Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Nature Prance: David Thomas’ solo albums 1981-1987

Yiki TIki

If I was going to try and persuade someone to take an interest in the work of David Thomas in the 1980s, ‘Yiki Tiki’ is probably close to the last song I would choose to demonstrate Thomas’ value as an artist… and I’m of the opinion that he’s one of the most interesting musicians of the late 20th/early 21st centuries.

Like the symbiosis between ‘Crush This Horn pt. 2’ and ‘Confuse Did’ (possibly an attempt by Thomas to pen lyrics to bring some coherence to a fairly disparate group of tracks from different times and places) ‘Yiki Tiki’ is in many respects a part two to ‘I Think the Birds Are Good Ideas’, which precedes it on Sound of the Sand. It is a crib, or a critique perhaps, of that track, and also references much of Thomas’ previous Mundane-era work, beginning with the Garrison Keiloresque elements of New Picnic Time.

New Picnic Time begins with a song called ‘The Fabulous Sequel’, with the opening line ‘It’s me again!’ ‘Yiki Tiki’ is somewhat similar – not musically, but in the way it begins by urging the listener to regard the song as a new instalment in a series, and to remember earlier works: ‘Remember the birds?/Remember the shoes I wore?/Remember the things I said before?/I think ‘em again!’

It is of course perverse to ask the listener to ‘remember the birds’, since we’ve just heard a track on exactly that subject, opining that they are ‘good ideas’. This is all part and parcel of Thomas’ push, carried through on the Pere Ubu album Art of Walking, to toast ‘the small things’ (on ‘Go’) and to also insist, at every available opportunity that such things are stupendously important (‘the birdies are singing/the birdies are saying what I want to say… the foot goes up and the foot goes down’ and so on). The bird theme, Thomas says on the ubuprojex ‘FAQ’ page, ‘evolved out of perversity:

Somewhere along the line I wrote a song that had birds in it. And then by pure coincidence, another. Some critic asked, "Why all these songs about birds?" And I said to myself, "You think that's alot of songs about birds?!? I'll show you alot of songs about birds!" So, for awhile, I stuck birds in everywhere I could. (http://www.ubuprojex.com/faqs/boxfaq.html)

For reasons mentioned above, I think this is a little ingenuous of Thomas, but that’s probably our respective prerogatives. I personally feel that after two dark, almost histrionic albums (The Modern Dance and Dub Housing, of course) he decided to take, or found himself taking, a completely different direction into an area virtually untapped (Jonathan Richman is the only ‘new wave’ artist I can think of who took a lyrically comparable direction, though no doubt there were some others). Where could you go after such dark work but into the lite? And, as mentioned, there’s the religious angle; there’s every chance that someone in the Jehovah’s Witnesses suggested to Thomas, or he figured out himself, that the church wouldn’t look too fondly on such sinister stuff as was found on Dub Housing; better to be songs about nothing, or songs about the small things. ‘Yiki Tiki’ takes this to the limit; it relegates everything to Thomas’ ‘thoughts’ and cheeky actions; there’s no more to it than that. The band respond with similar comical hi jinx.

It’s hard to imagine that this calculated shallowness wasn’t a part of Thomas’ religious conversion; if it’s true (as Rick Moody reports) that Tom Herman quit the band after hearing what Thomas did to a tune of his, turning it into a religious hallelujah, then the religion was certainly decimating the band. The ways in which Pere Ubu slowly evolved from a genuine, five or more-piece band into what many regarded as a backing band for David Thomas are pretty standard (parallel universe Alice Cooper, really, except Thomas didn’t start insisting he was Pere Ubu). An interview with Scott Krauss about the period between the demise of the first incarnation of PU and the rise of David Thomas as a solo artist is quite informative, though also quite confusing. Krauss says:

[T]hings were starting to get really strange, and Rough Trade decided they wanted to make a solo career out of David…We were doing this tour of Europe, and we had 3 days off in London. I thought we were going to book some studio time and record some new material. The closer it got to London, though, the less talk there was about this happening. So when we were about 2 days out from London, I said, "So what's happening with this London recording thing?" Silence. I had just assumed we had it under control. I said, "Are we not doing this?" And Allen said, "Well, actually, Mayo has invited me out to his cottage and I'm going to go there and take a break for 3 days." Tony said he was going to go hang out with some friends. Then there was a message that somebody asked me to give to David, saying that his 8-Track machine was in his hotel room. And I said, "David, what 8-Track machine?" And he told me he was going to do some spoken word recording in his hotel room. So I said, "If Mayo and Allen are going to be gone, and you're going to be busy, what am I supposed to be doing here?"... And then when he did his first solo album, they didn't want anybody from Pere Ubu on it. It was pretty obvious that they wanted David to be a solo act without any Pere Ubu people. (http://www.nadir-novelties.net/ubu/krauss.htm)         

This is interesting, to say the least. Krauss plays on one track on Sound of the Sand, of which more later. Anton Fier was a member of Pere Ubu and he’s all over Sound of the Sand, but the album he’s on was presumably recorded after most of (or all of) Sound of the Sand. In short, I suppose the most we can say is that Sound of the Sand was recorded at different times, and quite possibly it bundles a few tracks from earlier times to augment the main recording session for this album.


What perplexes me is the notion that David Thomas as a solo artist is worth more financially or even artistically than Pere Ubu, or that Mayo Thompson (for instance) would be complicit in such a scenario (not because Mayo’s my hero, though he is, but because I can’t see a commercial advantage!). Could be that this was an elaborate plot to eject Krauss from the band, for reasons unclear (and reading his testimony is the worst way to figure this out)?  Certainly, he was the missing person from the last Pere Ubu album in the initial iteration…

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Anonymous said...

Great stuff - i'm more than up for the track by track treatment. And I never considered the JW lyrical influence before - very interesting.