Thursday, October 01, 2009


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
October 2, 2009

I’ve loved Pere Ubu — the avant-weirdo band originally from Cleveland — for years, but I was ready to be put off by the group’s latest album, Long Live Père Ubu!, because of some of the statements in the project’s press material.

The album is a musical adaptation of Ubu Roi, an 1896 play by Alfred Jarry, whose work influenced the Surrealist and Dada movements and later the Theater of the Absurd. The band took its name from the play’s protagonist.

Long Live Père Ubu! is not background music. It’s not ‘fun’ music,” the press release says. “It’s an intellectual and conceptual challenge and as viciously satirical as Jarry’s original.”

Then it quotes David Thomas, the band’s frontman: “If you’re not going to listen to this with the same effort you’d devote to a literary novel, you’re wasting your time. ... It’s long past time for rock music to grow up and move past the simpering platitudes or Tom Joad cant that passes for serious thought. All hail the survival of the Unfit!”

Thomas also claims that Long Live Père Ubu! is “the only punk record that’s been made in the last 30 years.”

First of all, as an Okie, I resent that disparaging remark about the hero of The Grapes of Wrath. But even more troubling is all the highfalutin art talk. What is this, Emerson, Lake & Palmer? It sounds like the condescending gibberish spouted by ivory-tower culture critics who bestow artistic legitimacy upon Sgt. Pepper and haughtily dismiss Beatles ’65.

But then again, Thomas probably delights in provoking the primitivists. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’s mocking the high-art culture vultures.

Flashback to 1896: When Ubu Roi had its premiere in Paris, riots broke out from the very first word of the play — merdre, a variation on the French word for "shit." (Didn’t the French also riot at the opening of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring? What is it with them?)

Set in Poland, Ubu Roi is the tale of the hideous Père Ubu and his shrewish wife who urges him to seize power by murdering the king. After the crime is committed, Ubu becomes a cruel tyrant and is eventually overthrown himself. On one level, the play is a parody of Macbeth, but it also satirizes the politics of the nation-states of Europe that culminated in World War I.

Ubu is not just a terrible dictator. He is repulsive beyond belief — cruel, loutish, petty, venal, gluttonous, coarse, and pompous; Jabba the Hutt and Idi Amin have nothing on him. He was also the protagonist of two sequels, Ubu Cocu (Ubu Cuckolded) and Ubu Enchaîné (Ubu Enchained), neither of which was performed during the playwright’s lifetime.

Ubu does Ubu: While Thomas took Pere Ubu as the name of his band in the 1970s, he had never attempted to perform Jarry’s work until last year’s adaptation in London of Ubu Roi, called Bring Me the Head of Ubu Roi. Thomas starred as the title character, with singer Sarah Jane Morris, from a band called The Communards, as his wife. The bickering couple portrayed by Thomas and Morris were two parts Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth and one part Jiggs and Maggie. The first half of a radio adaptation of this is available as a series of free podcasts.

The album starts off with the word that sparked the 1896 riot, growled by Thomas. When I first heard it, I thought he was saying “murderer.” Considering that the King of Poland doesn’t have long to live, “murderer” isn’t an inappropriate word to set the mood.

With the additions of Morris and electronic whiz Gagarin, the ever-changing Ubu band here is the same group that played on the previous Ubu album, 2006’s excellent and underrated Why I Hate Women.

Like any Pere Ubu album, this record is filled with electronic bells, whistles, squeaks, and squawks that hark back to Plan 9 From Outer Space and Thomas’ yelps, warbles, and tasty guitar licks (the one on “Watching the Pigeons” is right out of the Jesus Christ Superstar overture).

There is also some belching. The song “Less Said the Better” is almost as funny as a it is disgusting. It’s the best use of burping in a rock song since Alfred E. Neuman’s “It’s a Gas.”

Because it is a dramatic presentation, there is a lot of spoken-word dialogue (as well as some that’s sung), most of which is fascinating. My favorite is the conversation between Mère and Père Ubu on “The Story So Far.” He’s in a hallucinatory daze while she tries to convince him that she’s a supernatural natural spirit — an angel, to be exact. But even in his delirious stupor, Père Ubu knows she’s no angel.

“Long Live Père Ubu!” is a compelling and dark album, if not an all-out rocker. The press material is right — it’s not background music. It certainly isn’t easy listening. But if you’re twisted enough, it’s a lot of fun, no matter what the press release says.

Blog bonus: Check this animated Brothers Quay video of “Song of the Grocery Police” below

And there's another one HERE, but embedding has been disabled. Probably for some highfalutin artistic reason.

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