Over the course of an average length of time for a band to be together, the Talking Heads went from punks to parents in the most graceful way possible. While most bands find their strength in channeling the energy of youth and then give up or become lame when they have kids, the Talking Heads gave themselves permission throughout their career to talk about every aspect of contemporary urban and suburban life, making their discography a narrative arc that encompasses one of the most transformative periods in one’s life. In other words: unlike every other rock band ever, they made a series of albums about going from being rock and roll to being fogies without experiencing the same change musically.
The punk phase (and it’s the Talking Heads, so I don’t mean punk in a way that implies toughness, really, so much as snarkiness and youthful provocation) included their first big hit, Psycho Killer, which is told from the point of view of a serial killer. How Creative Writing 101 workshop is that? It also contains the most gloriously sneering, eye-rolling song in existence, “The Big Country.” (“Look at them eating… I bet it tastes real good!”) The thing is, on that album’s track listing, that song immediately follows their big bid for mainstream success, “Take Me to the River.” That song is basically a 401(k).
I don’t mean to sound like I think it’s hypocritical to cover an Al Green song about all-encompassing, masochistic love and then play a song that rails against about rural boredom. It just reveals a complexity of character that most bands lack. Other examples of this kind of ambiguity can be found in their lyrics all over the place in this period. Let’s take the first album’s first track, “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town.” “I’ve called in sick, I won’t go to work today / I’d rather be with the one I love / I neglect my duties…” The speaker favors commitment, but hates responsibility. He is my kind of guy, and also the kind of guy I was in college.
Jonathan Lethem has already written an entire book about Fear of Music, (in which he frequently returns to the image of a younger version of himself listening to the album in his room in New York,) but I will say that the album continues the band’s growth and aging and begins their move towards a larger worldview. It also tackles that classic self-involved twenty-something’s quandary, one I’m currently involved in and which is both hugely important and hugely unimportant: “Find a city, find myself a city to live in.” Obviously the decision Byrne discusses in “Cities” determines your entire surroundings for an indefinite period and is therefore huge, but at the same time it reflects an elitism and inability to adjust based on your surroundings. The band is both in love with and horrified by the idea of staying put.
One of my favorite Talking Heads albums is Little Creatures, which is completely an ode to settled-down life. “Creatures of Love” and “Stay Up Late” are clearly songs about parenting, but their message is kind of: “I have a kid now. Isn’t that crazy? Look at this absurd tiny human I am dealing with.” “Road to Nowhere” is a great anthem of American resignation. It makes resignation sound exciting!
From this album, they went on to the beautiful movie and album project True Stories, which is all about small-town, grown-up weirdness. The next and last album is Naked, which contains songs called “The Facts of Life” and “Mommy, Daddy, You, and I.” Its “(Nothing But) Flowers” is about finding yourself in nature and missing the comforts of suburbia: “If this is paradise / I wish I had a lawnmower!” (I just assume all of Byrne’s lines end in exclamation points.) Its final song, “Cool Water,” might be the exception to what I said about ambiguity: the song is all about a life of back-breaking labor, and it is so long and miserable as to be one of the few actually boring Talking Heads songs. It ends with the line, “And the water’s rushing in…” The character’s dreary life ends the same way the “Take Me to the River” speaker’s starts to get exciting.
And of course in between the two there is “Once In a Lifetime,” the ultimate song about getting old and becoming square all of a sudden, which also uses water imagery: “There is water / At the bottom of the ocean!”
If the first few albums are your teenage years and college, Little Creatures is parenthood, and Naked is dismal old age, what I hope is that Stop Making Sense, the fantastic album and concert film, is your thirties. Stop Making Sense starts off with Byrne playing “Psycho Killer” by himself with a drum machine. It builds to include increasingly more musicians and songs with increasingly complex ideas, as if to say: All of our experimentation, all of our pedantry, all of our awkwardness and pain and anger and goofiness have added up to something important and brilliant and spectacular.
Of course there are still creepy elements and riff-raff: while the married couple that comprises the Tom Tom Club are still together and still a band in real life, one can imagine the characters in “Genius of Love” not making it much longer. They are into cocaine and “nasty fun.” The characters’ relationship would almost certainly have to end dramatically in real life.
There is a sexuality to the whole performance of Stop Making Sense, but it is an unabashed dorky sexual abandon, one that flies in the face of conventional rock star allure. It is aware of its own weirdness but proud that some people are attracted to it. It is sexual on its own terms.
Supposedly people go as something they subconsciously want to be, or something they secretly see themselves as, for Halloween. When I was in college I was in a band called the Norman RockWells, and we played a Halloween show as the Talking Heads, circa Stop Making Sense. The band consisted of six (!) of my best friends and I, but we were growing impatient with each other trying to function as a large, very sincere rock band. We were all like twenty-one at the time, so we were definitely more Psycho Killer than Creatures of Love. That night, we spoke harshly to each other, the house we were playing at got the cops called on it, and it ended up being the original group’s last real show together. Maybe we just weren’t there yet.