Talking music

Side A

When I was but a wee lad – a freshman in high school – an older kid, something of a mentor of mine, turned me on to the Talking Heads.

The particular album was Stop Making Sense, the band’s landmark soundtrack to the concert film of the same name. I was captivated by the intellectual flair of the album; its lyrics, as performed by lead singer David Byrne, seemed to consist of epigrams that were as catchy as they were enigmatic. “I hate people when they’re not polite,” from “Psycho Killer,” and “You ought to know not to stand by the window/somebody see you up there,” from “Life During Wartime,” are examples of prose-lyric writing that Byrne spoke as much as sang.

I didn’t actually buy the cassette until later that year; I was 14 or 15. The film I still have not yet seen in its entirety, but I have caught individual songs on YouTube (the repository of any and everything you could ever want to see). It was directed by Jonathan Demme, before he went on to win the Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs, and is visually and aurally striking. In fact, I agree with most critical assessments that it’s probably the greatest concert documentary ever made.

What comes across is the sheer live-wire genius of the band. Following set-opener “Psycho Killer,” which Byrne performs solo, various other band members come out for subsequent songs. Bassist Tina Weymouth joins Byrne for “Heaven,” while drummer Chris Weitz takes to his drum kit for “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel.” (Crew members are busy setting up instruments during the three opening numbers.) Finally, backup singers and keyboardist Jerry Harrison assemble, and we’re in full swing for a Heads set list that is second to none.

The original album contains only the essential songs – “Life During Wartime,” “Girlfriend is Better,” the hit “Burning Down the House,” “Take Me to the River” – but those were enough to hook me on the Heads for life (or at least until the band’s inevitable breakup in 1991). Even in its basic incarnation (expanded with all songs from the film in a 1999 “new edition”), Stop Making Sense is a classic, one that works as well on its own as a soundtrack souvenir from the film. The cover, of Byrne in his famous “giant suit,” is iconic in itself.

Talking Heads got its start in the late 1970s as a high-brow dance band with artistic overtones, hitting it big with 1983’s Speaking in Tongues, followed closely by Stop Making Sense in 1984. Little Creatures, released in 1985, saw the band turn toward radio-friendly alt-pop-rock (I love the single, “And She Was”). In 1986, it released a weird little film called “True Stories” that also spawned a hit single, “Wild Wild Life.” The band’s final album, Naked, was released in 1988, and though not as well-regarded as its more experimental predecessors, I enjoy its big-band, world-music sound.

Talking Heads finally fell apart of its own weight, due to the usual in-fighting and disagreements over artistic expression and creative control. Byrne was obviously the driving force behind the music, with his unmistakable voice providing a weird, otherworldly vibe. His performance in Stop Making Sense – an eerie blend of mime, musicianship and vocal tour de force – is the whole point of the film; Demme wisely designs each shot to highlight Byrne’s repertoire of tics, twitches, spasms, aerobic workouts and bug-eyed rants.

The band might have ceased to exist more than a quarter of a century ago, but its output is still highly enjoyable, even a little intimidating – those early albums were the definition of avant garde.

Side B

Nothing about Garth Brooks, on the other hand, was ever avant garde. Brooks, the master showman and Beatles-rivaling salesman of the Nineties, made a name for himself as a purveyor of music you’d probably heard before, in a variety of forms, from country to swing to rock and back again. At his height – say 1995-1998 – I avoided him like castor oil. His very popularity sickened me, though I have to admit, I’d never heard a note of his music.

 

I got into an early version of a “flame war” over the release of his 1991 album, Ropin the Wind, with a very astute and vocal Brooks fan. I made the mistake of praising the contemporaneous release of U2’s Achtung Baby at the expense of the Brooks album, wrongly implying that, instead of listening to Garth, people should listen to more U2. (This is similar to a “zero-sum game” in politics – I cannot win unless my enemy loses. Nothing could be more detrimental to one’s own argument; just ask Donald Trump.) Anyway, the Brooks fan made some excellent points about my own unwillingness to give Ropin the Wind a chance, and indeed, I did not give that album (or Garth) a shot until sometime late last year.

No artist could be more different from U2 than Garth Brooks, but that’s no reason to dismiss his output, especially when it’s so monumental (monolithic?) in country and rock. Brooks has sold more albums than The Beatles, his songs are sterling examples of the craft, and, shit, people love him. I decided to go back and try and see what all the fuss was about.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a fan, but I do respect the guy’s work. He’s written and performed a ton of songs, and there’s not a bad one in the bunch. His first three albums – Garth Brooks, No Fences, and Ropin the Wind – well, OK, let’s add his fourth album, The Chase – are masterpieces of pop-country music. The guy has a wide-open heart, and his songs espouse a worldview that’s sadly lacking from the rest of the genre. There’s the usual amount of beer-drinkin’ and hell-raisin,’ but Brooks’ music isn’t destructive. Most country songs seem to come from a place of desolation and cynicism – there’s very little joy there. Garth seems to be having a good time, and wants his listeners to have one, too. Now, that might be a betrayal of the spirit of country music – all those old guys like Walon and Hank and Kris made fortunes telling tales of heartache and woe – but if you’re like me and have a low tolerance for such self-indulgent narcissism, Brooks’ music sounds fresh, clean and clear.

McDonald’s music for the masses? Not really – I’d say that’s more the rap against Brooks & Dunn, Shania Twain and Rascal Flatts. Brooks has done a rather amazing thing in the music business – he has resisted the lure of iTunes. He’d rather his customers download his entire albums, rather than “cherry-pick” individual songs. While there is an undeniable profit motive in this, he’s also stressing the importance and value of the album as a unit, rather than a shell for hit singles. Yeah, “Friends in Low Places” is a great song that I’d want no matter what, but Brooks has forced me to go to the album for it, and in doing so, I’ve discovered “Mama Loved Papa” and “The Thunder Rolls” and “Wolves” (which he himself has said has the power to “change your life”). I kind of admire that, and I’m glad to know I was wrong about him. He’s still not my favorite, but it’s nice to have four or five newly-discovered albums to get to know … even if I am a few decades late to the party.