Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


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Archive for the ‘Pere Ubu’ Category

Book return

Thursday, February 18th, 2021

One night last week, after about 20 years, I had a guy I know over for drinks and cigars and to talk about theatre and writing and books and music.

One thing about the pandemic: Suddenly we both had time. The social options normally available have telescoped down into almost nothing.

We already knew we had some things in common: We’re both playwrights and stage directors, we’ve both done work with Moving Arts (which is how we know each other), I’ve seen his plays and he’s seen mine, we both have wives and kids, and we both live in Burbank — within walking distance of each other. I learned the latter fact some time last year when he told me that whenever he’s at his kids’ school, he sees the fundraising tile my wife and I sponsored some years ago. More recently, he and his wife bought one too, so that’s something else we have in common.

Over the course of two-and-a-half hours in my back yard under a glowing patio heater and during half a bottle of bourbon, we took turns shooting references at each other that, yep, the other would actually get. When I compared the Stan Lee / Jack Kirby dynamic with the Edison / Tesla dynamic, both of them revolving around a genius largely unrecognized during his life, he was armed and ready with the tragic details of Tesla’s last years. We shared our admiration for the work of Ayad Akhtar. When we wandered into music, and the role of noise, and John Cage, and I inevitably brought up Pere Ubu, and he offered his love of their songs as songs, and then added Wire, I just about fell over. How often can one find someone equally capable of discussing Marvel comics, brilliant 19th century inventors, particular contemporary playwrights, semi-obscure postpunk bands, the practice of being a writer, Fran Lebowitz, and, especially dozens and dozens of books you’ve read?

What are the odds of this, and with regard to the books in particular? Not to put too fine a point on it, but it takes time to read a book. Most Americans read four books a year. In 2020, I read 33 books; my average is 26 books a year (I just checked; thank you, GoodReads), which I think is pathetic. Although it’s possible to read 100 books a year, distractions like eating and sleeping and other functions get in the way. So finding that you’ve both read Paul Auster and Joan Didion and Julian Barnes and Cormac McCarthy and Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth and some of the Russians and Fitzgerald and Hemingway and on and on while also having all those other interests in common is a bit… disconcerting. Wasn’t the final grandmaster chess tournament in “Queen’s Gambit” like this?

It did turn out, though, that there were two books I’d read and heartily endorsed that he hadn’t read, and two that he swore by that I hadn’t read. The next day, still thrilled and knocked off-kilter by the experience of having someone walk over to my house and have that sort of conversation with me over bourbon and cigars for almost three hours, I went on Amazon and sent him the two books I love that he hadn’t read: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

He texted me two days later to thank me and to say that he’d already gobbled down the Barnes book, adding a few salient points about it. And then the other day, when I opened my front door to see why my annoying dogs were raising high holy hell this time, I found a package from Amazon on my own doorstep: He had sent me the two I hadn’t read, pictured above.

After I read these, we’ll have four more books we can discuss. And this time, we won’t wait 20 years. We’ve already set the date.

Against self-expression

Saturday, February 13th, 2021
Painted (on commission) by Hieronymus Bosch

Today, on a Zoom call, David Thomas of Pere Ubu was saying again that “self-expression is evil.” He said it twice — once, 30 years ago, in a television interview that a couple dozen of us were now watching with him, and again, afterward, to us.  And of course many other times over the years in other interviews.

Thus the answer to why in its 45-year history Pere Ubu has recorded almost no love songs. 

This served as a reminder that this tough-mindedness is part of why I could never cozy up to the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s, but instantly sutured myself onto Pere Ubu 35 years ago when I first heard them.

But before I go on let me be careful not to ascribe to David, whose work I admire tremendously, opinions that are mine and not his. Whatever he means by “self-expression” may not be what I mean by “self-expression.” I generally mean that baring one’s soul through art is not in and of itself interesting; a few drinks with a friend at a pub would sort that out better. Doing it through what you think is art is actually quite boring — as evidenced by the sort of poem that used to appear in Reader’s Digest, and also by countless high-school journals, including mine, in which I endlessly pined for girls in ways that still embarrass me, 40 years later, because I can’t forget my own adolescent weakness.

If you’re lucky, people will be interested in your art.  If they were primarily interested in you, you’d be a reality TV star.

And that’s the way it should be for artists. Art first. Confession and “self-expression” never.

I’ve worked with hundreds (and hundreds) of playwrights over the past 30 years. And, of course, actors and directors and scenic designers and musicians and visual artists and choreographers and so forth. I take it for granted that they’ve all had hurtful childhoods — some of them actually hurtful, some of them a hurt of their imagination (which doesn’t make it any less real). Even after all these years, while I like almost all these people and am glad to know them, I find it hard to get worked up about their personal pain. By its nature it’s so self-involving that it just can’t be interesting. How interesting can childhood trauma be, if everyone’s had some version of it? Childhood trauma isn’t unique — it’s universal.

Art, on the other hand can be profoundly interesting when people put their hurt into it in service of the work. I’m not sad to say that I can’t get moved by the early death of John Lennon’s mother — but him screaming about it on Plastic Ono Band certainly gets my attention and approval. That isn’t self-expression, that’s art that includes self-expression. (And, anyway, was Julia’s death bad luck for him — or was it what he needed to become a Beatle? We should note that Paul McCartney also lost his mother in his childhood.) We know almost nothing about Hieronymus Bosch’s life, but I know all I need to know from his paintings, and I can assume that some of him is in there, even though they were painted on commission.

That’s how it should be.

If the art is interesting, the self that comes through that art is interesting. Art that serves as self-expression is best kept with your middle-school participation trophies, forgotten in a closet filled with such clutter.

In the other practice, self-expression is presented on a platter, a la those mawkish TV romances made for dowagers. Most of the explicit self-expression I see in would-be art is handed to us as confession. Confession and sharing are antithetical to conflict, and it’s conflict that makes art powerful. What are those classic three storylines? Man versus man; man versus nature; man versus himself. Note that each of those has a “versus.” On the other hand, when a character sits down and earnestly tells another character how sad she feels, you can feel the play sink like the House of Usher. This is why for years in my writing workshop, I’ve railed against plays whose central story is this:  “Grandma’s dying, and I feel sad.” Well, that’s you. How do we in the audience feel about it?

Pere Ubu, meanwhile, has achieved 45 years of powerfully moving work that is utterly devoid of sentimentality. Is it filled with feeling? Absolutely. Does it elicit feelings in the audience? Of course. The staying power of the music, and the thrill it engenders in its adherents, provide testimony to that. So too is attending a live show and seeing the impact of the music on all those assembled; there is a charge in the air, every time. But none of it is saccharine, none of it is handed to you, and none of it asks you to crank up emotions you don’t have. Like all great art, Pere Ubu respects the work too much for that. It would be degrading to stoop to mawkishness.

What’s next

Sunday, July 19th, 2020

This weekend, as with most weekends recently, has been consumed with straightening up my comic-book collection and working on my new play. I’m slowly running out of thousands of old comic books that still need to be paired with nice plastic bags and boards and carefully slid into comics storage boxes, and I also may finally be running out of ways to rewrite the same 119 pages, at least in a way that theoretically improves upon them. I’ve already got more delicious rotting old comic books on their way to my house, courtesy of eBay and Mercari, and at some point I suppose this play will be done.

This morning I had a very nice surprise on the weekly Pere Ubu live show on Patreon when the band’s manager, the smart and very talented Kiersty Boon, sang me happy birthday, which even earned a nod from David Thomas. Again, a nice surprise. If you’re not on the Ubu Patreon platform yet, you’re going to want to watch that and much here, so here’s the link. Earlier in the week, I had posted on Facebook that all I wanted for my birthday was a new-new Pere Ubu album (a new one having just come out a month or so ago), at which a fellow fan and friend remonstrated, “Oi, Lee! You’re such a greedy boy!” But on the show, Kiersty and David announced that there is now indeed a new-new Pere Ubu album available for download, proving yet again that when you want something, you should put that want out into the universe in order for it to happen. In retrospect, I wish I had wanted Donald Trump out of office for my birthday.

While doing my self-appointed chores today (laundry; work on play; straighten up more comics; complete the online Sudoku Mega; pick more avocados from our tree for my wife to barter at work), I still found time to take on a bunch of objectivists, libertarians and crackpots on the Facebook page dedicated to the late Steve Ditko, best known as co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange and as an acolyte of Ayn Rand. The thread started when someone posted a lunkhead op-ed claiming that the nation had met its ruin because we weren’t adhering to the most extreme sort of religious evangelism, and equating protesters with rioters (never mind that the nation was founded protesters who rioted, and that most of us who have protested several times in our lives have never once rioted). When, finally, after much back-and-forth between myself and several other people posting, the original author admitted that he’d never even read the thing he linked to, for which he then got eviscerated by others, I declared victory and left the discussion. But not before one of the commenters assured us all that if he were in charge, this rebellion would be put down fast! I offered that Google could provide driving directions, should he gather the momentum, and that in the meantime he should beware paper cuts while reading those old comics.

Whenever I finish a TV show or movie or book, I get an email from Netflix or Goodreads asking me “What’s next?” Y’know what, guys? When I know, you’ll know. Let’s just leave it at that. Especially in 2020, no one knows what’s next.

Biting wit

Wednesday, December 11th, 2019

I woke up this morning feeling pretty good about a whole bunch of things, but by luck three hours of extensive dental work put a quick ending to that. Yes, there’s nothing like dental work to give you a good dose of reality.

This particular session with my dentist — excuse me, team of dentists, in this case, this job being too big for any one person to manage alone — certainly sharpened my perceptions. Over the course of the morning, I found time to debate which drilling sound was worse (the low rumbling blaster-drill, or the high shrieking needling drill?), and to generally imagine all the ways in which I might improve my life if I survived this. Throughout, the team did its best to provide comfort and alleviate suffering, and they certainly went the extra mile. Most of us have had dental anesthesia injected into the gum area where the dentist is going to work; I suspect far fewer of us have had the good fortune to have injections all across the top gum line, all along the inside of that top gum line, and then in the roof of our mouth as well. Just another mark of distinction for this case, I guess.

As the drilling and sawing and scraping and jackhammering and power-washing and, yes, the actual use of pliers, was going on for, oh, about a century, I also reflected on how much worse this would have been in the old west. We don’t get to see too many dental scenes in Westerns — I suspect mostly because the people who’ve made such movies have rightly concluded that no one wants to see them — but I have an expansive imagination capable of filling in the missing scenes. We would have seen our hero chugging down a bottle of whiskey first, then lying there with his head tightly belted down to a table while the “dentist” (more likely, town doctor — which would also save on casting another role, given that most of those movies already had someone playing town doctor) works at him with  hammer and chisel and two attendants struggle to hold him down while we see his legs flailing wildly in the air. My feet stayed firmly placed atop the chair’s footpad, although my head jerked powerfully each time my palate was pierced with an injection needle. So my experience seems like an improvement.

Once it was all over, my entire cranium, jaw, and face felt like the aftermath of explosive demolition, with smoke still rising from the blast site. I managed to struggle out of the chair and pick my way back to my car and home, where I addressed the situation with two Alleve and a tumbler of bourbon and attempts at distraction. I looked at the newspaper, but that made my head hurt worse, so then I looked at Facebook and Twitter, but containing as they did most of the same outrage reflected in the newspaper, that was no help, so finally I went online and did a mega-Sudoku puzzle. That was a pretty good 23 minutes. The rest of the day, I dozed on and off, made two phone calls where I had to explain why I could barely talk, and generally moped around.

In all things, I believe in balance. So, given this travail and the need to counter it, and because I had clearly survived, I decided to go to Spain in a few weeks. In a stroke of good timing, it turns out that while I’m there I can see this universe’s foremost band, Pere Ubu, in concert in Madrid. Sure, it might be that I had already bought the ticket to Spain and the ticket for the concert, but I’m still mentally connecting it to the ordeal of the dental work. I already feel better.

Old music

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

Elton John at Staples Center

Last night, I saw Elton John on his stop here in Los Angeles in his multi-date sold-our performances at the Staples Center as part of his “Farewell, Yellow Brick Road” tour, billed as Elton’s final tour. He wants to spend more time with his children, he told us from the stage, adding that this would be his last time playing the Staples Center.

True.

Of course, he’s playing the also-in-Los-Angeles Forum tomorrow night. And the night after. And again. And then, yes, he’ll be touring the world for another two years, including a couple more stops back here in LA with multiple play dates each time. By the time he’s done with this tour, those kids won’t want to spend any time with him anyway. (I speak from experience.) But, no, he won’t be returning to the Staples Center. I came away from the concert liking Elton, but also thinking that he’s so good at splitting hairs that maybe he should be an economist.

I’m not really an Elton John fan. My wife’s a fan and so we went, and we had a fantastic time at the show, but I’ve never much cared for his music. I don’t like the songs that are too saccharine, and I actively hate the ones that to me sound like they’re perfect for playing at roller rinks. (“Crocodile Rock” typifies that sort.) In concert, he largely avoided the type I hate, and the saccharine ones were fortified with strong musicianship from his band. When the band took the stage, I wondered why Elton John needed three drummers. I found out. To my immense surprise, Elton in concert proved to be a rock and roll show, and a highly enjoyable one at that. He’s singing in a lower key these days, which in addition to keeping the songs singable by him, produces the further benefit of making the vocals sound bluesier. Attaching a powerful band to that — and Elton has a very powerful band — adds punch.

I looked it up, and Elton will be 72 in March. He looks good, although overstuffed, and is a generous performer. He played for three hours, apologized for not being able to play every hit (he’s had 50 songs in the U.S. top 40), and not only routinely left his piano to make bows and gestures from each and every corner of the stage in appreciation to all members of the audience in those far-flung corners, but also rode the piano around to various locations of the stage as one would a hovercraft. He’s a true showman.

By the time this tour wraps up, Elton John will be just shy of 74. My wife and I have concert tickets for two other shows this year:  Bryan Ferry in the late summer, and the Who in October. Just after we see him, Ferry will hit 74, Pete Townshend will also be 74, and Roger Daltrey will be 75. In this crowd, Elton John is a whippersnapper.

Valorie says we’d better find some younger bands to like, because these guys are going to be dead soon. I do have younger bands I like — hello, Broken Bells, where’s your new album and tour? Gnarls Barkley, are you still out there? TV on the Radio, what’s up? — but now seems a good time to express immense gratitude that the members of Pere Ubu are only in their 50s and 60s.

Just how important music is

Monday, November 26th, 2018

I’ve been reading an interview with founding Pere Ubu synthesizer player Allen Ravenstine and just came across this. It’s an exciting — and sobering — reminder of just how important the arts are, and music in particular. When people are deprived of it, they’re willing to risk everything for it.

I’ll tell you one of my favorite stories. We used to play a club in Berlin called the SO36. It was a very small place and it had almost no ventilation in it. It would fill up and it was so steamy in there that condensation would form on the walls. And I remember one night getting up on the stage and the opening moment of the performance was a woman throwing a shoe at us. And it was just un-bear-ably loud! It was so loud in there, it was painful. And at the end, I went up to the soundman and I said ‘why does this have to be so loud? What is that about?’ He said ‘well, it’s because the club is right up against the Wall. The kids in East Berlin sneak in to the buildings on their side of the Wall to listen to the music.’

And Cutler was the one who had me read a book called The Bass Saxophone Player. It’s a fascinating story about how in the Second World War, the folks that lived in the occupied territories would sneak off into the hills on the weekend and they would get into these little clubs, hotels and they would put on zoot suits and stuff and they would spin the stuff that was going on over here, like Benny Goodman. And they would dance to it and they would have a lookout watching the road and when the Gestapo would come, they would jump out of their zoot suits and put on their folk costumes. And the band would play folk music and they would dance to that to hide what they were up to. And the idea that… you would risk your life to hear some kind of music… just unbelievable. And so that story was always fascinating to me- those kids were risking their necks, sneaking into these abandoned buildings to hear this. And this club (Ubu was at) was cranking the music as loud as it was so that there was some chance that they could hear it on the other side.

I consider myself lucky that I’ve never had to risk getting shot in order to listen to music I prefer.

The whole interview, which references the birth of post-punk, a clash with Devo in the early 70s,  and Ravenstine’s unexpectedly huge influence that he still doesn’t fully comprehend, can be found here. If you want to get a sense of what it might be like to be in a band for years, and touring the U.S. and Europe, with a boatload of differing personalities, you’ll find this interesting.

Down by the River

Thursday, August 23rd, 2018

It’s been 12 years since I’ve been in the friendly state (that would be Ohio, because it says “hi” in the middle), but I’ll be there tomorrow through Sunday. The reason I’m going makes the place seem even friendlier.

About a month ago, I got a strange invitation on Facebook. It was to some event called “Down by the River… We Had a Party!” and it seemed to be… I wasn’t sure what… some sort of outdoor event in a rural area about an hour west of Cleveland… but what it was was uncertain.

And then I got a direct message from the man who had invited me to this event, a gentleman named Robert Wheeler whom I’ve gotten to know better in recent years.  His message read: “I don’t expect you to make it, but I didn’t expect you to fly to london either….”

That’s when I realized that Robert, who plays synthesizer and theremin for the band Pere Ubu, was inviting me to a private concert with the band at his farm.

Jeez!

Yes, I did fly to London a few months ago to see this band. And, yes, I flew to Chicago about six months before that to, again, see this band (and my son, sure — but also to take that son to the concert!).

And, yes, I saw the band in LA less than a year before that, and in San Diego the night after the LA concert, and I’ve seen them… I don’t know… a dozen times before that, stretching back to 1989 I believe. I’ve seen them at the Roxy on the Sunset strip, and at a bit of a low point for them at a little guitar shop in West LA, and anchoring an entire weekend at UCLA. I’ve seen them many times, and I sure hope to see them many times more, because they are the best and smartest band anywhere around. (I could go on about why that’s true — trust me, I could go on about why that’s true — but not right now. But believe me, their music is open-minded, wide-ranging, heartfelt, noisy and consistently astonishing. And in 40 years of it, there is not one bit of treacle in it anywhere.)

So I have seen the band in all these locales over all these years… but I’ve never seen them at an invitation-only event at the farm of one of the band members.

But I will on Saturday!

This is a lucky time to be alive.

 

Sunday evening

Sunday, July 31st, 2016

Whaa? Hmph? Oh, sorry. Just recovering from that bachelor party. All I can say — and all I should say — is that a party must be going well if it runs ten-and-a-half hours, until 4:30 a.m., and some remaining participants are sorry to see it end “early.” And I’ll add this:  surprisingly, as everyone agreed, going from beer to whiskey to vodka to tequila does not necessarily lead to a hangover. Who knew? The big takeaway:  my endless gratitude, again, for good friends.

Yesterday (what commenced of it after 11:30 a.m.) the bachelor and I went out to “breakfast,” then I uncharacteristically but understandably lazed around for a while. (Hours.) Then my wife and I and another couple went to see the Pasadena Pops perform a night of Sinatra music at the LA County Arboretum. Every time I hear Sinatra (or a Sinatra tribute), I’m reminded of the time my father went out and bought a cassette tape of Sinatra’s greatest hits and gave it to me to see if he could win me over. In retrospect, I regret how churlish and dismissive I was — the old guy was making a real effort, an effort I now understand all too well as I try to educate two of my own offspring on the endless joy supplied by America’s premier musical act, Pere Ubu.

Today at the gym, whatever channel is playing on the elliptical took a break from “My 600 Pound Life,” which I and everyone else at the gym find extremely motivational. Instead, it was a special episode of “Intervention,” featuring 48-year-old Tammi, who drinks three pints of vodka a day and whose five sisters won’t talk to her, and who, with the complicity of a boyfriend who is equally disgusted with her, sponges off the pension of the boyfriend’s elderly mother, who owns the house and lives with them. I didn’t care much about Tammi, or the fact that her daughter wouldn’t stop by on her way to the prom so that Tammi could see her in her prom dress (no, her kids, who live with their father, don’t really talk to her either), and I have zero sympathy for the grown man subjecting his elderly mother to life with Tammi and the distress and disorder she creates around her, but I sure feel sorry for the old lady. Which made me grateful again for my sister and brother-in-law, and the rest of our family who take such excellent care of my 90-year-old mother in southern New Jersey.

After the gym, I went grocery shopping, trying to make sense of the various implorations being texted to me by my wife and two teens, for special kinds of cereal, or certain laundry scents, or fried chicken, or whatever. My daughter wanted “dumplings,” but then said they aren’t “dumplings,” they’re more like gyoza, but then added that they aren’t, and they might be called “pot stickers,” by which time I was sure I had no idea what she was talking about, and then she said they were in “the freezer section” (never mind that there are three “freezer sections” at our local Ralphs), and then clarified that these dumpling/gyoza/pot stickers are in the freezer section near “the snacks,” which clarified nothing because I couldn’t find frozen snacks and don’t believe they exist, unless pizza is a snack. Finally I found competing bags of heavily processed-seeming Asian-copying (i.e., in no way actually Asian) edible things that, incredibly, had a litany of descriptors on each bag that completely matched with dumpling/gyoza/pot stickers. It seems that even the manufacturers of this “food” can’t decide what it is! I bought both bags of stuff, because even though they were similarly described, they looked completely different, and I didn’t want to get this wrong for my daughter. Want to know why? Because she’s made sure I could see her in every one of her prom dresses, that’s why.

When I got home, I found she’d made a stir fry for dinner (thanks!). Then we settled down for a nice hour of father-daughter time, watching people get terribly mistreated in prison in “The Night Of” on HBO.

If only next weekend holds such charms.

 

Shine on music

Sunday, August 23rd, 2015

Why do I love the music I love?

Tonight at 7 p.m. in Santa Monica, I’ll be one of the five storytellers addressing this question. (Most specifically in my case the music of Pere Ubu.) It’s my second appearance in a program of live storytelling called Shine. Here are the details, if you’d like to come join us.

The other night, my wife said, “Why are you doing this?” (Somehow neglecting the fact that I’ve been doing readings, speeches, talks, and what have you pretty much my entire life.)  Before I could respond, one of my kids said, “So he can get people to listen to Pere Ubu for 10 minutes.”

Precisely right. It’s missionary work.

 

Today’s (TV) music video

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

A tip of the hat to whoever is the music supervisor for “American Horror Story.” The episode tonight, and next week as well, will feature the Pere Ubu song “Road to Utah.” That shows good taste!

Check out the song for yourself: