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Subcultural Sing-Along

Like hope, the Pixies were always popular — waaay more popular than the establishment gave them credit for. It’s a conspiracy theory that would have been mathematically provable had computer-regulated charts appeared a couple of years earlier. Today, it has become merely legend.

But if firsthand knowledge is fact, it’s undeniable that in April of 1989, Doolittle, the group’s first major-label-distributed album, was infinitely more buzzworthy than the No. 98 it huffed and puffed to on Billboard’s weekly chart. How do I know? Because every 18-and-over I met at the time owned Doolittle — just as each one I met two and a half years later owned Nirvana’s Soundscan-documented No. 1 smash Nevermind.

It wasn’t just the college-radio types who held Doolittle to the sky. Literally every punk and straight-edge kid, Anglophile and Goth, hippie chick and frat boy in the vicinity of a cultural center worshipped the Pixies not as a secret fetish, but as a natural force deserving of a loud sing-along. It was a populist canonization with little regard for understanding Black Francis’ Spanglish jabberwocky, a comforting code to people who’d otherwise have very little to say to each other.

In 1989, we did not know how the Pixies got to be that good and that huge — it just seemed like the obvious conclusion to a conservative decade’s rock evolution, at the end of which a few underground champions really did get crowned. It made sense to the masses in a way that much of the American and U.K. indie scene simply could not: Those who had not yet heard of the Boston band would get them instantly. Each of the group’s records was better than the previous (until that moment, anyway). And, when we finally went to see the Pixies play a sweat-drenched gig at Washington’s waaay over-capacity 9:30 Club in August of that year, they turned out to be as massive as expected, making it worth the infiltration of the 21+ barricades and the braving of ticketless masses that invaded usually barren downtown D.C. (Though, for the record, my resin-stained memory can’t seem to picture the opening act, the Happy Mondays . . .)

Do not mistake this for the “royal” we! The Pixies were a communal power, exponentially more fun when you could share them with a crowd we knew to exist. Which is why we dreamed of participating in mass pogos to Surfer Rosa’s explosive “Vamos,” like the kind we saw in the NME’s photos of European festivals, or of swaying with “Here Comes Your Man” like the thousands that inevitably did when the group opened for the Cure at Dodger Stadium.

Unrealistic dreams, you say? Hadn’t this already happened to R.E.M.? Yes! And since most would give odds that Pixies bassist, resident divorcée and heroine to a nation Kim Deal could single-handedly whip the entire Georgia quartet, it was most certainly gonna happen for the Pixies as well. Who could possibly think otherwise?

Well, maybe it was the Pixies who thought otherwise, who had expectations for themselves that had nothing to do with our dreams for them — or with hope. In America, you can’t have a success story without first imagining it. And in hindsight, what the Pixies reflected was a life on the fringes of Reagan-Bush America and a distraction from it. Joyful? Yes. But apart. Their European stratagems/successes, which they always laughed off in interviews, were simply a sail-away-on-a-wave escape.

Defeat was in their mouths, no matter how much the music of their bones protested it. Deal and Francis continually referred to it as the “stupid little band” and themselves as “young fucked-up kid[s].” The Pixies’ fascination with hardcore, a willfully rebellious sound that always seemed the great unspoken in the group’s very American formula (also starring: the interplay of surf-rock and garage-stomp, multi-culti kitsch and conspiracies, sex and religion, melody and noise), defined them as outsiders to a country that didn’t even have the balls to embrace Metallica yet. And facing death with a smile (Francis’ favorite subject to this day) seems far less like puritanical awe than Old Continent art-school absurdism, which inevitably got them all those “weirdo” catcalls and David Lynch comparisons. (Though it’s important to note that the Pixies’ self-aware plays bore little resemblance to the torn nature with which a certain acolyte of theirs approached each of these same subjects, while he rewrote pop-music history and succumbed to the demons inside his own fame.)

 

The Pixies turned away from the supernova climax and settled for simply being great a little while longer, before bowing out around the Clinton inauguration under circumstances you can read about elsewhere. They didn’t embarrass themselves one last time in order to grab a little more lucre. If you saw ’em in the hectic fall of 1991, touring the better-than-credited Trompe le Monde, the joy was obviously gone, the sing-along energy now Nirvana’s to tap.

It is no longer. For all the mistaken excitement about rock’s resurgence, few around here dare to look forward with anything besides a revivalist glance, at a time when looking ahead is the only option. So why not rally ’round the band whose popularity the establishment can no longer question — nearly 600,000 copies of Doolittle have been sold while the Pixies were apart — and whose meaning comes from simultaneously speaking two languages in tongues.

All I know is that Radiohead, who have the misfortune to follow the Pixies at Coachella on Saturday night, best bring their A-game, their full catalog and a flash of vengeance. Because I can guarantee you that most of the 60,000 who’ll gather that evening know the words to “Debaser,” and have been waiting their entire adult lives to sing it with a legion of their peers. And — maybe, just maybe — to keep hope alive.


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