Sometimes all you can do is stare off into space and wonder what the hell is going on. That’s not the easiest frame of mind to really pull off in music for some reason — the vaguer you get, the flimsier the chance there is that listeners could relate — and sometimes you’ll wind up with acid-trip songs that people mistake for confused-ennui songs, or vice-versa. That might be why Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” became a popular go-to signifier: It’s a very accessible riff, an even more accessible bit of imagery (the “I was swimming in the Caribbean” verse was inspired by literally that very thing), and equal parts haunting and catchy. The leadoff Side 2 cut on both the LP and cassette versions of Surfer Rosa, but never released as a single, “Where Is My Mind?” became an unlikely standard; an indie cult hit that shared more in spirit with a 1968 Vanilla Fudge deep cut of the same title than it did with most of the half-affectless ambivalence that permeated college rock proper circa 1988.
Just how haunting and catchy this song remains after decades of repetition, though, is another matter. Thirty years (as of today!) after the release of Surfer Rosa and nearly 20 since Fight Club added it to the canon of edgy prestige-media needle drops, its sense of bewildered amazement has felt a bit diluted over the years, either from overexposure or misplaced context or both. And the longer you spend immersed in the particulars of this song and the numerous ways it’s been gotten wrong, the more it slips through your fingers, until the phrase “your head’ll collapse, but there’s nothing in it” nearly threatens to come true and you’re left flailing for some attempt to build a new meaning from the debris. So welcome to the most net-negative edition of Gotcha Covered to date. Do not try this trick and spin it at home without proper supervision.
Ghoti Hook (1998)
There don’t seem to be too many recorded cover versions of “Where Is My Mind?” that came out before it accompanied a very strange time in Edward Norton’s life, but of all the pop-music demographics to do so, “Christian punk band” seems like one of the weirder candidates to break that particular trend. And yet here we are with Virginia’s own Ghoti Hook, who made an example of the idea of straddling the secular/religious lines by putting out a cover album in 1998 that pointedly included examples of both. There’s some “you know, cough cough” selections on the album — a two-fer of the Penguins’ “Earth Angel” and New Order’s “True Faith” makes for one of the bigger “get it?” moments — but it’s less remarkable that they’re put in the company of crossover-proof Christian acts like Stavesacre and Michael W. Smith than it is they’re reduced to a keep-the-melody ditch-the-nuance play-it-fast mallpunk snooze. It’s not all blasphemy, though — aside from a (very) slight tempo uptick, their “Where Is My Mind” is as faithful as it gets to the loud-quiet-loud feel of the original, even with enough antsy bass guitar riffage in the margins that hints that they really want to start some kind of sacramental skank-mosh pit but have to hold themselves back. I guess if they really wanted to freak people out they would’ve covered “Gigantic.”
Nada Surf (1999)
I’ve got to confess that I generally considered Nada Surf to be the poor man’s Weezer, at least until Weezer themselves decided to fill that role instead. There’s even a direct point of comparison here — though I’ll have to give points to Nada Surf on this one, since they don’t fall into the Uncanny Valley of “sounds almost entirely like the original but kinda off” like Rivers does. Pixies’ sense of disorienting underwater vertigo is kept in spirit, but Nada Surf — whose version acts as the de facto title track for a 1999 Pixies tribute album — puts an unexpected spin on it by tinkering with the fundamentals of the rhythm. David Lovering’s original keep-it-simple boom-boom-clap drumbeat, maybe a degree or two more limber than the “We Will Rock You” stomp it has a loose resemblance to, is pushed towards something more skittishly drum-n-bass-adjacent (it is 1999), but only to a degree that gives it a bit more scatterbrained energy. The point where it really throws you is when they get to the third verse — or the repetition of the first, depending on how you look at it — and not only does nearly all the percussion drop out, they shift to a minor key that adds an entirely new brush with melancholy to the song before returning back to the original guitar crunch. I wonder how the Samsung ad that re-popularized this version would’ve made its VR pitch feel if they’d gone with that verse instead of the first.
YouTube viewcounts might not mean everything in the world, but damn — Placebo and the Pixies are just about neck-and-neck with their versions of this song, with both of them just under 25 million plays apiece (though the numbers could be gamed — Placebo’s got a four-year headstart, but the Pixies have the benefit of a fan video featuring an adorable dog). This isn’t Placebo’s first time Getchin’ Covered by a longshot: the very same album that gave us their “Running Up That Hill”, 2003’s “no need to be cute about it”-titled Sleeping With Ghosts bonus disc Covers, follows that Kate Bush cover with their Pixies cover, and to similar effect — though it’s a far shorter trip to go from Black Francis to nu-glam alt-rock than it is to get there from icy synthesizers. With a satisfyingly noisy guitar churn that amps up the original’s dynamics without overdoing it, Brian Molko’s the closest there is to a real difference-maker — and since his high-pitched, nasal delivery has a certain simpatico feel to Frank’s, except with a bit more oomph and stability to it (check out that third-verse “ask yourself”!), it’s more like an HD remaster than a cover, almost: close to note-perfect but emphasizing some of the details you might’ve missed the first time. As for which version’s technically “better,” who cares — let’s split the difference.
Frank Black (2004)
Yeah, yeah: It’s the “solo artist covers his own song he wrote as a member of a previous band” loophole — but who else do you trust more to do a version that doesn’t sound even remotely redundant? In the case of his 2004 double-CD Frank Black Francis, the second disc is full of self-reworked versions of Pixies tracks like “Wave Of Mutilation” and “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” co-produced by Pere Ubu/David Thomas cohorts Two Pale Boys (Keith Moliné on keyboards and Andy Diagram on trumpet) to sound like industrial-meets-modern classical leftfield space-dub. OK, listen, I’m sorry, sometimes genre-pileup descriptors fail me like they eventually fail every critic, but it’s either that or compare this version of “Where Is My Mind” to “wearing a bass Snuggie while sitting in a La-Z-Boy of reverb” and neither one really does this justice. Just enjoy the contrast of Black shifting from a more detached, lower-key (in more ways than one) performance during the first verse before returning (if only briefly) to his more familiar wail as Diagram’s trumpet reflects off his voice and echoes into the distance.
Trampled By Turtles (2011)
Say what you will about the ’90s swing revival, at least it flamed out within a few years. The bluegrass revival’s been with us for a hell of a lot longer, felt more culturally regressive, and retroactively damaged a far better movie (O Brother, Where Art Thou? being approximately five hundred times better than Swingers). And while I know that sounds uncharitable, so does taking a folk art formed from the contributions of poor Appalachians and other rural cultures and making it into New Sincerity accessory-music for craft-whiskey-drinking lumbersexual loft-dwellers in $200 suspenders. Am I accusing Trampled By Turtles of fitting this demographic? To be honest, I feel like I have to recuse myself from this question due to potentially severe unfairness: as a Twin Citian who takes pride in his region being represented by Zen Arcade, No Kings, Dirty Mind, Fiestas + Fiascos, and Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, I don’t have much time for the Jante Law insularity of A Prairie Home Companion culture even without accounting for what a sex creep Garrison Keillor turned out to be. I will say this: hearing “Where Is My Mind” reworked into a super-mellow Country Bear Jamboree is somewhere between aimless and point-missing. After this, I don’t want to hear another banjo in the near future unless it’s played by Kermit The Frog.
Telepathic Teddy Bear (2015)
Another abysmally named act, sure, and another semi-twee revision — one bad move and it’d be real Owl City hours here — but this is a solid reminder that I should probably finally get around to watching Mr. Robot, at least. Rami Malek’s character is supposed to do a fantastic job of capturing the anxious, depressed nature of today’s socially-isolated precariat, and maybe this song would do a similarly on-point job if I got around to seeing it in its actual TV context. For now, all I can say is that somehow TTB’s version has enough of a queasy unease to it — “with your feet in the air and your head on the ground” depicted as a startling way to wake up — that it comes pretty close to hitting that cute-but-unnerving sweet spot that so rarely gets bullseyed.
Milky Chance (2015)
I have read evidence that this German band — one of those “alt-electronic folk duos” I could swear there are supposed to be more of — are something of a medium-to-big deal. (They played Conan!) And yet since we’re so broken up by the disintegrating idea of a monoculture — where 1% of everything gets all the streams and thinkpieces while the remaining 99% is left scattered for people to hopefully find through some algorithmic mishap — I can’t actually tell. I guess it doesn’t help that I’m already preoccupied with tracking down music from not only this decade but six or seven preceding it, which means that if I heard the name “Milky Chance” before I might’ve mistaken it for the title of a mid ’70s Dutch prog LP or some long-lost analog synth enthusiasts that the NME might’ve called “the next Stereolab” in 1996. In an attempt at context I listened to pieces of their 2013 debut album Sadnecessary and its 2017 followup Blossom, and aside from the fact that singer Clemens Rehbein sounds like a cross between Thomas Mars from Phoenix and Tommy Wiseau, it all sounds like some kind of Machine-Extruded Processed Music Product. This cover is that machine’s runoff — it’s got a sort of frat-pop hacky-sack stab at funky reggae somewhere in its Lime-a-rita-buzzed lope, and if there’s a better way to drain all the mystery out of one of Pixies’ weirdest songs, I’d like to meet the team of engineers who pulled off this amazing feat.
John Cena (2017)
Yes, I know Maxence Cyrin’s version is the more-or-less canonical way to play “Where Is My Mind?” as a dramatically tragic-sounding solo piano instrumental. But John Cena — exhaustingly accomplished pro wrestler, reasonably gifted comedy actor, and (when he wants to be) remarkably solid indie battle rapper — is such a weird candidate in a list of this song’s performers that I have to highlight him. Even the reason for his performance — the Bella Twins YouTube channel he often appears on hitting the 900,000 subscriber mark — is kind of weird, but given Cena’s ability to be disarmingly funny as a deadpan sincerity machine, watching black-and-white footage of him playing this song in a tuxedo? That… might be the point? Though now I have to ask what pro wrestler might’ve been the best candidate for playing this when the song first came out, because imagining the Ultimate Warrior pulling the same stunt is a bewildering mental picture I feel like I have to share with you. OK, cool.