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Book Review: The Pixies’ “Doolittle” (33 1/3 Series) by Ben Sisario

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I spent the entire month of October 2004 wondering if I had wasted $35 (plus Ticketmaster convenience charges) to see a band better remembered through their records. It’s not as if I assumed the Pixies reunion would be horrible, but for me purchasing a Pixies ticket was more about being able to say, “Well, at least I saw them.” Despite the fact that there were no rumors or reports of the Pixies fighting, there was always the possibility that my show could be the one where the legendarily volatile group broke up again. And even if the Pixies did suck (and didn’t break up), there would always be the opportunity to see the Datsuns play “Super Gyration” to a crowd of bespectacled Pitchfork readers. Actually, that in itself might have been worth the $35.

Yet, that Saturday night in Detroit, something unexpected happened: perhaps it was the crowd’s reaction when the Pixies took the Fox Theatre stage. The entire theatre stood up quickly – maybe it was a sign of respect, maybe we all just wanted to see them, hell, maybe we had all gone to the same school of concert etiquette. And maybe it was the way they entered: they didn’t seem like a band who had just reunited for the money. They wanted to play their songs for us, just as much as we wanted them to play for us. And the Pixies were good! Frank Black sounded fantastic, ear-rending screams and all. Kim Deal was once again the woman who all of us (yes, yes, ladies included) wanted to have as a girlfriend. And although David Lovering and Joey Santiago were overshadowed as always by those two aforementioned behemoth personalities, they too were just on that night.

After my wild night with the Pixies, I was completely hooked as never before. When I received my first record player for Christmas that year, Surfer Rosa was one of the first vinyl LPs I bought. I spent a lot of time listening to Doolittle, despite the fact that no matter how many times I heard the songs, I always caught myself thinking, “How strange” at least once during the album. Maybe it was the Surrealism-influenced lyrics, the mad dog from hell howls of Black Francis, or the pure sonic dissonance. But still, to this day, every time I hear Doolittle those factors combine to remind me of what a strange, well-loved album it actually is. And in one of the latest additions to Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, Ben Sisario lovingly expounds on the oddities of Doolittle to great effect.

The written version of Doolittle is a thought-provoking read, as Sisario attempts to demonstrate how vastly influenced the Pixies were by the cinematic Surrealist movement. The gravelly voiced spectre of David Lynch flickers in and out of song lyric interpretations, and of course, there are multiple mentions of Un Chien Andalou almost every time “Debaser” comes up. And while this is all interesting, there’s a fatal flaw. The idea of the Pixies’ fascination with Surrealism takes more of a center stage than most of the band members… except for Charles Thompson, a.k.a. Black Francis. Obviously, it’s not Sisario’s fault that Kim Deal refused repeated interview requests; it’s just really not a fulfilling read about the making of Doolittle and the (ahem) rich history of the Pixies without her. Yes, there are tantalizing ancedotes about Deal, but those moments are the equivalent to giving someone a spoonful of raspberry ice cream in July. It’s delicious, but is that one spoonful enough? Helllllllll no.

Frankly, this 33 1/3 edition is much more valuable for those who are interested in the intricacies of the lyrics. With a scholarly zest, Sisario picks apart every song on the album and serendipitously reveals diamonds of meaning. These moments are very interesting and provocative: after finishing the book, I was inspired to relisten to all of Doolittle just to see what I truly felt about the songs. Was I supposed to do as Sisario did and find meaning in it, or was I supposed to understand the album as Black Francis wished (“The point is to experience it, to enjoy it, to be entertained by it”)? Of course, that is a very personal decision, but for the thoughtful Pixies fan, it’s a question that may very well plague them after reading this book. Is Doolittle actually just a plastic, disposable piece of entertainment, or is the listener supposed to consider it thoughtfully as a musical member of the Surrealist canon? Whatever your preference, Pixies fans ready to question their champions and thoughts of their music are highly recommended to read this book.

Reviewed by Megan Giddings

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