Song of the Day: Visual Arts in Music (Day Seven). “Slicing Up Eyeballs”.

“Got me a movie, I want you know, Slicing up eyeballs, I want you to know”.  The movie that Black Francis wants you to know about on Debaser, the opening track of the 1989 album, Doolittle, is Un Chien Andalou, a 15 minute long silent movie by Surrealist painter Salvador Dali and Surrealist filmmaker Louis Brunel made in 1929.  Un Chien Andalou was the pair’s first film and became very popular after its first showing in Paris, running for 8 months.  The film’s premiere was attended by Pablo Picasso, Le Corbusier, Jean Cocteau, Christian Berard and George Auric, as well a vast majority of Andre Breton’s Surrealist group.

The film has no discernible plot, with a disjointed chronology jumping from “Once upon a time” to “8 months later” with tenuously related scenes in a dream-like narrative structure.  The most famous line in the Pixies’ Debaser, “Slicing up eyeballs” is a reference to the film’s equally famous opening scene in which a woman’s eyeball is cut by a straight razor.

In Debaser, Black Francis changes the name of the original movie, Un Chien Andalou, to “Un Chien Andalusia” because he thought that ‘Andalou’ ”sounded too French”.  Un Chien Andalou means “An Andalusian Dog” in French.  As expected of both Salvador Dali and Louis Brunel, Un Chien Andalou was a highly experimental film, quite unlike anything the cinema audience of that time had seen before.  The film was seen to debase morality and the art community of the time, hence the title of the Pixies’ song, Debaser.  According to Black Francis, the earliest version of Debaser featured the line “Shed, Apollonia!” instead of “Un Chien Andalusia”, in reference to a scene in the Prince film Purple Rain (1984).  Talking about Debaser with a Spanish magazine following the release of Doolittle, the songwriter said:

“I wish Brunel was still alive.  He made this film about nothing in particular.  The title itself is nonsense.  With my stupid, pseudo-scholar, naive, enthusiastic, avant-garde-ish, amateurish way to watch Un Chien Andalou (twice), I thought, ‘Yeah, I will make a song about it’.  (He sings:) “Un chien andalou” … It sounds too French, so I will sing “un chien Andalusia”, it sounds good, no?”

The lines “I wanna grow up to be a debaser” are telling of Francis’ desire to subvert the world of rock music in the same way that Dali and Brunel subverted the visual art world.  This was feat that the Pixies continually managed, particularly on their earlier albums such as the Come On Pilgrim mini album (1987), Surfer Rosa (1988) and the aforementioned Doolittle, with their oddly twisted tales of sex, incest, reincarnation, mutilation, death and disease as well as bizarre spins on Biblical stories and plots from films, all carried out with a distinctly Surrealist feel.  The Doolittle album is very much influenced by Surrealism, something that heavily influenced Black Francis during his college years.  In a 1989 interview with the New York Times, he said of Surrealism:

“I got into avant-garde movies and Surrealism as an escape from reality … To me, Surrealism is totally artificial.  I recently read an interview with the director David Lynch who said he had ideas and images but he didn’t know exactly what they meant.  That’s how I write”.

Song of the Day: Visual Artists in Music (Day Five). “Pinned to the Edges of Vision”.

“My painting is visible images which conceal nothing … they evoke mystery and indeed when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, ‘what does that mean?  It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable”.

– Rene Magritte.

Rene Magritte was a Belgian surrealist artist who became well known for a number of witty and thought-provoking pieces.  His work is known for challenging the preconditioned perceptions of reality.  Whilst the artist’s work is often imbued with a sense of mystery, the artist himself was far less conspicuous.   Magritte lived on a street much like any other in Brussels.  His house was much like any other in the local area too, proper and ordinary like the man himself.  It was this mundane nature of everyday life which the artist valued greatly and used to his advantage, taking ordinary things and imbuing them with a sense of something less ordinary through his unique vision.

“I want to breathe new life into the way we look at the ordinary things around us.  But how should one look?  Like a child, the first time it encounters a reality outside itself.  I live in the same state of innocence as a child, who believes he can reach out from his cot and grasp a bird in the sky”.

– Rene Magritte

Upstairs in the Surrealist artist’s home of twenty five years, which has since been turned into a museum, his wife lovingly preserved his final unfinished canvas, perhaps as John Cale says in his song Magritte, from the 2003 album HoboSapiens, “stretched, For umbrellas and bowler hats, Everyone knows Magritte did that”.

You can see Magritte in his array of self portraits, often “Inside a canvas of blue saturated with beauty, In a web of glass”.  You can also see portrayals of the artist’s wife, Georgette, as well as glimpses of their modest Brussels home.  There is an autobiographical quality to Magritte’s work but what of the mystery that surrounds it?  We do not need to look for the mysterious as it exists everywhere, even in the most conventional of lives.

“Everything we see hides another thing; we always want to see what is hidden by what we see”.

– Rene Magritte.

Images that are illustrative bring about a powerful paradox in the mind of the viewer.  Magritte’s work is beautiful in its clarity and simplicity but can also invoke unsettling thoughts.  They are suggesting to you that they hide no mystery but they are also often odd and puzzling.  With his tribute song to the artist, John Cale manages to evoke the same feelings that we get when looking at one of the artist’s pictures.  On starting to listen to the song, we are drawn in to a string soaked discussion of the beauty of the artist’s work.  Yet, in the second verse, we are faced with the sound of “a car-horn in the street outside And a museum with its windows open”.   Later in the song, Cale says, “Somebody’s coming that hates us, Better watch the art”.  This is the paradox and mystery in Cale’s Magritte, a seemingly beautiful ode to an artist actually appears to be discussing something altogether more sinister.  Is a song which starts as a loving tribute to the artist’s work actually about an art heist at “a museum with its windows open”?  Is the “car-horn in the street” a getaway car?  Are the people who hate the narrator and his accomplices, those “legends of conspicuous men”, the police?  This is the mystery in Cale’s song, as seen quite often in his work, just as in Rene Magritte’s work:  It is left open to interpretation, out there somewhere, “pinned to the edges of vision”.

“This arbitrarily reconstructed verbal / imagerial lexicon evinces that, in an alternate, oneiric state of logic, words and objects can acquire new relationships, as they are not transcendentally united”.

– Rene Magritte.