The Complicated Role of Puerto Rico In Pixies’ ‘Surfer Rosa’

A report by Tatiana Tenreyro for Billboard.

This year, Pixies celebrate the 30th anniversary of their debut album Surfer Rosawith intimate performances in London and New York City, and Come On Pilgrim…It’s Surfer Rosa, a deluxe box set of both the LP and their mini-abum Come On Pilgrim. But without Puerto Rico, Pixies’ debut album Surfer Rosa would not exist.

The island is part of Pixies’ genesis, changing the course of Frank Black’s life during his college years. In a 2013 interview with Spin, Black explains that he decided to trade the New England weather for an exchange program in Puerto Rico, where he lived for six months in 1986, studying at Universidad de Puerto Rico (UPR), the island’s main public university. Eventually, he faced the choice of either visiting New Zealand to see Halley’s Comet or returning to Boston for school. Instead, he opted to drop out and form Pixies, writing guitarist Joey Santiago a letter that read “Screw this academics, let’s just start the damn band!”

The island didn’t just serve as a catalyst for Black to form the band — it became a prevalent theme on both Come On Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa.

He pays homage to his temporary home in Come On Pilgrim’s “Isla De Encanta,” butchering the island’s nickname “isla del encanto” (“island of enchantment”), and “Vamos.” In the latter, Black adopts Puerto Rican slang, using “chévere” (meaning “nice” or “cool”) and “puñeta,” an exclamatory curse word that is often used similarly to “fuck!”, while shifting from broken Spanish to English.

The island is referenced further in Surfer Rosa, reprising “Vamos” and singing about swimming in the Caribbean ocean in “Where Is My Mind?” Then there’s “Oh My Golly!” Akin to “Vamos,” it’s peppered with references to Puerto Rico in broken Spanish, where Black sings about visiting Piñones, a beach town popular with tourists. He mentions kissing and “chingando” (slang for “fucking”) Surfer Rosa, meaning that the fictional character the iconic album is named after is meant to be an islander.

Black continued to delve into his experience in Puerto Rico with Doolittle’s “Crackity Jones,” which fans recognize as one of Black’s most autobiographical songs, about having to share a dorm with a psychotic roommate, José Jones, who believed he was friends with Fred Flintstone (referred to in the song as “Paco Picopiedra”) and made Black fear for his safety. 

It’s very rare for Puerto Rico to be referenced at all in rock. For local fans, hearing Black sing using our slang and reference cultural aspects that the average non-Puerto Rican listener could easily miss instills pride. “To have one of the most important bands in rock, who has never actually played the island, with just one member having lived here, with just that fact, that’s amazing,” says Cristian Zayas, guitarist/songwriter of Puerto Rican band Las Abejas. 

“[Puerto Ricans] will always be the minority [within music] but having Frank Black stay in the island is a very good compliment,” Zayas says enthusiastically. “I still haven’t seen Pixies play but I imagine that the boricuas (slang for Puerto Ricans) who have seen their shows must say in the moments they play the songs [about the island] ‘Oh these gringos may know this song but I come from this place and I know exactly why he says “cabrón, puñeta, me voy.”’ It’s awesome to be in the minority of saying ‘yeah, he’s singing about my home.’”

But fans like myself who are from Puerto Rico have a complex relationship with Pixies. The band has never played the island, despite how much it shaped some of their most iconic songs, depriving fans of the privilege of hearing these songs about their homeland there. The band also failed to acknowledge the island after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

When I asked local bands Campo-Formio and Las Abejas—who are heavily influenced by Pixies—about this, they mentioned feeling slighted by the band’s lack of acknowledgement of the island’s role in Pixies’ history and not having the opportunity of seeing them play. “There’s no doubt I’m a super big fan of theirs, but there’s a certain type of resentment towards their abandonment from their bookers on not making Puerto Rico a priority on their tours,” says Campo-Formio frontman Fernando Quintero.

But, to them, having Black sing about Puerto Rico is still a huge honor, regardless of the band not embracing the important role of the island. “I think that when someone has a certain rank in pop culture and people [from Puerto Rico] find out that they have some sort of involvement with Puerto Rico, people get excited with those facts,” notes Quintero. “Puerto Rico is an isolated island, surrounded by water in the middle of the Caribbean. It’s pretty fucking far away.”

Besides Black not making his return to the island that kickstarted the band, local fans also acknowledge that there is some veiled criticism of the island in the songs, with Black hinting at his desire to leave in “Vamos,” as he sings in Spanish about contemplating moving to Jersey. Turns out, Black’s experience in Puerto Rico wasn’t exactly positive.

The book Gigantic: The Story Of Frank Black and The Pixies mentions an interview where Black says “Puerto Rico is weird…because it’s American! It’s a welfare state, so the people are really screwed up — they’ve been on the dole for something like 500 years…And they’ve got a really bad identity problem. Some of them want to be Indian [Taíno natives] but more think of themselves as American. And because it’s essentially Catholic, that fucks things up even more.”

According to the aforementioned book, Black had initially enjoyed his time in the island, but grew tired of being in a place that felt so foreign. Having to share a dorm with someone like Crackity Jones didn’t help much, either.

But perhaps the biggest catalyst for Black deciding he wanted to leave the island was the lack of music available to him during his stay. At the time, the island didn’t quite have a booming rock scene, and Black had planned poorly when it came to choosing which records to take to the island. “So that’s all I had: A Walkman. A Ramones record, a Talking Heads record, and whatever music I heard in Puerto Rico, salsa and merengue,” Black told The Ringer in a recent interview.

Given how his experience wasn’t the paradise he was expecting, it’s easy to see how it ended up disillusioning him. You can sense his sarcastic tone in “Isla De Encanta,” as he sings about how the island earned its nickname by being a land without suffering where you can find a “river of rum” (“Rio de ron pasa por la calle”) and a “native creature who sings to the island for free” (“Nuestro propio animal canta a la gente para gratis”), referring to the coquí frog.

But Frank Black’s feelings about the island don’t change the impact it had on Pixies’ history. The band and music critics often mention the island in passing, but it played a large role in Pixies’ music, and it’s time for that to be recognized. The island wasn’t just the place where Frank Black briefly lived before forming Pixies — it gave Surfer Rosa life.

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