MMM 1 — This ain’t the Mudd Club

The opening salvo in my attempt to not worry about the government — a set of memories around a group of art school weirdos. It starts in eighth grade art class, where I was stuck at a table with Tony and Susan. They tag-teamed me relentlessly, usually teasing me about my department store corduroys or unwashed hair.

Tony had seemed like a good guy in sixth grade — smart, well-behaved, and willing to be my friend. Then he disappeared. It turns out, his family had moved to Europe temporarily. When he resurfaced a year and a half later, he had a deeper voice, longer hair, a pack-a-day habit, and a chip on his shoulder.

I tried befriending him again, but he usually just mocked me for being a nerd and a virgin (but I repeat myself). Nevertheless, I looked up to him, and tried to emulate some of his tastes. But he talked about reading Salinger and speaking three languages fluently, and I just couldn’t keep up.

What finally made that fact clear was the day he painted a ridiculous portrait of a pale, skinny face with black, rectangular glasses and a smirk that reeked of arrogance. When the teacher stopped by our table to ask who Tony was painting, he replied, “Some guy who could be part of the Talking Heads.”

I had to ask what Talking Heads were, and was again mocked mercilessly.

Somewhere in a landfill or my parents’ basement, there’s a portrait like this of me.

Four years later, Tony worked the lights at the Drama Department’s production of “Harvey.” Guess who was in the play? It’s okay, because by that time, we got along better. But I still didn’t know who the Talking Heads were. Tony tried to fix that at the cast party, though — he broke out a flourescent pink LP with “TALKING HEADS: 77” written in green block letters across the top, and soon I found myself listening to some squirrelly-voiced demon warbling quirky lyrics like, “Mommy, Daddy, come and look at me now…I’m a big man in a great big town!”

I wasn’t impressed, and had no idea this was the same band who had recorded Burning Down the House, which was still on heavy rotation at that time. But I eventually opened my mind and ears, thanks to my good friend Marc. You’re going to read a lot about him if you keep reading this series, but on today’s entry, I bet you won’t be willing to read anything else if I don’t hurry up and get to the point.

After graduation, Marc convinced me to give Talking Heads another chance, and let me borrow his cassette of ’77. It grew on me, and after I went off to college, he continued to feed my appreciation with other recommendations. The following summer, we listened to, then watched, Stop Making Sense, and I was hooked.

One of the stand-outs for me was the frantic live version of Life During Wartime, a fascinating, hip song whose title never appears in the lyrics, but tells the listener exactly what the song is about (title origins matter to me). Marc recommended I check out Fear of Music for the studio version of the song, so I did. Thank God.

Yes, I said, “genius.” Make something of it.

Fear of Music was the band’s third studio album, and solid proof that they could evolve into something beyond their fans’ expectations with every new album. David Byrne, who eventually would become synonymous with “musical genius” in my mind, transcended his spastic nature from the first two albums; in fact, his vocals were downright menacing on several of the tracks.

Not the least of these was Memories Can’t Wait, a hard-hitting, nerve-wracking assault of a song that I haven’t quite figured out to this day. Is it about insomnia? Mental illness? A bad acid trip? Doesn’t matter, because it effectively conveys a state of mind common to all three (and more) — desperation.

This song triggers a fight-or-flight response in me as surely as Pavlov’s bell triggered saliva in his dog. Listen to the droning, chaotic intro, and just try not to panic. It spits out a primal rhythm like a swarm of hornets, punctuating the guitar chords with a troubling pattern of staccato buzzes from an instrument that’s still as much a mystery to me as the meaning of the lyrics. I think it’s a synthesizer, but I guess it could be a guitar. Or maybe a loop of just a smidgeon of guitar reverb (if there is such a thing), or some electronic sound effect played back in all of its “da,da,da,da,da” glory. (If you know, please tell me.)

Whatever it is, it makes my heart accelerate and my blood boil. They play it for 29 seconds before lapsing into a gentler rhythm, which might just be the maximum amount allowed by law. To listen to that sound for any longer is to stare in the abyss, knowing that it’s staring right back.

Byrne’s haunting vocals and Chris Frantz’s unrelenting drumbeat carry the song from that point, although the buzzes pop up again in shorter bursts throughout. The song makes me feel desperate and trapped, like waking up in the dead of night and knowing I’m exhausted, but not being able to turn off my mind to go back to sleep — memories can’t wait, indeed.

By all rights, this feeling should leave me unsettled, but the song has what I call a “Ritalin effect” — it’s effective at curing a condition that you’d think it would only exarcerbate. Ritalin is an amphetamine, used to treat ADD and ADHD. I don’t know who first had the nards to give speed to someone prone to hyperactivity, but it actually improves focus. And listening to this song improves my state of mind whenever I’m worried, stressed, or feeling desperate. Just like listening to sad songs can make me feel happier — I don’t know how it works, but it does.

I also think it’s cool that Byrne doesn’t sing the title phrase until the end of the song, at which point he repeats it ad nauseum and again gets his nerd on, eschewing his growls for his more familiar shrieks. Song titles are important to me, and I always think it’s cool when one takes me by surprise.

Now please, check out this ubercool song, and let me know if it takes you by surprise:

Lyrics:

Do you remember anyone here?
No you don’t remember anything at all.
I’m sleeping, I’m flat on my back.
Never woke up, had no regrets.

There’s a party in my mind…and I hope it never stops.
There’s a party up there all the time; they’ll party ’til they drop.
Other people can go home; everybody else will split.
I’ll be here all the time…I can never quit.

Take a walk through the land of shadows.
Take a walk through the peaceful meadows.
Don’t look so disappointed.
It isn’t what you hoped for, is it?

There’s a party in my mind…and I hope it never stops.
I’m stuck here in this seat; I might not stand up.
Other people can go home; other people, they will split.
I’ll be here all the time…I can never quit.

Everything is very quiet,
Everyone has gone to sleep.
I’m wide awake on memories —
These memories can’t wait!

—–

Also-rans:

  • Girlfriend is Better (Live), Stop Making Sense
  • The Great Curve, Remain in Light
  • Life During Wartime, Fear of Music
  • Thank You for Sending Me an AngelMore Songs About Buildings and Food
  • Heaven, Fear of Music
  • Psycho Killer, Talking Heads: 77
  • Road to Nowhere, Little Creatures
  • Blind, Naked

—–

Time to spin again….

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About Dan Bain

Dan is an award-winning humorist, features writer, emcee and entertainer from Raleigh, NC. His collection of humor essays, A Nay for Effort, has earned him fans from one end of his couch to the other. Why not join them and buy one? (You won't have to sit on his couch.) Dan will donate 10 percent of the book's proceeds to education. You can check it out at www.danbain.net; thanks!
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4 Responses to MMM 1 — This ain’t the Mudd Club

  1. Terri Tompkins says:

    Don’t feel nekkid, I was close to thirty before I knew who the Talking Heads were, and bought three CDs of theirs before finding the song I fell in love with – the one and only “Life During Wartime”. That rhythm gets you rockin’!

  2. Wyrd Smythe says:

    Takes me by surprise in what sense? Lyrically? Musically? It’s not really my cup of tea, but my musical tastes are a little weird based on a hearing defect that makes most lyrics inaccessible. Therefore I like music that is very rhythmic and melodic (bonus if the lyrics are clear).

    We’re sharing, right? Here’s a favorite of mine (David Gray’s “Let the Truth Sting”). A rare case of actually liking the lyrics as much, if not more, than the music:

    • Dan Bain says:

      Lyrically or musically — either would be great! At first, I was talking about lyrics as they relate to the title, but I also enjoy a song that surprises me musically. And we are absolutely sharing, so thanks for the link! I’m on the wrong computer for watching YouTube right now, but I will be sure to check it out as soon as I’m on one that doesn’t crash every time I try to load a video….

      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        I’m going to have to think about this idea of being surprised by music. I can’t say I ever have. Delighted, disgusted, bored, in awe… all those, for sure. I grew up with music (two musical parents; mom was a music teacher), and my tastes are very universal (I enjoy it a from opera to rap).

        About the closest I can think of right now is a Bob James jazz piece, “Valley of the Shadows” (off his album, “One”), that is extremely dissonant through most of the piece (as you walk through the valley). But when you climb out of the valley (the dissonance building and building), it breaks into this amazing, harmonic, strong riff on “A Mighty Fortress” that just blows me away every time.

        Wow, the internet is amazing. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but there it is on YouTube (the whole album is well worth owning):

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