Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Death to the Pixies!

It’s a sad thing, but when you grow up, you no longer want to live in a town where there are nightclubs and shows by bands you want to see happening nearby. The reason is that there is a very tedious everyday burden that goes along with that stuff – high rents, no parking, space issues, random people yelling insults at you all the time -- that palls with age. That said, having left that milieu, it takes a special sort of gumption to then want to drive an hour plus to a place to see a good band on a Monday night -- and over a twisty, mountainous road, too. There’s not a lot of bands I’d do that for, especially in the winter, but there is one and its name is The Pixies.
The Pixies at the Catalyst, Santa Cruz. 12/11/17

The Pixies have turned into this generation’s Velvet Underground, or more accurately, Nirvana, only with this twist…they’re still alive and kicking. You know how I knew that the Pixies had transcended their place in the zeitgeist? It was when I was at a graduate student’s party at Stanford in the mid-2000s, and we were having a discussion about the most illegal things we’d ever done. Being Stanford, not a single one of the students had ever done anything illegal, but the professor, James Curran, had once been arrested for protesting the Falklands War or something.

Then everyone looked at me, because, well, you know, I’m old too, so stuff has happened to me. I told them I’d never been arrested. “But I once crossed the Alps in a tour bus with a band without my passport and I thought I was going to be.”

Them: “Oh, what band?”

Me: “Just one you’ve never heard of.”

Them: “Try us.’

Me: “They were called The Pixies.”

And I swear to god a hush fell on the room. It was exactly as if I’d said the Beatles or the Stones, and I was utterly flabbergasted, because in 1991, when the incident I was referring to occurred, the Pixies were never played on the radio, and never spoken of in the press. They were beloved, yeah, but only by a very small sect of people; when you went to see them, you knew everyone in the audience. They were bigger in Europe, and the show I saw in Vienna (after I’d crossed the border illegally) was probably the best show I ever saw in my life and if you know me and my life, you know that’s saying something.

The point is, by 2006 even Stanford graduate students had heard of them, and today, reunited, the Pixies are well worth a drive over a mountain pass in mid-winter, because they are the band that opened it all up for me. Back in the day, I don’t think you could hear them and not have come away changed. Indeed, I remember exactly where I was when I heard their 4D debut EP, and exactly what I was doing. It was in this weird apartment on 20th Street and Shotwell in San Francisco that I lived in for such a brief period of time that I only have two distinct memories of it, one of finding out that ML died in a plane crash, and the other of listening to the Pixies. I remember staring and staring at the album cover, which depicted Black Francis’s hairy naked back, and wondering a lot about “Mrs. John Murphy.” Who would call themselves that, even as a joke? I remember hearing “Caribou” and “Levitate Me” with rapturous awe, and receiving the first LP “Surfer Rosa” soon after, barely able to contain myself in my rush to put it on. There was nothing like it at the time, nothing. A couple of years later, I asked Charles (Black Francis), awkwardly, how one went about being original in rock music, when so much has already been said and done in that idiom. I think I put it differently, and I see now what a dumb question it was – like all those dumb sports interviews you hear, ‘how does it feel to be WORLD CHAMPIONS?’ – and all he said was something like, ‘Um, what I can’t understand is, how can one NOT be?”

But that was later, on that fateful European tour, for a story that was never published and which I am afraid was probably the best thing I ever wrote. It is now lost to antiquity, because I didn’t write it on a computer, folks. So, now we’ll never know what he said or I did, because I don’t have the records, or even the set lists that I grabbed from the stage every night as they made their way across Central Europe.
lost my passport here

Instead, here I am at the Catalyst, in downtown Santa Cruz, having crossed another mountain range in the middle of the night, standing on the balcony at the top of the steps on the bar side, next to two very nice women who were discussing a recent LCS Sound System show with great intensity. Then the show began, and at first I was let down. The sound was poor (although it was good where I was) and the band was lukewarm, trying to deal with that. They began with “Gouge Away,” then “Wave of Mutilation” and it took them some six to eight songs to get into a groove. But then: they did. At some point, it all fell into that place of power from whence I remember them – maybe not the same supersonic split-the-universe-open place I saw them at in Vienna, but somewhere in that vicinity, and surely close enough for the audience, most of whom weren’t even born back then and who, on this night, were therefore…beset. Wild. Tremening with it, both above and below, in a pit that gaped open at the first crack on the drum. The LCD women hugged each other. A guy near me began to bang his head. A chair crashed down the steps. Howling commenced. “Caribooooo.” It felt momentous, more like participating in history than in a concert.

The Pixies' first five records, “Come On Pilgrim,’ “Surfer Rosa,” “Doolittle,” “Bossa Nova” and “Trompe Le Monde” are tattooed into my cochleas. Everything after, not. I thought the new songs sounded good as hell though; I nearly bought the CD on my way out. Still it is surprising to me how very much into the old stuff the audience was. It knew every single track, from the earliest possible moment in the band’s career, and it was those songs, like “The Holiday Song,” and “Vamos” and “Nimrod’s Son” which are from “Come On Pilgrim,” that were like explosions under the feet of the pitsters, tossing them out and up on sound waves that rocketed and bucketed the rest of us as well. The entire audience was chanting “YOU ARE THE SON OF A MOTHER FUCKER.” The set drew so heavily from the 4 AD years that it is easier to list songs they didn’t play than ones they did (no “Dig for Fire” boo hoo): it was the longest Pixies show I ever saw, almost hitting 40 songs, no joke. It went on and on and on, and there was no such thing as a bad song in it. The very last thing they played was “Debaser,” and by that time I had honestly had forgotten all about it: instead of sounding like the song that launched an entire David Bowie album, it sounded like a throwaway. Ha!

By that time though, I had left my perch in the balcony and was slowly backing out of the club, drawn slightly forward for each encore, like, “Hey!” The Catalyst is long and narrow, and usually about the back third of it is just one long disinterested extension of the bar, just people chatting each other up, but not on this night. On this night, the whole audience pressed forward as one big loving chest. So many bands that reunite, you think, well, they’re doing it for themselves and for the money, and that’s fine. The Pixies, may well also be doing it for the sake of their fans, so many of whom can’t simply fucking believe it...weaned on Weezer or whatever, they can’t believe what it turns out a really good band is like. I mean, it defies belief. It sounds crazy, but at the end of the Pixies almost 2 hour long set, 40 songs deep (!!!), the band dropped their instruments and stood in a line to take a bow and the audience just stood their stomping and cheering and clapping and howling for, like five full minutes. FIVE MINUTES. I tried to remember when I’d seen that before and it was…oh yeah, it was at the Pixies' first Fillmore show in 1989.

As that indicates, despite the years that show on their faces, many things about the Pixies are still the same. Like, they still play “Wave of Mutilation” twice, and the band still does not speak. At all. They just play short bursts of songs, many of them sans melody, and you realize as you listen that a good enough band can dispense with melody, because other things – fucked up tempos, re-tunings, super interesting guitar runs, yelped-out images about magical creatures, outer space and the desert, the Bible, and nonsense shrieked in Spanish will obliterate any need for something as facile as a tune. Then, on the occasions when the Pixies put in a melody, or, god forbid, a meaning, the whole thing blows sky high. I mean, IS there a better song for our times than “Monkey Gone To Heaven”? “Now there’s a hole in the sky and the ground’s not cold, and if the ground’s not cold then everything’s gonna burn, we’ll all take turns, I’ll get mine too…” When they got the chorus, the entire audience thrust its fingers in the air as one: 5 -5- 5. 6 -6- 6-. 7 - 7- 7. It was simultaneously beatific and satanic, chaotic and melodic, it was black and white and red all over. It should be the theme song for a ‘see ya’ show about 2017.

As for the new (“new”) bassist Paz Lenchantin, she didn’t even make me miss Kim Deal, like I thought she would. Obviously, there is no question that the Pixies couldn’t have existed in the first place without Kim Deal, but having seen Kim and her band only a few weeks ago, it’s easy to feel supremely good about the place she is in right now, and that makes it feel OK to watch someone else take her place. It’s different though. Kim just stood on stage stock still and radiated power and heat. Then she would step forward, beam, and sing like an angel, thus mitigating the sheer furious intensity of Charles, who looked  (and still looks) like a fat deranged serial killer whose neck veins stand out as he shrieks. Clearly, the total genius of that juxtaposition simply can’t be equaled, but the Pixies aren’t trying to. Paz may not really be adding anything new to the band, but she sure looks fantastic. If I was going to be a bassist in a hard rock band, I’d try to look exactly like her. I’d wear a pleated black skirt, but not a booty short one, and super nice flat boots, and – even if I wasn’t a bassist -- if I could have the pick of all possible types of hair in the whole world, I would pick hers. I would probably play just like her too. I’d rock out to every number, as if I knew – as she must know – that I'd fallen into the best possible job in the whole wide world. No doubt she is an accomplished musician in her own right (she played with A Perfect Circle and Zwan), but her strength is that she makes playing bass in the Pixies look positively doable, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Last summer I was in Vienna for one single night, to see the Afghan Whigs. It was my first time in that country since the night I saw the Pixies, and in the morning, I was riding around on a bike and I happened to pass the US Embassy. It didn’t look even remotely familiar to me, but I knew I was there once, 27 years ago, to get my passport reissued after I’d lost mine in the crush at a Pixies show in Germany. In those days you weren’t supposed to cross borders without a passport, and boy did that consulate yell at me for doing it; he tore me a new asshole as he deported my ass back to America. But it was all OK, because, like I said, the Pixies changed me. For me, there will always be a before and an after. The Pixies showed me that all the bad things you can ever envision can happen to you on the road, but you won’t die; in fact, quite the opposite, the things that happen will just make you more into living. Long live the Pixies. 

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Content Of Their Character: The Breeders, 11/11/17

Once upon a time, when my daughter was about 5, she saw one of those big cardboard cutout advertisements of a bunch of smiling young women bursting out of their bikinis. They were popping the tops off beer or something, and my daughter told me the ad made her feel uncomfortable. “It’s like people are making fun of those ladies,” she said, and it made me feel so sad to hear her say that. When you get older, you realize that “making fun of” doesn’t even begin to describe the emotions that are at play in ads like that, but it only takes a little nudge to remember what it felt like to be a little girl and embarrassed by such poignantly desperate displays of female sexuality.  And then, soon after, you start to internalize them and spit it back out.

They say that by the age of 12, kids have seen over one million advertisements, and that doesn’t even include the media portrayals of women they see in television, film, music and video – the majority of which have at least something in common with that beer commercial. That’s why, if I was going to invent a female protagonist for a movie or a book or a play, she wouldn’t look like Gal Gadot. No sir. She would be a stealth operator, a sleeper cell in the heart of America, a girl no one on earth would feel threatened by, someone absolutely nice. On the outside, she’d seem like the humanoid equivalent of a tabby cat: she could walk right by you and you might not even notice. But inside, where no one could see her or attack her or tweet about her or call her stupid or a groupie or a slut, she’d be this seething mass of secret talent: more creative and special and kickass than every single boy in every single band that would surround her night and day.

Because of course, my protagonist would be a musician. She’d love rock ‘n roll. But unlike so many of its practitioners, she would be polite about it, not arrogant. She would always say thank you to her guitar techs when they handed her guitars. She wouldn’t crave attention for herself. She wouldn’t have a giant gaping hole in her soul in the place where her self-worth should be. She wouldn’t pop the tops off frothy beer cans, or even wear lipstick: indeed, one time, when you showed her how to use your under eyeliner, she would wipe it off and go, "That looks ridiculous on me." She wouldn’t have publicity pictures of herself looking soulful or lost or sexy, she wouldn’t pout or show cleavage, she wouldn’t live in Hollywood, date celebrities, or eat vegan, she wouldn’t watch her weight.

She wouldn’t even KNOW her weight, that’s how badass this protagonist would be.

And when people would say, “I sure wish there were more people like her,” she’d reach behind her back and say, “Really? Well that’s good…” And then she’d pull another person forward and say, “Because guess what? I have an identical twin sister.“

Of course such a person couldn’t exist, it sounds too novelistic. And if she did exist, she wouldn’t start out being successful on her own, because it’s probable that the first band she was in would underestimate her drive and musicality and talent. In my novel, that’s what would happen, anyway… until my protagonist would take a break from that band and put out one of the most iconic, most sampled, most delightful, most revered records of the 1990s, a record with a single that nothing will ever quit on.

In short, until she dropped the mic on them.

(whispers: LOL.)

Of course, that story couldn’t even happen in today’s music industry, wherein the way women have been treated has been solidified by a forty year downward spiral of marginalization, objectification and just general ishy-ness. But if something even close to that occurred somehow, back then in the 1990s – and I’m not even saying it did -- than the person who it happened to would be my Malcolm X.

What I am trying to say here is that, just by existing, Kim Deal speaks truth to power. Only Kim Deal doesn’t speak it. She IS it. (And Kelley too, of course.)

Anyway, that’s what I thought, the second I walked into the Rickshaw Stop last week, which happened to be the exact  same second that Breeders stepped on stage, since it was an early show and I kind of mistimed getting there. I walked in, and Kim opened her mouth, and I was like… plunged into some kind of sci-fi vortex, into the alternate universe from whence I emerged from, stumbling awfully, all those years ago.

The club, which holds, like, 200 people, was super, super, super packed, but nevertheless I was drawn on a heart-string forward into the maw of the crowd, and it didn’t matter if I wriggled by people, pressing the flesh, because they were all my height, and anyway, it was a warm place, full of love. I had to smash myself against the wall to move myself forward, and then I ran into a little, low, table, and I stood on it, where the view was perfect. A girl took my hand to steady me as I climbed up. 

"Do you think there is room for me?" she said. Of course there is room for you on this bandwagon, I thought, and I helped her up. Then we took turns standing on it with the people standing near us.

Meanwhile, on stage, Kim and Kelley and Josephine and Jim were holding forth. The notes were sort of spaced out, the rhythms are sort of spiky, the lyrics are never easy to read between… it’s a very unexpected sound, but it’s its own thing. And those of us who like it, love it. It bashed, is what it did. It rocked our souls and made us happy. I mean, we are living in some very toxic times right now, are we not? And the Breeders are a super secret antidote of sorts. Thank god I got a shot. 

Just to recap, Kim was in the Pixies. Then in 1990, Kim formed the Breeders as a side project with Tanya Donnelly and Josephine Wiggs, and when Tanya left she replaced her with her twin, Kelley. In 1993, I think it was, they were recording the album which became “Last Splash,” in San Francisco and staying on a houseboat in Sausalito. I went over there one night to interview them for Option and we stayed up all night listening to the new songs. That night was like, it is almost unspeakably memorable for me, because it was the only time in a whole decade of writing about musicians that I experienced from the inside, that is, in which I was able to participate fully, rather than listening from a distance, from that place of weakness and abjection that I was perennially relegated to in those days. If I had learned the language of the future, I would have said to myself, this must be what it's like to be empowered. But I didn't know that then. I just thought I had fallen into some warm, random embrace...and I thought it would happen again.

And in the morning, I was like, “Oh god how I love this, but prolly no one else will.”

Happily, I was wrong.

But…how do you describe the Breeders music to the uninitiated? You can’t, I think. Their music exists in a particular context, the early 1990s, when loud soft loud – that exact cross between Husker Du and Peter Paul and Mary, as the Pixies want-ad put it -- was invented. You can’t describe the Breeders to people, and they might not get it anyway. Get the joke of it all, that is, plus the essential joy of it all: the dialog that the band members are having with music, the way they approach life. When Kelley says, “Hey, guys, we know a Beatles song!” it’s really the unconscious reply to an unspoken criticism, to a whole fucked up narrative about guitar skill and inventiveness and gender, one that probably doesn’t emerge anymore in front of these women because they have literally transcended it, but which is really clear from their choice of Beatles song, “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”

It’s not a conscious joke, or a conscious dialog, either, it’s not even angry, it’s just…their whole approach to life. Their performance of it – which is on “Pod” – is one of the great joys of my life, as are “Cannonball,” from “Last Splash,” and “Iris” and “Doe,” as is their covers of “You and Your Sister” and “Wicked Little Town;” as is just the sight of them on stage, rocking out how they do. The happy grins. The shalala voices. The fun that wafts off the both of them, amidst the furious and effortless strumming of the guitar, the ha-ha ‘solos’ that simultaneously do what they do, andyet are totally functional, but also secretly mock the whole idea of having a guitar solo in the first place.

It is the visible relationship between the two of them that is funny and sweet and is so like me and my sister, me and my best friend, me and a ton of people I know, but absolutely nothing like anything else you see in public. Ever.

It is just plain “Divine Hammer” which has an absolute grip on my brain this week, such that I can’t get rid of it.

Oh, I don’t know what it is, actually. But whatever it is, it is real, like the real tremor of recognition, of faith you get, when you see someone who is totally untrammeled by the more horrible vagaries of popular culture; someone who is defined not by the color of their eye shadow, but by the content of their character.