It’s 2002 and I’m riding my dumpster-dived bike on the Strand from Hermosa’s Scooter Records to Go Boy Records on PCH. My discman blares track four, “Ed is Dead,” off my burned copy of Pixies’ Come on Pilgrim, and it hits me: THIS is what the song is about. I’M just rotting in stupid bliss with music on MY bars. MY face is burning in the LA sun, I’VE got no, got no fear of cars. As the song’s one part chord progression repeats in my headphones, my constant teenage concern regarding the south bay’s/my own cool factor vanishes. I AM the strand on this true Hermosa night. Sure, I thought Pixies singer Black Francis was yelling “id is dead” instead of “ed is dead” but shit, I’m rotting in stupid bliss so that is a me/id problem not a Pixies problem. I can not believe my luck that I am in on the secret.
Loving the Pixies between 1993-2004 meant that you had taken the advice of someone cooler than you. Maybe it was a guitar teacher, an older sibling, a college radio station, or a record store owner shrouded in mystery. Maybe you read a Kurt Cobain interview close enough to have picked up on what band Smells Like Teen Spirit was emulating. Or maybe you skipped to the end of Fight Club to listen as the credits rolled. Maybe it was David Bowie or Bono or Radiohead. At some point someone inhabiting an intrinsically stylish universe gave you the hint, “You should listen to this band called Pixies, they broke up before they became famous, and they are incredible.”
In 1986 the four original band members, Charles Thompson (aka Black Franics aka Frank Black), Kim Deal, Joey Santiago, and David Lovering started Pixies while living in Boston. Charles and Joey dropped out of college, David worked at Radio Shack, and Kim had recently left Dayton, Ohio. The four members were focused on authenticity from the very beginning. Charles spoke of their early days in a 2006 interview: “ We are just what we are…And that's what's interesting to people.That’s why we like each other…individual personalities! So I think it's best when musical acts really allow their personalities to come through the thing, if they're not trying to be so earnest or trying so hard to be famous or something.”
Pixies released five seminal albums in four years, harbingers of the indie rock explosion of the 1990s. They toured the US and Europe extensively, perfecting their signature loud-quiet-loud sound. Charles' abstract character writing lyrically braided together surrealism, taboos, biblical references and straight ahead pop tropes. His singing toddled between frantic shrieks and soulful crooning over the bold strumming of his Telecaster or steel string guitar. Joey’s lead guitar riffs carved out melodies that jangled tremolo and fuzz together. On one hand you can hear the influence of Sonic Youth’s heavy noise guitar, on the other traces of The Cars’
melodic lines. Kim’s distorted bass and warm vocal harmonies helped define the iconic Pixies sound. The musicality of David’s drumming held the band’s hyped up manic energy together. Gary Smith, producer to Pixies first recording session (credited with discovering Pixies) described in Fool the World:The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies, what set Pixies apart from other Boston bands. “I like music that isn't full of received ideas. I like music that makes me think again about what I’m hearing as opposed to things that reassure me that what I’m hearing is what I’m used to…(Pixies) were regular people but when they were doing what they did with music, they became something else, they channeled something that was otherworldly.”
In 1993 the band broke up and for a decade any mention of a reunion was quickly shut down by Charles and Kim. Each member went on playing in other bands and solo projects in the decade that followed.Kim and twin sister Kelley formed The Breeders and opened up for Nirvana in ‘92. (Check out their album Pod and recent single Walking with a Killer.) Charles, now going by Frank Black, went on to be one of the most prolific songwriters of the 90s and early ‘00s. (Listen to his record Teenager of the Year and “Hang On To Your Ego” cover.) The band moved on, but their fans didn't, and the Pixies legend continued to grow.
At the border of Hermosa and Redondo the Strand curves, pouring out onto N. Harbor Drive. I'm riding between a massive mural of a whale and the Crab Shack’s “Got crabs?” sign. Teenage self-doubt creeps back into my mind: no way is my hometown cool enough to have a Pixies song written about it. The Strand is not steeped in indie rock culture. The vast empty parking lot of the children’s Seaside Lagoon is a suburban “Wave of Mutilation” crashing over my teenage id. Id is dead.
2002’s delirium passed and in 2004 every Pixies fan’s delusion morphed into euphoria. It was announced Pixies had reunited and were headlining Coachella. Pixies’ magic overtook the desert and three discoveries were unearthed.
One, the band sounded unbelievably good. Hearing each hit played live manifested a collective joy in the crowd that took over the entire festival.
Two, the crowd’s love and enthusiasm shocked the members of Pixies. Steve Albini, record producer/engineer of the band’s legendary first album that encapsulated their “bat out of hell” energy, Surfer Rosa, spoke to writer Caryn Ganz about Coachella 2004. “I was at that Coachella performance and it was amazing to see 50,000 people who had never seen this band before but for whom this band was really important having that experience…” Albini said. “I think they’re one of those bands where they make an impact on their immediate audience and then those people leave their records to their kid brothers when they go away to college.”
Three, turns out everyone and their neighbor loved Pixies. Not just Gen Xers, young people crowded the stage. Chas Banks, Pixies tour manager, is quoted in Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies: “This was no sentimental last hurrah played out to an aging audience who wanted to relive their teenage years…Instead, there was a new (very) young audience, feeling that same feeling I felt in 1967 when i was 17 looking up at the Who. The same feeling that a young Thorn Yorke had the first time he saw the Pixies. The same feeling that my grandson will feel for a band that is probably still at junior high school right now.”
Pixies continued to tour, played shows celebrating the 20th anniversary of Doolittle, their iconic and and almost mystically influential second album, and began writing new music. Kim Deal left the band in 2013 and Paz Lenchantin joined as new bassist and backup singer.
There are few people as charming and effortlessly hip as Kim Deal, but Paz is one of them. She joined the band after being a huge Pixies fan for many years. Her flawless musicianship and unique taste added a new richness to the most recent Pixies albums. It’s a Pixies Podcast documents the recording of the 2019 album Beneath the Eyrie, the three original band members are constantly agreeing that Paz was “always right” when faced with any recording and writing decisions. The first time I saw Paz play with Pixies, it was undeniable (okay and slightly enviable) that she was living a Pixies fan’s dream and had the best job in the world.
Rocketship Records is a dance studio now, Off Beat Records is a pet food store, and Go Boy records is a sandwich shop. Yet Indie rock lives on in the South Bay. For the better part of two decades I’ve had the second greatest job in the world, teaching Pixies songs to a new generation of music lovers. (If you are learning bass, you should learn the bassline to “Hey.” Interested in songwriting? Check out how weird/brilliant the three chord progression is in “Gouge Away.” Drum student? Drum and sing along with Lovering’s, “La La Love You.” If your band is playing the Hermosa pier this weekend, you can learn “Here Comes Your Man” in one practice. Are you on the fence about forgiving someone? “All I Think About Now” will push you over the kindness edge. Want to see San Pedro’s Sunken City in all its glory? Watch the psychedelic video for “Human Crime”). My family’s music shop is filled with students practicing “Gigantic” “Monkey Gone to Heaven” and “Velouria” at a snail's pace. Last week an eleven year old girl walked into her first lesson wondering if I had heard of “a band called Pixies” and could we learn “Where is My Mind?”
If I could go back to 2002 and talk to the teenage me and you, I might hint of a wild time to come. I’d encourage the past us to suspend disbelief and imagine that in 20 years some millionaires would drain the SeaSide lagoon for a long weekend and set up a huge stage in the same empty parking lot. Maybe, just maybe, life would be surreal enough that our cult favorite band, Pixies, would take the stage twenty feet west of the Strand. And maybe if all and all is true, if all and all is true, won't you please run over me. I’ll see you and Pixies at Beachlife on May 5th.
Editor’s note: Carrie Dietz-Brown is part of the South Bay musical dynasty/rock n roll incubator Dietz Bros Music.
Pixies play BeachLife Festival Friday May 5.