Saturday, September 30, 2006

`Texas Overture'

For readers who were paying attention, Greil Marcus shed the “rock critic” stigmata a long time ago, though he remains our most reliable contextualizer of John Winthrop, Bob Dylan, Herman Melville, Dock Boggs, Philip Roth, David Lynch, David Thomas and other essential Americans. His new book, The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, is another step in Marcus’ ongoing project to connect everything.

He devotes more than 50 pages to David Thomas, a native of my hometown, Cleveland, and founder more than 30 years ago of Pere Ubu, a great American band that has remained resolutely obscure in the marketplace. Thomas is one of those artists dedicated to pleasing himself and maybe some friends and colleagues, and to staying true to his self-identified tradition, but is otherwise indifferent to whatever constitutes career advancement in the USA. Marcus writes that Thomas has created:

“…a personal culture of maps and talismans, locks and keys, within the greater culture of which you are a part whether you want to be or not. When you approach the greater culture with a personal culture, you do so with the knowledge that the greater culture can never satisfy you, and the knowledge of what an earthquake it would be if it did: if the greater culture could, even for an instant, truly satisfy anyone, and then nearly everyone, as, on occasion, as with the emergence of Charlie Chaplin or the Beatles, it has.”

Marcus quotes Thomas from one of their telephone conversations:

“Culture happen in secret, all art is secret. Ordinary people only see the ashes of art, or the failures, or frozen moments. Only rarely onstage do bands achieve reality; mostly it’s in rehearsals, in lost moments. Nobody ever sees that or knows anything about it.”

Here’s how Marcus glosses Thomas’ remarks, and the history of Pere Ubu:

“In a big, multifaceted democracy, you’re supposed to be able to communicate directly with everyone, yet many despair of being understood by anyone at all; the result is shame, rage, withdrawal, or maybe shooting up a school. Pere Ubu’s original recordings, Thomas has written, caught the sound of `the inward turning, defiant stance of a beleaguered few who felt themselves to be outside music, beneath media attention, and without hope of an audience.’”

Marcus moves on to Raymond Chandler, Moby-Dick, Dock Boggs and many other good, interesting American things, and I admire his efforts to reclaim American culture. Thomas and Pere Ubu have just put out a new album, Why I Hate Women (a title that ought to win legions of new fans). I haven’t yet heard the record but the lyrics are available at the band’s web site. Thomas often writes about food. Lately, the song my oldest son has listened to most often on his iPod is “I Hear They Smoke the Barbecue” (from Worlds in Collision, 1991). Here are the words to the final cut from the new album, “Texas Overture,” as fine a rendering of my present state as I can imagine. They will make you hungry and they make miss an America I don't remember:

“Wild flowers n gravel pit towers
Pecan-smoke 2 meat barbecue
Shotgun shack by the roadside...
Blacktop Texas is everything it will be
Loop road tornadas, hand grown tomatas
Post Office Lady, Flatonia Next Right
Two horses noddin at a leafless tree
waitin in vain to be taken from the rain
The Black Sky crow is walking on the road,
walking on the road
Pine Forest Cablevision
Apartment Now Leasin
Pop-a-Top Beverage & Bait Barn
Fireworks - Buy One Get Five Free
Texas is the land of the free

“Kreuz's is the king on the Lockhart rail line
A hall full of trestle tables
Fat soaked butcher paper
Beans sauerkraut soda pop beer
Rough paper hand towels in a roll on a stick
sittin upright on every table in the joint
Water fountain bags of chips german tata salad
Jalapenos in a brown bowl
The fires in the pit have never been put out
An old Texas lady slicin beef brisket
faded floral print dress covered by an apron
Is that enough? she says
She knows
No, I say, more please
Butcher paper one knife no fork white bread
Vegetarians Exit Now Please
Texas is the land of the free

“No Teeth Barbecue, Rockdale, Texas
The man in the window watches crop dusters next door
If I lived in Hutto I'd nearly be home now,
out among the farm roads,
headin for the county line,
lookin for the water towers, bringin in the sheaves
Texas is the land of the free

“Thelma's in Houston is closed on Sunday
The best catfish in all the state of Texas
The meat's pulled from the pit at the stroke of noon
The line grows long in a shack in an urban field
sittin in the shadows of the chrome
Man in a big hat born into a black suit says,
Pass a menu if you would please
One slab of ribs, one pound any Meat
Whole chicken 1/2 chicken ham ribs links beef
Green beans pinto beans tata salad cole slaw
Okra dirty rice or yams
2 slices white bread sealed in a ziplock
Peach sweet potato apple/lemon chocolate butter pie
Cheese peppers soda or tea
Texas is the land of the free

“Salt Lick in Driftwood is no beer family style
3 meat platter bowl of beans slaw tata salad
Onions pickles two slices white bread Texas style
Order in order out order online
Order by mail fax toll free anytime
The waitress is a middle age ex-hippie chick
who's found her a life in a hill country family schtick
Honey you will not leave eatin only that much
Bottomless refills more meat more beans whole lotta slaw please
Texas is the land of the free.”

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