Our Greatest Challenge Is Change — How The Pixies Altered My Life

In music, there is this characteristic called “dynamics.” Basically, when things go from being quiet to loud… or vice versa. Few bands are as well-known for their employment of this loud-quiet-loud dynamic as The Pixies. But I’ll get back to them in a minute. If you will, I really came here to talk about a breakup.

So my freshman year — this is 1996 — I made understudy in the school’s big musical production. We go away for a weekend to this theatre conference hours from home. My girlfriend of three years breaks up with me in the back of our director’s mini-van ON THE WAY THERE. To a weekend where we’re gonna be in close quarters, where she will also be making out with MY BEST FRIEND. I just kinda wandered around shell-shocked for two days until some adult herded me back into a car and drove us back home…but not before stopping at a mall so this pack of hormonal teenagers could mess around for an hour and grab some pizza.

I wandered into a Camelot Music (you remember those places?) and started flipping through the racks of CDs filed under “P.” I’d had the Pixies in my “to buy” list for a while since I’d read all those interviews where Kurt Cobain talked about Frank Black and how “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was just a Pixies ripoff. But this was the mid-90s and there was no Spotify, no YouTube, and I hadn’t discovered college radio yet. I had no idea what the band sounded like. I bought the CD for fifteen bucks.

I suffered through another hour of breakup hell and got home and laid down in my darkened bedroom and put the album on… and I mean, y’all know how it goes, right? Kim Deal’s bass thumps in and makes way for Joey Santiago’s surprisingly pop-friendly screeching guitar and David Lovering’s expert drumming. And then Frank Black comes in…

Got me a movie, I want you to know / Slicing up eyeballs, I want you to know

I was fifteen, I’d just had my very soul stomped on by another fifteen year old. I was going to be alone forever, I figured, but at that precise moment, absolutely none of that mattered because I was TERRIFIED. Oh my god! This guy’s screaming about slicing up eyeballs and then shouting in some foreign language and the guy CAN’T SING but he can SCREAM like I’ve never heard anyone scream. It’s not angry, it just sounds completely unhinged. IT IS AMAZING.

Okay, so that was twenty years ago. So why am I still talking about a breakup that I went through in high school?

You know who has kind of a hilarious break up story? The Pixies. Yeah, so after Doolittle, they were young, they had egos, and the rifts were forming between them. When they made the album Trompe Le Monde, each member recorded their parts separately. They were never in the studio at the same time.

In 1993, Frank Black’s doing a radio interview with the BBC and he announces that the Pixies are dead. A fact that he has neglected to share with his bandmates. He later broke the news to the VIA FAX. That’s kinda funny, right? Or at least, very 1990s of him. I wonder if there was a cover letter.

One reason to look back is to assess where we are now. My high school breakup sucked. But I moved on. Now, 30-something me is virtually unrecognizable to my judgemental and very earnest 15 year old self and That’s Fine. I have a career and a house and stability and all those things that sound kind of lame to a teenager.

But the longer you stay settled, the more you view flux as a threat rather than something you can ride out or power through.

There’s this great song on Doolittle. In the middle of this crazy album full of wailing guitars and banshee screams, there’s this song called “Hey.” It slows things down. It’s got this jangly do-wop guitar part and a walking bass line, it’s practically a Motown song compared to the rest of the album, only Frank Black is still yelping and it culminates with this lament:

We’re chained. We’re chained. We’re chained. We’re chained. We’re chained.

It’s as if the pathos in his voice alone could set him free. Not all of our songs need to sound the same. And the ones that stand out can be the ones that deliver us.

In steadfast adulthood, there is a danger of calcifying. You stick to your routine until your routine is all you have and then you find yourself a lone musician, by yourself in a studio with your bandmates nowhere to be seen, making music you hate because it’s just kind of what you do now. You’re chained.

One of the greatest challenges we face is change, not in beating it back, but inviting it in. Letting it remind us that our lives require dynamics — that loud-quiet-loud that makes albums like Doolittle so exciting and…a little terrifying…and vital.