When I first stumbled on Yesterday’s Now Music Today I was pulled in by the rare opportunity to hear a song from my own punk rock collection on the radio. Outside of the concert and new record release features, I’d be lucky to hear Costello or the Clash on the radio more than once a month. What am I saying? I don’t think I ever heard the Clash on commercial radio until “Train in Vain” popped off London Calling. (Today, when I need a cultural sign of acceptance least, I hear “Washington Bullets,” a song about US and UK imperialism, playing over the speakers at my local Chipotle, a farm fresh, organic burrito chain owned by McDonald’s, of all imperialist corporations.) Back then, once a month, I might be blessed enough to hear “Pump it Up” or “Oliver’s Army” on commercial radio. Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to Be Kind” was another top-shelf New Wave song that occasionally showed up on the airwaves and made me want to floor my Chevy Nova, the Devil Stallion, in celebration. After that it was a drop-off in the majesty of New Wave content on the commercial airwaves to the monthly broadcast of Patti Smith Group’s “Because the Night” (By the Power of Bruce!) to quarterly airings of stuff like Blondie’s “One Way or Another” and Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him.” The Pretenders got played thanks to “Brass in Pocket,” but I wanted to hear one of the fast, hard, dirty songs from their debut. There was no hope of hearing the Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, the Undertones, the Ramones, Television, Generation X, or especially some bizarre band I first heard on Yesterday’s Now Music Today: Pere Ubu.
A quick word about Generation X and their self-titled debut. You probably know this band included a young Billy Idol. I was introduced to them through their star turn lip-syncing to “Kiss Me Deadly” in the band’s garage studio in the film D.O.A. I still stand behind the rock star power of that staged performance and their debut album, but even at the naïve, yearning age of 17, I sensed that album was as glib and cynical as any bubblegum record I grew up rocking along to. Every few songs I felt a bit irked by the dimestore sloganeering of “Wild Youth” or “Your Generation.” Young Billy Idol did a perfect job of projecting rebellious sex appeal, but he was projecting nevertheless. His was a facsimile of rock ‘n roll cool more than the naturally emanating cool of young Elvis Presley. The entire Generation X package made me a little queasy, as it threw off an unflattering reflection of myself posed with guitar in hand, trying to catch a sideways glimpse of myself looking cool, writing spirited youth culture songs like my heroes. Thank god Generation X occasionally clicked with a truly great Youth Power anthem, like “Kiss Me Deadly” and “100 Punks,” offering a more flattering glance at my aspirations.
I’d be lying if I said I bought into Lee Paris’ vision of the future of rock ‘n roll lock, stock, and barrel. He favored a lot of theatrical proto-goth, thumping dance club, and Vampire Rock stuff, like Siouxee & the Banshees, Bauhaus, Magazine, and the Cramps. After a few attempts at recording an entire hour of Yesterday’s Now Music Today and then having to skip through half the songs, I found it more economical to stop the recording a few measures into each song that wasn’t impressing me, then rewinding to the end of the last good song and keeping the recorder on pause until the next song began. If the opening 8 measures promised a keeper I’d let it roll to the end. If it was going to be another song over which Paris and I parted ways, I’d rewind and anticipate the next song again. As I mentioned up front, the intense concentration this show required was not conducive to falling asleep.
One night, as a turd faded out and Paris announced the completed set, my finger was poised on the pause button as he talked up Pere Ubu and a special song he was about to play. His tone was more serious than usual; this wasn’t the light, enthusiastic tone he’d use to introduce some obscure Factory Records band. The high-watt, inclusive Lee Paris was getting deep. I let the tape roll as two sparse, sharply distorted, contrapuntal guitar riffs played the intro to the journey that would be “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.” There was a clear air of classic B-movie creepiness as singer David Thomas warbled in his helium-infused horror-show voice and the song’s frequent stops and starts, but for all the artifice, this didn’t fall to the Saturday morning Creature Double Feature introductory hokiness that turned me off to the occasionally promising Bauhaus. Pere Ubu skipped the warm-up act and got right to the discovery of the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. As the song inched along and built up to an “1812 Overture”-like frenzy, I’d experienced a similar aural representation of a specific, inevitable dynamic in my psychological life. The guitar riffs grated against each other, then exploded. This is how I remember my parents relating to each other when I was a boy. A year later I would have a similar experience hearing the end of the Velvet Underground’s “Murder Mystery” for the first time. There’s that point when Lou Reed and Doug Yule, I presume, are spouting off disconnected parallel vocal lines while a piano plunks our a nursery rhyme melody in the background. To my ears, that part of the song became the musical equivalent the phenomenon of focusing a wheel spinning so fast in one direction that it looks like it is spinning in reverse. My parents’ arguments inevitably reached that absurd degree of disagreeability. It would have been funny, like the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher in any Peanuts cartoon, if it wasn’t actually playing out in front of me, complete with tears, threats, and the occasional sound of my Mom being flung into a wall. But digress.
Thanks to Lee Paris, I’d go on to buy every Pere Ubu album I could find. I’ve bought their first 4 albums in multiple formats: vinyl, CD, then on CD again, as part of a box set. I’ve seen them live more than any other band, and yet I’d be lying if I said they were My Favorite Band, or even among my Top 10. I love Pere Ubu, but they’re a hard sell. Let’s face it: for all my enlightened musical tastes, I am accepting of the fact that there’s no strictly musical rationale for explaining my love of Pere Ubu to a rational adult. Even if I’d learned to read music, I couldn’t dazzle anyone by charting out their harmonic or rhythmic innovations. Their lyrics are not necessarily to be confused with poetry. With the exception of analog synth player Allen Ravenstine, who provided industrial orchestrations of unusual beauty, there’s not a member of the band that would have inspired feature articles in Guitar Player or Modern Drummer, magazines geared to chops-aspiring musicians. The music of Pere Ubu taps into an emotional, psychological state that resonates deeply with me and helps me make sense of some difficult facts of life. It rocks, sure, but it’s more than that. Perhaps there were experiences in the late Lee Paris’ life that led him to find inexplicable beauty in the music of Siouxee & the Banshees.