David Thomas brings Disastodrome! to UCLA



It’s late night in a Los Angeles motel room and a dog-tired, barefoot David Thomas is dining on broccoli and cognac. “There’s plenty more where that came from,” he tells this reporter, pouring him a glass while he also tries to suppress a broccoli-induced cough.

Thomas, who turns 50 this year and is the ongoing guiding light of Pere Ubu and the rock avant-garde in general, has just arrived in town from London. In a few days, the UCLA Live! performing-arts series, one of the nation’s most adventurous, will turn over an auditorium to the heavy-set, baby-faced rock conceptualist for a three-day weekend. It’s one of L.A.’s most unusual music events of early 2003.

He’ll use it to stage Disastodrome!, a festival of all things Dave that will include a performance of his Kerouac-influenced rock-opera Mirror Man;  a first-ever reunion of his seminal Cleveland punk band Rocket From the Tombs and a concert by the current, funkiest version of Pere Ubu.

Thomas has only done this once before — in 1998, when London’s South Bank Centre sponsored a Disastodrome! festival. Thomas composed Mirror Man for that event. (David Sefton, UCLA Live’s director, previously ran South Bank.)

But the roots go back much further — Cleveland, 1977-1978, when the punk rock movement was a scruffy, quasi-dangerous underground scene and David Thomas was a young man full of exciting Iggy- and Beefheart-inspired ideas about rock that roars.

A record-store owner named John Thompson started promoting concerts wherever he could — and his decisions were made out of desperation. “He started doing them down at this old theater in this bad part of town,” Thomas recalls.

“The night Disastodrome was born, someone had set fire to a couch in the lobby and everybody was coming up to Johnny and saying, ‘This is totally screwed up, this is really a mess.’ And he said, ‘Pile it on, I can take it, this is a disaster.’ From that epiphanic moment, he came up with this notion of starting a series called Disastodrome, so nothing could go wrong.”

For this Disastodrome’s Mirror Man at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse, the stage has been evocatively designed by technical director Danny Grace to display the detritus of on-the-road culture — a rusted-out gas pump, telephone poles, a phone booth, an old Coke machine with a see-through glass door. Besides the Kerouac influence, the work is inspired by Edgar Lee Masters’ 1916 Spoon River Anthology, a series of poems in which residents of a town’s cemetery tell of their lives.

“My father is an American literature professor and I would always get out his Spoon River Anthology because it had such a good name,” Thomas says, during our motel-room interview. “I always associated it with ‘Moon River,’ that astonishingly dark song about fatalism and the mystery of death. At least that’s what it seemed like to a kid at the time.”

Live, the complete Mirror Man establishes mood — ruminations on lost youth — more than story. The guest stars, playing characters who each sing or recite poems, are a surprising mix — Bob Holman, Frank Black, Van Dyke Parks, Syd Straw and even Cheers’ George Wendt. The one absolutely riveting musical moment comes when Straw daringly tackles the Brian Wilson/Parks composition “Surf’s Up.”

Wearing suspenders and hat, sometimes leaning on a cane for support or just sitting down to rest, Thomas yips and shouts throughout Mirror Man to his ensemble —including Two Pale Boys members Keith Moline on MIDI-guitar and Andy Diagram on trumpet and electronics and drummer Georgia Hubley. Sweating profusely, he often sips from an omnipresent flask.

If Mirror Man is Thomas’ arty rumination on lost youth, then the final night’s Rocket From the Tombs reunion is the youth in Thomas liberated from making art. It sounds exquisitely loud, free and unaffected. Joining him are fiery guitarist Cheetah Chrome, guitarist Richard Lloyd (a substitute for the late Peter Laughner), bassist Craig Bell and drummer Steve Mehlman.

Chrome consistently pushes Thomas and takes lead vocals on two mournfully elegiac, anthemic songs, himself – “Ain’t It Fun,” which he and Laughner wrote, and Laughner’s “Amphetamine (Take the Guitar Player For a Ride).” By the time the set is over, with a sweaty, giddy Thomas screaming “Final Solution” as the band soars, you’d give anything to hear it again.

Pere Ubu’s comparatively fussy closing set doesn’t quite measure up, despite a mesmerizing rendition of St. Arkansas’ spooky, scary highway song “Dark.’’ And Thomas seems to know why – he’s been upstaged. “I love following myself,” he wryly tells the audience when Pere Ubu takes stage after Rocket. “We were so young and handsome – so full of emotion.”

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosenone@aol.com

Rocket Men

The unlikely rebirth of Ohio Punk pioneers Rocket From the Tombs


What’s the most important Rock & Roll ever to come out of Ohio?

A tough question, but a consensus is emerging that it was the Punk/Post Punk created by northeast Ohio bands in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Underground at the start, but then finding a foothold at indie (and major) labels, the wildly inventive and idiosyncratic scene proved Punk wasn’t just a British/New York hype. Rather, it was a new, modern and progressive attitude toward Rock that would eventually reach everywhere and change everything. It just happened especially early in Cleveland and nearby Akron.

Today, the northeast Ohio bands who made records — Pere Ubu, Devo, Human Switchboard, Dead Boys, Tin Huey and others, including Akron native Chrissie Hynde, who moved to England and started The Pretenders — are rightly celebrated. But as interest in that era grows, there’s been greater attention paid to the lesser-known acts, including the very first ones.

And with it has come the remarkable resurgence of Rocket From the Tombs, who play at Southgate House on Thursday. This is a historic band reunion, one that comes with classic old material plus a brand-new album, Barfly. It also brings to town two legends of Punk/Post Punk who now play in Rocket — Pere Ubu’s David Thomas and Dead Boys’ Cheetah Chrome. Thomas and Chrome were in the original Rocket (as was another current Rocket, Craig Bell), which lasted for only about a year (1974-1975) in Cleveland and predated the group’s fame and notoriety.

“We were all focused on making the best and hardest Rock sound that could be made,” Thomas says via email (he refuses to do telephone interviews). “We were all up to date on the evolution of Rock at that point and were interested in pushing it along its way. Though we had a wide range of interests individually, we found common ground. None of us wanted to do something ordinary. We sensed that there was something happening in Rock and knew that we were part of it, and were determined to do our bit to move it forward. We shared a sense of mission.”

The original Rocket From the Tombs played some local gigs, most notably opening for New York’s Television and then disbanded, never having officially released any records. But members Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner (who died in 1977) went on to form the great Pere Ubu, progenitors of Avant Garage, and took with them some Rocket songs that became Punk classics — “Final Solution” and “30 Seconds Over Tokyo.” 

Guitarist Chrome and Johnny Blitz brought the equally exciting “Ain’t It Fun” and “Sonic Reducer” with them to The Dead Boys. While The Dead Boys’ impact was at first big, the band didn’t last. But Pere Ubu, through countless personnel changes but always focusing on Thomas’ remarkable voice, has become an ongoing institution.

Although he died young, Laughner had a considerable cult following, partly because of his friendship with writer Lester Bangs. A 1994 Tim/Kerr Records release of his archival material, Take the Guitar Player for a Ride, had a Rocket track, “Ain’t it Fun.”

In 2002, Thomas helped Smog Veil Records officially release some old Rocket live-performance and rehearsal tapes as the well-received The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From the Tombs. In 2003, when Thomas was curating a two-day UCLA festival of his various music projects, he decided to have a reformed Rocket — featuring Chrome, bassist Bell, Television guitarist Richard Lloyd and Pere Ubu drummer Steve Mehlman — open for Pere Ubu. This writer was present; it was an exhilarating, redemptive show. (That lineup, with guitarist Gary Siperko subbing for Lloyd, are doing the Southgate House gig.)

“During the process of putting (the archival release) together, we all re-established communications (and) healed some old wounds that had been allowed to fester,” Thomas explains. “Someone suggested an RFTT reunion as being natural to the theme of the festival. We considered second guitar players and Cheetah was adamant that Richard Lloyd was a perfect fit.”

That started tours over the years, when time allowed. And this newly reconstituted Rocket (including Lloyd) was able to release Barfly on Fire/Smog Veil, a record of new studio recordings — its first! — in September. It was recorded during 2009-2010 in Painesville, Ohio.

“Ever since we got together in 2003 and discovered that the band was good and deserved to continue working together, new material was on the agenda,” Thomas says. “Various factors made the process of writing slower than was desirable. Remember, all of us have other projects. Scheduling among other things interfered. Finally in 2009 things came together. And by then we had assembled enough new songs that we were ready.”

ROCKET FROM THE TOMBS (www.ubuprojex.net/rftt.html) performs Thursday at the Southgate House with guests Buffalo Killers. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here