Real Life Rock Top 10

Nighthawks Frank Black and Syd Straw enojy some Hopper-esque coffee
Danny Fisher

1)-10) David Thomas, "Disastodrome!" (Freud Playhouse, UCLA, Los Angeles, February 21, 22, 23) It was a version of a Raymond Chandler mystery, with tough, cool, and fooled detective Philip Marlowe written out in favor of the bit characters hanging around the corners of the plot, and it brought forth a large cast. There was (1) impresario-writer-director-actor-sing er-musician Thomas himself, since 1975 leader of the avant-Cleveland band Pere Ubu, a huge man leaning on a cane, letting himself down into a chair and seeming to fall asleep as others moved around him; (2) poet Bob Holman; (3) Frank Black, late of the Pixies; (5) Robert and Jack Kidney of 15-60-75, a combo from Kent, Ohio, that goes back before the last number in its name; (6) composer Van Dyke Parks; (7) the Two Pale Boys, trumpeter Andy Diagram and guitarist Keith Moliné, plus Yo La Tengo drummer Georgia Hubley; (8) singer Syd Straw; (9) actor George Wendt; and (10) the current incarnation of Pere Ubu itself, along with a reunited Rocket from the Tombs, the spectral pre-Ubu band in which Thomas's story began: a rocket on its way back to the tomb, featuring not only the living--Thomas, bassist Craig Bell, and guitarist Cheetah Chrome--but also, with Richard Lloyd of Television standing in for guitarist Peter Laughner (1953-77) and singer Stiv Bators (1949-90), the specter of the dead.

It was a queer assemblage, and the noisy crowd that gathered for the three-night performance festival wouldn't have been surprised that the show passed under the radar of the national music press, the art press, the theater press. The crowd knew it was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

The stories Thomas spread across the three nights--about bands forming and breaking apart, people meeting and separating, the interstate highway system, the towns the interstate left behind, the way elements of speech, commerce, and culture disappear, and how, after those things are gone, people like those on Thomas's stage appear to reenact them--were most of all suggestive. As the tale unfolded, the cast grew even larger, drawing familiars and doppelgängers. On the second night, for the increasingly nervous, so-called improvisational opera Mirror Man--part sermon, part rant, part minstrel show, part lecture on spiritual uplift--the scene opened in a diner. Off to the side was a bus-stop bench with an ad for a wax museum. With musicians spread across the back of the stage, Frank Black walked out of the crowd in an aloha shirt, looking less like himself than John McCain, communicating the same sense of solidity and frustration. George Wendt, Black, and Thomas sat down together on the bench, and as the audience waited for it to collapse under their seven or eight hundred pounds, Wendt was Babe Ruth and Thomas was Fatty Arbuckle. But when Thomas took the microphone--Panama hat on his head, his cane like chemotherapy, a sign of both debilitation and a will not to die--the character who came out of his body was, someone said, more like Orson Welles as Father Mapple in the movie version of Moby Dick--or Welles as Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil.

Earlier, when the curtain came up, Syd Straw stood at the diner table, dressed in an aquamarine uniform, holding a pot of coffee, but she didn't seem to move. Black and Georgia Hubley sat down and Straw took their orders. The stillness of the scene--as off to the left Bob Holman recited a broken narrative, sounds bounced off the walls, and songs were begun and sometimes finished--pushed the scene even farther into the background than it actually was; Edward Hopper's Nighthawks drifted into your mind as easily as it drifted out of it.

David Lynch was the missing actor, if he really was missing. When on the first night Robert Kidney held the stage like a bad dream, he could have been Dennis Hopper's "well-dressed man" from Blue Velvet. "Look for me down at One-Eyed Jacks," he said, gesturing toward the whorehouse in Twin Peaks. Kidney wore a dark suit, dark shirt, dark tie, a fedora pulled down over his face so that all you could see of his features was that they were creased and old; he sang in a mellifluous, weirdly unaged voice, his guitar stopping the rhythm inside the likes of Robert Johnson's nearly seventy-year-old blues "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" and turning the tunes into fables: "Nobody really wants to hear the blues, because it's too slow, it's boring, it's tedious--like life, like my life." For an encore he and his brother played Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love," and it squirmed the way Roy Orbison songs squirm in Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, changing as it twisted: "Tell me hoodoo you love."

Moment to moment, incident to incident, song by song, others stepped into Kidney's, or Lynch's, shoes: Syd Straw, sitting at the diner table alone, her head in her hands, the weight of her fatigue capsizing the theatrics of the men on the stage like Peggy Lipton's Twin Peaks waitress at the end of her shift; Thomas sitting at a desk with a manual typewriter, crumpled paper, and what looked like a week-old sandwich as if he were Jack Nance in Eraserhead, clenching his teeth as if that would force thoughts out of his clotted brain; and, everywhere, a sense of time as something used up somewhere in the past, by someone else.

The difference between Lynch's American towns and the decaying towns on and off Thomas's Lost Highway--the phrase repeated so often it finally fell somewhere between a prayer and a brand name--was that in the darkest, most dead-end actions Thomas orchestrated in Los Angeles, there was always the sense that they were a setup, that all together they made a story which, when you heard the punch line, you would understand as a joke. When on the last night the 49-year-old Thomas gave his all to Rocket from the Tombs' adolescent lament "Final Solution," it didn't end up so far from Dion and the Belmonts' "Teenager in Love." But the punch line never came, unless it was the last line of "Nightdriving," somewhere in Mirror Man, I think, as if Thomas was floating across all the chanting voices, incantations, and reverb guitar of the night before and the night to come: "See ya around, sucker!"--the second syllable of the third word cracking like a whip, like a grin as big as the room.

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