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.