Thursday, November 30, 2017

Thoughts on and for David Thomas

The short version: Whatever else I might say about him - he's a blue butterfly, whatever - I actually think I LIKE David Thomas as a human being. He's kind of a heroic figure, really. 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo is small fuckin' potatoes compared to 40+ years fronting an underground rock band, dealing with weird-ass fans like me, being paid far too little, and surviving the discomforts and indignities of life on the road for so long, when there are doubtlessly so many more lucrative things he might have done. Mr. Thomas has my deep respect, gratitude, and well-wishings, whatever should come to pass; if he can't complete the tour, he's done enough, it's fine, and it's AMAZING that Ubu should have put out so many great albums and played so many great shows over the years (I got to see three of them!). If the new album should prove to be the last one,  it's amazing and delightful to end on so high a note, a full-circle return to guitar driven proto-punk with a weird-ass edge. I sincerely love it. And if he CAN complete the tour, WHOO! I will still go. I hope he recovers from his illness. I send utter love at him, and gratitude, and fondness. Never mind the rest.

Pere Ubu by Bob Hanham, Dec. 2 2016, not to be reused without permission 

The long version: 

I gotta say a few things here about David Thomas. Totally hoping he's going to be all right, and totally bummed about Pere Ubu having to cancel the show tonight (and, I gather, the rest of the West Coast tour, seven dates in all, though that's not on the Official Ubu FB page as yet, or wasn't last I looked). I very much hope that it gets rescheduled, when he is feeling better. But I gather things are pretty serious, so it might not, folks. Remains to be seen!

Lotta complex feelings are provoked.

1. With apologies to wendythirteen, I am flat-out-fuckin' GLAD I went to see Pere Ubu at the Cobalt last December. It might, indeed, prove to be my last time seeing Ubu. Fact is, after I broke the seal on that contested, sadly-storied venue (which some die hard supporters of Wendy like Billy Hopeless and Clay Holmes still will not go into, since she was booted out), I felt a bit guilty, when it turned out I was going to get a chance to go to the Rickshaw, my favourite venue in town, and see them AGAIN not a year later. I was going to be be proven wrong in my past justification for my "disloyalty" last year. I had said that "it might be my last time seeing Pere Ubu," and now, look, I was wrong.

But wait: no, I was right.  So: I am flat-out-fuckin' GLAD I went, and I said it. (I haven't been back but I got no regrets: sorry, Wendy, Billy, Clay, and the five or ten other people locally that this is actually an issue for).

2. I loved that show. Even some of the more off-colour notes, I took as part and parcel of the "theatre" of Ubu: David checking his timepiece as the crowd cheered for an encore, to determine if he had fulfilled his obligations (Ubuprojex had announced an exact set length and he was gonna stick to it!)... Or, say, his giving very, very transparently indulgent and insincere grins as he signed stuff at the merch table with his deliberately illegible scrawl, as if to communicate a) Yes I will sign stuff but b) I won't actually sign it in a way you can read and c) even though I am signing it and grinning and doing what is expected I would really rather be having a hot bath at the hotel right now. He could have been holding that on a sign above his head, it was so transparent. But it was a strange thing, because here he is smilin' at me like the whole transaction is absurd, and here I am recognizing it, and kinda conceding the point to myself, and not blaming him at all for wanting to be somewhere else... and yet here I am, still getting his signature! "Yep, this is ridiculous. Yep, I can see you don't want to do this. Nope, I don't blame you. But, uh, would you sign here anyhow even though I won't be able to make any sense of it at all?" (David scribbles something and gives a big indulgent grin.) "THANK YOU!"

I mean, this is a guy who has been playing and touring in an underground rock band, with tons of respect from a devoted cult, but little in the way of financial recompense, for OVER 40 YEARS! 40 YEARS! He's never stopped! Even though he's some sort of free market capitalist, who believes that if art has value, people will PAY for it, he hasn't gone after anything "easy," financially; it's not in his nature (and you know what, though I didn't dig them at the time, even the couple of "commercial compromise" albums he made with Fontana were pretty weird). He has spent OVER 40 YEARS in service to his weirdo fans like me, without ever to my knowledge playing the "retirement" game; his work ethic is immense, obviously. And here he is, 63 years old - as of Dec. 2016; I believe he's 64 now - and he's got multiple health issues, and yet he's still recording, still touring, playing the fucking Cobalt, to a few hundred fans?! I mean, who else in modern underground rock has served his cult so devotedly for so long? This is fucking HEROISM. And I mean, if you still don't get it - THIS IS THE MAN WHO WROTE THE LYRICS TO "SONIC REDUCER," FOR CHRISSAKE. If he wants to make a face while signing and sign his signature in a way I can't read? I'll TAKE IT! Someday I'll show it off to my friends: "This is the illegible scrawl David Thomas made on my Rocket From the Tombs poster, and THIS is the illegible scrawl he made on my Lady From Shanghai album, and when I asked him about it, he said, 'I just sign everything with an indecipherable squiggle. Sorry.'").

(Though I absolutely love that my friend Judith Beeman made him print his name in block letters beneath his squiggle when she got him to sign something to her at the Biltmore show, and to his great credit - this is a VERY smart guy - I bet he got a kick out of it, too).

3. And I fucking LOVED his between song stories that night at the Cobalt. I actually wondered if he'd read my pre-show piece, praising Ubu's uniqueness, because I had situated the Velvet Underground among beatniks at one point in that, maybe considering contesting their sainted status (but never Ubu's). And David's between song-stories began with a narrative about Nico touring in a van with hippies! ("Imagine that, Nico with hippies!"). He might have been chastening me a little, and maybe I deserved it, but I was rapt and flattered to feel myself addressed in some way. I wish I had a recording of the whole show (I did shoot one Youtube clip). And being able to watch Robert Wheeler rock his Theremin, which I couldn't even SEE the last time they'd played Vancouver, at the Biltmore, was fascinating. That Youtube clip reveals some of it.

4. And I really, really mean him no disrespect, ever. Like, there's a lot of discussion about separating the artist from his art right now, and I don't know how far I think being an artist excuses bad behaviour: it sure seems like a lot of people have been abusing their power and influence, taking advantage of their celebrity to do gross things. But while I have seen David a) drink kinda a lot on stage sometimes; b) get kinda cranky with his band onstage; c) get a bit derisive - at the Biltmore show, say - with his audience; and while d) he has occasionally lost his patience with me as an interviewer (more to come on that), none of what he has done has remotely affected my being a Pere Ubu fan, or a David Thomas fan, or...

Case in point: during one of my last email exchanges with him, apropos of an interview - some of which has seen print, but some of which hasn't, I tried a total cop-out move; I got LAZY and tried to just ask him to give me snapshots of his songwriting process at different phases, how it had changed over the years. He had already patiently answered several questions, but that was the breaking point. His response was, "This really is tiresome. I think about what I do. I don't have to talk about it also."

Eek! End interview quickly. I apologized for stretching his patience and suggested we pick things up at a later date, to which he replied:

"Your questions are very good and deserve to be answered. It's simply that you have the misfortune to ask them at a time that I no longer feel like using my time to answer questions. Also, being good, and requiring time and thought to answer, I tire of answering too many such questions in a row."
The upshot of which is, THIS IS A CLASSY GUY. He might have his eccentricities - at the Biltmore piece he'd joked a bit bitterly about some writer (I think me) typifying him as a "grouchy weirdo," I believe was the phrase - but even though he let me KNOW he was tiring of my questions, he did so in an entirely conciliatory, even complimentary manner (at least in his follow up). Nothing that grouchy or weird AT ALL, there. His music is weird, natch, as strange at the rock of the Residents or Captain Beefheart or so forth, and maybe even STRANGER, since he's coming from a vastly more conservative background (my understanding is, he was raised Jehovah's Witness, which might inform his work ethic and his value of capitalism; I have no idea if he's still part of the church now, but there are stories about him telling Alex Varty and Nathan Holiday in an interview about how this-and-that lyric were inspired by things he'd read in Watchtower. I have no idea what to make of it, but it makes him, and the music he's chosen to make, MORE interesting and remarkable, not less). All the same...

And here we return to the "short version" statement I started this with.

Whatever else I might say about him - he's a blue butterfly, whatever - I actually think I LIKE David Thomas as a human being. He's kind of a heroic figure, really. 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo is small fuckin' potatoes compared to 40+ years fronting an underground rock band, dealing with weird-ass fans like me, being paid far too little, and surviving the discomforts and indignities of life on the road for so long, when there are doubtlessly so many more lucrative things he might have done. Mr. Thomas has my deep respect, gratitude, and well-wishings, whatever should come to pass; if he can't complete the tour, he's done enough, it's fine, and it's AMAZING that Ubu should have put out so many great albums and played so many great shows over the years (I got to see three of them!). If the new album should prove to be the last one,  it's amazing and delightful to end on so high a note, a full-circle return to guitar driven proto-punk with a weird-ass edge. I sincerely love it. And if he CAN complete the tour, WHOO! I will still go. I hope he recovers from his illness. I send utter love at him, and gratitude, and fondness. Never mind the rest.

Please get better, Mr. Thomas (and please don't even CONSIDER returning to the road until you are, work ethic be damned!).

4 comments:

Allan MacInnis said...

Oh no, I used the word "natch" in a piece of music journalism!

Unknown said...


ALLAN SAID:

(Though I absolutely love that my friend Judith Beeman made him print his name in block letters beneath his squiggle when she got him to sign something to her at the Biltmore show, and to his great credit - this is a VERY smart guy - I bet he got a kick out of it, too).

I SAY:

Always nice to be cited in an article. I suspect there are many things David Thomas will do for "the ladies" that he would never ever for the fellows. I do however think it's ridiculous that he signs stuff with such an awful scrawl. I was very disappointed with what he tagged on my RFTT gig poster (I mean, zero idea what the fuck the dude wrote. Meh.) Oh also, that was the day he grabbed my butt when well, Allan it was either YOU or Colin Upton that took that photo. It's a pretty great pic, but he's pawing the heck out of me and I literally was like pushing his octopus hands away right after. It was both funny and sad. He was really tipsy. I got the printed signature on inside of his Hieroglyphics book. I was like, just gimme yer name buddy don't even try to "say something" I started to leave after shaking his hand, and there were a lot of people at the merch table, when it occurred to me that, "Hey," I exclaimed in a lound voice as I spun around and marched back, "Where's my kiss?" he actually stood up and I gave him a nice peck on the cheek. I guess that would be the third kiss I got from the dude.

Judith Beeman

Allan MacInnis said...

I somehow am envisioning you in a "David Thomas Pawed My Ass" t-shirt. But yeah, he really pounded'em down the RFTT night - we actually talked about it in the Big Takeover piece I did ("There's Always A Way Around Stupidity"), though I'm stunned that I ever had the brass to ask. I remember there were some real jackasses in the audience that night, though - ironic pseudopunk kids who were yukking it up right up front, "look at these old guys on stage!" I kinda wanted to punch them, they were real distracting. I remember one of them handing David a bottle - and he took it - and then glowered down from the stage, because it was empty. I kinda wonder if he was trying to blot those little bastards out!

Anyhow, it's nice that you forgave him and great that you got a kiss. Judith Beeman: three kisses from David Thomas. Allan MacInnis: zero. (Not that I want one).

Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

Only saw Pere Ubu the once - at the Commodore Ballroom where they played with Stiv Bators, Magazine and maybe someone else. Pere Ubu’s performance was one of the strongest, original and just plain fucking weird I ever witnessed. As for persistence, after you come up with an idea or two, that is all most of us have left.