- David Thomas (left) stares down his past.
The Starbucks on West Sixth is once again hawking its "City Mug collection." Atop the register sits a floor model, emblazoned with an illustration of Cleveland's skyline and the words "New American City."
For David Thomas, however, the New American City is anything but new. "Cleveland, to me, is just a ghost town," he admits, talking from his parents' home in Pennsylvania. "Everything I'm interested in is long dead."
Thomas sounds coolly indifferent in dismissing his hometown. But dismissal isn't that simple for the guy. Scour the internet for Q&A's with Thomas, and you'll learn that for decades now, he's been fielding one question after another about Cleveland's legendary underground in the early to mid-'70s, when he helped form two of the most influential American rock bands not called the Velvet Underground: Rocket From the Tombs and Pere Ubu. Cleveland, as you're probably aware, was the last city on earth anyone expected to spawn an art scene with worldwide repercussions, one that essentially invented punk, post-punk, indie rock, and new wave. This has created an army of Clevophiles spanning the globe.
But there's a more profound reason why Thomas can't escape the 2-1-6. At the 2006 EMP Pop Conference in Seattle, he gave a talk on how a particular geography resonates "morphically" in the people and culture of that region -- a "voice of the blood" that apparently never falls silent. For years now, Thomas has resided in England (whose geography he calls "shitty"), but travels the 3,700 miles here just to record at Suma studios with longtime collaborator Paul Hamann. This latest trip not only sees him finishing up production on a new disc by the Numbers Band -- true Rust Belt icons -- but also treating us to the only North American appearance by his latest project, David Thomas & Two Pale Boys.
The music on the band's new disc is pure Thomas -- which is to say, pure Cleveland: improvisational rock, full of scratchy guitars, fractured grooves, spoken word, and wonderfully ominous sound effects. But beneath that arty surface lurks the mechanical grit of classic rock and drunken electric blues. Obviously, the sights and sounds of the steel mills, which played such a pivotal role in Ubu's sonic development, continue to resonate throughout Thomas' music.
"These were our art museums," he explains, recalling days in his youth when he would tour the Flats, checking out the blast furnaces. "These fantastic and otherworldly sounds that were generated were suggestions of scenes behind the curtain of reality."
Thomas then offers a strangely beautiful depiction of Cleveland's industrial sprawl. "I always compared it -- I'm not sure if you ever saw that lousy movie Journey to the Center of the Earth?"
"When they get to the underground scene, it's this vast, silent grave," he says.
"The ruins of Atlantis."
"I don't remember what it was, but yeah. That, to me, was what Cleveland was always like back in those days -- like you were at the center of the earth, at the bottom of nothing. The clouds were a stone ceiling. So that's about it for the steelyards."
That last line means Thomas is done walking down memory lane. He's not a Luddite, not a nostalgist. Things change, and he's cool with that. Still, when talk turns to the new Steelyard Commons strip ma--
"I don't want to hear that right now," he interjects. "Listen, that thing will be bankrupt in however many months. I don't want to get into it. What kind of insane person thought this was a good idea? It would've been much more valuable if they had not have driven the steel mills out of town and have them still -- I didn't want to get into this, but that's why I don't go touring in the Flats. It's just not the same anymore."
Thomas is right; he doesn't look backward -- he's too much of a modern artist for that. But he's right about something else: We leave home, eventually convincing ourselves that there's nothing there for us. But when we discover things have changed -- or we are regularly asked to retell old war stories, in Thomas' case -- it hurts sometimes, and for a simple reason: The voice of the blood never falls silent.