The third of our quartet of new books for the spring is Doolittle, by Ben Sisario. Our good friends at Amazon.com are still saying that the book is “not yet released”, but don’t believe them – they’re wrong. It’s in the usual stores (the Barnes & Noble at Union Square in NYC has a big selection, for example), or if you wish to buy it from Amazon, and maybe make them realise that they have copies stacked up in their warehouse, you can do so here.
At some point Whore was dropped as the title. “It was too strong,” Thompson says now. “It wasn’t really where I was coming from.” In a British music trade magazine at the time, he cited another consideration: “Vaughan [Oliver] 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 was 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.”
His replacement was less blatantly antagonistic, but in the context of the album’s intermingling themes of sex, religion, and depravity, it’s not so nice either. Dr. John Dolittle, in the children’s novels of Hugh Lofting, was a wise and jolly Victorial naturalist (“the greatest nacheralist in the world”) who could speak the language of animals – a heroic achievement of man the enlightened scientist, the master of the earth. But in Thompson’s songs, the name becomes symbolic of the abasement of man’s place in the universe. “Pray for a man in the middle / One that talks like Doolittle,” he sings in “Mr. Grieves,” a song that pictures nuclear holocaust and the end of humanity. Man has screwed things up for himself; he will devolve, perhaps, and become but a beast, so he better start learning how to talk like one. A similar theme emerges in “Wave of Mutilation” and “Monkey Gone to Heaven” – man falls gurgling into an underwater grave, his human nature jumbled confusingly with that of god and critter like some fish-eyed semihuman monster out of H.P. Lovecraft.
Plus, of course, it must have appealed to Thompson to use a title that was on one dumb level just a corny slacker pun: do little. Get it? It’s an album called Doolittle that’s got a song on it where he goes, “Some marijuana if you got some!”
No long recording session is complete without some mind-rotting downtime, and for recreation the Pixies and their studio colleagues played Centipede in the back room and chowed at the Ethiopian restaurant across the street (Addis Red Sea – it’s still there). One of the second assistant engineers on the album was Burt Price, a new employee of the studio; Doolittle was the first album he worked on. Now a top studio tech, and on the faculty of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Price remembers one particular night when a couple of members of the band – Joey and David, he thinks, but this was many, many sessions ago – killed all the lights and bounced around the main room like the apes in 2001, making wild animal noises in the dark. Tape was rolling, Price says. Which means that somewhere, presumably in the 4AD vaults in London, lie professional 24-track master recordings of this romp, on expensive two-inch Ampex 256 tape. Were they conjuring the spirit of Dr. Dolittle or just smoking too much weed?