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Vinyl Tap: Pixies – “Break My Body”

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I raid my record collection and randomly rediscover the tracks of my years…

Well, it certainly was a clean, well-lighted state. And that Hemingway-esque virtue may have been the problem: I had just moved from California to the Phoenix area back in 1988, circumstances having uprooted and relocated my life and job as a record store manager from the Coppertone State to the Copper State. I needed a little darkness with my Arizona (even if it had to be the “dry” darkness that, literally and metaphorically, if nonsensically, came with the territory). Cue the Pixies…

Because waiting in the wings when I least expected it were not-so-usual suspects, the laudable, audible shock of the raucous and cathartic new, a blend of punk and indie rock careening away in quiet-loud stop-start dynamics of surrealism, space, sex, incest, and scriptural carnage.

But I digress… Back to loud-start life minus the quiet and stop: In the early hurly-burly of hiring, guiding, ordering and stocking for the record store (in all configurations, if I rightly remember those transitional days: vinyl LPs, cassettes, and those new-fangled compact discs) I would place phone orders for independent or import records to a distributor in Los Angeles.

One such indie order came via uncharacteristically enthusiastic phone recommendation from my  slacker-ish sales rep: “Pixies,” he said, with the surety of the “one word” promoter of plastics in The Graduate. New one on me, but since I was in the mood for something different, I had him send me a promotional copy of Surfer Rosa, prepacked with the first EP, Come On Pilgrim, from this Boston group consisting of leader Black Francis (vocals, rhythm guitar), Joey Santiago (lead guitar), Kim Deal (bass, vocals), and David Lovering (drums).

From the first eureka-moment I played the Steve Albini-produced album — then and much beyond — I was enthralled, and hooked, which is a rare occasion for me. To paraphrase Ray Davies, they really got me with the angular guitar work and enigmatic and fragmented lyrics, often counterpoised with infectious pop hooks and intertwining male-female harmonies. There was a variety in the tracks, too, from the vacation-slide slippery slope of “Where Is My Mind” (“Way out in the water/ See it swimmin’”), and Saturday morning merriment of “Tony’s Theme” (“This is a song about a superhero named Tony/ It’s called Tony’s Theme!”), to the T. Rex-stirred and churned “Cactus.”

But for those who take their humor black, and their surrealism harrowing, there’s also ample opportunity on Surfer Rosa. “Bone Machine” showcases the whimsical and warped, at times in the same verse: “I was talking to peachy-peach about kissy-kiss/ He bought me a soda/He bought me a soda and tried to molest me in the parking lot!”

The lyrics to “Broken Face” seem as punk and pugnacious as a Buzzcocks’ tempo tantrum: “I got no lips, I got no tongue/ Where there were eyes there’s only space.”

But more than anything, Surfer Rosa, as spotty and sketched-out as it sometimes seems, serves as a promising hallmark of influence that it became to such artists as Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, the Strokes, and Pavement, among many others. Especially inspiring in alternative rock circles has been the Pixies’ stop-start sonics, marked with muted, self-possessed verses, alternating with explosive, primal-scream choruses. No song exemplifies the career-wide sound Pixies sound in Surfer Rosa as much as the standout “Break My Body,” an irresistible two-minute burst of bristling guitar and upfront vocal from one who seems to have lived to tell a tale, enigmatic but perhaps open to interpretation.

I’m the hard loser
You’ll find me crashing through my mother’s door
I am the ugly lover
You’ll find us rolling on the dirty floor

Break my body, hold my bones, hold my bones
Break my body, hold my bones, hold my bones
Break my body, hold my bones, hold my bones

I’m a belly dancer
I’ll shake forever and I’ll never care
I’m a building jumper
Roof to roof you see me flying in the air

Break my body, hold my bones, hold my bones
Break my body, hold my bones, hold my bones
Break my body, hold my bones, hold my bones

Somebody got hurt
Somebody get hurt
Somebody got her

The song — accessible yet visceral, a precursor setting the tone for the more reined-in immediacy of 1989’s major label debut Doolittle — is hard-driving and memorable enough musically without having to lyrically analyze it, but it does pose an intriguing mystery, and raises a few themes that Black Francis would go on to cozy up to.

The subject of incest is an obvious and disquieting thread, and someone has suggested S&M as an topic. On the other hand, perhaps there’s a biblical undertone, as has been cited: Could the fact that Jesus Christ said “this (bread) is my body, break it and eat in remembrance of me” account for the insistence in the chorus to “Break my body, hold my bones, hold my bones.”

Another interpreter considered the imperative to “Break my body, hold my bones” as a reference to an old practice of a shepherd in breaking the bones of a young lamb and then carrying it on his shoulders so the lamb would become used to the shepherd’s voice, ultimately becoming comfortable around him.

My interpretation of “Break My Body”?

It has a good beat and you can run a record store to it.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • http://cinemasentries.com/ El Bicho

    enjoyed it. you should collect these in a book

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/gordon-hauptfleisch Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Could be. But how come — now that I’ve re-started this unavoidably long-neglected feature — my current goal in focusing on single tracks in order to be more succinct, is not being met? I’m as long-winded as when I was tackling whole albums.