David Byrne, Life During Wartime

Okay, I swore I'd feature an American writer this week and then along comes David Byrne, the head Talking Head, who, it turns out was born in Dumbarton Scotland, and moved with his family to Canada (again with the Canada!) when he was two.  Only when he was 8 or 9 did he move to Baltimore and become a red blooded "one of us"--and the spokesperson for an entire age of American irony.

But doggone it, after I wrote last weeks post on Neil Young's "After The Gold Rush", Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime" rushed in as a follow up, like in a song swap.  Because Byrne and his coheads Tina Weymouth (oh, Tina!) Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison came up not with a post apocalyptic vision but an actively pre-apocalyptic one--the experience we will all have to live through BEFORE we get to the rapture, or whatever supposedly final solution your teleological world view dictates. We all remember the strange cry of the late 70s--"This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no foolin' around!"  Well take a look and listen again, viewed with eyes and ears firmly planted in the 00's.  And then we'll talk...



by David Byrne and Talking Heads

Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons
packed up and ready to go
Heard of some gravesites, out by the highway
a place where nobody knows
The sound of gunfire, off in the distance
I'm getting used to it now
Lived in a brownstone, lived in the ghetto
I've lived all over this town

This ain't no party, this ain't no disco
this ain't no fooling around
No time for dancing, or lovey dovey
I ain't got time for that now

Transmit the message, to the receiver
hope for an answer some day
I got three passports, couple of visas
don't even know my real name
High on a hillside, trucks are loading
everything's ready to roll
I sleep in the daytime, I work in the nightime
I might not ever get home

This ain't no party, this ain't no disco
this ain't no fooling around
This ain't no mudd club, or C. B. G. B.
I ain't got time for that now

Heard about Houston? Heard about Detroit?
Heard about Pittsburgh, PA?
You oughta know not to stand by the window
somebody might see you up there
I got some groceries, some peanut butter
to last a couple of days
But I ain't got no speakers
ain't got no headphones
ain't got no records to play

Why stay in college? Why go to night school?
Gonna be different this time?
Can't write a letter, can't send a postcard
I can't write nothing at all
This ain't no party, this ain't no disco
this ain't no fooling around
I'd love you hold you, I'd like to kiss you
I ain't got no time for that now

Trouble in transit, got through the roadblock
we blended in with the crowd
We got computers, we're tapping phone lines
I know that ain't allowed
We dress like students, we dress like housewives
or in a suit and a tie
I changed my hairstyle so many times now
don't know what I look like!
You make me shiver, I feel so tender
we make a pretty good team
Don't get exhausted, I'll do some driving
you ought to get you some sleep
Get you instructions, follow directions
then you should change your address
Maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day
whatever you think is best
Burned all my notebooks, what good are notebooks?
They won't help me survive
My chest is aching, burns like a furnace
the burning keeps me alive
Try to stay healthy, physical fitness
don't want to catch no disease
Try to be careful, don't take no chances
you better watch what you say

Huff, puff, huff, puff!....Okay, now this is one hell of a song, and I choose that word purposefully.  Unlike Neil Young's hint of apocalypse, Byrne and the Heads stick us right in the thick of it, glueing our own American culture onto the experience of millions of modern refugees, from Eastern Europe to Iraq, Darfur, the Congo and beyond. 

As Elvira Black wrote in Blogcritics Magazine (a self described "Sinister cabal of superior writers") [In Life During Wartime] "the cultural touchstones that define us have withered away, becoming superfluous, even disadvantageous ("Why stay in college? Why go to night school? Gonna be different this time?... Burned all my notebooks, what good are notebooks?/They won't help me survive.") Even the beloved clubs that defined late '70s New York hipsterdom have been swept away in the chaos. ("This ain't no Mudd Club or CBGB/I ain't got time for that now")...

And "In a presciently ironic twist on current concerns about privacy issues, Byrne's desperate protagonist finds himself on the other side of the equation ("We got computer, we're tapping phone lines/I know that that ain't allowed.") In this context, the song's unrelentingly frenetic tempo conjures up the frantic flight of a refugee in his own land ("Trouble in transit, got through the roadblock/We blended in with the crowd.")"

Once again these songs from bygone days of comparative innocence come back to haunt us.  How much we knew back then, and how much we hoped we were wrong. Time and again I am appalled to find that songs that formed my psyche at a young age still speak to this age with a frightening urgency.

Byrne himself is a bizarre hybrid of Andy Warhol's world of pop performance art and the earnest singer songwriters of the 60s, with a dash of Tim Burton's dark, edgy fun.  (The name of his band is a cinematic term culled from Hitchcock, and his songwriting and performances are nothing if not cinematic) He has continued putting on great, surprising shows (I saw him a year ago at the Hollywood Bowl accompanied by a gay marching band from San Francisco that devolved--or evolved--into a choreographed orgy) and making challenging, not-to-be-brushed-aside music. He'll be at Radio City Music Hall February 27 and 28.  I'd catch him if I were you.  He might clue you in to what's coming next.