Saturday, March 1, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 60):"THE BIG COUNTRY" (1978), Talking Heads

It’s March first! February is finally over and, though there is still some talk of snow coming our way in the first week of this new month, I want to feel that change is a-coming. So let’s get off to an upbeat start. Well, actually, this song is not all that upbeat but it’s one I took to heart once upon a time around this time of year. March of 1979, I believe.

The album, More Songs about Buildings and Food, was released in 1978, the second album by a new band called Talking Heads. It is hard now for me to relate how distrustful I was of these “new wave” bands showing up in the latter years of the decade. They all seemed to be led by geeks. Guys who looked nothing like rock stars or even artists of any kind. Normal nerds. What’s more the music was always a bit too quirky and all-too-ready to be computer-generated. So, for most of 1978 I swam about in my own Sixties, but certain newish artists—Patti Smith, Television, Springsteen—were having an effect. I was ready at last to accept the work of musical artists born in the Fifties (the same decade as me, in other words). That was a big concession.

What made me get Buildings and Food was Talking Heads’ performance of “Take Me to the River” on Saturday Night Live. As I watched wild-eyed David Byrne leading his band (it was always his band, in my view) through that song, I realized that he did indeed look like an artist, the kind who understood where we were, in all the arts, as the Seventies ended. He wasn’t a guy in a band so much as a performer of what “the art” of being in a band was all about. He was something different and I liked it.

When I got the album I was in some ways disappointed—the songs were so short and there was little in the way of stories or images. This was songwriting by someone who seemed to have no truck with folk or the blues or any of the musical forms I was familiar with. Sure, you could probably find The Beatles as a background, but without any of the “gonna get or lose that girl” sentiment. The Heads were smart, very very smart. And completely detached from the usual rocker tropes. Today’s song immediately became my anthem, still shy of my twentieth birthday.

Byrne, Harrison, Weymouth, Frantz
In this song, David Byrne looks down on our nation from above—he’s in a plane—and pretty much lays waste to all he sees. He lays waste to it because it’s already a wasteland. For those who get all gooey when they hear things like “a baseball diamond, nice weather down there” and “I see the school and the houses where the kids are,” you can’t imagine this song as I imagine it. Or rather, you aren’t sharing in the devastating chorus: “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me / I wouldn’t live like that, no siree / I wouldn’t do things the way those people do / I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to.”

That summed-up so much. Talk about alienation! This was it, delivered in a kind of whine that was also very liberating. My sense of wanting to detach myself from the suburban life I’d been leading till then was given musical accompaniment. That was it, in a nutshell, or in a google map. I don’t want to live there, I don’t want to live “like that,” I don’t want to do those things that way. Simple.

It’s not just a rejection of lawns and baseball; it’s also a rejection of the stores, the shopping malls, the food chains, and the kinds of food available. “Look at that kitchen / And all of that food / Look at them eat it / I guess it tastes real good.” Well, no, actually much of it doesn’t. When I heard those lines I was looking at fast food emporiums all up and down the highway I lived near, I was looking at processed foods “in your grocer’s freezer,” as the ads used to say. And don’t forget those “undeveloped areas” stretching out far and wide, mostly filled with waste chemicals from whatever big plant is cranking ‘em out.

Then, just when you think, holy shit I’d love to be above it all too, David, comes the kicker: “I’m tired of looking out the window of the airplane / I’m tired of traveling, I want to be somewhere.” But where? We can fly above it, dismiss it, disparage it, look at it all with sardonic amusement, but, sooner or later, we’ve got to come down and “BE somewhere.” Byrne gets in one last salvo—“it’s not even worth talking about those people down there”—then goes off into some kind of glossolalia that cranks the whole song up a notch to where we babble like caged monkeys waiting for another shock or shot or delivery of saccharine goodness. We’re not worth talking about, or, since you’ve got to be one of us, maybe it’s not even worth talking “like that.” As though there were some other place to be, another way of life possible, “in this day and age,” as my mom used to say.

Maybe there is, in the gated corral of your choice, but out here in the real world, we’re all stuck with the alarming shape of things. For a while, anyway (ah, the twenties), I could believe it was merely a case of “those people down there,” and “the things those people do,” and that, so long as they weren’t paying you to do it, you could find a different way to “do things” and a different place to do it in.

“And I have learned how these things work together”—yes, and also work separately, to each his own. Eventually, no doubt, we’ll get to Laurie Anderson’s “Big Science” which sort of picks up—to my thinking—where “Big Country” leaves off.

Anyway, with this song, and this album, I became a fan of Talking Heads. You know how it works: soon something you weren’t sure you wanted to listen to becomes one of the things you can’t stop listening to, and then, oh boy, was I blown away by their next album. . . . 

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