Sunday, May 29, 2011

Talking Heads

The video for Burning Down the House was probably the poppiest moment the band Talking Heads ever achieved.  The video got regular play on MTV, became the band's only Top 10 hit, and was where I remember first hearing their music.  The video hit in 1983, which would have made me about 8, and still very excited about whatever showed up on MTV, be it Tina Turner, Billy Idol or the J. Geils Band.

However, I really liked that tune.  Its a pretty darn good rock song, and I don't know if I parse the video now any better than I did 28 years ago, but I did like that there seemed to be something to figure out and I suspected it had something to do with the band members wrestling some inner-something.

We ALSO project David Byrne's face onto the side of our house
But, as a kid I didn't care so much about what the art was trying to say so much as the fact that I liked these people who all dressed in white suits, apparently weren't too worried about glamour or attitude and had a kick-ass blonde on bass.  Even then I thought that was unusual and nifty.

Somehow, despite my many, many hours in front of the TV at friends' houses (my own folks were pretty strict about how much time we logged) I had missed "Genius of Love" by Tom Tom Club, or else I might have recognized Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth.  Maybe.  They don't actually appear in the video

In fifth grade we moved to Austin, and my new school had a very formalized art program which we attended a couple of days per week.  The teacher was an actual artist who supported his family and got insurance for himself and his wife by dealing with snot-nosed suburban kids like myself and trying to explain Picasso and Seurat to kids much more interested in the kick-ball game at recess or the latest in GI Joe comics.

He wore a shirt to school from Talking Heads' "Stop Making Sense" tour, and one day (I believe in fifth grade), he was trying to make a point to us that art wasn't just statues and paintings, but it could be all sorts of things, like a rock concert.  And somehow he'd gotten his hands on a VHS copy of "Stop Making Sense".  Which, you're either going to like or you're not, even in fifth grade, but I quite liked it, and I'll pat myself on the back as the only kid in the room who knew who the band was immediately (thanks, endless hours of MTV viewership!).

By this point, I was beginning to get a pretty good idea that musicians were often theatrical, that they wore costumes to make sure the right audience would instantly recognize them as genre-appropriate.  My brain processed that metal guys were setting guitars on fire and pop stars were going to come and go like fads (which every fifth grader understands), and you could guess who music was for by looking at a video on mute.  But here were these people again, and David Byrne was wearing this crazy big suit over his lanky body, and they all looked so... square.

My primary impressions from the time was that these guys were just doing what they wanted to do: make music that sounded how they thought it was supposed to sound, and getting it all to work into any particular genre or format that fit well with MTV wasn't on the list of priorities. 

But I admit, it wasn't until college that I picked up the soundtrack to the concert film of Stop Making Sense and found one of my favorite songs to this day.

In 1988, Talking Heads released Naked, their final studio album. I have a very specific memory of buying this record at a video and record store on 183 and Anderson Mill, including a conversation with a guy with a salt and pepper ponytail.  I suppose the topic du jour was what had just come in or something along those lines, and he seemed very, very happy when I put down my cash and bought my copy of Naked, which I still think is a terrific album (Ruby Dear is still a favorite).

After that, any sort of chronology in my Talking Heads habit becomes a lot more hazy. Having had moved back to Houston in 1990, at some point I picked up the 2 CD-compilation of Sand in the Vaseline.  Somewhere in there I found myself gnashing my teeth a bit as I was just coming of age to go to concerts by myself, but learned via a Rolling Stone subscription that the Talking Heads were splitting up and I wasn't going to be seeing them on tour any time soon. Who knows if this was before or after I'd figured out I could buy used Talking Heads albums on vinyl?  Those, for no real reason, were the only copies I had of Little Creatures and Speaking in Tongues for about four years

I still look for used Talking Heads vinyl, but I lost a copy of More Songs About Buildings and Food at some point, and then the records seemed to just disappear from used racks.

If you've never heard or seen the video from "(Nothing But) Flowers" off Naked, the song and its lyrics fit neatly with how I was already processing the data I was being given as a 13-year-old and made much more sense to me than what the metal kids were selling or Janet Jackson or whatever else was on the radio at the time.*  The fact that even the love songs by Talking Heads were barely about love didn't hurt, when that seems to be the topic of every song on the radio.

I'm no music critic, and while I know what should go here is a paragraph or three extolling the virtues of the musical virtuosity of the Talking Heads, I'm not qualified to write those paragraphs.  What I will say is that the band seemed to manage to find new territory to explore lyrically, thematically, expressively, etc..  commenting upon modern society inside of something resembling pop and rock.  The songs expressed an outside observer's discussion of the modern city, town, relationship, etc... and when they did go for just blowing the lid off, it was through some parallax view of someone who has thought a whole lot about what makes a funk song work, but just isn't going to be able to recreate that same vibe, and you wind up with Burning Down the House.

That Frantz, Weymouth and Byrne were all art school students is Talking Heads trivia 101, but its also an interesting bit of insight into how and why they may have approached their chosen topics as they did, as observers turning ourselves back on us, and just by repeating us (as in songs like Don't Worry About the Government) there's a wordless commentary.  Other songs...  well, I don't spend all my time trying to figure out exactly what Byrne and Co. were up to.

In college I picked up the rest of the Talking Heads catalog on CD, especially once I was working at a Camelot Records and had access to the Valley Catalog (which was how one ordered items into the store.  The dirty secret of all record stores in the mid-90's was that there was a nigh-monopoly on distribution, and we ALL went through Valley).

It was also fun to find out that despite the fact few of my pals talked about Talking Heads, it was more often than not that one of them would have at least a couple of Talking Heads albums and was also a fan. 

In 1996, the 3 members of the Talking Heads who were not David Byrne released No Talking, Just Head under the name The Heads.   The album didn't move too many copies at my store, but was an interesting effort, replacing Byrne with a nigh all-star line up on lead vocals including XTC's Andy Partridge, Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes, and Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde.

When they toured (Napolitano on vocals), I got tickets and saw them at Liberty Lunch here in Austin.  It was a decent sized crowd who, yes, showed more enthusiasm for Talking Heads renditions, but who basically supported the act. Unfortunately, I think that just prior to the show by a week or so, rumors had begun circling that Byrne was suing the trio for using the name "The Heads".

Thanks to the gig at Camelot, I knew the local label rep, and he asked me if Jason and I wanted to meet the band and go backstage.  Thrilled, we agreed, and hung out for a while until we were granted access.**  And I think I've told this story before, but it was kind of horrible.

There was this awful, awful moment standing there and realizing I was talking to Jerry Harrison (the keyboard player), and he clearly wanted me to be anywhere but trying to talk him about the new album, which made me wonder exactly how much he even wanted to be a part of this venture.  Chris Frantz wanted to know about my history of playing football (complete strangers often ask this and are always let down), and Tina Weymouth was... well, she was very nice, but I think she thought I was somebody else because the conversation she started with me made no sense if you're a complete stranger.

Anyway, to this day I have a rule about not talking to anyone you've admired as an artist/ scientist/ etc...  For me, it is going to go poorly.  And it has on every single subsequent meeting with anybody I've met.

Byrne visited Austin with the Feelings tour in what I think was the winter of 1997/98.  We did not speak, so all went well.  He toured again in 2001-2 with Look into the Eyeball, and I caught both ends of the tour at La Zona Rosa and the original Backyard. 

I still try to keep up with all the members of Talking Heads, and when I'm around used records, I always scout around for Talking Heads vinyl, but it seems that stuff doesn't sit in the bin very long.  For Christmas, I got a DVD of a David Byrne show in England from Jason, and that went over very well, I can tell you.

Anyway, last night I wound up looking at clips of the David Byrne directed True Stories, which is a bit unconventional, but a fantastically fun movie.  I invite you to check it out at your leisure.  Its about Texas, sort of, but its a pretty terrific little movie and is from that Talking Heads POV applied to Texas living in 1986.

If you've never met me, I assure you, this is exactly how I dress
I watched the movie in its entirety tonight, and it holds up incredibly well.

*in watching a version of this video with credits, this is the first time I realized the woman singing backup vocals is Kirsty MacColl and Johnny Marr is included in the band (but I don't actually know what either actually looks like, so there you go)

**the opening act wandered out while we were waiting and asked us if we knew where to get some fairly serious drugs.  They were somewhat put out when we confessed we had no idea where one obtained such a thing.


J.S. said...

I remember talking to Cris Frantz, and I thought it went fine (I think I gave out a recommendation or two for Mexican restaurants), but I had low expectations. I wouldn't have described myself as eager to meet them so much as willing. The whole idea of meeting celebrities just b/c you're a fan is an awkward one. I also think we had Rob Quintanilla with us, who only like hard rock/heavy metal and thought The Talking Heads was a band for weenies.

Dug said...

So many great songs from this band... "And She Was" might be the most perfect pop song ever. Too many other less poppy but more interesting ones to list.

...this is not my beautiful comment.

Fantomenos said...

Being roughly your age, I can testify that Talking Heads was a great gateway to weirdness. I don't listen to them much anymore, but they probably had a deeper effect than I realize.

I do remember when "True Stories" came out I was in 7th grade, and I dragged my Dad to go see it at some art theatre in downtown DC. I don't think I understood much about it, but I understood the most important thing, which was that there were strange people out there who were allowed to make movies, and they perceived the world in a radically different way then the people in my suburban junior high.

The League said...

Oh, lord. We DID have Rob with us. I thought there was a third, but couldn't remember who.

I didn't see True Stories until college, and I don't think I knew it existed until I was in Dallas for a conference of some sort in high school and looked up and they had a poster for True Stories hanging in a restaurant. But, of course, Blockbuster did not carry the movie, so it was a long time before I saw it.

Honestly, I think the movie that broke that ice for me was probably Raising Arizona, which, yeah, NOW everyone has seen it, but back then...

Nathaniel Cone said...

Meeting and speaking to celebs as an adult is so much more fun than doing so as a teen. Even if the spastic adulation isn't there.

The League said...

Eh. Maybe. My problem is that I have nothing to say other than the spastic adulation, so I prefer to keep it short and sweet.

Matt A. said...

I came in too late to the Talking Heads scene (college). However, I do remember that art teacher. The bit I still remember with him showing videos was the Ah-Ha "Take On Me" video. Strangely enough, I remember more about his class than any other in that school.