I got into ‘Doolittle’ in 2006, on a road trip from Benicassim in Spain to Devon in England. I was in a bad way. My brain was melting from overconsumption, I had a perforated eardrum thanks to a weird incident in the sea with hairy man called Simon, and I was carrying a limp after an accident involving a graveyard, a metal spike and some ruptured ankle ligaments.
It was summer in the Mediterranean and it was hot, so hot, and the van that four of us were taking it in turns to drive had no air conditioning and was painted black. Sleep was had in the back of the van, on one of the two mattresses laid down in there, surrounded by bags and bottles and filth. My enduring memory of this four-day trip is lying on one of these mattresses, sweating, dreaming about bad things, slipping in and out of consciousness, and hearing songs like ‘Debaser’, ‘Crackity Jones’ and ‘Hey’ swim in and out of my mind as I did so.
In many ways it was the perfect way to experience what is a deeply trippy and surreal album that takes in nautical, Biblical, archeological, mythological and ecological themes and is sung by a man who sounds like he too is in astonishing amounts of physical and emotional pain. Twelve years on I still love it. Moreso, probably, because I now actually understand that it came out a time (1989) when underground US indie rock was having a moment (Sonic Youth, Fugazi, The Replacements and Husker Du were all knocking about), but that Frank Black, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago and David Lovering were doing something weirder and poppier than everyone else, that was full of the tension that ended up destroying the band.
Here are 30 pieces of information I wish I’d had in the back of that van, to enrich my experience of falling in love with one of the best albums ever made. HBD ‘Doolittle’.
1. ‘DOOLITTLE’ WAS ALMOST CALLED ‘WHORE’
“Whore is a great word with a lot of connotations,” Frank Black told The Catalogue magazine in 1989. “Mercantile connotations, and politics – everything. I meant it in the more traditional sense of the word, the more operatic, biblical sense, you know, as in the great whore of Babylon. But Vaughan [Oliver, cover designer] changed the artwork idea and said he was going to use this monkey and halo, so I thought people were going to think I was some kind of anti-Catholic or that I’d been raised Catholic and trying to get into this Catholic naughty-boy sort of stuff, like Ken Russell does in his movies. A monkey with a halo, calling it ‘Whore’ – that would bring all kinds of shit that wouldn’t be true. So I said I’d change the title.”
2. THE ACTUAL TITLE COMES FROM A LYRIC IN ‘MR GRIEVES’
It goes “pray for a man in the middle, one that talks like Doolittle”, and is a reference to the Doctor Dolittle character created by the author Hugh Lofting. Dolittle could talk to animals, and in ‘Mr Grieves’ Black is praying for someone with these all-too-rare skills to turn up and save the world. As he told NME in 1989: “There’s this theory that if not smarter than us, animals are aware of what’s going on, and if we could communicate with them, they could give us the answer of the future and make everything ok.”
3. THE TITLE TRACK REFERENCES 1929 FILM UN CHIEN ANDALOU
Which is a deepy surreal collab between director Luis Bunuel and the artist Salvador Dali that features a scene that is described in the song as, simply, “slicing up eyeballs”. Enjoy it for yourself.
4.THE LYRIC “CHIEN ANDALUSIA” WAS ALMOST “SHED, APOLLONIA”
Which was about a fictional scenario in which the singer of the Prince-created band Apollonia 6 (called Apollonia) got naked. But, Black told Sounds in 1989, this was deemed “too silly, too tongue-in-cheek, too like an inside joke. It had to be more broad than that.”
5. ‘DEBASER’ IS CALLED ‘DEBASER’ BECAUSE…
…as Black told NME in 1989: “At the time of Un Chien Andalou the Parisiens were ripping up their seats in the theaters because of another film [he means Bunuel and Dali’s second collaboration, L’Age d’Or], and the point of Bunuel’s film was to debase morality. To debase standards of art.”
6. ‘TAME’ IS ABOUT “FUCKING STUPID ARSE STUDENTS”
“Man oh man, they are the rudest motherf***ers in the world,” Black told The Catalogue magazine in 1989 about students living in the same area as him in Massachusetts. “The rudest, most uncouth, most disrespectful people I’ve ever met on the face of the earth. Law students are the worst fucking vermin in the world. I hate to put them down because I don’t like putting people down, but they’re awful.”
7. THE MARIANA TRENCH IS THE DEEPEST NATURAL TRENCH ON EARTH
It’s also one of the places our hero in the tune ‘Wave Of Mutilation’ finds themselves after they “drive my car into the ocean”. Also explored in the lyrics: the El Nino weather patterns that causes intense storms around the eastern part of the Pacific Ocean, getting off with mermaids and, as Black told Select in 1997, “the phenomenon where Japanese businessmen were putting their whole family in the car and driving off the dock”.
8. GROOVY CULT LEADER CHARLES MANSON APPEARS
In the 1960s, while still a free man, Manson wrote the song ‘Cease To Exist’ for The Beach Boys, who he was sort of friends with via band member Dennis Wilson. They gave Manson some cash, took the song, changed the title to ‘Never Learn Not To Love’, tweaked the lyric “cease to exist” to “cease to resist” and released it as a b-side to their 1968 track ‘Bluebirds Over The Mountain’. Twenty one years later the opening line on Wave Of Mutilation is: “cease to resist”. History is fun!
9. CLIMATE CHANGE IS A BIG DEAL IN PIXIES LAND: EXAMPLE ONE
Frank Black discussing the previously mentioned El Nino streams in ‘Wave Of Mutilation’ with Esquire in 2014, and expressing concern for “water going up and down and moving across the earth and the churning up of organic material turning into rock, water turning into clouds”.
10. CLIMATE CHANGE IS A BIG DEAL IN PIXIES LAND: EXAMPLE TWO
It’s ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’, of course, and its oblique references to the destruction of the Ozone layer, for example, “There was a guy / an underwater guy who controlled the sea / got killed by ten million pounds of sludge / from New York to New Jersey’’ and “the creature in the sky, got sucked in a hole, Now there’s a hole in the sky” and “everything is gonna burn, we’ll all take turns, I’ll get mine too”. These lyrics possibly aren’t scientifically accurate, but they sure make you think don’t they.
11. THE LYRICS “IF MAN IS FIVE… AND IF THE DEVIL IS SIX… THEN GOD IS SEVEN” MEANS NOTHING AT ALL
“I’m less concerned with making sense than making the lyrics pop out of the speaker,” Black told Esquire in 2014. “If man is five, the devil is six, then God is seven.” Guess what? That rhymes with “this monkey’s gone to heaven”.
12. ‘MR GRIEVES’ IS CLOSELY RELATED TO ‘MONKEY GONE TO HEAVEN’
Firstly, the “underwater guy who controlled the sea” mentioned in ‘Monkey…’ appears again, but this time he’s named and something bad has happened to his offspring: “What’s that floating in the water? Old Neptune’s only daughter.” Secondly, it’s about mankind being responsible for the ultimate destruction of the world as we know it. Which, in hindsight, seems remarkably prophetic.
13. DID NEPTUNE HAVE A DAUGHTER THOUGH? IT’S COMPLICATED
Oh sure, and she’s called Benthesikyme. Confusingly, in most places Poseidon is listed as her dad, not Neptune. And here’s why: in Greek mythology the god of the sea is Poseidon, in Roman mythology it’s Neptune. So these guys are pretty much interchangeable in most scenarios. Feels good to achieve clarity regarding this matter.
14. FRANK BLACK WROTE THE RIFF FOR ‘HERE COMES YOUR MAN’ WHEN HE WAS 14
On a piano. Some solid maths (‘Doolittle’ came out on April 17 1989, Black was born on April 6 1965, so turned 14 in 1979) tells us this means he waited roughly a decade to turn it into a really great pop tune. A side note: the melody sounds like 1967 tune “Never My Love” by The Association.
15. PIXIES DIDN’T PLAY ‘HERE COMES YOUR MAN’ LIVE UNTIL 2004
Because, as Black told The Catalogue magazine in 1989: “ We would never play that song live, we’re too far removed from it. It’s too wimpy-poppy.” Took him 25 years to change his mind.
16. ‘HERE COMES YOUR MAN’ IS NOT A LOVE SONG
“It’s about winos and hobos travelling on the trains who die in the California Earthquake,” Black told NME in 1989. “Before earthquakes, everything gets very calm – animals stop talking and birds stop chirping and there’s no wind. It’s very ominous. I’ve been through a few earthquakes, actually, ’cause I grew up in California. I was only in one big one, in 1971. I was very young and I slept through it. I’ve been awake through lots of small ones at school and at home. It’s very exciting actually – a very comical thing. It’s like the earth is shaking, and what can you do? Nothing.”
17. ‘LA LA LOVE YOU’ IS ALSO NOT A LOVE SONG
Check the lyrics “first base, second base, third base, home run” being said, very quietly, after the chorus. ‘La La Love You’ is a fuck song.
18. LISTEN CAREFULLY TO ‘LA LA LOVE YOU’ AND YOU CAN HEAR BOTTLES BEING KNOCKED OVER
This tune is drummer David Lovering’s moment in front of the mic, or as Frank Black has put it a few times: “his Ringo moment”. He was nervous, so had “three or four shots of whiskey to calm my nerves”, Lovering told Music Radar in 2011, and “if you listen closely to the recording you can hear me kicking over some bottles – there’s a little bit of clanking going on.”
19. YOU KNOW THE STORY ABOUT DAVID AND BETHSHEBA, RIGHT?
The one from verse 11 of the second book of Samuel in the Old Testament of The Bible? In which King David gets his warrior pal Uriah’s wife Bethsheba preggo and sets in motion a series of events that results in many deaths, until David seeks repentance from God and then everything is okay again? Well anyway, that’s what the song ‘Dead’ is about.
20. PJ HARVEY WAS “IN AWE” OF THE SONG ‘I BLEED’
And is quoted in the 2005 book Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies by Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz, as calling it “one of my favourite song. A beautifully structured, very powerful, haunting, scary, and very moving song.”
21. KIM DEAL ONLY BEING ALLOWED TO WRITE ONE SONG ON ‘DOOLITTLE’ WORKED OUT OKAY IN THE END
Deal’s bass guitar and backing vocals are key to the Pixies sound, but Frank Black had creative control of the band and only let Deal write one song, ‘Silver’, for ‘Doolittle’. This created bad vibes, and the power battle between the two was essentially why the Pixies split in ‘93. On the plus side it meant all of Deal’s song ideas ended up on the first Breeders album, 1990’s ‘Pod’, which also just so happens to be a masterpiece.
22. ‘CRACKITY JONES’ IS NOT WOKE
It’s a fairly unsympathetic portrayal (“I’m afraid you’ll cut me, boy!”) of a mentally ill roommate Frank Black once had. “I have a lot more patience and understanding about mental-health issues now, as a middle-aged man,” he told Esquire in 2014. “But when you’re young and you run into that, especially when it’s intimate like when you’re living with someone, it can freak you out. Now I would have a more nurturing attitude about it.”
23. BLACK LIVED WITH CRACKITY JONES IN PUERTO RICO
For six months, which is where he learned to speak the Spanish that often turns up in Pixies songs, including ‘Crackity Jones’.
24. ‘NO. 13 BABY’ IS TRACK NUMBER 11
Which is kinda funny.
25. THE NUMBER 13 IN ‘NO. 13 BABY’ IS A GANG REFERENCE…
“Thirteen is a famous number in gang-speak,” Black explains in Ben Sisario’s 2006 33 ⅓ book about ‘Doolittle’. “The 13th letter of the alphabet, marriage and marijuana. You know, M.”
26….AND THE VIVA LA LOMA RICA MENTIONED IN THE LYRICS ARE A REAL GANG
Also from the 33 ⅓ book: “Viva la Loma Rica was a gang around at that time. I don’t know anything about them but you used to see the spray paint everywhere – VLLR, for Viva la Loma Rica, ‘long live the rich hill.’
27. THE BAND PROMO’D ‘DOOLITTLE’ WITH THE FUCK OR FIGHT TOUR
28. TWO ‘DOOLITTLE’ SONGS FEATURE DAMAGE DONE TO EYES
The first: ‘Debaser’. The second: Gouge Away’, which is about Samson (another Old Testament dude, good hair, dated Delilah) having his eyes gouged out after Delilah ordered a servant to cut off all his hair (the source of all his power, as is the case with most of us) while he was sleeping, then handed him over to his enemies, the Philistines. “You can gouge away, stay all day, if you want to,” yelps Black as he feels Samson’s pain.
29. ‘DOOLITTLE’ INVENTED NIRVANA
Kurt Cobain talking to Rolling Stone in 1994 about writing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit: “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. 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.”
30. FRANK BLACK THINKS ‘GOUGE AWAY’ IS THE BEST SONG ON ‘DOOLITTLE’
It’s up there. It’s right up there.