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


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Down by the River II*

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Two Saturdays ago when it was actually early Sunday morning, in a small field betwixt a river and a towering cornfield, Steve Mehlman, the drummer for Pere Ubu, handed me that set list because I asked for it and also because, I guess, it seemed like fair trade for the bourbon and beers I’d brought to the party and was now sharing with him. I had just spent almost twelve hours surrounded by musicians and a select group of invitees to this family-barbecue-like invitation-only event, had come from meeting a writer friend in the flesh for the first time the previous night, and was just hours away from joining another band member in the ancestral home of Thomas Edison. It was a heady weekend.

As I shared before, I couldn’t quite believe my luck in being invited to this event a few weeks earlier. Since then, people have asked me what I did to get invited — almost as though I campaigned for the honor. Here’s my answer:  I’ve closely followed this band for more than 30 years, and I’ve been vocal about it, in conversations online and off (including with the band’s lead singer over dinner in 1999 in London when I had a play opening there), here on my blog (where their publicist noticed it about 10 years ago) and in print, and then, blessedly, on Facebook. The Facebook connection in particular proved powerful and led to Robert Wheeler, the band’s synthesizer and theremin player, asking why I wasn’t coming up to say hi before or after shows.

(The reason:  No one who knows me thinks I’m shy, but I am careful about some things. While I love all the arts, from sculpture to dance and opera to painting, and everything in between, including even accordion music, there is no artistic expression I relish more than that of Pere Ubu. Where some people get a feeling of elevation from religion, I get it from the arts, and nothing elevates me more than Pere Ubu. Throughout its history and in all its incarnations, Pere Ubu has crafted bracing, idiosyncratic music that confounds easy explanation. No one else sounds like them, perhaps because no one else practices their particular ideology (whatever that may be). No matter what all of that adds up to, with its yelping vocals interplaying with squonking electronics against the backdrop of a driving rhythm section and hammering guitar, interspersed with occasional unexpected horn or music box, I’m a sucker for it. An addict, more like. A supplicant. Because not every run-in in my life with an important or well-known artist has been a positive one, I have always wanted to be careful about this relationship in particular.)

Since the time Robert asked me why I wasn’t saying hello, I’ve seen the band in Los Angeles, in San Diego, in Chicago last November, in London this spring, and now in Milan, OH, and I’ve said hi each time.

EasyDeathThe evening before the concert — should we call it a concert? it was more like a private festival — I flew into Columbus, Ohio, about a two-hour drive south of Milan, where the event would take place the next day. I did this because I wanted to make the drive (David Thomas of Pere Ubu having written many lyrics about driving around Ohio and Pennsylvania and environs, it seemed appropriate); because I was interested in meeting Dan Stumpf, a writer I’d gotten acquainted with through the internet; and because, frankly, I could make all my frequent-flier miles work and do the flight for free if it was into and out of Columbus. Dan proved to be smart and quirky, as all writers are in some measure, with good taste in restaurants and an admirable collection of esoteric paraphernalia:  genre movie posters, pulp novels, silent-era relics, the occasional Big Little Book, and other artifacts from our lowbrow/no-brow cultural history. Surrounded by such inspiration in his writing room, and writing under the pseudonym Daniel Boyd, he turns out novels such as this one, which looks immensely fun and which I’ll be reading soon. (He generously gifted me with a copy.) We shared good conversation about writers we read and admire, the APA where he met my friend and mentor Rich Roesberg, all sorts of literary fandom, movies, and the awful current state of politics, first over steaks at the terrific restaurant he recommended, then later in his leafy and expansive back yard over cigars.

The next morning, I went first to the Edison Birthplace Museum. Robert, being the great-grand-nephew of Thomas Edison, is the president of the nonprofit managing the place. I got the tour, which was illuminating in the ways of the past, and also in clarifying where the expression “put a sock in it” comes from. Evidently, when the Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph when on sale, in 1911, parents irritated with its lack of volume control as their children played it constantly instructed them to “put a sock in it!” so as to dampen the sound. The next generation of this machine included a “volume control” of sorts — which turned out to be a rod that would insert a spongy cloth cylinder into the bell, thereby dampening the sound… much as, previously, a sock had been doing.

After the two-hour drive and the hasty visit to the museum, I drove the final few miles far off the beaten path to Robert’s farm. It was 3:30 when I drew near, and, as always confused about directions, even when there’s signage, I pulled over to ask a grouping of five men where to park — and immediately spotted Tony Maimone, the bassist for the band from 1976 to 1993, who was now temporarily back in with the band because of longtime bassist Michele Temple’s unavailability. He saw that I was carrying bourbon and asked me to save him some for after the show. (I absolutely did that. Believe me.) Then another invitee,  a fan named Todd who owns a record store in Athens, GA, kindly drove me down to the site and he and I and his friend John spent hours off and on sharing our enthusiasm for various bands, but none moreso than Pere Ubu.

The music started at 4, and, running a little late as of course it would, continued until almost 11. Here was the lineup:

4:00 – 4:45 Flaming TailFins
4::45- 5:15 Emily Keener
5:15 – 5:45 Mister Moon
5:45-6:15 Great Grandpa Beebe
6:15-7:00 Midnight Brothers
7:00- 7:30. Emily Keener
7:30 – 8:30. Numbers Band
8:30 – 9:00 Great Grandpa Beebe
9:00 – 10:00 Pere Ubu

Except it didn’t quite work out this way. I recall the great (great, great) Numbers Band immediately preceding Pere Ubu. The Numbers Band has been playing together for 48 years, and in knowledgeable circles their incendiary style of evangelical blues is taken as holy communion. A friend and I had seen the lead singer and guitarist, Robert Kidney, and his brother Jack Kidney, perform at David Thomas’ Disastodrome! weekend extravaganza at UCLA in 2003 and were blown away. We still talk about that performance and threaten to go to Cleveland some day just to see this incomparable band, which plays locally with some frequency. I told Robert Kidney this while we were both in line for the port-a-potty, it being that kind of event, and he told me, “If you haven’t seen the whole band, you ain’t seen shit.” After the performance of the full band, he came and found me and said in a way equally charming as demanding, “So what did you think, motherfucker?” I thought I could see why David Thomas says it’s his favorite band, that’s what I thought.

After that, Pere Ubu set up and played a set every bit as powerful and dangerous as I’ve seen them play anywhere. It was, to some degree, the set listed above, although I know very well that they did indeed play “Laughing,” a very early track (first album; 1978)  from this very longtime musical endeavor, because I was pleased to see David pull out the little horn that creates the sinuous squawk at the heart of the track. The play list was similar to the London play list, heavy on a mixture of songs from their most recent album plus tracks from the late 1980s and early 1990s when they were signed to a major label and proving to the world that, yes, they could even do “straightforward” songs that could qualify as “pop.” They have a boxed set of those albums out on vinyl, and so are promoting that as well, Tony pointed out to me later.

The music ended, and people started to say their farewells and drift back to their cars, and a paved road. Todd and his friend and I hung out for a long, long time with the band members who were still there — two or three hours. From a local chef who happened to be there, Tony learned the best way to cook scallops — something to do with white wine and searing them just so, but I couldn’t follow it — and talked about the recording studio he now owns in Brooklyn. I passed the bourbon around until it was gone and then we pulled out beers. Finally, Robert kindly drove me back to my car and I pledged to return in the morning and help clean up.

One final thing:  The following morning, Robert and I exchanged texts and agreed to meet at his house. I pulled up into the driveway, confused yet again in my lifelong way about where to go or park, but, when I finally believed I had figured it out, I got out and walked onto the porch of a beautiful, expansive Victorian house and rang the bell. Robert admitted me and showed me a framed photo on the wall of the parlor.  In the photo, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone are chatting away on that very porch. The photo was taken in 1931. “My father took that picture,” Robert told me. “He was 18.” That made me feel very close to history. But then, so did the entire weekend.

The "band shell."

The “band shell.”

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The Flaming TailFins

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Mister Moon.

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It was nice to meet Craig Bell (in the black hat), founding member of Rocket from the Tombs, and his wife Claude (left) in the flesh. I saw that band in 2003 at UCLA as well.

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With founding Pere Ubu guitarist Tom Herman. An unexpected surprise!

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With Emily Keener. She was on “The Voice” and was described to me as “a darker Joni Mitchell.” I enjoyed her set.

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The Numbers Band. Their music is like something out of the Old Testament: biblically powerful.

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Robert Wheeler (obscured), Tony Maimone, David Thomas, Steve Mehlman and Gary Siperko — Pere Ubu !

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Robert Wheeler (obscured), Tony Maimone, David Thomas, Steve Mehlman and Gary Siperko — Pere Ubu !

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With Tony Maimone and Steve Mehlman of Pere Ubu!

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Robert giving me a ride back down to the site the next morning. He holds 113 acres of farmland.

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With Robert and Linda Wheeler. I’m incredibly grateful to them.

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*with apologies to Pere Ubu.

One Response to “Down by the River II*”

  1. Dan Says:

    WOW! Like your own little Woodstock — and thanks for the plug.

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