by carl wilson

Ubu: Arc of Darkness

pereubudavearms.jpg
Pere Ubu, not in Toronto but in Chicago last week.

There were two kinds of audience members at last night's Pere Ubu show: Those who had seen the band before and those who hadn't. The latter, from what I could tell, walked away suitably impressed by the group's sonic power and personal magnetism; but those of us who'd seen Ubu before - in my case, about 10 or 11 times before - were not only disappointed but a bit concerned. It's no slight against the musicians - drummer Steve Mehlman (who was rockin' a vintage Skinny Puppy T-shirt), analog synth player Robert Wheeler, bassist Michele Temple and Keith Moline on guitar - who played fiercely, precisely and wildly when called upon, although I do feel like the absence of any '80s-or-earlier Ubu members other than Thomas has altered the dynamic for the worse since 2002, when guitarist Tom Herman departed. (I also feel a little sad that the band rule that all members must be from Cleveland was dropped - Moline is from England, and Thomas teases him about it - but I may just be being sentimental on that count.)

No, the trouble was that David Thomas didn't seem to want to be there.

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He didn't seem especially strongly not to want to be there - he wasn't screaming and stamping his feet at the other musicians and at the audience, which is a familiar sight and one that's usually compensated by a doubly powerful performance once he gets his shit back together. (Indeed, it often seemed as if the band deliberately simulated a performance breakdown in order to frack with audience expectations and achieve maximum mind-destructo mode upon restart.)

But in this case, it was almost as if Thomas was phoning it in. He wasn't, of course - I don't think "phoning it in" is something he's psychologically capable of - but his attention seemed intermittent, he didn't seem to particularly feel many of the songs, he was sometimes indifferent to the words and more focused on drinking (he praised Alexander Keith's beer extravagantly, saying that after decades of being given Labatt's and Molson's he had been under the impression that Canadian beer was all crap). At one point he even went out for a smoke break, though to his credit he did instruct the band to play a "really interesting introduction to this next song" before he left, which is what they did. He had a printed book of the lyrics and frequently referred to it, a shocking turnabout from show after show in which Thomas knew the words of all his songs so intimately that he seemed to be spontaneously thinking them up before your eyes and ears.

There were plenty of exceptions, when flashes of what makes him one of the greatest frontmen in rock history (a description I stand behind without a second's hesitation) flared up and he had us all in the palm of his hand rather than flicking us away with his thick fingers like pesky flies. There was my favourite song from the recent Why I Hate Women, "Caroleen," as well as "Folly of Youth" from Ray Gun Suitcase, "Sad.Txt" from Pennsylvania (Thomas complained that every cause has a ribbon except "former punk-rock males in their 40s and 50s going into a mid-life crisis" - someone in the crowd shouted "I want a ribbon" - he came back "I wrote you a ribbon!") and the whole encore, including a masterful performance of "Dark" from St. Arkansas, and not least a sweet version of "We Have the Technology," which I was thrilled was in the set (partly because it's one of my favourite songs and partly for the small selfish reason that my essay about it is about to come out in the new Da Capo Anthology, thanks to Mr. Christgau). But in overall effect the show took place in standard-issue reality-space, which is not the place you normally find yourself at the end of a Pere Ubu show. (Which explains why this is almost the only band I have ever considered following around on tour as if they were the Grateful Dead.)

During the final number, a very fine rendition of "Street Waves" (one of only a handful of "classic"-era songs - desultory versions of "Final Solution" and "The Modern Dance" and a pretty kickass "Sonic Reducer" from Rocket from the Tombs days), Thomas stopped the action to, as usual, introduce the band, but also to deliver a monologue that went something like this: "Now we've reached my favourite part of the show. The end. Because after the end, I am set free. Again. I can go back to my squalid hotel room and stare at the ceiling and ask myself the central question: 'Why. Am. I. Still. Doing. This.' " He went on to say that his life was driven by a fear of failure and his life had been nothing but failure." People in the audience shouted out that they loved him. "You don't understand. I don't care if you love me." (He later sort of apologized for saying that.) And then he said that his goal was to come out and give the audience a series of orgasmic experiences, and "you didn't get that tonight" - again, audience objections - "don't try to tell me," he said, "I know." And oddly enough, though it was all very bleak and I don't think he was kidding (even though it was all delivered within the self-satiric hyperbole that is Thomas's rhetorical home key), I found it comforting that he was acknowledging something was amiss. I hope that it was a bad mood rather than a bad life phase, that he really doesn't just wish he could quit.

Better, though, to quit than to become bitterly resigned. When you're the best - "I do one thing," he's said, "but I do it better than anybody else does," and that one thing has more to do with live performance than with making records, it has to do with being able to reliably dispense brain-gasms to barrooms full of strangers - it's unbecoming to carry on to the point where you don't respect your own talent anymore, where you settle for just being good and go into cruise control. (If I were a boxing fan I am sure I could summon up some perfect pugilistic-career parallel.) Thomas's perfectionism - with something as inherently impossible to "perfect" as the kind of broken and scrambled rock music Pere Ubu makes - has always been part of his signature set of paradox-miracles. So too the fact that he is able to make growling, gesticulating, whining and grimacing - and spitting out lyrics that tremble on the razor-edge between the deepest voice of the soul and the most nonsensical babble of baby talk - seem like such an immensely dignified and grownup activity.

Whether it was an off night or Thomas is having an off year, I trust that this is a transitional point, that he'll rediscover that sense of purpose for which, as he sings in "Dark," he's "agreed to pay the price." But some nights you see how high that price can be - when you come across a man who seemed to be born an immovable force, suddenly seeming eroded, a mountain worn down by rain.

PS: Zoilus-pal Chris Randle has another view over at Eye Daily, and Auditory has an interview.

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 03 at 2:00 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

COMMENTS

I dunno. I caught the POP show too, and the darker, drunker, "fuck the audience," guy-stuck-on-the-road-but-he-don't-know-why thing has been DT's shtick for a while now (I first saw them in Toronto in 2002 and that vibe was there). I think he's still engaged by doing shows-- no one can sit disinterested and brooding quite like David Thomas. There's a certain intensity & charisma to it, is what I mean. To which you can add the actual charisma evident in his fantastic song introductions & banter (fuck you's aside). On a certain level, I quite like going to rock show where the singer doesn't want to be my friend, to confirm me in my good tastes, to validate me for being fan, to tell me how swell my town is... masochistic, bored by convention, or a fan of good theatre-- who's to say?

Anyway, as the show progressed, more obvious signs of engagement became present. A rather long encore set. Hits were played (Non-Alignment Pact!). DT spent a good deal of "Phone Home Jonah" gesturing violently and obscurely at the synth player for something or other, then hurled him off stage and took over synth duties himself (randomly, furiously mashing buttons) until the poor man returned with a bottle of Remy Martin... and he nailed the song. I thought it was a pretty fine show indeed, all in all.

Posted by pm on October 9, 2007 10:55 PM

 

 

After witnessing the Pop Montreal show last night, I share your concern... it ended up being a pretty great show, but he was drinking Robert Pollard-style (though with a much darker vibe) and saying things like "I sneer at your applause. I disdain your applause. Fuck you!"

But what about Michele Temple? She's been with the band at least 10 years, stuck through an album called Why I Hate Women, and still held it down and looked like she was in rock ecstacy the whole show. Pretty awesome.

Posted by malstain on October 4, 2007 1:00 PM

 

 

I wonder if David Thomas was just really having an off night in Toronto. They played twice in Hamilton on Monday, an afternoon studio performance that was filmed and then their proper show at night, and I know he got very drunk for the first one and seemingly pretty drunk for the second one too. Maybe two piss-ups in one day pushed him over the limit because they were pretty great here in Hamilton.

Posted by Sean on October 4, 2007 9:18 AM

 

 

Thats pretty much the exact impression I have of the gig they played here in Oslo, Norway back in late april (on my birthday, no less), though back then Mr. Thomas had (allegedly?) caught food poisoning. The new band sounded great on the new songs (those I like, e.g. "Caroleen) but less so on the older ones, and Thomas only occasionally looked and sounded like his former self. Sadly, they didn't play "We Have the Technology".

Congrats with the inclusion of the essay. It's a great read.

Posted by Chris M on October 4, 2007 2:27 AM

 

 

oh my lord...

Posted by Rob on October 4, 2007 1:34 AM

 

 

 

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