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This is a poster for a Los Angeles-area show I did not see. But I did get the poster.

An entry on Metafilter about the movie Stop Making Sense led to one thing after another and before I knew it I was wasting time last night watching YouTube clips of a Talking Heads concert recorded in Rome back in 1980. Inspired, I put More Songs About Buildings and Food back on the iPod and listened to the entire album as I walked this morning. It got my blood moving.

1980! That was, unless I miss my guess, 31 years ago. Thirty-one years! Maybe time is after us after all. Count back 31 years before the band played that Rome  concert and we reach the year 1949—and that means that today we are as far removed from the Heads in Rome as they were from Frankie Lane hitting the charts with “Mule Train.” Sinatra had yet to team with Nelson Riddle and there was no such thing as Beatles—in fact, there was no rock and roll yet. Music sure did change over those years and the rest of the world along with it.

I didn’t see Talking Heads until 1982. I saw them a total of three times—once at the Greek Theater in Hollywood, a second time on the same tour at the Hollywood Palladium, and once at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine. All of the performances were memorable and the ones at the Greek and in Portland were downright transcendent. They gave me a feeling that must feel something like religious ecstasy. The two Hollywood performances were in support of the live album, The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads. When I saw them in Portland it was in support of Speaking in Tongues, the same tour that Jonathan Demme captured on film for Stop Making Sense. I have to say, though, that the 1980 performance looks like it was just as good and maybe even better. They had Adrian Belew on guitar for that one, plus a crack band that included Dolette McDonald on vocals, Steve Scales on percussion and Buster Jones on bass (plus the core of David Byrne,Jerry Harrison, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth). Someone should release the whole thing on DVD.

Once I began YouTubing the night away I also watched an early performance of the core four doing “Psycho Killer” on a British TV show, probably around 1978 or 1979. That’s back when they wore polo shirts and looked like slightly off-kilter preppies (and when Tina Weymouth could have passed for a boy). Byrne looking like he was singing something autobiographical. He looked intense, like someone who may have really believed his bed was on fire.

It’s a little hard to believe, though, that a mere two years separated that performance from the one in Rome. The great joy of Talking Heads was the way the band gradually threw off the appearance of buttoned-down repression and surrendered to their inner funk. From the start they had been danceable in their spiky, new-wavish way, even when the guitar parts sounded like Morse code and Byrne displayed all the coordination of an alien just getting accustomed to its host body. I always liked the fact that they titled one of their albums Speaking in Tongues because in effect that’s what they began to do. Once the band embraced the joy of rhythm, expanded, and began creating their own brand of intellectual dance music, it was as though they had become possessed—musical Pentecostals. And it was better for them that they began speaking in tongues instead of handling rattlesnakes.

One other great thing about Talking Heads—something many people don’t seem to notice—is their sense of humor. They are a funny band in a deadpan, “are they kidding or not” kind of way. Their name is funny. Calling an album More Songs About Buildings and Food—that’s funny. The lyrics are funny. “Don’t Worry About the Government” cracks me up every time I hear it. (“Some civil servants are just like my loved ones. They work so hard and they try to be strong.” Not a sentiment, I suspect, that would go over well in Tea Party circles.) David Byrne’s Big Suit is a stitch on film in Stop Making Sense and also when I saw it live in Portland. The vein of geeky humor that runs throughout the Talking Heads canon helps save the band from falling into the pitfall of art school pretension.

Thirty-one years! As I watched the songs from that Rome concert I got no sense that the music had dated at all. The band sounded great—big, thumping bass lines from Weymouth and Jones, high-energy rhythm from Frantz, chugging guitar underpinnings from Harrison, a great, squealing menagerie emanating from Belew’s guitar. Everyone in that band was in to form and Dolette McDonald was a revelation. What a band! What a night! I get excited just thinking about it.

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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.

Often the songs on my iPod activate memories, long streams that cascade through my mind until the morning walk is over. There are times when I get so lost in thought that I can’t remember walking parts of my route. My body handles the navigation all by itself while my mind is busy elsewhere.

Older songs, naturally, carry more baggage. Sometimes the newer stuff triggers little more than memories of earlier walks. Not much fodder for nostalgia there.

little creatures“And She Was,” the lead song from Talking Heads’ Little Creatures, was the first song I heard this morning. It cast me right back to 1985, the year of the album’s release. I was a big Heads fan and living in a group house just outside Boston. I had quit my job as the editor of an obscure rock-and-roll magazine that spring to take a copy-editing position at a business magazine. The subject matter stretched the boredom envelope in all directions but the job did pay a living wage—at least for a 24-year-old single guy living in a group house.

It wasn’t long before I realized that Purchasing (“the magazine for purchasing professionals”) wasn’t quite right for me, so I began blindly sending out resumes to magazines I thought looked interesting. Much to my surprise, the editor of a once-prestigious publication in Washington, D.C., responded with a phone call asking me to come down and interview for the job of managing editor.

So the next Saturday I found myself sitting on an airplane at Logan Airport, my walkman headphones clamped to my ears, with a cassette  tape of Little Creatures filling my head with “And She Was” as the plane accelerated down the runway and lifted its nose into the sky.

From Washington National airport I got on the Metro and rode into town. I was early for the interview, so I disembarked at Metro Center to have a look around. I found it a little disappointing. There wasn’t a national monument in sight, just office buildings and an urban mall called The Shops at National Place. I got back on the Metro and headed to Union Station. Little did I know that about 17 months later I’d meet my future wife for our second date at those same Shops at National Place. Fate runs in unexpected directions.

The editor met me at a small restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue, across from the magazine’s offices and just up from Union Station. He was a short, somewhat fussy man with a mustache, friendly enough but perhaps a little reserved. I would later develop a loathing for him, but during the interview he seemed pleasant enough.

After lunch the waitress brought over the dessert menus.” I’m all set,” I said to her.

The editor looked at me with disbelief. “I can’t believe you don’t want dessert,” he told me.

“Well, I’m pretty full. That was a big sandwich.”

“Still, it’s dessert,” he said. “I can’t understand not having dessert. It’s my favorite part of a meal. Why, I consider myself to be quite the dessert connoisseur. No meal is complete without dessert.”

Well, I’m not stupid. I can take a hint. I turned to the waitress. “He talked me into it,” I said. “I’ll have a piece of the carrot cake.”

She turned to the editor. “And for you, sir?”

He briskly folded his menu and handed it to her. “Nothing for me,” he replied.

Maybe that should have tipped me off that this little fellow was kind of a jerk.

After lunch he showed me the magazine’s offices. When I mentioned my enthusiasm for the new Talking Heads album he told me how much he hated David Byrne. Another warning sign? (In fact, “Warning Sign” is a Talking Heads song. “Warning sign, warning sign,” it goes, “I see it but I pay it no mind.”) Months later the editor insisted on putting Byrne under the “Not Hot” listings in the magazine’s ghastly “Hot and Not Hot” issue.

So, yes, I ended up taking the job, for what seemed to me an astronomical salary of $25,000 a year. I didn’t learn until later that the woman I replaced hadn’t been fired until after I was hired. No wonder I had my interview on a Saturday, when the magazine offices were empty. I think that’s the way Machiavelli would have done it, had he worked in the publishing industry.

After a short and eventually somewhat stormy tenure I was told that my services were no longer required. The meeting took place in the editor’s office. The magazine’s publisher was there, along with two other staffers who were also losing their jobs. The publisher told us the magazine was moving to New York—which was not true—and that the three of us would not be going along—which was. The editor sat at his desk and stared glumly at the ground. Eventually he mumbled something about “one of you” not being good about following orders, or something to that effect. I think I knew which one of us he meant.

The magazine managed to put out one more issue before it ceased publication. Fortunately, I soon found another job at a brand-new aerospace publication, and I remained there for more than a decade before moving to Pennsylvania for another magazine position.

I remember playing “And She Was” as I drove to my interview for the Pennsylvania job. For years afterwards I credited the song with magical job-acquiring powers. Whenever I had a job interview I would listen to “And She Was” first. It might have worked for a while, but it hasn’t done much for me lately. Maybe it’s time to switch to a new Talking Heads song. How about “Found a Job”?

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