Pere Ubu Lives in This Shit!

I suppose it's cannibalistic of me, but when I think an artist or group has a great heart, I expect to have it served up at performances. Which is to say, I was somewhat disappointed by the two shows at Hurrah last week of my favorite band, Pere Ubu. The first night I was practically vomiting with excitement, so I came back the next for perspective and heard a virtually identical set. (I did feel the second show took off more.) This is relative criticism. Ubu can rock out and tune in simultaneously, singer David Thomas is a very funny man, and both these shows were wonderful. But I've been told that Ubu live can be better than wonderful, and I believe it. So, as Debbie Harry said when Nick Tosches asked what kind of birth control she used, let's just stick to the music.

At the Bottom Line a while back, a random conversation turned, as conversations will, to Pere Ubu. Once we had revealed our true feelings, the stranger next to me could afford to cavil about the new album, Dub Housing. "Too juicy," he complained, preferring The Modern Dance. I had to disagree. Like a drummer I know who raved, "Much more accessible while still remaining really repulsive!" I felt Dub Housing was this Cleveland band's greatest work. Nothing they have ever recorded--including the three singles rereleased, more or less, as the import-only EP Datapanik in the Year Zero--has lacked intensity, consciousness, originality, and visionary edge. But the openness of this album--the convincing imitation of randomness in the use of randomlike sounds tucked into deep but tactfully casual structures-the increasingly organic (even mammalian) evocations of Allen Ravenstine's synthesizer--the increasing good nature of David Thomas's sad-clown vocals--the cheerful pace--the exuberance of bon mots like "I have desire!" and "Boy that sounds swell!"--all took Dub Housing over some kind of line for me.

Pere Ubu describes its organization as "anarchistic" and its product as "industrial music." But they've also pointed out: "We're not so much concerned with the actual industry. That's one thing. The form of the art and the art of the form and how they both apply to human flesh is more our concern." A recurring theme in Ubu imagery is the vision of urban industrial environment as a kind of natural form, often water. A recurring aural element is the confusion of organic and inorganic matter--a synthesizer screech somewhere between a train's whistle and a horse's neigh, Thomas vibratoing like a car shimmy , horn/vocal trompe-I'oreilles. One of Ravenstine's great sounds, "bffp," is something between motorcycle acceleration and a Bronx cheer. Pere Ubu poses the musical question: How do we live in this shit? It answers: With imagination! And rhythm!

You could say that Ubu's secret is the combination of arty ideas with great riffs and hooks, but even if that were simple, it wouldn't begin to suggest the astonishing proliferation and felicity of pattern in the music. When I counterposed Dub Housing to Roxy Music--which also lays dancey rhythms in pleasantly dissonant relation to arty vocals--Ubu seemed to have three solid riffs for every Roxy one. (It sounded more akin to the febrile Ornette Coleman I tried next.) Sometimes Ubu songs seem to be built of riffs alone. The bridge from riff to riff is another riff. Even a crowd sound can operate as a kind of bridge, with a distinct shape, including murmur, scattered titter, and sweeping applause. The sound of breaking glass will turn out to be the hook (just ask my cats). Often the words embody such clean rhythms they can stand in as riffs in their own right, with a spoken, not sung, vocal dynamic: "I breathed in (squeek); I breathed out!/I breathed in (squeek); I breathed out!/I went out. I came back!!" Like a hot potato, focus is tossed from lead vocal to synthesizer, to sound effect, to something else. In the previous case, "(Pa) Ubu Dance Party," the appeal of the riffy lyric, like that of the honky-tonkish keyboard riff and car-related noises, is subsumed by a great backup chorus that goes "Didada dah dah! Dida dab dah! Dida dah dah, nah-nah nah!"

It's a complexly evocative music, too; "We try to transmit a whole series of images," Thomas says. In the preternaturally lovely "Codex," the lyrical shape of the semi-spoken plaint, "I think about you all the time," flutters up top over back-up groans (like souls of the damned) both sung and synthesized, which plod or slide down scales illustrating the next band in the lyrical design: "Step after step, block after block." This song begins and ends with a simple guitar solo consisting of four notes, which are finally tipped on their side. Then out trudges a final two-note motif, which fades like footsteps.

Grooves run deep through this music (lots of funkoid and reggaeish rhythms), but the movement of the whole is also turned by the delicate off-timing of individual flourishes--not only Ravenstine's brays, squeals, and backfires, or Thomas's little hums, but also Tony Maimone's spare, sometimes Latinish piano, his and guitarist Tom Herman's casual vocal entries and exits, Scott Krauss's random drumrolls and cymbal crashes. The ensemble is what matters, though. All of these musicians are accomplished, but flourishes and bridges are as close as they usually get to solo work. More characteristically they share chores. The punkish pulse and jazzy feel of Krauss's relatively light drum touch--spare with the bass, free with the cymbals--leaves space for Maimone's robust basslines to muck about in; Herman's guitar can drive the beat with big diagonals or simply set up a kind of drone, a zithery, twangy dissonance that's part of the overall melodic flavor, like Thomas's purposeful off-keys. Even the "lead" vocals often function as just one more part in a contrapuntal or polyphonic construct.

Talking with one of many writers who have designs on the Pere Ubu subject (and who all seem mildly relieved to be beaten to it this time around), I recently learned that Thomas once called himself "Doctor Science." The writer would have wanted to explore the social-realist aspect of the work, he told me. "Take it," I said. The primrose path I had mapped out followed another former Thomas name, "Crocus Behemoth"--the beauty in the (industrial/fat) beast. I was particularly moved by the band's rare conjunction of compassion with visionary modernism. I wanted to talk about fat, and David Thomas's aghast, benign, serious fat boy's voice, blubbering. I figured to bring in Harvey Pekar, the Cleveland cartoonist whose real-life-style American Splendor comics touch some of the same bases as Ubu--and maybe William Carlos Williams, poet laureate of Paterson. Fat chance. The form is so damn rich I got stuck in it!

Village Voice, May 7, 1979