Three-Ring Chaos

“Who’s 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 won’t 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 London’s South Bank Festival in 1998. (Current UCLA Live artistic director David Sefton also commissioned the earlier staging.) Speaking from London, Thomas explains the weekend’s origin.

“The first Disastos were shows that Johnny Dromette, who’s been Pere Ubu’s 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.’ That’s 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 music’s 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 Ubu’s first incarnation disbanded in 1982, Thomas embarked on a string of decidedly un–rock & roll solo albums, featuring intrepid players from Richard Thompson to Henry Cow’s 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 1988’s 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: “It’s fine, because I’ve really only been writing about one thing for the last 25 years.”

If there’s a constant in Thomas’ work, it’s 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 there’s always been a geographical presence in what I do, though it’s 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 Ubu’s 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 won’t be wafting over UCLA’s 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.” Friday’s show, “Caligari’s 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, Ohio’s 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 there’s Foyerdrome!, which occupies the Freud Playhouse’s atrium before each show: “It’s 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, I’ll give excerpts from my lecture ‘The Geography of Sound in the Magnetic Age,’ but just excerpts, because I’ll be cooking hamburgers at the same time.” These raspberries in the face of theatrical pretense have unmistakable ties to Pere Ubu’s father figure, the “Merde!”-spouting protagonist of French absurdist Alfred Jarry’s plays. (Thomas’ imposing physical presence conveys something of Jarry’s 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 1989’s “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 Holman’s 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, you’re 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 Tengo’s Georgia Hubley joins the ensemble for the first time: “The boys wanted an acoustic drummer, and she’s been an excellent addition.”)

Mirror Man’s second act, as yet unrecorded, culminates in “Bay City,” a code name for Santa Monica drawn from Raymond Chandler’s novels. In Thomas’ description, “It’s where the irresistible force meets the immovable Pacific object.” The current version’s vocal lineup has clear ties to the work’s 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 aren’t actually from Los Angeles. Frank’s work is very rich — it has an abstract perspective, but it’s been full of California imagery since he’s 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 “Surf’s Up.” (“I haven’t asked what he thinks of it,” Thomas says. “I don’t think I want to know.”)

It’s the final night that should crush the high-art/low-art barrier into toothpicks. Before a set by Pere Ubu’s 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 O’Connor) and the late Peter Laughner. Compiling an official CD issue (released last year on Nevada’s Smog Veil Records) of Rocket’s 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 Television’s 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 isn’t the same as Peter’s, but their styles are compatible.” (Laughner organized Television’s first Cleveland shows, and named his short-lived post-Ubu band after the New York quartet’s song “Friction.”)

If the revamped Rocket can kindle a fraction of its original fire, Sunday’s 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 Rocket’s splinter groups later re-recorded (Ubu’s “Final Solution,” the Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer”). Asked if he’s worried about finding the energy to front his two punk-era projects in a single evening, Thomas laughs: “I’m a tough old bird, so I’m not too worried. But I’m glad it’s on the last night.”

DISASTODROME! | UCLA’s Freud Playhouse | Friday through Sunday, February 21 through 23

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