David Thomas and pale orchestra
Act 1, Jack & The General
Produced by David Thomas.
Out of print.
Buy a copy from Ubutique.
• The theatrical production
• The libretto
"....this world shrunk
to one lone brakeman's face
stuck out of darkness -
long white forehead
like a bleached skull of cow -
huge black sad eyes -
high-peaked cloth cap, grey-striped
swings his railroad lantern high, close up
as our window whizzes by -
his figure splashed upon it,
very grave, very tall,
strange skeleton -
Who stole America?
Myself I saw in the window reflected"
'Starting from San Francisco' by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
is a kind of music cum theatre cum storytelling. It was commissioned by the South Bank
and performed April 3 1998 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, as part of the David Thomas: Disastodrome!
festival. David Thomas wrote, directed and conducted. The backbone of the Pale Orchestra is the duo, Andy Diagram & Keith Molinè, who feature in David Thomas and two pale boys
Mirror Man, Act 1 was recorded at the production's 1998 premiere. Mirror Man Act 2 was recorded during the production's UK tour in 2001 and is revised from the original. Bay City by David Thomas and foreigners is a companion album that represents various stories that were not included in the productions for reasons of time.
The stage is littered with gutted refrigerators, a mangled shopping trolley, traffic cones, reflector tape, a bathtub, cannibalized bits of engines, and scrap metal. Suspended overhead stage right is a washing machine, gutted. A light shines inside. Overhead stage left, turning slowly in the air, are two oversized, double-sided traffic signs that read:
Avoid Trite & Unnecessary Talk
Eat Oranges & Live
Sorry, please locate and use Aisle 1900
There are no landmarks. The backdrop is a scrim. Shadows and lights on the scrim are in constant, lateral motion; sometimes in one direction, other times in both.
From stage left, from time to time, comes a flickering suggestive of neon in the wilderness, islands of light in the darkness. Or a carnival at night. Between lights and darkness is a twilight zone, the grassy ring that surrounds every carnival, the wasteland that buffers the darkness at the edge of every town, the space between here and there, memory and place. Detached you float. This is the light in which Mirror Man begins and finishes. A fractured soundtrack is heard as if in the distance. The light at the beginning is as dawn, angled and soft. It moves overhead, briefly, bright and without shadow and from there proceeds to twilight.
The players and singers are arranged in a broad semi-circle suggestive of a minstrel show. The singers are characters who are passersby, travelers through, residents in transit. Each steps forward to tell his or her story. Some are linked.
Far to stage left is the radio announcer setup: microphone on a studio boom, stool, and an "On Air" light. Bob Holman's poetic narrative is delivered from here. His voice projects from speakers at the back and to the sides of the auditorium, disembodied and "on the air." David Thomas' narratives are delivered in more intimate contact with the characters, as an observer or as a character himself.
The Pale Orchestra for Act 1, conducted by David Thomas is
David Thomas: singer, melodeon
Bob Holman: poet
Linda Thompson: singer
Robert Kidney: singer
Jackie Leven: singer
Daved Hild: singer
Jane Bom-Bane: singer
Keith Molinè: guitar
Andy Diagram: trumpet
Peter Hammill: guitar, keyboards, harmonium
Jack Kidney: harp, tenor sax
Chris Cutler: drums
The Pale Orchestra for Act 2, conducted by David Thomas is
David Thomas: vocals Linda Thompson: vocals
Jackie Leven: vocals
Robert Kidney: vocals
Bob Holman: narrative
Daved Hild: vocals
Keith Molinè: guitar
Andy Diagram: trumpet
Jack Kidney: sax
Chris Cutler: drums and electronics
The cd for Act 1 runs 65 minutes without natural breaks. The 11 track points are located according to a numerical system that serves to drop the listener close to hoped for locations. The recording was made on an 8-track Tascam DA-38 digital recorder.
"Mirror Man Sees" (Thomas), "Mirror Man Speaks" (Holman), "The Flying Dutchman of The Interstate" (Hild - Molinè; - Diagram), "Ribbons On The Road" (Bom-Bane - Molinè - Diagram), "Morbid Sky" (Thomas - Molinè), "Nowheresville" & "Weird Cornfields" (Thomas - Molinè - Diagram), Shadows On The Face (Kidney - Molinè - Diagram), and "If The Deer Blinks" (Thomas - Molinè - Diagram - Cutler) are published by Hearpen Music, administered by Bug Music. "Lost Nation Road" & "Bus Called Happiness" (Cutler - Jones - Krauss - Maimone - Ravenstine - Thomas), "Memphis" & "Montana" (Jones - Krauss - Temple - Thomas - Yellin), and "Over the Moon" (Feldman - Jones - Krauss - Maimone - Thomas) are publishing by Ubu Projex, administered by Bug Music. "Ballad of Florida" (Carney - Hild - Kramer) is published by Tess Music.
Production Notes Act 1
Mixed by David Thomas.
Mix engineered by Paul Hamann at Suma. Sep 15 & Dec 15-18 1998.
Recorded Apr 3 1998 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on a Tascam DA38 8-track digital recorder.
Live sound mixed by Gagarin.
"Montana" repairs recorded by David Thomas in his kitchen, except Peter Hammill's harmonium which was recorded in Bath. Portions recorded at The Ritz rehearsal studio, Putney, 7/18/98, and The Knitting Factory, 9/11/98.
Package designed by John Thompson.
Photos by Kathy Thompson.
- Cooking Vinyl COOK CD175 (US & UK) Mar 22 1999 cd.
- Thirsty Ear thi 57068.2 (US) Jun 22 1999 cd.
- Bomba BOM22097 (Japan) Apr 25 1999 cd.
- Penguin COOKCD175 (Greece) Apr 1999 cd.
- Musidisc 128 832 (France) Jun 4 1999 cd.
The Globe and Mail, Carl Wilson, 5/27/00
David Thomas seemed without peer on Sunday night with his two-act large-ensemble, music and spoken-word meditation on, among other themes, the Disneyfication of America. With a group including singer Linda Thompson, performance poet Bob Holman and English trumpet-guitar duo the Spaceheads, Thomas strode around a stage littered with junked road signs and appliances, spinning yarns, singing songs and issuing jeremiads in a description-defying narrative of ghost towns and lost loves. The first act repeated a performance in Thomas's adopted home, London, two years ago, while the second took form only days before its Victo premiere. It was a bit more of a shambles, but still full of visionary momentum, including the weekend's most hard-core counter-cultural tag-line "I'm alive!" Thomas warbled. "Let's get drunk and drive!".
Defending Ancient Springs, Jackie Leven, Feb '00.
"The whole album has a poet-witness tone and depth which makes it, in my opinion, one of the key recordings of our time."
Salon, Greil Marcus, 9/20/99
#1 in his Real Life Rock Top 100
The centerpiece of the 1998 Diastodrome! Festival in London, with impresario/composer/performer Thomas moonlighting from his band Pere Ubu: a live recording of what could have been called "Route 66," because the journey the singers and musicians take across an America they're afraid of forgetting is that expansive. What's missing is that old Bobby Troup-Rolling Stones glee as the miles burn up and L.A. gleams in the distance. This is all backroads and, with Bob Holman's increasingly frantic monologues about how, no, no, no, don't you understand, that's not it -- he's talking about gas prices and small towns and theme parks -- panic. Then the tone shifts. A character something like Steve Martin's corrupt, dreaming traveling song-salesman in "Pennies from Heaven" emerges: Thomas, ready to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, or whatever bridge takes you from here to there. He convinces you that he has the right to do it, because he doesn't take the bridge for granted and you do. Suddenly you want to leave the house and get in the car and see if you can find the same country this company is finding -- leaving the disc on while you're gone.
Chicago Tribune, Bill Meyer, 6/13/99
Their multiple voices and mirage-like accompaniment weave a vivid, multifaceted expression of the troubled space between memory and reality.
Extra Raw, Mitch Myers, 6/10/99
This is the most cogent musical deliberation on regional Diaspora since Van Dyke Parks' "Discovering America."
Mojo, Joe Cushley, May '99
As this mesermic, multi-layered album unfolds it is clear that the Jack of the subtitle is, roughly speaking, Jack Kerouac and the General is Eisenhower, curator of the burgeoning interstate highway system... Most of the songs are bittersweet meditations on displacement, search and unfulfilled lives. These are played out in psycho-geographical landscapes dotted with "heartbreak garages" and "forlorn, hand-crafted theme parks." Throughout the superb Pale Orchestra complement this complexity. Their riffs are often redolent of sci-fi movies and spaghetti westerns (more aliens & exiles), while the frequent squalls of midi-guitar and electronically frazzled trumpet evoke images of weird Midwest weather whistling down the Lost Nation Road. Mirror Man
is a tour de force.
Irish Times, Brian Boyd, 4/16/99
A real, head-twist of an affair, it's an oft-fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of the most progressive composers about.
The Wire, Edwin Pouncey, April 99
This recording of the production's first act is not only a near flawless souvenir of Thomas's brave experiment, it also amplifies the wealth of ideas, sounds and dream imagery hammered out at the QEH that evening. Free of all visual props, the music, songs and readings unfurl to reveal the richnesses of the project that got lost in the onstage bustle of the live performance....His surreal, sensual and visceral vision gives Mirror Man
its strength and warped beauty.
Critic's Choice in Time Out
for 3 weeks running!
Time Out, Ross Fortune, 4/7/99
David Thomas is hardly your typical innocent abroad, but with a rare, skewed acuity, he conjures up visions and perspectives of America that are charged by distance, and informed by physical separation. This is the man from Cleveland, Ohio, who, in the late '70s with Pere Ubu created a uniquely expressive music, a savage and sensual whirl of trash-art-guitar-junk-rock. Although resident in England for nigh on 15 years, he occasionally still fires up Ubu, but mostly crafts a new, rather different sort of fare... This is an evocative work of musical theatre, and a wonderful example of Thomas' art... it evokes the restless hobo spirit of Harry Partch, and cuts across the great divide between Thomas' British foundland and his American homeland. It is fractured alienation wrought poetic and serene.
The Guardian, Robin Denselow, 3/26/99
David Thomas, best remembered for his experiments with Pere Ubu, returns with an intriguing, atmospheric work first heard during his South Bank Disastodrome shows. He may now be based in Britain, but he's still obsessed with Americana, with travel, freeways, and change. In some ways this musical/poetic montage is a Nineties update of the Kerouac era. It starts with a burst of on-the-road poetry from Bob Holman, then in comes Thomas with his often eerie and evocative blend of monologue and songs, set to a drifting, edgy backing from the likes of guitarist Peter Hamill. There are strong vocals from Linda Thompson, and an inspired contribution from former Doll By Doll singer Jackie Leven, menacing the Thomas soundscape.
The Wiseacre, 3/22/99
"Clearly, the problem with this," opines the press release for Mirror Man, "is that it sits in no clear category." Well, kinda. The only problem about Mirror Man sitting in no clear category is that it makes the reviewer's job that much more difficult. For the open-minded listener, particularly one whose ear gets regularly bent by the likes of Tom Waits, Brecht & Weill, Harry Partch and early Nick Cave, there is no such problem.
Anyone familiar with David Thomas's group Pere Ubu will be familiar with his off-kilter take on all things pop. Mirror Man sees Thomas's vision applied to music theatre. Picking tracks is pointless, as the album runs without breaks. And trying to describe it is tough, except to direct you to the list of artists above as vague points of reference. A 65-minute musing on memory and geography, it wanders from poem to yarn to instrumental interlude with an eccentric grace. The lyrics (some narrated, some sung) are strange, haunting stories or thoughts with neither beginnings nor ends. The music is stranger still: clattery percussion, daring trumpet, all manner of guitar noises. What does it all mean? Not sure yet. But it sounds extraordinary. Investigate.
The Independent, Andy Gill, 3/19/99
The latest album by the Pere Ubu founder, an offshoot of his "Disastodrome" South Bank season of last year, also involves a musical journey, this one taking place "in the space between where you are and where you want to be." Following such American pioneers as Harry Partch, it's an evocation of intangible geographical presence, Thomas using collaborators with a finely-tuned sense of place -- Jackie Leven, Linda Thompson and Peter Hammill -- to detail his notional Nowheresville, USA. The poet Bob Holman's impressionistic beat travelogue "Mirror Man Speaks" opens proceedings in fine style: against a shimmering haze of sound, he skilfully sets the mood of suspension you slip into while travelling, that sense of being lifted out of the present into the timeless state of disinterested observer. From there, the ruminations upon places from Montana to Memphis build up to a national montage, a bricolage
of road signs, advertising hoardings and observations dedicated to putting the local back into locality. As Daved Hild observes in his "Ballad of Florida," it's not a small world after all, not since Disneyland became Disneyworld.