Talking Heads and Music Moments

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Talking Heads, the band

While I have been enjoying the Music Moments that have been accumulating here, I came up unexpectedly empty when seeking something similar in my past. It seemed logical enough that a lifelong music fan should have any number of crystalized, identifiable "moments" but I tried and couldn't seem to find one.

Maybe it's one of those "a fish doesn't know it's in water" things. Music has accompanied my life seamlessly; it has never occurred to me to wonder why I listen so intently, why I seem to need music on wherever I am, or what, even, I am concretely getting out of it. I have just always known that I want it and need it, that it satisfies something beyond the realm of my rational mind. 

In lieu of isolated moments, what I saw instead in my past were extended musical works---albums, as we used to call them---that have stirred me up and knocked me sideways, albums that not only wove themselves into my life story but truly changed my outlook on life. I cannot reduce my experience with these albums into a particular moment because in all cases, these are albums that I absorbed both quickly and slowly---albums that grabbed me with their immediacy and yet also captivated me with a depth that was revealed only over time. 

More Songs About Buildings and Food - Talking Heads

More Songs About Buildings and Food

Coming of age in the mid to late '70s, I can see in retrospect that my musical education took a somewhat straightforward path---Cat Stevens to Elton John to Bob Dylan---until rock'n'roll itself was yanked off its hinges by the cumulative efforts of any number of bratty bands in the U.S. and the U.K. I was perhaps too timid to warm to the all-out punks, but I loved what was going on as a result of their shenanigans. 

And no band blew my head open more than that resolutely normal-looking foursome that called themselves Talking Heads. Their first album, Talking Heads: 77, was endearing, quirky, the beginning of greatness. Brilliant songs rubbed elbows with some head-scratchers; the band's sound was novel but maybe not entirely ripened.

Fully-fledged greatness came, to my ears, with album number two, More Songs About Buildings and Food. Here was music that sounded oddly familiar but had no particular antecedent. I think this was the root of the band's power for me. My first foray into rock'n'roll involved a lot of backwards-digging. I was too young to be a hippie, too young to feel any personal affinity with the seminal bands in the '60s that made what we now call Classic Rock. I went and listened to it all, but it wasn't really mine. Talking Heads were really mine. I was even in college at the time in the same city that had given birth to the band just a few years earlier. 

And what were the first words out of front man David Byrne's mouth on this record?

"Oh baby you can
Walk you can
Talk just like me..."

Except of course none of us could, not really. And he knew it too. Two lines later:

"You can look
You won't see nothing like me
If you look around the world..."

With his high-pitched whoops and anxious enunciation, Byrne had a voice for a new generation, combining proto-indie-rocker Jonathan Richman's artless nasality with the art school yelping of Bryan Ferry, flavored by a twitchy edginess that soon became a characteristic vocal trait of the late '70s scene. Byrne's voice single-handedly undermined the front-man machismo central to rock'n'roll mystique. I'm not sure I realized consciously at the time what a relief this was. I was never going to be Robert Plant, and didn't want to be.  

At the same time, the band was much more than Byrne's voice and words. Again, the album's first moments are instructive: 20 seconds of a rigorous, simple-sounding but difficult triplet drumbeat, fronted by a one-chord guitar lick, under which bounced an elusive, melodic bass line. The beat is strong but it's no standard rock'n'roll backbeat. Something is happening here but you don't know what it is, yet.

Music to move to

The album's first side (we were still a few years away from the CD revolution) turns out to be an onslaught of propulsive beat. At first the songs seem merely fast, but as the beat is maintained, song after song (on the vinyl record, the songs were etched in the spiral such that the beat of one song led seamlessly into the next), there seemed no getting around the conclusion that the music was meant to be moved to. Maybe this wasn't just four geeky white folks trying to be funky; maybe they were coming up with their own iteration of legitimate funk. However skewed and nerdy it might still be. To this day, when I hear the album, I remember a party I was at one night, in a wooden second-floor walk-up, with the living room cleared out for dancing, More Songs From Buildings and Food playing on the turntable, bodies moving chaotically around me in red-tinted semi-darkness. This was dance music like nothing the world had danced to before, with its scratchy guitar, inventive percussive sounds, and anomalous lyrics, generating oddness and mystery from uncomplicated words.

Tina Weymouth

"Warning sign, warning sign
Look at my hair, I like the design
It's the truth, it's the truth
Your glassy eyes and your open mouth"

This felt like the sound of life being deconstructed on the spot. It felt like the future superimposing itself on the present. Those days of slow-dancing to "Stairway to Heaven" at high school graduation parties two years earlier seemed now eons in the past.

To my ears, it was Tina Weymouth on bass (wife of drummer Chris Frantz) who gave the band its defining sound. Her bass lines were fat enough to shake your booty to, and yet sculpted out of something lyrical. Often her bass sings melodies (listen, for example, to "The Good Thing"); sometimes they are the song's defining hook---"Warning Sign," for one, and then, most memorably, on the band's indelible cover of Al Green's "Take Me To The River." And it was not lost on me that this was a woman bass player. How cool was that? I didn't realize how tired I was of the bad-boy rock star cliches until I saw and heard these four average-looking human beings get their hands on rock'n'roll and make something artful out of it. 

The second side keeps the beat going, but the songs seem to deepen and individuate. "Artists Only" presents the merest sketch of a narrative, poking fun at the very sort of artistic inclination the band clearly has. It is the funkiest track, "I'm Not In Love," that also grinds its beat entirely to a halt; half of the song demands dancing, half of it renders it impossible. The song with the most ear-catching introduction, "Stay Hungry," decomposes into riffs and moods, and offers a brilliant lead-in to the album's centerpiece, the Al Green cover. Here, finally, the edgy dance beat is broken once and for all, but the sexy, bass-led groove that emerges is penetrating and brilliant. 

It tastes real good

And then after all the danceable weirdness, the album ends with a song as accessible musically as it is savage lyrically. Over a rubbery guitar line and and an ambling rock'n'roll backbeat (at last!), Byrne pulls no punches on the emptiness he sees across this fair land of ours.

"Look at that kitchen and all of that food
Look at them eat it; I guess it tastes real good"

His ability to be pointed when he wanted to be made me all the more interested in the songs with the fragmented narratives. Turns out that his gift for spinning perplexing tales using everyday words kind of ended my Bob Dylan phase. I lost interest in Napoleon in rags and the lonesome organ grinder and the jewels and binoculars and such. While Byrne of course was not the first to bring an artist's sensibility to rock'n'roll, his vision was keen, and played itself out even on the package. The album's cover---featuring the pictures of the band members that were assembled from individual Polaroid shots---was a tour de force of visual and thematic brilliance. Rock'n'roll would never be the same. And with this riveting model of how to put one's unconventional stamp onto a conventional world playing over and over on my stereo, neither would I.

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