Monday, December 04, 2006

"Found a Job" / Talking Heads

When More Songs About Buildings and Food hit the scene in 1978, this song seemed like it came from another planet. The herky-jerky rhythms, the automaton-like backing tracks, the tuneless melodies, the deadpan lyrics -- and yet for me and my friends, these songs were more relevant to our disaffected middle-class lives than any angry punk song or heavy-metal angst.

"So think about this little scene / Apply it to your life / If your work isn't what you love / Then something isn't right" -- whether or not the song's message was ironic was completely beside the point. We weren't sure whether we wanted to buy into our parents' work ethic, anyway; but at least we felt In On The Joke, and part of an exclusive club -- the cult of the hipster geek. Devo was geeky too, but no one I knew wanted to be Mark Mothersbaugh the way they wanted to be David Byrne, with his nerdy plaid shirts and ill-at-ease frozen stare.

It starts out abruptly with a random scrap of dialogue, a couple arguing over what to watch on TV -- "Damn that television!" David Byrne barks out, over a scrabbling guitar riff. My favorite line comes next, a tense staccato squawk that has become my personal mantra for dealing with daily crises: "Don't get upset! / It's not a major disaster." Then Byrne steps in like a sociologist narrating a cheesy infomercial, "We've heard this little scene before / We've heard it many times / They're fighting over little things / And wasting precious time." You can almost see his wooden hand gestures, the tightly-knotted skinny tie, the plastic pen protecter in his pocket.

And his solution? No I'm-okay-you're-okay psychotherapy crap; just create your own TV show! Everything will be all right! (Decades before webcasts and Youtube made every amateur a do-it-yourself auteur -- the Talking Heads were way ahead of the curve on this one. ) The chorus sketches their new-and-improved life: "Judy's in the bedroom / Inventing situations / Bob is on the street today /Scouting out locations" -- and if there's something knee-jerk and joyless about it, well, what did you expect?

A couple years later, in "Once In A Lifetime," David Byrne would be looking around him and yelping in disbelief, "This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!" Speaks to me, all right: I too still find it hard to take adult life seriously.

As the Talking Heads developed, they actually turned into a great dance band, but when I re-listened to all those early Talking Head albums recently on a long car drive, I was amazed to notice what a polyrhythmic groove already lay beneath the choppy arrangements. While these songs are playing, it's almost impossible not to jerk around a little (I wouldn't necessarily call it dancing). They still sound punchy and fresh. And they still play with my head, in a good way.

"Don't get upset, it's not a major disaster" -- words to live by.

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