Talking Heads

theadsI have a clear memory of the origin story here: In my Sociology 101 discussion section at UC-Berkeley, a classmate showing off the new LP of Stop Making Sense that he’d just bought. Or she. Or maybe it was a poster for the movie? Okay, not entirely clear, but at least I know where I was when I first became aware that I should be paying attention to Talking Heads.

I probably should have been paying attention years earlier, of course, but I was in no state to do so. They didn’t play Talking Heads songs on the rock radio stations I listened to (the band was still considered new wave, which was only played on “modern rock” stations like WDRE), and the clips that had shown up on MTV — mostly “Once in a Lifetime” — were too weird to appeal to me. I mentally filed Talking Heads away with Devo and the Buggles: people in weird outfits playing some kind of futuristic music for self-conscious effect, maybe entertaining to flip past on TV but not something I’d actually want to buy and listen to.

Stop Making Sense changed all that. Once I was back in New York (Berkeley didn’t take), I went to see the film at the Waverly Theatre, the Greenwich Village indie outlet that survives today as the IFC Center. (Other movies I’ve seen there include both Speed and Howl’s Moving Castle. It occupies an odd but important place in my personal cinematic history.) It is, needless to say, a great movie, and in it Talking Heads reveal themselves as a great band: coming on stage one by one, until finally making up the nine-person “big band” that they toured as in their later years; and running through everything from stripped-down straight ahead rock like “Thank You for Sending Me and Angel” to full-on polyrhythmic weirdness like “Crosseyed and Painless.” (The latter may in fact be my favorite Talking Heads song, though there are lots of candidates.) Add in David Byrne’s clever art-rock design touches — less the big suit and dancing with a lamp than the giant screens displaying surreal random-word aphorisms — and it was Village Voice-reading first-year college student crack.

My love affair with Talking Heads only latest a few years, but it was torrid while it lasted: I quickly bought up all their albums, and listened to them more than anything else during my college years. I even wrote a paper for my “Revolutionary Societies” sociology class that managed to cite, in addition to the usual Marxist theorists, David Byrne’s companion book to the very strange Talking Heads album (and even stranger movie) True Stories. (I got an A on the paper, so either Byrne managed to hit on some universal truths, or I did a really good job of selling it.)

For all that, though, Talking Heads were a bit of a musical dead end for me. I went on to listen to Tom Tom Club as well, and Bernie Worrell’s presence in the big band led me to discover Parliament/Funkadelic, but other than that, not much else: I still don’t own any Brian Eno or Adrian Belew albums, and most of the rest of my college listening habits remained firmly in ’70s trad rock territory (Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Yes). Though really, Talking Heads were kind of an evolutionary blind alley themselves in a way: They were the antithesis of the Velvet Underground “spawned a thousand imitators” model, and by the end they’d seemingly written themselves into a musical corner: When they came out with Naked, their final album, it immediately struck me as either the future of music or a complete experimental train wreck, and almost 30 years later I still don’t know if I could tell you which it is.

I do wish that I’d been hip enough to new music in high school to catch on to Talking Heads at least a few years earlier, if only because then I might have seen them at their legendary Stop Making Sense concert at Forest Hills Tennis Center, or even their equally legendary show at the Dr. Pepper Music Festival in Central Park in 1980. (The prospect of me having seen them at CBGB’s at age 12 or so is unimaginable even in a hypothetical alternate universe.) Aside from giving me memories and some props to impress fellow music fans, with, though, I doubt it would have made all that much difference in my ultimate musical trajectory. Talking Heads were an outlier in every way, and were destined to reside alone in one corner of my music library, cherished but unique. Not that that’s a bad thing at all — I could probably say similar things about some other bands.