Whos doing a multimedia theater festival? David Thomas, ringmaster-cum-custodian of Disastodrome!, sounds surprised at the idea. No, he says, This is a mess. We call it a controlled mess, so people wont worry. Encompassing three nights that find Thomas best known as the voice of Ohio avant-garagists Pere Ubu in a variety of collaborative contexts, the UCLA event is closely modeled on a similar one (dis)organized for Londons South Bank Festival in 1998. (Current UCLA Live artistic director David Sefton also commissioned the earlier staging.) Speaking from London, Thomas explains the weekends origin.
The first Disastos were shows that Johnny Dromette, whos been Pere Ubus only real art director, set up in 1977. Johnny [Cleveland record-store owner John Thompson] would have bands play in an old radio theater on the edge of the Cleveland ghetto, and there would be flaming sofas onstage, and winos from the neighborhood wandering in. People would come up to Johnny confrontationally, and he finally said to me, All of a sudden, I felt like bring it on, I can take it. Thats when we started saying, We call it Disasto, so nothing can go wrong.
The present Disastodrome! is a midcareer benchmark for one of not-so-popular musics bravest frontiersmen. The durable Pere Ubu began life in 1975 as a one-time studio project after the demise of the harder-rocking Rocket From the Tombs (of which more below). The early Ubu albums (The Modern Dance and Dub Housing) were both abrasive and sophisticated; at a time when most Americans had barely heard of punk rock, these Midwesterners had left it light-years behind.
After Ubus first incarnation disbanded in 1982, Thomas embarked on a string of decidedly unrock & roll solo albums, featuring intrepid players from Richard Thompson to Henry Cows Chris Cutler and Lindsay Cooper. The last of his backing configurations, the Wooden Birds, enlisted so many ex-Ubu members that they reactivated the name with 1988s The Tenement Year. Since then, the singer, who now lives in Brighton, England, has shifted restlessly between continents and bandmates, balancing the still-Cleveland-based Ubu with a range of other projects: Its fine, because Ive really only been writing about one thing for the last 25 years.
If theres a constant in Thomas work, its his obsession with place, and our attempts to escape it. The first things written about Pere Ubu were about our sound coming from the industrial flats of Cleveland. So theres always been a geographical presence in what I do, though its come to seem more specifically American over the last 10 years or so. On recent recordings, his protagonists helplessly heed the call of the road, whether to space (Two Pale Boys Meadville) or along a few Southern highways (Pere Ubus St. Arkansas). But most find that their travels are among what the CD notes to Thomas rogue opera, Mirror Man, call the hieroglyphics of the mind.
The smell of burnt upholstery wont be wafting over UCLAs sculpture garden during the present shows, but much else has survived. Thompson/ Dromette still acts as MC: His role is critical, because he gets blamed for everything, in a very ritualized way. Fridays show, Caligaris Diner, comprises performances by Pixies founder Frank Black, Thomas ongoing trio with Spaceheads trumpeter Andy Diagram and guitarist Keith Moliné (Two Pale Boys), and Robert and Jack Kidney of Kent, Ohios 15-65-75 (The Numbers Band), a key, though little-known, inspiration to generations of Cleveland musicians, Thomas included: If I had to choose between the last Numbers Band gig and the last Magic Band gig, I would choose the Numbers and not even worry about it.
Then theres Foyerdrome!, which occupies the Freud Playhouses atrium before each show: Its about short-circuiting expectations, which can be a terrible burden. It usually includes displays on the Kitchen of the Future and the Story of Coal. Saturday, Ill give excerpts from my lecture The Geography of Sound in the Magnetic Age, but just excerpts, because Ill be cooking hamburgers at the same time. These raspberries in the face of theatrical pretense have unmistakable ties to Pere Ubus father figure, the Merde!-spouting protagonist of French absurdist Alfred Jarrys plays. (Thomas imposing physical presence conveys something of Jarrys spirit as well, though the fragile, conflicted voice that leaks out of him is something else again.)
The second night of Disastodrome! centers on a more sober and ambitious experiment: the U.S. premiere of Mirror Man. Half On the Road, half Spoon River Anthology, the work threads a narrative through Ubu and solo compositions dating from 1989s Bus Called Happiness onward, tracking a small group of characters cross-country from Disney World to Disneyland. A 1999 CD (on Thirsty Ear) based on Act 1 supplies a rough map: The songs overlap with poet Bob Holmans Kerouac-as-Greek-chorus commentary, like an AM radio caught between stations.
But the map is not the territory: Thomas reconfigures the piece for each showing, encouraging improvisation during rehearsal. I make a point of getting the performers to take their roles as a starting point. When you see it, youre really seeing people take a chance. The same goes for the music, an outgrowth of Thomas work with Diagram and Moliné, whose in-the-moment interaction can be as dramatic as anything onstage. (At UCLA, Yo La Tengos Georgia Hubley joins the ensemble for the first time: The boys wanted an acoustic drummer, and shes been an excellent addition.)
Mirror Mans second act, as yet unrecorded, culminates in Bay City, a code name for Santa Monica drawn from Raymond Chandlers novels. In Thomas description, Its where the irresistible force meets the immovable Pacific object. The current versions vocal lineup has clear ties to the works beachfront endpoint: In addition to mainstays Thomas, Holman and Robert Kidney, the Los Angeles cast includes Frank Black and legendary arranger/Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks.
The piece has always ended up in Bay City, but doing it here, I instantly thought of two people who arent actually from Los Angeles. Franks work is very rich it has an abstract perspective, but its been full of California imagery since hes moved here. And Thomas connection to Parks work is nothing new: The latest of several Beach Boys covers is the title track of his 2001 release with Two Pale Boys a distended reading of the Parks/Wilson masterwork Surfs Up. (I havent asked what he thinks of it, Thomas says. I dont think I want to know.)
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Its the final night that should crush the high-art/low-art barrier into toothpicks. Before a set by Pere Ubus current lineup, the show marks the only appearance since 1975 by Rocket From the Tombs, the pre-Ubu outfit that included Thomas, the Dead Boys Cheetah Chrome (then Gene OConnor) and the late Peter Laughner. Compiling an official CD issue (released last year on Nevadas Smog Veil Records) of Rockets oft-bootlegged recordings led directly to the current reunion. We re-formed relationships that had been dormant. Gene would have me sit in with his band when I was around, and [bassist] Craig Bell started showing up, and we remembered why we enjoyed being in this particular band. And Pere Ubu needed an opening act.
Reuniting Rocket From the Tombs minus Laughner, who died of pancreatitis just over a year after leaving an early version of Pere Ubu, could seem a questionable decision, but the choice of Televisions Richard Lloyd as his stand-in makes it considerably less so. Says Thomas, When Gene thought of Richard, it fit, because Peter was a great admirer of Television. His playing isnt the same as Peters, but their styles are compatible. (Laughner organized Televisions first Cleveland shows, and named his short-lived post-Ubu band after the New York quartets song Friction.)
If the revamped Rocket can kindle a fraction of its original fire, Sundays set will make a fitting and, yes, messy climax to Disastodrome!, with Thomas bellowing material by his first inspirations (the Stooges Search & Destroy, the Velvets Foggy Notion), as well as raw versions of songs Rockets splinter groups later re-recorded (Ubus Final Solution, the Dead Boys Sonic Reducer). Asked if hes worried about finding the energy to front his two punk-era projects in a single evening, Thomas laughs: Im a tough old bird, so Im not too worried. But Im glad its on the last night.
DISASTODROME! | UCLAs Freud Playhouse | Friday through Sunday, February 21 through 23