If Music is the Answer, What's the Question?
by Carl Wilson
Please note: MP3s are only kept online for a short time, and if this entry is from more than a couple of weeks ago, the music probably won't be available to download any more.
Forgive me; this won't be brief. Because, to put it plain, this is one of my favourite songs. Yet a frustrating quest a few months ago could not turn up the original version, from the album The Tenement Year, anywhere in the digital wilds, legal or no. Weeks later, too late for the mix I'd been hoping to make, I got ahold of a 'hard' copy. And tonight I realized that thanks to Said the Gramophone, I had the means to alter that reality for some other searcher out there.
So here we are. You and I. The moment is delicate. Don't press play yet. Already I have built the song into myth, the myth of a favourite song, and if you hear it and shrug, 'huh, whatever', this conspiracy between us, this chance for contact and sympathy, may vanish. Words cannot prevent it. Not all the words that have been spent enhancing the legend of Pere Ubu, certainly, by the likes of Greil Marcus or Jon Savage or most recently Simon Reynolds -- most of them devoted to the way in the mid-1970s the band transfigured the sonic scrapheap of post-industrial Cleveland, forged it into a futurist vision of the American transcendental tradition, an alternate history of rock'n'roll, fated to one of the most influential obscurities in modern music. This is not that Pere Ubu. You can look that one up.
This is the Pere Ubu of 1988, when it had regrouped after David Thomas's more-scorned-than-heard, 'eccentric nature-boy' solo years. Now David Thomas lived in what he considered an exile in England, making albums such as Monster Walks the Winter Lake, a metaphoric suite about the breakdown of communication in a marriage. In those songs, he portrayed a failing marriage as a third entity, a Frankenstein pastiche of 'parts that don't matter,' a hulk that comes lumbering between two people, silencing them, dominating the horizon. And in the first years of the reanimated Pere Ubu this theme persisted: Where to turn when the dynamic between people is beyond their control, when it wrenches the torch from their hands and blazes through the village? It needn't be a marriage; it could be a band.
All right, let it play now.
As so often, in a group that always made its art from the parts that weren't supposed to matter in culture, from B-movies and sci-fi novels and comics and Germanic freak rock and abandoned buildings and obsolete synthesizers and dinosaur books, Pere Ubu digs for inspiration in the trash: Here it's the opening sequence of the boneheaded 1970s TV show The Six-Million-Dollar Man, in which the surgeons intone over the prone body of the astronaut, 'We can rebuild him. We have the technology.' And somehow, presumably with bits of early microwaves, Soviet satellites and HAL-9000, they call the fallen man to rise, to run fast in slow motion, to face supervillains and (not incidentally) fembots -- too good to be good, much less true.
But David Thomas isn't a kid any more. He doesn't want to fight cartoon threats, or even, for awhile, his pet cultural apocalypse. He wants to talk to his wife. What is that monster made of? It's made up of moments, intervals at which no one rises to the occasion, or all parties are too stubborn to prevent the inevitable crash. Where is the device to stop the action - time travel that goes not forward or back but within, as in Nicholson Baker's The Fermata, or in the current glib Adam Sandler variation with the remote control that could put life on pause, to let us 'hold it to the light, study all the angles, and find out How and Why it's gotta go the way that it goes'? That's the only restoration for this man fallen to earth, this no-longer-young genius laid low by human banality.
The fantasy swells to overwhelm him. With his meaty hand he swats away apparitions of 'thinkers and poets of the past - oh no!' There must be more than blind intuition. There must be a machine. And with that the utopia passes to dystopia, to eyes that are 'beaming,' to coming 'unstuck completely, Flap A from Slot B, slapping in the wind!' It's a bit like the Internet, this flux of liberated information, of knowledge unhinged from wisdom. (In a couple of years Pere Ubu would be an early adopter, putting out CD-Rs, and press materials in pre-Web hypercard stacks.)
Yet isn't the song itself made up of moments? With its anti-canonical poetic folds, and the anarchic presence of Allan Ravenstein's EML synthesizer - never before as assertive as on this album - this music seems to be splicing possibility with its every twist. Yet the hunted man inside this storm hasn't the patience, hasn't the hold on his desperation, to let him inhale its gusts or let its lightning travel through him to ground. Surely the solution must be elsewhere, beyond this song. And it's this error, the song's self-disregard, that tells the tale. 'This moment' in which the song began has been bypassed in yearning for a higher power. Rewind, begin again and again, but it still goes the way that it goes. It ascends from the real to the sublime, and in that very apotheosis, it goes hollow and is lost.
And reader, my words won't save our moment, either. If you've listened to the track, you've heard what I did when I finally found it again: The 1980s sound is shallow, brittle, the recording not much more than a blueprint for the song I remember, the song it is supposed to be, the one that contains its own undoing and thereby its own fulfillment. Even David Thomas's maelstrom of a voice is more like a flat surface.
Stop. Let's study one more angle.
There is another, still-in-print version of this song on Apocalypse Now, a live recording made at Schuba's in Chicago in 1991, on a break from touring with Ubu acolytes the Pixies. Allan Ravenstine is absent (by now he'd quit music altogether), but some of the roar and absolutism of the song I recall is restored, its spontaneity, that unstuckness that my memory must have transferred from live experiences to the original recording. But here, the details of the fable, its path from reasonable question to irrational answer - a Dr. Who episode taken to its logical mad end - are muddled in the generalities of a rock show.
No, it's not out there, the We Have the Technology that I intended to share with you. Nothing correlates to the song inside me, just a chain of translations, representations that undo me, that won't shut up, that breed monsters only to fight the monsters who preceded them. You'll never understand. I don't understand it myself anymore. All I have is this story about where it all went wrong. Does it help, this autopsy? If I guessed why you don't love me, darling, might you love me again?Posted by Carl Wilson at July 7, 2006 5:02 AM
Thanks for the novel , Carl. I thought of this song as an examination of the knife-edge of passion versus craft in making art. The rejection of the blind meanderings of the ancients for the allure of undo and redo. We have the technology to make a million different stabs at making our point. Somehow, we end up just making the same choices again and again. The (original) version supports a much more humanistic approach. I like it a lot.Posted by Half at July 7, 2006 9:34 AM
That was quite well written. You also managed the first StG reference to Dr. Who, and you're not me. Now I'm REALLY impressed. You also reminded me to remember to do that which I always forget to do: Check out Pere Ubu.Posted by Joel Taylor at July 7, 2006 10:12 AM
Thomas said the next Ubu record is called "Why I Hate Women". Maybe someone's revisiting Winter Lake. I really like when thoughtful writing can give a new slant on what one's heard. Well done!Posted by Daniel at July 7, 2006 12:40 PM
Thanks, nice to know someone else has been looking for this song and actually found it and posted it on his blog. You´ve really made my day.Posted by ingimar at July 7, 2006 6:21 PM
I saw this incarnation of Pere Ubu live, and I can appreciate what Carl's saying - nothing can really sum up the untrammeled weirdness and beauty of Crocus Behemoth in all of his majesty. I haven't listened to this in years, thanks a lot!Posted by Paul at July 10, 2006 10:02 AM
Thanks for posting this - 1988's Pere Ubu part Deux sometimes gets slagged, but I always thought The Tenement Year was swell, slightly better than the Simply Doesn't Suck comebacks of other artists. I think it only sounds tinny via digital reproduction - my vinyl copy, equalized properly, animates in the room like a cartoon, and now that I think it, some tracks do get all Stallings-ish on the ears, especially the synths ...Posted by J Frank Parnell at July 10, 2006 12:22 PM
Echoing everyone else's thanks - this was the song that introduced me to Pere Ubu, after seeing the video on MuchMusic around '91 or so.Posted by Jamie at July 11, 2006 1:51 PM
That was some of the most beautiful and compelling writing I've ever had the pleasure of reading on StG. The song is exactly what you described, and it's not a Pere Ubu track I'd ever heard before. Both versions are mini-marvels in their way.Posted by Paul at July 12, 2006 5:09 PM
Hey, nice coincidence! I was working on a post regarding Blame the Messenger, and I came across this recent, excellent piece to give context to my words on The Tenement Years. Nice work. My words on the precurssor to this comeback album can be found here:
Cheers!Posted by frankenslade at July 14, 2006 11:42 AM
Yeah, well, I'm late to the party, but who cares: Pere Ubu really was all that. I am a little ashamed to admit that on the night I could have seen them during DT's Brian-Wilson phase or Spiritualized at their about-to-hit-it-big-with-the-kids moment, I chose the latter.
It was not only among the worst shows I ever saw (only 'Take Me To The Other Side' had any energy at all, and that song was almost a decade old at the time), but I had to spend the whole time thinking, "shit, I'm missing Pere Ubu for this crap."
Good though their overall career was, you can't get away from how @#$%! good that first LP is.
Yow.Posted by wcw at July 27, 2006 8:05 PM
Thanks for this necessery article, such a wonderful tipsPosted by burs at August 27, 2008 5:35 AM
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about the authors
Sean Michaels is the founder of Said the Gramophone. He is a writer, critic and author of the theremin novel Us Conductors. Follow him on Twitter or reach him by email here. Click here to browse his posts.
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