Ever since I wrote my review of Grand Duchy’s Let the People Speak, I’ve had Pixies on my to-do list. I put them off because I didn’t want to write anything that contradicted the key message in that review: that Let the People Speak is a great album and Pixies fans need to move into the present, let Black Francis be Frank Black and stop trying to relive the first Bush administration and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I haven’t changed my opinion of Let the People Speak one bit, but it’s been almost two years now, and since 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of their most acclaimed work, I’m in the mood for Pixies, and for Doolittle in particular.
Doolittle has achieved iconic status, and my readers know that I have no compunction when it comes to writing blistering reviews about albums that people have been led to believe are the greatest fucking contributions to world culture since oral sex. Tommy. Imagine. Exile on Main Street. Abbey Road. Dark Side of the Moon. Pet Sounds. If an album sucks, I don’t care how many best album lists it’s on or how many prestigious critics have bent over backwards to sing its praises. If I think it sucks, I’ll say so.
In the case of Doolittle, I am delighted to say that it is one of the greatest fucking contributions to world culture. It’s not oral sex, but it’s certainly one of the most exciting, stimulating and intensely satisfying experiences outside of fellatio and cunnilingus. The only downside to Doolittle is that it’s such an energetic and powerful album that it tends to overshadow their two follow-up albums, Bossanova and Trompe le Monde, both of which are exceptional . . . and Surfer Rosa was pretty damned good, too.
Doolittle works on many, many levels. At the core, it rocks, because Pixies had a great rhythm section of Kim Deal and David Lovering to provide a strong foundation, and a terribly underappreciated and gifted lead guitarist in Joey Santiago whose style combined discipline, a collaborative orientation and an exceptional ear for the feel of a song. The songs range from surreal to grungy to punkish to cheeky pop. Doolittle is full of humorous touches, erotic landscapes, biblical references and imaginative leaps. I’ve seen the word “eclectic” used to describe Doolittle, and while I agree in part, the word “eclectic” often has a connotation of disorganized and undisciplined. Doolittle is a remarkably unified work despite its diversity, and the unity comes from a combination of the tightness of the band and their ability to re-create an in-the-moment immediacy that is quite a difficult achievement given the nature of the recording process.
The energy field at the center of it all is Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, known by the stage name of Black Francis, lead vocalist and primary songwriter. I would never describe Black Francis in the context of Pixies as a “lead singer,” because his vocal style expands far beyond what we know as singing, from wild laughter to punctuated narratives to frantic outcries. It’s also somewhat misleading to call him a “songwriter,” as his subject matter and approach to songwriting during his Pixies years redefined many of our beliefs about what a song is. What I love most about his approach to songwriting is he has the ability to shut off the little censor in his brain and write whatever comes into his head: random impressions, film imagery, scraps of childhood memories, the things going through the head during conversation that would shut down the conversation if you let the words tumble out of your mouth. Some have called the approach surreal or nonsensical (even the writer himself), but once you stop trying to apply rational, grammatical thought to the language, you find that the words sound like the same shit running around in your head, and you have to laugh at the exposure. He writes as if life were a perpetual improv sketch, an approach that gives his lyrics a compelling immediacy. Accentuating the improvisational bent, he’s also a guy that doesn’t like to fuck around in the recording studio, so Pixies music echoes the here-and-now feel of the lyrics.
There are few opening songs in the history of rock albums that have the energy and excitement of “Debaser,” and few songs that make such masterful use of poetic economy. The song is based on imagery from the Buñuel-Dali silent film collaboration Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), fifteen minutes of surrealism full of bizarre, erotic and often disturbing imagery during which no Andalusian canine makes even a whimper. The image Black Francis uses for inspiration is from the opening scene, where a man takes a straight razor to a woman’s eye and slices a neat horizontal slit to release the goo within. Black Francis transplants this image into the head of a modern young man in search of an identity:
got me a movie
I want you to know
slicing up eyeballs
I want you to know
girlie so groovie
I want you to know
don’t know about you
but I am un chien andalusia (4)
up to be
be a debaser, a debaser
The key lines for me are the opening line “got me a movie” and the fifth line, “girlie so groove.” For decades we have had to deal with paranoia from parents and the keepers of social morality concerning the evil influence of the media: in television, in video games and in movies. When I last went to the flicks in the States, I saw the absurd warning that the film I was about to watch was not suitable for children because it featured (gasp!) smoking. Oh, for fuck’s sake. Yes, the reason why I smoke is because I saw Rita Hayworth open that door in Gilda, cigarette in hand, and I had to run out of the theatre immediately, buy a pack of Virginia Slims and light up so I could be as alluring as Rita! Damn that sexy bitch! And they have studies to prove that smoking in movies encourages smoking in youth—studies that completely fail to take into account lousy parenting, self-esteem issues or an infinite number of variables that are at play when humans make choices. Harrumph! People really believe this shit?
Black Francis takes the premise of insidious influence at face value: the hero of our story winds up watching a film loaded with scenes of debasement and claims the film as his own. He has discovered his true calling in one of the officially sanctioned sources of identity: the film industry. Part of the debasement in the film is a sequence where the male lead imagines himself feeling the bare breasts and ass of the heroine, and so our immature hero is encouraged to believe that debasement is as sexy as smoking. It may even be able to get him laid! As the film itself punctures classic paradigms of art and social mores, the ironies here are multi-layered and terribly perceptive.
“Debaser,” like several songs on Doolittle, opens with a bass run from Kim Deal, and I am so good with that. We then hear a set of high-pitched guitar chords before David Lovering kicks in with the drums and Joey Santiago gives us the rather majestic opening guitar riff. Black Francis is in fine form, in a tone somewhere between manic and loopy, perfectly filling the role of an imbalanced kid who’s just made the greatest discovery of his life. He even gets more frantic and intense on the second verse, but the high point of the song is the absurd call-and-response where the band shouts “Chien!” and Black Francis responds with “Andalusia!” in a tone that implies that the credibility of the kid’s new identity is enhanced because his new-found wisdom came from a foreign source. Kim Deal’s spoken echoes and power pop vocalizations of “debaser” are another brilliant enhancement that reinforce the faux sex appeal of debasement, and the blessed drawn-out instrumental ending is the glorious sound of a band in full command of the art of rock ‘n’ roll.
And to any Baby Boomer out there that wants to object to the call-and-response of “Chien!” and “Andalusia!” as silly, I only have one thing to say to you: A-wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom!
“Debaser” is a hard song to follow, but “Tame” fulfills the role by shifting gears into a classic example of Pixies soft-loud dynamics. Kim Deal executes her extra-measure bass line with precision and Black Francis makes an impressive transition from whispering sweet nothings into the ear of a lightweight tease to screams that you might hear emanating from the local neighborhood dungeon. Oh, have I been there—babe’s got the looks, got the bod, picked up a few flirtatious looks (by watching movies, no doubt) but is as lifeless as an inflatable doll in the sack. “Tame” is followed by “Wave of Mutilation,” a fabulous demonstration of the tightness and talent of this marvelous band. Even though the tune is catchy and the metaphor of escaping this fucked up world by riding the waves down to the deepest part of the Mariana Trench is certainly vivid, the band backing Black Francis is so fucking good I just lose myself in the arrangement: David’s varied drum attack, Kim’s thumping bass weaving in and out of focus and the way Joey Santiago can shift from filling the headphones with power chords to bent notes high on the fretboard . . . that’s heaven.
“I Bleed” is even more textured and layered. Kim’s bass is more speaker-rumbling on this one, and when Joey comes in and complements the main riff, the combination is like the opening rounds of a great fuck. Kim and Black Francis then engage in an ear-catching duet where Kim sings a pseudo-melodic line while Black Francis narrates the tale in his role of man of many voices. The bridge is endlessly fascinating, with Joey bending the crap out of those strings, David pounding the drums and Kim engaging in brief bursts of just-before-the-orgasm vocalizations. The musical structure is subtly complex; the first two verses pretty much follow the I-V-I-V pattern, with the chorus repeating the I-IV from F# to C#. In the last verse, musical hell seems to break loose as they abandon the pattern completely, going with a A-C#-Em-F pattern in the verse and adjusting the choral pattern slightly from the F#-C# to F#-D, making use of the classically evil I-VI combination. The effect is both chilling and engrossing, especially when Kim Deal repeats “I Bleed” in a flat narrative tone: a rather surreal soundscape to accompany the absurdly steady flow of blood through our veins.
Black Francis wrote the apparently straight pop song “Here Comes Your Man” in his early teens, and the only reason it’s on Doolittle is because producer Gil Norton really liked the song. While it’s easily the most accessible song on Doolittle, it feels more like pleasant intermission music in the context of the more interesting pieces. Even though the band wasn’t into the song either, you can’t fault their musicianship, and Joey Santiago’s decision to double-track a 12-string Ric with a Telecaster for the main riff was a brilliant innovation, and a nice attempt to make something out of not much. Outside of the chorus, the lyrics aren’t particularly pop-friendly, as they describe winos and hoboes who die in a California earthquake. The video is a hoot, though, as Black Francis doesn’t even try to lip sync and Joey Santiago has this “You have to be kidding” look on his face during the solo:
The middle portion of the album opens with “Dead,” a retelling of the story of David and Bathsheba which Black Francis shapes from memory fragments of his parents’ conversion to evangelical Christianity. The interplay between Joey Santiago and Kim Deal is fabulously edgy and tight, and you have to love the dénouement: “Uriah hit the crapper, the crapper.” This is a beautifully economical version of the original climax of the tale: David plunked Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, then sent Uriah to the battlefield to deliver to a set of orders to the general in charge. The orders put Uriah’s ass on the front lines where, yep, he hit the crapper, big time. Black Francis continues his application of biblical imagery in the brilliant “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” creatively linking the environmental havoc wreaked by mankind to de-evolution. His delivery of the biblical numerology lines is actor-perfect, as if he’s seriously trying to figure out the nonsense (“if man is 5, if man is 5, if man is 5”), and make a tenuous connection (“then the devil is 6, then the devil is 6, then the devil is 6, then the devil is 6, then the devil is 6”) before reaching the inevitable and pointless conclusion like he’s screaming “Eureka!” (“and if the devil is 6, then god is 7, then god is 7, then god is 7”). It only remains for the funereal chorus, “this monkey’s gone to heaven” to seal the fate of blind humanity, oblivious to its self-destruction, seeking solace in superstition.
Next up are two songs I’ve always considered twins, “Mr. Grieves” and “Crackity Jones,” as both are vehicles for Black Francis to demonstrate his elastic vocal abilities. “Mr. Grieves” extends the destruction theme while packing a collage of different musical styles in a little more than two minutes, from the dark and creepy reggae opening passage to a sudden shift to straight rock to a couple of measures of skiffle to a lounge-singer-like crescendo. On “Crackity Jones” he relates his experience with a loony roommate who ranted about Fred Flintstone and other voices “he receives on his set.” The tension in the situation is heightened by blazing guitar support from Joey Santiago, whose pick hand moves with astonishing velocity while his fingers make subtle chord adjustments to accentuate the dark note counterpoint, like you’re experiencing the buzz in Jose Jones’ brain. Both songs are remarkably original and reinforce the perception that Pixies were never shy about taking risks.
Another quality on display throughout Doolittle is their essential playfulness, masterfully demonstrated on “La La Love You,” one of the few songs that can always bring a smile to my face no matter how shitty the day was or how grumpy I am from the month’s menstrual cycle. Here they turn the love song genre on its head with wolf whistles, deliberately trite lyrics, a background filled with vocal bouquets of “I love you” and clever asides like “first base, second base, third base, home run!” David Lovering gets a rare shot at a vocal and nails it like a B-side 50’s rock crooner trying hard to add feeling to lyrics we’ve heard a million times before: “All I’m saying/pretty baby/la la love you/don’t mean maybe.” The “la la” is filler within filler, satirizing the stunningly limited range of vocabulary in most love songs. I mean, really, the combination of the wolf whistle followed by the deep genital satisfaction heard in the voicing of “yeah” pretty much says it all. Love songs are often sanitized expressions of ancient courting rituals, full of lame suggestiveness and completely divorced from the reality of a sexually permissive age. The underlying message of most love songs is really, “Goddamn I want to fuck the living shit out of you,” so why do we insist on literally beating around the bush? “La La Love You” is also musically interesting, with the rhythm following a 4/4, 4/4, 2/4 pattern that avoids dead space. The music is disciplined simplicity that never detracts from the humor that reverberates through the piece.
The same rhythmic pattern can be found in “Number 13 Baby,” with an extra 4/4 measure thrown in before the 2/4 shift. This is one of sexier numbers on Doolittle, describing a young Black Francis’ encounter with Latino gang culture in L. A. via a pig roast where a dark-eyed beauty brings the spice and “grandma brought some songs from the shore.” The babe has #13 tattooed on her tit, doubtless a gang-related insignia, and Black Francis appropriately places her on a puberty-heightened pedestal. The story captures the compelling fascination of a young boy discovering another use of his penis and experiencing a multitude of exotic sensations, both cultural and sexual. The band echoes those sensations with a seductive bass line from Kim Deal and a frantic edginess from Joey Santiago’s guitar. It’s followed by the minimalist “There Goes My Gun,” a song where the meaning is found in the passive construction of the phrase, “there goes my gun,” as if the shooter has no responsibility at all for shooting. The song ends abruptly and leads right into “Hey,” where we return to biblical themes, this time expressing the bible-induced fear and loathing that interferes with wanting to connect with a woman . . . because in the Bible, all women are evil temptresses:
been trying to meet you
must be a devil between us
or whores in my head
whores in my bed
Well, we are temptresses, but guys, it’s for your own good! Clear the shit out of your head and let’s fuck! Despite the biblical imagery, “Hey” is another hot song, moving from soft to loud and back again, featuring marvelous interplay between Kim and Joey and some very subtle cymbal work from David Lovering. Kim Deal’s counterpoint vocals are simple and terribly effective, adding just the right amount of diversity to the mix.
Kurt Cobain argued that Kim Deal should have had more air time on Pixies’ records, and while I’m not sure that Kim and Black Francis had compatible artistic visions, “Silver” is one of the best supporting arguments for Cobain’s case. A slow dirge in 3/4 time, the song features eerie harmonies, Kim’s dissonant runs on lap steel guitar, bursts of distorted bends from Joey Santiago and David Lovering playing a simple steady bass. “Silver” comes across as a funereal song for a doomed, materialistic society, fitting nicely into the theme of human self-destruction covered in “Monkey Gone to Heaven” and “Mr. Grieves.”
Doolittle ends with the imaginative retelling of the Samson and Delilah story, “Gouge Away.” Echoing back to the “sliced eyeballs” in “Debaser” with the line “you spoon my eyes,” the irony of the song comes not through the biblical themes but in the ability to transfer the experience described in the chorus into something more pleasurable:
you can gouge away
stay all day
if you want to
Before I knew about the Samson and Delilah backstory, I always interpreted those lines as “gouging my fingernails into his back while we’re fucking.” While I confess to having a hyperactive libido, “Gouge Away” is undeniably a very sexy song, driven by a slinky bass part, Joey Santiago’s power chords and Black Francis’ erotically-tinged vocal. What I really find marvelous is that Doolittle ends with a song as rich as all the others in terms of lyrical depth and musical interest.
I was only five years old when Pixies’ demo album, Come on Pilgrim, was released to the public, and by the time I hit puberty, they were no more. I discovered them through my passion for historical connection: Nirvana was all the rage at the time and Kurt Cobain identified Pixies as a major influence on their sound, so I decided to check it out. The album that caught my eye at Tower Records on Columbus and Bay was Trompe le Monde, because I thought it was terribly cool that an American band would use my second language in an album title. From there, I worked backwards to Surfer Rosa, and Pixies music became a constant companion. Pixies fans can (and do) debate which album is their best, but it hardly matters: all of their records are worth hearing again and again. Doolittle has been repeatedly described as influential, and I only wish it had been more so. I think the artists who were influenced may have copied some of the techniques, but I don’t think anyone has come close to matching the in-the-moment bursts of creative brilliance so delightfully apparent on Doolittle.