Pixies: Surfer Rosa/Come on Pilgrim

Scott Thill


Surfer Rosa/Come on Pilgrim

Label: 4AD
UK Release Date: 1969-12-31

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.






Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.


Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.


Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.


Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.


The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.


Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.


A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.