The Breeders—that female-fronted alt-rock supergroup forged long before Boygenius came along—are currently on tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of their post-Nevermind, platinum-selling, grunge-pop triumph, Last Splash. They’re also boasting an “original analog edition” of the album which made them a mainstream success in 1993 and which, in 2022, came out #35 in Pitchfork’s Top 150 Records of the 1990s. That means, of course, that they’re giving “Drivin’ On 9” another bask in the sun. The record’s country-tinged anomaly may not have been a single, but it sure turned out to be a deeply loved, radio-friendly classic and a signature Breeders song—their second most popular track on Spotify, in fact, between “Cannonball” and “One Divine Hammer.”
It’s a song, furthermore, that the band continue to wheel out for significant public appearances, recognizing it as a towering presence in their catalog. They performed it in bed for Bedstock 2017 in support of MyMusicRx. They also played it in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame lobby in September 2023, to console a few hundred people when forced to cut short their “Rock Hall Live” outdoor show due to a storm. Kim Deal wrapped her uniquely dirty-pretty voice around it for the thousandth time. Jim Macpherson tapped along on a nearby surface. Kelly Deal broke off her inaudible guitar plucking to play the solos on her phone. And Kim joked that she’s like Stevie Wonder, the whole thing being a funny, intimate, shambolic delight—shared on YouTube—that was nothing short of quintessential Breeders.
But here’s a thing:
- The Breeders did not write the song. That’s according to @carriebradleyneves1839, who was quick to affix to the Rock Hall YouTube clip: “Words and music by Dom Leone and Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, published by Buck Tempo, copyright 1989.”
And here’s a bigger thing:
- It’s a cover. That’s contrary to cover-song oracle SecondHandSongs, which notes “Steve Hickoff, Dom Leone” as the writers, but stamps “Original” on the Breeders release of August 30 1993.
So what’s the unofficial story of the perky yet strangely melancholy strummer that the Breeders made famous?
Best to go back to January 1986. It’s then that Kim Deal first entered Boston’s alternative music scene on the very notion of unskilled musicality. Having been in a folk-rock band with sister Kelly in her hometown of Dayton, Ohio, she famously answered an advertisement in the Boston Phoenix: “Band seeks bassist into Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul and Mary. Please – no chops.” She embodied these creative principles on her ascent with the Pixies as a live act, and when she inevitably played the Rathskeller club (“the Rat”) on Kenmore Square in Boston in May ’87. But she also embodied them beyond that influential group. The punk spirit. The faith in angelic vocal harmonies and melody. The commitment to artistic chaos.
Kim continued with the “no chops” rule when she befriended an alternative folk troupe in the late ’80s by the name of Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, soon to make a name for themselves at the Rat. She first bonded with ERQ violinist-vocalist Carrie Bradley and singer-ukulelist Dani Leone, regularly hanging with these fellow Ohioans at their house in Kittery, Maine. She met percussionist Neno Perrotta here too, along with singer-guitarist Dom Leone and, on occasion, poet Steve Hickoff, who’d been a grad student with Dani on the Writing Program of the University of New Hampshire. She further worked on songs for a side project in their creatively irreverent company, as she grew increasingly frustrated with her stunted creative expression in the Frank Black-fronted Pixies.
It was while contemplating a freer musical direction that Kim eyed up “Drivin’ On 9,” a song Hickoff had based on a poem and knocked into shape with Dom on guitar, with Bradley adding fiddle. She took a shine, then, to a song ERQ had recorded as a demo and put onto a tape called Ed’s Kitchen, where it kept company with the arrestingly titled “New Distributor Cap,” and “Light & Fire & Smoke & Blood & Stuff.” She further took it under her wing when, in the middle of 1988, she teamed up with Tanya Donelly of the Throwing Muses to record some demos at her house in Boston, along with Bradley. She too ended up putting it on a demo tape, with original tunes “Only in 3’s,“ “Doe,” “Lime House,” “Silver,” and “You Always Hang Around,” which she then sent to the head of 4AD, the UK label that was home to both the Pixies and the Muses.
Still far from releasing the song officially, Deal doubtless experienced “Drivin’ On 9” in its rightful context at the heart of an Ed’s show at the Rat. The “legendary shithole,” it should be noted, was the center of alternative music in late ’80s Boston that had lately played host to R.E.M., Dinosaur Jr., and Sonic Youth. She likely caught the troupe as the Sunday showband of a space known as “Ed’s Basement” in early 1989, confirming that: “They were really good at what they were doing, but there was a really cool amateur quality that was truly amateur.” She’ll have witnessed, indeed, a show billed as featuring “guitar, fiddle, bongos, ukulele,” and “readings by Steve Hickoff,” along with the “Famous Ray Halliday!” who did something onstage in his multi-role as ERQ producer, manager, and songwriter. She’d have witnessed Dani and friends playing raw and whacky songs on unconventional instruments to an up-close and rowdy audience with whom they bantered unceasingly on ready supplies of beer or home-brewed coffee, in-between games of wiffle ball in the green room.
Kim will have got a taste, ultimately, of “Drivin’ on 9” becoming public property, in line with the cult following ERQ built at the Rat and other alt-folk scenes in nearby Cambridge and Portsmouth. A typical Rat show of February 5, 1989, went something like: Dani introducing “No Small Change” with “this song starts with an introduction by me, and it’s a rock ‘n’ roll song, and it’s…about doing your laundry.” Then: “Am I plugged in? I think I’m gonna sing something…No, I’m not.” Then “Lawn Dart,” about not being able to find any lawn darts in Kmart. And then the sweater-wearing Dom singing dolefully, “You could be a shadow, beneath the streetlights, behind my home.” He’s staring at the floor and strumming wildly on acoustic guitar. Dani on ukulele, doing a crazy dance. Perrotta on rice shaker. Bradley on fiddle. All focused on a seemingly jokey anti-folk song about a guy ruminating on a shotgun wedding while on a road trip. With whistling. And—get this—a real emotional kick.
Deal, at this time, hadn’t released “Drivin’ On 9” in any form. But here was ERQ making a live favorite out of the song, and typically wrapping up their performances with, “Buy our tapes and get on our mailing lists!” They won local radio play, gained coverage in fanzines, and undoubtedly got the song out there. The original.
The cover, though, happened after Kim got the first line-up of the Breeders up and running in the latter half of ’89. After she got the financial go-ahead from 4AD to record debut album Pod. After she recorded another (discarded) demo of it at Fort Apache Studios in Boston (too fast? too upbeat?). And after she performed with Donelly at the Rat as part of the Boston Girl Super-Group, with various Ed’s members in attendance. It was post-Pod, in early ’93, with the Pixies disbanded, and with Dom Leone having tragically succumbed to cancer. Now with a new line-up, without Donelly but still with Bradley, she adapted the lyrics, added what might be called a chorus, and succeeded in making the version she wanted.
Essentially, Kim captured with co-producer Mark Freegard what she couldn’t with Steve Albini on Pod: the offbeat spirit, the “cool amateurism,” and the romance of the original, combined with her keen sense of melody. She did this in line with her commitment to purely analog—”all wave”—recording techniques and her obsession with getting a live, intimate, warm, and unfiltered sound. Specifically, she did it by packing the band, as Bradley has said, into a single room, “all kind of sweating…pinned to our live stations like marionettes, like our own bittersweet concert.” The result was a human and heartfelt rendition, full of swing and swagger, which proved the perfect bed for Kim to express the poetry of the song in her soothing tones: the poetry of being alone on the road, of passing motels and looking at pines, of making wrong turns, and trying to figure out relationships, and life.
It was a radiant cover, and the Breeders were soon performing it as their final number at Lollapalooza in September 1994, shortly before ERQ’s Big Grapefruit Clean-up Job, on Slow River Records, counted as the alt-folk group’s first official release of “Drivin'” in 1995. The Breeders went on to take the song to the aforementioned Rock Hall lobby nearly 30 years later, where they performed it in a style highly reminiscent of Ed’s at the Rat. The same kind of interaction with the audience. The same kind of amateurism and self-mocking humor. The same kind of poignancy and sadness shining through the lunacy.
But none of this has yet explained the #9 of the title. Hickoff, now a leading writer on turkey hunting and fishing in Maine, reflects that the song was “based on Dom’s Route 9 drives from southeastern Vermont to hang out in southeastern New Hampshire/southern Maine where I–and the rest of ERQ–lived.”
We all have our Route 9s, though, don’t we?
Thanks to Steve Hickoff.