During the final stretch of the act's seven-year run, frequent clashes, both on- and offstage, between bassist Kim Deal and frontman Frank Black (then calling himself Black Francis) over the former's increased role were par for the course, and undermined whatever critical and popular success the band had achieved. The final, infamous nail in the coffin arrived when Black announced on BBC Radio that the group was splitting up before breaking the news to his bandmates, which he finally did, hours later, by fax. Ouch. I've never been dumped via fax, but I'm guessing it's not the kind of thing you get over very quickly, if at all -- which is why, despite the hype, it seemed unlikely that Black and company would ever go back on the road together.
Unlikely, that is, right up until I watched Black, Deal, Joey Santiago (guitar), and David Lovering (drums) take the stage at Freeborn Hall in Davis on a crisp night last week. And what a heartwarming, Hallmark moment it was, one that quickly gave way to an alarming observation: Jesus Christ! Look at all that saggy skin, those bald spots, those wrinkles -- these aren't the Pixies I remember, are they?
As the band unleashed the opening notes of "Bone Machine," the first song off its debut full-length, the timeless Surfer Rosa, the answer was a dispiriting "No." "Bone Machine" is a midtempo roller -- by Pixies standards an easy song. But Deal couldn't keep up, trailing Lovering's clomping beat; Santiago kept looking around, as if unsure of the changes. My heart fluttered briefly as Deal and Black sang the chorus together, but ultimately the "Bone Machine" broke. And then things got worse.
Amid wild applause (most of us were high on simply being there, remember), Lovering struck up the opening drum fill of "Wave of Mutilation." Before it could get off the ground, though, Deal fumbled the bass line, halting the song. "I don't think we've ever screwed that song up," announced a jovial (thank God) Black. "We don't have to play it," he said, as much, it seemed, to a discouraged Deal as to the audience. There was a nail-biting moment of silence before the musicians picked up the pieces and launched into a passable rendition of the tune, followed by "No. 13 Baby," "Caribou," and "Cactus," all of which felt uninspired, with Deal nervously staring at her bass the whole time and Black, a statue as always, acting aloof. For the first 20 minutes, it was like listening to a Pixies cover band.
But then this happened: Deal fired up the opening bass line of "Debaser," and for the first time all night it sounded like she was in control, ahead of the beat. As the song exploded, so did the crowd. Black shrieked the chorus, "Debaaaaaser," and the whole room howled along with him. Without missing a beat, the group moved straight into "Monkey's Gone to Heaven," and even though we were in what amounted to a bland, sterile gymnasium (such an odd choice of venue), everything was instantly magical, as if someone, somewhere had hit the pause button and replaced the band of five minutes ago with the real Pixies. "This mon-key's gooooone to hea-ven/ This mon-key's gooooone to hea-ven," everyone chanted in unison, and for a second I could have sworn there was a disco ball raining snowflakes of light on our heads. No longer were we watching a desperate bunch of aging has-beens trying to earn their mortgage payments: We were watching the motherfucking Pixies, and the motherfucking Pixies were taking over. And everybody knew it, including the musicians.
The next few songs were a blur of loud guitars and hard-beaten drums. "Broken Face" charged into "Something Against You," which plowed into "Gouge Away." Now this was the band we came to see, the band that gave manic depression a sound before Pfizer gave it a cure, the band that originally said, "Blaring, Glittering Guitar? Meet my friends Heartbreaking Pop Melody and Schizoid Lyrics."
Eventually things calmed down a tiny bit, which only emphasized the group's greatness: These guys can put a prickly teeth-gnasher like "Broken Face" in the same set as the sexy, surly "Hey," with its chicka-chug guitar and desperate refrain of "If you go I will surely die/ We're chained"; they can drop the gentle gallop of "Here Comes Your Man" next to the psychotic wallop of "Nimrod's Son."
Then came the coup de grâce: "Where Is My Mind," a song that remains one of the best pigs-in-a-blanket pairings of existential ennui with loud, catchy pop (despite the fact that it's ostensibly about scuba diving: "Where is my mind/ Way out in the water/ See it swimmin'?"). As Deal belted out the "whoo-hoo"s with a huge grin on her face -- the kind of expression a kid gets when her mom likes her art project -- the audience sang along with her, until the music dropped out and there was nothing but a 5,000-person chorus of "whoo-hoo"s resounding throughout the hall.
For the encore, the Pixies played "Velouria" and "U-Mass," then closed out the night with "Gigantic," an especially telling choice. "Gigantic" is arguably the Pixies' biggest hit, the one that made the group famous. But it's also one of the only songs written by Deal rather than Black, and the decision to end with it is as good an indication as any that the band members have put the past behind them, fax machine and all. Perhaps the Pixies can make it through the next year of nonstop touring without killing each other. Perhaps the group can even get back into the studio for a new album. After witnessing one knockout performance, I'm starting to think that anything is possible.