feeding off the lifelines of its many industries
and its port on Lake Erie, it is a city which
understands terrifically the importance of
establishing circuits of communication. They
are like a cat's cradle that stretches taut over
the city, and binds it together into an in-
dustrialized colony, a dense and uniform
lump of pavement and people that reflec-
ts'-as much as anything else does-where
we're all going.
ND IN THE MIDDLE of it all you
can find four of the five members of
PiereUbu. Keyboardist and saxo-
t Allen Ravenstine, bassist Tony
Maimone, drummer Scott Krauss, and
vocalist David Thomas all were raised within
Cleveland city limits. New guitarist Mayo
Thompson, a Texan and former member of
the sub-underground group Red Crayola for
many years now, joined them a few months
ago, replacing Clevelander Tom Herman.
With a pair of poor-selling albums released in
this country, and a new one, New Picnic
Time, available only as an import because
their record company has refused to release it
in America, Pere Ubu today is something less
than a household term. Partly, this is the fault
of their record company, Chrysalis Records,
for they have been far from adamant iritheir
push of the group's music; in fact when I
called the company to arrange for an inter-
view with Pere Ubu, Chrysalis high-ups swore
the group didn't even exist on the label!
But the main reason for Pere Ubu's ob-
scurity is rooted in their music, which is some
of the most godawfully upsetting cater-
wauling you could ever hope to hear.
Though on the other hand, it's also some of
the most imaginative caterwauling you could
hope to hear. The group takes its name from
turn-of-the-century French playright Alfred
Jarry's play Ubu Roi, which helped inspire
the surrealist movement. Although the group
members say they are not surrealists, they
have undeniably captured the same feeling of
bloody, gleeful fantasy that Jarry was in-
terested in. The first time I heard Pere Ubu it
was 3 a.m., and I was playing their second
album, Dub Housing, in my room. Almost as
soon as I started on side one, it began: the
moans of the boy in the next room as he over-
dosed of heroin. I stayed awake all night,
although I couldn't say if the shrieks or the
record kept me up. It was a natural introduc-
tion to the funhouse world of Pere Ubu.
One can hear a lot of rock and roll in the
guitar lines on their records, and the rhythm
section often strikes up driving reggae and
soul beats. These are guys with a whole lot of
experience working with pop music-they
mock surf songs, fracture broken-heart teen
ballads, and constantly create an aura of mid-
sixties garage band slop rock..
UT PERE UBU ain't exactly your
average rock and roll band; they're
not "new wave" (it's all boring-...
whit comes next??), and they're not "punk"
(call them that and they might hit you).
There's as much John Cage serendipity,
Chinese folk music, sci-fi flick sound effects,
and Brecht in their music as there is a four-
four beat or heavy metal guitars. Their ab-
sorption of countless sounds is reflected in
Ravenstine's synthesizer and its capacities;
nowadays, who offer a selective, and thus
narrow, approach. Pere Ubu doesn't seem to
care too much about music. They're a lot
more interested in sound..
But also, Pere Ubu is like an ant colony.
(Not the kind your kid brother had between
two sheets of glass and kept on the window sill
until the ants fried in the heat .. . the sort you
see between the cracks in the sidewalk.)
When they make music, there's collective ac-
tivity, and although there are often solos in
their songs, everybody improvises much of
the tine. 'The band has always depended
greatly on intuition," emphasizes keyboard
player Allen Ravestine. "If there's any band
philosophy, it's-that if we need something it'll
turn up." And that's how it is at the
Cleveland-based ant heap from which the
group functions: orchestrated improvisation
and spontaneous jerry-rigging are constants.
And, most importantly of all, there is this:
nobody is a star. With Pere Ubu,
everything-personality, solo space, clear,
defineable sound-is resolutely secondary.
What they want is something analogous to the
networks of tunnels and burroughs beneath
the.ground that is the legacy of countless
hours of ant-work: they want a concretion of
Consider Cleveland-a concretion of a city.
Although it has the unfortunate requisite
blood-sucking suburban regions squeezing it,
it's an urban dynamo, a flexed muscle of
businesses and people pinned down on the
Ohio landscape. If Mondrian had lived in
Cleveland he wouldn't have needed to work so
hard to come up with his universe of
geometry: the city's a nexus of angles, struc-
tures, and frameworks. In Cleveland there
are damn few skyscrapers-mostly, there are
just big, box-like buildings that push up
against each other. Ribbed with highways,
RJ Smith is co-editor of the Sunday
from it, Ravenstine commands an arsenal of
keyboard sounds, synthetic percussion of all
sorts, tapes of conversations, animal noises,
and'countless other sounds.
It's over a Sargasso Sea of all the things I
have mentioned and many more that comes
the eerie warblings of David Thomas.
There is an unfortunate convention in rock
and roll of worshipping of the lead singer as
the creative center of the group. This is not so
with Pere Ubu, but it is an easy mistake to
make. Pegging Thomas' exact role with the
group is tricky business, because, innate star
appeal aside, he posesses a voice that many
consider the most distinctive instrument in
Part of the attention may be due to the wor-
ds he sings: surreal stream-of-consciousness
rattle that makes only intuitive sense. But
undeniably, it's also because of Thomas'
delivery, which comes across like the queasy
mumblings from a tomb on the outskirts of
town the day all the corpses come back to life.
When he sings the now-immortal lines from
"Dub Housing"-"The windows rever-
berate!/The walls have ears ! /A thousand
saxophone voices call! "-it's enough to make
the hairs on the back of your neck wriggle.
Hearing some of Pere Ubu's songs is like
listening to the gears of all the cars in some
big city intersection heave a collective groan,
or skyscrapers quavering and creaking ever
so slightly in a gale. For the music of Pere
Ubu is the music of the big city-specifically
of their hometown. There is about it some
special flavor that makes it distinctively
Cleveland, like the tangy scent of the sulphur
dioxide clouds there that nip your nose in the
" HIS IS A TOWN undergoing a gradual
transformation from being an indus-
trial town to being a computer town,"
Ravenstine explains. "The actual industrial
end of it is dropping off rapidly, which is kind
of ironic because the massive section of the
city that is industrial is not suited for
anything else other than what it is now; it's
either going to have to become a ruins, or like
some big industrial park where people walk
around and see how these things used to be
done, or they're going to have to tear it
down," he said.
"I think Cleveland is a real good microcosm
of what the rest of America has yet to go
through. Detroit is another one, and so is
Buffalo. The nothern industrial cities are un-
dergoing a demise and are having to be
But it's not everything about the urban ex-
perience those in Pere Ubu are trying to
distill with their mechanical gritty approach.
What they are really interested in is a certain
glorious underbelly of the city, an outlook on
our urban existence that is as kinetic and
scary as a nice, peaceful tumble in a cement
To understand the Ubu view of city life, we
have to go on a field trip. We're on our way to
the maligned banks of the Cuyahoga River, to
a scenario that's one part Dr. Caligari and ten
parts chemical hallucination-a cartoon set-
ting for toxic gas warfare.
Welcome to The Flats, buckaroos! It is
really late at night now, and the cold layer of
ash, lime and enough chemicals to make Mr.
Wizard's eyes puff like a pair of eight balls
billows up, and mixes in the wind. Kkrrunchh
goes everyone's tennis shoes on the dust.
Some of the chemicals leak into the holes in
your shoes as you .walk over the powder.
You're making the rounds with any number
of Ubu members, on a typical evening of fun-
speking in their playground.
HE FLATS IS AN institution in Cleve-
land-it's many, many acres of iron
foundaries and factories, and more
star ,angular warehouses than the mind can
handle at first. When you drive into Cleveland
from Ann Arbor, a central route takes you
right by The Flats, and even during the
brightest day a Nagasakian mushroom cloud
of chemical dust and smoke hangs over the
industrial vista. Here, the greenhouse effect
has been in force for years.
Kkreeeeechhhh!, and this time it's a beer
bottle one of them has thrown at the base of
one of the many bridges to be found there
(more kinds of bridges in one area than are to
be found anywhere else on earth). They might
be taking pictures of some drainage pipes'
leading out to the river, or they might be ac-
ting out some impromptu theatre by the
exhaust fins of an underground coal burner.
Or else they might just be drinking in
someone's car and laughing a lot.
But whatever they are doing, they are erl-
joying the hard, cold facts of city life that
most of us at best ignore, and more often
despise. When I asked Ravenstine about The
Flats, he began to talk about the interesting
angles to be found in many of the bridges
"Pere Ubu has always believed that you
don't have to go to some museum in France to
see a painting from a cathedral that was
destroyed centuries ago to see art," he said.
Some may worry about the safety and
healthiness of The Flats, but Pere Ubu takes
the hazards of the place as an obvious given
(for various reasons,, they say, they don't
hang out there as they used to). What we have
around us now, what we have made with our
hands for whatever purpose, is as much
"art" to them as anything is. And if walking
through the urban desert of The Flats and
all the chemicals that get into your shoes
results in genetic defects that lead to big,
twittering flippers for their children, then on
some level that is a price that is worth paying,
Pere Ubu would say.
" ON'T EXPECT ART." It's been the
motto of Pere Ubu ever since it
got started, as The Rocket From
the ombs, in the mid-seventies. Begun by
some of the current members and the late
Peter Laughner, the group took what gigs it X
could for several years, breaking up at one c
point, until it landed a record contract and 5
released This is the Modern Dance in 1978. In Q
1979 Pere Ubu came out with Dub Housing, K
the album which established them with the
critics-if not the public.
Throughout their existence Pere Ubu has
aimed, and succeeded, in creating music that
is the result of work-hard work-and not
some mystical product of an art-making that
only those "chosen" can enact.
"We have a lot of friends that are artists.
And I think that a common theme that runs
through us and a lot of them is the most artists
are bullshit," deduces Ravenstine.
"It's like when you are doing plumbing, and
you're trying to break an old fitting, you don't
know how long it's going to take before it
breaks, how much pressure you're going to
have to exert," Maimone says. "You just
keep at it and sometimes it breaks easier than
"I think we're pretty much of the opinion
that art is bullshit when it endeavors to
separate itself from everything else. From
reality! I go out there and I do what I do in the
studio the exact same way I do plumbing
when I work here, which is the absolute best
way I know how to doit, given the tools I've
Don't expect art-expect plumbing. Now
that's a motto we all should be living by.
What we need is to make the most of the stuff
we have now, to hear it in new ways, to listen
to and then understand it as we never have
bothered to before. We don't need more songs,
ads, or symphonies.. . and besides, we can
only stand so many more. What we need is to
be able to hear out the air hammer's rattle as
it strikes the pavement, and the wheezing of
the old person next door.
It will be a few decades before we outgrow
our knee-jerk need for more of this art stuff.
But until then, one of the few things that we
should hold onto dearly is Pere Ubu, for they
are preparing us for the inevitable cross-over.
These musicians don't create new sounds ...
they take sound as a found object, be it a
recorded conversation, a piano lick from
Satie, the squeal of a squeeze toy, or a standard
blues chord structure, and they turn it back
on us. Make that throw back on us-they are
aggressive and harsh, because we live in a
world where death by bland-out is a constant
Pere Ubu makes a gesture of non-art, one
that tries to make us all artists as surely as it
rules out any use for art. Theirs is a vision of
our world through a robot-child's eyes. And it
is that gesture, and that vision, that will some
day be greatly appreciated.
F f l r.f'*' ~ ' 1 ~