Rodriguez is an incredibly appealing character… so peaceful, zen, sort of ego-less, at least apparently. After his career tanked (or went nowhere) after recording a couple albums in the early 1970s, he started doing construction work in Detroit, ran for city council, and lived a thoughtfully progressive, low-income life until (we’re told) he was re-discovered in the late 1990s. The Rolling Stone piece buttresses my my sense that the documentary has its manipulative side, though.
The movie does not mention this at all, and implies strongly that from the moment Rodriguez’s American career failed, he lived in total obscurity until the events of the 1990s chronicled in the movie, when a couple of South African fans and journalists tracked him down. This Australian late 1970s interlude totally messes up the narrative. And that was my larger problem, that the movie so clearly arranges the story for absolute maximum surprise and sentiment, in ways that occasionally felt a little untrustworthy to me.
Anyway, though, it’s certainly a fascinating story. Even if it sometimes puts its thumb on the scales, it does underline the ways that the rise of the internet absolutely transformed the meaning of fame and stardom. So incredible that Rodriguez could be a superstar in South Africa in the 70s and 80s, selling hundreds of thousands of albums and viewed as a musical icon, while living in obscure ignorance in Detroit. We all lived in comparatively isolated pockets back then, and values, reputations, and images could remain bottled up, not communicating at all with the rest of the world.
I thought about Rodriguez when I saw Pere Ubu play at the Bishop Bar in Bloomington a week ago. Pere Ubu meant a lot to me in the 1980s when I was in high school and college — I ranked them with Television, the Talking Heads, Blondie and so on as among the greatest and most important post-punk/ late 1970s groups. (Strange to think about how recent that was then!) “Non-Alignment Pact,” “Heart of Darkness,” “Final Solution,” “the Modern Dance” were some of the best, weirdest, most gnarly post-punk non-hits of that era, led by the lumbering, broodingly intellectual, Boris Karloffian David Thomas, one of the most eccentric frontmen in rock and roll history. The Modern Dance (1978) and Dub Housing (1979) are both incredible albums — the latter especially is a bizarrely compelling synth-punk, Cold War masterpiece I still feel I’ve never gotten to the bottom of.
So, I went to see them in 2013, 35 years (!) after their first album, at this little Bloomington club, not really knowing what to expect (although I also saw some version of the group in maybe 2000 in Chicago). Certain ontological questions are raised by this kind of performance. Is this Pere Ubu? Or a single band member with a capable backup band doing cover versions of old Pere Ubu songs? David Thomas is the only original member. But is the concept of an “original member” even relevant? What if the transition occurs slowly, with band members dropping out and getting replaced gradually over time, à la the Ramones?
The problem is a version of the so-called “sorites paradox” or the philosophical problem of the “heap”:
The sorites paradox is the name given to a class of paradoxical arguments, also known as little-by-little arguments, which arise as a result of the indeterminacy surrounding limits of application of the predicates involved. For example, the concept of a heap appears to lack sharp boundaries and, as a consequence of the subsequent indeterminacy surrounding the extension of the predicate ‘is a heap’, no one grain of wheat can be identified as making the difference between being a heap and not being a heap. Given then that one grain of wheat does not make a heap, it would seem to follow that two do not, thus three do not, and so on. In the end it would appear that no amount of wheat can make a heap. We are faced with paradox since from apparently true premises by seemingly uncontroversial reasoning we arrive at an apparently false conclusion.
When does Pere Ubu become not Pere Ubu? The simplest way to think about this might be in terms of minimum number of original band members. Can it still be the Pixies without Kim Deal? But then, is it still the Beatles without Pete Best? It can’t simply be a matter of numbers– I suppose one would need to measure from some moment of peak achievement or success.
Anyway. There couldn’t have been more than 50 or so people at the Bishop which did not feel quite right for such an incredibly important band in the history of modern rock and roll. David Thomas is a creaky, slow-moving dude now who performed seated from a chair, possibly out of medical necessity. He was very cranky and sarcastic, mostly in a witty way; I was occasionally scared he’d say something awful or disturbing (as when he engaged a young woman in front in an extended, not entirely consensual dialogue about her love life), but he never really did. He talked a lot about “the ladies” in a mordantly amusing way. Best line was something like, “look around you. For every woman you see at a Pere Ubu show, know that there will be five other kinds of people there. And for every 58-year old, balding, ponytailed dude you see, there will be five other people who didn’t come to the show.”
They or he did “Final Solution,” “the Modern Dance,” “Street Waves,” and “Heaven.” (No “Non-Alignment Pact” or “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.”)
I kind of felt as if David Thomas were Rodriguez, stuck in a world in which he’s in disguise as an unknown obscurity.
I don’t know if this was really Pere Ubu, but it was great to hear those songs.
[cp my experience seeing Jonathan Richman, also at the Bishop– Richman is a somewhat comparable figure to Thomas in certain ways.]