I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Pushing Yourself Through the Sludge: the Pixies

by Justin Martinez
June 5, 2014

It’s nice to hear it from the Brits; I couldn’t fucking imagine listening to another lanky Brooklyn rocker laud the Pixies -- like I really give a shit if the Yeah Yeah Yeahs care or not. It’s like in documentaries where they interview the son and he has nothing but nice things to say about the real subject, his father. But in England they had more fathers than sons for a long time. They produced David Bowie, for Christ’s sake; it doesn’t take more than two minutes to think of all the other visionary gods from that country, from the ‘50s, to the ‘60s, to the ‘70s.

And then we get the ‘80s and America’s musical tastes -- and maybe the world’s -- went to shit. “Sludge,” as Bowie calls it here.

In the ‘80s, the first time I heard the Pixies it was Surfer Rosa (1988), on cassette, and it was the end of “Oh My Golly!”.

Frank Black relates an anectdote about a conversation with bassist Kim Deal, telling her, “You fucking die!” (You probably know it: “ ‘You fucking die!’ I said. To her. I said ‘YOU FUCKING DIE!’ to her. Huh? What? No no. I was talking to Kim. I said ‘You fucking die’. No we were just goofing around. No no it didn’t have anything to do with anything. She said ‘Don’t touch -- anybody touches my stuff…’ and I said, ‘...you fucking die’, like that. I was finishing her part for her.” Pause. “You know what I mean?”).

It was fifth or sixth grade. Charlie Curran was the one that introduced it to me, we hung out in a little attic over his garage not far from Kansas State University. He wore his hair like Robert Smith, occassionally an ironic touch of lipstick, and he acted like he was over 40 already. We listened to the Cure, Jane’s Addiction. But we also lived in and liked the world of Metallica, Megadeth, Def Leppard, Anthrax, Ministry. He caught all the cool shit because he subscribed to Rolling Stone, listened to the college’s station DB92 and hung around older, mohawked, dangerous punks (in the mosh pits at least). Other than that, there wasn’t much way for the rest of us to catch on to anything like the fucking Pixies. You almost had to buy this shit by accident. Maybe it was the little bit of Dead Kennedys in it that made it not such a hard sell.

The context in which the Pixies triumphed (and Sonic Youth, for that matter, a good point made in the 2002 documentary, Gouge, dir. Matt Quinn) was between a commercial-as-fuck musical landscape that denied its own absurdity, an angry one that kept its middle finger up to the point of exhaustion, and one that embraced its own absurdity by bringing abstraction to their instrumentation and their stories. The Pixies unlocked emotions, a viewpoint, that suddenly sat in the center, and wasn’t so fucking weird the more you listened to it, the more you tapped in.

At the time few bands were using all the colors. As Kristin Hersh of the Throwing Muses says, “(Black) can write a song in any genre and make it fly.”

Check out Deal’s ragged country crooning on “Silver” from Doolittle (1989). Dig the dub opening to “Mr. Grieves” on that album. Listen to the holy ghost of Morrisey suddenly appear on the lead vocals to “La La Love You”. Experience Black’s spitfire, devil-tongued Spanish on “Crackity Jones”, “Oh My Golly!” and at the tip of “Vamos (Surfer Rosa)”. And of course all that surf punk, certain Talking Heads flourishes. In Gouge the band themselves namecheck Peter, Paul & Mary, The Who, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Rush. Thankfully those influences can’t be heard but, as this doc points out, the pop efficiency in them remained.

Speaking of talking heads, the interviewees on Gouge are huge: Thom Yorke (fresh off Amnesiac -- another album-as-art-composition -- and acting glitchy like he’s on a first date with the interviewer) and Jonny Greenwood, PJ Harvey, Bono (I’m sure he really went out of his way to turn the world on to the Pixies from ’88-’91 at the height of U2’s success, the piece of shit), Badly Drawn Boy, members of Pulp, Travis, Bush, and Bowie, who’s never seemed out of touch with anything. Others include MOJO Magazine’s Keith Cameron, Roy Wilkinson of Q and the band itself is interviewed. They express disappointment with Bossanova (1990), probably because it’s more loud than loud-quiet-loud, which makes the album more American. They took more ownership as a rock band with Bossanova and I think the Planet Pixies cover art isn’t a mistake.

Gouge was made around the time their band’s breakup was official, eleven years after their last album Trompe Le Monde (“Fool the World”, 1991). The live footage is culled from a sepia-toned gig in London. They’re focused, especially guitarist Joey Santiago. Black is serious, professional, and his feet don’t move. They don’t show off, they don’t manipulate the crowd. It’s not a band you can just nod your head like you know this world they’re talking about.

Plaintive without gross sentimentality. Sincere without being overburdened with sincerity. Albums that end without fanfare. Song titles that reveal nothing, like Autechre’s. The lyrics avoid myopic youth culture bullshit; “There’s a lot of stories involved, sexual and/or violent details,” Black says at one point. “Stories about murder and rape and war and pillaging and incest and kind of intense things all through the Old Testament.” And he admits, some nonsense and humor, something that caught my ear from the beginning.


Biblical analysis of The Pixies’ “I’ve Been Tired”:

Epstein, Heidi. “Sour Grapes, Fermented Selves: Musical Shulammites Modulate Subjectivity,” The Bible and Critical Theory, Vol.5 No.1 (Monash University Press, 2009).


Pixies - Live at the Town and Country Club (London, 1988):


UK Indie Music Scene 1980-1989:


Justin Martinez is a playwright living in Lawrence, Kansas.  His work can be found at www.racialfacial.com.