Pop: The decomposed punk

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The Independent Culture
DAVID THOMAS has slunk further into the margins with each passing year. The industrial pulse of his early music with Pere Ubu, the massively influential Seventies punk band he still sometimes reconvenes, has been abandoned along with his native Cleveland.

Now, he lives self-exiled in Hove and plots increasingly obsessive reveries on a remembered, desolate America, a place of eerie, bare highways, isolated towns: the spaces between places, and the people they breed. This tour sees him sharing a bill with the equally irascible singer/songwriter Kevin Coyne who, now white- haired and backed by ropey German pub rockers, plays a set which shows that his wit, voice and songs are undiminished.

Admitting that he is more used to "toilets than the South Bank", he seems to fit the mood of a new self-mocking song, "Happy Little Fat Man" - he is ebullient. If you want an Americana master to go with your current alt.country favourite, though, old punk Thomas is your man. If you want a contrary, mesmerising performer, he can be that too.

Thomas is a famously large man, a Brando of punk. Wearing a powder-blue suit and beret, swigging from a hip flask, he'd look like a minor, rumpled, beatnik member of the Sinatra set, if he wasn't barefoot. Flanked by the Pale Boys, his English accomplices, the music he makes is off-putting at first.

His high yodelling, beautiful pliant tones on the lovely "Drive" are deliberately broken down by discordance. His plan, it seems, is to break the beauty of his songs, to decompose them. It suits his themes of shadow towns and people. But, as the performance pile-drives on, he seems to have broken his connection with us, too. It's only slowly that his true qualities slip through.

For all the one-time musical innovation of Pere Ubu, Thomas is of the generation that thought rock'n'roll could be a new, better form of literature. And so the music is, in the end, complex ambience for lyrics that do their best to conjure a lost, perhaps imagined America. "I'm just a world that time forget", Thomas sings in "Kathleen", and as the visions tumble out and the music settles to a pulsing backdrop, you can picture his people, in cars with air-conditioning jacked up as they float through endless highways, staring at billboards, longing for touch, or dreading memories.

He ends by advising us to visit a no-doubt mythical hardware store in Utah. The cult-following he is now reduced to does him no favours. They forgive him too much. Perhaps that accounts for tonight's slight feeling of off-handedness, as if Thomas wasn't really all here. What there was of him was still more than most.