In the early 1970s, Akron native Jim Jarmusch, born in 1953, transferred from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University to Columbia University, receiving his diploma in 1975. He took full advantage of the opportunitis Columbia afforded him, editing The Columbia Review and moving to Paris for a stretch, which is where his lifelong love of film was born. After his return to NYC, Jarmusch enrolled in NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and also hung out at CBGB’s a lot.
At some point he had the bright idea to return to the big midwestern metropolis from his home state of Ohio—that is, Cleveland—and report on some of the major rock doings going down in that city. In the 7th issue of N.Y. Rocker, which came out in the spring of 1977 (May-June), there appears a lengthy interview with Pere Ubu’s resident genius David Thomas with the byline “Jim Jarmusch.” As I read through it, it took an effort of will not to call to mind the wintry, winsome, and downtrodden feel of the Cleveland section of Jarmusch’s 1984 breakthrough (I would also say masterpiece) Stranger Than Paradise.
I’m currently a resident of Cleveland, having moved here from NYC (reverse trajectory to Jarmusch’s, hmmm) in 2013. I put on Pere Ubu’s 1978 12-inch Datapanik in the Year Zero, which I purchased in Cleveland last year, before writing this post. I’ve met people in the current incarnation of Pere Ubu and visited the Agora, where Ubu played in December 1976, but much more to the point, Jarmusch’s interview with Thomas resonates in a far more general way with me, now that I live here (and like it). On the second page of the interview is a blurry, wintry snapshot of Cleveland’s most prominent building, the Terminal Tower, with a raised drawbridge in the foreground, and you know, that picture now has a homey familiarity for me.
One portion of the interview was conducted at Tommy’s Restaurant on Coventry Road, and that restaurant is still there and thriving. The first part of the interview was conducted at the Pirate’s Cove in the Flats district of Cleveland, which is no more; Cobra Verde frontman and Cleveland Plain Dealer writer John Petkovic described it as a venue that “will go down in Cleveland rock lore as the host of shows by the Dead Boys, DEVO and Pere Ubu—back when the Flats was a rough-and-tumble working-class drinking spot.”
In the interview, Jarmusch and Thomas (winkingly identified as “Crocus Behemoth” throughout) discuss the finer points of Laverne and Shirley, the appeal of Nero Wolfe and Raymond Chandler, and the “repulsive” nature of poetry. At one point Thomas/“Behemoth” appears to set up Pere Ubu as a kind of Beach Boys for the industrial midwest:
A lot of our songs are about driving. Like “Street Waves” is like, you know, in California they got the surf, and in Cleveland, in the summer, if you work real hard at it, there’s a surf that comes down the streets. And if you work real hard, you can ride that surf. And in Cleveland, that’s real bizarre. You get out on West 25th and Detroit and ride the surf and its real good. Really good. That’s our big summertime thing—you get out there in a car with a radio in it, “a car that can get me around,” and you know, we dress in our swimming trunks and just surf down the streets…...
We’re not innocent, like the Beach Boys are innocent, cuz nobody can be innocent anymore. But we know what innocence is, and we know we have to try to get back there, even if it is tinged with reality.
In the third and final part of the interview, Jarmusch and Thomas are cruising around the city in a 1966 Dodge Dart. They have the AM radio station CKLW on, which is cycling through some recent hits, to which Thomas reacts. When Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” comes on, it spurs Thomas to a mini-manifesto of sorts:
This is one of my big faves, too. I like all kinds of shit. I think ABBA’s real superb. I like all kinds of crap. Like, I consider Pere Ubu to be a pop band. Like, we don’t really do long songs. Pop is an art—to do something really new with pop is an art.
Below is Jarmusch’s N.Y. Rocker piece on Pere Ubu, in its entirety. Click on any of the three images for a larger version.
I found this issue of N.Y. Rocker at the Rock Hall’s Library and Archives, which is located at the Tommy LiPuma Center for Creative Arts on Cuyahoga Community College’s Metropolitan Campus in Cleveland, Ohio. It is free and open to the public. Visit their website for more information.