A blog about Bloomsbury Academic's 33 1/3 series, our other books about music, and the world of sound in general.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


It's my favourite time of year, when big chunks of manuscript get hurled my way by authors who are presumably sick to death of the album they've been writing about for the last several months. But to me it's all fresh, often the first actual writing I've seen since the original proposal, ages ago. These are still (mostly) works in progress, but it's fun to share them on-line like this. And they'll soon find their way (in expanded form) into our Spring 2006 Sampler book, the colour of which we will spend many happy hours debating here at Continuum HQ. (I'm voting for blue.) On that note, here's a fragment of Ben Sisario's book about the Pixies:

The springtime air is moist and pure along the byways of western Oregon, with gentle rains giving way a couple times a day to a cleansing sunshine. The Willamette River valley gets so much rainfall, in fact, that all the suburban yards and gardens nearby burst with flora in impossible pinks, purples, fuchsias -- all the colors of a makeup kit. That means they burst with pollen, too, and Charles Thompson says the area was known by the Indians as the "valley of sickness." Could have been a Pixies song.

Driving out of Eugene in his Cadillac, with my tape recorder rolling by his side, Thompson keeps his eyes straight on the road as I begin my interrogation. Which of the songs were written first? When did you record the slow version of "Wave of Mutilation"? Why save the UFO songs for the B-sides? Before long a strip mall appears on the other side of the road, and glancing over at it Thompson says, "You know, you probably don't have to sit down and listen to it, but we should probably go pick up a copy of Doolittle." But surely that's not necessary, I say. I have a copy right here in my --

Too late. We're in the record store, one of those unnecessarily spacious pseudo-Sam Goodys that seems to stock more video games and CD storage wallets than actual CDs. Thompson goes straight to the P section and pulls out Doolittle and the Pixies' Complete 'B' Sides, explaining that for the upcoming leg of the reunion tour, some concerts have been billed as B-sides and rarities shows, and he needs to bone up. He scans the racks and makes two more quick grabs, an Iggy Pop album and Leonard Cohen's I'm Your Man. At the register, he hands the discs and his credit card to a sandy-haired indie girl who looks about twenty. She clearly doesn't recognize him, nor the name on the card. The incident is uncomfortably familiar: the same thing happened a year before while Thompson was in Portland with a writer from GQ. I wonder if he is deliberately showing off his anonymity.

Back in the car he tears the plastic wrapping off Doolittle and slides it into the stereo. The machine bleeps rapidly as he flips through the tracks. Landing on "Hey," he nods deeply and says, "That's a big one. That one is the sleeper song. Over the years I've discovered that people love that song. They love that song." He sounds almost confused.

Though it comes near the end of the album, "Hey" is an arresting midpoint. Everything drops out as Black Francis, naked and vulnerable, cries out -- "Hey!" He waits a brief eternity for an F-sharp on the bass and then continues: "Been trying to meet you/Mm-mm-mm-mm-mm." For a moment it's a poetry slam, with a why-am-I-so-shy-around-girls lyric, a walking bassline, and a delicate guitar lick that sounds like a two-second sample of Steve Cropper circa 1965. But all too quickly the song turns into a frightened, paranoid rant. "Must be a devil between us," he sings, "Or whores in my head/Whores at the door/Whore in my bed." All around him "the whores like a choir" writhe and grunt in a grotesque chain that stretches from the conjugal bed to the maternity ward. It's the Violent Femmes' "why can't I get just one fuck" recast as a Danteic scene of never-ending agony and lust.

"People are clapping along, they just love that song," Thompson says. " 'Whore in my head, whore in my bed.' What the fuck? Don't you guys find any of this a little abrasive or something?" I offer him my interpretation, a psychological profile of the narrator: sexually inexperienced and fearful, he yearns for what he also finds threatening and repellant, the thought of bodies copulating wantonly. Thompson entertains this "armchair analysis," but he's not totally buying it. "If that is a right-on analysis," he says, "then you’re probably going to have to get at it by talking to other people, because if that is correct, you’re not going to bring it out of me. I wouldn’t intellectually arrive at the same conclusion. I’m more like, I don’t know what it means." He says that in part it may be about his father and his mother, though he does not elaborate.

Then it hits him. "There’s something to be said for how it’s all about sex and death, or whatever. Maybe that’s why people like the Pixies. Because even if they don’t get it, they pick up on the sex and death vibrations. They relate to that. They go, 'Yeah, sure, I know what you mean, dude.' But I think they do, actually. They’re kind of on the same page, even if they don’t totally get what you’re saying. I would say that because, maybe at some point I should return to it. For whatever reason, whether you don’t want to become a parody of yourself, or because you run out of steam, or because you can only take it for so long."

"But whatever it is," he continues, "I think my sex and death vibrations were strong when I was with the Pixies, and it was a good thing. And they were real sex and death vibrations. They were maybe a little bit put on, a little bit of pretension. But it wasn’t fake."