Cactus (The Pixies, 1988).
Cactus (The Pixies, live, 1989).
Cactus (Bowie, 2002).
Cactus (The Today Show, 2002).
Cactus (Live By Request, 2002).
Cactus (live, 2002).
Cactus (The Tonight Show (Bowie with Moby), 2002).
Cactus (VH1 Awards, 2002).
Cactus (broadcast, 2002).
Cactus (Quelli Che…Il Calcio, 2002).
Cactus (Hypershow, 2002).
Cactus (TV5, (interview w/live performance, 2003).
Cactus (live, 2004).

When he was 20, Charles “Black Francis” Thompson went to Puerto Rico for a semester abroad. He didn’t go to class. “I got real skinny—went to the beach, to movies and hung out in weird places,” one of which was a sailor’s brothel, where he’d “watch this massive barroom, full of these sailors and these slithering whores. They’d circle the room like vultures, seeing who was ready to fuck in the back room…It was like it had been that way for a hundred years and nothing had changed,” he told Mojo.

Sex was everywhere he looked in Puerto Rico, except his bedroom. “The one person who seemed to want to fuck me was this 65-year-old man, an expat Brit, an antique bookseller.” The girl Thompson had a crush on was in love with a local guy, and he was too broke and scared to do anything at the portside brothel. “I just wasn’t getting any love, man! Puerto Rico!” During his stay he wrote a postcard to Joey Santiago, his friend back at UMASS, saying they should start a band.

A lot of Pixies songs came out of Puerto Rico, Thompson said, like “Crackity Jones,” about a strange roommate. “Cactus” had its roots there as well, with its isolation, sexual deprivation, longing and revulsion. A man is locked up somewhere—a prison cell, an asylum—writing a letter to a woman he’s obsessed with (does she even know him?). He’s got a letter from her, he says, but it’s just words. He wants her flesh, her scents—the salty tang of her blood. He wants her to send him her soiled dresses, to go outside (or to another state) and rub her hand against a cactus. Because he can’t even feel pain anymore. It’s a desire for contact, for evidence of any physical act, sung by man caged like an ape.

The Pixies recorded “Cactus” in 1988 for Surfer Rosa, working with Steve Albini, who miked the room and recorded some band conversations, a few of which were used as between-song segues, and had them bring amps and gear down to the cement bathroom for better reverb (“we were in a factory building and it was a giant urinal for, like 100 guys,” recalled John Lupner, the studio assistant). “Cactus” was just a thudding shift between two power chords,* a bassline in lockstep with the guitar and a drum pattern that sounded like a man pounding on a wooden door for two minutes.


I thought it was a hell of a shame that America didn’t recognize its own with the Pixies. They broke up virtually penniless. I mean, they were so important but they never meant a thing outside New York and Los Angeles.

Bowie, Time Off, 2002.

By the time he recorded Heathen, Bowie had been talking up the Pixies for nearly 15 years—he’d performed “Debaser” live with Tin Machine back in ’91, when the Pixies were still a going concern (if barely). He’d often described them as the great American band that America didn’t recognize. It was especially galling around the end of the century, when the hushed-verse/power-refrain Pixies formula was everywhere you looked on the “modern rock” charts.

Covering “Cactus” was an inspired choice, as it was one of the Pixies songs to most disclose their debt to the Stooges, from the chord progression (tonic chord (E5) to flatted III chord (G5), a standard Ron Asheton move (see “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “1970,” “Real Cool Time”)) to the Asheton-esque guitar by Joey Santiago (the great little coda solo that shrugs off after a few notes) to Black Francis’ vocal and lyric, which was Iggy Pop’s lust and dominance games projected inward.

And Bowie also knew a glam song when he saw it, despite the austerity of Albini’s “Cactus” mix. The Pixies stole from T. Rex’s “The Groover” for the chanted “P! I! X! I! E! S!”, naturally amended here to “D! A! V! I! D!”**. Bowie’s versions, studio and live, kicked off with a guitar itching to tear into the “Get It On” riff. He bumped the song up to A major and did his usual octave-doubled backing vocals (he was playing both Kim Deal and Black Francis—very Bowie) with the EMS Synthi AKS “briefcase” synthesizer as choir.

Where Black Francis sounded like a man repulsed by himself, a man who wished he could steal someone else’s skin and shroud himself in it (the chemistry of the Pixies was in part the shambling lead male singer secretly wishing he could be his bassist, who stood to his left on stage, coolly oblivious to him, having a whale of a time), Bowie made the character delight in his depravity—it’s the nastiest old man he ever played, making his work on the revived “Liza Jane” look like a pencil sketch. Send it to meeee!

Apart from Tony Visconti on bass, the whole track was Bowie: acoustic and electric guitars, EMS Synthi,*** piano (heir to John Cale’s pounding contribution to the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog”) and his only recorded drum performance, with shaky hi-hat and thudding kick drum. It was the closest he’d come to Diamond Dogs in a generation (see the whining lead line at 1:29). Suggesting that the older you get, the dirtier you get, Bowie’s “Cactus” was a carnal relief from the Grand Old Man-isms of much of Heathen. A triumph: one of his best covers.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen.

* With a little rising turnaround of A minor (“take off your”), C (“dress”), D (“send it to”) back to E5 (“meeeee”). Bowie made this sequence Dm9-F-G-A.

** Turned into “B! L! A! C! K!” in Bowie and Moby’s performance on the Tonight Show.

*** The same synth Eno had used on Low and “Heroes.” “A friend very kindly bought me the original EMS AKS briefcase synth…It was up for auction, and I got it for my fiftieth birthday,” Bowie said in 2002. “Everything on the EMS is miniaturized beyond belief; nothing like it existed at the time. Taking it through customs has always been a stomach-turning affair as it looks like a briefcase bomb in the X-ray. Eno got pulled out of the line on several occasions. I wouldn’t even dream of taking it through these days.

Sources: Frank Black quotes from Mojo, May 2014; Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz, Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies.

Top: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone and a big rabbit (Donnie Darko, Kelly 2001); Pixies, 1988.

25 Responses to Cactus

  1. humanizingthevacuum says:

    That this track could have been as misconceived as his other terrible attempts at rocking a cover but isn’t is a tribute to brevity and an ingenious arrangement. Bowie and Visconti introduce instruments bit by bit, allowing each a space in the mix. I especially like Bowie’s electric lead and his sax doubling each other (at least it SOUNDS like a sax; it honks like one).

    • col1234 says:

      yeah, i think you’re right. It wouldn’t have been a proper Bowie one-man-band without the sax

  2. StevenE says:

    The original is one of the best songs ever, and the Bowie cover is hugely gratifying.

    I vaguely remember reading Black offering Bowie Pixies’ services as a backing band should he ever tour again. I know it’s not going to happen but it should. It’d give Bowie the excuse to overhaul his sound and Paz-backed Pixies are on-fire right now.

  3. s.t. says:

    “The chemistry of the Pixies was in part the shambling lead male singer secretly wishing he could be his bassist, who stood to his left on stage, coolly oblivious to him, having a whale of a time”

    Very sharp analysis there. It sums up both the heart of what made classic Pixies great, and what ultimately led to their dissolution.

    Here’s hoping Frank and the rest have a chance to recover from their own Hours-esque slumber.

    • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

      It’s funny isn’t it – the delicate balance of ego’s that are required to make a band function?! Singer Black Francis’s volatile relationship with bassist Kim Deal was remarkably reminiscent of the tension between David Byrne and bassist Tina Weymouth which ultimately sped up the demise of Talking Heads.

      • s.t. says:

        Sadly, yes. In retrospect, Byrne’s high functioning ASD was likely a crucial factor in those interactions. Though possessiveness and ego in collaboration transcend all diagnostic spectra.

      • col1234 says:

        not just Byrne’s ASD. Weymouth’s got her own set of issues (see any reference she’s made to Byrne in the past 2 decades)

      • s.t. says:

        Good point Chris. Not to mention that Heads album “No Talking Just Head,” complete with song titled “The King is Gone.”

        Actually, some of Weymouth’s comments about Byrne remind me of similar statements that John Stuart Mill made about his colleague Jeremy Bentham–another individual strongly suspected (posthumously) of having some sort of high functioning autism. Perhaps without knowledge of what they were dealing with, they felt compelled to interpret the abnormal interactions as some sort of inhuman cruelty. And perhaps that’s why Byrne now sticks to session musicians and remote collaborations.

    • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

      Thanks s.t., I wasn’t even aware that David Byrne had ASD or Asperger’s, but I just googled it and read a very interesting article about him. I always thought he was just an odd cat. I’ve always loved his nervy quirkiness and yelping vocal style.

      • BenJ says:

        It’s a self-diagnosis on his part, but the shoe does seem to fit. I say that as both a longtime admirer and someone with Aspy tendencies as well.

        A lot of bands seem to have had insoluble tensions between the leader and bassist, and not just when they were opposite sexes. Bruce Thomas is the one Attraction whom Elvis Costello hasn’t gotten back together with since the 90s. Also there was the Velvet Underground, where Lou Reed fired John Cale and then had a whole “you can’t fire me I quit” thing with Doug Yule.

  4. SoooTrypticon says:

    Welcome back! Looking forward to the rest of this album being discussed.

  5. Maj says:

    …and we’re back! great!

    this is the first Bowie recorded song I ever liked while knowing it was Bowie at the time of listening. definitely prefer Bowie’s version to the original. I know it’s supposed to be revolting and what not but to me it just sounds like such fun – which is not entirely usual in Bowie’s work. 😉

  6. Rufus oculus says:

    I have purposely never listened to the Pixies version as the Bowie take on it seems so perfect. I wouldn’t want to find out the original is better.

  7. I was a bigger Pixies fan than Bowie fan and it seemed odd that he would cover them back in the day. Great song. Great review.

  8. MC says:

    Welcome back, Chris! Congrats on the book – looks set to be the Bowie Bible, Old Testament.

    Couldn’t agree more on your assessment of Cactus. One of Bowie’s all-time great remakes, up there with Wild Is The Wind and the very best Spiders-era covers like Round And Round. For me, it does what great cover versions are supposed to do: it preserves the great qualities of the original (the mixture of desperate carnality and knife-edge anguish) while still putting the artist’s stamp on it (making it sound like the great lost outtake from Scary Monsters). Listening to the live versions renews my respect for Sterling Campbell; session pro that he is, he still preserves the slack-jawed primitivism of DB’s drum-bashing. Great stuff!

  9. crayontocrayon says:

    It’s a very enjoyable cover, Bowie getting gleefully into the character. While I’m not the biggest Pixies fan this was a good song choice, injecting a bit of rawness and sex into the album.

  10. Wait, didn’t Bowie play drums on “Always Crashing In the Same Car?” I always thought the primitive sixteenth note fills and cymbal crashes sans kick were Bowie wailing away with his best Dennis Davis impression, ultimately failing to perfect effect?

    • col1234 says:

      first i’ve heard it wasn’t Davis on that one. I wracked my brain to think of another Bowie drum recording but couldn’t think of any.

  11. BenJ says:

    I agree that this is one of Bowie’s best covers, and by far the best on Heathen, for all the reasons recounted above. Bowie’s voice doesn’t convey sexual frustration like Charles Francis Thompson IV’s does, but what it does have is a dark, borderline malevolent power. If Blue Velvet had an English Frank Booth, this is what he would sound like.

    The Pixies were local heroes, though. I know a lot of Bostonians who would be offended by his inference that only New York and LA cared about them.

  12. postpunkmonk says:

    I adore this cover version. It’s a high point of a strong album for me, and the weird thing is, I never liked The Pixies and never heard the original! I’ll probably keep it that way. Funny someone should mention the “No Talking, Just Head” album as I finally slogged through it after two years of owning it and I was appalled at how it contained the worst music ever from all concerned… With the glaring exemption of Gavin Friday, who effortlessly retained his charms and moreover, apparently exerted positive influence on The Heads as well.

  13. Ramzi says:

    was the chemistry you mentioned between Francis and Deal something Bowie tried to emulate on stage with Dorsey, in a few cases at least? Performances of I Would Be Your Slave come to mind, possibly even Cactus

    • Ramzi says:

      btw Bowie is responsible for introducing me to the Pixies, who I saw in London last November. Thanks, Bowie!

    • col1234 says:

      good point, but difference was that Francis wasn’t cool and Kim was, rather effortlessly. whereas either Bowie and Dorsey could be cooler, depending on the night

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