BOOK REVIEW FOR: Fool The World: The Oral History Of A Band Called Pixies
Authors: Josh Frank & Caryn Ganz
What’s the Story, Morning Glory: the history of late ’80s/early ’90s weird-rock outfit PIXIES
Who Are You: just a group of polite, hard-working kids from Boston
Do Ya Think I’m Sexy: I don’t really wanna make out with any of you, but I am in love with your music
Let’s Give Them Something To Talk About: inter-band tension, UFO’s
Paperback Writer: spoken word
add it up: the book’s an enjoyable read, the music is out of this world
What’s The Story, Morning Glory?
Okay, okay, so I am super excited to be reviewing a book about the Pixies because GAH I LOVE THE PIXIES!!!!! Sorry, I will try to contain my levels of excitement. Wow. Where do I start? Fool The World is an oral history of Pixies, a band that formed in the late ’80s in Boston. The group was led by Charles Thompson, a.k.a. Black Francis, a.k.a. Frank Black, a mild-mannered kid who spent his childhood shuttling back and forth between Southern California and New England. He eventually hooked up with the three other members — Kim Deal (bass), David Lovering (drums) and Joey Santiago (guitar). The story of the Pixies doesn’t really follow the typical band arc. They sort of came out of nowhere, were amazing, and achieved pretty high levels of success relatively quickly. They put out a handful of records in a short period of time, and then broke up due to tensions within the band.
The thing that’s remarkable about the Pixies isn’t so much the individual members or their personal stories as it is the music that they created. The first time I heard them I was literally just like “what. the. f&ck….??” Their sound was so…weird,y’know? It really wasn’t like anything I had heard before. I remember, later, listening to “Down To the Well”, the demo version from the so-called “Purple Tape” (in typical Pixies fashion, they had quite a few different versions of each song) and just being like “dude, what??” I kept replaying it so that I could hear the part where he sings “I can hardly wait, baby / I can hardly wait til we go down a DOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWWNNNNNNNNNN”. I mean….!!! I thought it sounded amazing, this otherworldly screeching, like he was being pulled down a drain or something — it was kind of violent and weird and exciting and bizarrely sexual. I dunno, but I loved it. I was confounded by their music, in a good way. And you know, I still feel that when I listen to them — I mean, I’m still surprised and delighted and totally blown away by new things I hear in the songs, even if I’ve listened to them a million times before.
One of the suggestions that the authors make in the intro is that you listen to each of the albums in succession as you’re is reading the book. I like to do this for all the music bios that I read, so I plunged right in. So I’ve been listening to the Pixies pretty much exclusively for the past 3 weeks, and let me tell you it has definitely made everything seem just a little surreal.
Who Are You?
The Pixies come across as being, on the one had, super polite and amiable and easy to work with (i.e. the antithesis of rock stars), and on the other hand just total eccentrics. In the words of Tanya Donelly, Kim’s bandmate in the Breeders:
“I liked the fact that they were all so different and all so eccentric in very different ways. And it’s not the kind of eccentricity that sneaks up on you, either, it’s just like, wow! Bunch of freaks”.
This is an oral history you guys, so you’re getting the stories directly from the key players themselves, and for the most part they are a fairly low-key group of people. Kim’s definitely the one who’s personality jumps off the page the most. By all accounts she was the most outgoing of the lot and a pretty badass chick.
Rich Gilbert, who later worked with Thompson in Frank Black & the Catholics, said:
“They’re four very unique personalities. But isn’t that what makes a great band a great band, though? It’s like, when the personalities are all kind of shockingly different but they create that chemistry that creates a fifth or sixth member. That’s what makes a great band”.
This is along the lines of what I was talking about — that it’s less about the musicians themselves and more about the sum of the parts that make up their sound. Their music had so much personality that it kind of became a character in and of itself, separate from (and, really, in addition to) the band members as individuals. When I listen to it… I don’t know how to describe this exactly, but I feel like I’m in the presence of something that is a tangible entity (but at the same time totally otherworldly). Does that make any sense at all? The argument could be made that since Frank Black wrote all the songs it must be his personality that’s coming through in the music, but I would have to disagree. The other three brought so much to the band’s sound, it just wouldn’t be the same without them.
Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?
Um, hmmm. It’s not like the Pixies were unattractive (way) back in the day or anything. I mean, look at these fresh little faces:
But it’s really their music that i am crushing on super hard, and I have been for a long time. It thrills me and fascinates me, it keeps me interested and always wanting more. Just like a good crush should!
Let’s Give Them Something To Talk About
Well…so, it’s not like the four band members were friends from childhood or knew each other really well before getting together. Frank Black and Joey Santiago were friends, but they met Kim through an ad they put in the paper. It was the only ad she ever answered, and she was the only one who answered the ad. That’s some crazy powers of fate at work, I guess. David Lovering worked with Kim’s husband at the time, and was actually a big Rush fan (haha amazing). Anyway, so it’s not like they had a long history together or the solid foundation of a longstanding friendship, which are the kinds of things that can help to sustain bands when things start blowing up and getting stressful and hectic. Invariably there were tensions within the group, between Frank Black and Kim Deal in particular. The book doesn’t reeeeally get into specifics, but the gist of it is that Kim wanted to do more and Frank Black wanted to keep creative control to himself. I would have been happy with a bit more detail on this subject, but I’m not sure that any of it was particularly salacious in the end. Just, things fall apart. Y’know? It happens. Thankfully they are back together and touring again now, and The Finn and I are going to see them next month at Massey Hall. Yay! Thanks for putting aside your differences, Pixies!
A word about UFO’s: a lot of the material on the Bossanova record was inspired by Frank Black’s fascination with aliens and space. According to him, various members of his family (including himself) have had UFO experiences. In his words:
“There was a flying saucer floating above the house for half an hour and everyone just stood there and watched it…it was just hovering. Then the state police came and chased it, but they couldn’t catch up with it. A big red fucking saucer, a glowing, fucking, flying saucer”.
Yeah, so… aliens. Mmmm, okay…
…ehh, what do I know? There’s probably tons of aliens out there, walking amongst us. Maybe YOU are one of them! (If you are, please don’t tell me. It might make things weird between us).
There are definitely pluses and minuses to the oral history format. On the one hand, you get to hear the actual voices of the musicians and the people who worked with them, which is great and can be very illuminating. On the other hand, you sometimes lose the contextual shaping that brings cohesiveness to a narrative. I definitely liked the parts the most when it was the band members themselves doing the talking. Not to say that the commentary from their friends and their label and the sound dudes they worked with wasn’t also very interesting, but I could have used a little more from the principals. It was also cool to hear other musicians (including Perry Farrell, Bono, Courtney Love, James Iha, J Mascis, Liz Phair, Shirley Manson, etc) discuss the impact that the Pixies had on them & on the music scene at the time.
Add It Up
It really is a very good idea to listen to the Pixies’ music as you’re reading the book.Nnot that the book isn’t good, but the Pixies are a band that are hard to describe in words. The best way to understand them, or to try to, is through their music.
Extras: some black & white pics and some artwork from the early days. Actually one of my favourite parts of the whole book is a little item in a list of previously unknown facts about the Pixies published in a fanzine in 1991:
“The track “Velouria” is based on the life of Sam Velouria, an 1880s boston lawyer who went mad, convinced he was turning into a velvet couch”.
“Down to the Well”, “Subbacultcha” (Purple Tape)
“Caribou” (Come On Pilgrim)
“Gigantic”, “River Euphrates”, “Where is my Mind?” (Surfer Rosa)
“Debaser”, “I Bleed”, “Here Comes Your Man”, “Monkey Gone to Heaven” (Doolittle)
“Velouria”, “Dig for Fire”, “The Happening”, “Stormy Weather” (Bossanova)
“Head On” (Jesus and Mary Chain cover), “U-Mass”, “Palace of the Brine”, “Letter to Memphis” (Trompe le Monde)