Live: Pere Ubu's One Night Only Performance of "Long Live Père Ubu!" at Le Poisson Rouge
David Thomas tries somebody else's face on for size. Photo by Richard Gehr.
Le Poisson Rouge
Sunday March 29
We can't read most of the notes we scribbled during Pere Ubu's rendering of Alfred Jarry's 1896 Absurdist masterpiece "Ubu Roi" at (le) Poisson Rouge last night. But that turned out to be entirely within the spirit of the vintage experimental rockers' shambolically brilliant U.S. debut of the spectacle retitled "Long Live Pere Ubu!" As an onscreen title suggested during intermission, "The more you drink, the more sense it makes." Apart from a schematic story about Pere Ubu's conquest of Poland, lost war with Russia, and ignoble return to France, the six-act work's sense was far less important than bandleader David Thomas's daft yet deft sensibility.
"Basically, it's just a fucked-up Macbeth," said Thomas by way of introduction - adding that the Little Rascals' notion of "Hey, let's put on a show" was his main inspiration. So with a threatening croon of "Somewhere, over the merdre," we were off. Thomas, the remaining original member of the seminal Akron, Ohio, group, proceeded to polish off a bottle of wine and a flask of something stronger during the next two hours, while sweating like a pig in a pervy raincoat. Pere Ubu's frontman has declared the show's accompanying recording "the only punk record that's been made in the last 30 years," and he's got a point. The show's chaotic march of writhing, stuttering, mincing, hectoring, slurring, farting, bunny-hopping belching, and tantrum throwing, led by a besotted 55-year-old working out his midlife crisis in public, makes younger punks seem like quaint nostalgia acts in comparison.
With the low-tech vagina-dentata animations of the Brothers Quay as background, Thomas played both Pére Ubu and his invisible shrewish wife, Mére Ubu. The rest of the band - Keith Moliné (guitar), Robert Wheeler (EML sythesizer, theremin), Steve Mehlman (drums), and Michele Temple (bass) - portrayed secondary characters when the weren't rocking out or submitting to Thomas's feigned abuse. The original group's sonic spirit persists in the analog synth sounds of a ghostly future music that never arrived and, of course, in Thomas's free-associate blather.
Thomas's Pére Ubu represents universal vileness in the form of an oversized infant who aspires only to wear "the big sombrero" of power. (At least one audience member sported similar headware in sympathy.) He's Hamlet and Richard IIII no less than Clinton and Bush. Thomas delivered a punch in the local political gut after the voice of a young girl asking why Pére Ubu, who has conquered Poland, wants to take away the homes where their "spirit" resides. According to Thomas, stepping out of character for a moment, the mawkish query was in reality that of an eight-year-old who Senator Charles Schumer had brought in to testify during the financial meltdown. "Talk about cowardice," Thomas sneered. "You punk!"
"Long Live Pére Ubu!" ends on a ghostly vessel returning to France. "I sense that many fine adventures lie ahead of us," concludes the big baby optimistically. The entire show was also, of course, an exended metaphor for Pere Ubu the band's collective history. Thomas made this more or less expicit during an encore consisting of "Final Solution," "Over My Head" (both from Ubu's late-'70s height), and, rather more poignantly, "SAD.TXT" from 1998's underheard Pennsylvania. Thomas sang the latter to the drummer's (real) girlfriend, who was sitting in the audience, from the depths of his sweaty, anguished, intoxicated heart:
"One day I will be your man.
One day I will be the best that you can do.
Time will catch up to you.
And Time will catch up to you.
Like it caught me too."
Long live Pere Ubu.