In the wacky world of arts and leisure, “retirement” is often just another word for “indefinite period of self-imposed silence during which an audience saves a special corner of its wallet for an inevitable, Jesus-esque homecoming”. You know, kinda like the period between the final song and the encore at a rock concert, only with prolonged, hopeless years piled up in between. This explains why particular “retirements” come across as transparent publicity stunts; after all, who didn’t expect Jay-Z, the Roger Clemens of hip-hop, to tire of lounging on sun-soaked yachts?
Pixies, arguably Boston’s most influential rock band from the late ‘80s / early ‘90s (next to Mission of Burma, perhaps), weren’t just living the proverbial retired life—they were dead. At least that’s what the T-shirts and posters promoting the band’s final slogan had us believe: DEATH TO THE PIXIES read their loveless goodbye. They served the noblest of indie-rock lives—coined an iconic brand of dissonant “alternative” rock with tugging dynamics, had a near-hit with a pretty little out-of-character pop song (“Here Comes Your Man”), saw said iconic formula shamelessly co-opted by a band (Nirvana) that became impossibly famous, and, throughout it all, never compromised their poker-faced weirdness—only to die just as profoundly as they had lived.
The relationship between singer / screamer / songwriter Black Francis and bassist / singer / rock-geek fantasy girl Kim Deal had become so tempestuous that, post-break-up, the subject of the band became one to avoid: Francis would dodge reporters’ Pixies-related questions, while Deal would simply hang up the phone. Francis reversed his fake name to make another fake name, Frank Black, and pursued slightly pleasanter power pop; Deal formed the Breeders, whose 1993 hit “Cannonball” charted higher than any Pixies song ever did; drummer David Lovering became a magician, as many drummers do; and no one knows what happened to guitarist Joey Santiago, but he was reachable when it came time for that fated reunion.
In the ensuing commercial wake of Pixies’ surprising and successful 2004 reunion tour comes the DVD Live at the Paradise in Boston, which documents a show the band performed that year at the titular club in the city of its origin. While it is yet another entry in a rash of recently released Pixies concert DVDs (The Pixies Sell Out, Acoustic: Live in Newport, the upcoming loudQUIETloud documentary) that capitalize on the reunion’s endless buzz, Live at the Paradise benefits from its nostalgic angle (band plays for rabid hometown crowd), intimate / unique setting (200 lucky fans crammed into a tiny rock club, the size of which is a fraction of what the band now commands), and anything-goes atmosphere.
The latter is an apt description of the show itself, which opens not with an expected one-two bomb of ruthless disharmony like “Bone Machine” or “Debaser”, but with the sweet and playful “La La Love You” and a requested cover of Neil Young’s hazy “Winterlong”. Moderate b-sides like “Into the White” and “In Heaven” follow closely behind, long before the real aural bloodletting begins. After these initial curveballs in the set list, a bit of predictability sets in: yes, “Monkey Gone to Heaven” and “Where Is My Mind” are featured, as are a majority of Doolittle‘s and Surfer Rosa‘s tracks. (Their prickly swan song, Trompe le Monde, is noticeably underrepresented, and only one song [“Alison”] is drawn from their surf-rock-on-Mars masterpiece Bossanova.)
Maybe it’s age or maybe it’s just the hurdle of re-learning forgotten roles, but it takes the band a little while to reach its abstract plane of whacked-out wickedness. On a thrasher like “Something Against You”, they seem to be delivering the thunder rather than really channeling it; by the time the convulsive “Crackity Jones” is tackled, however, everyone’s warmed up and back in their old molds: Lovering plows ahead at full-steam, Santiago stands motionless like a deer in the headlights, Deal offers plentiful smiles of defiance between requisite smoke breaks. Black eventually gives in to his possessed, tongues-speaking alter ego, which he appears unable to hold back after so long—not even a pair of respectable glasses can repress the primordial voice that his eerie songs summon.
When the band finishes its set, throwing sweaty arms around the bipolar closer “Caribou”, we’ve been given two glimpses of Pixies: the kindler, gentler manifestation, and that kinder, gentler manifestation’s rough estimate of past incarnations now distanced by time, age, forgotten roles, and so-called “retirement”. If that’s a reasonable delivery of the best we can expect, it’ll have to do.
* * *
As an added bonus, Live at the Paradise contains newly discovered footage from a 1986 show at the even smaller T.T. the Bear’s club in nearby Cambridge, billed as one of the band’s first live appearances. The home video is crudely shot and blurry at times, but it manages to convey a solid picture of Pixies at their onset, rampaging through early material like “Ed Is Dead” and “The Holiday Song”. Seeing Black wield and batter an acoustic guitar, both in 1986 and 2004, is a reminder of the instrument’s once-crucial role in provocative and punk-descended rock music, not to mention its routine and ridiculous banishment from the realm of “loud” music.