Pixies Frontman Black Francis Learned to Love the Road in a 1986 Cadillac
Working rock musicians had better like the road. For guitar slingers or drummers, an unwillingness to tour is close to deploying a dragster’s anti-accelerative parachute on one’s career. Want to rock for a living? Get used to planes, trains, and automobiles. Plus ferries, buses, vans, and trucks, with the occasional golf cart thrown in for navigating festivals. If you’re lucky enough to be invited to them, that is.
This story originally appeared in Volume 15 of Road & Track.
I know these touring truths firsthand, having spent over 30 years managing bands. For me, the constant travel worked out nicely, rounding out an already peripatetic career writing for car magazines, with their ever-present requirement that you go somewhere, anywhere, by car. Not all of my musical charges enjoyed touring as much as I did or as much as they perhaps should have. But early on I made one friend whose enthusiasm for the road set an example I wish all acts aspired to.
Meet Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, better known by his nom de rock, Black Francis, and sometimes Frank Black. He and guitarist Joey Santiago, whom he met at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, from which they both prematurely dematriculated, headed to Boston in 1986. There the youthful duo met bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering. They formed a formidable rock unit called Pixies or the Pixies. No one knows which.
Whatever the name, calling them compelling is a gross understatement. This indie outfit changed the face and sound of so-called modern or alternative rock and, ultimately, that of mainstream rock. David Bowie hailed them as ingenious, and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke said they changed his life. Kurt Cobain credited Thompson and the Pixies with inspiring his band, the legendary Nirvana, and specifically their best-selling LP, Nevermind. “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it,” Cobain told Rolling Stone. “When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”
With punk and surf-rock elements, the Pixies’ sound coalesced on their second album, 1989’s Doolittle. Noisy and dissonant yet supremely melodic, it was a solid foundation for the Nineties’ mega-oeuvre, grunge. Bowie dubbed the band “the psychotic Beatles.”
Charles Thompson is not an automotive enthusiast. But he loves to drive, and he loves the road. And the car he’s loved the most is a yellow 1986 Cadillac Fleetwood with a padded vinyl roof, bought 33 years ago with his first royalty check and which he still owns. It’s an old warhorse he’s driven all over the country countless times, even though on the early fall day I arrive for a visit, it’s not running. It’s resting in the grass under a big tree, dusted in pine needles, next to the driveway of his Massachusetts home. It’s near a late-model Mitsubishi Outlander bought used from Enterprise to provide the reliable, all-weather transport this committed family man needs, along with a Sprinter van for hauling the bulky accouterments of rock. The Caddy, in Craigslist-ese, “needs restoration.”
I first met Thompson in March 1987, on the first day I officially managed the band They Might Be Giants. The bands were opening for two bigger acts, Big Bang Theory and Fishbone, in New York City’s East Village at a club called the Ritz. I arrived late and parked the German-market 1969 Rover 2000TC I’d just bought and driven almost 900 miles—with nine breakdowns over 60 hours—straight from Milledgeville, Georgia.
Thompson was a refreshingly unassuming fellow with a band from Boston that had a big sound. But I didn’t really get to know him until 1993, when the Pixies split up and he released a storming solo album as Frank Black. I spent an enjoyable day cruising around Los Angeles with him and his then girlfriend, Jean Walsh, in a Rolls-Royce Silver Spur for England’s Car magazine. England loved the Pixies, and a song title on the band’s 1991 album, Trompe le Monde, reflects the significant amount of time they spent there, on the charts and on the road. Believed to concern a UFO crash survivor and the New Mexican town of space oddities, “Motorway to Roswell” employs the Briticism for what we in the United States call a highway.
Thompson is no ersatz Brit. There’s no adult-onset English accent, à la Madonna. Indeed, it was while rolling around in the Roller that I learned of Thompson’s obsession with his all-American Cadillac. He recounts its purchase in 1989 like it was only yesterday.
“I had gone from basically running away from creditors to ‘Oh, I got a check for 16 grand here.’ And, so, I was like, ‘I’m going to buy a car. Pay cash for it.’ So, my father’s like, ‘Chuck, get a fucking Cadillac.’ He said, ‘Just get that.’ So we go down to the Cadillac dealership on the Cape [Cod, where his pater once owned a bar], and I find a 1986 Cadillac, still relatively new, $13,000. It’d been bought by some little old lady—a big, giant, yellow Cadillac. To me, it was a car. I didn’t care. And it got a lot of oohs and aahs from people, even back then. And so that became my car, and it was my main car, as you know, for many, many years.”
Thompson had spent extended blocks of time in L.A. as a youth, and for a time in 1990, he moved back to escape the Northeastern cold. That cross-country Caddy drive with Walsh was memorialized by music writer (and authorized Nirvana biographer) Michael Azerrad: “After the lengthy Doolittle tour, Santiago and Lovering took vacations; Deal found an outlet for her singing and songwriting by forming an all-female band called the Breeders, which recorded an excellent album, Pod; Thompson bought a canary-yellow Cadillac and drove across the country with his girlfriend, playing occasional solo gigs for gas money. Rather than doing sensitive acoustic readings of his songs, he’d simply plug in an electric guitar and flail and scream as if the three other Pixies were backing him up.”
The car has enduring appeal for Thompson. “It was a less expensive way for me to have my own space and freedom on the road without having to get my own tour bus, which is crazy expensive, of course. And some of it falls under the category of playing whatever sort of logistical game that you play with rental-car companies. Say you went to Enterprise or National, and they ask, ‘You want an economy car, you want a mid-size, a full-size, a luxury car?’
“This is before they were offering a lot of SUVs. But at their superior or luxury level, whatever they called it, a lot of the rental-car companies had Lincolns, including the Town Car. And those cars, I thought, were comfortable. They were easy on the eyes when you were driving long drives. They always came in gray or silver, these slightly muted kinds of tones. And they had a giant V-8 engine, of course, plus a massive trunk. Four big dudes, no problem, as long as you don’t have a lot of shit in the car. And perfect for when you have a long-ass drive ahead of you.”
I’d long thought bands aspired to tour in vans and buses, but here was Thompson rocking an American luxury car. So did that critically regarded band of veteran road warriors, NRBQ, whom They Might Be Giants played with a few times, pulling away from an outdoor festival in the Pacific Northwest one day in two identical blue early-Nineties front-drive Fleetwoods. It wasn’t long before the Giants got a brand-new black Crown Victoria, affectionately known as the “Crown Vince,” to serve as their mobile privacy dome.
“It’s just a game that everybody that goes on tour plays,” Thompson says. “Some people do it better than others, but you just try to make it so you don’t crowd into other people’s personal space, and they don’t crowd into yours, and everyone’s happy. And they’re all there to do the work and get the work done.”
Getting to gigs hundreds of wide-open miles apart presented an additional challenge—the law. “Once, in my speedy sedan with a V-8, I got three tickets in one day from three states. In those days, they would write a paper ticket and hand you a copy. I may have been a flighty, boho kid, but I knew that it was good if I paid the ticket. I’d go to the town clerk and pay right away, no problem.
“But then, sometime in the Nineties, they connected everything with the matrix, and all your tickets would show up on your record. ‘We see, in the last three months, you had four speeding violations.’ So I did this Ramones tour, and I got four or five points on my license. And the DMV said, ‘We have to revoke your license for six months.’ Not that great. I lived in L.A. I’d take the bus and the RTD sometimes, but mostly I drove around like everybody else. [A revoked license] was a style cramper. But someone told me you could ask for your license back sooner. So, I called them. A judge got on the telephone, and after we spoke for a while, he had me raise my right hand and give an oath over the phone that I would be a good driver. And he said, ‘You don’t have any speeding violations before this. So, this is a new thing for you.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, absolutely. I’m very sorry. I don’t know what got into me.’”
Thompson recounts adventures with his first car, a rusted-out $500 Plymouth Duster bought for him and his brother in high school. After rainstorms, cold water would spill through the decayed sunroof at stop signs. Memories of a novice off-roader’s adventures in an O.J.-style Bronco he bought new in the early Nineties terrify him. The master raconteur segues into his recent fascination with the Citroën SM he saw in a French car museum. He concludes that he wouldn’t be an SM’s ideal keeper. Then his eyes light up when discussing his lifelong infatuation with roads.
“When I was a kid, my father, he’d give me this pie in the sky sometimes—but it was fun to talk about. ‘Someday, son, you and I will take a road trip. We will take Route 1 down the Pacific Coast Highway, but we’ll go to Mexico. We’ll keep on going. It goes all the way through Central Ameri-
ca. It goes all the way down to Tierra del Fuego in Chile. We take it all the way. We’ll go the whole way down.’
“So, more than anything, I’m interested in road systems. And I have my favorite ones that I like to drive on. The French péage, the autoroute toll-road system first proposed by [Charles] de Gaulle as a way to get the French economy going after the Second World War. It goes most everywhere in the country, about 14,000 kilometers. But it’s a closed system. You’re either in or you’re out. That fascinates me,” he explains. Relatedly, he reveals he’s working on a screenplay with a French filmmaker, Louis Collins, about a faded rock star intent on driving every mile of the péage. So, I ask, is this going to be what? A dramatic film, an art film, a comedy, a buddy movie? “All of the above,” he replies before continuing his meditation on highways and byways.
“Even the roads I don’t like can be fun to drive on. For example, driving in inclement weather. I enjoy that. I remember my friend Dave Philips—he just passed away a couple of years ago, but we did a lot of duo shows—and long drives with him in big cars, including my Cadillac. We would be just like, ‘Let’s drive in the blizzard. There are all-night diners. It’s just us and a few brave trucks, and it’ll take us eight hours to get there. But look at this weather, man. It’s so amazing. Look at the wind. Look at the snow.’ I probably took a lot more chances when I was younger, like a lot of people. But I enjoy complicated driving.”
Talk returns to the yellow Cadillac, whose restoration Thompson underwrote once years back. “When I give it love, it does fine. But because of the pandemic and a couple other things, it’s sat for a few years, and now it’s fallen the furthest from grace it has ever been.” So what will he do?
“I tell myself that I’m not sentimental over objects, but I’ve had this object in my life for so long. And I like the idea of keeping an older thing, especially an older car, keeping it going because it’s not designed to just die and be thrown away.”
As he’s grown older, driving all night appeals less, but Thompson still likes big cars. “You want to be able to throw trash over your shoulder. You know what I mean?”
Which may be why Thompson has an ongoing obsession with a plan to take the opportunity of the Cadillac’s possible upcoming restoration to widen it. “Right now, it’s just gathering moss in my driveway. I was going to fix it up for one of my kids. But right now, that order is very tall, and I haven’t found the right guy yet to do all the work.
“When I was in junior high, there was a kid that I used to hang out with once in a while. His father was a construction worker, and he loved the music of the Sixties and Seventies. He loved the Eagles. He loved Janis Joplin. Some of the music I didn’t mind. He’d take us on camping trips once in a while. And during the week, he worked out in the desert at whatever construction site he was on. He lived in his van, a Seventies Dodge. He had puka shells and a permanent hairdo, a real Mr. California. He was out of a Tarantino movie, a really sweet guy.
“But what he did with the van was interesting, and it used to draw attention anytime it drove down the street. People would stop and point, ‘Mom, look. Look. Look at the van.’ He split the whole fucking thing down the middle vertically, and he popped it out as wide as it could go, maybe an extra four inches. How cool would this Cadillac be if it was really wide?”
You Might Also Like