Friday, November 14, 2008

Ohio and Paris and what happens in the crawlspace

Pere Ubu's Dub Housing (lala link) is perhaps the greatest new wave record ever. Convulsive, songs barely contained in the bounds of song and the act of singing them. David Thomas, looking all the world like Jackie Gleason on the skid bellowing "I GOT MY ARMS AND LEGS FLIP-FLOPPIN" is genius genius genius, and the small keyboard twinkle that snakes through "On the Surface" is perfectly formed like an actual snake - a perfect predator designed to paralyze its prey by the sheer it-doesn't have-any-legs! of it. And when the Greek chorus moans "...yeah we know..." in response to Thomas' beat poet exultation and that forlorn saxophone, we know, yeah we know. The whistle is blown, game over, checkout time is upon us. So bleak, but against that bleakness the will to persist is outlined with its own spooky aura.

Here they are performing "Birdies' in the essential new wave concert film Urgh! A Music War

Alfred Jarry, whose play Ubu Roi centers around the demented tyrant Pere Ubu which gives the band it's name, is the finest of the mad Frenchmen. He wandered the Paris streets of the 1890's in a chicken costume brandishing a pistol. He lived in a perverse apartment that was somehow between floors of another building, four foot ceilings, and when his friends assembled in that cramped space around his deathbed, he bolted up and asked for a toothpick. When someone finally reemerged with one, the restless playright who'd shocked Prais by having his character yell "SHIT!" at the onset of his famous play, supposedly sighed with pleased relief and passed.

here is a snippet of Ubu Roi, as performed by the Empty Spaces Theatre Co at the Orlando Shakespeare Festival in September 2006

Thomas's previous band Rocket from the Tombs is no less stellar, collected on this one release. Barking mad punk rock, trying to wriggle out of Ohio in the late 70s, the same pressures that squeezed out Devo and The Dead Boys (who largely sprang out of R4tT) and countless other shimmering genius bands we will never hear of. Is there a definitive Cleveland new wave book? If not, there should be.

"So Cold" is the perfect gateway drug for this careening, teetering band

So is there a direct relation between 70's Ohio and the tail end of 19th century France? Probably, if you want to make one. I know that I some fo my favorite art comes out of those two little nexii of time and place, and while I've never been to Cleveland, in the mid 90's I did spend a very drunken 72 hours in Cincinnati once and found the city to be populated with madmen on the verge, squirming under the thumb of its cloudy skies, trapped under that collapses of the American dream that give much of the Midwest a patina of rust.

Among the things I saw was the warehouse where Nam June Paik's giant TV-sculptures are erected, and just off the service elevator was a small room with dirt floors, TV's half buried in the dust facing upwards as if they were assembled to signal to rescue planes that would never see them. A shorted-out fluorescent bulb flickered erratically and someone in our party remarked that particular room was actually Hell.

The music of new wave in the 70's was a music borne in crawlspaces between the proper floors and under flickering lights in anonymous industrial buildings, after dreams had collapsed and the hunters and gatherers emerged to pick through the rubble and make things happen.


  1. You called?
    Only books I'm aware of, in reference to music from Cleveland, regard radio stations in Cleveland.
    LSU has a copy of Radiodaze which is (essentially) a history of WMMS (very influential radio station in the 70s/80s).

    There is a book about music in Ohio (I can't recall if I saw it at LSU or OSU) that had a chapter on Pere Ubu.

    And of course I have a couple of articles hiding in my collection from Columbus/Cleveland newspapers

  2. Dub Housing is indeed the stuff. I picked that up on vinyl in N.O. not long ago. Any other Pere Ubu recs? I have New Picnic Time & Modern Dance & that's it.

    And thanks for getting "Hold On Loosely" stuck in my head for the last few days.

  3. Those are the essential ones, but I also like Ray Gun Suitcase and the one that came out a year or two ago, the unfortunately named Why I Hate Women, which I reviewed here

    David Thomas' less rockish side projects with different backing groups (the Wooden Birds, the Pedestrians, and the Two Pale Boys) have some great moments esp a rock opera-esque Mirror Man and one that came out in 2001 Surf's Up, where he covers the Beach Boys song of the same name.

    Fun Fact: David Thomas is a Jehovah's Witness

  4. And how fucking cool is Peter Laughner on that Rocket clip?