Greil Marcus, seeking to encapsulate David Thomas’ musical career in a 2003 essay, called the Pere Ubu leader a “crank prophet bestride America”. Re-listening to the three albums and extras collected in this latest retrospective box set from Fire Records, Pere Ubu: Drive, He Said 1994-2002, that description returned and made me seek that nearly 15-year-old essay out.
In it, Marcus quotes Thomas remarking before a European audience, that “We live in a time of magic, superstition, and ignorance. We are the last generation that will ever know what it is like to live in an enlightened world.” In light of recent events in American and Britain, it might be quite tempting to offer up the three albums collected here (Ray Gun Suitcase, Pennsylvania, and St. Arkansas) as prophetic, as unheeded warnings from the last golden age of the 1990s.
Pundits have, after all, been twisting themselves into Mobius strips trying to find a reason for the current American political state. How did this happen? Why did it happen? Why didn’t anyone see it happening? Well, might the speculation go, David Thomas did see it coming, but we were distracted by dotcoms and Britpop, and nobody was listening. But Thomas himself would probably go out of his way to disclaim such speculations. As he stated in a 2015 interview with PopMatters, “I don’t trust bands that are political. Politics and music don’t really mix.” So, if these aren’t deliberately political statements or attempts at prophecy, what are they?
The three works collected here are related, but they are not political or prophetic albums; if they can be classified into any literary genre, it’s journalism. While composing these records, David Thomas was out on the highways of America, observing those who gas up in its truck stops, drink in its juke joints, and shop in its big box stores. The albums form a travelogue of a wasted (or wasting) America, with Thomas traversing its macadam east-west highways on a journey that parallels Mark Twain’s watery north-south journeys a century earlier. Drive, He Said 1994-2002 is David Thomas’ Life on the Mississippi, a book that Thomas himself has described as “the great American novel.”
What is it that Thomas saw during his travels along America’s highways in the 1990s? These songs collectively evoke a dystopian landscape populated by figures from an apocalypse-noir, driven by a stubborn, survivalist moxie in sharp contrast to the boomtown optimism of the decade. Everything in this world is transient, its denizens in perpetual motion. “My home is on a phone”, wails the cold canned bean-consuming narrator of “333” over a 70 mile per hour bass guitar and snare pulse. The endless road leads to “ghost town casinos” (“Drive”) and towns that “disappear into the high plains” (“Perfume”), while “Somewhere out there” lies a place where “the bars are open” and “the night is calling” and “the beer it is flowing” (“Urban Lifestyle”). Hope is a fleeting distraction from a near-constant state of anxiety. The endless road that seems to offer escape becomes itself a trap. As Thomas sings in “Dark”, we drive in search of something that is ever on the horizon but never within reach.
Still, there’s something gallant in that stubborn persistence, something beautiful in refusing to give in completely, to keep on fighting. Jim Thompson and Dashiell Hammett knew that and peopled their novels with characters that would be losers in any other world but their own. Such figures live lives of existential purity, truly in and of themselves and free from irony, which is a perspective of dis-attachment that Thomas overtly shuns. When he asks, in Ray Gun Suitcase‘s “Turquoise Fins”, “Did you ever wonder why all Elvis fans are so much nicer people than the people who laugh at them?”, Thomas hits upon a blatant and damning truth about our culture of perpetual cool. Elvis fans, those caricatures for all that is mediocre in America, are true to themselves in a way that we who would place ourselves above them can never be. “Culture is a weapon that is used against us,” Thomas reminds us in “Woollie Bullie”. Yes, and we do it to ourselves.
The remixing and mastering of these albums for re-release can only be described as radical. Simply put, you have not heard Ray Gun Suitcase until you have heard it here; this is a completely new version, with Robert Wheeler’s theremin and warped electronics at the fore along with an angrier buzz to the late Jim Jones’ guitar textures. Even Thomas’ lyrics and delivery on “Electricity” are a variation of the original release: more desolate, even, than the original. The same is true of Pennsylvania. Both albums have been shortened for this vinyl-centered release and they are both punchier for it. The bonus disc might hold fewer surprises for long-time fans, as it is dominated by tracks cut from the originally released versions of Ray Gun Suitcase and Pennsylvania, but those, too, are remixed to excellent effect. It is over the course of these albums that Michelle Temple (bass) and Robert Wheeler (theramin) establish their own personalities and become definitive contributors to the Pere Ubu sound.
It is a cliché to say, “Play it loud!” But Ubu’s job has long been to undermine the obvious and twist the expected. Sometimes, the cliché rings true. This is not background music; Ubu demands the foreground on these albums. These aren’t the kind of records you come home from after a hard day’s work, kick back with a cocktail, and passively dissolve into; rather, these are records you come home to, turn them on, turn it up, and kick the furniture across the room. This is music that frightens animals and children. This is music to play loud.