Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Few More Words About the Pixies

A generation ago, I first heard those songs. Maybe half the crowd wasn't even born, or hadn't started kindergarten, when the album first came out. Now we were celebrating its twentieth anniversary, song by song. Kim, an almost grandmotherly emcee, cheerfully explained to the youngsters what it was like to get up and turn the record over.

Was it that long ago? I remember it was one of the first CDs I ever bought. As I bought my first CD player, a bank of screens showed me students being massacred in Tienanmen Square, live on TV. I picked up Doolittle soon after, trying to grok the appeal of those simple, sweet, violent, perplexing ditties. What is it about these songs? As they grew on me, the world grew less sweet and simple, more violent and perplexing. Bush the elder leveled slums in Panama. An earthquake shook me out of my home and my job. Exxon spilled a sea of petroleum over the beaches of Alaska. And then, as bombs dropped on Baghdad, live on my TV, Pixies crooned from my stereo about a "wave of mutilation."

There's something about this song....

Two Spaniards shock the world with a short silent film. A man celebrates his awkward, gentle lover. A killer drives his car to the bottom of the sea. A couple sleeps fitfully as vampires roam the countryside. A family searches for their missing father in the ruins of Nagasaki. Bathsheba sleeps with the king and seals her husband's fate. The mysterious Mr, Grieves faces the gallows. A college student is trapped with an unstable roommate. A man professes his love, simple as a nursery rhyme. A man is captivated by a tall woman with the number 13 tattooed on her breast. An idiot waves his gun around, misfires. A choir of whores sing to a troubled couple. A frightened woman prepares to leave her sorrows behind. Samson, betrayed, tears the building down. And the centerpiece, a prophesy of environmental doom: Neptune, laid low by man's waste and folly.

Fifteen songs, greater than the sum of their parts. Simple chords, simpler lyrics. Guitars, bass, drums. Love and death. Man's voice, woman's voice. Loud, quiet, loud. Bible characters, ocean creatures, fractured Spanish.

And a career's worth of hooks any other band would kill for. Still selling steadily, a generation later. Slavering fanboys named Bowie and Bono. What the hell? Why so compelling, so enduring?

Charles was a recovering Jesus freak when he arrived at Amherst. He had already written "Here Comes Your Man" and other future Pixies songs while still in high school. He met ace guitarist Joey, who turned him on to Bowie and punk.

Later Charles spent a semester in Puerto Rico, trapped with an unstable roommate. He dropped out to go see Halley's Comet in New Zealand, and then wrote to Joey that it was time to start a band.

They moved to Boston and advertised for a bass player who was into "Husker Du and Peter, Paul and Mary." There was only one response.

Kim didn't have a bass, but her sister did. If they gave her fifty bucks, she'd go to New York and get it. They gave her the fifty; she came back. Her husband knew a good drummer. They were a band. They picked their name out of a dictionary at random. Charles wrote lyrics on the subways by day, melodies with Joey by night.

Three years later, when they went into the studio with forty grand to record Doolittle, they had something to prove. They were exhausted from constant touring, building their buzz. Tensions between Charles and Kim were growing. Their first two releases from the British label 4AD were import-only in their homeland. The producer had suggestions, some rejected, some accepted.

They put down the tracks in three weeks. Six years later it went gold; fourteen years later British music writers picked it as one of the top ten albums of all time. But the Pixies were long gone. "The most important band of the nineties" sat the nineties out.

Charles had grown autocratic, Kim alcoholic. He faxed them the news of the band's demise.

One of them became a professional magician, sometimes opening shows for his former bandmates. One formed a surf-rock band with his wife. One formed a band with her sister, outsold all five Pixies albums, and then watched the sister sink into heroin addiction. And one of them recorded no less than twenty solo albums, honing his craft and his voice. But they all remained something less than the sum of their parts.

They watched, not without jealousy, as a depressed kid from Seattle tried to copy their style and sold ten million albums in a year. They heard their sound in dozens of new bands; five lads from Oxford jump-started their career with a Pixiesque single called "Creep." Years later, when Radiohead headlined a festival date with the Pixies, they marvelled, "It's not right! It's like having the Beatles open for us!"

By then the world had caught up with the Pixies, and the Pixies had caught up with themselves. The songs exerted enough gravitational pull on the four musicians to pull them back into orbit. Charles had grown collaborative, Kim had grown sober. It was time to start a band.

Unlike many reuniting bands, they were determined to release new material worthy of their back catalogue. Seven years later, they still haven't. They may yet, or they may never. But there's something about those songs.....

The songs have taken on a life of their own now. For their audience and their creators, they're touchstones of the loves and deaths of our lives. The relationships that didn't work out, the ones that did. The outrages and joys of this sweet hopeless world. The violence that touches us all, the three thousand year old myths that suffuse our culture. Those crazy roommates we had in college.

I never got to see them, until now. In '91 their tour with U2 sold out too quickly, and then they disbanded. In '04 I had two babies on my hands. This time, they sold out in minutes, six months before showtime. But I got two of those tickets.

So thousands of us stood under a full desert moon, singing along to those songs. Words that just look flat on paper, but sound just right, just.. perfect, with those voices and those guitars.

Hey. Must be a devil between us.
Wanna grow up to be a debaser.
He's got friends like Paco Picapiedra.
Prithee my dear, why are we here?
There are dangers. There are sorrows.
La la love you.
We'll all take turns. I'll get mine too.
Uh, said the lady to the man she adored.
If you leave I will surely die.
Outside we wait til face turns blue.

And if man is five, then the devil is six. And god is seven.

Nobody needed to bootleg the show. We all got a link for a free download a few days later. I can hear them offer up obscure B-sides from the album's singles. I can hear the younger half of the crowd roar them back for a second encore. "We have other songs, too!" she shouts. And she laughs her deep belly laugh.

They did the one about the velvet-skinned woman from California. They did the one about the myth of Prometheus. They did the one that runs over the closing credits of Fight Club.

I can hear Kim saying goodnight to her bandmates, telling Charles to enjoy his night of drinking and dancing after the show, 'cause she's going to bed. And then, after all the songs of torture and degradation, they do the one about the woman's great joy in her lover's enormous phallus.

Always leave them wanting more!

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