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(Credit: Aurelien Guichard)

Music

How being attacked by a fish prompted the Pixies to write one of the biggest tunes of the 1980s

Frank Black is not a man you can easily picture Scooba diving. In fact, it’s hard to picture him in the Caribbean full-stop. When David Bowie was lauding the Pixies as the most important band of the 1980s, he described him as “a mass of screaming flesh, a very imposing figure.” With shoulders set apart in different postcodes, Black dwarfed a guitar down to a ukulele, so you can only imagine what the fish in the azure waters of the Caribbean thought when he slipped into a wetsuit and went for a plodge. 

However, what followed this fateful dip is even more incongruous than Black in the deep blue sea. “That came from me snorkelling in the Caribbean,” Black somehow recalled when discussing the inception of the brooding masterpiece ‘Where is My Mind?’. Therein, Black was beset by a vicious attack from a “very small fish” who was “trying to chase” him, but seemingly Black had enough speed to survive. 

Why was Black attacked by a tiny fish? “I don’t know why,” he mused in the calm and clear aftermath, “I don’t know too much about fish behaviour.” Nevertheless, one thing he knows a lot about is juxtapositions. As Bowie also asserted when stating the elements that made the Pixies so influential: “The second factor was the interesting juxtapositions that [Black’s] lyrics brought together. It was quite sordid material at times I suppose. They actually dealt with common-or-garden subjects but the permutations he created within the subjects that he dealt with were so unusual.” 

While there isn’t much common-or-garden about being pestered by a small tropical fish, most people would’ve brushed off the encounter with a comical anecdote back at the hotel bar, but Black was always searching out those interesting permutations. Thus, one element of being mildly besieged underwater stayed with him—the disorientating effect of floating. Not knowing whether you’re coming or going, which way is the safety of the shore or the peril of the deep blue, had reverberations that rippled beyond this laughable moment—those same conundrums can befuddle our daily lives with dismal disorientation. 

Thus, this initial impetus was whisked well away from the peaceful pastures of the beach and given a dark juxtaposition to dress in. From then on it was free rein, which was fitting given that the song’s starting point was being lost in the bewildering unknown. As Black explained, “In terms of the content, you don’t know where that’s going to come. It’s such a ricochet, ‘pinball wizard’ kind of thing – these things bouncing into each other: words, concepts, manic thinking. Half the songs I’ve written, I had no idea what I was talking about. Certainly, anything that appears into the abstract, I don’t know.”

Now, it had to be given tone, and once more we turn to our Pixies sage Bowie to appraise that: “The colours that Santiago provided [were vital]. As a guitar player, he is incredibly underrated. It’s much more about texture, he supplied extraordinary texture.” The song has a narrative feel in this musicological sense. The slow building contours imply questions, answers, and further questions. It all ties together to create a feeling of confused entrapment. The song is a strange place with just a bit of bittersweet comfort too. 

And that is the beauty of the Pixies and their brilliance; now we have the final explanation it all seems to make sense: The struggle for the clarity of the surface, and how we can be thrown off by the attack of something tiny and insignificant is the crux of the song. However, if you go back to the start, the notion of ‘Where is My Mind?’ and Scooba diving is as easy to pair as Alice Cooper and his strange love of golf

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