How Not to Interpret the Pixies

Photo by Travis Shinn
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Do people deep-dive into song lyrics anymore?

I'd like to think college students still stay up much too late in their dorms dissecting what a singer meant with a particular turn of phrase. And I hope kids cutting high school are bonding over how they relate to the words of a new track. But I haven't found myself in such a discussion in an awfully long time.

Maybe websites such as Genius.com with lyrics that are not only transcribed but also annotated are killing such dialogue?

With a couple of keystrokes, you can now settle a debate over whether every Beatles song after Rubber Soul was about Paul McCartney being dead or if Jimi Hendrix was really singing, "Excuse me while I kiss this guy." Man, I miss those debates. And I spent more brainpower parsing the Pixies' lyrics than those of any other band.

I got into the indie-rock legends not long after they had broken up in 1993. It took a couple listens for me to fall into their spell of the dynamic that inspired Nirvana, Radiohead, and every other band of the era. Their music had no dead spots. It was all energy and drive. The lyrics, though, were what kept me coming back. They were mysterious enough that it was hard to know what singer Black Francis was hollering about.

It certainly helped that the Pixies' level of popularity hit the sweet spot for intrigue. There were no music videos popular enough to shape an image of what their songs meant, and before the 2004 reunion, there was no press to betray a song's meaning. Even better, you often bumped into fellow fans with theories and meanings ready to share.

One friend played the Pixies' 1991 album, Trompe le Monde, and tried his best to convince me each song was about aliens. A woman laughed me off as a simpleton for not knowing that "Gigantic," sung by Pixies bassist Kim Deal, was obviously about an erection. Another friend explained her disappointment that in the song "There Goes My Gun," Black Francis was shouting "yoo hoo" and not "you whore," which in her head made less of a cinematic feminist revenge fantasy than many thought.

As the internet evolved and the Pixies' audience ballooned to giant-amphitheater magnitude, it became easier to find a variety of interpretations. The last time they played South Florida, I even had the opportunity to grill Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago on songs' meanings. His answer brought me no closer to truth. "I never asked [Black Francis] what the songs were about," he said. "It’s personal, and I always felt that was his business. He made them surreal so people can interpret them in any way.”

I'm aware that art has more power when it's amorphous, but that hasn't stopped me from mulling over Pixies' lyrics.

Back before the band reunited, I saw Black Francis playing solo as Frank Black at an old high-school auditorium that booked bands an hour south of San Francisco. After the show, I was walking to my car when I heard the footsteps of a man behind me. This was like a surreal dream. Not only was I walking past rows of lockers in an empty high-school hallway, but also I was next to the man whose voice soundtracked a couple of my high-school years. I had to say something, so I asked Black Francis (or Frank Black) the first thing that came to mind. “What’s your secret?”

He looked at me with grave concern: “What do you mean?”

“How do you write these great songs? I mean, they’re from, like, right out of my head.” Without saying a word, he let me continue rambling. “Is it from hard living? Is it from easy living?”

He laughed and thanked me for coming to the show. I got to my car and backed out of the dirt parking lot. I saw him getting things out of his gas-guzzling Cadillac, and I guess I stared for a moment too long because he had the look of a man afraid he was dealing with a stalker. I drove away, hopefully putting him at ease, but not before turning on his music and wondering for the eight millionth time just what he meant by "This monkey's gone to Heaven."

Pixies. 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 22, at Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601-7 Sansburys Way, West Palm Beach; 561-795-8883; westpalmbeachamphitheatre.com. Tickets cost $17 to $71.50 via livenation.com.

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