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I’ve been on a Talking Heads kick lately, mainly because I’ve been reading This Must be the Place: The Adventures of Talking Heads in the 20th Century by David Bowman. Bowman, you may recall, was the astronaut who turned into a space fetus at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, so I don’t know how he managed to write the book. But he did. It’s compulsively readable, if a little snarky and glib. Sometimes the best thing an author can do is get out of the material’s way, and that is something that Bowman refused to do. As I said, though, the book is pretty darn readable and it’s motivated me to listen to a lot of stuff I haven’t heard in years.

Including The Name of this Band is Talking Heads, a double live album that came out in 1982. Today I loaded up the digital versions of the last two sides—played by the extended, funky version of Talking Heads—and listened to it as I walked.

I remember when the album came out. I was a senior at a big university in Los Angeles. I saw the band twice on the tour they did to promote the live set, once at the Greek Theater in Hollywood and once at the Hollywood Palladium. The day after the Greek Theater show I exchanged notes with the reporter from the Hollywood Reporter (where I worked at the time) who reviewed the show. “It was like a religious experience,” I said. “Exactly!” she replied.

I think I had seen The Name of This Band in the stores but didn’t have the money to buy it, because I remember calling up radio station KROQ to request the live version of “The Great Curve,” my favorite Talking Heads song. I thought the live version would be incredible.

A man with a British accent answered the phone. “KROQ,” he said. “This is Aynsley Dunbar.”

The name rang a bell, but it was a pretty faint one. I think I knew he was a drummer. I later learned he had played with pretty much everyone, including Frank Zappa, Ian Hunter, Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Journey. Those first four credits would have impressed me; Journey not so much. Journey was one of the bands I felt duty-bound to hate, along with groups like REO Speedwagon, Rush, Loverboy, and their ilk. I thought it was all music for brain-dead frat boys. I gave Rush some grudging respect because Geddy Lee, that hoser, had appeared on the Bob and Doug Mackenzie album. The rest of them, though, were too mainstream for my newly acquired too-cool taste in music.

“Could you play ‘The Great Curve” from The Name of this Band is Talking Heads?” I asked Dunbar, who was answering phones at KROQ as some kind of publicity gimmick.

“Great band,” he said. Then he asked if I knew who he was. He sounded pretty affable. “I’ve heard of you,” I said, tentatively. I hated then and still hate now to confess ignorance. He told me about some of his credits. I’m not sure if he mentioned Journey.

It was right around then that I reviewed a Journey concert at the Rose Bowl for the Hollywood Reporter. Of course, I hated the band on principle, so I hated the concert. I sat way up in the bleachers and it struck me that everyone else in my section was as bored as I was. Plus, I thought singer Steve Perry, visible to me in closeup on the big video screens above the stage, looked less like a rock-and-roll singer and more like Dustin Hoffman. I dutifully mentioned all this in my review, which apparently pissed off the band. Their manager called the music editor at the Hollywood Reporter to complain, so she banned me from reviewing for a time.

I had another Journey experience in California around then, when I went to a party at the invitation of a friend of a friend. It was at an apartment in Riverside. The only people I knew there were the people I had come with, and the guy who had invited us. As the night went on I became more and more bored and more and more belligerent. Finally I decided to take over the stereo, which was easy to do because the host kept it behind his bar. I could easily block anyone from approaching the turntable. One persistent party-goer kept insisting I put on a Journey album. “No. No Journey,” I decreed. Instead I put on Weasels Ripped my Flesh by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.

That did not go over so well.

The funny thing is, Aynsley Dunbar had played with both Journey and the Mothers (although not on Weasels Ripped My Flesh).

I wish I had known more about him when he answered the phone. He seemed like he was up for a chat, and I would have liked to ask him about working with Zappa and Bowie and Ian Hunter. One album I bought in California that I really liked was Hunter’s All-American Alien Boy, and Dunbar plays on that. They say ignorance is bliss, but usually it’s just something that makes you want to kick yourself later.

I still don’t like Journey, despite the use of one of their songs at end of the final Sopranos episode. And I think the studio version of “The Great Curve” is better than the live one.

Come to think of it, I don’t think KROQ ever played my request, anyway.


As I trudge around the neighborhood listening to the music that plays for me and me alone, I miss the times when music was much more a shared experience. I listened to it with friends, sitting around a dorm room or driving around in a car. Sometimes we argued about the album selection or grumbled because someone always had to hear his music, but music was something you listened to with other people.

I was really reminded of that this morning when “(Nothing but) Flowers” from the Talking Heads album Naked came on.

I was living in studio apartment in Washington when the band released that album in 1988. It was the weekend of St. Patrick’s Day and my brother and my friend Bill had come down to visit. We made the pilgrimage to the big Tower Records store down by George Washington University, where I bought a copy of Naked. On vinyl. At the time I was fighting a strenuous rear-guard action against CDs, which I felt were overpriced and overhyped. (I was right on both counts.) I did not have a CD player.

Anyway, the three of us were pretty big Talking Heads fans, so we headed back to my apartment to play the album. My brother and I had also bought a bottle of mescal. We removed the worm, cut it in half and shared it. Yum! Mescal turned out to be a good choice of liquor to accompany an album filled with influences from warm-weather countries. I was especially taken by “(Nothing But) Flowers,” with its chiming tropical guitars and lyrics about chocolate chip cookies and 7-11s. It sounded great then, so upbeat and happy and funny, and it still does now. Every time I hear it I flash back to that studio apartment, listening and laughing with Charlie and Bill without a care in the world, just excited to have a new Talking Heads album and a whole weekend of fun and music stretching out ahead.

When the song ended this morning the silence let me hear the quiet hiss of the sleet that had begun falling shortly after I started walking. Then the Outlaws started up and obliterated all outside sound with the country rock of “There Goes Another Love Song.”

You can’t get much more of a communal musical experience than you get with a really good rock concert, and one of the best live shows I ever saw was when the Outlaws played the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine, with Molly Hatchet opening. (The civic center’s handy list of past events tells me the show was on December 9, 1979.) I was a sophomore in a college about 30 miles from Portland at the time so I bought a ticket and decided to hitchhike down to the show with a fun-loving freshman named Webb. We filled a goatskin with screwdrivers to sustain us and we hit the road, thumbs outstretched, with plenty of time to spare in case finding a ride proved difficult.

Before we knew it a carload of attractive young women stopped and offered us a ride. They were also going to see the Outlaws that night. Crammed into the backseat with a couple of them, Webb and I exchanged wide-eyed looks of blissful amazement. To our great disappointment, though, the experience did not turn into something fit for Penthouse Forum. The girls simply dropped us off in Portland and waved goodbye. We had hours to go until showtime, with no money and nothing to do. The screwdrivers were starting to slow us down, too. So we stopped by a hotel just up the street from the civic center, crawled under a table in a deserted banquet room, and crashed.

We still had time to kill when we woke up, so we were sitting in the hotel lobby trying to figure out a game plan when a guy in a chauffeur’s livery came through the door and approached the desk. “I’m going to be picking up the Molly Hatchet band around 5:00,” we heard him tell the desk clerk. “Can you tell me how to get to the Cumberland County Civic Center?”

“Sure. Just pull out of the driveway, turn right, and go about 50 yards. It’s just down the street.”

The driver chuckled. “Right. Where is it really?”

“I’m not kidding,” the clerk replied. “It’s just down the street. You can see it out that window.”

The driver looked pained. “You telling me I drove all the way from Cape Cod to drive a band 50 yards down the street?”

“I guess so,” the clerk said.

Webb and I looked at each other. Molly Hatchet were someplace in the hotel, and surely partying their brains out. I wasn’t a big Hatchet fan, to be perfectly honest, but this sounded like the perfect opportunity to party with some real rock and rollers. “We should find them,” I said. Webb agreed.

We figured all we had to do was check out the hotel floors one by one until the sounds of smashing furniture, blasting music, and high-pitched Rebel yells guided us to the right room. No doubt the band would be glad to have us join the party. They’d offer us bottles of Jack Daniels to guzzle, and we’d flirt with the groupies, hot Southern girls with names like Daisy and Loubelle who would be wearing tube tops, tight cutoff shorts, and cowboy boots . Maybe Webb and I would help hoist the TV set onto the windowsill so a band member could send it plummeting four stories to the ground. Come showtime we’d stagger, hooting and hollering, down to the lobby with the band. “Y’all come with us!” they’d bellow. “We’re making you honorary Hatchets!” We’d all cram into the limo, the driver still fuming in the front seat. “Get us to the Civic Center,” I’d order, “and make it snappy!” We’d all howl with laughter.

Well, we tried, but every floor of the hotel was as hushed as a church, with nary a Rebel yell to be heard anywhere. Maybe the band had consumed too many screwdrivers. It happens.

Anyway, we eventually made our way to the civic center. The place was packed and buzzing with excitement. As a cartoon character would say years later, it also smelled like Otto’s jacket. Some people were tossing Frisbees around the big hall, and a few people had even brought beach balls that bounced and soared from section to section. Webb and I pushed our way slowly through the people standing on the floor until we were right up near the stage. At one point I was so tightly mashed in by the crowd that only the toes of one foot touched the ground. But it was a big, happy mass and we were all having a great time together. Eventually we even ran into the girls who had picked us up—and once again, nothing happened.

The passage of time has dimmed the details, but I know Molly Hatchet—no doubt refreshed by their quiet afternoon at the hotel—played an energetic set that included “Gator Country,” “Flirtin’ with Disaster,” and “Dreams I’ll Never See.” Then the Outlaws, with their triple lead-guitar attack, came onstage and blew the roof off the joint. I’m sure they played “There Goes Another Love Song” and “Hurry Sundown” and closed with an epic version of “Green Grass and High Tides” with all the amps turned up to 11. I’m equally sure that at some point thousands of people in the crowd held flaming Bic lighters up high over their heads and howled with delight.

Thinking about all this as I walked put me in a pretty good mood despite the grim gray weather, and then “Roadrunner” by the Modern Lovers started playing and my mood improved even more. I may have even done a joyful skip like the one Charlie Brown does after he decides he’s going to decorate his little tree all by himself. I don’t have any specific “Roadrunner” related memories; It’s just a great song. It’s also about how music ties us together, even if you’re driving around alone with just the radio to keep you company.

 It helps me from being alone late at night
It helps me from being lonely late at night
I don’t feel so bad now in the car
Don’t feel so alone, got the radio on
Like the roadrunner
That’s right.

Turns out that you’re never alone when you have the right music playing.

A few weekends ago I went skiing with my own personal soundtrack. Standing on top of the local ski mountain, with a brilliant blue sky over my head and bright white powder beneath my skis, I adjusted my headphones under my hat and fired up the iPod. I picked the soundtrack to 2001 for my first selection and I had to laugh with delight as the opening notes of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” echoed in my ears. It was perfect. I stood atop the slope and watched other skiers go zipping away below me and the portentous music made me feel like Elvis about to step out on stage—or like a man-ape about to club an adversary to death.

The rest of the album worked perfectly. The ominous, mysterious notes of Ligeti’s compositions turned the white tails into the setting of science fiction movie, and the “Blue Danube” provided perfect accompaniment on the chairlift as I watched skiers carve their graceful sine curves into the powder on the tail alongside.

Later I took my personal soundtrack along for some night skiing. Night skiing is surreal enough on its own. The bright lights, white snow, and dark trees and sky transform the world into high-contrast black and white, something as unnatural as a movie. It seemed only right to add a soundtrack to this ski noir world. I found that the music I played altered my mood and the rhythm of my skiing. I made slow, sweeping turns as I listened to Aaron Neville croon “In the Still of the Night” (from the Red, Hot and Blue collection) but all of a sudden I turned aggressive when the Plimsouls come on with “In this Town” or Lou Reed played “Rock and Roll” (from Live in Italy). Sly and the Family Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime” was delightfully incongruous on a cold chairlift, while the otherworldly Frippertronics from the Robert Fripp-produced Sacred Songs by Daryl Hall made me feel edgy and paranoid as it accompanied me up the chairlift into the darkness. When George Jones sang “These Days I Barely Get By” I took it as a commentary on my skiing ability.

Just as I pulled up to the lift and settled into the chair with a bump, the iPod began playing “This Is the Day” by The The, from the 1983 album Soul Mining. It’s a wonderful song, one that even managed to survive its use in an M&M commercial. Despite the uplifting sound of the chorus (“This is the day/Your life will surely change”), it’s not really an optimistic song. Listen closely and you’ll get the sense that even if your life does change, it probably won’t be for the best.

You could’ve done anything if you’d wanted.
And all your friends and family think that you’re lucky.
But the side of you they’ll never see
Is when you’re left alone with the memories
That hold your life together like glue.

As I sat on the chairlift, alone, on a night when I chewed over the memories that each song from the iPod conjured up, those lines felt appropriate.

I was very disappointed—even a little angry—the first time I heard “This Is the Day” being used behind images of anthropomorphic hard-shelled candies cavorting with their chums in a commercial. From what little I knew about Matt Johnston, the man behind The The, I got the impression that he was a somewhat acerbic, anti-commercial kind of guy, the last person you’d expect to shill for a candy giant. It’s not as jarring as hearing a cruise line use Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” as a plug for wholesome family fun, or Jaguar using the Clash’s “London Calling” to sell luxury automobiles, but it comes close.  I guess there are no sacred songs anymore.

Christmas trees litter the curbs like fallen soldiers from the holiday wars. It’s 2010 and we’re hip deep in the bleak season, the frozen weeks that stretch out before us, flat and eventless, after the big celebrations. It’s the time for post-holiday depression, when the daily routine returns with a vengeance to slap you right in the face with a big fistful of reality.

Now, I like winter as much as the next guy, but it’s cold out today. My shoulders ache from the clenched-up tenseness until the act of walking begins to warm me up. Which is why I laugh out loud when I hear the Isley Brothers play “Summer Breeze.” This was originally a lighter-than-air hit by Seals and Crofts back in the 1970s, but the Isleys—well, the Isleys kick it in the ass and give it a soul infusion, ending it with one of Ernie Isley’s thrilling, soaring guitar solos. I remember being knocked out by their version when I bought my vinyl Isley Brothers collection (Forever Gold) way back when, but I haven’t heard the song in a long time. It more than lives up to my memory—especially that guitar solo. It warms me right up.


January 2010
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