This reaction of intense pleasure to "Where is My Mind?", though perhaps more eloquent than what goes on in most of people's heads, seems to be pretty normal. The album it appears on, though, is not really normal at all: it's been called a "collection of odd, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, some in English, some in Spanish, about Old Testament violence, incest, mental illness, voyeurism, all played out against a wall of sinewy guitars, stinging bass, and insistent drums that manage to be simultaneously abrasive and melodic."
How can a band express so many different musical styles and identities while still maintaining a signature sound? And how did it manage to put out one of the most beloved rock songs of the past quarter-century?
Swimmin' in the CaribbeanLet's start with the central Pixie, Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV, a.k.a Black Francis, a.k.a. Frank Black. (Yeah, that's a lot of names—we'll use the last one from now on). He grew up in both California and Boston, and eventually enrolled at the University of Massachusetts. According to his bio on FrankBlack.net, Black spent his freshman year "in a dorm where a computer randomly chose his roommates. 1984: Charles' roommate, as determined by a bunch of sand and refined metals was none other than Joseph Alberto Santiago." These two college kids would go on to be the founding members of the Pixies.
Black decided to take a break from college and go to Puerto Rico instead. This turned out to be a pretty influential trip. For one thing, Black is well known for adding Spanish lyrics into Pixies songs. Upon returning from Puerto Rico, Black officially dropped out of college. Santiago did the same, and the two put out an ad for a bassist with the following requirements: must be female, and must like both underground post-punk band Hüsker Dü and melodic 1960s folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. Perhaps not surprisingly, the ad only got one reply. It was from a young woman named Kim Deal, who ended up joining the group. She soon brought her friend Dave Lovering into the band as a drummer.
Surfer Rosa and the rise of the PixiesRight away, The Pixies started getting a lot of notice. Influential band The Throwing Muses got the Pixies a record deal with its U.K. label, 4AD. The first Pixies release, Come On Pilgrim, was essentially remixes of recordings from their demo The Purple Tape, and it featured many of the lyrical twists and innovative song structures that still characterize the Pixies today. The release got hot overseas, though it didn't get much attention in the United States.
Very soon after the release of Come On Pilgrim, the band worked with producer Steve Albini to create Surfer Rosa; they recorded it in only a week. It's Albini who's credited with giving the album its harsh, muscular, live sound, and who used tactics such as "putting Charles' [Black's] voice through a guitar, to make it sound all grisly," as Deal told Melody Maker in 1988 (at that time, she was calling herself Mrs. John Murphy).
Only a year after Come On Pilgrim, the band had new output: Surfer Rosa. The album received reviews like this one, from Q magazine, documented in Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies: "The 13 tracks have short, uncomfortable titles but lyrics that go beyond the usual black nihilism into personal enigma...and, I'd swear, a sense of fun. Not gelling their act together is almost certainly part of the whole point of Pixies, but if they're not careful they could have a bright future in front of them."
As the Q review notes, Surfer Rosa has an eclectic feel, making good on Come On Pilgrim's promise of variety. The songs range from the driving rock and grinding guitar lead of opener, "Bone Machine," to the snarling "Something Against You," to the unpredictable musical changes of "Vamos," and, of course, the simple pop melody of "Where is My Mind?". How did Black explain this wide array of styles? He told Melody Maker that, "Well, you want to be different from other people, sure, so you throw in as many arbitrary things as possible."
"That's a good one. Finish that one."How does "Where is My Mind?" fit into all of this? Let's hear what Black has to say about it:
"I'll tell you my ex-wife, Jean Black, when I wrote that song she was in the bathroom doing her make-up and I was in the other room composing. What happened was, she poked her head out of the bathroom and said, 'That's a good one. Finish that one.' So I think that as an outside observer, she gave me the first indication anyway that there was something about that chord progression or whatever that seemed to resonate and I guess she was right. I get probably one request every couple of months for that song to be used in some way. I can't explain it to you; I just think the song is likeable. Even though Kim barely sings on it, there's something about her singing that little haunting two note riff. The same thing with Joey, he's got a little two-note thing going on too. It's so simple, and then there's me in the middle singing the wacky cute little lyrics. So it's kind of a quintessential Pixie song. It sort of displays everyone's personalities are very strong. The song has something very likeable about it and I'm not sure what it is."
Sadly, this account of Black's creative process isn't really going to help us become rock stars—but this quote is classic Black. The gist of many of his songwriting explanations is that he was experimenting, and just sort of came up with something that he thought was unusual and interesting, and then wrote a song. Sometimes he offers suggestions about why the song works, but they're just suggestions, and he doesn't force anyone to accept his interpretations. This can be both freeing and frustrating for information-hungry fans.
Despite the fact that "Where is My Mind?" is pretty listenable, the Pixies didn't release the song as a single. As a result, the song never charted. However, the song has been covered a ridiculous number of times, by folk singers, indie bands, and electronic artists alike. It also appeared in the enormously popular 1999 movie Fight Club.
But… what does it mean?There's one widely reported fact about "Where is My Mind?" that we should mention here. It was partly inspired by a dive in Puerto Rico: apparently a little fish chased Black while he was in the water, and the experience stuck in his head. Beyond this, though, we don't want to read into the lyrics too much. The fact is that a lot of Black-penned Pixies lyrics resist easy analysis. This doesn't mean we can't learn anything from them; rather, it actually tells us a lot about the band.
The Pixies set out to destroy conventions, and eliminating most story arc and coherence in their lyrics is part of that strategy. In "Where is My Mind?," which consists of an unusually normal (for the Pixies, anyway) structure of verse to chorus, the non-sequitur lyrics help continue the norm-defying spirit that makes Surfer Rosa such a unique album.