On rare occasion, when my dad was been over-served, we’ll head down to the home theater and watch Stop Making Sense. Its hard to describe the concert video, except perhaps as a combination of pop music and performance art. Having been born at about the time the Talking Heads’ popularity was at its peak, I didn’t really get the music until much later in life. Since I grew up hearing them, I was a fan, but it wasn’t until I read American Psycho that I really started listening to them a lot. Patrick Bateman, the main character in American Psycho, is in his late twenties during the 1980s, and he has quite a predilection for pop music. His favorite band (in the book, not the movie) is the Talking Heads. The New Yorker describes the content of the Talking Heads’ work to consist of themes of longing, regret, and dread. More from the same article on This Must be the Place:
And, indeed, “This Must Be The Place” can be taken as an ode to the palliative effects of companionship. “Home is where I want to be / Pick me up and turn me ’round,” Byrne begins. “I feel numb, born with a weak heart / Guess I must be having fun.” All of a moment, this narrator, who has been worrying over the boredoms of affection for a decade, is welcoming it. He may not want to examine it (“The less we say about it the better”), but he’s ready to dive in (“Make it up as we go along”). All of a moment, he is infatuated. “Hiii yo, I got plenty of time,” Byrne croons.
“This must be the place”—it’s not a statement of certainty, is it? It’s not “This is the place.” It’s more “This is what someone said the place was.” It’s even a little desperate. “I don’t know what I’ll do if this isn’t the place.” The music, too, starts in a kind of question mark. Very unconventionally for a pop song, the lyrics don’t come in for a full minute, during which time the floating bass line doesn’t play on the roots of the guitar chords but on the fifths, lending the melody what the keyboardist Jerry Harrison calls “an uneasiness.” The whole time, we’re wondering if that propulsive sound that carried the record up to this point will return.
It doesn’t, and Byrne arrives instead, but he hasn’t gotten through the first verse before he’s trying to reassure himself he came to the right address. “It’s okay, I know nothing’s wrong,” he sings. “I love the passing of time.” The third verse begins as hopefully as the first does, with the words “Home is where I want to be,” but then a note of disappointment enters his voice, reminiscent of the newscaster-father switch in “Life During Wartime,” as he decides “But I guess I’m already there.” (Note the same non-aligned rhyme on “where” and “there.”) Already, he is bored with the idea of home. Meanwhile, the imagery—“Eyes that light up / Eyes look through you”, “You’ve got a face with a view”—is as spectral as it is numinous. All this as the E-minor chords turn the wistfulness into nostalgia, and nostalgia into a sense of loss, not for things lost, but, the listener intuits from the counterpoint horn-synth stabs in the chorus, for things never found. By the end, the comfort of love is making him think of death: “And you’ll love me til my heart stops / Love me til I’m dead.”
The dreadful longing and anticipatory regret are still there. Byrne is more at ease with them, he can even appreciate them, but he knows they’ll never go away. “This Must Be The Place has a lot of sentiment,” Lethem says, “but the thing that energizes the song is that it’s difficult to get to that sentiment.”
Like American Psycho, its disconcerting to be able to relate to the song, even a little bit. Also similar to the book, its about as complex and psychological as it gets. So your homework for next week is to analyze Once in a Lifetime. And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here. Same as it ever was.
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