The man in Black
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.
Teenager of the Year, released the following year, broadened Black's stylistic range: It was brilliantly convoluted and almost ambient, 22 songs that whispered and yodeled their dark messages (America is sinking underneath urban sprawl and strip malls, for one). "Freedom Rock," though, explained it all: "Nobody owns the pleasure of tones," Black howls over a melody that sounds not too unlike the Who. "All I listen to, it's all freedom rock." It was a statement of purpose, a declaration of independence: All music is fair game for Black to mine and mimic. He absorbs every single thing he hears and does not filter out any influence simply because it's disposable or lightweight.
The Cult of Ray, finally, is the ultimate Frank Black record, the middle ground between its two solo predecessors and Black's work with the Pixies. It rocks harder than Teenager, it's less congruous, song for song, than Frank Black, and it forever erases the imaginary lines that divide his work both lyrically and musically. For instance, there's only one song dealing with UFOs ("Men in Black," and it's a tangential reference, at best), while the album's dire closer ("The Last Stand of Shazeb Andleeb") is about an Arab immigrant who was murdered in Los Angeles.
Musically, there's the rockabilly-surf stuff ("Mosh, Don't Pass the Guy"), the pogo-rock ("Men in Black," "You Ain't Me"), and the straight pop ("I Don't Want to Hurt You (Every Single Time)," the loveliest song he's ever crafted). But the title song, which is allegedly about sci-fi author Ray Bradbury, might as well be about Ray Davies, so thoroughly does it modernize the Kinks' 1960s Brit-rock sound (again, with a nod toward the Who, appropriate since the guy who mastered the Live at Leeds reissue worked the boards on The Cult of Ray).
"I've never really had any expectations or aspirations about what my music should be or what it should become," Black says. "Sometimes my records do kinda jump all over the place, but I really am a true post-punk. I kinda like to theorize that there was this last great expression called hard-core music in the early 1980s, sort of in the wake of punk and new wave, and I sometimes in my own way think that was the end. The end of rock. Everything else since then, including every record I ever made, has been some kind of combination of everything before it.
"It isn't that I don't want to make a record or a few records that are a certain style, but they never come out that way." Black laughs. "There's nothing I can do about that. I mean, some people write about you and say, 'Oh, he's trying to do this now, and he's trying to do that now,' but whatever. I'm really not trying to do anything except have a really good time and make a good record. I'm not saying everything I do is valid, even. I do what I do, and fortunately I get paid for it so I get to come back and do it again next season."
In the off-season, Black has also become something of a publicist and A&R man for a 22-year-old bedroom musician who's something of a Frank Black protege, Jonny Polonsky. Black was the primary reason Polonsky scored a deal with American Recordings, to which Black is also signed, and Black has even been known to take Polonsky's album to college radio stations when he has a free moment.
Polonsky is the end result of a post-Pixies world. Where so many bands--including Nirvana, Weezer, the Toadies, and Barkmarket (whose Dave Sardy guested on Frank Black)--lifted some element of the Pixies' blueprint to create their own schematics, this one-man band is an unabashed parrot. His terrific record, Hi, My Name is Jonny, speaks a thousand different languages but all with the same accent that he picked up from years of worshipping the Pixies, one of Polonsky's favorite bands--along with the Monkees, which provides a blurry sense of his points of reference.
As for the Pixies, they are a part of Black's distant past. He hasn't performed a Pixies song since he broke up the band in 1991, and he won't for a long time to come. That band is, for the time being, a bad memory for him--and perhaps for former bassist Kim Deal, whose Breeders succeeded and whose Amps short-circuited--and he simply doesn't have space on the tour bus for the baggage those songs carry, so he leaves them home.
"It doesn't seem like the thing to do," he says. "It's just my own...oh, how can I put it? Even though I wrote all those songs, to a lot of people it's like, 'Oh, he broke up the Pixies, and he's not so cool anymore, blah blah blah,' and so I sort of felt like some people don't really want to give me the credit for writing those songs, which is fine. I'm just the figurehead, the dude that broke it all up.
"I sort of feel like when people want to give me the credit--'Oh, yeah, that guy wrote all the songs and he was the singer and we want to hear those songs'--then maybe I'll have mellowed psychologically about my whole horrible experience of being a person in my 20s in some rock band. I won't have so many bad memories hanging around about the whole thing, and I'll whip out a few of the better ones. It'll be the right time, and people won't give me a bunch of shit about playing a song I wrote."
Frank Black performs February 22 at Deep Ellum Live. Jonny Polonsky opens.
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