“For what’s missing, I’ll sacrifice my flesh/
Only kissing you is so hard in this wild thresh”
-“Andro Queen”; Pixies
1999 was a pretty great year for movies.
In late November of that year, an article in Entertainment Weekly even blared out, with characteristic Y2K-era hyperbole, the following headline: “1999: The Year That Changed Movies.” I’m not enough of a film historian to confirm precisely how much truth there is to that statement, but at the time, it felt pretty accurate to me. I was living in the soggy, sleepy little town of Olympia, Washington, where thick sheets of rain poured from bruised, heavy skies for nine months of the year, and I saw pretty much every movie that came out. Everything that year felt weird and exhilarating and dark–Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense, Eyes Wide Shut, Election, American Beauty, Fight Club. It really did feel different. It felt like great screenwriting had returned, the art of directing was stronger than ever, and CGI was starting to be used in more interesting ways– to serve the story and complete the overall vision, rather than as a masturbatory end in and of itself; a glut of empty calories powering legions of soullessly obese blockbuster behemoths, which had been been storming theaters and holding them hostage for the last decade. (Yes, I am aware that I am conveniently omitting from the 1999 list the miserable vomitous mass that is Boring Rich Guy Jackoff Wars: Episode I, the ultimate in pointless CGI jagoffery.)
It’s hard to say what my favorite film was that year– so many visceral movie-going experiences. During The Matrix I remember almost hyperventilating during the early scene with Neo in his cubicle, being hunted by nameless agents, and he receives his first call from Morpheus. (Admittedly that was in large part due to the gigantic lung-charring bong hits I had sucked down minutes before the start of the film.) The Blair Witch Project wasn’t that scary in the theater, but at home, alone in the house for two days, playing certain parts over in my mind made my heart leap at every creak of wood and flutter of wind. Being John Malkovich was hilarious and unsettling and unlike anything I had ever seen, and afterward it made me feel like I needed a long cold shower to wash off all of the existential ick. And the final scene of Fight Club was absolutely exhilarating, with its winking, sneering nihilism and apocalyptic revelry, the world as we know it plunging into unknown realms of darkness– my breath rising, my smile widening with disbelief as the song—the goddamn perfect song, the of course Fincher picked this song song, with all its weird majestic genius, rising in the background… just before the screen goes black.
At this point, 15 years later, the song is so readily associated with that film that people forget how thrilling it was for fans like myself, who had been worshiping the Pixies for years, to see it used so perfectly in such an awesome Hollywood movie.1 It felt right. It felt like things were aligning in some glorious, dark way.
It felt like the world was about to end, just as shit was getting good.
“This is the song I’m most well-known for,” said Charles Thompson (aka Black Francis/Frank Black) “It gets me in movies, and gets me invited to social events…” (laughter) “I was writing this song in my bedroom in LA, and my girlfriend at the time, the artist Jean Black, was getting ready to go out, putting on makeup in the bathroom, and she came out and said ‘That’s a good song. You should finish that one.'” (more knowing laughter) “So I have Jean to thank for that. I don’t really know what it’s about, but it’s called ‘Where is My Mind?'”
He launched into a solo acoustic version of the song, but it was likely that everyone in the room, like me, unconsciously added Kim Deal’s cooing background vocals and Joey Santiago’s classic guitar line to the track playing inside their head. This was last Wednesday, and we were all gathered in a beautiful, spacious, riverfront suite in the CCA offices, about thirty of us — employees, friends, family, listening to Charles Thompson/Black Francis/Frank Black play a short set as part of the MyMusicRx series, arranged in part by PDX heavy Chris Funk. I was lucky enough to have been invited by one of the CCA employees, and when I walked into the room, distractedly gaping at the magnificent view, I nearly ran right into one of my all time music heroes, chatting amiably with one of the attendees. My strong aversion to being any kind of imposition made me flee across the room, where I sat on a stool that ended up being five feet from where Black Francis was about to sit and play. I was going to see him later that evening, with the Kim Deal-less Pixies at the Schnitz, along with thousands of other fans, but for now, I was so close that I could hear him breathe, hear his stomach growl and his stool creak; could see the graying stubble on his face and the tiny hole in the side of his left shoe.
He also played “Monkey Gone to Heaven” (“Sometimes we write songs where the chord progression never changes.”), as well as a number of the newer Pixies songs, including the excellent “Andro Queen.” His songwriting chops are clearly still pretty spry, if not as screamingly, brilliantly unhinged as they were in younger days. In fact, hearing the songs all on a single acoustic, the way he writes each one before he brings it to the band, if I hadn’t known better, it might have been hard to tell the difference between the well-worn classics and the greener material.
After the short set was finished, he graciously posed for pictures, but I couldn’t bring myself to request one. I was, however, happy to watch my friend grinning giddily, his arm around her, as the flash popped in their faces. After they parted, she whispered to the rest of us standing there,”That’s it. I can totally die now.” Which is the kind of thing people say when they get to meet their heroes. So much so, that you’d think it might sound like an empty cliche. But it didn’t sound like that at all. It sounded true. He has seemed like someone who could fill that large of a space; who could squeeze someone right out of their shoes, out of their skin, out of the band, all the way out of their life as they know it…
The last time I saw Pixies play, it was at The Warfield in San Francisco in 1992, just before they broke up. Some friends and I drove up from Santa Cruz, where we were all attending UCSC. It was my second time seeing them, and something seemed off. Even the faster songs chugged along, barely getting any traction. I thought maybe they were all strung out on drugs, but I didn’t know much about anything then, and in hindsight it could have been exhaustion, or their disdain for each other, or my own surging youthful restlessness, or all of the above that made the songs sound so slow. Regardless, I spent most of the time up front, which in 1992, invariably meant “the mosh pit”, regardless of what kind of show it was.2 Being a dumbass 20 year-old California dude with a fondness for booze and mayhem, I was pretty much fine with this. Midway through the set, I made my way out and went to get some water. On my way back up to the front, I passed a wild-eyed, tattoo-faced bald guy grinning fiendishly and holding out his cupped hands in front of him, which were piled high with psylocibin mushrooms. Random passersby were snatching pieces and eating them, which made tattoo-face grin even more. Never one to pass up free drugs, I grabbed a fat blue-ish stem and popped it in my mouth, chewing it up and swallowing it before I could think about it.
At that very moment, the band finally seemed to wake up. They hurled themselves furiously into the fast part of “Mr. Grieves” and the crowd exploded to life around me. I bounced my way up front, leaping and flailing with the rest. Suddenly, my shoulder connected hard with some guy’s chin. When we landed, I immediately began flooding apologies in his direction. He glared at me in silent shock, holding his jaw. Then he grinned maniacally and head-butted me right in the face. Pain exploded through my skull and my vision went black for a moment. When I came to, he had disappeared into the whirl of the pit, and there were thin streams of blood sliding out of my nose. I shook it off, the heat of anger turning quickly to anxious, uncontrollable laughter. I jumped back into the crowd and spent the rest of the show high off my gourd, whirling and slamming, feeling the strange throb in my face meld with the heavy throb of the music.*
“Chained to the pillars/A three-day party/I break the walls/And kill us all/ With holy fingers
Gouge away/You can gouge away/Stay all day/If you want to”
-Pixies; “Gouge Away”
Pixies were one of those bands that changed my entire idea of what music could be. I know I’m not exaggerating when I say this, because so many people I know also feel this way. I first heard them in 1991, playing in the dorm room next door to mine at Porter College/UCSC, and was instantly smitten. After I bugged Fritz, the neighbor, about it, he lent me all of their CDs to record. I listened to each of them endlessly. So much so that people began to associate me with this particular music. “Oh, you’re that guy who’s always playing Surfer Rosa at 2 am!”
I couldn’t help it. I hadn’t heard anything like it before. I’d had a similar revelation when I discovered Violent Femmes a few years earlier, but that was kids’ stuff compared to this. This was exotic and hyper-intelligent and terrifying and sexy and poetic and deeply strange and clearly damaged beyond repair. It felt simultaneously grown-up and young. The music itself was raw and wild and loud, but the musicianship was tightly controlled, impeccably crafted. Black Francis’ lyrics were a bunch of voodoo gibberish, a witchy, flame-eyed, drug-addled genius singing in tongues, and it was fucking awesome.
It very much appealed to my weirdness. I’d always been unabashedly, even proudly weird– a lover of early Genesis and Monty Python and Bobcat Goldthwait and Crispin Glover3. Yet I also had a pretty heavy bats-right/throws-right conformist streak, a love of the mainstream, and for a band this weird, they had some of the meanest, catchiest pop hooks I’d ever heard. In fact, they’d actually written a slew of downright hits.
Which was more than apparent at the show last week. As I said, I hadn’t seen them perform as a band in over twenty years. I’d seen The Breeders and Frank Black on occasion, but I’d missed the last decade of the reunited Pixies. In fact, I don’t think I would have seen this one either if my friend hadn’t invited me on a whim. I’d heard all of their songs so many times that they had come to sound like background music to me. As much as I loved them, they had become such a part of me that they seemed like an old idea, an overblown, overexposed bit of nostalgia. It wasn’t bitterness or cynicism that inspired this indifference, but old age and laziness.
An indifference that I’m very glad I managed to shed. The absence of left ventricle Kim Deal, the heavy rotation of newer material, and the lack of even a smidgen of mind-altering chemicals in my blood did little to dampen the thrill of seeing this band live again. From the first crushing, screeching riffs of opener “Bone Machine” to encore “Planet of Sound,” there were plenty of chestnuts to chew on, cuts from all five of the original albums, including “Havalina”, “Vamos”, “Wave of Mutilation”, “Mr. Grieves”, “La-La-Love You”, my companion’s favorite, “Here Comes Your Man,” and of course, “Monkey Gone to Heaven” and “Where is My Mind?” For me, the high point was the surreal, skeletal “Gouge Away,” which is when the reminder really sunk in that these songs are so fucking good. Songs that sound like a bizarro Bob Dylan, eating reams of peyote and living in a dark cave with an electric guitar and his Spanish vampire lover for years on end while they poured out of his soul one at a time like venomous serpents. I was also reminded that Black Francis is and has always been one of rocknroll’s great screamers.
“Sleeping on your belly/ You break my arms/You spoon my eyes/Been rubbing a bad charm/With holy fingers
Gouge away/You can gouge away…”
When they kicked into catchy-as-fuck “Hey”, the whole auditorium sang along, just like they did twenty years ago. But glancing around, this crowd looked very different. I saw a lot of khaki and backwards baseball caps. I saw Gap, Urban Outfitters, Forever 21. I saw a lot of people who were probably born after Trompe Le Monde came out…
Now, I urge you to not misunderstand me. I wholeheartedly reject the notion of authenticity when it comes to fandom. I think when it comes to music, people can like whatever the hell they feel like liking and for whatever reason they choose to like it. But what interests me is how a band this strange can have such widespread mass appeal. True, as I said before, they write infectious earworm-worthy hooks, which accounts for a lot, but is anyone listening to the lyrics? Maybe not. Rocknroll has always had a strong tradition of words taking a backseat to melody and rhythm, even to the point that singing nonsense and wordless vowel sounds is often the key to creating a hit.
Tons of weird bands have mass appeal, from The Beatles to Pink Floyd to The Cure to The Flaming Lips, though at the heart of all those outfits is a radiant pop appeal that overrides any of the more obscure elements. And I guess the nature of pop music, as well as the culture within which it lives, has changed quite a bit in the last twenty years. I am not aware of all of the factors that allowed it to occur, but Pixies have been brought into the cultural fold, transformed from cultish indie legend to full-blown rocknroll juggeraut. I mean, hey, Elvis was most definitely weird, and had his own brand of darkness, and part of his appeal was the feeling that his wild, howling train could go off the rails at any minute. There is something about darkness and pain being sung with infectious melody that goes straight to the heart of the American experience. We are wide-eyed optimists living on a haunted burial ground, free spirits trapped in the invisible machine. Most of us who first heard Pixies and loved it straight off felt like we had discovered something rare and magical, and that the few others like us who had also discovered it were part of a secret society of sorts. That is youthful naivete for you. They were always out-sized musical monsters, blowing apart every room they played from the very beginning, and whether or not you think they’ve been cashing in far too long on a fossilized discography, nevertheless that discography is one of the richest and most thoroughly compelling bodies of work created during the last thirty years of American popular music.
And, you know, they looked like they were having fun up there. That counts for a lot in my book. Perhaps it was the absence of long-held tensions with Kim, but the fellas seemed loose and happy. Notoriously sour Black Francis smiled kind of a lot. Joey Santiago goofed around on a pointless, yet entertaining Link Wray-esque noise solo during “Vamos”, playing his guitar backwards and upside down. David Lovering extended his croon at the end of “La-La-Love You”, which made everyone on and off stage laugh and cheer. Everybody in the world will tell you that Paz Lenchantin can’t hold a candle to Kim Deal, and you will say, as anyone would: “Of course she can’t, nobody can, what’s your point?”
I suppose the point is that Kim was such an integral piece of the Pixies outfit that it appears to some to be nothing more than a cynical cash-grab to continue without her. What is so painfully absent is not just her musical chops, which Paz can more than replicate, but her charisma, her overall presence. If Black Francis left, the argument continues, as he did way back in 1993 with his legendary breakup fax, certainly he would take the Pixies name with him. Which is probably true. But this only serves to show that all the Monday-morning quarterbacks4 who think they know what’s best for a band they love so much, will never, ever have any real idea what goes on behind the scenes. Regardless of what you saw in Loud Quiet Loud, which by the way was culled from two years of footage, and carefully edited to showcase the maximum amount of dysfunction. We still don’t know the actual specific reason that Kim decided to quit last year. All we can do is speculate, which is all we can do about any of it. We are us and they are them.
And whatever their arty, independent origins, “they” are, after all, professional musicians. This is what “they” do, and Pixies, despite all the other great work they have each individually done, is the pinnacle of that musical career. To them, if not to critics, it remains so, even lacking a major part of the chemistry that got them there. Today the remaining three members field all kinds of questions like “What do you say to fans who are so attached to your original discography that to them that the purity of that legacy is being sullied by the new material?” To which the answer, disguised under more diplomatic language, is “I’m a fucking musician. This is how I make my living, who I have been my whole life. I write songs. I write the best songs I know how to write. You think that just because some finicky, overly-sensitive fan feels like their experience of my work is being tainted that I should just stop being who I am? What should I do? Open a fucking bar?”
There is this nebulous thing called artistic integrity, and this even more insidious concept of “selling out,” and then there is the job, the thing that allows you to pay your mortgage and feed your kids. As far as jobs go, it’s a pretty good one, but it is not all “Money for nothing and chicks for free.”5 It’s real work, as any musician (or any musician’s spouse) will tell you, requiring its own set of skills, diligence, and sacrifice, and nobody will ever convince me that feeding your kids is “selling out.”
Of course I miss Kim. I miss the days when those songs felt fresh and world-altering. I miss the easy “us versus them” paradigm that came from being a fan of independent “alternative”6 music. And in some ways I miss my reckless, idiotic youth. But growing up is good. Moving on, changing, letting things go. Maturity and wisdom are hard-earned and well-worth it, even if they come burdened with the weight of mortality. As Jerry Garcia once said about getting older “What we lose in energy, I feel like we more than make up for in grace.”7 I’m glad the Pixies are still around and that I got a chance to see them once more. I’m glad I got to see Black Francis up close. I only wish I’d had the nerve to shake his hand, and to find some un-awkward, genuine way to tell him that his music really did kind of change my life.
11990’s Pump Up the Volume does not, in my opinion, rate anywhere near this category; though not only did it feature them nine years earlier than Fight Club, but also used a slower, alternate version of “Wave of Mutilation” that most people at the time had never heard.
2I saw a Beck show about two years later, where he played an all-acoustic set as a mob of drunken idiots moshed and crowd-surfed and shouted “Loser! Play Loser!”
3 I realize that none of these are really all that weird, but I was merely a teenager, after all.
4Yes, I am aware that this is the second sports reference I have thrown into an essay about the Pixies.
5I totally shoe-horned a Dire Straits reference in here. I rule.
6A dubious term from the very beginning.
7That’s right, a Grateful Dead reference, motherfuckers! Suck it.