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Pixie Dust: Does a whole arena chanting 'Debaser' lessen its sentimental value?

Get Back

Are the Pixies this generation's Beatles or Lynyrd Skynyrd?

By Steve Palopoli

MY FIRST summer back from college, I told my best friend from high school that I'd been digging the Pixies' Doolittle album, which had come out a year or so before. I didn't think he'd take it very well. He didn't.

"The Pixies?" he said, his face registering a mix of alarm and disgust. "Aren't they ... popular?"

Black Francis might have rattled his bone machine laughing at the absurdity of that question back then, but keep in mind our favorite band at the time was Game Theory. We poured over records like Hex's Vast Halos, Daddy in His Deep Sleep's Alone With Daddy and Shriekback's Big Night Music—stuff that would have been extremely uncool if anyone even knew what it was. We didn't trust any record with a following, unless it seemed ancient and (very important) had been a commercial car wreck at the time of its release—The Velvet Underground and Nico, Patti Smith's Horses, The Ramones, etc.

So I guess the Pixies qualified as popular, in the sense that by the early '90s, you had a 50-50 chance of finding them pinned to any hip dorm in the country. Personally, I think that might have had something to do with the fact that the poster for Surfer Rosa featured prominent—and yet classy!—bare boobies, but I don't have any hard proof.

Still, this kind of underground success wasn't making the Pixies a lot of money, even after Kurt Cobain took their song "Gouge Away," changed the words and released it as "Smells Like Teen Spirit." When that became the hit song of the decade, he tried to explain to anyone who would listen that he had stolen the whole thing from the Pixies, but nobody cared. Least of all former Pixie Kim Deal, who cashed in on the ensuing alternative-music payday with the Breeders. Black Francis, meanwhile, had to take a second job as Frank Black. The Pixies were over, and no one had the good sense to miss them ... yet.

That's not to say that either of the ex-Pixie-songwriter solo projects was subpar. Both were able to hold onto that unique mix of raw power and production sparkle that had defined the Pixies' incredible albums. Frank Black's self-titled solo debut and its follow-up Teenager of the Year are great records, as is the Breeders' Last Splash. But by the time Black hooked up with the Catholics, he was making too many albums, and Deal wasn't making enough.

Weirdly, however, they were both playing the best gigs of their lives. Despite the fact that the Breeders were too overwhelmed by Kelley Deal's drug dramas and Kim's side project the Amps to make a follow-up to Last Splash (until 2003), their live shows were like nothing else. The loosest thing you ever saw in your life, and sure, someone might occasionally slump to the ground and not get up for a while, but when they were able to walk the line between chaos and complete disorder, they were sublime. At the same time, Frank Black was attacking every show like the second coming of Jerry Lee Lewis. Having always sung about savagery and mutilation anyway, he finally came into his own as a monster, rampaging through sets with that unmistakable whisper-to-a-scream assault and a backing band that was willing to erect a wall of sound within whatever genre (punk, psychedelia, rockabilly, surf, etc.) was catching his fancy at the time. Still, can you blame him for being irked that mostly crappy bands were now getting rich ripping off his style and sound, while he toiled in cult popularity?

While the ex-members were in various levels of solo-career purgatory, the most amazing thing happened to the Pixies: they became the most-covered band in the Alternative Nation. It's not easy to say why this happened when it did, but the reason it might have been inevitable was hinted at on a live cover of "Wave of Mutilation" by Jon Brion and the Old 97s' Rhett Miller. After making it through the opening, Brion jokingly complains "This is really complicated, Rhett. Can't we play, like, a Beatles song or something?" But they make it all the way through, at which point Miller muses, "All right, this basically is a Beatles song."

Not exactly, of course, but in a way the Pixies have become Generation X's own version of the Beatles. What their songs share is a rare balance of the universal and the personal, the anthemic and the introspective. They beg to be adopted and interpreted. Consequently, the Beatles are the most covered band in rock & roll, and the Pixies' songs have already been covered dozens of times, far out of proportion to the amount of time they've existed in the pop-culture consciousness.

Like the Beatles, the Pixies' songs also seem to lend themselves to great covers. Placebo, Gohti Hook, Nada Surf, Underwater and House of Wires, for instance, have all recorded versions of "Where Is My Mind?" and judging from the results, it may simply be impossible to screw that song up. Whether it's TV on the Radio's a cappella chant of "Mr. Grieves" or David Bowie's weird take on "Cactus," these songs lend themselves to diverse and divergent readings. There's an entire album of Japanese bands pulling Pixies tunes apart and putting them back together in barely recognizable ways, and against all odds it's one of the best tribute albums ever released.

Between the gateway-drug covers and the cultural name-dropping (the best is the Dandy Warhols' "Cool as Kim Deal"), the Pixies had to get back together at some point. Sources close to the Frank Black camp tell me it was Kim who was the last holdout, and judging from the way she hung near the back of the stage at one of the Pixies' reunion shows in Berkeley last year, I can't say I'm surprised.

There was something surreal about that whole night: suddenly, the alt-rock underdogs are the arena-rock overlords. They'll play everything you want to hear, Top 40 style, and wink at you while doing it. If the Pixies are the Beatles of their generation in terms of songwriting, they've practically become the Lynyrd Skynyrd of their generation in terms of audience participation. Ten thousand kids singing "Here Comes Your Man"? There's something I can honestly say I never thought I'd see.

I have serious issues with seeing some of the most innovative musical minds of the last 20 years become a nostalgia act in their prime, but only a sadist would begrudge the Pixies this success. So if I ever see my best friend from high school again, I won't mind telling him that Doolittle now ranks as one of my Top 5 rock albums of all time. And yes, they are popular.

The Pixies perform Tuesday (May 31) at the San Jose Civic Auditorium. Tickets are $40 and available through Ticketmaster.

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From the May 25-31, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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