St Arkansas (spinART)
Playing Sept. 17 at The End with Cheetah Chrome
Pere Ubu are playing The End Tuesday, and some of you are probably wondering why you should care. After all, aren’t they just another washed-up act from a bygone era? Well, for one thing, virtually every post-rock band from Tortoise to godspeed you black emperor! owes a debt to Ubu’s inclusive blend of electronic noise, dub reggae, musique concrète and classic rock. Even the music of their first wave punk contemporaries Joy Division and The Fall echoes the band’s debut album, The Modern Dance.
The reason that Pere Ubu continue to matter, and that they continue to make better music than most of the bands they influenced, is that they have always demanded an emotional investment from their audience. It’s an involvement that’s largely absent from current post-rock, most of which resembles Muzak for would-be hipsters. And as Ubu’s new album, St Arkansas, attests, the band’s music is just as disorientingand compellingnow as it was nearly 30 years ago. Not only that, the enduring lyrical themes the record exploresthemes of cars, rock ’n’ roll and AM radio the group have visited in the pastcontinue, however obliquely, to engage the imagination.
Creative engagement was what induced most of the group’s original membersmiddle- and upper-middle class kids from Cleveland, Ohio, with a surplus of cultural capitalto break away from the social establishment their parents embraced. The group’s founders, singer/lyricist David Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner, weren’t so much critical of the consumer culture to which they belonged as of the way they saw youth culture being marketed. They also realized that some of the most vital art of their day was being created by visionary outcasts, people whose exposure to, say, visual art consisted of little more than the Sears catalog, corporate logos and album covers. So it was, at considerable personal cost, that these coulda-been bankers and attorneys took what appeared to be the low road and opted to play in a rock band with like-minded friends from less affluent backgrounds. (Guitarist Cheetah Chrome, who played with them in Rocket From the Tombs, grew up in Cleveland housing projects.)
In 1974, future Ubu frontman Thomas assumed the alias Crocus Behemoth and began writing rock criticism and singing in Rocket From the Tombs, a volatile aggregate destined not to last due to internal friction. When RFTT splintered in 1975, Thomas assembled an avant-garage band featuring members of RFTT and Hy Maya, a group comprised of non-musicians associated with art happenings, including synth player Allen Ravenstine. (The band took their name from the title character of absurdist playwright Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi series.)
Pere Ubu’s career would be as unstable as the music they made, with Thomas’ controlling presence being the only real constant. Ravenstine’s constructivist playing defined the band’s early sound and provided a foil for Thomas’ grotesque caterwauling, the blues-rock of guitarists Laughner and Tom Herman and the pliant rhythms of bassist Tim Wright and drummer Scott Krauss. Together, they created accessible, even pop, psychedelic music without making a stencil of ’60s beat-rock. After Laughner’s untimely death from alcohol-induced pancreatitis and Wright’s departure for New York (where he would join the influential no wave band DNA), Pere Ubu recorded three albums, The Modern Dance, Dub Housing and New Picnic Time, each of which distilled their avant-garde impulses into emotional and accessible rock music.
Having encountered some overseas success, the band signed to the British label Rough Trade and released several more albums before going on hiatus in 1982. They didn’t record again until the late ’80s, when, thanks to the mid-decade reissue of their groundbreaking early singles, their albums The Tenement Year and Cloudland became staples on college radio.
Far from making abstract art, Ubu during this entire period had been distilling the cultural vernacular of Thomas’ Clevelandeverything from free jazzers Albert and Donald Ayler to concept new-wavers like Devowithout sacrificing the pop potential of their music. But their influences weren’t just musical: Ghoulardi, a local monster movie host who would achieve national prominence for his work in a comic duo with Tim Conway and for doing voiceovers for Roots and The Love Boat, also had a major impact on Thomas’ sense of drama and his intent to violate the unspoken sanctity of electronic media.
As Thomas explained in a recent e-mail interview, Ghoulardi was concerned “with perspectivethe nature of media, the nature of electronic authority, possibilities of the narrative voice. This all sounds improbably serious for a monster movie host, but you really had to experience it to appreciate how powerful the man washe was the Flibberty Jib Man. My favorite was the night he set off a huge M80 or series of M80she was always blowing things up in the studioand quite clearly the entire room was stunned senseless for some minutes. Which has nothing to do with art as much as defying the holy medium of television.”
While Ubu’s early records were similarly confrontational to the rock establishment, such irreverence isn’t immediately apparent on St Arkansas; if anything, Ubu’s new album proves that art and rock needn’t be awkward bedfellows. Lyrically, the record reflects on the gestalt of automobile culture, of the open road as an endlessly changing vista that scrolls past the safety glassand false sense of securitysurrounding the driver. Inseparable from car culture is the radiobizarre talk shows beamed from AM stations across the globe, as well as the poetry of rock ’n’ roll, which from day one rightly recognized the car as the great liberating influence on youth culture.
Nevertheless, Thomas insists that his obsession with cars and AM radio isn’t nostalgic. “Nothing I ever do comes from nostalgia,” he says. “I am not a nostalgic person. I despise FM radiomany of the hideous compression techniques that have blighted music in the last 30 years come from FM, and all those hideous, self-righteous college and NPR stations...! FM pitched itself as elitist. AM has always been the vox populieven today as the domain of talk radio.
“In 'Dark’ I am talking about AM radio now, not in the past,” Thomas continues. “I love clear channel stations reaching across the continent in the middle of the night. There is a great and liberating and deeply poetic moment to searching across the bands in the dark, homing in on one, loosing another in the drift of static and distance. Encapsulated therein is the process of search and discovery that is so vital to music.”
Discovery, reinvention, recollection and recontextualization all come into play on St Arkansas. Weaving an associative web of locations and lyric fragments throughout the recordeverything from Charley Patton’s Lula, Miss., to the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” and Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”Thomas testifies to his belief in rock as a pluralistic folk music that draws its strength from its diversity, self-reference and intertextuality.
“One reason that rock is a folk music is that it is the rightful inheritor of such icons,” Thomas explains. “They are hieroglyphs. A hieroglyph symbolically encapsulates a complex of ideas, images, histories. Tom Dooley hangs his head by the river. By the waters of Babylon I wept when I remembered you, O Zion. Take me to the river, drop me in the water. Down by the river I shot my baby. Life on the Mississippi. Moon River. Spoon River. The River (Springsteen).”
Pere Ubu’s first single, “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” came out in 1975, but it was infinitely more inventive and challenging than most of the music that would emerge in the punk explosion of the ensuing few years. Twenty-seven years later, the song still sounds fresh, a skanky blues tone poem outlining an aerial attack that assumes a free rock framework before resolving again into a snaking riff that rides the fence between blues and reggae. The opportunity that we have to see Pere Ubu perform in an intimate club on a bill with the song’s co-writer, Cheetah Chrome, is a gift. Don’t take it for granted.
There were plenty of jumps and screams at the severed-head reveal at the Sunday night…
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So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.
It was so great being one of those kids in Dayton.
I miss Iodine.
^ It's nice to see an official acknowledgement by management. Kristen Mcarther Miles (the girl…