Dean Van Nguyen’s acapella cover of “Mr. Grieves” is way better than TV On The Radio’s.
Read the rest of David Bowie Tribute week here.
The Star Man might have been universally-recognized as one of the greatest songwriters in our galaxy, but he never forgot his earthly roots. David Bowie consistently took on the songs of his favourite musicians, whether live on stage or laying them down on wax. His goal wasn’t always to do anything radical with the compositions, but maybe the drive of hearing them come from his own guitar and vocal cords was enough satisfaction. Behind Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke and a thousand other layers laid the beating heart of a simple music fan.
He tackled the dramatic spectacle of Morrissey’s “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday”, traversed the cosmos on Lennon’s “Across The Universe,” and thrilled crowds with hard-rock hallelujah “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” But taken from 2002 record Heathen, Bowie’s cover of “Cactus” holds significant substance as one of the most cutting tracks in his latter-day canon. The Pixies’ spine-chilling classic found Black Francis sounding like a serial killer obsessing over a chosen victim from inside his shadowy layer. Or perhaps a deranged convict sitting on the concrete floor of a cold cell, desperately yearning for his one-time sweetheart. Either way, the abnormal psychological gratification he seeks from a garment doused in body fluid—in 1988 when AIDS hysteria was pandemic, remember—delivering in his skewed, high-pitched voice sounded truly horrific. You can almost feel the bugs shooting up Francis’s spine as he muses on his dark proclivities. And yet there’s a sickening beauty in “Cactus” you can’t turn away from.
On Bowie’s version, the Pixies’ dark surf pop is thrown out for a harder rock sound—the extra bells and whistles teasing out the pop number that was always present. But it’s his sneering vocal performance that completely re-contextualizes the track. Sounding less like Black’s twisted monster than a despairing lover, it’s far easier to imagine the nameless woman in the dress actually reciprocating Bowie’s crazed notions. The leaning into “just wear that dress when you di-yi-yi-yi-yiiin” rings with bold assertion. Macabre or no, his is a plea you expect to be fulfilled.
“Cactus” is a perfect cover because as impressive as Bowie sounds, it’s not a song that can be easily filed next to anything else in his back catalogue. A long-time champion of the Pixies, he must have felt Francis’s muck-encrusted meditations tug at his heels and gnaw at his brain, screaming to be re-imagined. Its razor-sharp edges feeling all the more wounding as latter-day Bowie rarely adhered to traditional song structure. Surrounded on Heathen by operatic numbers like the chorus-less “Sunday” and sprawling “Slip Away,” the screeching “Cactus” plays like a moment of mad genius amid peaceful tranquillity. I’m grateful for that.