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Every Scratch, Every Click, Every Heartbeat: Talking Heads – “The Big Country” and “Cities”

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"Every Scratch, Every Click, Every Heartbeat": The reference is to Elvis Costello's song "45" which, to oversimplify matters, conflates music and life. All the same, "bass and treble heal every hurt" and though this series doesn't feature the dreaded soundtrack to my life, it might be said that each entry spotlights "a song to sing to do the measuring."

This time around, my wanderlust is just along for the ride in Talking Heads' "The Big Country" and "Cities."

"There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet…"
(The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot)

But there will be times the faces slip. I’ve had times I've met or had brushes with musical artists behind their public masks, or at least at variance with my perception. I met a gracious and gentlemanly Tom Waits, usually quirky and cantankerous, or seemingly so, in the lobby of Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theater, when I saved him from the clutches of over-adoring but inconsiderate fans. That’s not the way it started out when I initially dismissed the idea of joining the throng — as much as I wanted to — but who says Tom waits for no man? He caught my eye when he saw my retreat and subtly beseeched me over, at which time I complied, coming around to the back of the crowd. At this point, he used my arrival as a pretext to turn away from the increasingly-boisterous hangers-on to greet me, meet me — he thanked me, too — and converse with a very startled and grateful me.

Then there was a less than angry young Elvis Costello during his angry young man days. A friend had slipped a backstage pass from a San Diego show — personally autographed to “my friend” because he liked my Motown-linked Berry Gordy, Jr. nickname — for me to try to use at a Los Angeles show. It worked, stumping security who figured I was somehow on intimate terms with Elvis. They let me backstage, where I, while I was waiting for Elvis to come out, plied myself — and a few starlets — with free drinks. Justine Bateman kept eyeing me… I think. I met John Doe and Exene Cervenka from from X. And Tom Petty. Finally a Elvis came out to much fanfare, and while I hated to meet and run and be “walking ‘round [like] a physical jerk,” I did have a friend waiting (and waiting and waiting) in the car and had I promised her an autograph. So I rushed and gushed my time with Elvis, being first to do so — before his first drink! — and giving him the opportunity to be rude and put me off… but he didn’t. He was very nice, accommodating with the autograph, and affable in conversation. I was feeling pretty good when I left… waiting for Miss Bateman, though she never showed up.

In a more down-to-earth and non-concert setting, during the post-“My Sharona” period when everyone who was going to Get the Knack had already gotten the power pop gem and taken as much of the arrogant group and their derivative Beatlesque slavishness as they could take and the Knuke the Knack backlash was in full swing, I once saw the once overconfident leader Doug Fieger uncharacteristically crestfallen and disconsolate. We were at LAX, and I was flying to Detroit to see relatives in Michigan — Fieger is from there — and he was sitting waiting to board with his girlfriend. It was of course no time to bother him. In any case, I thought the Knuke the Knack campaign was an overreaction. Whatever the group was doing in playing around with its image, I still enjoyed its music enough, albeit lightweight at times, to buy its second 1979 album …But the Little Girls Understand. I was no little girl by any means, but I understood to certain extent.

Moving forward to 1985, I applied a lot of understanding, and some restraint, to my brush with David Byrne of Talking Heads. We were both on the same flight from Los Angeles to New York, waiting for the plane to depart, when I was going to the Live Aid Philadelphia Concert. I was seated with my friends when Byrne came down the aisle — he was looking dapper during his Panama suit and hat days — when our eyes met, briefly on his part, giving me one of those “leave me alone” glances. It seemed like I was the only one on the packed plane who recognized him anyway, and he gave the impression he preferred that I was out of the picture, too. Fine. I was a respectful Talking Heads fan, and from what I had read I knew he was somewhat reticent and aloof — odd for a Talking Head — so I was satisfied just to have a fortuitous look-see and leave it at that.

But then my immature little musical mind started up with some madness, misery, and much imagination. First, in the form of the loping tongue-in-cheek “The Big Country,” a song about flying over the country, from 1978’s More Songs About Buildings and Food. The track evolves from a country-lilted arrangement driven by Jerry Harrision’s steel guitar to some “Psycho Killer”-style rhythms replete with “Goo goo ga ga ga / Goo goo ga ga ga” burble, a sea change from earlier, more wholesome, if not entirely earnest verses:

I see the shapes,
I remember from maps.
I see the shoreline.
I see the whitecaps.
A baseball diamond, nice weather down there.
I see the school and the houses where the kids are.

Places to park by the fac'tries and buildings.
Restaurants and bars for later in the evening.
Then we come to the farmlands, and the undeveloped areas

And then comes that chorus where, as the plane is suitably up and away over fly-over territory (or even the coastal area – give me inland, small town country living these days) I’m obnoxiously crouching over Byrne at his window seat and quoting the chorus:

I wouldn't live there if you paid me.
I couldn't live like that, no siree!
I couldn't do the things the way those people do.
I couldn't live there if you paid me to

And then, as if that weren’t enough, I could — having by this point scared off the passenger in the aisle seat — have gained access to the seat next to Byrne and moved on to “Cities” from Talking Heads 1979 album Fear of Music. Thereupon I’d be regaling the taciturn head with — well, his own — absurd and deadpan wit mostly in the form of hilarious one-liners, couplets, and quatrains that can be split up periodically as unwanted one-sided nattering as the narrator in the song attempts to “Find a city / Find myself a city to live in”:

  • Look over there!… A dry ice factory

    A good place to get some thinking done
  • Down El Paso way things get pretty spread out

    People got no idea where in the world they are

    They go up north and come back south

    Still got no idea where in the world they are.
  • Did I forget to mention, to mention Memphis

    Home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks

Of course, after all, I didn’t attempt any intonational turbulence. It wasn’t because of any fear of music, or, for that matter, fear of more songs about buildings and food. It was because it was a stupid idea, and because I was afraid that Byrne would, beneath the brim of his Panama hat, give me one of those “leave me alone” looks which would really turn out to be mean: are you one yet another of those assholes who really think it’s funny and original to look over my shoulder and quote from “The Big Country” and “Cities”?

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • http://theglenblogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I’ve never met Elvis the C or Byrne, but I did meet Tom Waits once backstage during the “Small Change” tour (tickets were $2.98), and he was indeed very gracious.

    I went with a friend who was a big Waits fan. “It’s an honor to meet you, sir,” My friend gushed as he shook Waits hand. Waits replied, “Sir, the honor is all mine.”

    Great stuff as always Gordon.

    -Glen

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/gordon_hauptfleisch Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Thanks, Glen. I remember cutting my own time short with Waits, though I probably could’ve gone on talking, just because I didn’t want to chance an awkward silence or becoming one of those fawning hangers-on. Just getting my own version of “Sir, the honor is all mine” was enough.