These Monkees Gone To Heaven


Black Francis Demo

With the Lights Out

From a Basement on the Hill

Okay, everybody who’s not a member of Franz Ferdinand, please raise your hand if you’re bored with the ’80s revival. I see, I see. Thanks, you can put your hands down. Yeah, I knew it wasn’t just me. Still, I have to say that one of my very favorite CDs released this year was recorded in 1987. The first disc is a one-take hootenanny of nearly all the songs that would appear on the Pixies’ Come on Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa. It’s just Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV, soon to be known as Black Francis, armed with an acoustic guitar and a splash of reverb singing into a Walkman recorder the day before his band entered a Boston studio and cut the legendary Purple Tape, the Rosetta Stone of the early Pixies cave paintings. The recording session took place at the apartment of producer Gary Smith, who made pasta while Thompson sang (in the middle of “Nimrod’s Son,” you can hear the phone ring). The real revelation here is not just how adroitly and soulfully Thompson performs these songs on God, sex, death and incestuous union–that much would become gloriously obvious in a few years — but how fully realized they are. Thompson does double duty, sketching out his arrangements for the songs for Smith by singing the Kim Deal parts, mimicking spacey Santiago guitar leads with his mouth, cueing thunderous air drum Valhallas and even meowing when need be. He cutely announces before the beginning of “Caribou,” “This is the one I want to sound like Hüsker Dü.” The second disc is not the unqualified triumph of the first. It’s Thompson circa last year, re-singing Pixies classics and then turning things over to a pair of Pere Ubu alumni, the aptly named Two Pale Boys, who gamely attempt to transmute classic Pixies songs into a largely guitar-less and drum-less electronica. And while Thompson’s vocals are spot on, most of these arrangements are anemic and rudderless. The best electronica points out the limitations of guitar-bass-drums, but the Two Pale Boys succeed only in reminding us of the unassailable majesty of rock in the hands of the Pixies.

Sometime between Bleach and Nevermind, Kurt Cobain repurposed the Pixies’ patented lulling verse/volcanic chorus dynamic to prop up the enormous chip on his shoulder during the Frankenstein-ish gene-splicing experiments with the Beatles and Black Sabbath he was conducting out in rainy Seattle. The monster would, of course, rise from the slab and kill its creator in the end. In 1994, when Cobain bit down on the barrel of a 20-gauge shotgun and pulled the trigger, he killed a lot of birds with one stone. He widowed his wife and essentially orphaned his daughter, his art and an entire generation of disciples who hung on his every word. He also managed to freeze-frame his legacy into the hallowed halls of martyrdom, ensuring that every future assessment of his work would be filtered through the grim prism of his self-inflicted crucifixion. Doled out by the keepers of his flame to re-up the visitorship to the shrine of St. Kurt, With the Lights Out, is a four-disc barrel-bottom-scraping time capsule of his electrifying tantrums and territorial pissings, and when he felt like it, his seemingly bottomless capacity for heart-shaped melodicism. There are three moments on this collection of 80-some tracks that make the hair on the back of my neck stand up: a demo version of “Rape Me” with a newborn Francis Bean Cobain crying throughout; a solo acoustic reading of “All Apologies” that has the same angel-wing flutter of John Lennon’s acoustic demo of “Strawberry Fields Forever”; and a filmed segment of the band in a Brazilian recording studio performing Terry Jacks’ maudlin ’70s soft-rock meisterwork “Seasons in the Sun” — with Cobain on drums, Dave Grohl on bass and Krist Novoselic on guitar — interspersed with home movie footage of the band members in younger days having joy and having fun, despite the growing sense that the hills they climbed were just seasons out of time. Much of this material — home demo tapes, radio station performances and early acoustic versions of classic Nirvana tracks — has long been traded in the shadowy digital chop shops of file-sharing networks, but the true value in this enterprise is that, as you read this, a runny-nosed kid eating Froot Loops out of a dirty bowl in some flea-bitten double-wide in Cow’s Ass, Ind., is listening to With the Lights Out and realizing he can purge all his rage, self-loathing and ham-fisted fumbling for grace into three serrated guitar chords and a primal yowl. And one day he — or for that matter, she — will change music once again.
‘Tis the season, so let’s end with a bit of blasphemy: The loss of Elliott Smith is far more significant than the loss of Kurt Cobain. There. I said it. Both were immensely talented, deeply troubled souls not long for this world. Profoundly bruised on the inside, both earned the right to spend their time on earth doing the backstroke in the deep wells of self-pity. The crucial difference is that Smith’s fall-back position was beauty, no matter how ugly he felt on the inside, and that will lend his songbook a far lengthier shelf life. Cobain’s fall-back position was always ugliness — I hate myself and I want to die, and this is what that sounds like — and maybe one day all his angry noise will mellow into fine whine, like, say, White Light/White Heat-era Velvets. But 10 years A.D., a lot of it just seems to be rusting out in the weeds alongside unsold copies of the last Love Battery album. Quoting Neil Young in his suicide note, Cobain noted that it’s better to burn out than fade away. And while that may be true, Neil also pointed out that rust never sleeps. Elliott Smith never slept much, and he too wrote a suicide note, but he set his to pretty music, and it more or less became From a Basement on the Hill. Despite my misgivings that what I’m about to say might be misinterpreted as glorifying suicide, Basement is my hands-down choice for album of the year. Nothing I heard all year came close to matching its unflinching emotional courage, brutal honesty, druggy swoon and, most important, breathtaking beauty. Smith dubbed the sound he was going for in the last years of his life “California frown,” a post-Prozac update of the orange-sunshine whimsy of Wilsonian West Coast pop — sunbeam harmony, hymnal organ, infinite echo and good vibrations — crossed with Plastic Ono Band junkie confessionals that make William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch look like Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Yes, he was trying to break your heart, but the beautiful difference between life and art is that in art, Elliott Smith doesn’t die in the end.