Talking Heads: Life During Wartime
I just finished reading a great book, “Love Goes To Buildings On Fire” by Will Hermes [purchase], which is about the “regional music” being made in New York City in the mid-1970’s. By that time, much of the optimism of the Age of Aquarius had been turned into pessimism brought on by Watergate and economic crises (particularly the oil crisis). New York is kind of a big region, and Hermes’ book details the many different kinds of music that were being made, improved and cross-pollinated in the city during this time, including rap, disco, minimalism, avant-garde jazz, salsa and, closest to my heart, punk. So the region that I am focusing on here is Lower Manhattan, the nearest thing to the birthplace of punk.
At this time, New York was at maybe its lowest point since, maybe, the British occupation during the Revolutionary War. A vicious cycle of budget and service cuts resulted in increased crime and drug use. The infrastructure was falling apart, which led to cheap housing and performance spaces. The city was on the verge of bankruptcy and the Daily News ran its famous headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” In 1977 there was a huge blackout, followed by widespread looting and crime. I suspect that most readers of this blog are aware of the bands and clubs, both famous and not, that arose from New York during this period, so I won’t waste your time, or expose myself to criticism for leaving out your favorite band, by listing them here.
I graduated from high school in the New York suburbs in 1978 and started college in central New Jersey that fall. My musical tastes at that time were, as careful readers of my posts well know, geared more toward Genesis, Led Zeppelin and Jefferson Airplane/Starship. But I started to become aware of “New Wave” music that was beginning to get played on the radio, such as Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. I’m sure that I had heard Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” and “Take Me To The River,” but I don’t recall much specifically about them.
So, I’m a freshman in college, trying to figure out what the hell is going on, and two concerts are announced—Bruce Springsteen at the big gym on Monday, November 1, 1978, and Talking Heads, at a smaller auditorium the Friday before. I get tickets to Springsteen, which was an incredible show, and decide to pass on the Talking Heads. This is probably my life’s biggest musical regret. But, to be fair, I wasn’t that into them yet and my friends weren’t into them (remember, I’d been at college less than two months, and I was still figuring out my friends’ names, much less being aware if they liked the Talking Heads). I hear it was a great show. (Grrrrr.)
Second semester, I start working at WPRB and begin to immerse myself in the new music that I soon become to love. At some point, I finally “get” The Ramones. And in the fall of 1979, when I return to WPRB, I get to play songs from “Fear of Music,” which had been released during the summer. One of my favorites is “Life During Wartime,” which encapsulates the paranoia and craziness of living in New York, especially the Lower East Side, during that era. David Byrne has said that the song was written in his loft in that part of the city and that it is about living in Alphabet City, a tough part of downtown. In probably its most famous line, the song name checks two of the most prominent downtown punk clubs, CBGB’s and The Mudd Club. Further, in keeping with one of the themes of the Hermes book—that New York music was full of stylistic cross-pollination—it is a rock song influenced by disco, and produced by Brian Eno, whose own musical influences were myriad.