David Thomas, the founder of the experimental band Pere Ubu, objected when Greil Marcus used the word "punk" to describe what they do. "Pere Ubu is not punk," he wrote Marcus in reply. "We are a rock band . . . in the mainstream . . . from a separate and lost evolutionary path if you must but still mainstream . . . We do not break with the past. We are in the direct line of descent of our esteemed forebears in rock music. We are our fathers' sons."
The degree to which that comment surprises you will depend upon your degree of familiarity with the band. If you don't know who I'm talking about at all, of course no definition will surprise you. If you know exactly who I'm talking about, no definition will surprise you. Pere Ubu started in Cleveland in the 1970s and it is a mainstream rock band from a lost evolutionary line, with strong opinions about Justin Bieber. If you know a little about it, there might be a terrific puzzlement about this word "mainstream" and how it could apply to what the band has done. But don't take my word for it; have a look and a listen. And note, please, the home-made theremin:
Now, I hope that somebody has wound up here because he wanted to read about Ubu Roi, the dadaist play from 1896 by Alfred Jarry. The band borrows its name from the protagonist of Ubu Roi. Unfortunately, nobody has produced this play around Boston for comparison, but it would be interesting to hear about the disorientation that results when mistaking the twentieth-century band for the nineteenth-century play. Plus, the mistake would be correct: we are gathered here to think about Pere Ubu, the rock band, as it relates to Pere Ubu, Alfred Jarry's image of bloodthirsty banality and gross irresponsibility that tramps through Ubu Roi. David Thomas' mainstream rock is a new-wave theatrical enterprise rich with reference, even without mention of the operas and ballet works that he has written and staged. Ubu Roi is not in production, but Pere Ubu is currently on tour: rock band that they are, their drama is exquisite in this context.
David Thomas has been the only constant element in Pere Ubu since its beginnings in 1975. Thomas cuts an Ubuesque figure onstage and seems to be of larger dimensions than anybody else, as if separately photographed and superimposed on the scene. At Brighton Music Hall on September 19 Thomas played a solo set, masquerading as his own opening act while Robert Wheeler, the theremin player, circled the room in jerky sidesteps, holding angular structures with his ams and wearing a white rubber chicken mask with bugged-out eyes. "Chicken kabuki," commented one of the crowd, nonplussed.
The projector put a video of a younger man playing music onto the back wall while Thomas, looking like Sidney Greenstreet half-deflated and marooned in his mom's basement, curled around levers and microphones and electronic controls on the center lip of the stage and tortured sounds out of the air. David Thomas can brood in iridescent sound. Lyrics are not discernible, but his voice strained pathos through amplifiers, and electronics I do not recognize made dim metallic swells. It was as though some sleepy resistance were the goal of this slower, gentler opening masquerade. Ubu speaks his nonsense nightmares in his sleep.
There is certainly some basic resemblance to notice between the physically enormous Thomas, offering streaming deprecations of his audience, and the hulking, fictitious Mr. Ubu. In Jarry's woodcut, reproduced for the sleeve of "30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” the resemblance is particularly striking. "All the deepest, most unacceptable, most bestial and most banal impulses in the human being rolled into one," says an early friend of Thomas, summing up the original Ubu, "it was that character that he wanted to impersonate." Jarry's Pere Ubu is a figure somewhere between Hitler and Homer Simpson; a Polish and exaggerated version of Macbeth, he is Jarry's demented premonition of the Great War.
But returning to Thomas, it seems to me that impersonation is quite obviously not what he does onstage. Greil Marcus recalls a monologue that was particularly shuddering, and it is characteristic of the kind of thing he does ten times in every set, over spooky science fiction noise from the homemade theremins.. "We live in the beginning of a voodoo age," Thomas says as the they vamp something like "Stand by Me":
We live in a time of magic, superstition, and ignorance. We are the last generation that will ever know what it is like to live in an enlightened world. Twenty years from now, if we're all still here, you'll dandle your grandchildren on your knees and you'll tell 'em stories of the Golden Age of the Nineties. 1996 was a good year! You'll tell them about how in 1996, you didn't have to wear personal laser-guided backpack protection systems. You could leave the windows open. Cows were animals. And your grandchildren will look at you, and they'll think you're crazy. And in that moment, you'll think back to when you were a child, and your grandparents were telling you about the golden old days, and you looked at them and thought that they were crazy. That's the heritage to be passed on, from generation to generation—an echo of pain through time. It'll be too late, because your parents will be long dead, and no one will understand you.
When I saw Ubu at Brighton Music hall, the speeches were more optimistic but more purely fantasy. Thomas told stories about the stadiums built in his honor across America, and was deeply touched that Pere Ubu had been named Justin Bieber's favorite rock group. He later said that Justin Bieber is a disturbing phenomenon. Preaching, stand-up comedy, stump speechifying, and speaking in tongues: these triangulate around whatever Thomas really does with his speech, in seamless transition after seamless transition between banter that is built of outrageous lies—clearly partially scripted—and blasts of rock, cued off the dialogue as sharply as the tunes are in a Broadway musical. The theatrics are home grown, but conceptually elaborate, like the mystery that always lurks behind the chosen name of a rock band.
"So it came time to come up with a name for a band," Thomas recounted to Greil Marcus, early this century, "I chose 'Pere Ubu' because . . . the name looked good, had three syllables and wasn't likely to mean anything to anyone in our audience and would be neutral unless you had knowledge in which case we were giving you a clue but the key to the clue was—and here is the vital point—the key to the clue was NOT the obvious one. And if all this sounds a bit pretentious for a bunch of kids in their early twenties remember that we were the ones who had taken the name of a French cinematic movement to apply to what we were doing. We were beyond pretentious. We were in the right place in the right time with the right tools . . . and we didn't care."
Only a clue is provided. That clue needs a key. And the key to the clue is not the obvious one. In the name of the band alone, Thomas opens an Alice-in-Wonderland corridor of misdirection about meaning and identity. Pere Ubu is and is not Thomas himself, just as the dada impulses are and are not reflected in the punk and New Wave ethos. There is something of the dada legacy carried through when artists feel abandoned by the mainstream traditions that they wish to claim, including the big political and social ones, the ones that have power to precipitate war. Jarry's Pere Ubu embodies the horrifying insensitivity, violence and banality of the distant powers that run the modern world. But Thomas' Pere Ubu is an organism of great sensitivity and wild insight, channeling the absurd and vicious swan song of its own society: it channels the ghost of Ubu. It is available. And that act of channeling is a way of playing pretend that is most real. The band performs a kind of theater, almost ritual, and that twists artifice into performance at its most pure. "It was with Elvis," Thomas says, "that the singer becomes the priest."