Mr. Byrne Will Destroy You Now: Talking Heads and Other Craveable Crisis Music

by Merry Mercurial

The story of the first song I didn’t just want to hear but craved — with a growling NOW and it didn’t matter who was there to find my taste raw and klutzy — began on a rare non-miserably-hot North Carolina night. Boyfriend’s car. Target parking lot.

I wanted to hear “Something in the Air Tonight.” Who cared that probably the last time I’d heard the song, it had been in the pothead-friendly context of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Frylock’s flashback music, I believe.

The night was right for it. The sky had been clogged with heat forever but now brother we had breeze, that feather-light promise that somewhere out there lay an ocean, where it was possible to get wet not from humidity but from swimming. There was a call for music that paid homage to bongos and wind chimes but with a more driving rhythm, because we were about to drive if not fast then at a speed that would feel so with the top down. Gimme gimme something that sounded like the beach but from a distance, the beach when you’re racing there, antsier by the mile, sick of land with no watery edge, sick of sticky heat without a side of saltwater, but okay at the same time because you can hear the edge of the beach from here. Give me something that was pure molten summer but not too relaxed, not yet.

He didn’t have “Something in the Air Tonight.”

“But I think I have something that’ll work,” said he. What he had was Fear Factory’s cover of “Cars.” And, indeed, it worked.

Every so often, from then on, I’d need to hear Fear Factory doing “Cars.” And while it’s more art than science to quantify what sets a craving apart from a favorite song apart from music that sticks to your brain like somebody else’s gum to your shoe, I do know that that song perfectly fit a moment. And from roughly that point, I knew what it was to want music the same way I eventually wanted McDonald’s grease on those preggo mornings that started with chalky vitamins and promptly-puked breakfast muffins.

Once pregnancy has taught you to really crave food, your cravings can roam to places your conscious mind can’t follow. Earl Grey tea with red popsicles. Oversalted dry mashed potatoes and a spoonful of dark chocolate Hershey’s. Once you’ve first needed to hear a song, the strange lands to which your musical taste meanders may surprise.

Take “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay.

I still don’t know what happened. The obsession came on like a bug-eyed whirlwind romance.

Maybe the message of this song got vaguely abstractly cross-referenced with post-Mormonism atheism for me. I doubt the band wrote it or Chris Martin sang it that way, but I must have heard it that way.

At the height of my single-heartedness over this one, I was staying awake until three, four in the morning, “be my mirror, my sword and shield” blurring by every few minutes on the closed-circuit race track that was and is my brain, sketching pictures of how I imagined the faces of whatever fictional characters I was writing about at the time. There was no real moment this one defined or brought charging back to the foreground of thought whenever it played; but it became the soundtrack of months of melodrama.

And, oh, “Once in a Lifetime.” 

Why does anyone ever need some m’f’ing T’ing H? You’re gliding along minding your own when you are gutstruck by the intangible fist of being older than you have ever been before. A fist the size of WARNINGS OF HEART DISEASE billboards, and when it hits you, it sounds exactly like Led Zeppelin covering Greta Van Fleet. Who you gonna call? You’re going to clutch your internally bleeding core and hobble to whatever the sleek buttonless device that holds your music and you are going to summon David Byrne. Doing your best Catholic penitent/masochist, you are going to say, “Tear my whole stupid life apart, David. Make it hurt.” But David Byrne is decent (actually, David Byrne is a goddamn brainiac) so it won’t hurt as bad as it could. In the video you’ll watch him bounce about like he’s a marionette on cocaine while the puppeteer’s on something else. You’ll hear that family-friendly melody set to the tempo of a sitcom theme show. You will try to fathom how THAT married with existential-crisis lyrics married with David Byrne’s coming-unglued warble can be, for a moment, all there ever was to say about life and therefore all there has ever been to life – its squirrely fun and its depressions. And honey it will be okay. Everything will be okay.

Cravings are their own creatures. So it certainly gets less explicable than Fear Factory and Coldplay and the Talking Heads. For instance, it’s been this:

It has somehow fucking been THIS:

It’s been Dwight Yoakam singing “Wild Ride.” It’s been Poly Styrene with X-Ray Spex on “Oh Bondage.” And don’t get me started on the days it was the pAper chAse croaking “I want to eat out your bitter heart.”

Cravings have coincided with favoritism; during the months when “He Doesn’t Know Why” by Fleet Foxes was the best thing I’d ever heard, I also routinely felt that gut wince that for me is the corporeal totem of cravings, and I’d play it over and over and over, half for a fan’s purposes and half to appease a musical back-monkey. And honey “Under Pressure”? One day, maybe not much more than a decade from now, I’ll be able to talk about what the beautiful bastard has done to my ears.

And while lack of rhyme if not reason can be one of the charming things about cravings, when I look over many – certainly not all – of the need-to-hears, there is a theme that emerges.

It’s there in Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes gloriously pleading “There’s nothing I can doooooo” and in how the narrative fallen tyrant of “Viva La Vida” interprets defeatist lyrics in the tone of a victory anthem. It’s present in spades in “Once in a Lifetime” and “Under Pressure,” and now that I think of it it’s sort of there in “Cars” (whoever’s singing it).

And I think as much as this thematic proliferation stems from my interests, it also stems from the fact that if music in aggregate is about anything, it tends to be about this:

Making something beautiful — worth hearing at least — when all has gone to shit. As The World Ends. Finding musical expression worth it when death is foretold and visible from where you stand.

Trying — in other words — when it’s no good trying.

Which brings me to my last but grandest music craving, the song I’ve left events for and listen to the way teachers take echinacea at the start of cold season and Americans backpacking through Europe use the buddy system. This last one has horse-broken my spirit and now I eat from its hand, and while it would be Coldplay-era melodramatic to say I’ll never love another song (I will and I do), I may never have the shatterproof cold fealty for another that I do for “No Good Trying.”

It deserves its own post (forthcoming) but here this lovely autumn Saturday it is FYE. Ladies and gentlemen. Syd Barrett.

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