The Village Voice AUGUST 20, 1979 - by Lester Bangs


One day someone I love said, "You hit me with your eyes." When I hear David Byrne's lyrics, I can imagine him saying the same thing in language just oblique enough to turn the pain into percussively lapping waters.

These are mutant times, and Talking Heads are the most human of mutant groups. Byrne has mental institution eyes, but unlike Patti or R. Hell they don't broadcast danger: he just looks like some nice nut holidayed from the ward with a fresh pocket of Thorazine. He and the rest of the band seem in both their music and physical presence to combine a sinuous plant-like sway with a hypertense, mechanical rigidity. They're a marriage of diametrical opposites - abandon and inhibition, anxiety and ease, freedom and impingement into paralysis.

I was a little put off by More Songs About Buildings And Food, not only because I found the music hard to get into but because I suspected that like old Andy Warhol who kept lurking around them the Heads or Byrne might actually think that buildings and food are every bit as significant and worthy of emotional concern as mere human beings. The stance seemed deliberately evasive, though modish in the worst way. Of course I missed the point. From Love --> Building On Fire out, Talking Heads are (about) humans who feel pinned by circumstance, reacting like scarecrows and windmills to the erosions of experience, registering everything precisely from a slight distance while the passion is pent, even boiling... over here, and often finds its only outlet in the rhythmic undertows. They're also about new feelings for new social structures: No Compassion ("Go talk to your analyst, isn't that what he's there for?"), The Girls Want To Be With The Girls (why not, especially since most of the guys are too uptight to play with them), The Big Country (finally somebody said it: there is nothing beyond Jersey; Jack Kerouac made all that shit up, he was a science-fiction writer).

Fear Of Music provides Heads'/Byrne's most explicit blueprint yet for survival in the face of paranoias - real or imagined, makes no difference. It's also the best Heads album yet because the production is up to or above the quality of their second, while the songs have a flow that makes it more immediately accessible. Byrne's a kind of Everyneurotic, wandering through the world encountering ouch-producers every step and breath he takes, relaying them back to us filtered through his sense of humor, his natural musicality, and the ever sifting-shifting medium that is Brian Eno. Fear Of Music might as well have been called Fear Of Everything. Show me an item extant sentient or otherwise in the world we share and I'll show you a clinically certified list of reasons why proximity to said item should be considered risky if not downright lethal. Under such circumstances, you have every right to be wrong. McLuhan missed it: we're not a global village, we're a global outpatient clinic, and the life force itself is most fully embodied in a frenetically twitching nerve. But even with that on your side there is one thing you must face: you have no friends anywhere. Nothing and no one. Also, nature is perverse. E.g., air and new Heads tune of same title: it's not just cigarette smoke or auto exhaust or the pollutants factories chuff out - it's air qua air that's out for your ass. Because in this most richly diversified of all possible universes, it just might happen to be the case that air does not like you.

The refusal to face or understand such facts is why we're all terminally psychotic and no doctor, pill, book or guru holds the cure. The disease is called life and there is no cure for that including death (makes fertilizer::contribution of life-cycle::no good) so ha ha the joke's on you from cradle to crypt. David Byrne knows all these things; what's more he knows that "Some people don't know shit about the... air..."

That's the trouble with our society today: people take everything too damn much for granted. They think the disease is gonna shit out pills to cure itself. In this album Dr. Byrne examines various popularly proposed panaceas with dissecting knife and discards them one by one.

Socialized day-to-day living in this imminent nullkrieg is outlined in Life During Wartime: "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no fooling around / This ain't no Mudd Club, or CBGB, I ain't got time for that now... 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." When there is no firm ground, the only sensible thing to do is keep on the move, ergo on their third album the first example of what might qualify as the Heads' version of "road" songs - the other one is Cities, most of which boil down to "A lot of ghosts in a lot of houses," who just like befuddled birds may "go up north and come back south / Still got no idea where in the world they are."

Drugs is a hilariously solemn recitation of the usual chemical comicstrips, and Animals puts away all those maudlin mabels like Robinson Jeffers and Euell Gibbons who belabor us with man's odiousness behavior-wise when stacked up against our noble ancestors dwelling next door in the wilds or more properly zoos. But the bottom line is that "They're setting a bad example." The truth, as Byrne points out, is that animals, besides having no intelligence beyond brute fear reflex, are a bunch of smug little bastards who are laughing at us just because we keep drawing diagrams across a universe they knew was chaotic in the first place.

Which brings us to David Byrne's basic philosophy of existence: To feel anxiety is to be blessed by the full wash of life in its ripest chancre - everything else is wax museums. Having rejected drugs, animal husbandry, jogging not to mention breathing itself, towns, cities, and whole continents in his search for some little nook where he can relax for even one instant, Byrne finally lays it on the line: "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens."

Every state but zero cool emptiness, every place on the map but Nowheresville, spells anxiety under a wide assortment of brand names. Once yanked, nerves never forget. You are going to be driven crazy by all of this, no, wait, you are crazy because of all this, or maybe just because period, and you always will be as long as you live. Crazy is simply your birthright, signifying citizenship in the human race. Those furshlugginer animals never go crazy. Air doesn't go crazy. Only you. And that's because, as Misterogers has been trying to tell you for years, you're a special person. Isn't it wonderful? Sure. So give up all those silly little totems you got clenched in your itty mitt: drugs, religions, politics, family, jobs (well, maybe them you better keep), even rock'n'roll, because Electric Guitar has been bad, not only guilty of crimes against the state but deserves to be spanked and put to bed, besides which "the copy sounds better," as everyone knows.

So what's left? Nothing, and it's not heaven. "Everything seems to be up in the air at this time," says David. The implicit answer in all these songs is that, given the hopelessness of the situation, we should also recognize how hysterically funny it is. In the Middle Ages the population of Europe felt so haunted and tainted by the Devil, so hopelessly damned, that they developed a predilection, as manifested in the paintings of Bosch, for taking all this damnation and redemption stuff as a kind of huge joke, with God, Satan and the demons as cartoon characters. The closer you get to whatever you're terrified of, the more it and your dread begin to seem like old friends, ergo terror decreases. David Byrne seems to be a sort of dowzer's wand for neuroses and trauma, and as darkness looms over all of us, he strolls down its maw, placid, bemused, humming little tunes to himself. Sometimes I think Fear Of Music is one of the best comedy albums I've ever heard. Which doesn't mean the fear isn't real. Byrne just reminds you that it's something you're going to have to live with, so you might as well get a kick out of it while you can.