Sunday, February 24, 2013

Talking Heads -- "The Good Life" (1978)

A straight line exists
Between me and the good things
I have found the line
And its direction is known to me

Zadie Smith is a young mixed-race London writer -- her mother was Jamaican, her father British -- who has written four novels that have been praised by critics. 

In a recent essay in the New Yorker, Smith writes about how she once found her friends' admiration of Joni Mitchell's music incomprehensible, but now loves Mitchell -- especially her famous 1971 album, Blue:

How is it possible to hate something so completely and then suddenly love it so unreasonably?  How does such a change occur?

Zadie Smith
Smith's New Yorker piece is about a lot more than Joni Mitchell's music.  She makes Kierkegaard's  discussion of the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac (which is in his book, Fear and Trembling) sound so intriguing that I actually want to get the book and read it, and that is something that I never thought I would say about anything Kierkegaard wrote.

Smith also touches upon De Brevitate Vitae ("On the Shortness of Life"), an essay by the Roman philosopher Seneca, which takes the form of a letter of advice to a friend of his.  

Seneca's friend has complained that life is too short, and Seneca sets him straight.  "It is not that we have a short time to live," he says, "but that we waste a lot of it."  (Were truer words ever spoken?)

Seneca tells his friend to spend less time socializing, drinking, whoring, and seeking wordily advancement, and more time studying the works of the great philosophers and thinkers.  We can't choose our parents, Seneca observes, but "we can choose whose children we would like to be."

Smith agrees with Seneca's basic premise, but admits she has applied it "haphazardly" in her own life.  Because Smith's "ruling passion" is reading fiction, she has chosen to be a child of the novel.  But she has neglected other intellectual pursuits -- like sculpture:

I should be loving sculpture!  But I have not gone deeply into sculpture.  Instead, having been utterly insensitive to sculpture, I fill the time that might have been usefully devoted to sculpture with things like drinking and staring into space.

Smith wishes she knew more about sculpture.  But her greatest regret is that she hasn't spent more time listening to music.  "Nowhere do I have this sensation of loss as acutely as with music," she writes.

Recently, Zadie Smith found herself in a Vancouver record store:

I wandered through that shop, as I always do in record shops, depressed by my ignorance and drawn toward the familiar. . . . I was preparing to leave when I spotted an album with a wonderful title: More Songs About Buildings and Food.  You will probably already know who it was by -- I didn't.

More Songs About Buildings and Food
It came as a surprise to me that someone as smart and sophisticated as Zadie Smith didn't know More Songs About Buildings and Food, the 1978 album by the Talking Heads.

But Smith is only 37 years old.  She was not quite three with that album was released.  So I shouldn't have been surprised after all.

 "Once in a Lifetime," from the 1981 Remain in Light album, may be the signature song of the Talking Heads (who are a quintessential New York City band -- their music is smart, eclectic, and above all weird).  The singer of that song is a man who can't imagine how he came to be where he is: 

And you may find yourself 
In another part of the world 
And you may find yourself 
Behind the wheel of a large automobile 
And you may find yourself 
In a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife 
And you may ask yourself, 
"Well . . . how did I get here?" 

Smith's essay turns that question on its head.  She knows very well how she got where she is today.  What she wonders about is the road not taken.

As I stopped to admire [the album], I was gripped by melancholy, similar perhaps to the feeling a certain kind of man gets while sitting with his wife on a train platform as a beautiful girl -- different in all aspects from his wife -- walks by.  [He thinks to himself,] There goes my other life.  

(I take the subway to my job in downtown Washington, DC, almost every day, and every day I find myself looking at one or two or three of the women riding in my car and thinking to myself, "There goes my other life.")

I don't think it's quite accurate to say that Smith wonders about how her life would have been different if she had known the music of the Talking Heads.  What she really wonders about is what it would have been like to be the kind of person who would have been a Talking Heads fan -- some one who was, say, 26 years old when the album came out (like me).  Someone who was white and an American, like the Talking Heads themselves and most of their fans are (like me).  Someone who had the kind of intellect and sensibility and personality that responded to the music of the Talking Heads music (like me).

In other words, what Smith is really wondering about is what it would be like to be . . . me.

Joni Mitchell's Blue album
J. Alfred Prufrock wondered if he dared to eat a peach, or part his hair differently.  Zadie Smith wonders if it's too late to follow Seneca's advice and choose to become a child of David Byrne as she has chosen to become a child of Joni Mitchell and certain other musicians:

Is it too late to get into the Talking Heads?  Do I have the time?  What kind of person would I be if I knew this album at all, or well?  If I'd been shaped not by Al Green and Stevie Wonder but by David Byrne . . . What if I'd been the type of person who had somehow found the time to love and know everything about Al Green, Stevie Wonder, David Byrne . . . ?  What a delight it would be to have so many 'parents'!  How long and fruitful life would seem! 

Steppenwolf has this advice for Smith in the song, "It's Never Too Late":

Tell me who's to say after all is done
And you're finally gone, you won't be back again
You can find a way to change today
You don't have to wait 'til then

Steppenwolf was right.  Of course it's not too late for Smith to get into the Talking Heads.  Of course she has the time.  She's only 37 years old, for cryin' out loud.  (Dum spiro, spero -- right?)

Here's my advice, Zadie.  Fire up your computer, navigate to your local public library's website, and reserve every Talking Heads album you can find.  (Pronto!)

David Byrnes and his famous "big suit"
To the extent that there is such a thing, "The Good Thing" is a typical David Byrne composition -- quirky, twitchy, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek.  The lyrics sound like something you might hear out of the mouth of a speaker at a self-improvement seminar.  "Cut back the weakness, reinforce what is strong," Byrne says.  "Skill overcomes difficult situations."

From the final verse of "The Good Thing":

As the heart finds the good thing, 
The feeling is multiplied
Add the will to the strength and it equals conviction
As we economize, efficiency is multiplied
To the extent I am determined
The result is the good thing

Sounds good to me!

Here's "The Good Thing":

You can use this link to buy the song from Amazon:

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