Farewell, Civic Centre.
157. Monkey Gone To Heaven: The Pixies perform Doolittle with Imaginary Cities, Ottawa Civic Centre, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Saturday April 16, 2011, $45.
1989. I was 26 and remember it as a pretty good year for me personally and, as you shall see down the line, the one wherein I attended the most number of shows ever within a calendar 12 months.
I would also rate it as one of the 1980s’ better years for album releases, encompassing a number of titles that I loved both then and now: the debut album from The Stone Roses, Lou Reed’s New York, The Grapes of Wrath’s Now and Again, Soundgarden’s Louder Than Love, Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy, Daniel Lanois’ Acadie, Grant Hart’s Intolerance, Lenny Kravitz’s Let Love Rule, ….
… and the finest sustained moment of the Pixies’ career: Doolittle.
While I rather like the Pixies overall, Doolittle is the one album in their catalogue that I full-on LOVE. It wasn’t an instant love affair, though. First came a protracted courtship. I had gotten a freebee copy of Doolittle either via the university station where I DJ’d or the record store where I worked part-time, I can’t remember which. I’d had it for several months, and while I immediately took to some of the better-known tracks on the disc, it hadn’t yet engaged me overall.
That changed during a particular evening in one fell swoop. And I can pinpoint the exact date and time as there is a bit of a story that I always associate with it.
It was Tuesday October 17th. I had recently started my third of six undergrad years at London’s University of Western Ontario, doing about four courses a year, and majoring in Literature. My Tuesday afternoons were class-free, and I had spent this one reading from right after lunchtime through until early evening, deciding to pack it in shortly before 8pm. After several sustained hours glued to a novel for one of my courses, I decided to unplug for the rest of the night and pulled out my trusty rolling board (my original vinyl copy of The Beatles’ “White Album”) and prepped a spliff.
“CD, meet Concert T-Shirt. T-Shirt …” (Photos by Cublet and VA)
Before lighting up, I did two rather irregular things: First, I turned on my TV. I had largely stopped watching television, particularly prime-time American network television, during the latter ‘70s. Since my roommate and I were fairly broke students who were both passionate about music, film, and reading, but not so much contemporary TV, we had decided to forgo cable. We each tended to spend our time either on schoolwork, at our jobs, indulging our hobbies and interests, out socializing, or having any number of friends drop by to hang out at our place. The set was essentially there for watching videos. Logically, then, cable was an expense we could easily do without, leaving us with a small set that got only three or four channels that went largely unwatched.
What possessed me to turn on the TV that night? Your guess is as good as mine. I suppose I was just feeling in the mood for something a bit different.
“Click” went the round widget as I switched the set on, followed by the snowy colour picture fading into view.
Once warmed up, the second odd thing I did was tune into a baseball game. While not an overly sporty type, I have been known to sometimes watch key hockey and baseball events but it’s not a major habit or anything. Still, I must have discerned that the World Series game in San Francisco between two local rivals, the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants, provided me with that night’s best viewing choice. Besides, there can sometimes be something meditative about baseball which would have dovetailed with a good chilled high.
I sat on the couch, watching the game, drinking a beer, and enjoying some fine herb. A serious buzz started to ensue as it burned down to its completion and instantly, this game became The Most Fascinating Thing On Earth. I was glued to the action when, suddenly, the picture began to blip, scramble, and then go dead following the sound of some frantic voices being broadcast over the airwaves. A screen card reading “World Series” appeared, the static image accompanied by a soundtrack of eerie silence.
This was one serious WTF??? moment. I mean, this was The World Series! These kinds of extended technical glitches simply don’t happen with broadcasts like this. I rarely ever get “The Paranoias”™, but on this night, my spaced-out head was being seriously fucked with by this inexplicable disconnect and deathly quiet. It was decidedly freaking me out, maaaan, and harshing my buzz.
The silence was eventually broken by a pictureless audio track which, frankly, made everything even more disorienting and weirder. I remember sitting there thinking “I am hallucinating this or ….?” Eventually, I realized it was a patched-in radio feed, and it soon became clear to me that an earthquake had just hit the Bay Area and had been responsible for the interruption.
This is what was beamed into my living room live on TV, October 17, 1989, during the World Series game from San Francisco. The earthquake starts at 1:06.
I hung around in front of the boob tube until the visuals were restored, finally getting to see the results of the carnage that had gone — and was still going — down. The strangeness just kept ramping up.
I sat there for a few hours, flipping around the few stations, glued to the TV, mortified but hypnotized by what I was seeing. I have an entry in my journal at 10:59 PM EST that in part reads “I’m watching the news about a big earthquake in San Francisco — holy shit!”
I never did watch another baseball game until the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series in ’92.
Shortly after writing those words, I switched off the set and — suitably chastened by that evening’s ill-advised adventure in TV viewing — decided to head over to the stereo and a warm pair of headphones. Doolittle was one of the CDs I had sitting out and I decided to give it another spin. Perhaps it was the surreality and strangeness of the evening that meshed well with the CD’s harsh, angular sounds, violent, disturbing imagery, and Black Francis’ wails of alarm, but for whatever reason, Doolittle went BOOM for me that night and I finally “got” it as a total entity. I remember sitting there listening to it from start to finish, captivated. Once “Gouge Away” had concluded, I immediately threw a blank cassette into the deck and then replayed it, taping it for the car.
For a good year, it was a staple of my home/car/walkman listening while I ended up airing almost every track at some point during my Friday morning radio show.
I have returned to it often through the years, and while I like its predecessor, Surfer Rosa, and their final disc, Trompe le Monde (I’ve never been keen on Bossanova), no other Pixies album has grabbed and held me like Doolittle. I’m hardly alone. It was widely hailed in its day, was a substantial hit in the UK and Europe, and has only grown in stature in the intervening years, remaining a consistent seller and connecting with succeeding generations of alternative music fans.
It’s well known about how tensions, particularly between head Pixie Black Francis aka Frank Black (real name Charles Thompson) and bass player Kim Deal, magnified along with the band’s success, finally split them up following their last dates as opening for U2 on their Zoo TV tour in 1992.
In the interim, Deal’s side project with her twin sister Kelley, The Breeders, scored platinum in the grunge/Nirvana era with Last Splash and its catchy Pixies-lite hit, “Cannonball.” The sad irony in all of this is that Nirvana based their alternating-quiet-with-loud sound on the Pixies’ blueprint. Kurt was always quick to note that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came about as his attempt to write a song in the Pixies’ style while seemingly every other alterna-rock band sang the Pixies’ praises. They dissolved on the precipice of breaking huge.
The Black (Francis) Forest: The Pixies onstage in Ottawa, April 16, 2011.
2004 brought the Pixies’ unexpected reunion and tour with their original line-up. It seems that time and maturity had helped heal old wounds, and the band found themselves in the odd but enviable position of going out and playing night after night to larger crowds than ever. Their audience and status had only mushroomed in the intervening years, creating a huge demand and appetite among a whole new generation of fans as well as delighting the alterna-folks from the days of yore.
Recording but one new song, the Deal-penned “Bam Thwock,” Act Two of the Pixies career has so far been about playing the old material for the troops. While it would be nice to perhaps have a new CD from them, I gotta hand it to ‘em for not biting. Yet, anyway. I would only want them to do so if they had A1 material and a real will to create something special. Reunion efforts tend to be pale, patchy imitations of the entity’s former self, and while there are rare exceptions to the rule, with contemporaries Dinosaur Jr. and their genuinely terrific post-reunion outings coming to mind as examples, most simply flat-out suck. NOTE TO REFORMING ACTS: Only hit the studio if you really feel it. That considered, I tip my hat to the Pixies’ quality-control-oriented wisdom.
Live performances of the older material, on the other hand, is fine by me. As long as the artist is into it and can still perform well, I say go for it. It is what they do and what they have created. There are many older bands where I may not be wildly interested in them trying to compete with their past but I’ll surely queue up to see them perform live.
After primarily playing the festival circuit for years, the Pixies decided to not only focus more on their own stand-alone gigs, but to also do the currently-in-vogue Classic Album Live thing. I personally think this is a cool trend and a great way for legacy artists to revisit their work and re-engage with audiences (I wrote about seeing The Stranglers’ Hugh Cornwell playing his former band’s debut disc Rattus Norvegicus on a fun night out in November 2010 and had hoped to take in The Flaming Lips performing The Soft Bulletin — easily one of my favourite albums of the past 20 years — during the summer of 2011 but, alas, they played one of their regular sets.)
The Pixies have now been on the road for a while, presenting their best-loved album in tandem with great visuals, but hadn’t been north-of-the-border much with it. This tour marks the first substantial cross-Canada jaunt they have done, and I must say I am glad they waited. If I had my choice of seeing the Pixies on any tour, this would have been it owning to my singular love of Doolittle.
We arrived early, got t-shirted, and staked out a great spot just a few feet from centre stage. Things kicked off at 8pm with Winnipeg’s Imaginary Cities opening the show. Most peculiarly, not only weren’t they introduced, they failed to do so themselves until after five songs into the evening. Modesty is one thing, but …
Fronted by a female singer whose voice reminded me somewhat of Keren Ann and a little bit of Ottawa’s own Kathleen Edwards, and looking like a cross between Laura Nyro and Natalie Merchant, this indie-pop group impressed me and got a good response from the crowd at the Civic Centre which was still in the process of filling up.
Imaginary Cities at the Civic Centre.
Indeed, the turn out for this gig kind of surprised me. I think the Civic Centre holds around 5,000 in this configuration and I wasn’t sure how large the crowd would be as it didn’t seem as if this gig had been heavily promoted. I was pleased and surprised to see it about 95% sold out, with just a few of the nosebleeds empty. It was an interesting audience too, reflecting the Pixies ongoing, snowballing influence. While there were plenty of greying punk and indie folk like yours truly, I’d say half the audience would have barely been toddlers when Doolittle was originally released.
Following an intermission, the Pixies imminent arrival was prefaced by a segmented backscreen of selected highlights from Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s 1929 surrealist masterpiece, Un Chien Andalou, a major influence on some of Doolittle’s key references and themes.
The four original Pixies — Black, Deal, and drummer David Lovering and guitarist Joey Santiago — walked onstage to a rapturous reception, with Deal announcing that they would “start with some (Doolittle) B-sides” before launching into “Dancing at the Manta Ray,” “Weird At My School,” “Bailey’s Walk,” and “Manta Ray.” Deal explained that “some were so obscure that we had to go back and learn how to play them.”
Deal acted as compère for the evening, doing almost all of the talking. While she and Black have apparently patched up their differences and seemed to be interacting with positive humour, they were an interesting study in contrasts. Throughout the entire evening, Deal could barely wipe the beaming smirk off of her face, often laughing or smiling, and was compulsively chatty vs Black’s po-faced reticence. Doolittle proper got underway five songs in, with the thudding, telegraphing opening bass notes of “Debaser” announcing that we now had lift-off. Throughout the set, Doolittle’s performance was accompanyed by a series of videos and visuals that matched the feel or topic of each track, enhancing the dynamic of the performance and its live presentation.
The Pixies themselves sounded sharp and clear: tight, full-blooded, sometimes leaving Doolittle’s originating studio counterparts sounding thin. While the “hits” — “Here Comes Your Man,” “Wave of Mutilation,” “Monkey Gone to Heaven” — predictably got some of the night’s biggest woo-hoos, the complete live performance really reiterated just how strong the originating album is taken in its entirety. A dramatic rendering of “Mr. Grieves” was a highlight as was “La La Love You” featuring David Lovering on lead (“For all the ladies out there”) against an animated backdrop of biological hearts chasing traditionally stylized ones. “That was fucking beautiful, David,” Deal remarked, winkingly, at its conclusion. Awwww.
“This monkey’s gone to heaven.”
Deal was the evening’s card and chatterbox, reminding everyone that “we’re almost through the first side” just before launching into “Dead,” and “we’re getting to the part of the album with the deep cuts” after finishing “There Goes My Gun.”
While the element of surprise is often a key part of a live show’s magic for me, it’s admittedly interesting to go see an artist perform a complete album, with a very different vibe of many mini anticipations via knowing exactly what will come next. There’s also the matter that any number of songs end up getting performed that otherwise would probably never be hauled out on to the stage, such as Deal’s slow, deliberate “Silver.”
“We’re Chai-ai-ained.” Doolittle’s “Hey.”
Black took pause, surveying the crowd for a period before the Pixies launched into Doolittle’s closing track, “Gouge Away.” It wasn’t until after its conclusion, as all members of the band made their way back and forth across the stage to wave at the audience that he finally cracked a smile. An in-the-flesh group bow in front of its filmed equivalent completed the main set. The foursome returned for two more B-sides, the “UK Surf Version” of “Wave of Mutilation” and “Into the White” which was accompanied by large, dense clouds of dry ice so thick that it made it near impossible for us to even see each other for most of the tune!
“Into the White”—literally and figuratively.
The inevitable second round of encores veered off the now-completed Doolittle path with “Bone Machine,” “Nimrod’s Son,” “Where Is My Mind?” and, finally, “Gigantic” which got going after a debated false start amongst band members. “I’m going to hit the hay once on the bus so, Charles, I’m going to say goodnight now” cracked Deal. “See you tomorrow night,” responded Black before Kim continued, thanking everyone for coming out.
Not only was this the show’s conclusion but also one of the Civic Centre’s closing moments. One of Canada’s Centennial structures along with others such as London’s Centennial Hall, this arena has incurred some serious structural failings and will shortly be gutted or demolished, we’re not sure which. At the conclusion of the first set of encores, Deal remarked “Thanks for coming to the end of the Ottawa Civic Centre. Did you guys waste a lot of your life here? Are you crying?”
That might sound rather wiseacre in print but she said it with a sense that respected one’s nostalgia. Kim’s always been a very rock & roll party kind of gal, so I’m sure she totally understands.
Ottawa Civic Centre/Frank Clair Stadium at Lansdowne Park, Easter Weekend 2011. This monkey’s going to heaven too.
Indeed my Cublet, who was born and raised in the area, has been coming to the Civic Centre since his childhood for one thing or another and he certainly felt that nostalgia as we walked out of the landmark for the last time of his life. As he opined, if gutting it at least keeps the exterior of the structure, then he’s hoping for a gutting rather than a demo. The parade of disappearing structures from our childhood continues.
The real — and video — Pixies say farewell to the evening’s audience and Ottawa’s Civic Centre.
Next On Stage –> I’ll continue alternating between posting the final clutch of my “catch-up” entries (originally published on my corresponding Open Salon blog) covering the first half of 2011 when I get more than just a killer show from the dynamite Sharon Jones, fronting her peerless backing band, The Dap-Kings, when I see her at the Bronson Centre during the spring of 2011.
I’ll also be returning to the present by looking at another great show that, as was the case with the Janalle Monáe concert less than a week earlier, was experienced under difficult circumstances, starring rising jazz sensation Esperanza Spalding. I’ll then zoom back to the distant past for one of my most memorable concerts ever: David Bowie in 1983.
© 2011-12 VariousArtists