Looking for a place to stay, near some friendly star; he found this mote, and now we wonder where we are.”
The Pixies, “Motorway to Roswell”
HOUSTON In Texas, they have a saying: Never eat at a place called Mom’s, never play cards with a man named Doc and never patronize any business named after the Alamo.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t heard that adage until after I’d already checked into the Alamo Motel on Washington Avenue. I chose the place because it was literally 50 yards from a renovated theater called the Vatican, where the Pixies would be playing this night.
I was late to meet the Pixies’ leader Black Francis, so I plunked down $16 and hurried over to the venue before checking out the none-too-promising room. Lodging is one expense where you always get exactly what you pay for.
You don’t have to be jittery, apprehensive or saddled with creature discomforts to fully appreciate the Pixies, but it helps. Where some bands may spew messages or try to show the way, the Pixies merely wonder what’s behind the door and take a wild guess.
The Pixies have inspired the creation of a new tidy label; you know, one of those boxes that musicians are always whining about being put into even though it’s a perfect fit. “Post-punk” doesn’t really work because the Pixies sound like punk never happened. The band’s sound suggests that the Velvet Underground simply merged into Jesus Jones, that Lydon never was Rotten, that Neil Young came of age in a filthy Bowery sweatbox called CBGB’s. Call the Pixies’ brand of hummable absurdity “post-rock.”
Just as Andy Kaufman considered himself too good for comedy, the Pixies may be too good for rock ‘n’ roll. From the very beginning, the band has tossed a monkey wrench into what Black Francis calls the “classic cliches of rock.” Start with the name: The Pixies is the worst one since the Doobie Brothers, but you can bet that these eggheads would have it no other way. When former college suitemates Black Francis and Joey Santiago placed their ad in the Boston Phoenix for a bassist and drummer, they described their band as being “Peter, Paul and Mary meets Husker Du.”
The Pixies have got no soul, but they’ve managed to turn that into a big plus. Not since the heyday of the Replacements’ “Tim” has a band been so white and so down and dirty at the same time. That’s post-rock.
The band’s big Silver Eagle tour bus with the “Some Enchanted Evening” destination sign was still parked outside the Vatican when I lumbered up, so I banged on the door. Bassist Kim Deal, the sex symbol of the group (by default), came to the front of the bus to tell me that Charles (Black Francis in real life) had already left. He usually drives his own car on tour so he can hang out with his girlfriend and see some sights along the way. As soon as sound check was over, he cut out.
Deal invited me on the bus, where drummer David Lovering sat on one of the couches at the front and guitarist Joey Santiago sat in the back compartment, watching TV. Deal and Lovering were reminiscing about the band’s 1989 tour with the Happy Mondays.
“During the day, those guys (Happy Mondays) were pretty funny,” Deal said. “They’d always comment on my movements as if they were golf commentators. They’d sorta whisper things like, `Kim’s approach to the area was magnificent and now she’s looking for the bottled water.’ After the show, though, it was a different story. They trashed our dressing room a couple of times, and they were always stealing our beer. It’s great to be out with grownups,” Deal said, referring to current opening act Pere Ubu. (The Chicago date for the Pixies/Pere Ubu tour is Dec. 6 at the Riviera, 4746 N. Racine.)
When it comes to the drugs, sex and
late night parties associated with rock ‘n’ roll, the Pixies come off like Up With People with attitude. Every minute that they’re not on the stage, they look like they want to go home. Deal, especially, seemed like she had been out on the road too long already. And there were still seven more weeks to go on this tour to promote the Pixies’ latest masterwork, “Trompe Le Monde.”
The bus driver announced that there were about two more hours until showtime: Did the band want to go back to the hotel for a while? Though Deal’s hair was dirty and her clothes looked like she’d just finished doing a little gardening, she stayed put. Even tossled and tar-throated, Deal can’t help reminding you of fellow Akron, Ohio, native Chrissie Hynde. Two hours later, she would play bass in front of 1,000 people and at least three of them would yell, “I love you, Kim!”
It was a pretty amazing show, much better than the night before in Austin, as the Pixies proved that like their idol, Neil Young, they can do two completely different things very well. The slow, dreamy numbers (which Black Francis sometimes introduced with “Here’s another wimpy one”) massaged the audience with gentle fingers of harmony and soothing lead guitar strokes. Then, suddenly, the band raged into a screamer like “Tame” or “Rock Music,” with Francis looking like a stallion in a burning barn while sweaty guys in combat boots dove from the stage or wriggled and clawed above the crowd like inverted lobsters.
The differing guitar styles of Santiago and Black Francis intertwined like a strong, callused hand holding one with fire engine red nails; meanwhile, Lovering’s brawny skin-smacking and Deal’s breathy bass lined the low end in linen. Three role players and a reluctant genius, the Pixies don’t pander or primp. If they didn’t have such great songs, they’d be downright boring.
With the exception of Francis’ neck veins bulging when he does one of his patented paint-peeling screams, there’s not much to look at when the band is onstage. The Pixies are great for short people because they’re not much more scenic than the back of somebody’s head.
In Austin, the Pixies flipflopped the standard set dynamics, opening with three dirgelike numbers, “Ana,” “Cactus” and “Havalina,” then ending the set with two brand-new songs, “Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons” and “Planet of Sound.” When the band left the stage and waited for the obligatory encore, the audience shouted out its favorite songs, which the group hadn’t played yet. “Debaser,” “Waves of Mutilation,” “Levitate Me,” “Gigantic”: any of them would have driven the crowd into indie rock heaven. The band returned, instead, to play two more new tunes, a cover of Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Head On” and the autobiographical “U-Mass.” The Pixies don’t play the regular rock games.
What’s more, they have made a mockery of the lyrical analysis so prevalent with the academic rock set. If you thought Dylan had a rich imagination, check out some of Black Francis’ wordplay. From “Gouge Away”: “Sleeping on your belly/you break my arms/you spoon my eyes/been rubbing a bad charm/ with holy fingers.” And When Charles Thompson was only 15, he wrote such obtuse songs as “Down to the Well” and “Dig for Fire.”
They say that you should never meet the artist, the implication being that the person could never measure up to what he can do with a canvas, a sheet of paper or a three-minute pop song. I was glad that Charles Thompson is nothing like demented sage Black Francis when we finally sat down to talk at the band’s luxurious hotel after the Houston show.
A media hero and a favorite in Europe since he was 21 (he’s now 25), Thompson displays none of the brashness so typical of other spokesmen of his generation. It was 2 a.m. when this interview occurred, no hour to be bullied by some wired hothead who rides Harleys with Mickey Rourke.
When Thompson shied away from explaining his lyrics, he did so with none of that Michael “they’re too personal to discuss” Stipe crap. “About three years ago, I told a few people that my lyrics were all nonsense, just because they are in the sense that they wanted me to comment on them,” he said. “And I’m still trying to shake that `nonsense’ tag. With each record, there’s more tangible meaning to the songs, but I’m still `Mr. Gibberish’ to some members of the press.”
When the band released its third LP, “Bossanova,” Thompson had a song he could discuss with “The Happening,” based on a famous UFO sighting in Nevada. “I talked to critics about that song because, finally, here was an inspiration I could explain. Then we ended up being tagged a flying saucer band,” he said, throwing up his hands in mock frustration.
He finds it easier to talk about the band’s curious cover of “Head On,” from “Trompe Le Monde.” The Pixies reverse the dynamics of the Jesus and Mary Chain tune by playing loud where the original took it down and then going soft where J&M came out swinging.
“It’s not really a clever choice of a cover, but maybe that’s why we did it,” he said. The world’s foremost post-rock band would rather rave up tepid synth-raunch than find some obscure blues tune to re-record. Along the same lines, when he hits the road in his nondescript white car, he’s more likely to listen to the Psychedelic Furs or even Bruce Springsteen than any of his assumed influences, including David Bowie, the Kinks or Lou Reed.
He looked pretty tired. I wrapped it up by asking him why the band didn’t do “Debaser” tonight. “Didn’t we?” he asked. “You know what, I just forgot to write it down when I was making out the set list.”
He smiled as he stood up and said, “Wow, we made it through a show without doing `Debaser.’ That’s pretty cool.”
A real rock ‘n’ roll band never would’ve left off one of its most popular tunes, let alone be happy about it.