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.
I never get over being amazed by the wit of this song. Being very, very clever is David Byrne’s m.o. but this time he’s outdone himself. Being ecologically conscious had just begun to enter the mainstream in the late 80’s. Issues like deforestation, acid rain and the ozone hole were major talking points. It was the dawning of the green movement. At the time people viewed environmental problems as something we could fix and move on from, and in some cases, we more or less did. This was before Al Gore introduced us to the spectre of global warming. Now we know we’re pretty much all doomed, but back then… Back then the idea of a future where the discount stores and parking lots had been laid low by the forces of nature, why, it sounded like a novelty song! Now it sounds very prescient indeed. We’re zooming fast towards a future diet of nuts and berries. I don’t know if David Byrne had any idea that within a few years his funny tune would be not so much an ironic parody of other people’s self righteous protest songs but basically the generally accepted vision of where society could well be headed. Over the crest of the next big technological advance the bubble bursts and all that’s left is the abandoned detritus of a failed industrial civilization, with a few straggling survivors left to dream of bygone chocolate chip cookies.
Talking Heads are a bummer. Because they totally could get back together, but most likely never will. Partly out of integrity, partly because they can’t stand each other (or so I have heard.) On the other hand, it’s fortunate for us that they quit while they were ahead. It was always David Byrne’s vision that dominated, which led to resentment and dysfunction within the group. But they didn’t let it leak into the music, and if they’d stuck it out longer, it probably would have, and then their music would have been a sad and bitter thing. But they bowed out with the 80’s, giving us a final album that, while not as classic as some of their more classic ones, was still a proud note to go out on. And if it’s any consolation, Byrne is not vehemently opposed to playing old Talking Heads songs on tour, so if he ever comes your way, he might bust out a hit or two.
Flying saucers, levitation, let’s get this party started. If you don’t think Talking Heads are the ultimate party music, you’re wrong. You’re just wrong and there’s no recourse for you. Also you are made of wood.