Wednesday, March 12, 2008

10.5 ways of looking at an UBU.

Cubist blues

Conflict lies at the heart of Pere Ubu’s aesthetic, the impossibility of any final commitment, the equal impossibility of abandoning the project they’ve embarked upon. The only certainties are: that it will consume them, that they will fail, just as the only certainty I have in writing about them is that I will fail. They’re too big, too important, too quixotic to capture. They can only be approached, and from any one vantage point what they are will be different, and mostly hidden away.

Failure, certainly. But still, it’s the quality of the failure that counts.

The Holy Greil

David Thomas has appended a quote form Greil Marcus to his biography on the Ubu website.

"Thomas' gnostic argument - that art exists to at once reveal secrets and to preserve them - makes sense of a particularly American - or modern - form of storytelling. In a big, multifaceted democracy, you're supposed to be able to communicate directly with everyone, yet many despair of being understood by anyone at all... Out of this comes an American language that means to tell a story no one can turn away from. But this language - identified by D. H. Lawrence in 1923, in Studies in Classic American Literature, as the true modernist voice, the voice of Hawthorne, Poe, Melville - is cryptic before it is anything else. It is all hints and warnings, and the warnings are disguised as non sequiturs. The secret is told, but nonetheless hidden, in the musings, babblings, or tall tales of people who seem too odd to be like you or me, like us - like the author who puts his or her name to the story, insisting that he made it all up, that she just did it for the money.”

This locates Thomas in a singularly American tradition, one more voice in the great, endless argument as to what America is, how its unique promise can be fulfilled, what language, if any, is adequate to articulate this “last, best hope”. It is this energy, this tension between the human necessity of a fixed meaning and the ethical impossibility of any resolution that is America itself, a question, endlessly rephrased, admitting of no closure. It’s precisely this “democratic” energy, a form of monumental existential panic that feeds the dynamism of American culture. The Great American Novel can never be written, it can only be quested after. “Moby Dick” presents us with the canonical image of American life: Ahab in pursuit of the white whale, the Master A-signifier in all its gigantic, unreachable blankness. America itself and its tormenting infinitude, the individual lost in the American Cultural Sublime.

But really here Marcus is talking about mid-to-late era Ubu, from the Fontana years onward, through Thomas’ work with the Two Pale Boys and his “Opera” “Mirror Man,” the point at which Thomas has already rolled back toward the American axis in his thirty plus years of oscillating between the two poles that define the vast cultural domain within which Ubu operate, pre-war Europe and Post War America. The name of this band is, after all, Pere Ubu.

The Tenement Year.

Unpicking the tightly interwoven strands of European and American influence that make up Pere Ubu’s singularly complex DNA is a forbidding task, but the “Tenement Year” an album which exists at a rough mid-point in Ubu’s career partially does the job for you. It’s the point where Thomas begins to return home again, where the separating out is at its starkest, the pendulum swinging away from the European avant-garde anti-rock elements that had reached a peak on “The Art of walking,” were partially reintegrated into more familiar song formats in “Song of the Bailing Man” and which broke through again in Thomas’s post Ubu work (collected on the box set “Monster”) up to “Blame the Messenger”, officially attributed to The Wooden Birds, but largely acknowledged as the first record of Ubu’s reformation.

Two tracks on the “Tenement Year” (the first song is tellingly entitled “Something’s gotta give”) exemplify the split. “George had a hat” is recognizably Ubu of old with its flatulent overflow of honking bassoons and chirruping synths, Thomas chanting the nonsensical Dadaist refrain “George had a hat but it wasn’t where it wasn’t at” while “Busman’s honeymoon” is a straighter, more melodic vision of the great American Out-There, his friends “afraid of this strange, free, wide-open land.” This is the line that Ubu increasingly refine over the next two albums, “Cloudland” and “Worlds in Collision” exploiting Thomas’ hitherto well-hidden knack for melody. The emphasis in “Avant-Garage,” Thomas’ formulation both for the manifest destiny of rock as the great synthetic art form bridging the transatlantic and the high/low cultural divide, here falls on the Garage.

Heartland Rock

The four albums collectively known as the Fontana Years are effectively Ubu’s take on Heartland rock, a genre largely defined (at least in commercial terms) by Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp. For Euro-oriented art-fags Pere Ubus dalliance with populist musical reactionaries like Mellencamp was an aesthetic heresy, but it is consonant both with Thomas’s Dada derived concerns and his take on the centrality of rock as the great Twentieth century art form. Heartland rock with its emphasis on isolation both geographical and emotional and the decline of blue collar industry, hitched to a belief in the redemptive power of music, plugs directly into Ubu’s concerns.

Whereas a group like the Minutemen (who are themselves a variant on heartland rock, I’d argue) might have scorned the Industry Manufactured Blue Collar of someone like Mellencamp through their anti-capitalist, Punk ethos, Thomas has no such reservations. Thomas is undoubtedly a conservative, keen to distance himself from punk’s pseudo-egalitarianism and political pretensions from the start. Nor is it necessary to abandon Europe in the return home. Absurdism’s focus on the necessity of the individual creating his own meaning and purpose unfettered by history or tradition can sit readily alongside grassroots Rugged Individualism.

Why he hates women.

There is no contradiction between aesthetic or formal radicalism and political conservatism, Thomas is largely “Art pour le art”, and any objections he may appear to have to the current state of the music industry are largely the same set of Paleo-conservative complaints that Heartland rock adheres to: small business good, big business bad, the Fifties and Sixties as a Golden Age. The Other David, Lynch, occupies much the same territory: a nostalgia for the Fifties, the mom and pop business, Main Street’s cavalcade of neon-lit, faintly illicit pleasures, the wild sounds of rock and roll on the radio, good girls, bad girls. This is one aspect of their shared heritage. Lynch has even made an overt heartland movie, “The Straight Story” whose overlap with Thomas’ Mirror Man is pronounced.

George Lucas’ dream vision of the fifties, “American Graffiti”, the first “musical” to use an uninterrupted stream of golden-oldies as the soundtrack and sculpt the narrative around particular songs presented a womb-like vision of a life cradled within a web of keening rock and doo-wop, sunk in the car’s luxurious upholstery, the harsh edges of life impressionistically blurred by signs and streetlights. It’s hard not to read much of the glow of Fifties nostalgia, and much of the music itself as an extension of the frustrations of not getting laid, the infamous and presumably ubiquitous “blue balls” that protracted arousal without the prospect of relief brings, a neon-edged, numinous fuzz. “Why must I be a teenager in love?” Lynch understands that sex is the portal into the profane world out of the heightened perception that supercharged teenage libido produces, the virginal bobby-soxer who won’t touch your dick keeps you suspended in a world of agonizing softness, the woman who’ll crank your shank thrusts you back into the sourly concrete. The Sonics hit the dichotomy right with their two most famous tracks “Psycho” and “The Witch” (you hate the woman who gets you hard, you fear the women who gets you off.) It’s there in Garage, it’s there in the Beach Boys, another of Thomas’ touchstones. Thomas has covered Surfer Girl with Ubu and Surf’s Up with the Two Pale Boys, reveres Van Dyke Parks, who he wanted to produce Worlds in Collision, as one of the three great geniuses of American pop music, the other two being, at a guess, Don Van Vliet (Beefheart’s Dadaist blues is everywhere in Thomas’ work of course) and Brian Wilson. The Beach Boys offer up softly-layered, billowing hymns to the intense sensuality of Californian sun and sky coupled with the interminable, insatiate longing for release of young manhood in its hormone saturated, quiveringly oversensitive prime. It’s this tremulous accumulation of orgone energy that Psychic TV undoubtedly recognized in the Beach Boys. The pure, sweet, blameless girl who puts you through pleasurable hell. “The girls won’t touch me ‘cos I got a misdirection.”

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