Saturday, 11 January 2014

October 1978
Thomas the Tank Engine
Within a week of returning to London, I head off to Toronto with PR Alan Edwards and photographer Chris Gabrin in search of a nice Pere…

Pere Ubu cling to Cleveland, the spot that spawned them, nurtured them, and will probably kill them.

David Thomas, singer and co-composer, is a walking Billy Smart’s with eyes that curl away from you like a Victorian fire-eater's moustache. The rest of the band look like they missed the 5.45 special out of Woodstock and have been waiting for the next bus ever since.

They’re gathered in the Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto.

I still can’t figure out on which side of the city the bar is situated because one part of Toronto looks very much the same as another – shops, offices, Dub Housing, roads with cars, people (but not at night). It’s undistinguished, achromatic, and the nearest major town to Niagara Falls.

The Tavern reflects its mother.

Thomas and company amble on stage. The Big Top looks uncomfortable in an ill-fitting suit that covers his six-foot-two-inch 20-stone frame – it’s a pair of silk pyjamas on a rhino. His brow is perpetually creased, but it’s a feigned seriousness, as is the passion of his pleas to the audience.

Thomas is a unique performer. He looks terribly uncomfortable on stage, like he knows every movement, every word, is a hideous faux pas. Yet you know it’s an act. The guy’s been doing it too long for it not to be.  
It appears the audience are diehard Ubu fans and they actually call out requests. ‘Hey David, what about some Chinese Radiation?’ ‘We want Drinking Wine Spodyody!’ ‘Blow Daddy-O.’ And when it’s all over Toronto dies again.

There’s no doubting Pere Ubu possess a morbid sensibility − each song is like the dismembered victim of a sex murderer. A leg in the long grass, a head in the hedge, an arm near an arch. All mean nothing until gradually pieced together on the bloodstained pathologist’s slab. lt takes time, but the cadaver begins to resemble somebody, somebody you’ve known in the past, somebody who might have meant something. Long ago.

Backstage, Thomas sucks grass fumes from under a glass, up, up into the wide blue yonder. Almost immediately he has a coughing fit that renders him incapable of speaking. His face puffs up, turns crimson and his eyes bulge. You can just see the whites, which ain’t as white as maybe they should be. He finds a chair and flops, still wheezing. We all take no notice and form an orderly queue behind the grey fume-filled glassful of grass.

The dressing room is tiny and, with Thomas the tank engine in it, positively claustrophobic. He’s wearing a cheap blue mac that’s as ill-fitting as the suit underneath. He looks like a character in a Samuel Beckett play.

‘I was a high-school drop-out,’ he says and, right away, the eyes begin their darting movements -- movements that persist throughout our little tryst. ‘It didn’t seem to make much sense staying on. Everyone appeared to be pretty uninteresting. I was going to be a teacher like my father, but that lasted six months. Then I started writing for a music paper. I wrote under the name of Crocus Behemoth. But I got tired of writing about music. I wanted to go out and do it.’

The room is getting smokier, the Mac is getting bluer, the body bigger, the ceiling lower. I feel like Alice after drinking the shrinking potion.

‘We’re described as an industrial band but that’s wrong. I can understand when some people say our music has nightmare qualities but we’re really a folk band. We approach the whole thing like one. The Velvets used to be described as a folk band.

‘I can’t imagine ever being popular. It would be fun if it happened − I’ve nothing against making it. But I still can’t really see it happening.’

‘Industrial rock is nothing more than a hook. In the early days we used to talk about it and its relevance to Cleveland. But it’s just not important. What is important is getting away from Joe Public expecting something from a show just because he bought a ticket. That’s old thinking. He’s as much part of the show as the artist, of equal importance in fact. I have a job to do, the audience has a job to do.

‘I’ve never gone to a show and expected something. Whether I’m listening to a record in my room, or having some friends round, or watching a western, I never expect to have a good time. That causes too much trouble because then it starts getting into "Am I having a good time or not?" and that’s a waste of time.

‘The only thing I ever expected was to get accepted in Cleveland. I just hoped that at some point, some day, Cleveland would come around. I was wrong.’

(Pere Ubu – named after Père Ubu, father Ubu, the protagonist of Ubu Roi, Ubu the King, a play by French writer Alfred Jarry – have disbanded and re-formed on several occasions, and David Thomas remains the one constant. In 2013 they released the album The Lady From Shanghai)

We stay at a five-star Toronto hotel for three nights during which I get three calls from a local escort service someone keeps contacting in my name, as a joke, requesting a girl. On the third night the very sexy-sounding voice warns me, after I deny yet again booking a girl, to ‘stop pestering us or we’ll have you thrown out of the hotel’.

Alan denies making the calls but his hysterical laughter is a total giveaway.

The three of us then head down to New York for interviews, photos and fun…

Next: David Johansen in New York

Adapted from the book Tell Me When by Barry Cain
© Barry Cain 2013
Check out Barry’s new novel, Wet Dreams Dry Lives:

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