Tuesday, January 4, 2011

1996: A Few Words About the Pixies

I wrote this lengthy post about one my all-time favorite bands as an extended email rant to the three friends mentioned below. A few months ago, I finally got to see the Pixies live, in all their glory. That inspired a sequel, which I'll post tomorrow morning.

My friends hate the Pixies, and I'm just sick about it. It happened during one of our biannual road trips, as we cruised down the Baja peninsula during the summer of 1994. I was the designated entertainment director, and as such, had packed several dozen cassette tapes, most of which went over quite well, thank you.

David, who runs a one-man graphics firm in Silicon Valley, was most enthused by a U2 anthology my future ex-wife had taped just for the occasion. Peter, who runs a theater company in Arcata, was moved by the tribute albums to Cole Porter and to Tucson songwriter Victoria Williams. And Bruce, a professor of English literature at San Francisco State, harbors a deep love for the Grateful Dead, but as we hurtled southward, what he wanted to hear the most was the Stones.

So I popped in a tape I had recorded over a decade earlier, for a trip Bruce and I had taken to Alaska, with all of my favorite Stones songs. We drank cheap, warm Mexican beer and rolled excitedly into deepest Baja, as happy as any four men who were way overdue for a vacation. When the tape clicked to a finish 90 minutes later, I figured the old boys were in a rowdy mood, so what better time to introduce them to one of my all-time favorite bands, the inimitable Pixies.

This, as it turned out, was a fatal miscaclulation. The experience of the Pixies anthology was later likened by David to "slamming my dick in a door." And unbeknownst to me, the combination of the warm beer, the hot climate and the motion of the vehicle had evoked in Bruce a premature hangover. Thus as I enthusiastically asked for the volume to be turned up for each of my favorite Pixies tunes, Bruce begged in vain against the proposal. And I just laughed and cranked it, because I thought he was joking.

I had introduced them simply as a band from Boston that had formed around 1986 and broken up about 1991. But that wasn't how they were introduced to me. I recall reading a review, circa 1989, that called the Pixies "one of the most important bands of the 90s," and described their sound, or attempted to, as "The Velvet Underground meet the Beach Boys." This intrigued me, though it was no more accurate than any other written approximation, since as the wise man said, writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

But I know what the reviewer was trying to say: the Pixies' sound married Joey Santiago's surf-influenced guitar lines with the bohemian ambience the Velvets represented. Just like the Beach Boys, the Velvets changed the world, though in quite different ways. Brian Wilson's keen sense of melody and otherworldy harmonies were brilliant, though not necessarily unique. But his growing sophistication in the recording studio is perhaps his greatest legacy. After hearing the Beatles' Revolver, Wilson was inspired to create his masterpiece, Pet Sounds. And when Paul McCartney heard Pet Sounds, he in turn was inspired to coalesce the Beatles' burgeoning ambition and experimentation into the Sgt. Pepper project, which changed popular music forever. And of course, when Brian Wilson heard Sgt. Pepper's, he had a nervous breakdown.

But not everbody set off down the path of musical sophistication that "Sgt. Pepper" opened up. Bob Dylan responded with John Wesley Harding and The Basement Tapes, a spare acoustic masterpiece and a rollicking set of barhouse ditties. And somewhere in the record stores of 1967, the first Velvet Underground album appeared. It changed popular music as much as "Sgt. Pepper's" did, but it took almost a quarter century to do so.

It's been said of the Velvet Underground that almost nobody bought their albums, but that everyone who did started a band. By redefining rock music as bohemian underground instead of youth culture, the Velvets insured that their disciples would mostly fly under the radar screens of popular culture. It wasn't just that, despite bassist John Cale's classical training, they (initially) deemphasised virtuosity. It was also the relentlessly anti-commercial subject matter of their songs. While all the world was humming psychedelic anthems of peace and love, the Velvets glowered over Lou Reed's tales of whores, pimps and junkies.

A generation later, the disaffected youth of Britain and America burst forth, inspired by the example of the long-defunct Velvets, and other relentlessly anti-commercial icons like Iggy Pop, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and even Leonard Cohen. They called it punk at first, but it let a thousand flowers bloom, and rock music, which had seen the sophistication of the Beatles co-opted by corporate manques like Journey and Foreigner, set off in dozens of new directions. And a generation later, in yet another of rock's endless cycles of co-optation and rebellion, when Nirvana astonished the recording industry by selling eight million copies of Nevermind, the "alternative" model of rock became firmly ensconced as popular culture in its own right.

But none of this mattered to Bruce, whose throbbing headache grew steadily worse with each passing Pixies ditty. It didn't help that I had arranged the tape chronologically. It traced the Pixies' evolution from the sharp-edged avant garde attack of their early albums to the increasingly eclectic approach of their later work. I tried to explain how much better they'd like the later work, and how "Debaser" was a tribute to the great dadaist silent film "Un Chien Andalou," or how much "Wave of Mutilation" meant to me during the Gulf War, but I had lost my audience long before the tape got to quieter songs like "Allison" or "Velouria." All Bruce knew was that he was in pain and the Pixies were making it worse. He growled something about preferring "a little melody with my music." This, about the band whose tunes would bounce in my head for days at a time? What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Sure, it makes perfect sense to say they combined the Velvets and the Beach Boys, as their material grew in subtlety and sohistication. But the early Pixies didn't sound much like either band, and that wasn't how they'd describe themselves. When songwriter Charles Thompson was looking to form a band, he advertised for musicians whose influences combined "Husker Du and Peter, Paul and Mary." One hesitates to speculate exactly what he meant by that. At the very least, it meant he wanted some very eclectic musicians with a good sense of humor.

He found them in guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering, and especially in bassist Kim Deal, but the early Pixies' work sounds far more like Husker Du than anything Peter, Paul and Mary have offered us. As much as any other 80s band, the Minneapolis trio Husker Du defined the term "postpunk." They combined their tuneful melodies with a relentless guitar attack, and tempered their rage and bitterness with irony and clever wordplay. And as they matured, their approach became more eclectic, even as they continued to reject the need for any sort of affirmation from mainstream culture.

Once again, this relentless anti-commercialism launched a thousand ships. As the punk moment receded into memory and the varied "new wave" styles were absorbed into more marketable forms, Husker Du proved to be one of the most influential bands of the 80s. What they shared with contemporaries like REM, Sonic Youth and the Replacements, who sounded nothing like each other, was a determination to go their own way, to make music that spoke to their audience, not to a mass audience, and if necessary to tour the country forever as a way of connecting with that audience, no matter what the record company weasels did with their recordings.

There was one more aspect of Husker Du that may have appealed to Thompson beyond the sound and the attitude. That was how frontman Bob Mould took the "rock star as nerd" persona popularized by Elvis Costello and David Byrne. Onstage, Mould became the rockstar as fat crazed nerd, which the corpulent Thompson took a step further still when he created his stage persona Black Francis. Like Mould, Black Francis onstage was a man possessed; not merely awkward and angry, but inspired, ironic, complex and charismatic, even sexy. Black Francis at times evoked the ghost of Jim Morrison, with his dark, husky baritone, while at other times he shrieked like Michael O'Donoghue's SNL impression of the singer with hot metal pokers in his eyes.

These shrieks, of course, did not endear him to my poor hungover friends. After side one I allowed as how it might be better to check out the rest of the tape later on, to a sigh of relief from Bruce and an amused chuckle from David. For the rest of our trip, and indeed to this day, the Pixies became an object of half-joking derision amongst our group, and in fact it is pretty funny how spectacularly unsuited they were for that particular moment. But one night I begged, half jokingly, for another chance for my beloved Pixies. I explained how much they meant to me and how I wanted to share their charms, and explained once again that their later work would prove far more palatable. David allowed as how they owed me that much, though I still don't understand why. But I never really got up the nerve to play the rest of the Pixies tape during that vacation.

Since then I've had occasion to ruminate on just why the Pixies mean so much to me, and where they belong in the pantheon of rock musicians who've provided the soundtrack to my life. Like the Velvets and Husker Du, they've proven to be more influential than popular, and long after their breakup you can hear their ideas in other bands who get far more airplay. But how important are they, really? And how important is it to be important? Which is to say, why should I care what anyone else thinks about the Pixies?

I once had a conceit (okay, I still do) that I could distill the themes of the great rockers down to a single word. This involves an excessive amount of editing, of course, but I've always found it an amusing exercise. Elvis, of course, symbolized Rebellion to an entire generation, and set the standard for all rockers to follow. The Beatles, naturally, are all about Love. Everybody knows that. They might have written about other things too, but their finest work was all about Love, and that's what they stood for. Love. Of course.

Conversely, the Stones' finest work has always been a meditation on Evil. From "Gimme Shelter" to "Midnight Rambler" to "Sympathy for the Devil," it's the theme that Jagger and Richards return to again and again. Okay, easy so far. The Who? It's Aging. When Townshend was young, he wrote about being young, and as he got older, he wrote about getting old. Other topics, too, of course. But his main obsession: Aging. Bob Dylan writes about sin and redemption, but more of the latter than the former. Long before and well after his infamous born-again trilogy, Dylan has always been a deeply religious songwriter, and his best work is all about Redemption. Really, check it out.

So, obviously, the Beach Boys' theme is Fun, while the Velvet Underground's was Bohemia. Still easy enough. The Grateful Dead? Community. David Bowie? Change, of course. The game gets tougher when you move into the postpunk years. Elvis Costello's concerns are as wide-ranging as Dylan's, and perhaps the best description is the two-word title he almost chose for his third album: Emotional Fascism. But it's gotta be one word, and since the main focus is on dysfunctional relationships, that word is Dysfunction. The Talking Heads sing about Alienation, and you don't even need to read the words to understand that. What is REM about? Dreaming, as their name suggests. Stipe's song/poems all evoke the states of dreaming and wakefulness, and the points in between, as well as the contrasts between them. At least, a lot of them do.

Okay, maybe I'm starting to reach a bit. But the point is to try and sum up the Pixies for you in one word, and the word I've chosen is Surrealism. Now, I've always been a big fan of surrealism, both in the general and the specific. Everybody loves a little fantasy, whether it's Alice in Wonderland (a major inspiration for John Lennon) or Mary Poppins or what have you. But the actual surrealists have always been an inspiration to me, and I did quite a bit of research on them when I was at UCLA, given their world class Art Library.

Andre Breton and his pals were rebels, as much as Elvis, or Johnny Rotten, or Kurt Cobain, or any other rocker you'd care to name. Their bohemia, coming as it did between two of the nastiest wars in human history, encompassed both social, cultural, artistic and political rebellion. They, along with peripheral members like Duchamp and Dali who drew strength from their example, changed the world in a thousand different ways. Thier influence on music, film, painting and photography cannot be understated, and they left their marks on the literary media as well. But their lasting contribution, amplified by Duchamp, has been their bohemia itself, the sense that a life well lived is the best revenge.

Breton once said that there is no act more surrealist than taking a walk. He explained that the very act of strolling, by bringing your consciousness through a series of otherwise unconnected scenes, was the essence of surrealism. Of course, Messeur Breton said this in the days before there was television. Or RocknRoll.

To my mind, no band in rock history more brilliantly captures the surrealist ethos than the Pixies (though honorable mention is given to the inspired Carollian fantasies of the British songwriter Robyn Hitchcock). It's not just their hommage to Bunuel and Dali, or the album packaging, which seems to have been channeled from Man Ray himself. And it's not just the wandering eclecticism of Thompson's songwriting concerns, about which more later. It's their entire ouevre, from the dry humor of their early thrash to the uncontrolled whimsy of their swan song. It's the unlikely male/female balance between Deal's good-natured persona and Black Francis' probing angst, while the rhythm section clatters engagingly with echoes of yes, the Velvets and the Beach Boys. And it's the humor, the most essential weapon in the surrealist's arsenal, which is directed at themselves and their audience almost as often as at this weird wonderful world of ours.

But that explains why I care. It doesn't tell you why you should. And it doesn't suggest why my friends should give another listen, since they'll probably live just as long and die just as happy either way. The rest of our time in Baja, I played samplings of the rest of my favorite music, which was all over the map, since my tastes are far more diverse than from, say, Peter Paul and Mary to Husker Du. My buddies enjoyed almost all of it, and teased me from time to time about the amazing crap I had sprung on them the first day.

It wasn't until the last day that I pulled out the cassette I should have played before introducing the Pixies, though certainly neither would have been appropriate while Bruce was fairly bleeding from the eyeballs. But I had mentioned earlier that I had assembled an anthology of bands of the 90s, which he thought was a great idea, as it would give him a sense of the zeitgeist his students were absorbing. After hearing the Pixies, however, Bruce was convinced that the bands of the 90s were as likely to beat him up in a dark alley as to have anything meaningful to say to him. It was with obvious foreboding that he agreed to listen, but reserved the right to, as he put it, "say 'No Mas!'"

Most of the bands on the tape owed a huge debt to the Pixies, some more than others. Certainly it is almost as impossible to imagine Nirvana without the Pixies coming before them as it is to imagine REM if the Velvets had never existed. U2 were so inspired by the Pixies that they completely reinvented themselves into the surrealist spectacle that they displayed on the "ZooTV" tour, with none other than Black Francis and co. as their opening act. Current critic's pet PJ Harvey made an explicit hommage to the Pixies album "Surfer Rosa," and nearly every other band plowed through ground the Pixies had softened up before them, letting, once again, a thousand flowers bloom, from the wilsonesque layerings of My Bloody Valentine to the spooky but crunchy evolution of Lush.

Bruce sat throughout with his muscular arms folded across his chest, and I nervously added bits of explanatory commentary to give some context to the bands or the songs. He remained unmoved, even when I pointed out the similarity of the Meat Puppets to various cups of tea he holds dear, such as the good old Grateful Dead. After "Dig for Fire" faded out, I asked him how he liked that one. "Okay," he averred. When informed that that was, in fact, the Pixies, he snorted, "Hm, someone must have taught them how to play their guitars."

As the tape neared the end, I assured my friends, somewhat condescendingly, that I would hasten to play something "very familiar," for which I was properly chastised. As I slipped in some Los Lobos, I asked for reactions. David claimed there wasn't a single song on the tape he disliked, which I found difficult to believe, but why would he lie to me? Bruce, with the impeccable taste for which he is usually noted, singled out Jane's Addiction and the Jesus and Mary Chain as the best of the bunch. I can't recall what Peter said, but he seemed unperturbed. In fact he's usually unperturbed. He has since expressed a great affinity for the music of Lyle Lovett, which makes perfect sense to me, since I suspect he may actually be Lyle Lovett.

About six months later, I got the chance to see Charles Thompson perform under his new post-Pixies stage name, Frank Black. He came to Tucson with with a new band in tow, playing small clubs while his ex-bandmate Kim was entertaining arena-sized crowds with her new band the Breeders, who probably sold more copies of "Last Splash" than all the Pixies albums combined. Like John Lennon, he refused to play any songs from his old band's recordings. It didn't matter.

Maybe he'll always be a cult figure, or maybe his increasingly accessible music will resonate with a mass audience someday. It doesn't matter, because his moment was as beautiful as Breton's or Elvis' or any other rebel's. He made a joyful noise and he moved the world, just a little.

He stood now in front of a room full of GenXers, though he's closer to my age than theirs. They stood with their arms folded across their chests, like the crowd watching the Yardbirds in Antonioni's "Blow-Up." I danced my butt off, and so did he. On record now, he croons more than he screams, but onstage he had lost none of his fury. He stood fat, bald and sweating, behind a pair of shades, and sang with passion about a surrealisticly wide range of topics. From UFOs to youth culture, from academia to Los Angeles, from video games to karaoke, and with hommages to figures as disparate as Mose Allison and the Ramones.

His is no inchoate rage. He may still have plenty of angst, which is arguably as appropriate a response to this here modern America as it was to Europe between the wars. But he expresses his rage and angst with humor and a probing, far-flung curiosity. And his moments of tenderness, on record if not onstage, help illuminate some of what his rage is about: our lost innocence, our poor beautiful trashed planet.

And why should you care? I don't care, you can care about whatever you want. I see it as a wide-eyed and wide-eared celebration of life. You might just hear ill-organized ranting. C'est la Vie. When the nominating committee of the RocknRoll Hall of Fame sits down in the year 2011, they won't hesitate to induct the Pixies. They weren't as talented, or as earthshaking as some of the other hall of famers. But they put their mark on the music they loved, and transformed it once again into something new: a bohemian underground and a youth culture at the same time.

Why should you listen? Maybe because youth and bohemia always have something to say to us. Maybe because mass culture, youth culture, counterculture and subcultures are all part of the zeitgeist, and one won't make as much sense without the other. Maybe you reject the idea that all the great rock has already been made, that the best this generation can hope for is to wish they had been born twenty years earlier. But ultimately the only way to dance about this architecture is to echo the Glimmer Twins: It's only rocknroll, but I like it.

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