I Can Never Quit

This is the final installment of a three-parter. Here are links to Part 1 and Part 2.

Three days after the Billy Joel concert, two days after the record store trip that scored Marshall Crenshaw and War, I turned 20 years old. There’s only one thing about the day that now remains with me.

It was a Monday, so I would have traipsed off to differential equations and computer architecture class at the appropriate moments. I wouldn’t be shocked if you told me that my parents drove in to take me to dinner that evening, as it’s exactly the sort of thing they would do. They were well aware that I’d been very low about the breakup for over a month and no doubt would have wanted to check on my state in person, especially since I hadn’t gone home for the weekend. I don’t remember any of the presents they gave me that year.

It’s the gift from James, likely received before we went to breakfast, that turned out to be the day’s highlight. I guess the Joel ticket I’d given him for Christmas had raised the bar for such occasions, but even so I think I was surprised or flattered (or both) to be handed a twelve-inch square package, obviously an LP. A black, textured cover, with bright green block lettering in the upper left corner. Fear of Music, by Talking Heads.

This was probably not a lucky stab in the dark on his part. Music was of course a frequent topic in our conversations, and it’s reasonable to believe I had expressed interest in learning more about the Heads. After all, “Burning Down the House” had been a Top 10 hit the previous year; this could have led me to relate how much I liked “Take Me to the River” and to recall an extremely favorable writeup of Fear of Music in Stereo Review.

It didn’t take long to throw it on the turntable. I loved it, and maybe just as importantly, James loved it too. While our individual musical explorations wouldn’t always move in the same direction, Talking Heads effectively became our band, the one group we seemed to enjoy equally. Within months I bought More Songs about Buildings and Food and Remain in Light, while James scored ’77. We saw Stop Making Sense multiple times when it was the Friday midnight showing at the Kentucky Theater those last couple of years of college.

So, how do I feel about the eleven songs on Fear of Music today?

11. “Animals”
I don’t get into the groove from the first half of the song. Things pick up when Byrne starts chanting about the titular creatures setting a bad example and living on nuts and berries.

10. “Drugs”
The most atmospheric piece on the album, which almost makes it feel out of place.

9. “Heaven”
The “we’re going to slow things down for you couples out there” piece on the album, which almost makes it feel out of place. A bit odd that “Heaven” is the second-best known song on the album but was not released as a single.

8. “Electric Guitar”
James and I came to interject snippets of Byrne’s lyrics into our daily interactions, such as “Warning sign…warning sign” and “Don’t get upset—it’s not a major disaster.” I’m disappointed now that “This is a CRIME…against the STATE” never rose to that level.

Hmm…side two just isn’t measuring up to side one.

7. “I Zimbra”
That moment just as the needle dropped on side one was always exciting, assuming the leadoff track wasn’t already a hit single. This time I got a real winner, with strong hints of what was to come on the band’s next album, Remain in Light.

6. “Air”
My grad school friend Greg doesn’t suffer fools all that well, particularly other drivers. I’ve heard him quip, “Some people never had experience with air,” complete with falsetto on the last word, when someone in his vicinity does something he considers (to put it nicely) lacking in good judgment.

5. “Paper”
I used how often the songs on FoM run through my head as a first-order approximation for these rankings. “Paper” may be the shortest song on the album but it has one of its best guitar riffs, and it definitely rocks the hardest.

4. “Mind”
I knew from “Take Me to the River” that Byrne was an unconventional vocalist, though from how early on and to what degree I couldn’t know fully until hearing those first two albums later in 1984. Still, I think he took it up another notch on FoM, first evident with the various ways he attacks the title word in “Mind.”

My friend Kevin, WTLX’s station manager, hosted a weekly interview show called Transy Talks each Monday evening during our sophomore year. That spring I was asked to run the control board when Kevin interviewed Dr. Humphries, the Academic Dean. I brought Fear of Music down to the studio with me and queued up side one as Kevin was getting the mic set up in the adjacent room (there was a window over the board allowing you to see into it). There’s no telling what Dr. Humphries, who knew me as well as he did any decently performing student, thought when “Mind” played.

(Aside: It’s occurred to me that I considered the Dean to be plenty old when I was a student, so I’ve looked for mention of him online. Turns out he was 59—my current age—the day of that interview.)

3. “Cities”
Fantastic groove they elected to fade in, punctuated by Weymouth’s ascending bass line. Byrne’s feral growling of “find myself a city to live in” at the end sure is something to behold.

2. “Life During Wartime”
It’s just two four-bar riffs interspersed and played over and over, but what a hypnotizing sound. I’ll take this as an excuse to mention again the parody I wrote based on this song about the four-week period at the end of the year we called May Term.

1. “Memories Can’t Wait”
The most sublime moment on the album—if you’re familiar with the song, you know what I’m going to say—comes two-thirds of the way through “Memories Can’t Wait,” that resolution and modulation right before the line, “Everything is very quiet.” Prior to that the sound is constantly driving and swirling (I have no idea how some of it was created), while afterward…well, it’s not very quiet, but it is more conventionally structured, building back up to the satisfying conclusion. This is a strong contender for my favorite Talking Heads song; if I’d had half a brain five-plus years ago, I would have made “These memories can’t wait” this blog’s tag line (but better late than never, I suppose).

FYI: Side two of the very slab of vinyl James gave me (its cover is pictured at the top) is playing on the turntable in my basement as this is being published.

Keeping American Top 40 charts between the ages of 12 and 18 was formative, but I’d point to getting these three albums over a little more than 36 hours in February 1984 as my origin story, when I started becoming that dude who wants to share his musical tastes and the associated stories with the world. There’s the fellow who critics loved but could never break through, the up-and-coming band who’d soon conquer the world, and the group that had already enjoyed their commercial and artistic peak but became so important to two guys on the fourth floor of Clay Hall. I guess the only thing that’s missing from the tale is a female singer-songwriter; alas, Suzanne Vega’s debut album was still a year-and-a-half away.

James was very kind to think of me on my birthday with this present, especially given what a turkey I’d been over the previous month. I couldn’t have been—and still wouldn’t be for another few weeks—enjoyable to live with. When the time came to discuss roomie situations for the next school year, he initially hesitated to commit to continue with me. I gave him time and space to think and decide. In the meantime, another friend checked in on the possibility of rooming with him. My preference was for the status quo—maybe I was wanting to hold on to some degree of continuity in my life. One night some time later, James was ready to talk about it again. He said some very nice things about me, that I was cool to room with, that he’d like to remain roommates. We never considered an alternate arrangement after that. I’m still appreciative of the grace he showed me, deserved or otherwise.

Postscript: My ex-girlfriend and I had another class together in the fall of our junior year, but managed to live essentially parallel lives on our small campus over the last 1.5 years, only rarely interacting. We were in the same place a very few times over the next three decades, a wedding here, a reunion there. At our 30th year reunion in 2016, she and I were part of a group that spent much of the day together; since then, we’ve reestablished a friendship, emailing and/or texting one another periodically. A nontrivial percentage of our correspondence in recent years had to do with James and his declining health. Even though I’d already heard, I really appreciate that she called me that Thursday afternoon last April to make sure I knew he had passed.

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