Datapanik Reversal Machine
David Thomas interview by David Gavan
Pere Ubu's co-ordinator David Thomas has always had an uncanny knack for anticipating important cultural developments.
In 1977, his pal John Thompson and he identified the narcotising effect of increasing information overload, and dubbed it "Datapanik." There's also the fact that Thomas heard postmodernism vibrating down the tracks long before anyone else; early songs such as One Less Worry (1979) are more akin to aural installations than straight-ahead rock tunes.
Moreover, his championing of a concept career over concept albums- songs as moments in a stream as opposed to pearls on a string- corrects the quotient-of-aural-pleasure-to-financial-outlay mentality that capitalism has foisted upon us. Thomas is also quoted in Nicholas Rombes' excellent book, Cinema In the Digital Age (2009), arguing (in 2005) that the lack of an object involved in listening to music online detracts from the actuality of art. The reason being that "the fragility of the object lends weight to the art contained within it."
This is a salutary insight, given that we live in an era in which conceptual art is seen as more edgy than painting; when "deconstructions" of "traditional plots" in drama and fiction unknowingly reflect the melting away of old truths; when infinite virtual record collections have supplanted vinyl albums; when we travel in virtual taxis to virtual hotels in order to have sex with virtual people with whom we've flirted online. As Marshall Berman said of advanced capitalism (taking his lead from Marx): All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (1982).
David Thomas has spoken in terms of Pere Ubu's peerless new album The Long Goodbye as drawing together of all the of all of the tales contained in their previous offerings. He talks here with candour, eloquence and wit about the ideas that underlie these stories.
Perfect Sound Forever: The first question is about the way that lines from past Pere Ubu songs resurface in other songs, in other contexts. Around the time that The Story of My Life (1993) was released, you said that these were "reference points." You didn't use the word "map," but there is a cartographic aspect to Pere Ubu. I'm thinking about the valorisation of man-made stone structures on "Electricity" on the Ray Gun Suitcase (1995) album, or the evocation of geography's authenticity in songs such as "Woolie Bullie" on Pennsylvania (1998).
I think of Pere Ubu as a massive cartography, in which you return to themes from different angles. What do you think?
David Thomas: Well, they're reference points because, firstly, these are continuous stories. So every song is different but one would be related to another one. One is a continuation; or one is a clarification; or one is a different perspective on something that was previously worked on. So I insert what you would call reference points.
These connections may be oblique, or they may be an obvious continuation. It's like the road itself: a road is not always the same view over and over again, but it's the same road.
As regards the idea of specific map references: sometimes that's the intention, but it's hard to generalize.
PSF: I recall your simile of Pere Ubu being akin to a cup seen from various angles. This is similar to the way Cubism arose because technological developments were greatly accelerating around 1907, and this afforded humans various perspectives. But, how far are you aware that quoting an earlier lyric serves to mythologize that song in the Ubu songbook? For example, I didn't fully appreciate the Carnival of Souls (2014) song "Brother Ray" until I heard "Letter Home" on the Live Free Or Die (2017) album (which uses some of its lyrics, set to different music).
DT: Over and above referencing my own lyrics, with Brother Ray, there are any number of reference points in there. The one that is most poignant for me is the mythology of the train, the locomotive. I was quite taken with train wreck songs for a while. In the history of the South, the locomotive engineers were the astronauts of their day; they were the top of the heap. There's the whole connection with technology and movement, and time and space.
Also, "Brother Ray" immediately connects you with the Velvets' "Sister Ray" (1968). If you don't swiftly make this connection, then you can't call yourself a rock enthusiast. So, there are levels of significance there.
PSF: Your mentioning trains goes back to Little Richard: do you remember his taking a member of his band to the train tracks and saying: "I want to to play that train rhythm in the studio tomorrow"? Also, you had Chuck Berry and the way that his chugging twelve bar rhythm emulated trains.
DT: Yes. So, in Pere Ubu songs, you're always presented with multiple perspectives. With the train reference, there's also the angle of a communal transportation system versus the personal form of conveyance that is the car. There's a connection between folk music, which is represented by the sociability of the train, and rock music, in which individuality is epitomized by the automobile. Think of Ike Turner and "Rocket 88" (1951), for instance.
The reason that I've always resisted explaining songs is the complexity involved. You can easily explain, say, "Help Me Rhonda" (1965), but, even when you get to Chuck Berry, songs like "Maybelline" (1955) are packed with meaning. He was one of the very early people whose lyric-writing demonstrated to me that songs can tell tremendous stories. However much you go on about Chuck Berry's guitar playing, his most important contribution was his lyrics:
"The rain water blowin' all under my hood,
I knew that was doin' my motor good...
"The motor cooled down, the heat went down,
And that's when I heard that highway sound..."
You could talk about those song lyrics all day long. And I try to do respect to these things; and I know rock music. I know rock music FROM THE GROUND UP, and it all means something to me.
And this is the nature of Pere Ubu. I often talk about repurposing the detritus of pop culture. I was trying to read Faulkner when I was ten; I had an intellectual upbringing, but I was taken by the – I'm not going to call it poetry 'cause it's not – poetic nature of rock music, and the use of words. Music was far more striking to me than, say, W.B. Yeats. I'm an American of a certain age, with a certain background, and I was taking rock music far more seriously than my compatriots were. Maybe I took it too seriously, or maybe I read more into it than was there. But oftentimes in life there IS more to things than you'd initially think."
PSF: This notion is there in that Neil Young song, "Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black)" (1979): "Hey, hey, My, my,
Rock 'n' roll can never die.
There's more to the picture
than meets the eye..."
I know that you're a middle class person. I'm from a working class background, and, for me, rock was a portal into literature and art. I recall Richard Hell saying something about rock proffering secret messages on the radio. If you listen, you'll glean something. Do you think that he was right?
DT: Well, I'm a believer that there are worthwhile messages in popular culture. It's difficult to defend pop culture, because there's a lot of utterly meaningless drivel, along with deception and confusion. But, yes, there are secrets in pop culture.
When I was a kid, I'd watch the Friday night monster movies about giant man-eating crabs. I wasn't stupid, I wasn't naïve. It was never just about giant man-eating crabs. Think of Herk Harvey, who directed the film Carnival of Souls (1962). It was the only movie he ever made; he was an industrial film-maker, evidently. He had a good idea. Now, Carnival of Souls is an utterly flawed movie, but, with that sort of film, you don't have to get a creative pitch accepted by a Hollywood committee. Harvey had an idea and he saw it through.
In lots of those movies, there's just one good idea in the whole thing, but it's an idea that deserves to be expressed. There a movie called Time Travelers (1964), directed by Ib Melchior, which I saw about forty five years ago. Most of it was unbearable, except for the last sequence. I don't know why I endured the whole film, but, at the very end, they break through the fabric of time, and they go into this accelerating temporal loop. Now, that's an interesting idea: it makes you think about the nature of time in modern society, the speeding up of information dissemination.
(This is another example of Thomas' cultural acuity: the insight that he derived from The Time Travelers four decades ago anticipated the recent theory of accelerationism, which argues that capitalism should be speeded-up in order to force fundamental social change. This idea is rejected vigorously by Benjamin Noys in Malign Velocities 2014)
DT: It came From Outer Space (1953) is a better movie. Probably the only element left in it from when Ray Bradbury wrote the original script is that the aliens were travelling through the telephone wires and...
PSF: It's like "Wichita Lineman" (1968) in sci-fi form... Bradbury's idea seems like an allegory for the way in which technology is mutating our minds.
DT: Well that's what I was about to bring in. Yeah, these are the sort of ideas that crop up in pop culture. Obviously, "Wichita Lineman" is far more poignant and poetic than It Came From Outer Space, but that's one movie idea, and that idea is worth two hours of your time.
PSF: In recent years, postmodern novelists were saying: "Hey, everything is connected!" but you seemed to get to postmodernism before...
DT: (laughing) When the rest of you were stuck in modernism, yeah.
PSF: Do you think that it might have helped that your father was an English and American literature professor?
DT: I suppose it did: there were a lot of books, and I just dived into them. My father never said: 'Read this!' I'd just pick a book from the shelf, and I'd go down the line, whatever it was.
I see patterns; that's one of my skills; I'm naturally inclined to look for the connection between one thing and another. But I don't see why that's such an odd idea: why shouldn't everything be connected? Why doesn't everybody see these connections? I mean, nothing that has happened in the past four hundred years is important. Nothing. NOTHING is particularly important. If you want to understand modern politics, then you study the Reformation. It's hundreds of years ago, but nothing's changed. The connections are very clear, and strong. Why isn't everybody talking about something that happened hundreds of years ago as if it's relevant today, because it is?
PSF: You mention your love of science in your book The Book of Hieroglyphs (2012). Songs such as "Petrified" on Song of the Bailing Man (1982)- which deals imaginatively with the subject of palaeontology- show that you're equally happy in the worlds of art and science ("A skeleton may indicate, but imagination animates"). In 1959 C.P. Snow lectured that there was a chasm of incomprehension separating science and the humanities. Might your ability to mix the two stem from the fact that your father taught literature, whereas your mother is more science-oriented?
DT: Snow's ideas were absurd. The humanities and science are inextricably linked. It's only academic pigeon-holing that artificially separates the two.
My mother was a Wooster, her passion was watercolours. She painted plein air (outdoors), particularly doing watercolours of roadside flowering weeds. She loved them, and would drive the back roads looking for them. She'd take them home and study the vein structure. I remember this one particular time, when she was studying and painting an interesting vein structure. Somehow she traced it back to the Italian Renaissance. I remember my astonishment at the miraculousness of moving from one country and epoch to the others, like being strapped into a time machine. As I sat there, and she was talking to me, it all made sense. I was just a young kid, but I can just remember it being very marvellous.
PSF: Moving from nature to technology, I want to ask you about the automobile and the U.S.A. This question is with particular reference to the song on The Long Goodbye called "The Road Ahead," which depicts a ghost highway journey through the decaying American psyche. There are also potent references to driving on the Pennsylvania (1998) album.
In the fifties, if you think of Jack Kerouac, cars and motorcycles were seen as liberation machines. But, by the Velvet Underground's first album in 1967, Lou Reed was sneering at "blue cars" as a symbol of consumer culture. Also, on Marquee Moon's title track in 1977, a Cadillac is driving the guileless narrator of the song into a graveyard. On the Ray Gun Suitcase tune "Memphis," you sing that "all your destinations are parking lots."
Wouldn't you say that, just as radio started out as a sort of aural church hall, that had a rootsy authenticity, cars have morphed from being symbols of freedom to ghost town conveyance vehicles?
DT: Well, they've gone further than that. They're now symbols of confinement.
PSF: Do you think that the "media priests," the purveyors of Debordian "spectacle," are responsible for perverting the good aspects of radio and cars?
DT: I wish the media priests were responsible, but they're simply the agents of modernity. It's modernity itself that drives such things. Decades ago John Thompson and I talked about Datapanik as the mechanism of modernity; the massive pumping of information into our culture, which has a anaesthetizing effect. So, the media priests aren't out there directing it; they're not smart enough. They lack the self-awareness to be anything other than agents, useful idiots of modernity."
PSF: Regarding your idea on Pennsylvania's "Woolie Bullie" that "culture is a weapon that is used against us," hasn't culture always been used against us? Hasn't this phenomenon just been accelerated by postmodernism and the internet?
DT: Politics is downstream from culture, culture is downstream from religion. It's all the same river.
PSF: Radio started out promoting regular country folk mores, didn't it?
DT: Yeah. But then you've got to get into some sort of other definition of what you might call true, folk culture and so-called "high culture" (and not all of it is truly "high"!). Hierarchical culture, as we might call it. At one point, I talked about folk culture as an axis, with folk culture at one end and hierarchical culture at the other.
But even hierarchical culture is not inherently "bad." People are congenitally driven to make things. I think that this is both natural and good. But when you throw all that into a commercial context-a market place-you start having trouble.
DT: Well, because you have to consider what is acceptable to sell to somebody else. So, you get dumbed down pop radio, which is nonsensical.
PSF: Around the time of the New York (1989) album, Lou Reed complained that there isn't enough "grown-up" rock 'n' roll in the world. I was struck by your Bay City (2000) song, "Charlotte," which features a speaker who sounds as though he might be the Everly Brothers' character from "Wake Up Little Susie," years later, as an embittered, jilted middle-aged drunk. Or the singer from "Three Things" on Ray Gun Suitcase could be an older version of the bellhop from "Heartbreak Hotel." There's even a reference to a cut-price accommodation complex called 'Heartbreak Efficiencies'...
DT: Yes, of course: that's an important reference. The whole genius of "Heartbreak Hotel" is that the song is not about the Elvis Presley character; it's about the bellhop, who is doomed to eternally watch these people come and go.
There's a problem in rock if depictions are limited to adolescence. Growing up is a process that continues until you hit the grave, and seems to be so obviously true that I'm dumbfounded when others don't see it.
PSF: I think that Reed knew that growing up is a lifelong process, he seemed to mean that, as a literate, mature man, it wasn't always easy for him to find rock with lyrics that didn't make him wince. A lot of fairly old bands sing about teenage love in tawdry couplets. "Charlotte" features a romantically-mutilated middle-aged man and this is more appropriate subject matter for a man of a certain age. The bleak realism of that song would preclude radio airing.
But I wanted to ask you about your ideas on the nature of mathematics. In your book Baptized Into the Buzz (2019), you seem to suggest that the rules of maths are an example of humankind corralling barely-grasped phenomenon into neatly-arranged pens of thought.
DT: Well, my mother's one ambition for me was that I become a mathematician, even though I had no interest in the subject at school. She would be suggesting that I go back to college and study mathematics when I was about forty.
But what I wrote about maths is very much in line with what I think about Galileo. Now, he argued, of course, that the earth rotates around the sun, which brought him into collision with the Catholic Church. Well, the facts of the case are that Galileo's explanations were wrong! They were screwy. The Catholic Church was simply arguing the logic of what was known at the time. Now, Galileo's cardinal distinction was that he was lucky. He got it right, for all the wrong reasons!
Now, that's a lot to me like mathematics. Mathematics gets it right, but I'm not sure that all of the reasons hold up. The main weaknesses of mathematics- something that makes me wish that I had studied the subject- are to be found at either end of the mathematical scale. Infinity is clearly an impossibility, and the notion of zero is pure nothingness. I know that traditionally, zero was meant as a place-holder, not a concept. But gradually, the humble zero has had almost metaphysical status conferred upon it.
So, zero can't exist, because there is no possible state of nothingness. And infinity can't exist, because we live in a finite universe. This is "the final frontier"- speaking in Star Trekian terms- and somebody with both balls and insight has got to come up with the solution to those conundrums.
Also, the problem with mathematics, as with culture, is that it's used against the public as a weapon. It is used to promote weak, wrong and deceptive ideas.
PSF: You have strong ideas about chaos theory, don't you?
DT: Yes. There is no such thing as what we call chaos. Chaos theory is precisely the opposite to what the mass media portrays it as being. It is not a question of there not being a system, it is more the case that we fail to comprehend said system.
I always admire the curriculum of my high school. I belonged to the last generation of students who got a rigorous education, before American education became all fuzzy and warm.
We had to read a book by Anthony Standen called Science Is A Sacred Cow (1950), which argues that you can't trust scientists any more than you can anybody else; it's all process; something is right for a while, and then it's wrong. Deal with it. Don't be a dupe.
Astonishingly enough, another book that we had to read was called The Peter Principle (1969) by Laurence J. Peter. (Chuckling) It was a corporate management book that basically argued that people rise to their level of incompetence!
So, you need to rise in your career until you've reached the level that you're incompetent at, and then you’re going to be a boss. Now, these are pretty astonishing books, which were set in a very advanced liberal education establishment. (Adopts a mock pedantic tone) "Forget about Shakespeare," you know.
See Part 2 of the David Thomas interview
Our interview with Pere Ubu's Allen Ravenstine
Our article on Peter Laughner
Our article on Rocket From the Tombs
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