The Greatest Scream (with words): The Pixies, “Monkey Gone To Heaven” (1989)

[God] took man as a creature of indeterminate nature and, assigning him a place in the middle of the world, addressed him thus . . . “We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice and with honor, as though the maker and molder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer. Thou shalt have the power to degenerate into the lower forms of life, which are brutish. Thou shalt have the power, out of thy soul’s judgment, to be reborn into the higher forms, which are divine.”
—Pico della Mirandola, “Oration on the Dignity of Humanity”

There’s a monkey song genre.  Call it Monkey Genre B to distinguish it from Monkey Genre A, drug-related songs.  We need Genre B to accommodate tragic paranoid perceptions of the human condition.  One great work in the genre is Peter Gabriel’s “Shock The Monkey,” with its terrifying cries at the end bringing us right into the skin of the tortured experimental subject.  Other notable examples include Chagall Guevara’s “Monkey Grinder” (following “Play God” on the Chagall Guevara album), “The Facts Of Life” by Talking Heads, and “The Smartest Monkeys” by XTC.  And then there’s the pioneering “The Monkey” by the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

These monkey statements are really theologies.  Playing with the distinction between lower and higher primates makes us notice the gap between the human and the Holy, the best, the ideal, as we read ourselves into the low position of “monkey.”  “Monkey Gone To Heaven” by the Pixies does little with the monkey image as such, but it makes this theological thrust more nakedly than I have heard anywhere else (except in “The Facts Of Life”), and it does this not just on a lyric sheet but in a great rock ‘n’ roll moment:  Black Francis (Frank Black) screaming “Then God is 7! Then God is 7! Then God is 7!”

The force of this climax in “Monkey Gone To Heaven” owes a lot to the Pixies’ general persona. Their corner of the postpunk realm is at once facetious, poetically bold, and musically passionate. Most distinctive, I think, is this last ingredient in the mix, their feel for chords and rhythms with heavy emotional resonance, which gives them the ability to produce stunning shift-of-tone effects.  The Pixies are one of the last bands in the world from whom we would expect a straight statement about anything and so are beautifully positioned for a theological ambush.  What could grab us more powerfully than an abrupt shift of musical intensity at the very moment we hear the word “God”?  Black Francis has been murmuring

If man is 5 if man is 5 if man is 5
Then the devil is 6 then the devil is 6 then the devil is 6 then the devil is 6

which points toward a next step, to be sure, yet in such a subdued way that we are anything but prepared for it.  There is just a slight crescendo to make us feel that we are headed somewhere.  That next step, though entirely logical, is a doozie—

And if the devil is 6, then God is 7! Then God is 7! Then God is 7!

“Monkey Gone To Heaven” scream

—because Black Francis has flown from sub-seriousness to trans-seriousness. As though climbing up the ladder 5, 6, 7 brought him to where he could see the Infinite. As though the grail really does lie at the center of the fractured Pixie poetics.

Earlier in the song there are sardonic allusions to the fall of the gods—Neptune, nowadays just “an underwater guy,” is killed by sludge from New York and New Jersey, and “the creature in the sky,” Zeus, gets sucked into a nuclear hole.  This proves that we’re the real gods; or rather devils; or both; or (we’re not sure) maybe neither.  But “Then God is 7!” blasts right through the cobwebs of this sophisticated self-uncertainty.  Whatever it means, it sure means it.

A great rock scream has to be about a great issue.  Roger Daltrey is screaming about the betrayal of all political hope in “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”  Corey Glover is screaming about the horrible disproportion between humans and their technology in “Information Overload.”  Janis Joplin screams “Take it!” in “Piece Of My Heart” because romantic love could tip anytime into homicidal anger and suicidal despair.  But it seems to me that every possible reason for screaming is rolled up into “Then God is 7!” —if the devil is 6, and man is 5.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
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One Response to The Greatest Scream (with words): The Pixies, “Monkey Gone To Heaven” (1989)

  1. wallernotweller says:

    The pen of Frank Black Francis hadn’t become too far tainted with science fiction pomp by this point and “Monkey Gone To Heaven” is a streamlined ode to religion and the current state of the world’s ecology. The song opens with the lines “There was a guy, an underwater guy who controlled the sea. Got killed by ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey.” So is this guy the god Neptune or a simply a worker that comes to a terrible fate? My money is on Neptune the God of the sea. Straight away he has you thinking in an abstract way. This in no way is a run-of-the-mill pop song. The “If man is five then the devil is six and God is seven” mantra becomes more than a simple obtuse reference to Hebrew beliefs by the end of the song. When Francis begins to scream the words with more conviction that he rightly should the listener becomes a believer themselves.

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