The man in Black

Former Pixies frontman stands tall in alt-rock world

Frank Black is starting to become unhinged. It is 1 in the morning in England, and he has just finished a performance and is secured in his hotel for the night. The show has gone well, so he says, and throughout the conversation Black is affable and funny--a far cry from the curt man who, during our interview almost five years ago for the Dallas Times Herald, said a total of 39 words, some of them repeated.

Every few minutes, Black begins to ramble and mutter, his voice dipping into audible breaks and sighs. He knows he sounds defensive, trying hard to prove he's not the punk he never was and no one really claimed he was, and he knows he sounds whiny, insisting all his songs aren't about UFOs. So he tries to control himself, to bottle the ire and irritation, but it's slipping away from him. Sometimes it's just hard to be a misunderstood cult icon in a world that only worships disposable heroes.

"I wish I could create a whole new thing, and some people think I have," Black says, "but I don't know. I really just do what I can, the best that I can, and I try to give people their money's worth. I'm not part of a scene, I'm not necessarily angry, I'm not necessarily happy. I'm just me. Just me. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't."

It must be a peculiar thing to be Frank Black--or Black Francis, or Charles Thompson, or whatever his name or persona is this year (his publicist doesn't even know what to call him). On the surface, he's rock and roll's oddball, the imperturbable nerd behind space-age shades who imbues his surf-rock with pop and his pop with rockabilly-punk; there always seems to be a sneer on his face, a smirk that keeps even fans at a distance, but underneath that seems to lurk a man who's thin-skinned, doesn't take criticism well, and who just wants to be understood even if he isn't liked. He's even insecure with his place in history, unable to realize his own significance in a musical world he helped shape--even if he did so by accident.

Not so long ago, before a three-records-so-far solo career (the most recent being the just-released Cult of Ray), Frank Black was Black Francis, the frontman and lead songwriter for the Pixies. You remember them: the important band in the world for a brief time, the would-be and reluctant superstars who never performed their radio singles in concert and disbanded under a cloud of acrimony.

The Pixies came along at a time when the burgeoning alternative-rock scene was looking for a savior, in those pre-Nirvana days when the pop charts were dominated by the likes of Guns N' Roses and George Michael. The Amerindie scene was still safely independent from the major-label world, and the few punk bands that had made the leap from the minors (such as HYsker DY and the Replacements) hadn't converted many followers outside the flock.

The Pixies were a last gasp--purists who performed with a perverse punk edge, true believers who practiced pop and preached noise. They were "doing something 'anti,'" as drummer David Lovering told the Times Herald before the band's final Dallas appearance in November 1991, and soon enough it would affect all of so-called "modern rock."

With Come on, Pilgrim in 1987 through Trompe Le Monde in 1991, the Pixies turned the pop song inside out, turning meat into blood. The songs were loud but textured, catchy but intangible, distorted but familiar; and for every song like "Debaser" or "Levitate Me," the psycho rave-ups and gross-outs and power-pop nightmares, there was an out-of-nowhere gem like "Here Comes Your Man," a beautiful and almost cheery ditty that made you realize there was nothing this band couldn't do.

Thirty-three years ago, critic Manny Farber wrote that the best art appears "where the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence, so that the craftsman can be ornery, wasteful, stubborn, self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it." The Pixies subscribed to that theory tenfold, their genius seeming at once random and carefully calculated; even when it seemed distancing, with all those nonsensical lyrics about UFOs and underwater guys and products of incestuous unions colliding underneath a wash of distortion and yowls, the Pixies' music was captivating and absorbing.

"I'm imitating punk, it's just the Frank Black version of punk," Black says. "I've heard some punk records, and they inspired me, and part of my music echoes that, and part of my music echoes Ray Davies or Them, and part of my music echoes surf music from the early 1960s. It just never stops. I just keep hearing records I like, and they keep ending up in my own records in their own way. It's not contrived, and maybe it's even unfocused, but it's the only thing I know how to do."

When Frank Black went solo in 1993 with his eponymous debut, he at first seemed to have moved away from that whirlwind sound. The record was still a pastiche of styles, but each song seemed less a cohesive blur. "Los Angeles" didn't so much blend sounds as it did segregate them within the song--one second it's a jangling pop song, the next it's a metal rave-up; "Two Spaces" was near-perfect new wave; and "Hang on to Your Ego" recast the Beach Boys song as brooding art-rock.

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