Our Greatest Challenge Is Change
This rambling essay about breakups, The Pixies, and the dangers of settling into adulthood was written for and performed live at the launch party for Make Blackout Poetry‘s book, “Hidden Messages of Hope,” out on Deer Bear Wolf Press.
One sign of my age is my continued devotion to dead media, and I’m not talking about print. Worse: CDs. I know. I KNOW. “Just use your phone;” shut up. There is currently a stack of stuff piling up on top of my stereo, threatening to topple at any moment. This stack just happens to have my copy of The Pixies’ Doolittle that I bought in high school. It still has the slip of paper in the booklet where I wrote out the album sequence that I prefer, which puts “Monkey Gone To Heaven” at the END where it SHOULD BE. I mean, you can’t have that kind of ephemera with a bunch of mp3s, but I didn’t come here to talk about mp3s, I came here to talk about a breakup. Fucking of course that’s why I’m here.
So my freshman year — this is 1996 — I made understudy in the school’s big musical production of “The Robber Bridegroom.” Understudy makes it sound like I was in any way prepared to step into a role — I was not. Mostly I hung around backstage and helped move setpieces around. I’m pretty sure I was on the crew but someone told me I was an understudy because high school theatre students are super dramatic and they didn’t want me to, you know, DO something. We go away for a weekend to this theatre conference like hours away, I don’t remember where, and my girlfriend of like…three years? Yeah, she 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. GODDAMNIT LISA. GODDAMNIT BRIAN. (I gotta stop using their real names when I tell this story). Jesus. I didn’t DO anything, 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 fuck around for like an hour and grab some Sbarro’s.
I miss Sbarro’s. Do they still have those? I haven’t been to a mall in a while.
I wandered into a Camelot Music 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 Black Francis 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 was a shrimpy high schooler who had just had his fucking heart torn out of his concave chest — I hadn’t discovered college radio I think is what I’m trying to say. So yeah, I brought Doolittle up to the register and I was like…twenty cents short. The guy there scanned something, knocked like a buck off the price and sent me on my way. God bless bored suburban music store clerks.
So 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 SCREAMING and I was fifteen, I’d just had my very soul stomped on by another fifteen year old — how humiliating is that? Like, if your soul gets destroyed, it should be at the hands of a demon or an evil wizard, not someone who just got their learner’s permit for Christ’s sake. I was going to be alone forever, I figured, but at that precise moment — the moment I heard GOT ME A MOVIE, I WANT YOU TO KNOW — 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 sounds completely unhinged. IT IS AMAZING. Cut to a montage of me never shutting up about the Pixies to my disinterested friends, playing out over the Peel Session version of “Letter To Memphis.”
Okay, so that was twenty years ago. So why am I still up here bitching about a breakup that I went through in high school? One reason is that I’ve been married for ten years, so I don’t have a lot of hilarious breakup stories like a lot of my younger friends do.
You know who else has kind of a hilarious break up story? The Pixies. Yeah, so after Doolittle, the band started smoking WAY too much pot and went from being a demented surf rock band to… a surf rock band on Bossanova, which is still a damn fine record. But they were young, they had egos, and the rifts were forming between them. By the time Frank Black wrote Trompe Le Monde — which is barely a Pixies record, it’s more like Black’s first solo album featuring members of his band who all hated each other. Each member recorded their parts separately, they were never in the studio at the same time, and you can feel it in the music. It doesn’t hang together in the way Surfer Rosa did. It doesn’t sound like a band. It sounds like a project.
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. For instance, in 1996 if you had told me that just a couple decades later I would be ignoring a Pixies reunion complete with new albums…and would instead be waaaaaaaaay more into a solo album by that woman from Destiny’s Child, I would have laughed Right. Into. Your. Face.
My breakup with Lisa sucked. But I moved on. There were other girlfriends who destroyed me in unique new ways. And now, 35 year old me is virtually unrecognizable to my judgemental and very earnest 15 year old self and That’s Fine. I have a career I like, I’m married to a woman who makes things with her hands, I have a beautiful son, I have stacks of CDs piling up everywhere, my hair is starting to go grey, I’m gaining weight, I don’t go out as much anymore…I have found consistency in this swirling world of fluxus and chaos.
It’s the thing a million romantic comedy moms have told romantic comedy sons — find someone nice. Settle down.
So I’m going to take a quick break from talking about the Pixies to rave at you about another, far more unpleasant band. They’re called Plebeian Grandstand, they’re from Toulouse, France. They are ostensibly a combination of hardcore and black metal, but what they sound like is a brutal nightmare. Drums that sound like arms and necks breaking, a singer…”singer,” who is like an unrelenting font of hideous screams, a guitarist whose only goal in life, seemingly, is to kill absolutely everyone. There are no traditional song structures and songs tumble through riffs and breakdowns like Godzilla wantonly destroying one building, then that one, and maybe these three at once now.
I love them.
I love them so much. They are one of my favorite bands. And they were on tour! In the States, like this month. And they passed through Nashville and I was like, YES. I’m driving to Nashville and I’m going to sweat and scream along with my favorite band and I’ll probably sleep in a rest area parking lot on the way home, but it’ll be awesome and then I didn’t go because I don’t know, I was tired or something that day.
I mean, I used to drive home from the 40 Watt at like 4 in the morning swerving all over the road because who gives a damn about “tomorrow?” My wife and I once BOUGHT A FUCKING CAR so that we could get up to Washington DC to see The Dismemberment Plan tear the roof off the 9:30 Club when they reunited in 2011. We absolutely should not have done that but it was amazing! But now…the longer you stay settled, the more you view flux as a threat rather than something you can power through and sleep off.
There’s this great song on Doolittle. In the middle of this crazyass album full of wailing guitars and banshee screams, there’s this song called “Hey.” It slows shit 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 about whores and babies breaking. It’s fucking mad 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.
As humans, there is a part of us that resists change. Even fears it. But we do it all the time. All through my 20s, I think I moved to a new house or apartment or town nearly every year. I quit jobs, I dropped classes, I willingly threw my life into chaos and it was fine. It was even a little fun. And it got me here.
In steadfast adulthood, there is a danger of calcifying. You stick to your routine until your routine is all you have and you’re just a lone bassist, in a studio with your bandmates in your headphones and nowhere to be seen, making music you hate because it’s just kind of what you do now. You’re chained.
Our greatest challenge 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. I want you to know.