I see the shapes, I remember from maps

Listening to a forgotten Talking Heads song

I like to play Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food when I exercise. (It’s so purposeful. Makes you want to excel!) But every time I come to the last song on that record I notice how much doesn’t fit with the rest of them. It makes me wonder why David Byrne and Brian Eno decided to include it. It makes me wonder about a few other things, too.

Talking Heads were one of the early CBGB bands and the easiest one to sell to your friends who thought punk rock was stupid noise. The band was famously, almost comically out of sync with colleagues like the Ramones and the Dead Boys — while the punk bands were leather-clad, snide, and aggressive, Talking Heads dressed like young suburbanites and played bouncy tunes with shades of samba, folk, and pre-rock 60s pop.

But in their own way they were every bit as weird as the other Bowery bands. There was something willful about their clean-cut act. Not that they were a put-on. The styles and attitudes other artists had rejected seemed genuinely to fascinate Byrne. “Don’t Worry About the Government,” for example, wasn’t a satire of complacency, but an attentive and generous reexamination of it — “Some civil servants are just like my loved ones/ They work so hard and they try to be strong” rather than “Fuck the Man,” a way to look at the life that most of the country outside the Bowery embraced that was not merely dismissive. It wasn’t entirely accepting of it, either; Byrne just had a different accounting of the face value of American life. He was like an alien anthropologist going native in the cul-de-sacs and fern bars; when I see Nathan W. Pyle’s “Strange Planet” cartoons (“I feel undeserved pride!” “I regret emotional investment”), it reminds me of Byrne — but a flatter, more reflexive version of him, Garfield to B. Kliban’s cat cartoons.

And sometimes Byrne seemed to be pushing back at his own funhouse mirror image of America. What were his strangulated voice and jerky movements about? I doubt it was just a branding exercise. Ever once in a while spikes poked through the smooth sound. I remember seeing Byrne perform “For Artists Only” one time when he filled the middle instrumental break with a series of jarring, hoarse screams. He and the band had built an intriguing surface, but there was something he clearly wanted to pierce it with, something he wanted to get out.

More Songs has a peppy, propulsive feel, which is why I like it for the gym. With Brian Eno doing his magpie assemblage thing as producer, their pseudo-retro pop was beginning to resemble real pop — not what was on the radio, but something that was like it, only better. And the album had that first song that intrigued ordinary pop audiences, their cover of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River” — again, not a Four Freshmen parody of funk, but their own deconstruction with lot of negative space into which they dropped notes that suggested funk, which is rather funky in and of itself. It suggested a new direction.

“Take Me To The River” was the next to the last song on the More Songs. The final number was something very different. It featured ethereal pedal steel guitar accents over a fairly simple folk-guitar track, and an unusually plodding rhythm section. The song is about Byrne looking out an airplane window at America — at a baseball diamond, parking spaces, restaurant and bars. He inventories these signifiers, says he has “learned how these things work together” — the farmlands, the factories, the supermarkets, the kitchens. It sounds almost like a celebration — even though the choruses sound a little forced, even manic. And then:

I wouldn’t live there if you paid me
I wouldn’t live like that, no sirree
I wouldn’t do the things the way those people do
I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to

In the last verse, with the pedal steel still gliding, Byrne becomes morose: “I’m tired of looking/ Out the window of the airplane/ I’m tired of traveling/ I want to be somewhere...” Then the final kiss-off, not just the folksy dismissal “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me,” but something actually contemptuous:

And it’s not even worth talking
About those people down there.

Or did he mean it literally? Was he really just tired of the subject? He finishes the final section with a rhythmic, repetitive babble, suggestive of a psychic break.

Their next album, Fear of Music, was as well-crafted and canny as the More Songs material, but had an eerie, disturbed feeling. The band was still playing with sounds and silences, but the lyrics were about someone who won’t listen, being unable to ever leave a party, people on drugs, an electric guitar getting run over. It also had a minor hit, “Life During Wartime”; did the kids dancing to it know he was talking about the post-apocalypse?

There was one song on Fear of Music, though, that wasn’t tortured or confused — at least it didn’t sound tortured and confused. The lyrics sounded African (but were actually Dada gibberish), and the music had an African lilt and swing that was totally out of phase with all their other songs. It was called “I Zimbra,” and it didn’t finish the record as ‘The Big Country” had; it was the first cut. It seemed almost like the rest of the record was a flashback to a very bad time.

The next album was Remain in Light, a cornucopia of global polyrhythms, with lyrics that felt sort of mystical but didn’t matter nearly as much as the sound. (I remember seeing the band at Forest Hills just as the album was breaking; instead of coming out with his usual nerdy introduction, Byrne emerged dancing his guitar through a highly funkified “Psycho Killer.”) This Fela-meets-the-Velvet-Underground synthesis was a sturdy rock hybrid that thrived in limelight, as the movie Stop Making Sense showed; the band lived off the sound like a larder thereafter.

I like all that, but when I think about Talking Heads I think about “The Big Country.” It’s like one of those historical moments like the train conductor cuffing Thomas Edison’s ear or Alfred Hitchcock’s dad having him locked up or [Artist’s Name Here]’s shitty childhood; we know the trauma changed them, but we can only guess how.