Prickly Père

New York

Left and right: David Thomas as Père Ubu at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. (Photos: Richard Gehr)

DAVID THOMAS IS A “DIFFICULT ARTIST” in every sense of the term. Greil Marcus called him a “crank prophet.” In his band Pere Ubu’s early days, he called himself Crocus Behemoth. I call him batshit crazy. But there’s nothing wrong with that, particularly when you’ve consistently created some of the most challenging and influential music of the past three decades. Tall, stout, tightly wound, given to Tourettic outbursts, Thomas embodies the insecure male id inflated to mammoth proportions, so it’s surprising that it took him so long to assume the character from which his band took its name, the monstrously infantile throne-usurper Ubu Roi (King Ubu). The subject of a scathing and scatological 1896 play by the French proto-Absurdist/Surrealist Alfred Jarry, Ubu symbolizes all that is greedy, power-hungry, and self-serving about humanity. He is a one-size-fits-all villain, in that partisans of every stripe can project their bêtes noires onto him. I may be wrong, but I have a sinking suspicion that, for Thomas, Ubu is Barack Obama.

This is not an intuitive comparison. Ubu is fat, Polish, and destructively moronic (besides the Polish part, something like a retarded Göring); Obama is slim, black, and constructively intelligent. Nevertheless, there were enough hints in Thomas’s adaptation and performance to make me think that he’s currently worried about “liberal fascism” in America. Retitled Bring Me the Head of Ubu Roi in Thomas’s abbreviated musical adaptation, the play found Thomas and his bandmates playing multiple roles, with original animations by the Brothers Quay projected on a screen to the side of the stage. The piece premiered in London in April 2008; Sunday’s scaled-down performance at Le Poisson Rouge was its debut (and perhaps only) staging in the US.

After a long wait (I arrived early to secure a cabaret-style, two-drink-minimum table), the lights dimmed and Thomas emerged, dressed in a long, black raincoat. Thinner than in the old days, though still physically imposing, he resembled Rush Limbaugh as a homeless flasher. He briefly summarized the plot of Ubu Roi (“a fucked-up Macbeth”) and announced that he’d lost his voice (though he hadn’t) and that he would be playing both Père Ubu and his conniving, ambitious wife, Mère Ubu (the latter role was played by ex-Communards singer Sarah Jane Morris in London). He hastened to add in his characteristically impatient way that the play “is not supposed to make sense. When I was growing up, no one ever told me I had to make sense.”

Thomas then intoned the once scandalous first word of the play—“Merdre!” (“shit” with an extra R)—and three of his bandmates marched out and started striking angular Sprockets poses as a harsh drum machine and synth blasted through the PA. Keyboard and theremin player Robert Wheeler was wearing a spelunker’s headlamp. Young drummer Steve Mehlman was wearing a dress. Midway through the first song, Thomas waved his hands and said, “Hold it. Stop. Rewind. I’ve lost my place.” He explained to the audience that there would be many fuck-ups later, but he didn’t want to start off with one. Thomas’s voice for Mère Ubu was a standard falsetto, but his voice for Père Ubu evoked an unhinged Tom Waits (who in turn evoked an unhinged Louis Armstrong—this is one of the Obama clues).

Left: David Thomas as Père Ubu at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. (Photo: Mark Mawston). Right: Bassist Michele Temple and drummer Steve Mehlman performing in Bring Me the Head of Ubu Roi at the WUK, Vienna. (Photo: Alexandru Constantin)

The plot, in Thomas’s abridged adaptation, really was a fucked-up Macbeth, so I won’t recount it here, beyond high- and lowlights. In various songs, Thomas referred to the crown of Poland, which he stole by murdering King Wenceslas, as “the big sombrero.” Ubu decides to “liquidate the nobles and take their coin . . . in order to save the children” (in the original play, but on the eve of the passage of the health care reform bill, another Obama hint). After playing a recording of a child asking why all his community’s traditions were being abandoned, Thomas said that it was a verbatim transcription of a child Senator Chuck Schumer brought in for testimony to “tell us why we all have to change our lives.” “I’ve confused Robert,” Thomas added, “he only watches MSNBC” (more liberal/Obama-baiting).

Throughout the show, Thomas loudly berated his bandmates for perceived errors. During a moment of silence between songs, he yelled, “It’s quiet! I don’t want fucking quiet!” The crowd began to whoop. “I wasn’t talking to you,” he snapped. During another pause he bellowed, “Play! Play, you fucking fucksticks!” “I sympathize with Ubu,” Thomas quipped, “I have to do everything myself too.” When bassist Michele Temple delivered a line as the Polish army, he admonished her for not sounding feminine enough. “But I’m the Polish army,” she replied, sensibly. Thomas also took regular nips of booze in different formats—beer, a red wine bottle, a hip flask. This bolstered the homeless Limbaugh vibe.

In the original play, Ubu often begins sentences with “By my green candle . . .” Honoring this, Thomas was frequently lit with a sickly green spotlight. But he turned this into a snide riff on “green” concerns—global warming and carbon taxing. Père Ubu says that he would never tax the air we breathe in, but he would tax the stuff we breathe out (carbon dioxide). He apologized to Robert, the talented, beleaguered keyboardist, for continually changing the script without telling him. (One wonders if any of the Tea Party–ish right-libertarian elements were in the spring 2008 script.) Near the end of the play, Thomas grabbed a pile of notepapers Robert had on his keyboard (presumably documenting the latest edits) and threw them off stage. “Stop looking at this shit,” he yelled. Finally, and I missed the context, Thomas roared “Free at last!” in the Waits/Armstrong voice. I found this uncomfortable, though no one else seemed to mind.

After the play, the band encored with a few songs from their back catalogue to rousing applause. Before one number, Thomas said that Sting once told him, “David, I dig your band, but you need a cause.” “I’ve got a cause,” Thomas informed the crowd. “Fifty-something ex-punk males—I speak for them.” He then asked, “Is there anyone under forty-three here?” He needed a younger woman to “use” to set up the next song. When one was secured, he told her, “Someday I’ll be your man. I’ll be the best you can do. And all you middle-aged men out there, your wife or girlfriend is turning to you right now and saying, ‘You don’t think like that, do you?’ And you’ll say, ‘No, honey, David’s crazy. He’s bitter and twisted.’ ” A Pere Ubu album from 2006 is titled Why I Hate Women, so this is not news; Thomas may also, however, hate the president.