Nothing much in rock surprises me anymore. Ramones' songs selling Budweiser. Bob Dylan as a Victoria's Secret shill. The Pixies getting back together. Yes, indeed, Hell surely froze over a very long time ago. The difference this time is, of course, that news of a Pixies reunion is a pleasant surprise, something to cheer about, as opposed to just another excuse to drink oneself into a coma.
Sit right down my wicked son and let me tell you a story
About the boy who fell from glory
And how he was a wicked son
-- Pixies, "The Holiday Song"
The Pixies (Frank Black, Joey Santiago, Kim Deal, David Lovering) are playing together again after an 11-year hiatus, a period during which the rock landscape in America underwent drastic changes. They are, at this moment, midway through an 11-city "warmup" tour that for some strange and wonderful reason includes Spokane. (Big Easy. Saturday night with Seattle's Alien Crime Syndicate. Sold out. Sorry.) This town is going to serve as a proving ground for the reunited band, a band that hasn't been on the road together since 1992's "Zoo TV" world tour in support of U2.
Many of you reading this right now are probably Pixies fanatics with at least a fair grasp of the band's history, demise and considerable impact on indie rock. So if you're in a hurry, feel free to skip down to the paragraph beginning with "If great rock 'n' roll..." for the new bits. Otherwise -- and for the rest of you -- sit back and soak it up.
The Pixies formed in Boston in 1986 when the lines between underground and mainstream rock were considerably less blurred than they are today. When the sides were distinct. When it was clearly "us" against "them." Charles Thompson had just dropped out of college in order to start a rock band, and had convinced his roommate, guitarist Joey Santiago, to do the same. Dayton, Ohio, native Kim Deal joined after answering a newspaper ad (for a bassist who liked Husker Du and Peter, Paul & amp; Mary) -- and recommended drummer David Lovering. Thompson changed his name to Black Francis and Santiago flipped through the dictionary to come up with the band's name.
The Pixies EP, Come on Pilgrim (4AD), appeared a year later and established the band's primitive, dynamic union of punk noise, pop melody, surf rock dementia and ass-shaking abandon. Lyrically, the group scurried between incredibly cryptic and indelibly direct, with both methods eliciting a fair amount of head-scratching and exclamations of "Did I hear that right?" at every wildly careening turn. Principal songwriter Francis wallowed in high- and low-brow culture, science fiction, mysticism, violence, and sex -- lots of earthy fornication, with all its associated obsessions, frustrations, elations, broken limbs, soiled dresses, scratching, biting and gouging.
Not surprisingly, the band's music was consigned to college and community radio, and its videos were rarely seen on MTV. Yet for those looking to rock for inspiration or salvation in the late '80s, the Pixies offered double helpings of each. And so the cult of the Pixies lurched into existence. During a brief six years together, the band released four albums -- Surfer Rosa (1988), Doolittle ('89), Bossanova ('90) and Trompe Le Monde ('91) -- and toured America and Europe. Eventually, however, building friction between Francis (who had more or less taken control of the group) and Deal (who wanted to incorporate more of her songs into the mix) finally precipitated a breakup. Francis inverted his name to Frank Black and embarked on a solo career. Deal, along with her twin sister Kelly, successfully re-formed their high school band, the Breeders. Santiago and Lovering briefly performed together as the Martinis before fading from earshot.
If great rock 'n' roll is defined by its limitations and imperfections, the Pixies were an imperfectly great rock 'n' roll band. They came out of nowhere with a sound no one had ever heard before and released two records that turned underground rock on its ear. They formed a limited alliance with a major label and turned out a third album that was as ferocious and fun as anything they had done before. They dealt with the crap -- growing pains, infighting, the glare of exposure -- and spewed forth two more interesting, if a tad inconsistent, albums. Then they split up before they sucked or had a single opportunity to sell out.
I, for one, was satisfied, more than happy to let that Eddie Cochran, that James Dean, that dead dog that was the Pixies, lie. But it was not to be.
The thing is, at the time of the band's initial demise, the full force of its impact had yet to be felt or appreciated. But it soon would be. Avid fan Kurt Cobain once confessed that while writing "Smells Like Teen Spirit," he was basically "ripping off the Pixies."
Modern indie rock certainly owes the Pixies a huge debt, a notion affirmed with a single listen to Surfer Rosa or Doolittle. The songs have aged amazingly well, sounding as potent and disturbing today as when first hatched over a decade ago. Since then, Pixies music has found its way down to an entirely new generation that's sick to death of mainstream rock, to kids who were still crapping their drawers when Come On Pilgrim first hit the record bins.
Witness the current extent of Pixiemania: All of the shows on their abbreviated North American tour sold out almost instantaneously. In Spokane, Eugene and Boise, tickets disappeared in five minutes. In Canada, the rush was even more profound. Winnipeg's tickets were gone in three minutes, while two Vancouver shows sold out in seven.
After co-headlining the Coachella Music & amp; Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., on May 1, the Pixies head to Europe for six weeks. After that -- who knows? A national tour perhaps? A new record? While pondering those possibilities, keep your eyes peeled for a Pixies DVD (with videos, live concert footage and a documentary called Gouge) and a "best of" package (working title: Wave of Mutilation) coming soon to a record store near you.
So why did the Pixies hitch up again? For love? For money? For the opportunity to finally claim a share of their own impressive legacy? For something to do? Maybe they just happened to rediscover those things within their collective selves that made the band so great in the first place. If that's indeed the case, I'll be the first in line to hail the Pixies' return from the crypt.
Aw, who am I kidding? I'm there already.
Of Cops and Crops -- Cypress Hill has always been able to talk the talk and walk the rap-rock walk -- meaning they look like rappers but live like rockers. They pile on the basketball jerseys and heavy golden chains, but they can rock out with the hardest head-bangers after touring and collaborating with bands like Rage Against the Machine, Hole and Sonic Youth. The band, which plays at WSU on Saturday, seems to be the perfect combination of rap and rock. In fact, the group is permanently banned from SNL after smoking marijuana onstage during their live performance (like rappers), and then subsequently smashing the speakers and equipment to bits after their set (just like rockers).
The group, known for its heavy experimentation with musical genres and heavier experimentation with pot, has been together for 16 years. After moving from New York City to South Gate, Los Angeles (a hop-skip, and jump from Watts), DJ Muggs (Larry Muggerud) crossed paths with B-Real (Louis Freeze) and Sen Dog (Senen Reyes). The three found mutual musical interests and started collaborating on rhymes about their lives -- involved in the regular gang activities of their rough neighborhood.
As a group, Cypress Hill's early music struck a chord with listeners of all kinds. Largely playing into their Cuban, Mexican and Italian roots, the group recorded songs in English and Spanish, as well as tapping into the traditional music of their cultures. At the very beginning of gangsta rap, Cypress Hill saw serious college radio airtime of their first single, "How I Could Just Kill a Man." They soon signed with Columbia's Ruffhouse Records in 1990.
But it wasn't until the group's 1993 release, Black Sunday, that the group saw serious mainstream attention. The single "Insane in the Brain" highlighted Cypress Hill's heavy beats, B-Real's trademark high-pitched delivery and the band's hate for cops and love for their illegal crops. Though successful as a rap posse, the group's style continued to change over the course of their next seven albums -- ranging from ska to stoner rap to metal. They continued to headline a number of alternative festivals with rap, rock and ska groups, and collaborated with artists like Rancid's Tim Armstrong and Pearl Jam. They also established themselves early on as a political band, rallying behind the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML) and going benefit-for-benefit with bands like Rage Against the Machine. All this opened the So-Cal rappers up to new types of listeners -- from young punks to Green Party supporters.
Cypress Hill released its most recent album, Till Death Do Us Part, in March. The album finally explored reggae music -- something that fans wondered why the band hadn't tried out earlier. It seems like it wasn't a logical fit, as the album debuted at No. 21 on the charts.
Jamaican Soul -- While Bob Marley and his band the Wailers get all the cred and are typically the first names that rolls off the tongues of casual listeners when the subject of reggae is raised, the more informed in the group will gently note that it was Jamaican group Toots & amp; the Maytals that not only first coined the term "reggae" but gave the genre its start. For my money, the Maytals also played it much better, with more soul and sheer exuberance than the celebrated Marley and his crew could ever seem to muster. Toots and the Maytals perform at the Big Easy next Thursday night with a very (I'm sure) excited group of local musicologists, the B-Side Players, opening the show.
Frederick "Toots" Hibbert started the Maytals in the early '60s, drawing heavily on his soul and gospel roots for inspiration and featuring his own impressive pipes. By the end of that decade -- and after Hibbert endured an 18-month jail term for marijuana possession -- the Maytals had become stars both at home in their native Jamaica and abroad. Many of the group's hits such as "54-46 That's My Number," "Monkey Man" and "Pressure Drop" (from the soundtrack of the legendary reggae film The Harder They Come) have been covered by the likes of the Clash and the Specials and have since become reggae/rocksteady standards.
If you can get your hands on a copy of the band's seminal first Island Records LP, Funky Kingston, by all means do so. It might just turn out to be the only reggae album you'll ever need.