Some things you can pry from my cold dead fingers, always and forever. A few days ago I was saying that about my beloved T. Rex records. Well, I had said it in a much more elegant way than that, but I think the gist of it was plain to see. The point is, some things, some cultural totems and personal touchstones, can only be pried away in death. You can add my Talking Heads records to that. You can pry Speaking in Tongues from my cold dead fingers, if that’s how you wanna put it. It’s a record that, besides being a famous classic and an instant party, is one of those works that doesn’t get older or worn out by too much familiarity. It goes beyond mere personal nostalgia, though of course, I did grow up with it. If something can remain meaningful across a lifetime, from childhood to adulthood, and exponentially so across generations, that’s the antithesis of personal nostalgia. Personal nostalgia is when we feel sentimentally attached to things we rationally know are actually valueless or downright bad just because we imprinted on them as ducklings; things that, from novelty pop songs to toppled political regimes, should really be best forgotten. When something that amused our childhood selves continues to be meaningful over decades, meaningful beyond just the ability to trigger memories, that’s your testament that art really is the only human thing that carries over. This is why we care so much about buildings on fire.
By keeping an ideal facial structure fixed in his mind…
Or somewhere in the back of his mind…
That he might, by force of will, cause his face to approach those of his ideal…
Wouldn’t that be nice? If that were true we would all be morphing and changing throughout our lives. Which we do, but only in one direction. We may not be able to change and improve our faces, realistically, but we can change and recreate ourselves by how we live our lives, which may be the harder challenge.
“Love so deep, kills you in your sleep”
David Byrne isn’t talking about his relationship with the other members of Talking Heads, that’s for sure. This isn’t even really a proper “Talking Heads” song, though it’s on the books as their final release. It’s an old demo from the Naked sessions that David Byrne slapped some lyrics on for a movie soundtrack. So, basically, a David Byrne song, as all Talking Heads songs are basically just David Byrne songs anyway, because in a band spearheaded by such a strong personality the pretense of creative equality kind of falls apart (and then the band itself falls apart). That explains why Byrne is the only one who appears in the video. Byrne’s own explanation for the song is pretty interesting: “I wrote the words later for the opening scene of Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World. The movie is supposed to take place in the year 2000, so I spent a lot of time trying to image music of the near future: post-rock sludge with lyrics sponsored by Coke and Pepsi? Music created by machines with human shouts of agony and betrayal thrown in? Faux Appalachian ballads, the anti-tech wave? The same sounds and licks from the 60s and 70s regurgitated yet again by a new generation of samplers? The Milli Vanilli revival? Rappin’ politicos… sell your soul to the beat, y’all? Well, it was daunting… so I figured, hell with it, I’d imagine Talking Heads doing a reunion LP in the year 2000, and them sounding just like they used to.” Everything he imagined except the Milli Vanilli comeback has come true with a vengeance and it’s the phrase “Talking Heads reunion” that sounds like outlandish gibberish.
“I wanted to write a song that presented a resigned, even joyful look at doom” – David Byrne
Mission accomplished, Byrne. This is the most triumphalist and cheery song about the futility of life that you could ever hope for. David Byrne really has a knack for sticking great pop melodies on things that ought to be mopey. Lots of songs about alienation and futility that you can dance to. We are, collectively, very much on the road to nowhere, but we might as well party it up while we’re at it. Life is meaningless, life is futile, life is both too short and too long. But as long as you can dance to those sentiments, you can live with them.
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..