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The question of whether rock is dead is one that has been raised in recent years, if not to much effect (its intended audience being too busy forming rock bands). But as a sometime listener to the genre, it’s a question that makes sense to me and as a sometime “patron” of avant-garde art it’s a question that makes more sense to me if asked in connection with the consideration of Pere Ubu, to my mind the most aesthetically accomplished rock band ever. If that statement does not make sense to you, perhaps the connection between rock and its perennial offshoot “punk” should be examined even a little further than has already been its wont. The critical assessment of punk (a very interesting and profitable activity) has traditionally been crippled by the initial split in styles between American and British acts, and the later elision of the importance American “proto-punk” acts by the American market dominance of the “pop-punk” genre derived from the Buzzcocks and the 80s-90s scene dominance of “hardcore”, essentially a lesson in reception theory via Pink Flag.
What has been elided until the Scandinavia-fueled enthusiasm for “Detroit-style punk” (the nastier sort of late-60s garage rock) is the cultural function of such groups and their subcultural progeny, which was not at all as an outlet for suburban teen angst. Most of the original “punks” (quotation is important, if not necessarily even) were not suburbanites, were not particularly young, were not particularly “lower-class” (although very poor to a man), and had some of the best “aesthetic educations” of their times.If a single step is taken back from youthful enthusiasms, the products produced by such people are so vastly superior to the AOR which outsold them as to be laughable. And as for the idea that poetessesses like Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith along with their good-time-guy sidemen were “apolitical” compared to their British counterparts, this is something that Greil Marcus told me. British punk was a continuation both of to-the-quick class revolt through culture (skins going in through reggae and coming out through Oi!) and the revolution-in-posture pioneered (nay, completed) by the Rolling Stones. The truth about the cultural function of American punk is one which has been really too sensitive to mention until recently, but is now too important not to mention. American punk was the equivalent in sound of the left-wing terrorism which struck Western Europe in the 70s: countries where, although Mark E. Smith is tolerated, “Love and Napalm – Export USA” has never become popular. “Search and Destroy” is obvious – a little too obvious – but the Voidoids’ “Blank Generation” could be the diary of a member of the Baader-Meinhof gang; hyperintelligent, nihilistic to the point of genuine concern for others, “existential” to the point of political murder.
Richard Hell was not, however, interested in much except the promised fix and a kiss — and herein lies one of the lessons, that cultural politics (not administered through the “depot injections” of quasi-voluntary mass media) need not be the practical equivalent of political culture. For example, besides the early Sonic Youth records the SST catalogue could be fairly characterized as a geologic survey of the energy levels of young Southern Californian men near and far; but unlike the Futurism The Blasting Concept so closely resembles the ideas implicit in the works of these bands have never been put to distasteful political use. But on the other hand, there is no guarantee there is no genuine linkage (with surprising results) or even a linkage at all. The Minutemen, for example, could easily be understood along the lines of the critique of “fascist modernism”, as merely well-intentioned liberals trying to keep in check the far-right tendencies their name suggests. But if the matter (the reception of the Minutemen) is examined more carefully, it turns out that the nearest predecessor of their re-introduction of the “correspondence theory of truth” into youth culture was something like the FMLN — all proletarian, all the time, but oriented to occurences in the “wider world” and in other countries, and only in one way.
But if D. Boon played Marti, this might seem to suggest that the soundscapes of Pere Ubu have a great deal of Luminosity: and this play I would find acceptable, but only because of the quirks of archaic English orthography. The work of Pere Ubu is unpolitical; David Thomas is quite explicit about this in his own way. But his own way (the Jehovah’s Witnesses) tends to obscure the fact that most all Pere Ubu records have a significant political content, which in fact lives up to the Maoist scruples of “Chinese Radiation” and, in my opinion, partially redeems them: Thomas’ vision of the Cultural Revolution is better than the fantasy-world the PCP inhabits from necessity. Which is all it has to be, because of Thomas’ masterwork “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo”, originally performed by Rocket From The Tombs and then recorded by Pere Ubu for a single released on Thomas’ Hearthan record label.
All of Pere Ubu’s music is “no longer beautiful”: Thomas is a great musician, not a great singer. But “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo”, in context, is easily the most sublime piece of music ever recorded: avant-garde experiments pale once the novelty of shrieking dissonance wears off. The context is of course the point of reference, the Doolittle raids conducted on Japan in 1942; a widely-lauded feat of American ingenuity and daring conducted against a hated and malignant enemy. All of which the Doolittle raids genuinely were, but Thomas (in a manner similar to Bataille in Story of the Eye, but more extreme as the subjectivity of the bomber crews as well as the physical devastation being wreaked) excavates another level of the event: the potential for absolute terror palpable in the American “anti-fascist” war machine, what is tacitly bespoken by the poster which glued the Socialist Labor Party forearm on a woman in a kerchief with the caption (no statement) “We Can Do It!”, and confirmed by the reality of the only nuclear attacks conducted to date.
“Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” is timeless, fearless, censor-proof art: it is still as disturbing at the half-strength of the Pere Ubu version. But the effective history of the record is not one of malignancy, but as a witness to the phenomenal discipline required of Americans in dealing with the implications of American global supremacy without compromising the principles upon which that supremacy rests (consensuality and human rights); what “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” does is deprive people who would like to criticize the political aspect of artworks for political reasons of an argument; whatever the Minutemen were up to, it was certainly not that. Furthermore, the record (which is not popular – Pere Ubu has never been able to support itself on the strength of sales, even to a dedicated fanbase; they have instead used workhorse touring, the kindness of art-museum curators, and “tearing the roof off of somebody’s house” so they have been able to execute Matthew Arnold’s nightmare every so often for almost 30 years.
This last “verbiage” is critical; the literary critic Matthew Arnold is widely acclaimed for insisting on the importance of culture to public life, but the grotty underside of his genuine achievement — a “distaste” for the “Nonconformists”, Protestant non-members of the Church of England who ran schools that Arnold inspected for the government — is belied by this group. Thomas did not become a Jehovah’s Witness until New Picnic Time, the group’s third album, and it is unknown to me whether he remains one; but the vision of the group has fundamentally always been that of the religious “spirit-seer” who divines the sacred in everyday life without expert supervision. “Chinese Radiation” (on The Modern Dance, and originating in the reports of fall-out from Chinese nuclear blasts landing on Cleveland) is actually one of the most fully realized of the visions Pere Ubu depicts, something like the hallucination of a young man about to be executed by a Maoist system he fully identifies with. It is one of the purest evocations of the Gespenst of communism ever, perhaps precisely because not conducted with political intent (really and truly a heartbreaking work of staggering genius –).
But it is followed by “Life Stinks”, a composition by the then-deceased Peter Laughner, and several other records — many of which are still available by some method or other, and very fine indeed; furthermore, the band still tours. So it seems to me that the primary lesson of Pere Ubu is durability through production, and that they define a quality we might call “anti-style”: just as Thomas’ “Sonic Reducer”, itself a very powerful concept, was given to Stiv Bators, and this uncredited gift served to prolong a legend which has outlived its inception, Pere Ubu is in the business of producing material sound effects, which could travel the spaceways for all they cared. And perhaps Thomas and Co. were the only people of the first flush of all that with enough maturity to concentrate on producing durable goods; there is no subcultural eulogy more eloquent than that of Thomas for Ken Hamann, Pere Ubu’s Greatest-Generation-era sound engineer.
The story of free jazz and American punk is a longer one than has been told, even and especially by good-time-Charlies like Legs McNeil, but we would do well not to overestimate the salutary effects; Pere Ubu’s genuine technical proficiency as a group is rare, and as Christgau rightly remarks their wanderings less extensive than they originally appear on account of their way. But the story of punk and feminist politics is, sorry to say, a shorter one than has been told. Pere Ubu is Not For Girls, in a way which truly invites neither queer-theoretic chuckling nor feminist assault, and Thomas is quite up-front about this; although the band has had female members, and has a few female listeners I know of (NB: in contrast to the Stooges). When women are included in Pere Ubu scripts it is as objects of bewilderment (this includes Thomas’ wife) and if this does not please that comes with the territory.
I say this not to detract from the Riot Grrl movement (which was a real movement beyond the organization, and has produced some very fine music to date), but to make the point that the concept is inclusiveness based on aesthetic extremism and this cuts both ways. And this is really the point: in the “recombinant rock” that has taken firm root — there are no new bands today which impress me as particularly original in any aspect other than their welter of influences — the “punk gene”, if you will, plays the role of being culturally but not personally indigestible (the rather humorous but none-too-inaccurate versions of “punk ethics” being circulated by with-it middle-school-counselors at present bear witness to this). And this is a trope which can be played with by anybody, but only because of bands like Pere Ubu (and the Fall, who do not quite merit an essay) who have doggedly persisted in an aesthetic vision after it became clear it would be none too profitable, and clearly gained something from the effort.