BOSTON ROCK STORYBOOK: THE PIXIES
There's an episode of the X Files in which Peter Boyle plays an insurance salesman with a peculiar clairvoyance: he can see how a person will die. The character claims to have gained this second sight after obsessively contemplating the fate of the Big Bopper, who was killed along with Buddy Holly and Richie Valens in a plane crash - a trip that he took at the last minute after winning a coin toss. Boyle's character says something like "think of all the countless occurrences both great and small that led up to the moment when the question of whether the Big Bopper would live or die depended on the flipping of a coin". What does this have to do with the Pixies, you ask, besides the fact that this story and their story are both interesting? Just this: it made me think of how many little conditions had to be satisfied before the Pixies could record "Come On Pilgrim" at Fort Apache.
"I just saw this band, they're called the Pixies. Ever heard of them? They're great, really intense and powerful! I think they'll be even bigger than the Muses. I really want to bring them in to record, but the problem is they're broke. They haven't gigged much and there's no kitty, though they think they can try to borrow a thousand dollars or so."
"Do they have any budget at all to spend?"
"They can probably get some cash together, but if we have to wait for that they may go somewhere else. I'll bet we could get money from Ken (Goes, the Throwing Muses manager at the time ) or from 4AD after the tapes are done. They sound incredible right now, though, the songs are fresh, and their sound is totally unique."
"They're that good, huh?"
Gary played me a tape of the group. They were that good, all right. I didn't really get it, to be honest, but then I'm more a roots-rock kind of guy. I remembered that I hadn't "got" Gary's last "discovery" (Throwing Muses) either, until I went to see them at their third or fourth live show and was completely blown away. Gary had a great ear for picking winners; I had confidence in him and a strong feeling that once they broke the Pixies would indeed be huge.
"Look, Gary, each of the original partners gets an allotment of free hours to do a personal project in. Technically you're not a partner, but you are a member of the team now so I don't see why you shouldn't take your own share of personal hours and use them for the Pixies. If they can come up with some cash later then that's great, you can throw it in the kitty. But if you want this project that bad I don't want to see you to lose it, so go ahead and bring them in whether they have the cash or not."
The rest is of course history. Gary plunged into the project in the incredibly focused way that he had of living, breathing and sleeping it. He did preproduction with the band and mapped out exactly how they could squeeze the most results out of the limited time they had to record. A much slimmer Charles White hung up a "Death to the Pixies" poster (1986 version, a decade before the record of that name) face-in to the wall and wrote a set list of the songs he wanted to cover on the back- I still have it. The band settled in for a marathon session, recording the songs in the order they fell on the "set list". This was Gary's idea, I think, and was meant to make the mix go faster by already having the songs in the correct order for sequencing, though I seem to recall there was eventually some deviation from that scheme. The short time and large workload meant that many of the more ambitious production ideas were shelved by Gary and Paul in favor of a live approach, and this makes these sessions probably the closest thing to the actual live sound of the 1986 Pixies available on record. Many of the arrangemental changes Gary implemented during pre-production were retained, I think.
What goes around comes around, I believe that. Showing a little generosity towards a deserving band resulted in an enormous feather in the Fort Apache cap when the Come on Pilgrim album was eventually culled from those sessions. Pilgrim was the record that cemented the local reputation we'd built by the Neats, Turbines and Treat Her Right projects, and introduced the Fort to a far broader national and international audience. When non-Bostonian interviewers and journalists thought of the Fort they thought of the Pixies, and more than once I was erroneously credited in an article with producing the band and had to fire off letters asking for retractions. I mean I'm proud of all the work ever done at the Fort during the years I was the owner, and we all participated in building the environment that made such work possible so we all deserved a bit of credit for each and every project. Once and for all, though, for the record: I had nothing to do with those sessions beyond the story I've just described. This was one hundred percent Gary's baby right from the start, just like the Throwing Muses stuff. It also launched Gary's career in a big way, and that brought large dividends back to the Fort- especially later when I added a second studio and he became a partner. The Pixies and the Fort had lots more history to share together after that first project, too.
After the first Fort sessions Gary had helped the Pixies hook up with the Muses management (Ken Goes) and the Muses'label (4 AD), and even a few Muses gigs (like the dream show at the Rat shown in the ad above) so they made long, quick strides in their careers. Ivo at 4 AD wanted to hold back songs for other producers to work on so the original 14 tunes were pruned to eight for the Come on Pilgrim release. One of the songs that the band had recorded was "Heaven" from the film Eraserhead. When I told him I'd played with the song's composer Charles was interested to hear all about Peter Ivers. In 1980 Ivers had come to Harvard University as an artist in residence to write a score for a musical being directed by an old friend of his.
Peter Ivers had played harmonica for the Beacon Street Union, a well-known and moderately successful local group in the late 1960's. Having been a local (West Roxbury) musician who practiced martial arts and attended Harvard, Peter was interested in meeting with me; the only difference was I was from East Boston,not West Roxbury. We got on like a house on fire. Ivers showed me how he'd written "Heaven" on a tiny white Casio keyboard, and sang through an effects pedal to give his voice the required ethereal quality of a spooky little girl. Peter invited me to play guitar in the show he was scoring but I was already scheduled to leave for Pakistan so instead he enrolled Peter Bell from the James Montgomery Band. Ivers had secured a practice room at Aggassiz Theater and then spent an afternoon jamming with my band the bones. When we'd parted Peter promised to get together again and maybe arrange a little tour on either coast. He invited us to be guests on his ground-breaking LA television series, New Wave Theater. Charles was excited at the idea of the Pixies appearing on the show, and perhaps hooking up with Ivers for a gig or two. When I got in touch with mutual friends in LaLaLand, however, I learned that Peter Ivers had been brutally murdered. It's regrettable that these two great talents never got the chance to work together. That missed opportunity ranks in the "might have beens" up with the Jonathan Richman and Gram Parsons miniature golf story.
The second Pixies album Surfer Rosa was done at Q-Division, another well known Boston studio. While in retrospect I now believe it was good to "share the wealth" between studios, and I dug the work they do at Q, I was disappointed at the time to lose the project. Especially since we didn't have to. The album went to Q because of a little tiff over the details surrounding Gary's involvement in the first sessions. Now that the issue has long been settled and all ill feelings have dissolved there's no harm in relating the details of how Fort Apache lost the chance to make that second record.
When Ken Goes became manager of the band and 4 AD signed them I wasn't the only one who felt that Gary had been a prime mover in the whole process. I was, however, close enough to have been around when Gary was making calls to Ivo and Ken and telling them how they had to hear these guys, so I knew he'd done way more than just throw the Pixies some free time. Gary had shrewdly set the Pixies down the path already cleared by the Throwing Muses and as a consequence it was far easier for them to get to the same point in their careers than it had been for Kristen and Tanya and company. There was no question in anyone's mind that they would have gotten there eventually, but Smittie's efforts on their behalf probably saved the Pixie's a year or more in an industry where timing is everything. The band was grateful, but when they signed with Goes management company someone had second thoughts about the production deal they'd made earlier with Gary.
What happened was this: Gary and the band had an agreement whereby he'd receive two points on the record if and when it was released. Now Goes Management (on behalf of the band) disputed the numbers and offered Gary one point instead of two. At the time it was unclear how much Come on Pilgrim would benefit Gary's career ( a lot!) and the income from Elektra's purchase of the rights to their catalogue was still well off in the future. So it seemed, well, ungrateful and rather mean of them to renege on the agreement, at least from Gary's point of view (as I understood it). I definitely thought it was a slap in the face, and though I can't speak for Gary's feelings on the matter his reaction was one of frustration and disappointment. I suspected that this was Ken's way of trying to prove right off to the band that he was a capable manager by saving them money. There may also have been a territory-marking ritual going on, precisely because Gary had been so influential with a band now in his stable. Whatever the case there was tension in the air at that time, and wounded pride made the conflict that resulted inevitable.
The sessions for the second Pixie's album were all booked, I think they were using three weeks or a month to do it in. About a week and a half before the start date I get a call from Ken Goes. He confirmed the days we'd scheduled and some other details, then at that point in the conversation when you'd usually say "OK, I'll talk to you later" and hang up he interjects- in much that same tone of voice -"OK, so now all we have to do is settle on a price". This was strange, as I'd given him our 16-track rates well before he'd booked the time, and I replied that they hadn't changed since we first talked.
"Well…I think since we're booking so much time we should be getting a price break. This is after all our second project at the Fort."
"Look, Ken, I've got Big Dipper coming in to take twice as much time and it's their third record here. Most of our sessions are with return clients; I can't give you a break without stepping on a lot of faithful toes. And keep in mind the band got a pretty good rate for the last record."
"Well, gee Joe, this could be a real deal breaker. If we can't get a rate I'll have to look elsewhere."
It was all I could do not to call him a greedy ingrate and tell him to take a flying fuck at a rolling donut, but I liked the band and the people in it and this was a real prestige project, one which I hated to lose. On the other hand my own sense of justice was incensed by the shabby treatment Gary was being handed by a guy who'd essentially been handed the biggest act he'd ever manage. Sure Ken was doing his job, but this went beyond that- it smelled more like a pride-driven control issue. It would have been easy for me to say "OK Ken you get a 10 percent break" and keep the project, but I couldn't do it.
"Ken you're asking me to disrespect my own partner and a number of other valuable clients who also happen to be friends and take your side. I could possibly justify a price break vis-a-vis our clients because we've given them in the past, although frankly they were in need and you're using record company money so you aren't. But I won't go against my partner. I'll ask Gary and leave it up to him. If he has no problem with this then I don't."
When I told Gary he was as angry as I ever have seen him, and all he could do was repeat "The nerve of him, the nerve!" several times. I could see this was one stand-off with no winners except Q-Division. Ken insisted it was a purely fiscal issue, Gary said it was a policy issue, and I could see that it was neither nor but my hands were tied. We had to scramble to fill the dates left open on such short but Gary was a scheduling whiz and we ended up only losing a week or so. And so it was that the much-anticipated second sessions never arrived at the Fort. Later when things settled down the band seemed embarrassed at not having steeped in on Gary's behalf, and we got most of the special projects and B-sides like "Into the White" and the Neil Young tribute. Kim returned with the Breeders demos but more on that in the next article on the Breeders.
Of all the Pixies I saw the most of Kim Deal. I bowled in a candlepin (small balls) bowling league with Kim's ex-husband John Murphy. Late nights after bowling there were parties when we jokingly discussed starting a league band. John proposed calling it Mente after the slang for the Latino superlative "excellamente", a phrase bandied about by the homeboys when he was growing up. The idea was that the band should be mostly guys who didn't play an instrument, or who could barely play one. Before long the joking morphed into planning and then into a band. The debut of Mente was at our league's end of season Bowling Party, held in my back yard in East Boston. That was followed by a few local gigs, by which time I had been replaced as drummer for being "too good" (despite the fact that drums weren't my real instrument). Kim helped out Mente in a number of ways, not least of which was to appear as a guest at the first few Mente shows, ensuring big turnouts for an otherwise unknown entity. At first it was just the association of Kim's name with Mente that drew people in, but before long crowds were flocking to see the band on its' own merits. Ted Widmer and John wrote some hilarious songs, and John's "slide" solo with a dead fish on "Schrod, Cousin to the Cod" was always a big hit- and a big mess. Ted and Mike "Mazz" Mazzarello played great guitar and bass for people who'd never so much as looked at an instrument before, and bass player Greg Mahoney was a natural as a drummer. They even had a song about the "Umlaut", that double dotted accent above certain German words. (Ted and Mazz later went on to play with Nat Freedberg's toney baloney band the Upper Crust
Kim is a voracious player and I admired her for her willingness to get up and jam, playing songs without rehearsing them if necessary. She was a regular drop-in at the weekly Plough and Stars shows that I hosted for over two years. Kim was a busy woman and we never had a chance to rehearse, but I made up a set of ten songs that she could jam with us on that were all either one, two or three chords. "Low Rider", "Pablo Picasso" and "Rocking Shoppin Center" were among the numbers she played bass on, but the undisputed, all-time favorite Kim request was for her to sing Hot Chocolate's "I Believe in Miracles". Kim sang this in the sort of sweet waiflike voice that you'd expect from some slutty teenage Lolita who had died, become an angel and got a nightclub gig. Or something like that. All I know is I could hardly even look at her on stage when she was doing that number without simultaneously laughing and becoming, er, well...aroused. Sorry Kim and hubbie, but it's true. Plus I had a secret, unrequited crush on Kim during the period that those shows occurred in. The photo below was captured from a home video of one of those performances taken at the Middle East. Below is an excerpt from the Boston Phoenix article "A Tale of Two Nightclubs" written by Ted Widmer, describing Kim's dauntless maneuvering to attend the Plough jam in Cambridge on the same night she was playing two Pixies sets at the Citi club in Boston.
My last Pixies story is short. When I had moved to Columbus, Ohio in 1991 to try to kick heroin I found myself in really bad shape. What money I had coming in from my Fort salary went towards servicing the loan I'd taken to buy the lease on the new Fort Apache North space, and the remainder to the rent on a place in Columbus' own crackville: 12th Street and North Fourth. Strung out and busted and pretty much unemployable I managed to get a job at Freakin' Pizza, where I cooked and did deliveries with my barely operable Aerostar. The radio station would always order a few pies when they had a band in for an interview, and the boss would take these himself to meet the groups and wrangle free passes. One day Kirby announced "I'm going down to the station to deliver these pies to the Pixies". So I said I knew those guys so I'd like to come along. We walked in and Charles was just walking out with his road manager in the lead. Kirby offered them the pies but the manager said they'd eaten and had no time and really had to split right then. So as they blow out the door Charles stops with this funny look and turns around and says "Joe? Joe Harvard!" and gives me a big pizza-crushing hug. My boss is now very impressed. Charles asks if I'm going to the show and I said "if it isn't sold out I am". "How many tickets do you want- 2, 4, more?" I asked for four and he left me those and backstage passes at the door. My boss was clearly impressed, and every once in a while after that night he would look at me kind of funny and ask "so, why are you in Ohio again?"
After the show we go backstage and as I walk up to the dressing rooms I see Kim leaning against a wall. She'd already changed into dry street clothes. She looks at me and doesn't say a word, which is unlike her. It had been a year or more since I'd seen Kim or the others, and I was thinking she had turned into some kind of snobby, too-cool-for-school type rock star. I walked over and pointed to her shirt and said "hey what's that on your shirt there?" Of course when she looked down I whammed her in the nose with my index finger- but I got carried away and did it very hard -and I said "now don't be such a friggin' snob next time" . As I walked away laughing she shouted after me "whatever you do around here you're fired!"
When we reached the dressing room I stopped to talk to Joey for a minute. Then I noticed is that Kim had somehow gotten upstairs ahead of us, and had changed her clothes. Even odder than that, she was once again covered in perspiration and had changed back into her stage clothes. Kim threw her arms around me and shouted "Joe Harvard! What are you doing here?", which left me thoroughly baffled. Then I remembered: Kim has a twin sister! A second later Kelly Deal walked into the room, glaring at me and asking "who is this wise guy", and we all had a laugh after I explained. Kelly is a bit tougher than Kim and I consider myself lucky she didn't haul off and smack me, downtown Dayton style.
The next time I saw Kim she was passing through Columbus with the Breeders, which you can read about in the next article on the Breeders.
The last time I saw Joey we shared tales of rumors going around about our own supposed massive drug habits- his were false, mine were not, though that situation has changed drastically on my end in the last 4 years, which is when we last met. The last time I saw Charles White he'd gone from Black Francis to Frank Black. He and his lovely wife were at the original Newbury Comics on Newbury Street, and he was as charming and regular as ever. I can hardly wait to find out who he is going to become next!
Last Updated 11-30-98