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Most performers set out on solo tours to indulge mammoth egos or to achieve that elusive goal called "artistic fulfillment." Black Francis did it for gas money.
See, the Pixies singer-guitarist recently became the proud owner of a lemon-meringue-colored 1986 Cadillac, complete with cassette deck and CB radio. He figured the handsome Caddie would come in handy in L.A., where he plans to settle in a couple of weeks with his girlfriend. But such fine examples of American automotive craftsmanship don't come cheap. And everyone knows they guzzle gas like a wino downs Thunderbird. Francis says these financial obligations are why he was busy while the rest of the Pixies were on vacation, basking in the warmth and reggae of sunny Jamaica.
The singer's tour, which ended at Anderson's Fifth Estate last Monday, was solo in the strictest sense. That meant no tour manager, no roadies, not even a stray groupie in sight. Even Francis admits he wasn't sure whether such a streamlined solo venture would work. "I didn't know how goofy it was going to come off," he acknowledges in an interview before his gig at Anderson's Fifth Estate. "But people still seem to like it a lot. I was surprised about that."
Blackie may not have had an entourage, but that doesn't necessarily mean he was traveling light. Parked a couple of yards from Anderson's front door, his Caddie was packed with a world atlas, an assortment of unhatched Sea-Monkeys, several Aerosmith tapes and a multihued pinata shaped like a bull. The singer is planning to sacrifice the bull in a performance-art ritual in Salt Lake City. "I'm going to blow it up and then take a few pictures," Francis snorts.
Besides occupying himself with high jinks like those, Francis also took in some trash-culture landmarks during this tour. He began his trip with a visit to Graceland to view the sobbing mourners at the king's grave site. This pilgrimage to the sideburn god's final resting place had to be cut short though, says Francis. "I was on mushrooms at the time, and I had to leave before things got too crazy," explains the zany guy.
This white-trash trek eventually took Francis to Flagstaff, where he steered his Cadillac through a blinding snowstorm. "I was on my CB the whole time," notes the singer, who uses the handle Big Daddy Caddie. With his trusty CB, Francis was able to rap with truckers, who gave him tips on how to avoid citation-happy cops.
It's only fitting that the singer's wacky road trip ended in Arizona, considering that he counts the state as one of his favorite locales. Francis is especially fond of a Miami greasy spoon called the El Rey Cafe, and digs the whole dust bowl area in general. "I particularly like the way the wind blows through the slag heaps," relates the singer wistfully.
IS THERE ANY POINT to this solo tour other than to satisfy Francis' hearty appetite for the junkier side of Americana? The answer depends on whether you can tolerate an hour or so of the Pixies front man's idiosyncratic talents.
When he took the stage at Anderson's, some nearsighted clubbers probably mistook Francis for a stage hand. After all, in his black tee shirt and baggy chinos, the guitarist's pudgy, unimposing presence isn't the kind of stuff alternative-rock stars are made of. One concertgoer couldn't help but snicker that the singer looked just like a grown-up Lumpy Rutherford, Wally's porky pal from Leave It to Beaver.
Still, like the Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano, the singer's milquetoast exterior is highly deceiving. In an interview earlier in the day on KUKQ-AM, Francis sarcastically said that the show would be "very folkie"--as if to warn listeners what not to expect. Folkie it wasn't. This was no troubadour armed with an acoustic guitar and repertoire of love songs. The singer gave the crowd the same seething avant-punk numbers you find on Pixies albums--just in a sparser electric-guitar setting.
Francis' intensity was apparent from the moment he opened his mouth. The singer was urgent and neurotic, half-singing and half-screaming the lyrics. By the time he wailed a line like "You are the son of a MOTHERFUCKER!" halfway through the gig, Francis had long since shed that wholesome geek-next-door first impression.
Which isn't to say that Big Daddy Caddie's absurdist sense of humor didn't shine through once in a while. The singer took the stage with a camcorder in hand, which he used to document the emotion-charged set. "I'm taping it for a friend," explained the anything-but-camera-shy Francis. Later in the show, the singer--ever the cutup--turned away from the audience to smirk and pose for the camcorder.
Despite Francis' wisecracks and energy (he played with enough fervor to break a guitar string), the show still came up a little flat. Some songs like the majestic "Where Is My Mind?" just didn't transfer well to such a bare-bones format. And you couldn't help but miss Kim Deal's breathy back-up vocals and Francis' cutting guitar exchanges with Joey Santiago.
Even the singer admits to getting lonesome for his fellow Pixies while performing by himself. "It's definitely more fun to play with a drummer and to have another guitar player to jam with," notes Francis. So does this mean the vocalist's solo days are through? "Oh, I don't know," reflects Francis. "I might do some shows when I get to L.A., maybe the next time I get bored."
Or maybe the next time the Caddie needs a tank of gas.