Bracing for Disastodrome

Times Staff Writer

David Thomas will be grilling hamburgers while he delivers a lecture Saturday at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse, but what he really wanted to do was spit-roast a whole cow in the lobby.

“Well, this is my ambition, but nobody ever lets me do it,” says the rotund ringmaster of the three-day music-and-beyond circus known as Disastodrome.

There are limits, even when you turn over your facilities to a free-range provocateur with a penchant for disorder. So burgers it will be, along with the lecture on “the geography of sound in the magnetic age” and the U.S. premiere of his improvisational opera “Mirror Man.”


“Improvisational opera or rogue opera,” says Thomas, fishing for a label. “We still haven’t gotten a good name for it yet, because it’s not really an opera as such, and it is in an improvisational framework but it’s not totally improvised. Sometimes we call it theater vague.”

The assemblage of songs, spoken pieces, narrative links and running commentary begins in a Midwestern diner and ends in L.A. “It’s the irresistible westward urge meets the immovable Pacific object,” says Thomas, “so in ways I guess it’s like a road movie.... The landscape is a mirror to the people who pass through it or inhabit it.”

Disastodrome also features the first performance in 27 years by Thomas’ cult band Rocket From the Tombs and, on the same bill Sunday, a set by Pere Ubu, the revered Cleveland rock group that remains the singer’s best-known vehicle.

In fact, the great Cleveland/Akron avant-rock uprising of the 1970s that spawned Thomas and his cohorts is a hovering presence at Disastodrome, which also includes an appearance by that scene’s inspirational blues-benders the Kidney Brothers.

All this might not quicken the pulse of your Eminem or Ozzy fan, but for certain art-rock aficionados, it’s a left-field Lollapalooza, a rare excursion deep into the amusement-park mind of a rock visionary.

This will be the second formal Disastodrome, whose name and spirit are drawn from a series of chaotic concerts held in Cleveland in the 1970s. The first formal one was in London in 1998, organized by arts producer David Sefton.


“There’s a number of creative geniuses that tend to get overlooked ‘cause they’re in rock ‘n’ roll,” says Sefton, who now runs UCLA’s performing arts program and initiated this Disastodrome. “I always wanted to engage with David in more of the art center environment. Culture should be treated across the board in all the different worlds, so I see no differentiation between working with David Thomas on Disastodrome and Robert Wilson on ‘Woyzeck.’ ”

“I really respect him,” says veteran Los Angeles musician-arranger Van Dyke Parks, who has collaborated with such artists as the Beach Boys, Randy Newman and U2, and was enlisted by Thomas to perform in “Mirror Man.” “He’s an artist. There is an urgency in his work. To me it’s just gonna be a wild ride, and I want to go on it.”

“He’s a very elusive guy, very cryptic,” says Thomas’ friend Frank Black, former Pixies leader and another “Mirror Man” recruit. “I go, ‘Dave, I’m very nervous about this Disastodrome.’ He says, ‘That’s why we call it Disastodrome, so nothing can go wrong. We’ll see you there.’ OK, I’ll be there.”

Sitting in a dressing room at Freud Playhouse after flying into town earlier this week, Thomas, 49, repeats his “nothing can go wrong” mantra frequently, even as it’s being tested by reports that some participants are snowbound in New York.

But Thomas maintains a Buddha-like serenity -- if you can picture Buddha in a straw hat, gray shirt and red suspenders. He almost seems to welcome unforeseen obstacles as he surrenders to the forces he’s put into play.

“The idea is to just come right out front and say it’s a disaster, it’s a mess,” says Thomas, leaning forward and resting his huge arms on a black cane. “In this state of fluidity, you’re much more likely to be able to enjoy yourself because you don’t have to worry about it all.”


The visibility and amenities afforded by the UCLA engagement are things that Thomas would be unlikely to get on his own for any of his individual endeavors, even a date by Pere Ubu, a band that cut a memorable path through the late ‘70s and still turns out well-received records, though at a glacial rate.

The group never sold much, but its haunting experiments, anchored by Thomas’ eccentric warble, exerted a spell on the bands of the post-punk era and helped set the stage for the industrial-rock movement.

After Pere Ubu broke up temporarily in 1982, Thomas embarked on a solo career marked by less abrasive but equally adventurous music. He moved to England in 1984 (married, he now lives in Brighton) and began moving among collaborations with the vocal duo the Pale Boys (they recently teamed in the West End production of the “junk opera” “Shockheaded Peter”), improvisational performances at art venues and small theaters, and lectures at arts institutions and universities.

Along the way, he developed a reputation as a prickly, quixotic crusader against the superficiality of popular culture. Or maybe it’s something simpler.

“I’m a pain in the butt. Yep. All right, so? ... We can expound endlessly on my bad attitude. There’s two ways of looking at it. Some people say, ‘Oh, it’s a matter of integrity.’ I don’t really think it is. I’m just spoiled. I don’t see why I shouldn’t have things exactly the way I want them to be. It’s not worth doing unless we do what I want to do.”

And except for the cow in the lobby, that’s pretty much what he’s getting at Disastodrome.

“We have all of my artistic impulses gathered in one place over three days now. They’re all exactly what I do. You choose a vehicle for the job at hand, and every vehicle has a different capability.... That’s the point of the whole Disastodrome experience, in a way, is that you create a soup of conflicting ideas and a soup of seemingly messed-up images and random events, and out of it, if it’s done right, can emerge new ideas.”