Tuesday, March 24, 2020

"Life During Wartime" / The Talking Heads

Are we having fun yet?

The other day in a grocery store, frantically trying to assemble a pantry of shelf-stable food for riding out whatever self-quarantine might be in the offing, I scooped three jars of peanut butter into my cart -- and I heard in the back of my mind, "I got some groceries / Some peanut butter / To last a couple of days." In these troubling times, I'm in no mood for either dirges or upbeat diversions -- but a little apocalyptic swamp funk is just the ticket. 
In 1979, I'd been a Talking Heads fan for a couple of years already, entranced by the spare art-school weirdness of their first two albums. The sound of Fear of Music, however, was a shock: a funky poly-rhythmic base overlaid with chanting call-and-response vocals, horns and percussion layering on levels of cacophony. On first listen, I was baffled. By the third or fourth listen, though, I was enraptured by it, and now it just might be my favorite Talking Heads album. (Note to kids streaming music: You can't always "get it" on the first listen.)
And from the first, this track stood out. David Byrne, the Talking Head's front man, said it was "inspired by living in Alphabet City" (the then-grubby, shell-shocked Lower East Side), and as a newly arrived New Yorker, I knew those scruffy clubs he name-checked ("This ain't no Mudd Club / Or CBGBs"). But beyond that, the song's undertow of domestic terrorism had to resonate with any of us who'd grown up in the turmoil of the late 60s and 70s: civil rights protests, antiwar riots, ugly waves of urban violence. The bleak dystopia of this song made perfect sense, as we howled that indelible refrain: "This ain't no party / This ain't no disco / This ain't no fooling around!"

Indeed, indeed.

Listening to it now, in these haunted pandemic days, it seems weirdly prophetic. It's a survivalist's bible ("Heard of a van / That's loaded with weapons / Packed up and ready to go") for a time where communications are breaking down ("Transmit the message / to the receiver / Hope for an answer") and paranoia runs rampant ("I got three passports / a couple of visas, / You don't even know my real name"). And for those of us who can't wean ourselves from the nightly news or Facebook, the drumbeat of crisis keeps us all too well informed of the disease's spread ("Heard about Houston? / Heard about Detroit? / Heard about Pittsburgh, P. A.?").

With all this disaster looming, what's the point in making any effort, in laying any plans? "Why stay in college? Why go to night school?" he asks, and even though I have those degrees already in hand, I'm pretty sure they mean nothing now. (A year later, the American Dream would be further eviscerated in the Talking Heads' song "Once in a Lifetime".) No, the enemy is among us and we are it. "We dress like students, / we dress like housewives, / Or in a suit and a tie / I changed my hairstyle, so many times now, / I don't know what I look like!" (That last line does make me laugh now, thinking of all the women in lockdown who will finally discover how gray their hair really is under all those years of salon color.)

"Burned all my notebooks, / what good are notebooks? / They won't help me survive," Byrne sings, riding the crest of that relentless yet hypnotic rhythm track. "My chest is aching, / Burns like a furnace, / The burning keeps me alive..."

 Yes, yes, and yes. Stay well, friends.


Karen Romano Young said...

Thank you, Holly!

Rob Perry said...

Thanks for posting this. I'm an all-types-of-music geek and I really enjoy reading your blog posts.

I was in high school during the Talking Heads' heyday. While they were way ahead of their time, typical personal/social pressures got the best of the band and it ended way too early in the perspective of the fans.

I hope you/yours are faring well during this uncertain time for all of us. #PeaceAndLove #TinaWeymouthRules

Amy Kefauver said...

Holly. Thank you for this. The music, and your commentary especially. I wish we were only 6 feet apart right now.

Cindy Fey said...

I came here for Fountains of Wayne; I stayed for your newest posts. Thanks for keeping on keeping on!

Tim Bryant said...

Hi -Lovely note on the music. Thank you.

Everybody I love you. Yes indeed - keep on keeping on!