The first time I saw New York City by night, I was in a beater car with way too many other brand-new college freshmen, barreling down the New York State Thruway on a humid August night. Coming from upstate, you don’t get the immediate grand Manhattan vistas that you do from the harbor or New Jersey. You get 19th-century Hudson River towns that start to bloat into suburbs, until all the points of yellow light blur together and the buildings get taller and taller and denser and denser and you find yourself on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Up on a little hill, the trees and buildings part, and then you glimpse…it. And it is vast–that’s the only word for it. I fell fast in love with every little detail along the way, from the giant old neon billboards over the Brooklyn side of the water (hardly a “little detail” by the standards of any other city) to the dim shadows of crumbling piers beneath the bridges.
If I had to choose any three minutes of my life to live over and over forever, this snippet would definitely be in the running. I’ve forgotten the faces of people I thought I was in love with then, but I remember the song that was playing: “Roadrunner,” by the Modern Lovers. What that moment, and that song, were telling me was not only that my greenhorny teenage sense of wonder was nothing to be ashamed of, but that it would serve me well for all my life. I was so in love with the modern world, modern moonlight, modern rock ‘n’ roll, that it hurt. I wanted to eat it.
Sixteen years older and correspondingly more world-weary, I get a similar shiver down my spine from “Dark,” the last track on Pere Ubu’s 12th studio album, St Arkansas. Like Jonathan Richman, Ubu front man David Thomas has the radio on: “And I drive because I do what I want / And I drive ’cause I was born to drive / And I drive ’cause every ghost town rising in the dust feels like a home to me / And the radio, AM radio / The radio will set you free.” But there’s nothing beyond the shoulders of Thomas’s highway but phantoms; there’s no shimmering sea of neon just over the next hill. It seems to be four o’clock in the morning all the time in David Thomas’s America, and the song pushes through the infinite night with grim but vague purpose.
“Dark” is something of a reprise of the album’s second track, the brooding, twitchy “Slow Walking Daddy,” in which the trembling suit-and-tie man, his voice cracking, declares his love for his commute over a nervous, claustrophobic grind. Temporarily liberated by his beloved US 322 (the same highway that runs through “Woolie Bullie,” the first song on Pere Ubu’s last album, Pennsylvania), the narrator eventually breaks into a rapturous squeal: “And I saw stars / In strange constellations / Trapped inside the blackness of never-ending night / Seen through the pearly luminescence of shatterproof glass / Framed by the wrong shade of green velour / And maybe it felt like home / Maybe for just a little while.” When Thomas ends this cheery number with “Now say, The radio is gonna set you free,” it sounds a bit like a suicide note.
None of Thomas’s characters are comfortable in public spaces. “I’m just passing through this town / A busted pier with a gang of clowns,” he sings on “333.” “And the sun comes up / An open can of beans / I gotta say just what it means, I know / My home is on the moon.” And he presents the domestic sphere as even more fearsome and oppressive: “My baby done told me / I have been informed / That nothing would hurt me if I had never been born” (from “Michele”). But a moving car is middle ground: there’s the sensation of motion outside, but inside there’s a reassuring lack of change.
It’s been posited that nearly all American music made in the first half of the 20th century–blues, jazz, country–was rhythmically influenced by the sound of trains. As the automobile ascended to prominence in American life, rock ‘n’ roll likewise gathered speed and flash; as life grew more complex and congested, so did the music. The sounds of Pere Ubu and many of their contemporaries in the late 70s and early 80s defied expectations of predictable rhythm: art punk tends to rock in surges and spurts, like an angry driver in a traffic jam.
Nothing on St Arkansas has the effortlessness of the effectively mechanical; like most Pere Ubu over the decades it is carefully designed to sound rickety and lurching and missing a muffler. This music struggles and strains and sometimes sounds painful to make. It’s like driving across the Great Plains, where you can spend all day getting from nowhere to nowhere. “Phone Home Jonah,” another song about escape, feels urgent–like scanning the scrubby desert for gas-station lights while the needle creeps closer and closer to the E. St Arkansas uses sound to achieve the level of descriptive detail we’re more used to getting from novels. We like our literary rockers marked clearly as such–and too often the music sounds like the afterthought it is. But the stories Thomas’s evocative poetry hints at are fleshed out by the fidgety music, come alive only in his squawky, unsettling delivery. Kick that synth and maybe it’ll settle into a comforting drone; maybe those guitars will stop leaking oil before everything grinds to a halt.
What “Roadrunner” is to teenage wonder, St Arkansas and “Dark” in particular are to middle-age fear–and lo and behold, the expression of middle-age fear is almost as exhilarating as the expression of teenage wonder. (Which makes me think it’s the success of a given expression that produces that happy surge in the belly, not the emotion being expressed.) The dark side of constant motion is abandonment–you can’t be in the place you imagine you’re going to and the place you’ve left behind. But Thomas at 49 and Richman at 21 seem to agree that the inside of a car is a fine purgatory. “And I drive into the wilderness / And I drive to fill a sense of purpose / And I drive to find a perfect world / Where I hope to build a house,” Thomas sings, skittering over the single syllables and barely touching down. The last bit’s not convincing: sure, build a house, but how long will you stay? Even when Janis Joplin lamented that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” you knew it was a precious thing.
Pere Ubu headlines at the Abbey Pub on Friday, September 20; see Section Three listings for more info.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Jones.