Speaking in Tongues was released 34 years ago as of yesterday. Note how much Talking Heads changed since the last time we visited with Talking Heads. They went from “I hate people when they’re not polite” to “Whatever happens is fine.” It looks like they embraced generosity of spirit along with those African polyrhythms. David Byrne, along with every other long-lasting songwriter worth his salt, grew up and realized that as a topic angst gets boring. In this case, we’re talking about two albums only a few years apart, and it’s been decades since both of them were new. David Byrne is an elderly man now, and he can’t really make being tetchy and maladjusted a part of his persona anymore, except cheekily. The upside of being a fan of artists who are in their twilight years is looking back at the arc of their lives and careers, seeing the changes and the threads of similarity, the favored topics and new inspirations, the waves of growth and withering. You can trace the arc of your won life in the generous discographies of you favorite artists. The downside is that they die.
Ah, the song that taught us all how to say Je me lance vers la gloire…OK. Personally, I love both songs with incongruous lines of foreign language and songs about killing people, so this is just two of my favorite things together right here. Plus all of the other obvious glories of Talking Heads. I find it interesting that this song has been knocking around, in various iterations, since Byrne and co’s art school days; because when you’re a group of art school students trying to start a band, you would obviously bypass all the usual dumb shit about love and humping that less intellectual mortals fill their little notebooks with (and what good are notebooks!) No, you drop the training wheels and head straight for the big-kids’ stuff, and you write a song from the perspective of a frustrated serial killer and you write the chorus in French. And of course that song becomes your breakout hit and one of your most famous tunes and your tetchy neurotic smart-guy persona is in place for life.
Ohh, naughty! Talking Heads aren’t exactly notorious for their double entendres. In fact, David Byrne is one of the few songwriters out there for whom sex isn’t a favorite topic. He much prefers buildings and food. So you hardly expect Talking Heads to come out with a splashy summer song. Because singing about how much sexy fun summer is, is a pretty vapid topic. But this is the Talking Heads’ big sexy summer anthem, and it isn’t even dripping with irony. It’s dripping sweet sexy Popsicle juice. Ok, there may be some irony in play here, but it’s earnestly fun too. Generally, Byrne’s attitude towards sexy fun can be summed up by the album title Sand in the Vaseline. But I guess nobody is entirely immune to life’s simple pleasures..
David Byrne’s 1986 film True Stories is an exercise in speculative social anthropology. In it Byrne, the quintessential New York art school egghead, ventures into Texas to goggle dryly at how small town folks be living. Not much happens besides some comical vignettes of what Byrne gleaned about midwestern life from reading its newspapers. Whether you find it amusing or condescending depends on whether or not you’re already inclined to view people in the flyover zone as exotic and undercivilized. Obviously, Byrne is not much of film director, nor much of an actor, but he did provide enough music for the film to fill a Talking Heads album. And if he did one thing right, it was casting the eternally scene stealing but not yet well known John Goodman. In the movie’s only cogent storyline, Goodman is a bachelor looking for love (SPOILER: he finds it) and, predictably, steals the film. His performance of People Like Us is the showstopper, and though it may be intended as a pastiche of good ‘ol boy country pride, it’s still moving.
Go ahead and tear it, tear up the paper…
Obviously, this is a pretty poignant metaphor for us literary types. When you’re obsessed with narratives, there’s nothing more frustrating than the basic inability to control or foresee your own. In this case the metaphor is for love affairs, necessarily constrained by the size and quality of the paper and haunted by everything that doesn’t fit on it. And in the end you crumple it up and throw it away, because it’s essentially disposable, essentially inadequate. That also holds true for life, which fails to provide a satisfying narrative arc, doesn’t work out just how you want it, doesn’t contain enough romance or adventure, doesn’t take the shape you want it to. If you’re lucky your life will be looked back on as one of those well-thumbed books with the cracked spine and coffee stains. If you’re not, it’s just a half-empty spiral notebook growing soggy in some box in the basement.
“The Overload,” was Talking Heads’ attempt to emulate the sound of British post-punk band Joy Division. The song was made despite no band member having heard the music of Joy Division; rather, it was based on an idea of what the British quartet might sound like based on descriptions in the music press. The track features “tribal-cum-industrial” beats created primarily by Harrison and Byrne. (from Wikipedia)
I think that just might be single best high-concept concept was ever conceptualized. Because this is pretty spot-on, and it’s clear that the Talking Heads had stumbled upon, at the very least, an excellent parlour game. In fact, I’m pretty sure that ‘an idea of what Joy Division might sound like based on descriptions in the press’ has become a legit genre. The world having come full circle, we now have an entire genre of ‘bands who’ve based their entire sound and image on written descriptions of 80’s new wave music’.
And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?
“Most of the words in ‘Once in a Lifetime’ come from evangelists I recorded off the radio while taking notes and picking up phrases I thought were interesting directions. Maybe I’m fascinated with the middle class because it seems so different from my life, so distant from what I do. I can’t imagine living like that.” – David Byrne
So David Byrne sees middle America as some kind of a zoo, an alien land of obscure tribes that can’t be understood. Indeed, middle America with its white bread aspirations is a bizarre concept which may or may not actually exist, but looms large in the imaginations of creative coastal types as a symbol of everything dull and conformist that has to be escaped or destroyed, or at least mocked. Elitist? You betcha. Yet Byrne drolly captures the low-key existential angst that many, most, maybe every single one of us, lives. We spend our lives pursuing things and then wonder if they had been worth pursuing. Or we fold our metaphorical arms and spend our lives refusing to pursue what we think we’ve been told to pursue, and then wonder if we should have after all.