"Ahead, the dim blur of an alien land/Time to give ourselves into strange gods' hands"
-- Pere Ubu, "30 Seconds Over Tokyo"
David Thomas doesn't so much sing as vocally expectorate.
His is the sound of a man who has come unhinged, a vocal tone well acquainted with the awareness of terrible beauty residing in the heart of the perpetual outsider. That doesn't mean he lacks a sense of humor, of course.
As singer, for the past three decades, with Cleveland's Pere Ubu, Thomas helped write the book on American punk and new wave, and then he tore it up -- repeatedly, publicly, with often harrowing results.
Pere Ubu staked its claim to some seriously surreal estate from its 1975 beginnings, when it first spat out a post-Velvet Underground psychedelia and married it to twisted art-house sensibilities. The band named its offspring -- born in a dingy garage and midwifed by what sure sounds like a low-rent 8-track recorder -- "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," and released it as a single backed by the equally disturbing "Heart of Darkness."
The world didn't exactly shift on its axis. It should've. This is some sick stuff, and it hinted at a backwater swirling unnoticed in the shadowy swamp of the American character.
Ubu was formed from the detritus of Rocket From the Tombs, a Cleveland avant garde band that featured Peter Laughner, who would join forces with Thomas in 1975 to set Pere Ubu -- a moniker borrowed from the name of the hero in French writer Alfred Jarry's absurdist play "Ubu Roi" -- on its course. That course would come nowhere near the commercial mainline. Instead, it ran straight through "The Flats," then a dank row of clubs and such down by Cleveland's waterfront, never far from a clear view of the wasted industrial skyline.
Ubu made violent and violently intelligent music that subverted form every chance it got and courted form the rest of the time. That dichotomy apparently didn't trouble Thomas and Co., whose artistic conceits were birthed amid urban decay and mirrored that very urban decay in the squall of abused synthesizers, tortured guitars and the Captain Beefheart-on-a-bender song-rant-caterwaul Thomas turned into high art.
Cleveland musician and writer Charlotte Pressling wrote eloquently of Pere Ubu and the Cleveland of the early- to mid-'70s era, and she was one of the few in the city to pay attention to the group.
"Cleveland spreads out and away from the flats of the Cuyahoga River," Pressling writes in "That Was a Different Time." "Ancient heavy industries, the steel mills, petroleum and chemical works of the Rust Belt are hunkered down along the crazy snaking river banks just waiting for the good days to return. The good days won't."
When Pere Ubu makes an incredibly rare Buffalo appearance this evening inside Mohawk Place, will its members note similarities between the urban landscape Pressling so eloquently describes and the one surrounding the club they'll be playing in?
Pressling goes on to ponder the genesis of Pere Ubu, the ultimate band of tortured outsiders, wondering: "Why . . . are so many of the people in this story drawn from the same background?"
"Most of them were from middle- or upper-middle class families," Pressling writes. "Most of them were very intelligent. Many of them could have been anything they chose to be. . . . David Thomas planned at one time to be a microbiologist. Peter Laughner would have made an excellent journalist. . . . There was no reason why they should not have effected an entry into the world of their parents. Yet all of them turned their backs on this world . . . [But] they were not drop-outs in the '60s sense; they felt, if anything, a certain affection for consumerist society, and a total contempt for the so-called counterculture. The '60s drop-outs dropped in to a whole world of people just like themselves, but these people were on their own."
Pressling quite succinctly nails the punk rock ethos and just as succinctly throws some light toward the paradoxically repulsive beauty of Pere Ubu's frank, freaky work. Ubu makes the sound that only a group of aliens with literally nothing to lose -- no "in-crowd" to risk insulting, no real peer group to ostracize or embrace it, no pre-existing ideological refuge to call home -- could feasibly conjure.
This may be why the small cult that identifies with Ubu's anti-hero art does so with a fervor that passes for religiosity, while the rest of the world goes on its merry way, quite blissfully unaware that something called Pere Ubu exists. Entropy-defying, wickedly bent genius isn't for everyone, afterall.
Pere Ubu plays Mohawk Place, 47 E. Mohawk St., 9 tonight. For more information, call 855-3931 or visit www.mohawkplace.com.