) and as overflowing with images from the natural world as The Modern Dance is oppressed with images from the industrial one, Song Of The Bailing Man unearths a new aspect of the band’s sound.
The urban and domestic are nowhere to be found. The album opens with someone a long way from home (“Long Walk Home”), traveling among antelope and buffalo across “the prairie floor” on which “insects roar.” Compare that with the “chitter-chatter” of “a thousand insect voices” in a “house” where “the windows reverberate” and “the walls have ears” on Dub Housing’s title track. The harmonious power of a collective roar seems even more majestic when contrasted with one thousand individual, isolated creatures nattering away in a den of terror and paranoia.
While the uncertainty and anxiety of earlier albums is not entirely absent, it’s much less serious and can often be chalked up to curiosity about the world rather than fear of it. A character from “Stormy Weather”’ wants to know when the bad weather will let up, but then reminds him- or herself that “It’s good for the ducks, so don’t complain” and not to be “so blue” because there are “other things that we can do.” Elsewhere, brazen positivity is bear-hugged. “I had a good time,” a character insists on “Big Ed’s Used Farms.” “Alive! Alive! … Such a happy guy. Just like me. Who can stop that happy guy? … I went to bed with a sense of accomplishment.” “Thoughts that go by steam are met with jubilation” on “Thoughts That Go By Steam.” Though tears and crying would become a favorite lyrical trope of Thomas’s during the band’s next major phase (the “Fontana Years”), here they appear only as a result of joy over the loveliness of dogs (“Use Of A Dog”).
Giddy performances from all involved inform and expand on this newfound verve tingling in nerve endings once fried and frazzled. Much of the album feels like it takes place on a swaying boat or in the middle of a windswept field thanks to subtly wobbling synths, sharply splashing guitars, and delightfully doinked vibes that seem to walk on water over riptide drumming. Plus, the Thomas who wrote “Bump. Bump. Bump bump bump bump” (“Sentimental Journey”), “Dishes! Dishes! Dishes!” (“49 Guitars & One Girl”), and “I WANT MY SHOES!” reveals himself to be capable of knotty, literate lines like “Has the short end of the stick been given archaeopteryx?” (“Petrified”) (he calls that “the greatest couplet in rock and roll history” on the Keep Left Vol. 1 live version), “The folderol of fretful peregrination,” and “What is the designate etiquette on such a day?” (both from “A Day Such As This”).
This is the beauty of the conceptual career. By avoiding the grand, sweeping statements that often weigh down concept albums––and, over time, bands themselves––Pere Ubu is free to fully detail The Cup’s every nook and cranny, even those totally different from or outright contradictory to one another. Each album is like a dot in a pointillist painting. No single one is “definitive” or a “magnum opus.” Instead, the band has created a series of miniature masterpieces that are slowly revealing the final (yet perpetually unfinished?) tableau. For every album that seems to build on a another (e.g., Dub Housing on The Modern Dance), there’s one that seems to counterbalance a previous work (e.g., Song Of The Bailing Man vs. The Art Of Walking). The band’s oeuvre seems like it could’ve been modeled on the self-similarity of fractals. In the same way that a Pere Ubu song features a collection of POVs that intersect, at turns bolstering and balking each other to create the song’s narrative architecture, the individual songs play off each other, constructing the architecture of an album that interacts with all the other albums, cementing the architecture of the career.
“How can I leave you when you won't go away? To be caught in the middle. Neither night. Neither day." ––“Say Goodbye” (The Tenement Year)
Of all Pere Ubu’s shifts, the most tectonic took place during the Fontana Years (1988’s The Tenement Year through 1993’s Story Of My Life), in which chaos and brutal groove rock are mostly set aside in favor of pop music, if a somewhat unconventional version of it. Thomas’s singing, though just as passionate, is less radical. He’s more of a narrator than an actor. Synth player Allen Ravenstein delivers a ferociously psychedelic performance on The Tenement Year, but after that he and subsequent synth players focus more on subtle detailing and minor flourishes than the sonic seizures he was prone to during the Historical Era. Stripping away or reconfiguring element after element that had once seemed essential to its sound, the band proves it can lovingly craft (see: “We Have The Technology,” Cloudland’s “Monday Night,” Worlds In Collision’s “Oh Catherine,” Story Of My Life’s “Last Will And Testament,” etc.) with as much skill as it gleefully destroys.
Rather than volatile song structures and freakout performances, the band’s avenues into the human psyche during the Fontana Years are more often the hopes, fears, passions, and obsessions of its characters, which are frequently filtered through the metaphysics of the American landscape. A character on Cloudland’s “Flat” was once “deep inside the American wilderness” surrounded by “82,000 square miles of flat.” Thinking back on it, he or she now remembers “the day as if [his or her] life was flat.” Story Of My Life’s “Heartbreak Garage” is narrated by a character who goes “down Mystery Road again and again” building “up [his or her] hopes” and letting “them back down.” One character on “Oh Catherine” remembers another “like a house on a hill.” “A road through the Firelands” and “a mark in the snow” are discovered by a character on Worlds In Collision’s “Winter In The Firelands,” who decides those things must be “where the lonely people bury their hope.”
Indeed, Fontana characters are often lonely (“Always in love. And always alone.”––The Tenement Year’s “Busman’s Honeymoon”), but their reactions to that do not put them at risk of landing in a psychiatric ward (“Birdies”––The Art Of Walking) or in jail for stalking (“Codex”––Dub Housing). Though I hesitate to describe the band as “maturing”––both because the conceptual career is more about changing vantage points than progressing along a straight line, and the Historical Era is certainly not immature––its characters seem to be. Having outgrown the panicked neuroses of their youths in claustrophobic urban environments (i.e., The Modern Dance) and left behind the carefree ecstasies of escapes into the natural world (i.e., Song Of The Bailing Man), they find themselves wandering in the cracks and in-between spaces––compromised, but not for any higher purpose. A character on Cloudland’s “Waiting For Mary” finds her- or himself in “the Twilight Zone” and can only wonder, “What are we doing here?” On Story Of My Life’s “Come Home,” one character informs another that “Nobody’s waiting. … Somebody cares. … I left the light on. … Nobody’s there.”
An existential melancholy permeates the lyrics. “I think about old friends of mine,” the narrator on “Busman’s Honeymoon” says. “One day they’re crawlin’ in the streets afraid of a strange, free, wide-open land.” The narrator on Worlds In Collision’s “I Hear They Smoke The Barbeque” fears “we’re on the darkside of forever” and that “them hard times are beginning for real.” Cloudland’s “Ice Cream Truck” features a humorous narrator whose frustration with mediocrity is aggravated every time her or his neighbors, in grand Pavlovian fashion, go “flyin’ out the doors” and “runnin’ up the street” when they hear the rinky-dink melody emitted from the speaker of an ice cream truck.
One would never guess any of this based on the upbeat, catchy music. The band’s fondness for The Beach Boys obviously goes beyond its tribute to “Sloop John B” (Pet Sounds) on “Nevada!” (Cloudland). Melodies soar (“Breath”––Cloudland). They’re downright hummable (“Miss You”––The Tenement Year)! Handclaps are featured on Story Of My Life’s “Honey Moon,” for God’s sake. Handclaps.
Fontana Years narratives are caught between the brightness of pop music and the sadness at the heart of the genre’s lyrics. (Perhaps this is another way of saying they exist in both spaces “at the same time,” like the intersection of a Venn Diagram.) The idea of that “middle ground” is echoed in the temporal and geographic locations of the songs’ characters, who are lost in the middle of their lives (the narrator on Story Of My Life’s “Kathleen” is “past [his or her] prime” and a “slave to a way of life”) in the middle of America (states that appear in Fontana songs include “Nevada!,” Louisiana in Story Of My Life’s “Louisiana Train Wreck,” Texas in “The Waltz” and Kansas in “Flat”––both from Cloudland, and Idaho, Nebraska, New Mexico, Michigan, Montana, and Utah, among others, in Story Of My Life’s “Postcard”). The morose lyrics introduce characters that are unsatisfied (see: “I lie awake. I was waiting for the clouds to break” and “I play the part called ‘A Broken Man.’ And all I’ve got to do is act naturally”––Worlds In Collision’s “I Hear They Smoke The Barbeque” and “Cry Cry Cry,” respectively), but the music suggests a lightheartedness, hopefulness, and sense of humor about their situation. This elegant approach to narrative reflects experience in a manner less immediate and expressionistic than that of the wild and tangled Historical Era, but more relevant to the themes of the Fontana Years.
Another new narrative technique the band introduces during the Fontana Years is the use of recurring lyrical motifs. Transporting phrases across phases of the conceptual career, words from years earlier are revisited from new POVs and take on unexpected and deeper meanings.
“It was a dream; it was a tin can. … Had he … kicked that dream down the street?” Thomas spouts over a jittery guitar and cooing synthesizer on New Picnic Time’s “The Fabulous Sequel.” Maybe those lyrics and that music are a representation of the wild oscillations and free-associations of a frenzied character’s mind. Dreams and tin cans are just what his or her slot-machine reel synapses happened to stop on. That’s the only interpretation I can offer. It seems like little more than a bizarre line in a wacky song.
This an excerpt from the lyrics of “Breath:” “It was a dream. Nah! But it was a tin can. … Had I not kicked that. Had it clattered in the gutter when it bounced down the sidewalk.” Here, the delivery is pensive rather than unhinged. The lyrics could easily be “I miss my baby tonight” or some other pop cliché instead. Though their meaning is opaque, to put it charitably, the pop arrangement and performance opens them up to more conventionally humanistic interpretations. Perhaps they refer to the death of a dream or the realization of the foolishness of one. The dream / tin can is kicked away––an act of rejection or rebellion. Yet the phrase “had I not” indicates hindsight may have allowed the narrator to realize rejection was not a wise move. He or she is suffering from an inability to discern whether the thing in question (be it a lover or goal or what have you) is worthwhile. Perhaps that indecisiveness caused the narrator to “kick” the dream along like a tin can, refusing to ever “pick it up” and commit to it, creating a constant fear that the next kick could be the one that launches it into an unseen gutter and down the sewer, gone for good.
More broadly, the fact the band presents both the “Breath” and “The Fabulous Sequel” takes on the dream / tin can motif further demonstrates its fascination with possibility. A shift in context (tin) can mean the difference between frantically trifling with a piece of trash for a few seconds and seeing in it a sad metaphor for one’s life.
Another example is Cloudland’s “Bus Called Happiness,” which features the following lyrics:
One day I will say,
“I woke up to find a heap of a mess.”
Running for the bus I cry,
“Hold that bus called ‘Happiness!’”
Why am I so slow?
If I only knew.
The music is uplifting, if a little wistful. Thomas adopts a likeable, down-on-his-luck persona over soaring backing vocals. The implication seems to be that, in spite of her or his slowness, the character will one day catch the bus. He or she is working hard at it. The phrase “heap of a mess” imbues circumstances that have inspired the character to want to flee town on a bus with a quaint harmlessness. The song almost sounds like the theme music of a TV show, the accompanying video of which ends with the bus coming to a stop, allowing the winded-but-grinning main character to get on and find his or her friends on board. It all smacks of an inevitably happy ending achieved because of a noble effort by a good person.
Nearly twenty-five years later, Pere Ubu released a song called “414 Seconds” (Lady From Shanghai). This is the first line: “That day that I say I woke up to find a heap of a mess?” “Remember it? Probably nostalgically, right?” the song seems to ask. Well, listeners––much like the song’s narrator––are in for a rude awakening. The song seethes and lumbers along and splits itself wide open. The bass snaps like a junkyard dog. The tortured guitar wails. The narrator wakes up, unsure of how long he or she has been asleep, to find a house with fly-filled windows, wilted plants, and piles of scummy dishes, then wonders, “Did I do that terrible thing only in my dream? Or is the dream simply a tawdry bit of self-deception wherein I dream that I only did the terrible thing that I did in a dream?” Spiraling further into squalor both mental and domestic, the character breaks into a panic and flings his- or herself out the door and
“Round the corner,
Stumbling and flailing…
Fumes and exhaust, black
and fluid smoke billowéd…
Running for the bus I cry,
Hold that bus called ‘Happiness.’”
The final line rises like a swamp monster out of a bog. The character woke up and found “a heap of mess” alright. Not some TV sitcom mess––something horrific and potentially criminal. Even the bus called “Happiness” has been corrupted, belching black smoke and exhaust fumes. One hopes the character misses the bus. Surely he or she does not deserve to make it. Getting on will only bring ruin onto the other passengers and the people in his or her “new life.” Here, the recurring motif illustrates the way a cycle repeats itself and festers over the years. A guy makes a mistake, he leaves town. He makes another mistake, he leaves another town. It’s cute and fun until he makes the mistake he can’t run from. But all he knows how to do is run, so he can’t face it. What now?
“It's a lonely road when tomorrow has got no home in yesterday.” ––“Drive” (Pennsylvania)
[09/08/2014 note: At the time of publication, Lady From Shanghai was listed on UbuProjex.com as part of the Modern Era. It has since been shifted into the newly created “Orange Period.”]
The “bus called ‘Happiness’” comparison starkly illustrates a primary difference between the Fontana Years and the next (and current, as of publication) period for the band, the “Modern Era” (1995’s Raygun Suitcase through 2013’s Lady From Shanghai). If some characters from the Fontana Years appear in this Era, as the recurrence of the “bus called ‘Happiness’” motif seems to suggest, one might say that, in general, things have not worked out for them as hoped. Attempts to start fresh have lead only to places they don’t fit in and can’t understand. The Promised Land has yet to be discovered, and the search has grown exhausting. The Good Days might really be gone forever. As the narrator on Raygun Suitcase’s “Down By The River II” explains, “As bad as it gets, it’s gotten worse.” In turn, the music has lost more and more of its “lightheartedness, hopefulness, and sense of humor” (remember, though, that that does not preclude the songs from being funny) and replaced it with uneasiness, desolation, and a sense of doom.
The band is at the peak of its cinematic powers. Using heavy duty riffs (Pennsylvania’s “Fly’s Eye,” Lady From Shanghai’s “Lampshade Man,” etc.) and dust storm atmospherics (Raygun Suitcase’s “Ray Gun Suitcase,” Why I Hate Women’s “Flames Over Nebraska,” etc.), it sets the Era’s stories in a sort of Lynchian Bible Belt noire (Why I Hate Women’s “Stolen Cadillac,” Pennsylvania’s “Silent Spring” and “Slow,” etc.) starring Thomas as, at turns, Lounge Singer From Hell (St. Arkansas’s “Slow Walking Daddy,” “Hell,” and “Where’s The Truth,” etc.), Dead Man Walking (Why I Hate Women’s “Blue Velvet” and “Synth Farm,” etc.), and Horny Coot (Raygun Suitcase’s “Folly Of Youth,” Why I Hate Women’s “Caroleen,” etc.), among others. The lyrics, meanwhile, tend to be located somewhere between gloomy and terrifying. The amusingly-titled “Love Song” on the uncomfortably–titled Why I Hate Women features lines like “My eyes are growin’ tentacles for to grab you. My eyes are growin’ hand grenades for to have you. … I live in a house without any windows. … I got a 40 watt bulb to light up my life.” St. Arkansas’s “Dark” opens and closes with the mantra “My friends don’t understand me and my wife begins to fear that I’ve lost some sense of balance, and I’ve lost the will to live.”
The details of characters’ personal declines are mirrored by depictions of deterioration in the America they inhabit. (Note the micro and macro scales again reinforcing each other.) Pennsylvania’s “Woolie Bullie” begins with the story of a local diner being torn down to build a Days Inn, which prompts a tirade from the narrator. “We are abandoned. Liars own the words. … Reality is defined by the needs of the media. History is rewritten faster than it can happen. Culture is a weapon that’s used against us,” he or she says, anger simmering over volcanic guitars. The speech is punctuated by a searing synth blast––the sonic equivalent of a heat wave surging through the thrown-open doors of an industrial oven. Before long, however, the potent slab of noise begins dissipating, eventually coming to sound like a trifling Boy Scout campfire ditty. It’s as if this seemingly irreducible swell of enraged rebellion is co-opted, broken down, and repackaged in a safe, digestible form. Just as the narrator loses her or his beloved bit of folk culture (the diner where he or she “spent [his or her] life … one afternoon”) to a corporation’s hotel chain (Days Inn), the synth solo loses its uncompromising passion and intensity, succumbing to the charm and convenience of facile melody. The slide guitar slice that begins the song feels like a cell bursting open during a jailbreak. The sonically-identical one that abruptly ends it feels more like the zipping up of a body bag, due to what takes place between the two.
Raygun Suitcase’s “Electricity” contains the lyrics “Nobody understands. All the words that we’ve cherished for so long fall on deaf ears. Children, hear our hopes and fears. … It feels like all the faded hopes that never were.” Where “Woolie Bullie” is pissed off, “Electricity” is mournful and resigned to cultural death. The narrator puts her of his faith in the “stones” of cities rather than their populations because cities cannot truly die, though “like the insane do in their awful solitude” they speak “only to [themselves]” after a while. Thomas frequently uses the term “ghost town” to refer to such municipal afterlives in his lyrics. Detailing the phenomenon further, he once told an interviewer that the decline from “city … to ruins” is complete when the people living in a city “no longer understand the hopes and dreams and fears of the builders of a city” (“The heart of the thing is the thing we don’t know”––Raygun Suitcase’s “Montana”). That kind of thinking was introduced most plainly with the “Breath” lyrics “The things that we had. The good and the bad. Now it’s parking lots. … I know the sites to see. The things they mean to me and how we tore it down.” However, the ideas are more thoroughly explored during the Modern Era.
In addition to the geographic ghost towns described above, the band deals with non-physical ghost towns that are located in the ruins of characters’ minds. They’re often arrived at by more personal roads––dreams abandoned too soon or clung to too long or pursued too late (“We’ve trailed our dreams behind us for days like paper shredded by the force of our passing”––“Drive”), memories distorted or unbearably accurate (“I looked in your eyes. I said, ‘I will ruin your life.’ I can see you did not believe me. You remember, don’t you? … ‘Cause I do.”––Lady From Shanghai’s “Musicians Are Scum”), rough patches that stretch into rough periods before finally settling in as rough lives (“I’ve checked in and now I can’t check out. … I guess my life is in transition. From one kind of a life to another. From what kind of a life to another?”––Raygun Suitcase’s “Three Things”), etc. As unpleasant realizations about these sources of pain and regret bear down on the characters (“One day I will be the best that you can do. Time will catch up to you … Like it caught me too”––Pennsylvania’s “SAD.TXT”), the spaciousness of the open road they keep fleeing to (“Somewhere out there the bars are open. Somewhere out there the night is calling. Somewhere out there good times are rolling”––Pennsylvania’s “Urban Lifestyle”) is overwhelmed by the claustrophobia of their minds, which is evoked with smothering synth swaths (“Lampshade Man,” Why I Hate Women’s “Babylonian Warehouses,” etc.) and nervous tic drumming [Pennsylvania’s “Mr. Wheeler,” Why I Hate Women’s “Two Girls (One Bar),” etc.]. Faced with bleak or uncertain prospects, they long for an idealized past (as if they remember the Fontana Years’ music, but not its lyrics) or fantasize about unrealistic twists of fate.
On Raygun Suitcase’s “Don’t Worry,” a woman tears “the roof off somebody’s heart” (notice the linking of edifice and emotion, blurring distinctions between the ruins of cities and those of people’s lives) who was hoping they “might continue as friends somehow.” The character compares the woman to a force of nature (“the wild, wild wind”) and repeats the excerpted lyrics, mantra-like, for the song’s duration. One can feel an imagined connection to an ex-flame gaining more traction in his or her mind with each repetition (he or she “hoped” to stay friends in the first verse and “hope[s]” in the second and third), culminating in the hilariously schmaltzy guitar solo that ends the song.
Other characters attempt to escape their bad memories and dead end lives (“I got a job for life. I am free. … There is a shadow hangin’ over me”––“Blue Velvet”), but can’t stop their pasts from seeping into their futures. Apparitions of buildings torn down (the diner in “Woolie Bullie”) and people ripped away populate their new towns and old dreams (“Last night I dreamt and it seemed so clear––you were there, you were there”––“Babylonian Warehouses”). “… just over the horizon there was a valley that was filled with frozen clouds where dust hung in the air like it was perfume” the narrator on Pennsylvania’s “Perfume” says, again linking environment (dust) and emotion (memories associated with perfume). Even this land seemingly outside of time is invaded by the past in the form of an ex’s scent. Upon getting away from his or her town and/or life, the narrator can only wonder, “Is there someone here who knows me?” Even if the line is referring to a fear of someone recognizing them, the fact remains that the past haunts, epitomized by the guitar’s slither from faint echo to sickening, inescapable scrape. This is the plight of those that live in ghost towns. Trapped in the past, usually because their futures are dark, they are incapable of being present.
But maybe it doesn’t matter. The parallels between citizen and country in these narratives (the narrator on “Woolie Bullie” claims “the land and what we add to it cannot lie. It’s also like a mirror. Reflected we see ourselves or we choose to turn away”) suggest that America might be one huge ghost town––or filled with people living in one. (Greil Marcus, writing about Pere Ubu in his book Double Trouble: Bill Clinton And Elvis Presley In A Land Of No Alternatives, explains how “in a big, multifaceted democracy, you’re supposed to be able to communicate directly with everyone, yet many despair of being understood by anyone at all.”) Who could be present in such a society, one where “My Friend Is A Stooge For The Media Priests” (Raygun Suitcase) who lives “life like a Hollow Man hidin’ out in a Hollow Land?” Who would want to be? Is a ghost town preferable? Is it possible even to know? Not according to the narrator on “Drive,” who summarizes, “We will never know what it was that has been lost from here.” Perhaps ghost towns, then, whether they’re personal or cultural or both, are artifacts of that ethereal sense of loss. Thomas has hinted at this with his stage “banter,” once saying, “That’s the heritage to be passed on, from generation to generation—an echo of pain through time. It’ll be too late, because your parents will be long dead, and no one will understand you.”
“After they've taken everything that we might have owned. After they've stolen the thing that we have loved. … they say, ‘It's just not enough.’ … Standin' on the outside inside lookin' out and I was seein' someone that's too far away. I was standin' on the inside lookin' out lookin' at the outside and askin' myself, ‘Why do I delay?’” ––“Muddy Waters” (Pennsylvania)
“It's time to leave and I don't know when.” ––“Down By The River II”
Pere Ubu understands music as something that is ultimately and literally a celebration of space, be it headspace or physical space. (Describing Pennsylvania as “the space between where you are and where you want to be,” Thomas further reinforces the notion that geography and psychology can be experientially inseparable.) However, the band’s music seems to suggest that when that space has been altered or damaged or compromised––whether by something like “history being rewritten faster than it can happen” or less artificial descents into ruins––odd phenomena occur. The past, present, and future start to smear together (“… nothing can haunt the future of my fabulous past”––St. Arkansas’s “Michele”). The difference between a hope and a fear is less clear (see: “I fear it’s you, so I hope it’s you”––“Babylonian Warehouses” and “I fear I know the things I hope”––“Last Will And Testament”). (Marcus, this time writing about the band in Mystery Train: Images Of America In Rock ‘N’ Roll Music, situates it on “a train that passes through a modern nation as if it were an ancient land, all ruin and portent, prophecy and decay. Thus the terrain makes the familiar terrain strange, unseen – new.”) What’s relevant? What’s irrelevant? It’s difficult to say for sure. (“Notions of value and meaning are ridiculed in a storm of confetti.”) Thus, an accurate reflection of these types of spaces produces a bolus of randomly glommed-together bits of culture from people lost in space and time, everywhere and nowhere, contextless, paralyzed––AM radio (“Dark,” etc.), highways (“Slow Walking Daddy,” etc.), diners (“Woolie Bullie,” “Perfume,” etc.), jukeboxes (“Mandy”), cowboy guitar riffs (“Wheelhouse,” etc.), old-timey vocal tics (“Mr. Wheeler”), archaic pronunciations (“Los Angeles [‘Loss Ang-Guh-Leez’]”––“Highwaterville”), dreams of other planets and alternate dimensions [“Two Girls (One Bar),” Raygun Suitcase’s “Red Sky,” etc.], roadside attractions (the Elvis museum in Raygun Suitcase’s “Turquoise Fins”), and on and on, into the vortex of Datapanik. Writing about Pennsylvania in Double Trouble, Marcus says, “It is all hints and warnings, and the warnings are disguised as non sequiturs. The secret is told, but nonetheless hidden, in the musings, babblings, or tall tales of people who seem too odd to be like you or me, like us … What comes into view is a secret country: barely recognizable, and undeniable. … all of David Thomas’s voices [swirl] around the listener, on the street. Pennsylvania seems to draw out of its own spectral geography and that street can be wherever you find yourself…”
The Modern Era’s take on Datapanik is perhaps best encapsulated by Lady From Shanghai’s would-be lust story “And Then Nothing Happened.” Swaggering over a jaunty surf rock lick, the narrator channels her or his inner Caesar: “I came, I saw, and I wanted her.” But before a move is even made, she or he is already “resigned” to “the spark [dissolving]” “at the heart of the flame” and “consoled that nothing happened today.” The riff then stalls out and dissolves in a bubbling dysphoria. “Alarm bells are ringing,” the narrator sighs before peacefully being overtaken by washes of noise.
“That’s the cup.” ––David Thomas
A Series Of Observations
- The narrator on “And Then Nothing Happened” says “alarms bells are ringing.” The band then mimics said ringing for the song’s lethargically cacophonous, momentum-killing final minutes.
- “Non-Alignment Pact” begins with an air-raid siren synth screaming across the post-industrial sky. As said siren fades into the background, the song roars to life.
- Pere Ubu’s first album is called The Modern Dance.
- Pere Ubu’s most recent album, Lady From Shanghai, has been billed “an album of dance music fixed” by the band.
- The Modern Dance’s first words are “I wanna make a deal with you.”
- Lady From Shanghai’s first words are “You can go to Hell.”
- The film from which Lady From Shanghai takes it’s name (Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai) ends with a shootout in a hall of mirrors.
“Ars longa, spectatores fugaces.” ––The Ubu Projex motto (Latin for “Art is forever, the audience comes and goes.”)
What makes Pere Ubu “dangerous,” according to composer David McIntire, is that it has “a philosophy.” David Thomas believes that rock music is the highest form of art in existence. He believes it makes other forms of art obsolete and that every new rock album should be evaluated based on how it advances not only “the art of the form,” but also “society and mankind” itself. (Though that’s a very intense way of thinking about rock albums, it also speaks to a concern for society and mankind.) While explaining why “only the surface is salable” in today’s world, he told an interviewer that “the public is not at fault. The media is at fault. It is, in fact, your fault personally. I’m not speaking metaphorically. If you knew what you were doing there would be no crime or cancer or bad music. Shape up.” “He’s off his rocker!” you might say. Maybe you’re right. But I suspect that very same passion––extreme though it may be––is a large part of what fuels his band’s artistic potency. “We’re too stubborn to change our ideas and too stupid to quit,” Thomas has said. “When you’re a True Believer, you have no choice.”
Unabashed dedication to a philosophy is rare, and it’s not inherently admirable. Pere Ubu’s philosophy has disturbing elements. They range from the polemical (see: the assertion that only Americans can really play rock and roll or that “Black music is dead … It’s a stinking, rotten corpse”) to the alarmingly hostile and stupid (see: “Women are allowed into bands because they are accorded the honorary status of men and they are expected to adhere to the rules of a brotherhood,” which makes the album title “Why I Hate Women” seem more like something that doesn’t just speak to its protagonists warped worldview). (It’s notable, given the examples cited, that the band includes non-Americans and a woman in its current lineup, for whatever that’s worth.) I wish it didn’t have those elements, but it does. As such, the philosophy is perhaps only worth acknowledging, not celebrating, as a unique approach to and point of view on American rock music. However, assuming you can make some kind of peace with its disturbing elements, the body of work it’s lead to is certainly worthy of more celebration than it’s gotten to this point. While plenty of musicians have reinvented themselves multiple times over long careers, it seems to me the act is often motivated by a desperation brought on by a lack of any new ideas. Deep down, I think Pere Ubu really only has one idea––“The Cup,” as I’ve referred to it. But it’s such an enormous, fantastic idea, and the band is so in love with and committed to it, that it’s managed to parlay a decades-long career out of bringing it to fruition. Everything it does is in service to it. This unified approach makes listening to and revisiting Pere Ubu’s music over time holistically satisfying in a way few other artists I’m aware of can compete with. “I know where we’re going,” Thomas has said. “It’s Somewhere Out There. When we reach it I quit. The end of a thing is always better than the beginning. I continue to look forward to the end of the road. That will be the great Pere Ubu moment. When we can finally look each one to his brother and say, ‘Well done; our work is finished – rest.’”
Whenever the band arrives “Somewhere Out There,” I’m sure there will be musicians who will pick up the torch. I feel confident about this because some already have.
“I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” a song from Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, is as smart, impactful, and expressionistic as anything Pere Ubu has ever done. The singer’s sleepy vocals, the band’s ceaseless swirl that both sweeps the song into coherence (see: the first time the acoustic guitars strum in stride and the piano solo) and spins it back out in a fumbling daze, and the final two minutes of disintegration, combine to create a semi-conscious headspace wavering between dream and nightmare that’s dotted with fleeting moments of fragmentary insight.
Janelle Monáe’s vocals, though in a totally different sphere, are frequently as commanding and varied as Thomas’s. Her performance on The ArchAndroid’s “Come Alive (War Of The Roses)” between 2:14 and 2:33 is the only one I know of comparable to Thomas’s on The Modern Dance’s “Life Stinks” between 0:49 and 1:01. Both are what I can only describe as “vocal solos”––wordless paroxysms that dominate solos on other instruments (guitar on “Come Alive,” guitar, synth, and horn on “Life Stinks”). Each is so powerful that it took me dozens of listens to even realize the sounds are coming from the singer, not some wild, wailing instrument.
The most sublime moment of The Mountain Goat’s “Cold Milk Bottle” (Sweden) is the repurposing of the lyrics “You’re mean to me. Why must you be mean to me? You musn’t forget, you see, what you mean to me,” from the jazz standard “Mean To Me.” In Billie Holiday’s version, for example, the lyrics are delivered with a languid sweetness. The Mountain Goats’ singer howls those same lines with a passion overwhelming and all-encompassing enough to be life-affirming. He saw the potential for cathartic empathy in a flirty bit of wordplay, just like Pere Ubu sees possibilities for comedy and tragedy in single phrases.
Though I can’t say with any confidence that these musicians were specifically influenced by Pere Ubu, elements of its methods and approach are undoubtedly present in their (and others) work.
"Big organizations are comfortable with hierarchical methods of production, but the cultural history of the last hundred years is marked by the emergence and then dominance of a more chaotic folk methodology found in jazz, rock, blues and country music - music of the 'people.'” ––David Thomas
If we have to settle for Pere Ubu’s ideas living on, I suppose that’s acceptable and we should be thankful for and satisfied with that. But hey, we’ve come this far––let’s dream a bit bigger, shall we? Let’s start by examining this chart detailing Pere Ubu’s interpretation of the history of pop, in which the creation of complex, literate music is a “Historical Imperative” (what I called a “folk art continuum”) and “the Mainstream” is defined by that Imperative, not by what is most popular.
That’s a intriguing and potentially-empowering way of thinking about cultural history. It also begs the question: Is a realignment of folk culture with popular culture possible? Could we create a society in which art “of the people” and “by the people” (i.e., “the Mainstream”) is also “for the people” (i.e., “Pop”) on a large scale? Would “the people,” given a proper chance, embrace that type of society? I like to think we would.
Bob Dylan, at his most revolutionary, was pretty popular. “Like A Rolling Stone” was a successful single. The sales and marketing departments at Columbia Records almost didn’t release it because of its length and “raucous” sound. Even after it started to gain popularity, DJs were reluctant to play it in full on their shows––but the public demanded it.
I’d say the leap from, say, Woody Guthrie and Chuck Berry to “Like A Rolling Stone” is greater than the one from “Like A Rolling Stone” to Pere Ubu. And yet Dylan is a cultural icon while Pere Ubu maintains only a cult following. Why is this? Is there a threshold for challenge in popular culture that “Like A Rolling Stone” walks right up to, but does not cross? Are the sales and marketing departments of today––and the hierarchical power structures they’re associated with––more powerful and, seemingly by corollary, more scared of new ideas? The answer to both of those questions is probably “yes,” at least to some extent. But does it have to be this way? I don’t think it does. Thomas has said that Pere Ubu is the product of a group of people who believed that, in the wake of songs like “Like A Rolling Stone,” “pop music would never return to” the teen idols and simplistic love songs of its past. They believed it had been touched by the better angels of its nature. That obviously hasn’t happened––yet. If this section’s epigraph is accurate, though, and the last hundred years of music production have marked a shift towards a “folk methodology,” what prevents us from one day ushering in a similar shift in the culture more generally?
“It's not merchandise. It's not content. It's called music.” ––excerpt from the “What We Are” section of Hearpen.com, David Thomas’s digital download site
Noam Chomsky once made an explicit distinction between folk culture and popular culture as typically defined today (high-rated television programs, in this case). The latter “isn’t real popular culture, the real art of the people. This is just stuff which is served up to them to rot their minds. Real popular culture is folk art––coalminers’ songs and so forth,” he said. If you agree with that sentiment but can’t imagine yourself loading up your MP3 player with coalminer music (or if you are Noam Chomsky), there’s good news: There are contemporary artists who apply the spirit of coalminers’ songs to the cultural, humanistic, and historical moment(s) in which we find ourselves. Pere Ubu is one them. There are others. They’re not always easy to find and they can be difficult to get into. However, to me at least, the effort is often more than worth it. Music that’s truly for the people does not pander to them. It challenges them. It is sure they can handle it.
Life can be chaotic and complicated. Art reflecting and engaging with that is probably going to share some those qualities. However, for better or worse, life is also influenced by art. Unfortunately, there are people and institutions that use this phenomenon to leverage their power and influence. By disseminating culture from the top down and spoonfeeding us easily digestible, highly ordered “art,” they increase the odds of us accepting, and even pursuing, easily digestible, highly ordered lives. That can be a simple and even pleasurable thing––for a while––but keep in mind the potential for that order to become “That’s an order!” and for the easily digestible to become hard to swallow.
If contradiction is the only truth, as Pere Ubu seems to tell us, why not consider this one: A band that basically nobody knows about, that once bragged of releasing an album that is “brutal, lacking charm, and without redeeming values,” that has its pretentious, elitist motto translated into a dead language, might in some way be, well, vox populi––one of them, at least. It almost seems appropriate. If Datapanik has indeed blinded us to value and meaning, then that which enriches and enlightens (far less plentiful than that which entertains and enthralls) is, statistically, likely to be lost within the “storm of confetti.” Although hierarchical cultural power structures and those who benefit from them will continue to mass-produce “confetti,” that doesn’t mean we can’t rain on their parade.
“They tore down the Starlighter down at the end of the road and built a big Day's Inn that blocks the view. But I know that road's still there. I can feel it wherever I go, whatever I'm doing. And it knows that I'm still here. And it's waiting.” ––“Woolie Bullie”
You may now stop pretending Pere Ubu is dead. It isn’t. Now start insisting that it (or whatever your Pere Ubu is) is alive. Because that means it is. “In my ears I heard a hurricane blow. In my ears I heard a hurricane grow,” claims the narrator on Dub Housing’s “Navvy.” Maybe one day, should we insist with enough vigor, we’ll hear the Wind come roaring back in our ears, cohesive and unified and inclusive, the way some of Dylan’s more idealistic fans imagined it. A Historical Imperative. On that day, the people, no longer so proverbial, will cry up at Those On The Balconies, who will turn tail and flee. With reason. The Balconies themselves will collapse. We will hope. They will fear.