Here Comes Your Youth

Our teenage American alt-rock dream: The triumphant return of the Pixies

They levitated you, baby. A big black mass. A hunk of love. They let the kids connect the dots. There are excellent reasons for the Pixies to choose Minneapolis as the site of their first show since they split up (reportedly via fax) 12 years ago. Back in the mid-'80s, Charles Thompson IV--a.k.a. Black Francis, a.k.a. Frank Black, a.k.a. the Genius in the Castle of Broken Bones--and his roommate Joey Santiago lured Kim Deal into joining their band by placing an ad for a bassist who liked "Hüsker Dü and Peter Paul and Mary." And it just so happens that today the hottest piece of Pixies-related cultural arcana just happens to be from Twin Cities-cum-New York jazz crew the Bad Plus. It's a version of 1990's astral-planeing snugglet "Velouria," flipped by the Bad Plus into a heavier-than-heaven, Cecil Taylor-at-the-Planetarium fantasia--an elegiac territorial pissing into the sea of possibility. Here at last the cats with the horns and the khaki pants retroactively join the punks and goths and zine-istas and greenhairs at the glorious barricades of Maoist insurrection that was Alternative Rock. A moment that would have been impossible if not for a little band out of Boston.

Which is a long way of saying, holy fucking mother of Jesus Jiminy Christ on crack, the Pixies are coming. The band that started the joke which started the whole world kvetching are gonna throw down in your area. So, ante up and dig if you will that old black magic: lumpy, greasy, giddy toxic avengers who inverted indie/college/underground rock's sniffy no into a nerds-unite yes, singing, "This ain't no holiday/But it always turns out this way" and packing our lunch for the road to Nirvana. Try to remember how big a deal their revelation was. It might seem sorta whatevs nowadays, but in an era when the whole point of American underground rock was to define oneself against the eyeliner-effete English, it took either much focus-grouping and/or mad naiveté to dream up a whole new rock identity out of art-phag/Neil Gaiman/4AD soft-goth, RISD oblique-chic, Amerindie shame-noise (thanks to Steve Albini's Levitically key production), collegey references to Buñuel and field hockey, an elegantly blanched sense of hipster smarm, and an obvious desire to be liked and maybe even make some money. Anyone could come along. Well, not everybody: "Never have I seen four cows more anxious to be led around by their nose rings," noted Albini, stamping them with the bitter indie-prick seal of approval. They had to know they were doing something right.

And so they were. The six-or-so-years career condensed into the forthcoming Wave of Mutilation: Best of the Pixies follows their revelation through a world that did not yet know how to handle it. 1987's EP Come on Pilgrim and 1988's Surfer Rosa were totalizing achievements, unimpeachably awesome, compressing the two weeks it might take to "get" the Hüskers' New Day Rising into about five minutes, another huge innovation. 1989's Doolittle was an ingeniously plucky triangulation of their way and the highway, the first indie-to-major move where the band seems elated to meet more people. Unfortunately, many of those people lived in England, where the Jesus and Mary Chain had set the table, youth unemployment was higher, and standards for telegenetics were far more generous. 1990's Bossanova and 1991's Trompe Le Monde screwed up the Anglo-American equation rather ingeniously, leaving loose ends neither Kim Deal's Breeders nor the solo Frank Black sewed up completely.

Doing that calculus, of course, was our job and it was half the fun. Here was a new subcultural shell game for high school splitters, music in love with the idea of you falling in love with its deeply ingrained weirdness. The reference to Un chien andalou in "Debaser" delineated the key Pixies contradiction of impulse and illusion. (And the elliptical shriek of anti-sex awe that opens "Caribou" from Come on Pilgrim indeed beats off with ants on its hands.) But by the time Charles Thompson got a shot at it, Buñuel/Dali's surrealist shocker could only be watched as screwball hijinks, something he factored in while creating Black Francis's slapstick arsenal of shrieks, cackles, chirps, whirps, and yodels--hallmarks of punk's best physical comedian since Johnny Rotten.

Yet the hi-mod art gag that fits his band best might be a more obscure Duchamp dealie--various mechanical abstractions painted on a window/mirror, messing with the image and everything that passed through or behind it. You entered a Pixies song but you weren't necessarily invited, which was weird because they felt so warm. The incongruous Spanish lyrics ("Vamos a jugar con la playa!"), the from-nowhere snippets of studio in-jokes, allusions to broken bodies and bone machines, fragments of sci-fi and Revelation kitsch. A conversation you loved so much because you kept losing the thread; everyone seemed lost, even the band. Joey Santiago's surf-doom guitar laughed and sneered and caught the flu but rarely resolved. David Lovering's mountainous snare whacks suggested the greatest heavy metal drummer ever to miss his ride to the KISS cover-band tryouts. Kim Deal flipped just-got-up fashion aesthetics into something as close to gym-wear as cool people would allow and sang every line like a secret she'd promised not to share.

They were, ya know, ironic, but in a sweet communitarian way. When Black Francis indolently entreated, "Rock me Joe," before the faux-triumphal solo on their first MTV hit, "Monkey Gone to Heaven," his irony was right in step with Bret Michaels smirking through mirror shades, "CC, pick up that guitar and talk to me," or Prince Paul poking fun at hip-hop cliché in the "I put this together to rock you" collage on 3 Feet High and Rising. And just like CC's hair and Prince Paul's pastiches, Black's persona refracted rock history's most beauteous battered dreams, ensuring any able-eared suburbanite that the Hüskers' new day was just around the corner. A few years too late and right on time.

The late '80s were, all in all, a pretty loopy little cultural moment. Paul Wellstone's 1990 ads had an everything-allover bubble-up urgency that looked like a Jungle Brothers song sounded, and a trickster novel had made Salmon Rushdie a marked man. If you flipped on the tube at 10:30 on weeknights you could see "Monkey Gone to Heaven" or "Here Comes Your Man" on something called, ahem, "Post-Modern MTV." And then you could flip over to Channel 11 (briefly KUSA) to watch a room full of white, middle-class Bostonians bellow for a social and cultural "Norm!" If Dinosaur Jr. fan George Wendt's Norm Peterson was Josef K. by way of Bill Buckner, then his portly bizarre-world other, Black Francis, was Josef K. by way of Jonathon Richman, innocent to the point of disrepair, in love with the old world and running headlong into the flesh market. The cover art of Surfer Rosa--a topless Italian prostitute preening before a crucifix--sums this up nicely, the lapsed Catholic too in love with the forces pulling her apart to even try to fight them.

Wondering what to do about your body is an ageless punk theme, perverted quite wonderfully by shame syndicates like Am-Rep (well on the rise when the Pixies got together). But when Francis and (especially) Kim grabbed the mic there was no shame involved. "Wave of Mutilation" and "Gouge Away" and "Debaser" were too in love, too gooey and flippy-floppy playful to be anything but come-ons. Like in the Jonathan Richman song, they had come out to play. Which brings us to the Pixies song the chosen few will get to shout for come next Tuesday: "Gigantic," Kim's twist on the Shirelles' "Tonight's the Night," a cuddle-core "Black Dog," a song about taking your estranged little bad self into the world. To stand with ant-hands aloft. What a gas it is to see them. One more time, all together now.

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