Friday, September 05, 2014

Nature Prance: David Thomas' solo albums 1981-1987

Confuse Did

‘Confuse Did’, like ‘Crush This Horn, Part 2’ which precedes it, is a Thomas/Fier song, and aside from the fact that it (finally!) breaks with the tradition of the breather in the first minute (it does come to a standstill at 1:40), it sits comfortably with its predecessor in the tracklisting.

The song begins with Thomas warbling in a bizarre falsetto: ‘what do you do with the wreck of a car? What do you do with a long gray hairpin?’ The questions continue with Thomas’ voice distorted and multitracked (?) asking further questions.

On the Winter Comes Home album, and the Vocal Performances12” single which I think preceded it I think as both a recording and a release, Thomas makes much of the notion that he might be a professor lecturing to a class; this is particularly effective in the ‘vocal performance’ of the Pere Ubu song ‘Petrified’ (in which, I believe, he even takes on the guise of a member of the audience to address himself as ‘Professor Thomas’. Thomas’ parents, I gather, were academics.

Of course I only have the records to go on. If we assume (as I do – perhaps erroneously) that the sequence of recordings goes Art of Walking, Sound of the Sand, Song of the Bailing Man, Vocal Performances, Winter Comes Home – that is, that Thomas’ separation from Pere Ubu as the band’s singer (i.e., a fifth of a band) to solo performer (that is, 100% of David Thomas) is a slow cleaving through which the singer gradually creates himself as an individual entity, then each of these releases does indeed mark a station in the changing pattern; it’s doubly interesting when this sequence ends, too, with Monster Walks the Winter Lake, because at that point Thomas reconvenes Pere Ubu but is himself resubsumed. He does not, as one might expect, use it as a shell, or a rebadged solo career in which he is controller; at least, participants insist this is not how it has run.

Thomas adds a bit of wry humour to the printed lyrics on the sleeve of the original album with the following appendix: words which don’t actually appear in the song (but arguably are presented on the sleeve as though they do):

‘The answers’, then, are ‘What do you do with the wreck of a car?’ – ‘Get rid of it’. ‘What do you do with a long, gray hairpin?’ – ‘Use it to burst that bubble’. ‘What do you do with a certain look?’ – ‘Put it under a rock.’ After that, the correlations seem (to me anyway) to fracture. Thomas then goes into a different set of ideas, whereby he links ‘Confuse Did’ to the previous track ‘Crush This Horn Part 2’ (‘the rock, again’) and then makes a link back to the previous Pere Ubu album and the track ‘Misery Goats’. The final lines are little more (I suspect) than a closing homily, though I note the following joke/aphorism from Bill Keane, the cartoonist responsible for the long-running Family Circus: ‘Yesterday's the past, tomorrow's the future, but today is a gift. That's why it's called the present.’

There is, in certain respects, a missing link in the discography above which may arguably be referenced here as well. The Red Crayola’s album Soldier Talk was released in 1979 and featured all members of Pere Ubu except Scott Krauss, a year before Mayo Thompson came to replace Tom Herman in Pere Ubu. The Red Crayola at this point was Mayo Thompson on vocals and guitar, and Jesse Chamberlain on drums. True to form on almost all Red Crayola records, while personnel is listed on the back of the LP, actual roles are not detailed. Tony Maimone told me many years ago that the basic tracks on the album were all recorded by the time the members of Pere Ubu came to record their parts (Thompson and Chamberlain had taken these songs on the road as a duo, prior to recording the album). David Thomas appears on two tracks, one (the title track) is the last on side one, the other is the first on side two (just as Thomas and Thompson’s duet on Art of Walking, ‘Loop’, is the first track on side two; like ‘Confuse Did’, incidentally, it is a series of obtuse questions). Soldier Talk was, of course, the absolute opposite of a solo album for David Thomas, whose role is small and limited only to repeating certain of Thompson’s lines, and who was not required to write lyrics. It may well have had some impact on his output, however. I would point to the well-known song on Soldier Talk, ‘An Opposition Spokesman’, which features the lines ‘This burning car indicates violence has only just subsided’ – that is to say, ‘what do you do with the wreck of a car?’ I would point also to the ‘Professor Thomas’ persona, and Pere Ubu’s (and Thomas’) much-critiqued forays into the highly simplistic, repetitious, sing-song, even childish; and ask whether this is a response to Thompson’s verbose, articulate, esoteric political intellectualism. It might be. It might also be something other than a negative response – and more a recognition that this field was being covered more than adequately by Thompson.

‘Confuse Did’, then, is closer to an impressionist ‘take’ on the idea of the popular ‘brain teaser’ or perhaps even low-key humorous writing. These questions, non-sequiteurs all, are phrased as one might pose a riddle based on a pun, perhaps as filler in a popular magazine or children’s column in a newspaper.

One more thing about the ‘answers’: The use of ‘CH’ initially confused me; it is probably meant to indicate ‘CHORUS’, though the instruction ‘CHORUS’, which appears in both the songs ‘Sound of the Sand’ and ‘Confuse Did’ itself, is spelt in full elsewhere. For a moment I thought perhaps ‘CH’ stood for ‘Crushed Horn’, but I got over that idea fairly quickly.

The final instrumental break of this song, particularly the slide guitar and bass, is a highlight of the album.

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