In Jonathan Lethem’s new book, “Fear of Music,” a study of the Talking Heads album by the same name and a riff on his emotional history with the band, Lethem refers to an earlier essay of his on the subject: “At the peak, in 1980 or 81, my identification was so complete that I might have wished to wear the album Fear of Music in place of my head so as to be more clearly seen by those around me.” But no sooner has he quoted himself than Lethem applies the eraser of time, deciding “Like everything I’ve ever said about Talking Heads, or about any other thing I’ve loved with such dreadful longing—there’s only a few—this looks to me completely inadequate, even in the extremeness of its claims, or especially for the extremeness of its claims.”
Lethem likes this Romantic arc—dreadful longing, the regretful revision that follows—and in Talking Heads he has the perfect subject and mirror. In the late nineteen-seventies, in primordial downtown Manhattan, the band sonified not just longing and regret (most great musicians do that), but also dread (some do that), and then—this is what made them really special—mingled the feelings in single songs, sounds, and even couplets, while never letting listeners forget they knew what they were doing.
Take the opening of “Life During Wartime,” an apocalyptic swamp-funk transmission in four-four time. In the first line, the front man David Byrne molds his plastic tenor into a paranoiac-newscaster voice to announce, “Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons”; then, in the second, he steadies it as though to disown his excitement, and, like some repentant father pointing at the family station wagon, avers, “Packed up and ready to go.” (Note, too, that reluctant collusion between the “o”s in “loaded” and “go,” which Byrne emphasizes—a dissociative gulch somewhere between assonance and rhyme.)
For Lethem, “Life During Wartime” is the band’s pinnacle, and the song is still a hell of a thing to hear. (A point about Talking Heads not often enough made: they cooked. Byrne was the funkiest white man in pop until Flea showed up.) But most of the iTunes generation has never heard it. “Fear of Music” appeared in 1979. Indeed, while Talking Heads can be detected in so much music today, from Radiohead to Vampire Weekend, years-old dust covers most of their catalogue.
For younger listeners, and for older ones who never shared Lethem’s infatuation, Talking Heads live on principally in one track: the sad, sweet “love song” titled “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody).” When was the last time you heard “Burning Down the House,” the band’s biggest single? Probably not recently. But chances are good that you’ve heard “This Must Be the Place” very recently, whether you knew it or not.
Thirty years old this year, the song has slowly but surely embedded itself in the American songbook. You can’t walk into a good bar between Williamsburg and Silver Lake without an even shot that it will come on the stereo in some iteration. Lately, it’s been covered by Arcade Fire, MGMT, and the jam band The String Cheese Incident, among others. There are books named for it. Hip brides march down the aisle to it. It’s quoted in mawkish editorials. And last year, “This Must Be the Place” was made into a movie.
This is all very improbable. “This Must Be the Place” is a love song only in spite of itself (it dispenses about as much hope as Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”), and in its time it was not a hit. Rolling Stone’s review of “Speaking in Tongues,” the 1983 LP on which the song appears, hazarded that the album “finally obliterates the thin line separating arty white pop music and deep black funk,” but doesn’t mention “This Must Be the Place.” Perhaps because it was the most uncharacteristic thing the band had recorded to that point.
Between 1977 and 1983, Talking Heads posted one of the great learning curves in rock history, releasing five albums, each an elaboration on the one before it. Byrne and two Rhode Island School of Design classmates, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, had formed The Artistics with the idea of combining conceptual and performance art with popular music (their sound earned them the nickname The Autistics). Redubbed Talking Heads, they played alongside riotous groups like The Ramones in refuges from disco, like CBGBs and the Mudd Club. They were a different organism, however, incorporating elements of Motown, punk, African music, funk, and minimalism, all while gigging in collared shirts and corduroys.
Similarly, Byrne’s lyrics were a blank-verse switchboard, patching through Dada language experiments, imagist poetry, scientific literature. (To the disappointment of his engineer father, Byrne had chosen art school over Carnegie Mellon, because, he explained, the former had better graffiti in the halls.) One critic characterized his singing style as “passing on information.”
There was that current of fear in the early songs—of music, technology, animals, the air—the stuff of an Asperger diagnosis, at least. Byrne, who moved around the stage like a hasty votive offering, was a one-man rebuke not just to the Gibb brothers but also to E. M. Forster’s advice to “only connect.” (“O.K., how?” Byrne seemed to reply. “And with whom, exactly? You?”) But there was a merging current, one of childlike bafflement and delight in the world of objects and people. The band played the cosseted prodigy set loose in a decaying America. The precursor to “Fear of Music” is entitled “More Songs About Buildings and Food.”
Lester Bangs, theorizing about the band in The Village Voice in 1979, wrote “Talking Heads are the for(wo)men in charge of that section of the human remodification factory where no one wants to set these mutants careening off nightraze pathogenic highways.” Pleasingly Bangsian, but in hindsight probably wrong. Better, I think, is Lethem’s image of “four musicians using their instruments like an erector set to construct a skyline that won’t fall down before they’re finished.” (The fourth member, Jerry Harrison, dropped out of Harvard’s architecture program to join the band.)
In her memoir, Twyla Tharp, who collaborated with Byrne in 1981 and in the process became romantically involved with him, wrote that he seemed to want “to find the residue of ancient thoughts in the most up-to-date aspects of society.” His investigations sometimes turned up what Lethem calls “palliative remarks” and “lunatic optimism,” as in “Don’t Worry About the Government,” when Byrne assures himself, “Some civil servants are just like my loved ones,” as well as aperçus whose nourishing sadness calls to mind Pound and Larkin. One thinks of the former’s “The Rest” (“Lovers of beauty, starved, / Thwarted with systems”) when Byrne warns us that “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens,” and, far more troubling, that “Girls are getting into abstract analysis.” There was a deep if partially collapsed well of wistfulness about the band, as there was in all the best No Wave and New Wave acts—the suspicion that they’d been born too late; that rock and life had run their course. “There’s a party in my mind / And I hope it never stops,” Byrne sings in “Memories Can’t Wait.”
Weymouth and Frantz were married (and still are), but Byrne lived the music’s ambivalence. Tharp describes him as “envious of all experiences,” and writes of their breakup, “The truth was we only loved being close to the mystical and the out of control.” Of all the fears expressed in his lyrics, the fear of the deadening routines of devotion may be direst. In “I’m Not In Love,” he estimated, “There’ll come a day when we won’t need love.”
Maybe, but by the nineteen-eighties anyone who was cool and left home at night loved Talking Heads. Their international tours were selling out, with members from groups as diverse a Parliament-Funkadelic and King Crimson joining up, feeling some apostolic tug. The (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jKlrkBJozuc) for “Once in a Lifetime” was running nonstop on a new channel called MTV. They were at the center of a scene that for a decade had been confined to a few neighborhoods south of Fourteenth Street and now was a global commodity. Jean Michel Basquiat was at their shows. Madonna joined them on Sire Records. They pop up in Andy Warhol’s diaries.
Fans so inclined had always assumed that Byrne, like Warhol, could be taken at his sardonic word when he’d derided the America outside Manhattan—”I wouldn’t live there if you paid me,” he sneered in “The Big Country”—and the meretricious nostalgia of the eighties. As with Warhol, they were wrong. Byrne claimed in his book accompaniment to the 1986 film “True Stories” that the era’s “new patriotism” was “a trick,” and he included a list all of the people falling for it. But, he goes on, “none of them is wrong. They are setting a good example, and in this film and book I’m teaching myself to appreciate them.” For years “we have been taught not to like things. Finally somebody said it was OK to like things. This was a great relief.”
By the time of the “Speaking in Tongues” sessions, in 1982, Talking Heads was in some sense ready to come home. Or, at least, to buy one. Their fifth studio record and first of the Reagan era, it was their first to sell a million copies, the first to produce a top-ten hit (“Burning Down the House”), and the first to win a Grammy. None of which meant the album was lacking. Lethem says, “At the time, I took the release of Speaking in Tongues as Moses coming down from the mountaintop”—but there is no question that it was their most accessible album to date, thanks in large part to “This Must Be the Place,” in which the rubble is removed from the well of wistfulness and the stuff rushes forth.
The parenthetical title, “Naive Melody,” comes from the fact that the bandmates switched instruments when they composed it. Musically, it was one of the sparest arrangements they ever made. The song consists of a simple guitar-chord progression, a four-bar bass figure, and a fluty synthesizer part, repeated over and over again. The polyphony is African sounding, but also vaguely Baroque, creating an ambiance of innocence that’s augmented by the whimsical array of found-object percussion sounds (a wine bottle, scrap metal, ashtrays, a cocktail shaker, a candleholder, and a milk jug).
On first blush, the lyrics seem comparably simple. Byrne actually sings them, rather than declaiming, as he often did. In an interview, he called them “The most direct love lyrics that I’ve ever written,” and Chris Frantz added, “In a lot of the songs David’s lyrics didn’t have any personal significance for him. They were from things he heard or read. But in this case it sounded as though he really meant it.” Reviewers who took note of the song agreed. “The turmoil is finally resolved in This Must Be The Place,” wrote the Los Angeles Times’s Richard Cromelin, who called it “one of the most luminous love songs rock has produced.”
And, indeed, “This Must Be The Place” can be taken as an ode to the palliative effects of companionship. “Home is where I want to be / Pick me up and turn me ’round,” Byrne begins. “I feel numb, born with a weak heart / Guess I must be having fun.” All of a moment, this narrator, who has been worrying over the boredoms of affection for a decade, is welcoming it. He may not want to examine it (“The less we say about it the better”), but he’s ready to dive in (“Make it up as we go along”). All of a moment, he is infatuated. “Hiii yo, I got plenty of time,” Byrne croons.
How had this happened? Literally enough, as it turns out. While on tour, Byrne, recently split from Tharp, had met a young Japanese-German model and actress named Adelle Lutz. By all accounts, they fell for each other immediately. They would later marry and have a daughter. Thirty years on, the effects of the song are similarly immediate. It envelopes you from the first notes, converts you before you know what’s happened. As Frantz put it: “People hear it and accept it without any kind of question.”
So much so that it immediately turned off Talking Heads purists already leery of the band’s newfound popularity. Their Underground Man had acclimatized, and they got an inkling of the innocuous fare awaiting them in the band’s latter albums, which, Lethem says, took the “bafflement and extracted all the venom from it.” In Jonathan Franzen’s novel “Strong Motion” (published in 1992, a year after Talking Heads broke up), an intense seismologist explains her graduation from music to science with the memory “I was sprayed by David Byrne’s saliva before he got blissy.”
But the song is not as blissy as it seems. The spurned purists should have listened more closely. The old anxiety is there.
“This must be the place”—it’s not a statement of certainty, is it? It’s not “This is the place.” It’s more “This is what someone said the place was.” It’s even a little desperate. “I don’t know what I’ll do if this isn’t the place.” The music, too, starts in a kind of question mark. Very unconventionally for a pop song, the lyrics don’t come in for a full minute, during which time the floating bass line doesn’t play on the roots of the guitar chords but on the fifths, lending the melody what the keyboardist Jerry Harrison calls “an uneasiness.” The whole time, we’re wondering if that propulsive sound that carried the record up to this point will return.
It doesn’t, and Byrne arrives instead, but he hasn’t gotten through the first verse before he’s trying to reassure himself he came to the right address. “It’s okay, I know nothing’s wrong,” he sings. “I love the passing of time.” The third verse begins as hopefully as the first does, with the words “Home is where I want to be,” but then a note of disappointment enters his voice, reminiscent of the newscaster-father switch in “Life During Wartime,” as he decides “But I guess I’m already there.” (Note the same non-aligned rhyme on “where” and “there.”) Already, he is bored with the idea of home. Meanwhile, the imagery—“Eyes that light up / Eyes look through you”, “You’ve got a face with a view”—is as spectral as it is numinous. All this as the E-minor chords turn the wistfulness into nostalgia, and nostalgia into a sense of loss, not for things lost, but, the listener intuits from the counterpoint horn-synth stabs in the chorus, for things never found. By the end, the comfort of love is making him think of death: “And you’ll love me til my heart stops / Love me til I’m dead.”
The dreadful longing and anticipatory regret are still there. Byrne is more at ease with them, he can even appreciate them, but he knows they’ll never go away. “This Must Be The Place has a lot of sentiment,” Lethem says, “but the thing that energizes the song is that it’s difficult to get to that sentiment.”
Still, Talking Heads emphasized the song’s sentimental aspects in the music video, which shows the band watching home movies in a living room, and in Jonathan Demme’s concert film “Stop Making Sense” (still amazing), in which Byrne sings it in the company of a standing lamp, à la Fred Astaire.
Its shadows were not lost on Oliver Stone, however, who put “This Must Be The Place” in his film “Wall Street,” in 1987. It plays over a montage sequence in which the Upper East Side apartment of the newly rich inside-trader protagonist is redecorated in risible eighties downtown-gallery style. This guy may own this garish condo, Stone is making clear, but it is not home. In choosing music for the film, Stone told me, he was faced with a conundrum: “How do you score money?” He needed a song that expressed both the character’s excitement at his success and his sinking suspicion this life wasn’t really his. “David had already done it,” Stone said.
After “Wall Street,” the song fell off the radar for a time. Then the up-and-coming singer Shawn Colvin rediscovered it. She had never been much of a Talking Heads fan during their prime, but one day she sat down and listened to “This Must Be The Place” closely. “I was just stunned,” Colvin said, not only by its sweetness, but its melancholia. She could hear in it “the perils of loving someone that much.” Colvin started performing it around the country, and included it on her 1994 release, “Cover Girl.”
By the late nineties, after the punk-inspired grunge movement had faded and musicians started going to post-punk for inspiration, “This Must Be The Place” had become a revived favorite. The owner of one of the three bars in the town where I went to college had “Speaking in Tongues” on vinyl, and he played “This Must Be The Place” at exactly the right moment—that moment between tipsy and drunk—every Saturday night.
In 2004, the as yet unheard of (in the U.S.) band Arcade Fire played a version of the song on the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Radio 3. It got a huge reaction. They recorded it as a B-side, and Byrne sang guest vocals. (He and Lutz divorced the same year.) He started appearing with them at concerts. Then The String Cheese Incident began covering it at shows; then MGMT; then Animal Liberation Orchestra; then d.j. Miles Fisher. A Talking Heads cover band called This Must Be The Band formed in Chicago.
The music writer David Bowman’s 2002 biography of Talking Heads is called “This Must Be The Place.” So is a 2008 novel published by Riverhead; and another, published in 2010, by Henry Holt (its author, Kate Racculia, told me via e-mail “One day, on an otherwise normal commute, ‘This Must Be the Place’ came on my iPod and punched me in the face”).
“I hear it everywhere,” Frantz said. The other day, he was having a hamburger at a diner in Connecticut when a electronic version of the song he didn’t know existed came on the radio. “The young people seemed to like it.”
Recently “This Must Be The Place” has appeared on the soundtracks of the self-help-book inspired dating comedy “He’s Just Not That Into You,” the crossword-puzzle documentary “Wordplay,” the marriage tragicomedy “Crazy Stupid Love,” and, of course, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” in which it plays over the end credits—this time with less umbrage—in the company of a children’s birthday party.
Last year, Sean Penn starred in the little-seen movie “This Must Be The Place,” as an aging ex-rocker whose life seems to be somehow governed by the song. Byrne puts in a cameo, as himself. He plays the song with a full band. In the most touching scene, Penn’s character encounters a chubby little boy who begs him to play “This Must Be The Place”—by Arcade Fire. He consents, but not before informing the boy “You’re delusional, ‘This Must Be The Place’ is by Talking Heads.”
But “Lars and the Real Girl,” from 2007, employs the song to the best and most knowing effect. It comes on in the film’s crucial scene, in which Lars (Ryan Gosling) brings the life-size doll he’s been claiming is his girlfriend to a party. Rather than laugh, everyone graciously pretends she is a real person. (“The best thing is, man, she doesn’t even know how hot she is,” one partygoer says to Lars.) He feels accepted, welcomed for the first time in the story, maybe in his life. Then someone puts “Speaking in Tongues” on a record player, and lays the needle down on “This Must Be The Place.” Instead of dancing with the doll, Lars begins to dance by himself—or, rather, to sway, almost imperceptibly, his fists clenched, one arm tentatively outstretched, chin on his chest. He is holding back tears and smiling. He’s ecstatic and in agony. He’s never been so happy, or so sad. Finally, there’s a party in his mind. He doesn’t know if he wants it to stop.
Photograph courtesy of AP.
A re-reading of The Prelude in the light of post-structuralist and feminist theory, this book is the first major study of The Prelude. Beginning with a Romantic autobiography, theatrical politics, and history, the book moves by way of Romantic attitudes to language, figuration, and voice, to considering the role of gender in Romantic self-representation and pedagogy. Besides investigating different aspects of the high Romanticism exemplified by The Prelude, individual chapters explore writing by Burke, Rousseau, Hazlitt, Lamb, and De Quincey, while engaging with topics such as literary influen ... More
A re-reading of The Prelude in the light of post-structuralist and feminist theory, this book is the first major study of The Prelude. Beginning with a Romantic autobiography, theatrical politics, and history, the book moves by way of Romantic attitudes to language, figuration, and voice, to considering the role of gender in Romantic self-representation and pedagogy. Besides investigating different aspects of the high Romanticism exemplified by The Prelude, individual chapters explore writing by Burke, Rousseau, Hazlitt, Lamb, and De Quincey, while engaging with topics such as literary influence, New Historicism, or the gender-related aspects of Romantic criticism. This text contributes not only to Wordsworth studies, but to current theoretical debates on both sides of the Atlantic, as they bear on the history and politics (including sexual politics) of Romanticism itself.
Keywords: The Prelude, Romantic, theatrical politics, history, gender
|Print publication date: 1989||Print ISBN-13: 9780198129691|
|Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011||DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198129691.001.0001|