Avant-Garage: Pere Ubu’s David Thomas Turns 70

Looking back on the career of an unlikely rock star

David Thomas of Pere Ubu on the cover of Sounds Magazine May 13, 1978 (Image: eBay)

Few people who’ve plied the lead singer role in a band have looked less like a “rock star” than David Thomas, who has performed that task – as well as songwriting – for Pere Ubu and a host of other bands and combos over the years. 

He’s a large man, not exactly a handsome one and, at times, very, very cranky. Brilliant and idiosyncratic, droll and witty, but not always what you might call photogenic or “fan-friendly.” 

Then again, I’m pretty sure “rock star” was the furthest thing from Thomas’s mind when he formed the art-punk band Pere Ubu in Cleveland in 1975 and remains that way as he turns 70 on June 14th. Actually, Thomas’s term for Pere Ubu was “avant-garage,” referencing the mix of high art and low.

And Pere Ubu is still at it. Five days after this milestone birthday they play New York’s Le Poisson Rouge. Three days later they’re in Los Angeles at the Lodge Room. They are touring in support of a fab new album called Trouble On Big Beat Street, which came out in May on Cherry Red Records.

“I don’t have a ‘pop’ career,” Thomas told me in 2015, about his rather jagged trajectory and cult success. “I don’t have to do things that pop bands do. Pop bands last five years. Well, I’ve had at least eight pop careers and eight times five is 40. It’s like you’re standing there on the street waiting for the bus to come along and whichever bus it is, you get on it.”

Thomas explained Pere Ubu’s emergence to me this way in 1991: “We came along in a generation that was almost a lost generation, because this is a generation that had seen rock go through its adolescence and then pass into maturity, from 1965 to 1970. Here was this great land rush, like the Oklahoma land rush, where this wonderful land opened up and covered wagons were bouncing across it, discovering rivers and valleys and beautiful sights. 

“And we were the generation that came after that, who were brought up with rock music not as a teen sort of thing or fashion, but as a mature art form, with the full expectation that now it was our turn, as we came to manhood, to take the torch and say, ‘Well done, esteemed forbears! We will build this brave new world that you’ve discovered.’ So, this was our expectation. We wanted to move boldly into the future, and, naively, we expected that rock music wouldn’t turn back and fall back reactionary style. But, of course, it happened. The point is, though, in the end, we still believe that we’ve never changed. Once you see the true light, you can’t turn your back on it. That’s our strength and our weakness.”



There you have it: A brief history of rock and Pere Ubu’s place in it. Not bad for an extemporaneous response to a question about perseverance.

I thought this after seeing Ubu in ‘91: While no one should cry for Pere Ubu – the band’s crafting some of the most melodic, emotionally wrenching songs of its long career – but you’ve got to wonder: What sort of frustration sets in when you do exemplary work for years and you’ve yet to attract a commensurate audience? The several hundred fans who caught Pere Ubu at the Boston were certainly and suitably fanatical, but they were, by and large, older, in their 30s. In other words, probably the same hardy crowd that followed the band back in the late ’70s. Pere Ubu hadn’t been able to entice a sizable portion of today’s younger “alternative music” crowd. Which was a shame as Pere Ubu’s music had many of the same elements as does the best of Talking Heads – melodic weight, quirkiness, probing lyrics, funk, Island rhythms, playfulness, poetry, a love of absurdity. 

So, who is David Thomas?

To me, David is the Neil Young of the alternative set,” said Daved Hild, a Thomas collaborator with the Wooden Birds and founder of late- ‘70s Boston art-punk band the Girls. “He’s got the longevity. He takes chances.”

“He’s a genius and a contrarian,” the late saxophonist Ralph Carney told me. Carney played with the David Thomas & the Pedestrians and David Thomas & the Wooden Birds. Carney compares Thomas to Oliver Hardy and Ralph Kramden, noting both his girth and acerbic temperament. 

“David likes to rile people up, including myself, on stage. It’s not personal; sometimes he gets super frustrated, but it’s well worth it. To work with him, when he’s on it’s great. Nobody like him at all.”

The last time I saw Thomas live was in 2015. It was at a Boston club called the Brighton Music Hall. He was seated in a wheelchair at the front of the stage. And then he and the band he was playing with, Rocket from the Tombs, which in its original form pre-dated Ubu, blasted out this ferocious “Sonic Reducer.” You may recall that song from the Dead Boys’ first album, but it was co-written by Thomas and future Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome during his time in the band, 1974-75. Sure, Thomas couldn’t rocket around the stage like the late Stiv Bators, but that song lacked for nothing. 

There was a new RftT album, Black Record, a cantankerous, fast and furious effort. There was some joy in the punk rock world, many of us never having seen Rocket from the Tombs and this being a chance, but Thomas didn’t want anyone to call what he was doing a retro-fitted, return-to-the-roots reunion.

“I haven’t gone back to anything,” Thomas insisted. “We’ve been here all along. There’s only so many things I can do at once so. The [Black Record] recordings started back in 2012. Then I have Pere Ubu to work on and Two Pale Boys to work on and everything just happens as quickly as it can.”

In the contemporary Rocket, bassist Craig Bell was the only other charter member besides Thomas (whose early nom-de-rock was Crocus Behemoth). Gary Siperko and Buddy Akita (from the punk band This Moment in Black History) share guitar duties and the drummer is Steve Mehlman. 



So, what does one make of Rocket from the Tombs, then and now?

“Rocket is fast, Midwestern hard rock groove music,” says Thomas, who loathes the term “punk rock.” “I haven’t ‘outgrown’ it. I haven’t started putting together my album of Sinatra covers. And I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. I like doing this kind of music, hard, fast loud unremitting rock music. I don’t want to do it all my life. I suppose it would have been better if I had done it all my life. Then again, I wouldn’t still be doing it, probably. I don’t know. Rocket was the foundation for Pere Ubu. Actually, it was the foundation for the Pale Boys and the foundation for everything I do. I’m just not going to keep doing it over and over again.”

The goal when they went in to make Black Record, Thomas said, was pretty simple: “Make a hard rock record.” It is, in places, gleefully nihilistic. Asked if there were any themes he intended to explore, Thomas politely explodes.

“It’s very clear if you sit there and think about the record, it’s just like any record I do,” he says. “There’s stuff that’s being said. It’s not namby-pamby, I’m-a-sensitive-person, Honey-this-is-what-I-feel. I don’t care what you feel and I don’t care what you think; people shouldn’t care what I feel and what I think. The songs are stories. That’s the point of it all.”

Black Record found Thomas and company in primal punk mode with the singer at his bilious, bleak best. “Rock music is a narrative earful which does leave a lot of open space, but that’s what music is about,” Thomas said. “It’s about going beyond the exactitude of language.”

When Pere Ubu formed, Thomas took the music in a headier, more expansive direction. “We just took it in the direction that rock music was going in or should have gone in,” Thomas maintained. “It’s not meant to be some stupid adolescent, boring boy-girl, Brill Building/Wrecking Crew sort of construct. All of that is fine, but the plot of rock music is very easy to understand: It starts with the Elvis recording of ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’ Then there’s the whole Brian Wilson/Velvet Underground axis – abstract sound and concrete sound and analog synthesizers coming into use. And the third generation of American rock music is what we were.”

For Pere Ubu, humor, irony, whimsy, wit and anger were part of their arsenal; so was jazz, three-chord rock, elliptical song construction, improvisation and jarring tempo changes. 

When I talked with Thomas in 1988, he said that was all still part of the picture. As to the main difference, Thomas viewed it this way: “Real simple: Pere Ubu of 1975 was expressing the feelings and hopes and dreams and fears and sorrows of people who were 20, 21, 22. Those things are far different from those hopes and dreams etc. of people who are 35 and have families. The expanse of emotion and feeling that someone with family responsibilities at 35 feels is an alien world to a 20-year-old.”

As such, some songs had been jettisoned. Thomas felt “Sentimental Journey” was misunderstood as a desperate song, with people missing the subtext of the need to take responsibility for your actions; he felt “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” might be misinterpreted as glorifying war. Pere Ubu will, however, play their rousing anthem, “Final Solution,” a battle cry of the early punk days. Yeah, that was Hitler’s term. But “that song always was a satirical, ironic song, and was always removed from emotion. We might do it because it’s not real.”

When Pere Ubu folded their tent in 1982, they did it, says Thomas, for “three pretty good reasons. We were fed up; we weren’t getting along with each other and we’d run out of ideas.” Thomas pursued a series of solo projects and collaborations, most of them more eccentric and lyric-oriented than Ubu’s work. In 1987, when Thomas was working on a solo record, several Ubu associates joined him. It dawned on everyone that Pere Ubu was, in fact, back. That record became The Tenement Year and as we spoke, they were finishing up work on another LP, Cloudland.

David Thomas publicity photo (Image: eBay)

Group philosophy? “We’re kinda stick-in-the-mud people,” said Thomas. “We still hold the same principles we held back then. The only thing that’s changed is us as people. Our beliefs about music are pretty much identical.”

Their 1987 comeback, The Tenement Year was classic Ubu – demanding, terse, poetic, genre-jumping, rewarding. Cloudland, released in 1989, and Worlds in Collision are both critical successes, but they showcase a band less enamored of the disruptive jolts of yore and once more into crafting smart, melodic pop-rock.

It’s a stylistic shift, admitted Thomas. “But that doesn’t make it light. After Cloudland, we thought we had some unfinished business – that we had gotten close to something very moving and could now zero in on it.”

They chose to work with Massachusetts-based producer Gil Norton (Pixies, Blue Aeroplanes) because of shared ideas about the band’s direction. “He talked to us,” said Thomas, “about the poetry and vision of the band, the emotional language. He thought the message of the group was sometimes obscured by our medium – which is a very distinctive one.”

Worlds in Collision is a relatively smooth effort, but it’s also a cool collage – semi-surreal, emotionally stirring, bouncy, catchy, smart, rocking.  It’s not unlike Talking Heads’ music of the mid-’80s, and repeated listenings reveal further wrinkles.

“The most positive thing about us,” said Thomas, “is I think we still have our vigor, musically, we still deliver the goods as far as rock ‘n’ roll is concerned, and we haven’t wimped out, converted to Lite Rock-105. Ever noticed how all those lite rock stations are 1-O-something . . . it’s a conspiracy.”

Thomas, at that time, when he was mobile, was a superb and unpredictable entertainer. He’d pace the stage, seemingly puzzled and perturbed; he’d wave his arms wildly, do jumping jacks and start “Worlds in Collision” with a cryptic mantra of “The worse it gets, the more I understand.”

Over the years, Thomas’ songwriting has been elliptical and jarring, with Thomas weaving surreal, but stinging portraits of a world often in decay of pleasures gone by. 

“We were given a magnificent vehicle with a powerful engine and set out on the highway,” said Thomas about his work with Rocket and Pere Ubu. “After a while you come to a road sign that says ‘Satisfied City, Exit 1 Mile’ and there’s nothing wrong with Satisfied City and you can exit there and have a full productive life and be happy and that’s wonderful. But some of us see the sign and then we see the sign going over the hill and we say, ‘Ah, let’s see what’s over that hill.’”



Jim Sullivan
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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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