Stop Making Sense
Talking Heads
1984

I’d like to have a few words with you today about the value of friends. And I don’t just mean how much money you can borrow from them. My friends have more than once straightened me out about music. Today I’d like to tell you about my friend Donald and the gift he gave me: Talking Heads.

Donald was a great guy, but there was this one thing about him. He was weird. He was bookish and hyper-intellectual, a guy who, in 1983, when this story begins, listened to King Crimson, Yes, Neil Young at his most cheerful (“Cortez the Killer”), and contemporary classical – a subgenre of classical music that most people avoid because it makes their teeth fall out. One of Donald’s heroes was Béla Bartók. Have you ever spent any time with Béla Bartók? You can easily reproduce Bartók’s most renowned music by cranking up an orchestra inside a revolving cement mixer. However, I once heard something melodious by this man. I was eager to tell Don about it:

Run-DMSteve: I heard something I liked by Bartók!
Donald: What was it?
Run-DMSteve: It was called “Hungarian Sketches.”
Donald: That’s wimpy Bartók!

Everyone is trying/to get to the bar
The name of the bar/the bar is called Heaven
And you thought I was a snob. Later Donald was sorry that he didn’t encourage rather than disparage me. Let me add right here that in addition to the millions of books he’d read and songs he’d listened to, most of which I wouldn’t touch on a bet, Don was one of the best defensive centerfielders I’d ever seen. He could chase down fly balls that were barely in the same area code.

Don was the person who made me a fan of Talking Heads. Until I met him, I hadn’t thought much about this band, except to turn their songs off when they came on the radio. When I heard Talking Heads on commercial radio in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I didn’t hear much I cared for: The insipid “Love Has Come to Town,” for example, and the incomprehensible “Psycho Killer.” In fact I mainly knew “Psycho Killer” from the parody by The Fools, “Psycho Chicken”: “I plucked him once/why pluck him again?”

The band in Heaven/they play my favorite song
Play it once again/Play it all night long
I understood why Donald loved David Byrne, the main creative force behind Talking Heads, because Byrne was weird. And that voice. Where have I heard that voice? On a Saturday morning cartoon, perhaps. Byrne’s voice is otherworldly (like David Bowie, Lady Gaga, and Gary Numan) and comical (like Weird Al, Fred Schneider, and the guy who did the yodeling in the Dutch prog-rock band Hocus Pocus). At any moment you expect him to de-materialize. Or else say “Well fuck it then” and pull out an accordion.

It didn’t help that Andy Warhol did some early radio commercials to support the band in which he a) acted like a total nerd, and I don’t think he was acting, and b) basically said that he liked Talking Heads because they were nerds. And those of you who have met me and are now asking why I couldn’t get down with a heightened degree of nerdiness can just shut UP.

Heaven/Heaven is a place/A place where nothing/nothing ever happens
When Talking Heads came to Seattle in 1983, Don insisted that I go with him, his wife, their precocious grade-school daughter, and a couple of his fellow hyper-intellectuals (minimalists, surely). Don might have even bought my ticket. If he didn’t, he should have.

The concert wasn’t what I expected. The songs I had previously disliked or had never heard were accelerated and deep-fried in funk. The concert followed a storyline, with Byrne opening the show alone and welcoming his bandmates singly and in groups as the songs progressed. By the time Byrne climbed into his Big Suit to sing about his girlfriend with bows in her hair (and nothing is better than that) and suggest that we stop making sense, I was banging my face into the stage. I never felt that way in a synagogue.

There is a party/everyone is there
Everyone will leave at/exactly the same time
The following year this tour was immortalized by Jonathan Demme in Stop Making Sense. I saw this film three times when it was released and I saw it again on the big screen with a younger generation of nerds in 2009 when it was rereleased. It was every bit as powerful in 2009 as it was in 1985 and I was surprised at how well I remembered it, whereas I don’t remember much about the concert at all and in fact I don’t even connect the band I saw live with the band I see in this film. (One of the few things I do remember from the concert is that everyone on Don’s side of the family brought a book.)

If you’ve been to a rock concert, you know that musicians who have been on the road a while forget what city they’re in and sometimes what song they’re in. They forget the words, make up new ones, hit the wrong key, crash into an amp or the bass player. Guitar strings break. Drums fall over. On The Clash’s From Here to Eternity, Joe Strummer croaks “Take it from me” to Mick Jones in the middle of “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” because his voice is shot.

It’s hard to imagine that/nothing at all
Could be so exciting/could be so much fun
There are no mishaps or indecisive moments in Stop Making Sense, a record of a concert that never was. It was filmed by multiple cameras over three nights. The sound was run through a studio the way milk and ice cream are run through a blender. It makes Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones look crude and The Last Waltz look stagy. Bob Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara is a pebble on its shoe. Stop Making Sense is so powerful that I hate to think what my life would’ve been like if Demme had decided to make his movie about Queensrÿche or Kenny G.

Writing in The New Yorker in 1984, Pauline Kael said she loved the film but that the songs all sounded the same to her. What makes Stop Making Sense irresistible? Is it the way the tension builds in the first half as the band multiplies and the black-shirted roadies wheel out the equipment? Is it that supreme moment in “Once in a Lifetime” when the two female singers with outstretched arms rise behind the ranting David Byrne? It is all the quotable lines?

–       Same as it ever was
–       You may ask yourself, how did I get here?
–       I feel like talking to someone/who knows the difference between right and wrong
–       This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around
–       Changed my hairstyle so many times now/don’t know what I look like

I have the answer and here it is in one sentence: Stop Making Sense is to a real concert what high-end pornography is to real sex.

Table 1. Shared characteristics of Stop Making Sense and high-class porn

  • Lengthy Bolero-style build-up
  • Everybody knows where everything goes
  • Everything is illuminated
  • Everything is audible, too
  • No time-outs
  • No encore

Stop Making Sense is a fantasy that musicians and audiences can all aspire to. And no one has to take their clothes off.

When this kiss is over/it will start again
It will not be any different/ it will be exactly the same
I play the Stop Making Sense soundtrack a lot but only a few of Talking Heads’ other songs: “Cities” (which was cut from the film), “(Nothing But) Flowers,” and “Sax and Violins.” One of Byrne’s collaborations with Brian Eno produced a gorgeous song called “Strange Overtones.” But mostly it’s Stop Making Sense for me – one of the pillars of my musical universe.

In 1984, Donald walked into a costume party at my house wearing a suit and a tie and carrying a guitar and a boom box. He placed his boom box on the floor and announced, “Hi. I have a tape I want to play.” Wherever you are, Don, I thank you again. If it weren’t for my friends I’d still be listening to Three Dog Night. In my parents’ basement.

It’s hard to imagine that/nothing at all
Could be so exciting/could be so much fun
Rest in peace, Amy Winehouse. I have rarely heard a voice like yours.

Heaven/Heaven is a place/A place where nothing/nothing ever happens.

Comments
  1. Barb says:

    David Byrne places a tape deck on the floor, looks up and pauses for just a moment … Steve, you brought it all swooping back. I was there at the Seattle show, over on the left about a third of the way back. Can you see me? I’m one of the endless supply of smart, inexperienced white girls with a bachelor’s degree, wearing ripped jeans and tee and way too much eyeliner.You’re right, Talking Heads was like high class porn. The band turned on my mind but did not give me the booty groovin soul experience that James Brown did that same year. Now *that* show was an education!

  2. lindajordaneichner says:

    Alas, I never got to see them live, so all I’ve got are the CD’s and the movie. But I can imagine….

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