by carl wilson

Slated and Enchanted
(Plus: Greil & the Ubu Grail)

david_thomas.jpg
David Thomas of Pere Ubu at a festival in Moers, Germany, in 2005. Photo © Jorg Kruger.

Pardon the silence; I'm busy chatterboxing it up in the other room, exchanging opinions on the state of music 2006 with my fellow roundtablers in the Slate Music Club. I was tickled to get the invite from my confrere Jody Rosen, Slate's lead music critic, and incredibly chuffed to be in the company of Ann Powers (critic for the L.A. Times, formerly with the NY Times, co-organizer of the Pop Conference, author of Weird Like Us and occasional blogger) and Jon Caramanica (Vibe music editor, more active blogger and frequent contributor to the NY Times and various magazines).

I'm also a big fan of the online pen-pal roundtable format, which Slate is adapting from its popular year-end "Movie Club" discussions. So much so that I think I might organize some similar back-and-forths on Zoilus in 2007. But this particular discussion will begin appearing in Slate early next week, probably Monday. (It won't include my actual best-of-the-year list, which will be a Zoilus exclusive, darlings.)

While I'm preoccupied, those interested in blogfights should go Dave Morris's summation in Eye on ReviewMeGate. And in the same venue, there's also Brian Joseph Davis's pithy review of the new Greil Marcus joint, The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice*, which I just finished reading myself. People are rightfully leery of Marcus these days, but this one, in an oblique way his book for the Patriot Act era, is his best in ages, probably since Lipstick Traces, with terrific chapters on Philip Roth and David Lynch - his Twin Peaks thesis, about Laura Palmer as a lost member of Bikini Kill, is just one of the inspired leaps. And I'm compelled by his thesis/tone-poem about the persistence of an imaginary America that's constantly being betrayed yet defined by that very betrayal, bound at once to the highest democractic ideals and to the freedom, even obligation, to casually murder whatever stands in your way - and the way American art invokes this shadow America in the mode of prophecy.

But Brian's right that the chapter on David Thomas of Pere Ubu, which structurally is supposed to be the climax, is a letdown. I've concluded that it's near impossible to write well about Pere Ubu because David Thomas (who was a critic before he was a performer, remember) has already done all the criticism for you - while he does it in his own inverted-mirror language, he's outlined his themes and theories, narrated the definitive history of the band, and explained the principles behind every bit of Ubu's methodology. He even provides the cultural-studies material, explicitly connecting his work to the history of American transcendentalism (in Thomas's version of Moby Dick, he is both Ahab and the whale), film noir, folk music, the Beach Boys, MC5, 1960s TV horror showcase hosts and the geography of sound.

This leaves the would-be Ubu critic two options: Either come at it from an entirely contrary, non-David-Thomas endorsed angle, which would be difficult for Marcus because his motivation to write about Ubu is all of the same stuff Thomas talks about (and to be fair, Thomas also has acknowledged the influence of Marcus's Mystery Train on his own thinking); or do original biographical research and try to find personal material of the kind Thomas refuses to disclose, which would be (a) tough to do; (b) invasive for no clear purpose; and (c) not Marcus's strong suit. (I'd love to read a Peter Guralnick book about Pere Ubu. But that's never gonna happen.) So what Marcus does is do a fine job of recycling all the already available material within his own framework, and telling a few nice stories, but it doesn't have the kinetic juice, the thrill of discovery, of the rest of the book.

Moral of this parable: Aspiring cult artists, if you're looking for a model of how to control exactly how you go down in history, follow David Thomas: What you do is use a cryptic-sounding, larger-than-life language, frequently repeat "it's your job to interpret the stuff - my job is only to make it, and I am better at my job than you are at yours," and then proceed to point by point explain every single thing about what you are doing, and document your explanations exhaustively on the Internet. Diabolic brilliance. (And by the way, while he might say otherwise, Thomas didn't just start this strategy later in life in response to being widely misunderstood. He was airing his manifestos in interviews from the very beginning.) The downside is that if you follow it, it means there will never be a good book written about you in your lifetime. Besides Marcus, excellent critics like Jon Savage and Simon Reynolds have fallen at this hurdle. (Clinton Heylin did better by just compiling oral history, but it's not criticism.)

* I'm on the hunt for better places to link for books and music than Amazon or Indigo: I'd love to find a Canadian store or two that is independent, has a deep catalogue, and takes orders online. A Canadian version of Powells, for instance. Is there such a thing? I'm guessing no.

| Posted by zoilus on Thursday, December 07 at 5:24 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (17)

 

COMMENTS

Apologies for the repeated posting, and trying to make amends for my lame defensiveness:

The crux of my confusion is the conundrum of nationalism. As Marx predicted, Capital has gone global, and with it, the class struggle has largely been displaced onto the 3rd World. Not to say there aren't poor people north of the Rio Grande, but for the most part the poverty is eating-poor, not starving-poor (as a childhood friend of mine described the contrasting youths of his own parents).

So -- yeah, buy local -- and -- embarrassing! -- I'd forgotten all about "buy American" at the time of my earlier commenting.

As for the conundrum of nationalism -- and I am a de facto nationalist, despite my awareness of its deeply problematical nature -- I'll keep thinking about it.

Posted by john on December 11, 2006 6:05 PM

 

 

I'd have the same reaction if it were France, but not Mexico, for what I should think would be obvious economic reasons. "Buy American" is generally not thought of as a progressive position, but I could be wrong about that.

I was reacting to somebody saying that Amazon "sullied" your site, and then that triggered a bunch of questions.

Posted by john on December 11, 2006 5:17 PM

 

 

It isn't an anti-American position, John, but an anti-monopolist one. If it were about nationalism, I'd use ChaptersIndigo instead, but I think they're a much crappier store, and have exerted their own WalMart-like effect on bookselling in Canada. I wasn't calling for any kind of Amazon boycott, but I'd like to have other choices, and ideally other Canadian choices, for online book and music retailing - the same way you might prefer to use a Pacific Northwest merchant if you can. Overall I try to mix up the sources I link to in order not to feel like a shill for any particular store.

At the same time, the fact that any hint of Canadian nationalism got your back up for a second is interesting to me. If this were a French website or a Mexican one, would you really be so surprised at the blogger saying, "I'd like to link to a bookstore in France" or "I'm looking for a good online Mexican record shop"? Among other things, there are issues of having Canadian titles available, and also having to pay larger shipping charges for things sent over the border etc. And then there's the basic economic self-interest involved, on the same labour lines as the "Buy American" campaign.

The fact that when Canadians say exactly what anyone in another country would say, Americans find it faintly outrageous seems like evidence of that slightly colonial background belief that Canada isn't a real country.

Posted by zoilus on December 11, 2006 1:45 PM

 

 

p.s. My computer is an Apple. I'm agnostic about all the big businesses; always happy to patronize the local coffee shops, f'rinstance, but I note as well that a Starbucks in an economically and ethnically diverse neighborhood is much more likely to have a regular African American clientele and staff than an independent shop around the corner, whose clientele will be predominantly white hipsters and its staff pretty much exclusively so; in the neighborhood where I work, I go to both places.

I love my country despite its horrible historical record (and present); and while I understand anti-U.S. nationalism and counter-hegemony advocacy, every western industrialized nation enjoys similar benefits from being atop the global world order as the U.S. does; and, in fact, the U.S. has about the worst social safety net of any industrialized country. So, thinking of my country in "local" terms is just "foreign" to me, and I apologize for my obnoxious tone about it.

Posted by john on December 10, 2006 7:34 PM

 

 

What about McNally Robinson?
http://www.mcnallyrobinson.com/

Posted by Brenda on December 10, 2006 5:30 PM

 

 

I must confess that I don't understand the anti-Amazon sentiment, unless it's mere anti-big-biz sentiment, in which case, bye-bye most of the records I love. Or, if it's an anti-online, pro-browsing position, Amazon seems to have been much less destructive of browse-able shops than iTunes and file sharing have. There isn't even a local record store in my hometown, Kalamazoo, pop. 80,000, home to a big state U and a small liberal arts college. When I was growing up we had 3 independent shops, including one classical-only. I bought Ives symphonies there as a teenager.

I'm all for "support your local merchant" (which in my case, happens to mean Microsoft, Starbucks, and Amazon -- and I have musician and artist friends or acquaintances working at all 3 joints); it strikes me that in a context of counter-U.S.-ification, "local" means, "my whole [non-U.S.] country." As a United-States-ian, I'm all like, go Canada, whoo-whoo (though I hate your sweeeeet iced tea, and Vancouver has many many bad drivers), but I trust you will understand if I decline to join you in rooting for "your" capitalists versus "ours".

Posted by john on December 10, 2006 3:35 PM

 

 

Abebooks is still very much Canadian and never was a bookstore. It still has its headquarters in Victoria. Carl, I know of a certain independent Toronto bookstore that is trying to address that particular problem and fill the gap. For now, why not link directly to the publishers rather than sullying your site with the funk of amazon.com? Some even sell direct.

Posted by benstimpson on December 10, 2006 12:40 PM

 

 

ABE Books is no longer a Canuck bookstore. In fact it isn't a bookstore at all. It's a search engine that bookstores have their products on.
ABE is is now owned by very large corporation - I think German. They have also bought out Bookfinder.com as the monopoly train chugs along.
They do not sell books. They sell a service that helps people buy and sell.

Posted by eric on December 9, 2006 12:02 PM

 

 

I'm glad King's in there, because he is the culmination of a self-consciously prophetic mode in America, and (thanks to recording technology) the Sound of his voice is indelible; to exclude him would be embarrassing.

It may take a couple of years, but I'll track that book down. Thanks.

Posted by john on December 8, 2006 1:07 PM

 

 

Yes, it is a book of men with gender only discussed in that middle Lynch/Riot Grrrl centerpiece, which might be Marcus’ "legacy" work and is worth the price of admission... If you can handle the frustration wishing the author had the nerve to develop his best section into a full-on Sleater Kinney chapter. Philip Roth/David Lynch/Sleater Kinney/Pere Ubu. How's that for an American family?

And I never understood the exclusion of Sun Ra from this book. Marcus’ source works for his writings have always been (annoyingly so at times) vocal-based, narrative songs, but the dazzling amount of story, voice, history and ideas of American prophecy contained within and framing Sun Ra’s project was MADE for this book.

That said, it's a great, impassioned book that you could argue with every other page and I have used up all my Zoilus comment credits this week!

Posted by Brian on December 8, 2006 1:05 PM

 

 

I double checked the book when I got home, and I should say that there's a big bit about MLK's I Had a Dream at the top, and some mentions of blues throughout. But that's pretty limited. Although in his defence Marcus doesn't claim to be doing anything thorough, and his subject choices are eccentric, it's still a big gap.

Posted by zoilus on December 8, 2006 2:54 AM

 

 

Yeah, I overreached there - what I meant was not the individuals, but that the '60s counterculture (white division) was the source of rockist "authenticity" concepts, so the songwriting-factory model was contrary to all o' that guff. Not of course that Wild in the Streets was pro-counterculture - quite the opposite, it was a scare story; the acid-trip sequence actually really spooked me as a young'un, though now it seems totally comic. (As does, by the way, the "nuclear freeze sit-in" episode of Fame I just saw in a re-run, which is overrun with 60s nostalgia to a sickly-nauseating degree. It ends with Joan Baez in the School of the Arts, singing Blowin' in the Wind while all the students hold candles, so that they can hold their nuclear-freeze benefit show where they do numbers from Hair! And this in the New York of the late seventies/early eighties, where they could have brought punk and hip-hop protest into the story...)

Anyway, yeah, see Wild in the Streets. It's a great document.

And you're right about black prophecy. For example, I recently picked up a collection John Corbett edited called The Wisdom of Sun Ra: Sun Ra's Polemical Broadsheets and Streetcorner Leaflets (WhiteWalls/U Chicago), which reproduces the Christian-Africanist-Futurist mimeographed pamphlets he used to hand out on streetcorners when he was out there preaching. They're remarkable documents, and a comparison in Marcus's book between their visionary language and David Thomas's, for instance, would have been terrific.

Posted by zoilus on December 8, 2006 2:12 AM

 

 

well, I really want to see that movie! Les Baxter is an interesting musician, and the Brill Building people wrote many great songs (though I don't know that one).

I wouldn't describe the Brill Building as counter-countercultural -- lots of crossover. Gerry Goffin was a Dylan-revering goattee-sporting Beatnik; Carole King as the Woman In Charge, and implicitly in her woman-powered music, was as prophetic of progressivism as anything in the counterculture.

The idea of a book about Prophecy & the American Voice that does not discuss the tradition of Black American prophecy is, like, weirdly out-of-touch 1950s cloistered academic. Bizarre.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Posted by john on December 8, 2006 12:38 AM

 

 

you could try abebooks
http://www.abebooks.com/docs/CompanyInformation/
they are a canuckster bookstore

Posted by will on December 7, 2006 11:30 PM

 

 

I forget whether Marcus namechecks Ornette on that - and you're right, he misses an opportunity there. The book's biggest flaw, really, is that it doesn't factor how non-white artists relate to this prophetic tradition - race is an issue in the book, but not from that perspective, which would add another layer of complexity. And unless I misremember - Brian? - the riot grrl section is the only nod to gender and sexuality, and it's kinda through a victimology screen. So ditto.

But the reference in the title is kind of brilliant: It's taken from the title of a CD release of an early classic-era Pere Ubu concert, and Thomas took the title from the song that charted in 1968 by the fictitious Max Frost and the Troopers, from the youthxploitation movie Wild in the Streets, in which hippies take over America. (Which itself took the title from HG Wells, of course.) Thomas says he chose it because, like the movie, early Ubu had a vision of a future that would never come true. (And like that movie, it was simultaneously a utopian vision and a dystopian one, albeit for rock music rather than society.) Most of the music in that movie was written by Les Baxter, but John, you'll appreciate the irony that this particular song was actually a Brill Building product -a Barry Mann-Cynthia Weill co-write... like the Monkees songs, an anthem of the counterculture created by the counter-counterculture.

The song peaked at somewhere in the low 20s in the U.S. but I'm strangely proud to say it made it to number 2 in Canada. It's a good song. And it's a fantastically terrible movie. I saw it accidentally on TV when I was about 12 and have never forgotten it.

The chorus of the song is "Nothing can change the shape of things to come," which I think would be Ubu's stance to a T: Yes, our vision never happened in the real world, and yet it remained inevitable and true. It is at once undefeatable and doomed.

Posted by zoilus on December 7, 2006 10:45 PM

 

 

omigoodness, I blew it! (again.) The Coleman album is "The Shape of *Jazz* to Come." NOT the shape of THINGS. My mis-remembering makes me wonder whether I associate Jazz with the All, or what Taoism calls the 10,000 Things.

The rest of my comment, I stand by. American. Prophetic. Rootsy. And . . . Shapely and Thingly and Coming.

Posted by john on December 7, 2006 10:02 PM

 

 

Carl, you & Brian Joseph Davis make me want to check the book out, but I have to ask -- does the book mention Ornette Coleman? I know Ornette didn't coin the phrase, but he's one of the 10 most important prophets of 20th century American music, he shares so many roots with Marcus's avatars, and his most famous album (and it's madly prophetic too) shares a title with Marcus's book. Ornette's album is the first thing I thought of when I heard the title. (I know I don't need to tell you this . . . )

Posted by john on December 7, 2006 8:59 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson