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Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: The Pixies, ‘Where Is My Mind’ (#493)

Mix two parts talent, two parts blind faith self-actualization, and one part stumbling ass-backwards into the loving arms of destiny, and you’d wind up, maybe, with something like the Pixies.

Or homeless.  There’s a good chance you’d wind up homeless.

Band founders Charles Thompson, a.k.a. the once and future Black Francis, and Joey Santiago, make each other’s acquaintance in the mid-80’s when they wind up sharing dorm space at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  Technically speaking, they’re not there for music.  Thompson is studying anthropology, and Santiago is an economics major.  Whatever.  The two recognize some mutual interests and begin dipping their toes in the songwriting pool.

Halfway through the Amherst experience, Thompson takes off for Puerto Rico to study Spanish, returning six months later to drop out of college.  He persuades Santiago to drop out as well, and the two “form a band” in Boston in 1986, with Santiago handling guitar and Thompson on vocals.

They place an ad in a local music paper for a bassist who likes Husker Du and Peter, Paul, and Mary, which is a little like asking for someone who enjoys both Slayer and the more rambunctious works of Joan Baez.  The only person who answers the ad is a woman named Kim Deal.  She doesn’t play bass, has never played bass.  She doesn’t even have a bass.  You get where this is going, right?  She’s hired.

Ms. Deal’s husband recommends a drummer, David Lovering, and the line-up is complete.  The band chooses a name at random from the dictionary — the Pixies! — while Charles Thompson gives himself an alias, Black Francis, and they’re off, playing shows in and around the Boston area.  It’s VH1 Behind the Music shit on steroids.

Fast forward a couple years, and The Pixies put out a full-length LP, Surfer Rosa, which features ‘Where Is My Mind?’  The album’s an aggressive combination of loud, obnoxious, and awesome, like The Replacements, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur Jr. (another band with roots in Amherst) blended their fucked up DNA in some unholy caldron and cranked the dial up to eleven, Spinal Tap style.  The sound on Surfer Rosa would heavily influence Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, with its alternating loud / quiet dynamics.  The producer of Surfer Rosa, Black Flag’s Steve Albini, would produce Nirvana’s last album, In Utero.

What jumps out about ‘Where Is My Mind?’ — a song about, um…fish? — is how ahead of its time it sounds.  Or how timeless it sounds.  Or something. It doesn’t really have any peers, by virtue of there not being anything else that sounds quite like it. It’s huge, loud, unforgettable, just this side of unhinged.  A howling, megasonic mic drop of a song, one that’s still as powerful and startling as the day it was recorded.  It was never released as a single, because how the fuck could it be?  It was featured at the end of David Fincher’s Fight Club, though, and that’s almost the same thing.

Michael Strum: “This is brilliant. Builds nicely. There’s a phonographic architecture that unfolds and unevils itself skillfully: acoustic guitar building and then the electric guitar joining in with characteristic distortion. Sounds almost discordant but intentionally so, something a friend of mine has said about the Rolling Stones. That degree of looseness is a sign of real musical talent across the group. A good friend of mine who is a Pixies fan doesn’t like this song, which reminds them of ‘Uptown Girl’ or ‘Touch of Grey’ by the Grateful Dead, which seem to be universally reviled by the dedicated aficionado. Like many great songs, ‘WIMM?’ transports the listener to a specific time and place.”

Rolling Stone: No song typifies the freakish pop instincts that made the Pixies stand out in a sea of gloomy Reagan-era bands better than “Where Is My Mind?” Joey Santiago’s lead guitar is catchier than most Top 40 hooks, and by the time Fight Club made this song iconic a decade after its release, it had already formed part of the DNA of countless alternative-radio hits in the years between, from Nirvana to Korn. When an interviewer in 1988 asked about his unique ability to crank out great songs, Black Francis’ answer was typically cryptic: “It’s nice to have space. How much can one brain deal with?”

2 replies on “Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: The Pixies, ‘Where Is My Mind’ (#493)”

A near perfect song review. I learned something. I laughed. I felt jealous by the writer’s ability to communicate better than me. I fell back in love with a song and a band that I had not thought of in a long time.

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