Friday, April 11, 2014

Boy That Sounds Swell

After I posted last month's Feelies essay, I remembered something I should have said. It's something that contradicts the gist of that essay - or at least reminds me that most of what I posted I wrote in 1989-90. That image of the Feelies as caretakers of dream albums comes from The Good Earth, and their later records; it doesn't fit Crazy Rhythms so well. Now, back in 1989, I didn't have much doubt which I preferred - I remember talking to my boss about the Feelies, before I saw them play that year - he said he loved Crazy Rhythms; I said, that's a great record but I like The Good Earth more... I did - for all the reasons I wrote about last month. But that was 1989, this is 2014; you should take note of the balance of songs on my top 10 - 3 top 5, 4 top 10, the top cover, all from the first record. You might notice the title I gave the essay. You might well ask - what IS your favorite Feelies record, anyway? WOuld I still say The Good Earth? Actually - yeah, I might - but that would be mostly because it stands as a proxy for their live shows. That 1989 essay was written on the occasion of the 7th time I saw them play, and it is rooted mainly in their live performances - which transcend the differences among their albums, turning everything into something fast and sleek - integrating the edginess of the first record with the pastoral and rock of the later ones...

But really, in isolation, as a record, today, Crazy Rhythms would be my favorite. And it's not just a matter of preferring one record by a band to another - it's a matter of preferring a sound, an approach, maybe a tradition. (And this is about preferring one thing I love to another thing I love - a matter of ranking within my favorite things, not about things I like and don't like). It's something that changed in the 90s - in 1989, my tastes were defined by the base of classic rock, and the immediate, conscious influence mostly of the Velvet Underground (plus some country floating around). 10 years later - the ground had become classic rock plus the Velvets and punk plus jazz (and floating country) - but the band at the center was different. I start with Crazy Rhythms, then, because its aesthetic reflects that change in taste - and because it provides a direct tangible link, in the person of Andy/Anton Fier, to the cause of this change. By the end of the 20th century, Pere Ubu was The Band.

There's a fair amount of autobiography involved in how that happened. Like most things, I discovered Pere Ubu late - I heard them - heard OF them - back in 87, about the time they got back together to make The Tenement Year. I bought that record and liked it, without, maybe, overdoing it; at more or less the same time, I found a copy of Terminal Tower, their singles compilation, and that, I will say, hit hard. Even now, their singles are what they are known for, among non-obsessives at least - Heart of Darkness, Final Solution, 30 Seconds Over Tokyo - and they certainly convinced me. They weren't a radical departure, of course - those early songs grow pretty directly out of the Velvets and Stooges and such, which I was long since immersed in back then. And I was immersed in a lot of 80s bands that had certainly been listening to Pere Ubu for a while - Mission of Burma, Husker Du, Butthole Surfers all have their moments. (And the Pixies, though they might have gotten prominent a bit later.) So I took to Pere Ubu fast, and took to them hard - hard rock, literary allusions, Jimmy Doolittle, guitar solos - they had it all, and I was convinced. I found a copy of 390 Degrees of Simulated Stereo; I went to see them play (fall '88 - the people who were supposed to go with me bailed for some reasons - work, most likely, so I went alone, and had to take a cab home - spending some $50-60 on the gig - the most money I have ever spent to see a show, I think, to this day.) I listened to them obsessively for a while, and over the years associated them very strongly with the beginning of summer - something about Street Waves makes me think of the first hot day of June... maybe I should have waited to write about them...

What I didn't do at the time is buy more records. The most flattering explanation I can come up with is that the early ones were out of print - that might even be true. I seem to remember seeing a couple of them - The Modern Dance, maybe Dub Housing - as imports or rarities, wrapped in loose plastic, priced over $20 - as a poor graduate student who wanted to buy as many records as possible, that did not seem to be a good investment. And why didn't I buy Cloudland? I don't think I knew it existed - they weren't on the radio, they didn't get talked about anywhere; and I admit, I rather thought of them as a 70s band, trying to relive the past... But what I had was a good start - and between the singles and the love record, I had most of the early stuff, most of the Modern Dance - even on those old bootlegs, I could tell that was the real thing - if I could find the record, it would probably become one of my favorites; the live record was up there. (One song I didn't have was the one about boozy sailors that made the strongest impression when I saw them live - if I'd known what it was called, or what record it was on, I would have bought that.) In any case - they were one of my favorites in the late 90s...

And then came a real disruption to my musical habits. I went to New Orleans in late 1991 - and when I came back, more or less simply decided that from now on I would listen to jazz. And I did - for half the decade - obsessively - buying everything I could (I had a job; I could buy lots of records), reading about it, etc. And then - I had worked throughout he history of jazz, arriving at last at electric Miles, John McLaughlin, Bill Frisell, Sonny Sharrock, James Blood Ullmer - guitarists - and found myself drawn back into rock and roll. Specifically to Richard Thompson, since this was mostly a guitar obsession; but also - Raygun Suitcase, which came out about that time. And had about the same effect that Terminal Tower did - I listened to it obsessively... and this time, I had money, and their old records were in print - not just in print, packaged in a nice big box.... which I listened to, end to end, singles, 5 LPs, live record and fellow Cleveland bands, for the next 3-4 years.... and came to measure everything else against them.

The seeds were there in the 80s. Terminal Tower has the singles arranged in order - you can work your way into them, trace their development, trace the development of the aesthetic they represent. Call it post-punk - a style looser, more angular than punk, usually more rhythmically interesting, less consumed by its attitude. It's a style that includes Pere Ubu - Television - Joy Division - Gang of Four - Minutemen, all very dear to me; PIL, Mission of Burma, Young Marble Giants, Pylon; that first Feelies record - it leads more directly (I think) to more avant grade music - Sonic Youth and DNA (another direct link to Pere Ubu), the Butthole Surfers; or even backwards, to prog and its ilk - especially Krautrock, Captain Beefheart, Red Crayola (another direct link), Soft Machine, etc... And in Pere Ubu's singles, you can hear it coming - hear it emerging, almost like a process of stripping things away. The extra guitar player, the classic rock sound, the denser, hard rock style riffing - being dropped, bit by bit as you move from the strange noisy rock of 30 seconds Over Tokyo to the classic rock/proto-punk of Heart of Darkness and Final Solution - until they arrive, at the song that probably tipped me, more than anything, to the fact that they were different: My Dark Ages.

It's the first record they made with their classic lineup - Thomas, Herman, Krauss, Maimone, Ravenstine - and it's a song that really defined post-punk, before punk had really gotten going. Even now, it's rather shocking how bare it is - they've pared things down to something a bit beyond the basics, stripped to the bone, digging into the bone - guitar, bass, a bit of drum, and some kind of splatty synth riff, a splash of piano, all separated, with miles of space between them, with lots of empty spaces in the sound, none of it in any hurry - and Thomas coming in like a taxi dispatcher muttering into a mic... I loved Heart of Darkness, but I loved My Dark Ages almost as much, and it was something new - it was strange, it was beautiful, it was haunting and a bit scary, it evoked night in the city where the air can shine - it was great. And there was a guitar solo! (I'm a sucker for electric guitar, and for solos.) A real one, and as thrilling and radical as the song itself - those long, slow slides, the strings of single notes, the biting, acidic tone. Tom Herman’s style is remarkable - simple enough, but brilliantly controlling the tone. His solos are fantastic, absolutely ace. Punk never made much of guitar solos (though that's not fair - American punk, especially, produced a swarm of superb guitarists - Verlaine and Lloyd, Quine, D. Boon, Mould, Kurt Kirkwood), but Herman played solos, solos that didn't sound like much of anyone else - he is hugely underrated... This clip, from 1995, I think proves my point:

It's startling, even now, to notice how spare they are, and almost always have been. My Dark Ages is something of the extreme in their early days (though they certainly stripped things down even more on some of the more experimental records - Lost in Art!), but they almost always have as much space in their sound as any band. Rocket From the Tombs was not spare - two guitarists battling for space, the whole thing dense and powerful - but Pere Ubu's versions of the RFTT songs are already stripped down, cleaner, patient. They stay like that - sounds distinct (even played live) - parts related, complimentary, but not getting in the way. Instruments coming in one at a time, circling each other - maybe coming together into a neat little chorus, only to break up again, wander off, into a guitar solo, a bit of synthesizer or theremin weirdness, a found recording, or Thomas doing his thing... They were never afraid of losing the plot - partly because from the start, they were tight enough to come back to the organizing riff without missing a beat - and when they wanted to, they could swing. They could do anything, and did - abstraction, solid rock songs, pop songs, various warped forms of country, folk and such - all at once! They weren't, in any meaningful sense, a jazz band, but my own enthusiasm for jazz certainly helped me become the obsessive fan I am - it tied to their avant grade tendencies, but also to their ability to navigate the twists and turns their songs took, the skill to get back to the beat when they needed to... and it made me pay attention to things like tone, tones - Herman's slides, the sounds from Ravenstine's synths - less notes, more sounds, something jazz relies on...

And finally - I can't stop this without writing about David Thomas' lyrics. Song by song, they are good enough - but I am not sure anyone has supplied such a store of lines that echo in my head...

I don’t get around, I don’t fall in love much
Image object illusion, go down to the corner, where none of the faces fit a human form
Yeah, I oughta know that nothing's worth the half of half of what it used to
Mom threw me out 'til I get some pants that fit
Out in the real world, in real time, technoramic heartache!
walked around took the bus walked around took the bus
Here's to the details that so often get overlooked
If the devil comes, we’ll shoot him with a gun, if he shows his face, we'll laugh
Don’t fret now baby! Don’t be so tired
On a day such as this insist on more than the truth
(The folderol of fretful peregrination)
one day they're crawlin in the streets, afraid of a strange, free, wide open land
Marchin on the Home of the Blues
In the ghost town inside of my heart the downtown is parking lots
I want to hang around in your Greyhound terminal
One day I will be the best that you can do.
And the radio, AM radio, oh the radio will set you free

There are concrete reason for the excellence of his work - all those turns of phrase; but also the imagery - sharp and clear, and usually concrete - things, places, actions, real or imaginary, realized in clear imagery - we'll drive around and oh we'll fall in love... night in the city where the air just shines - they evoke a place you can see. The emptiness of the nighttime city streets, the loneliness of the lone driver. The settings change - the city in the early songs, the open road, usually, in the late records - always cars, though, diners and bars... All this runs along with his literary and film allusions - titles, lines (maybe in a secret lab works Dr. Moreau), stories (30 seconds over Tokyo), situations - books and movies weave through his work along with the roads and cars and skies and rain... and who doesn't want songs about books and movies?

So finally - when push comes to shove - other than the Beatles maybe, maybe the Stones - this is it: Pere Ubu might as well be my favorite band. Maybe more than that, they are, more than anyone else in this series, mine. I like them more than anyone I know in real life; they have a pretty strong claim for being my favorite band; they are the band I identify with most. I did it literally back in my AOL days - stealing a song title for a handle (instead of a secondary villain in an atrocious juvenile book) - actually, using a couple song titles as handles, figuring it would signal the right people that they were both me - it is a credit to the people I hung out with that more than one of them made the connection. If I ever go to that desert island, and take one band's music along, it will be theirs - if I took one CD along, it would be the first CD in the Datapanik in the Year Zero box set, with the Modern Dance and the singles on it.

Songs - I am tempted to split this out: first run - post-reunion, maybe. Not a balance, but they were better during their first run - but not so much better I like to see the later stuff swamped by the early songs, which is what happens this way. Longevity counts - the fact that they have continued to produce excellent records right to the present day is no small part of my affection for them. I should list off my favorite records, while I am at it.... But - well - start with the top 10:

1. Heart of Darkness
2. Humor Me
3. My Dark Ages
4. Caligari's Mirror
5. Memphis
6. Go
7. 30 Seconds over Tokyo
8. Wine Dark Sparks
9. Final Solution
10. Beach Boys

But I am willing - 10 pre-breakup:

1. Heart of Darkness
2. Humor Me
3. My Dark Ages
4. Caligari's Mirror
5. Go
6. 30 Seconds over Tokyo
7. Final Solution
8. Street Waves
9. Misery Goats
10. Over My Head

And Post reunion:

1. Memphis
2. Wine Dark Sparks
3. Beach Boys
4. Busman's Honeymoon
5. Dark
6. Folly of Youth
7. Electricity
8. I Hear They Smoke the Barbecue
9. Kathleen
10. Rhythm King

And, finally - 5 best LPs:
1. The Modern Dance - you need to memorize this.
2. Raygun Suitcase - a very welcome return to the experimentation of their early records, which simultaneously contained some of their best songs
3. Dub Housing - things are starting to get odd, but this still kicks
4. Art of Walking - really you say? hell if I know. This is as strange a record as I have ever heard, and certainly the strangest record I have listened to end to end dozens of times... but it's fascinating, and contains 2 classic tunes...
5. The Tenement Year - a nice set of songs, with plenty of noise going with it - how much of their style can be traced to the guitarists, I don't know - but they do seem distinct - when Laughner was in the group, they sounded like the Velvets and the Stooges; Herman's records all of a version of that stripped down sound I wrote about; Mayo Thompson makes AOW and SOABM sound like Red Crayola; the Jim Jones records are built around solid indy rock songs, almost pop; the Keith Moline records verge on electronic music - it's noticeable... Anyway - there's nothing in their catalogue quite as strange sounding as Cloudland - pop songs with pop productions - and David Thomas singing? Rhapsody in Pink becomes reassuringly normal after that... But Tenement Year hasn't gotten there yet - it sounds like 30-somthing art punks, like later Wire say - and that is a very good thing.

And now, video. They can be frustrating - there is very little old stuff - nothing before Birdies, in Urgh! A Music War:

They are very well documented in the 00s - here's a complete set from 2013:

And Sonic Reducer, played in a Borders in 2006; you might see something stranger or cooler somewhere, but I doubt it:

In between you can find things - they were on Letterman, and David Sanborn's show, back in the late 80s; here they are with Sanborn and Loudon Wainwright... children point and say he is the one...

And finally - Final Solution, in 1988 - I saw this tour - they were a force of nature, with Chris Cutler and Scott Krause in the back - I was still somewhat of a neophyte as far as they went, but that was a great show:

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