Surfing with Rosa
I had already been skipping my last year of high school like crazy, waiting for the spring semester to eke away and the summer to begin. Then it did, and I still felt that nothing in the world made any sense at all. Between hormones and Reagan/Bush, a day didn’t go by when I didn’t feel like screaming my fucking head off. Problem was, I had no voice. Not a loud enough one anyway.
Then one night at a party, a friend of mine dropped the Surfer Rosa/Come on Pilgrim two-for-one import down into the CD player and the seas parted. From the crashing intro of “Bone Machine” to the dazzling wordplay of “Brick is Red”, Black Francis’ cleansing howl had hooked me but good. Its shrieking power covered every emotional and intellectual territory inside my cluttered brain, and everything evened out immediately; plus, it made me hoarse. My friend and I leapfrogged from Long Beach party to party screaming Rosa‘s lyrics at the top of our lungs: “I’m the party loser / You’ll find me crashing through my mother’s door / I am the ugly lover / You’ll find us rolling on the dirty floor”. Life for us had turned from an unending teenage defeat into a collegiate triumph.
It could have been one of those serendipitous coincidences, the kind that make deep impressions on impressionable minds looking desperately to bloom in an environment conducive to their strivings. But history, as usual, tells a different story.
Whatever (immeasurable) impact the Pixies’ first real album—their initial release, Come on Pilgrim, was a cut-and-paste job from their impressive demo tape, known as the Purple Tape—made on me paled in comparison to that it made on people with vastly more talent than I had. Like Kurt Cobain, who ripped them off (in a good way, that is, one that literary critic Harold Bloom would term “creatively borrowing”) well enough to turn something as innocent as Nevermind into a full-blown cultural phenomenon. Surfer Rosa changed the indie/alternative/whatever game, even though no one really knew who the Pixies were before Doolitle‘s “Here Comes Your Man” started popping up on radio and MTV lip-service shows like 120 Minutes. And even then, the ripples were few.
But like an unnoticed virus, the Pixies were silently and irrevocably changing music’s frail infrastructure, toughening it up, adding potent doses of pop fury and from-the-diaphragm catharsis. Listening to Black Francis expend his lungs on catchy-as-hell nuggets like “Bone Machine”, “Break My Body”, “Something Against You”, and “River Euphrates” aired out the cobwebs that most of the loud bands at the time—mostly annoying hair metal acts or angst-filled wannabes (whatever happened to Guns ‘n’ Roses anyway?)—were laying down like carpet.
And unlike other acts, Pixies had brain as well as brawn, and they exercised both at length on Surfer Rosa: they weren’t merely noisy, they were hooky, fearless, and brainy. “Bone Machine” was a stop-start gem in which a lovelorn narrator is almost molested in the parking lot by a guy who buys him a soda. “Cactus” is commandeered by a similarly heartbroken inmate who wants his lover to get her dress wet in the summer heat and send it to his cement jail cell. “River Euphrates” features a character whose car runs out of gas on the Gaza Strip, causing him to chuck a tire into the river and ride it to his apocalyptic destination. Fun stuff, and that’s just three songs.
Then there was the music. Pure, short, pop-punk songcraft, back when those two words were rarely hyphenated when describing bands other than the Ramones. Nothing over a few minutes, no bombast, and chops like you wouldn’t believe. Three-chord wonders turning in and on themselves like the mythical Ourouborous, a folklorean progentitor of the infinity symbol represented by a cosmic snake which not only comprises but also devours the universe. Minor chord lullabies like the visceral “Where Is My Mind?” (represented in David Fincher’s otherwise prosaic Fight Club as two monstrous buildings crumbling to the ground) brushed up against bouncy fantasies like “Tony’s Theme”, an aptly-titled story of unbridled childhood featuring a joke-practicing kid riding wild over suburbia on a bike armed with cards in the spokes. Or Kim Deal’s husky bedroom-voice sexily musing over the “dark” babe she wants to “ball” in “Gigantic”, one of Surfer Rosa‘s minor radio hits. The list goes on.
And on, because Surfer Rosa was paired up with Come On Pilgrim, which meant that for another five or six bucks you got 21 songs of nirvana, as Cobain did. For me—and this may be cheating but . . .—Rosa didn’t end with “Brick is Red”, but the in-joke lyrics of “Levitate Me” over an hour later, which is about right when I hit the rewind button, throat sore from trying to keep up with Black Francis’ matchless power.
By the time I got to Berkeley, the Pixies were so deeply embedded within my experiential universe that I was tattooing their “P” on my arm. And I wasn’t the only one—seven years later, I ran, literally, into a girl with a “13” tattooed on her breast, in honor of Doolittle‘s “Number 13 Baby”. Or others in one of countless mosh pits, thrashing about to the stomp of “Vamos”. Whether we knew each other or not, we formed a transnational secret society, mostly because we all felt that the Pixies never got the attention they deserved. How could we be wrong, we wondered, when the feelings they elicited were so loyal, so strong?
Then Nevermind blew up and we cracked in-the-know grins. We weren’t wrong. We just got to the party early. Steve Albini was now Somebody You Needed when it came to producing albums. He turned Nirvana’s In Utero into an instant classic, using the same bottom-heavy madness that made David Lovering’s drums or Black Francis’ shrieks explode into your ear. The Pixies were opening for U2, headlining in the UK (who appreciated them so much more than us lazy Americans), making indelible marks everywhere except on the mainstream scene. It was happening.
Then Black Francis and Kim Deal got into a fight and, poof!, it was over. What could have been a tidal wave became shorebreak, and the surfers of Rosa scattered like seashells. For years, we stood around with our jaws down, wondering what the fuck happened and where we were going to go next (bummed, I gave up on indie radio and chased down DJ Shadow). How would history treat the Pixies, and Surfer Rosa? Then the ballot results came in, year after year, and the Boston-based band was making the grade on everyone’s list of influences. And Surfer Rosa was now canon.
Little more than ten years after the Pixies disbanded, we’ve come full circle. SpinArt recently released the Purple Tape and reminded the diehards what they’ve been missing in their Britney-soaked scene-stream. Frank Black is about to drop not one but two solo albums, while Kim Deal’s Breeders finally put out a follow-up to the well-received Last Splash, recorded 10 years earlier. Next year, there is rumor of a live concert DVD. The vaults are being slowly opened, proving what we knew all along.
The Pixies were for real, and Rosa was their monstrous birth pressed into musical form, one that is still impossible to ignore. Whether you were there to watch the blood and life pour forth or not.