Saturday, December 29, 2012

Ray Collins (1936-2012)

The original lineup of the Mothers of Invention. That's Ray in the upper right hand corner.

I was very sorry today to learn of the passing of Ray Collins, who along with Frank Zappa founded one of the greatest rock groups in American history, the Mothers of Invention. As a way of paying tribute to Ray, I'd like to play you a particular favorite of mine from the group's catalog. It's a track called "I'm Not Satisfied" from the Mothers' 1968 album, Cruising with Ruben and the Jets. Zappa's interest at the time was in creating outrageous musical satire, while Collins wanted to make what he called "beautiful music." Both traits are evident in this track. Zappa crafted the Cruising album as an over-the-top parody of 1950s rock, but you can hear the sincerity in Ray's voice as he sings the plaintive lyrics.



Before we go, I'd like to play just one more tune for you which showcases Ray's skills as a songwriter. It's a doo wop number called "Memories of El Monte" which Frank and Ray wrote for the Penguins (of "Earth Angel" fame) in the years before the Mothers came into existence. I think you can hear the love and respect that both Collins and Zappa had for the Penguins and their lead singer, Cleve Duncan, who unfortunately also passed away in November 2012. It's a great goddamned record, that's for sure.




P.S. - Just one more. I couldn't end this Ray Collins tribute without including this perfect parody of lounge singer crooning from the Mothers' sophomore album, Absolutely Free. Enjoy.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Joe's Terrible Songs #2: "The Most Pitiful Country Song Ever"



One last post before I leave for the Christmas holiday.

This is the second in my proposed series of brief, terrible songs -- hastily written and haphazardly recorded. This one is an original, lamentably. I decided to record my version of a country song, and I think I hit on a heartbreaking romantic scenario which has thus far been ignored by the Nashville establishment. Before you get all PC on me, two things: (1) I'm well aware that "conjoined" is the preferred term, but it didn't fit with my melody. (2) How do you know the people in the song aren't actually from Siam? Okay, Siam has been known as Thailand since 1939, but maybe the people in the song are traditionalists. Did you ever think of that? Look who's being close-minded now. In all seriousness, I hope you have a happy holiday in spite of having just heard this song.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Nativity: A Sheep Remembers

"You think I get any royalties on this stuff? HA! Don't I wish?"

by Larry the Sheep

Well, the whole thing was a damned nuisance if you ask me. If I'm being totally honest, that's my first thought when someone brings up the subject of that particular evening. I had to laugh when I heard that song of yours, "O Holy Night." "Bloody right," I thought. "Wholly inconvenient." Before you churchgoers out there start judging me, try and look at this from my perspective. There I was, enjoying a lovely supper out of the manger (which after all is just a fancy word for "trough") when all of a sudden, I'm pushed aside so that this mewling infant can have a place to sleep. I said to them, "Excuse me! Someone was already using this manger, thank you!" But apparently, they didn't speak sheep. And to top it off, the little brat was glowing! Glowing! How are you supposed to go about your daily business of being a sheep with something like that going on?

"It was a garage, really."
It's funny. When you humans say that someone was "born in a barn," you mean that he has no manners. And yet, the chap you all seem to like best really was born in a barn! I never understood why that was such an insult. I mean, among my kind, it's a point of pride to have been born in a barn. It's a sign of class and sophistication. When I see a really suave, well-mannered sheep, I always say to myself, "He must have been born in a barn." Actually, to be blunt, the place was more like what you'd call a garage nowadays. People didn't have cars back then, of course, so they'd travel around by camel (if they were rich) or by donkey (if they weren't). The guests of the inn used the barn out back to "park" their "vehicles," so to speak. Of course, a few of us animals lived there on a more or less permanent basis. I say "more or less" because your time there was definitely limited. The innkeeper and his wife were raising us, to be sure, but not as pets. We sheep provided wool for clothes and the cows gave milk, naturally, but we all shared a common destiny: the dinner table. Don't get me wrong, though. I don't blame the humans. Look, it's a rough world. You do what you have to do to survive. If sheep could raise people for food, we would.

The innkeeper gets a bad rap out of this. I feel sorry for him, really, in spite of the fact that he wound up eating me. He's portrayed quite badly in the Nativity story, and it's just not fair. No, he didn't have any free rooms at the inn. But it was a bleedin' census weekend! I mean, what did Mary and Joseph expect? If they'd wanted a room so badly, they could have bloody well made a reservation in advance like everyone else! Honestly, Joe should have known better. Bethlehem was his hometown, for Christ's sake! It's not like today, where there's a Holiday Inn every fifteen feet. You'd think that, since he was from Bethlehem, Joseph might have had some relatives who could have put him up for the night. An uncle, a cousin... somebody! Maybe he didn't get on with his kin. That's really none of my business. My point is that the innkeeper wasn't the bad guy you all think he is. I mean, I knew the guy -- Irv, we called him. Maybe not a saint, but not a monster either. He was being awfully nice to let Joseph and Mary stay in his garage. It was better than being out in the cold, and he charged them exactly nothing for it. Zero. Nada. Zilch. Free lodgings for the night. Irv could have told them to hit the bricks -- I would have, if I'd been him -- but he didn't. He couldn't very well evict one of his paying customers, so he did what he could under the circumstances. And look at the thanks he gets!

The Magi: three very posh blokes.
Meanwhile, there's another one of your songs,"Silent Night," which completely and utterly misrepresents the events of that evening. It was anything but silent. And I don't just mean the baby either, though he cried like he was being paid by the decibel. No, the real commotion was caused by all those visitors. It was like Heathrow bloody Airport that night, I swear to you! It seemed like uninvited guests were falling from the sky. First it was the shepherds. Now, I didn't have too much personal experience with shepherds, having been raised by the innkeeper and his wife. But I've talked to sheep who'd been in flocks, and let me tell you, the word of mouth was not good. I don't want to get too graphic here, but let's just say that shepherds get lonely sometimes and look for affection wherever they can find it. So I was a little edgy when a few of those blokes started showing up. I thought they might be looking for love in all the wrong places, so to speak. And if that wasn't bad enough, then the bloody Magi dropped by. Now those three were -- there's no delicate way to put this -- high as kites when they arrived. I don't know what they'd been smoking, but you should have heard some of the rubbish they said that night. I honestly think they carried that frankincense around with them to cover up that tell-tale smell, sort of like how hippies use patchouli. But you could tell these were rather posh blokes, just by the way they were dressed. I figured them to be the idle rich with nothing better to do than follow stars around and barge into people's garages without being asked. Between the baby, the shepherds, and the Magi, you could barely get a bleat in edgewise that night. And to top it all off, this absolutely daft fellow called Gabriel staggered in, claiming to be an angel with a message directly from God. I'd heard enough by that point, so I just found a corner, curled up, and tried to get some sleep. When I woke up, Mary, Joseph, and the baby were gone, but a few of the shepherds were still there, having passed out during the night. And I think that two of the Magi had left the third one behind. His camel was missing, so the last time I saw him he was trying to hitchhike back home. I don't know if he ever made it. Frankly, I didn't much care.

I know it sounds like I'm being very blasé about all of this, but I honestly had no idea what was going on that night. In retrospect, I wish I'd paid more attention. Lord knows I've been asked about it enough bloody times. But we sheep are a practical bunch and don't go in much for this mysticism of yours. I didn't have what you'd call a "spiritual" experience that night. I just thought of it as a perfectly good meal wasted and a night's sleep interrupted. I do have a bit of a chuckle every year when I see myself depicted on calendars, Christmas cards, figurines, posters, pop-up books, and every bloody piece of merchandise you can imagine. Not that I'm resentful, mind you. It's my one claim to fame in an otherwise unremarkable life. Sometimes it's a hassle, but I've actually come to enjoy the fame over the years. Still in all, I wouldn't mind getting a cut of the royalties. Fat bloody chance of that happening.

But a sheep can dream, can't he?

This year's can't-miss gift: the abacus!

An abacus: get one of these babies now while they're still affordable!

Are you still puzzling over what to get people for Christmas this year? Well, puzzle no more, dear reader! I have the answer. Simply get everyone on your list an abacus.

"An aba-wha?" you might be saying right now. Relax. Let me explain.

An abacus is a simple yet ingenious calculating tool consisting of a frame and beads which slide on wires or dowels. Dating back to 2500 B.C., it is the precursor to the calculator and, thus, the computer. Think about that for a moment: the abacus is the original computer! Version 1.0. Compared to the abacus, the Commodore 64 is a newbie poseur. Although generally considered obsolete here in the West, the abacus is still crazy hot in Japan, where it's known as a soroban and is in common use by children whose math skills put most Americans to shame. There might be something to this. We're so used to letting machines do all our math for us these days that maybe we should have to physically move beads around to do simple addition and subtraction. We've gotten lazy, and our minds have turned to instant oatmeal as a result. Just watch this video to feel instantly humbled:




Insufferable people like this will soon be everywhere.
Congratulations, Einstein. You just got your ass handed to you by a 7-year-old girl. But that's not why I'm recommending the abacus as the ideal gift for 2012. Yeah, they're educational and help strengthen our brains, but screw all that. Instead, I'm recommending it because I have the sneaking suspicion that, within a year's time, abaci (that's the plural of abacus -- learn that word!) will be very trendy indeed and will be used by influential tastemakers around the world. Did you know that someone who uses an abacus is called an abacist? I think by this time in 2013, every would-be cool person you know will be bragging about being an abacist to the point that you'll be sick of hearing that word. People will be lugging abaci around with them the way people tote Kindles and iPhones today. Why do I say this? Just look at the evidence. The abacus has all the qualities necessary to achieve coolness. To wit:

  • It's popular in Japan. And we know that's where all the cool, exotic shit comes from, right?
  • It's ridiculously old school, and if there's one thing cool people like to do, it's using totally outmoded and impractical technology. Witness the resurgence of vinyl records and 8-bit video games. This just takes that idea to its ultimate extreme.
  • It requires no batteries or electricity and is, therefore, environmentally conscious. Compared to this, the Prius might as well be a Humvee. Once you become an avid abacist, you can be all judgy and self-righteous around people who still use laptops and smartphones.
  • The word "abacus" just sounds cool. Say it out loud a couple of times and hear for yourself. And if you know related words like "abaci" and "abacist," you'll instantly sound smarter than you actually are.
  • Design-wise, the abacus is very sleek and minimalist. Abaci come in a variety of colors and styles. There is great potential here for customization. Imagine a shiny, blinged-out abacus with a gold frame, jewels for beads, and platinum wires. Or at the opposite end of the spectrum, picture a tasteful, all-white abacus with the Apple logo on it -- the perfect accessory for your regular Sunday trip to the bookstore or coffee shop.  Whatever your personal style, there's an abacus for you.

So there you have it, folks. You can get a very nice abacus for about ten or twenty bucks today. In my opinion, you'd better snap 'em up fast before some Portland barista gets wind of this and the price skyrockets. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

John Waters' Mondo Trasho: The Soundtrack!

At last, this "gutter film" has a "gutter soundtrack."

Hello, moviegoers!

Mondo Trasho on VHS
Sorry I haven't posted anything new this week, but you know... life gets in the way of important things like blogging sometimes. To make up for it, I'd like to share with you the result of a project I've been working on since the 1990s at least. That was when I first started getting into the films of Baltimore's one-of-a-kind cult auteur John Waters. In 1969, Waters completed his first feature-length film, a surrealist comedy called Mondo Trasho. It's a dreamlike, almost arty black-and-white film about the misadventures of Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pearce), a vacant blonde who staggers into the path of an oncoming '59 El Dorado Cadillac driven by Divine, the plus-size, cross-dressing star of most of John Waters' films from the 1960s to the 1980s. Waters couldn't afford to have synchronized sound when he made Mondo Trasho, so he shot 90 minutes of silent footage and then assembled a soundtrack from dozens of snippets of records -- rock, R&B, classical, country, and more -- along with a few bits of dialogue recorded by his actors. The result was an incredible sonic collage which has fascinated me for years. I tried to identify all the songs he used and piece together an unofficial "soundtrack album" one song at a time. Well, 15+ years later, I'm still not done with it, but I have a version which is thorough enough to share with the public. If you've downloaded Spotify's (free) player to your computer, you can listen to the results of this musical scavenger hunt of mine. Along with the songs, I've included samples of the dialogue and music snippets I could not identify. Enjoy.


Note: If the link doesn't work for you (and it probably won't), but you're still interested in the music from Mondo Trasho, here's a list of the 80+ songs I've managed to track down. I've linked most of these to YouTube videos, but YT didn't always have the exact recordings from my playlist so I used whatever came closest. Those particular tracks are listed in the footnotes. With the classical and opera selections, there's no way to tell which versions Waters used.

Prologue/Opening Credits
Bonnie Walks to the Bus Stop
In the Park
The Shrimping
Divine Enters in the El Dorado Cadillac
The Car Accident
On the Run with an Unconscious Girl
Shoplifting Shoes from the Thrift Store
The Laundromat and the First Miracle
The Cadillac is Stolen
Mink Stole/Mental Hospital Dragnet
The Mental Hospital/Mink's Topless Dance
The Second Miracle: Escape from the Snake Pit
Getting to the Doctor and Robbing the Cab
  • "Woo-Hoo" - The Rock-A-Teens
  • Unknown song by vocal group: "Pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, dollars! Money! They're driving me crazy!"
  • Sound effect: dogs barking
In the Doctor's Waiting Room
Dr. Coat Hanger's Dreadful Experiments
    WOMAN: "These monsters are going to use me in one of their dreadful medical experiments!" 
    MAN: "Care for a girl? Ha ha. My dear fellow, I thought you knew me better than that! Ha! My extreme taste for certain pleasures causes me to sacrifice at whatever altars are available. I often imagine that a girl is actually a boy and use her accordingly." 
    SECOND MAN: "Let me inspect your veins."
Shootout in the Waiting Room
Bonnie in Peril!
  • "Along Came Jones" - The Coasters
  • Quote from unknown R&B song: "That's why he's all kinds of rude to you!"
  • "I'm Moving On" - Ray Charles
  • Excerpt from unknown pop record: "I almost flipped when she looked my way. I tried to think of the right thing to say."
  • Excerpt from unknown novelty record: "From my head to my [escalator?] feet!"
On the Run with Dr. Coat Hanger
They're a Twosome Again/In the Pigsty
Back to Reality, Such as it Is

FOOTNOTES FOR THIS VIDEO PLAYLIST
* The version Waters uses is from Judy's famous Carnegie Hall concert, not this one.
** The Little Richard tracks in the movie come from an album called Little Richard's Greatest Hits Live. YouTube didn't have it, but these are the closest I could find.
*** YouTube didn't have Jerry Lee's version, so I used Merle Haggard's original version.
**** The James Brown tracks in the movie are from his Live at the Apollo 1962 LP. When you click on the link for Fats Gonder's introduction, it takes you a video for the whole album.


P.S. - John Waters did not purchase the rights to any of these songs, so Mondo Trasho cannot be legitimately released on DVD. The cost would be prohibitive. Mondo did have a VHS release in the 1980s, though, and bootleg copies are fairly easy to find.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

I promised myself I'd do a post someday about the band Cruella de Ville...

Cruella de Ville during their frustratingly brief 1980s career

A rare Cruella 12" single
This is me keeping a promise to myself. I want this blog to be a force for good in the universe, and there can be no greater good than to let you readers know about an incredible band called Cruella de Ville, an Irish quartet which existed only from 1982 to 1984 and released a grand total of eight songs (plus a handful of remakes and remixes). You can listen to their entire recorded output during a single lunch break. Wikipedia labels their music as "post-punk" and "goth rock," which I guess are accurate enough, but those terms make the band sound angry or gloomy, which it most definitely isn't... or wasn't. If I were trying to sell you on the music of Cruella de Ville (not to be confused with the 101 Dalmatians character who spells her name "de Vil"), I'd describe it this way: imagine if Wednesday and Pugsley Addams took over the band Queen. That about covers it. In fact, the band really was founded by a brother-and-sister pair, Colin and Philomena Muinzer, and did take a lot of musical cues from Queen, especially that group's guitarist, Brian May. For a while, it looked like the band might make it. They released a string of 7" and 12" singles in the UK, including a few on the Beatles' old label, EMI, but big-time success eluded them and Cruella simply fizzled out before even recording a debut album. The good news is that fans have collected and cherished those rare Cruella de Ville records for 30 years now, and they've aged like fine wine. These songs are almost unreasonably fun. Here, take a listen to the group's best-known tune, a gleeful bit of black comedy called "Those Two Dreadful Children."



If you weren't blown away by "Those Two Dreadful Children," then you and I would have very little in common. That's the song which originally got me hooked on Cruella. After I heard that, I knew I had to hear more... and what I found was almost too good to be true! Here's another favorite of mine, a track called "Drunken Uncle John." This song especially resonates with me, because there actually was a "drunken Uncle John" in my own family, and his behavior was not too far off from what is described in the lyrics. Cruella even filmed a video for this one. Take a gander, won't you?



And that wasn't their only video, either! Check out this one for the insanely catchy "Gypsy Girl."



Cruella de Ville also made a few appearances on British television. Here they are performing another classic, an absurd and politically anti-correct little concoction called "Hong Kong Swing," whose lyrics seem to be a jumble of Japanese and Chinese terms strung together into tongue-twisting rhymes.



I wish I could say that there were lots more Cruella de Ville tracks to play for you, but there simply aren't. The band dissolved, and the musicians went on to other, more sensible pursuits. You've already heard about half the band's entire catalog at this point, I'm afraid. But I hope you've enjoyed what you've heard. If you're the least bit curious for more of this group, I can provide some helpful links.


That's pretty much it. And now, I've fulfilled that promise to myself. Good for me.

P.S. - Sometime during the last week, the odometer on this blog passed the 1 million mark. It's a meaningless milestone, I realize, but I'm proud of it anyway. On to 2 million views!

Monday, December 3, 2012

They said it couldn't be aired: The lost Wayne Kotke segment!


It was bound to happen eventually. Wayne has crossed the line, folks.

Ain't I a stinker? Handsome, though.
I've been producing "Wayne Kotke" segments for the Mail Order Zombie podcast since September 2008, and during that time, I've used my few moments at the end of the show to experiment with all kinds of humor: morbid, irreverent, occasionally satirical, and possibly even tasteless. Surprisingly, considering this is the Internet, there's been very little negative feedback to any of this. Oh, there have been a couple of mild complaints over the years, but nothing too substantial. I think the key to all of this is that the MOZ segments are done in a lighthearted, all-in-good fun sort of spirit. The Wayne Kotke character is nothing if not upbeat. He's the eternal optimist, always sure he's onto the next great idea and totally unconcerned with the consequences of his actions. It never occurs to him that anyone could take offense at what he says. Over the years, I've been testing the boundaries of what people will accept from this character. Wayne has no real "filter," so he cheerfully admits to all sorts of bad behavior: copious drug and alcohol consumption, the sale of illicit substances (sometimes to schoolkids), insurance fraud, mail fraud, a whole host of scams and schemes, and many, many murders. I've sometimes wondered if anyone would ever take offense at one of these segments, but hardly anyone has.

Well, citizens, my luck finally ran out this week.

Garfield: No fan of Mondays
The hosts of Mail Order Zombie have deemed one of my "Wayne Kotke" segments too potentially offensive and/or controversial to air on their program. That's their prerogative, of course. It's their show, after all, not mine. I was surprised by their decision, however. The segments I do for MOZ are so intentionally outlandish that it's difficult to take them seriously. And besides, Wayne is just a fictional character. He's nothing like me at all. He only "exists" on the MOZ podcast and on this blog, though lately I've been ignoring him here and writing more personal articles. You may not agree with everything Wayne says -- I certainly don't -- but you can't really debate him because he's basically just a cartoon character. You might as well write a complaint letter to Garfield, informing him that Monday is a perfectly fine day of the week, thank you very much, and that you've never cared much for lasagna either. If I haven't made it clear before, let me say it now: Wayne is just a silly character, and the segments I do for MOZ are purely intended for entertainment, not as advocacy for any real world political or social issues.

However, the hosts of Mail Order Zombie felt that the following segment might offend members of the MOZ listening audience because it pokes fun at the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements. The segment is completely nonpartisan, and I tried to make it as balanced as possible, but the hosts of the podcast still felt it could cause a problem for them. I can sympathize with that. But still in all, I did spend some quality free time writing, recording, and editing the damned thing, so I didn't want to just scrap it completely. With the MOZ hosts' consent, therefore, I am now posting the segment here on this blog so that you can listen and decide for yourself whether it goes too far. Warning: Mild political satire (with brief profanity) ahead!




So... were you offended?

I honestly and sincerely hope not. This segment, like all the others I've done for the podcast, was just a comedy sketch and not an editorial. My segments for MOZ tend to be about whatever I find funny or interesting at the time. The week that I wrote this (and by now it's about a month old), I was suffering from severe post-election fatigue and wanted to write something about that which was even-handed and took both sides to task in a gently humorous way. This segment was nowhere near my favorite bit for MOZ, but I still wanted it to be heard. If you listened to it, thank you. And if you were truly upset by it... well, there's a comments section below just waiting for you. Feel free to use it as you see fit.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

I Couldn't Live Like That: The quiet outsider in pop culture

Talking Heads sing of buildings, food, and other topics

Boy, it's amazing the connections you can find in pop culture without even searching for them. You simply experience various works as they come into your life, either by choice or happenstance, and themes emerge and reveal themselves to you. Take a few steps back and -- whaddya know -- the individual tiles form a larger mosaic. Today, I had such a revelation while listening to some early Talking Heads songs from the late 1970s. The band's lead singer and chief songwriter, David Byrne, has gone through many phases and stages as a lyricist. One hallmark of his early work is a kind of stoic, matter-of-fact plainness. Another is his interest in unromantic, workaday topics and prosaic sentiments which rarely get expressed through music. While other groups were singing about love, politics, injustice, and grand passions, Talking Heads were (quite literally) performing songs about buildings and food. I can still remember the first time I heard "Don't Worry About the Government," a track from their debut album, Talking Heads: 77. It blew my mind as a teenager because it completely expanded my definition of what a song could be or what lyrics could be. Here, give it a listen:



Somehow, I'm not buying it.
You'll notice that, although the lyrics do have a meter, they rarely rhyme. More astonishing, though, is that the sentiments expressed in the song are so unpoetic. The singer's words consist of flat, factual descriptions of the obvious, mixed in with a few generic platitudes delivered with no enthusiasm or genuine human emotion whatsoever. The listener is immediately confronted with questions. Is Byrne expressing his own thoughts and beliefs here or is he singing through some sort of character? If it's a character, then who exactly is this guy? Something is deeply troubling about this narrator. No real human being buys into "the system" (a vague term meaning, roughly, "a way of life dominated by commerce and government") as completely as this man seems to. Is he mentally impaired? Does he suffer from what we'd identify today as autism or Asperger's? Has he been brainwashed in some way, either by doctors (through lobotomy or drugs) or by television commercials which have short-circuited his brain? We don't know. Furthermore, though this man refers to "friends" and "loved ones," he seems to be isolated and possibly a bit desperate for human contact. Notice how he gives us directions to his apartment, but there's no evidence that anyone is taking him up on his too-generous offer of hospitality. The song's chipper yet non-specific musical backing further muddies the situation at hand. Is it meant as an ironic counterpoint to the dark issues raised by the song or does the upbeat music somehow validate or endorse the views of the narrator? It's a puzzler, this one.

More Songs About Buildings and Food
The second Talking Heads album, 1978's More Songs About Buildings and Food, gives us an equally startling song, "The Big Country," with a narrator who exists seemingly at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum as the eerily compliant fellow from "Don't Worry About the Government." While that poor fellow wants desperately to fit in with "normal" society, the narrator of "The Big Country" dismisses it out of hand. Once again, unlike other bands, Talking Heads are devoting themselves to the mundane. Maybe because no one else was really doing so in the punk and art rock scenes at the time. If music is supposed to reflect our culture and society, shouldn't someone be writing about the boring little stuff which actually fills up our days? To that end, "The Big Country" offers a supremely mundane scenario: a man looks out the window of an airplane and remarks on what he sees. That's it. Before we go any further, let's listen to the song:



Musically, the song is very different from "Don't Worry." Instead of being buoyant and poppy, "The Big Country" is languid and laconic, with a country-ish twang to the guitars. But as with the earlier song, the lyrics here are very plainspoken and only barely rhyme. In the first verse, our narrator simply describes what he sees out the window of the plane:

I see the shapes,
I remember from maps.
I see the shoreline.
I see the whitecaps.
A baseball diamond, nice weather down there.
I see the school and the houses where the kids are.
Places to park by the fac'tries and buildings.
Restaurants and bars for later in the evening.
Then we come to the farmlands, and the undeveloped areas.
And I have learned how these things work together.

I see the parkway that passes through them all.

So far, so neutral. (Apart from the vague, almost mechanical "nice weather down there.") It seems that he is describing either a suburban or rural part of the American landscape, since there are "undeveloped areas" near the houses, factories, baseball diamond, etc. The community is tethered to society by means of the parkway. But then, there's a transitional line leading into the chorus:

And I have learned how to look at these things and I say,

This lets us know that our man on the plane has developed a worldview and is about to deliver it to us. We know what he's seeing, and soon we'll know what he thinks about it. That's when David Byrne drops the nuclear bomb on the listener:

I wouldn't live there if you paid me.
I couldn't live like that, no siree!
I couldn't do the things the way those people do.
I couldn't live there if you paid me to.

These bitter lines should jolt the listener. The scenery he'd been describing up to that point was quite ordinary, probably like the places where most of us live, but his reaction to it is utter contempt. It should be noted that Byrne sings these lines the way he sings the rest of the song, i.e. sounding bored and mildly peeved rather than truly angry. It seems probable that this man is traveling alone and only thinking these things rather than saying them aloud. With the second verse, Byrne further damns this place and the people in it with faint praise:

I guess it's healthy, I guess the air is clean.
I guess those people have fun with their neighbors and friends.
Look at that kitchen and all of that food.
Look at them eat it. I guess it tastes real good.

That repeated phrase "I guess" negates any real positivity one might construe from these words. It's what you say when you are reluctantly agreeing to something but are not truly convinced by it. He begrudgingly notes the area's lack of air pollution -- another clue that our narrator is likely a city dweller -- and admits that the residents (whom he pointedly refers to as "those people," separating them from himself) might be having "fun," but he wants no part of it. The two lines about the kitchen and the food demonstrate that some of what the man is "seeing" is merely in his mind. He would not be able to actually see these things from the vantage point of the plane. He goes back to making flat, factual observations about food distribution and how the undeveloped areas, the businesses, and the private homes form one big food chain:

They grow it in the farmlands
And they take it to the stores
They put it in the car trunk
And they bring it back home
And I say...

Then he repeats the brutal chorus. The final verse is perhaps the most cryptically revealing and, therefore, the most interesting. So far, all we know of this strange man is that he is observing a world which is literally (and in his mind, figuratively) beneath him. But now Byrne gives us some insight into the narrator's opinion of his own station in life:

I'm tired of looking out the windows of the airplane
I'm tired of traveling, I want to be somewhere.
It's not even worth talking
About those people down there.

David Byrne, social critic?
He is apparently unsatisfied with his own transient, insubstantial life, perhaps as a businessman who travels frequently as part of his job, and he seemingly yearns for permanence and meaning. But he's just trashed the very place where he might have found these things. Is he having second thoughts about his cynical rejection of society? We'll never know because, in those last two lines of the verse, he simply gives up this line of thought with a slightly annoyed shrug. He's been pondering these people and their lives for a while, but he suddenly decides that this line of thought is worthless and simply surrenders to the thoughtless boredom of his plane ride. There are no further lyrics to the song, apart from David Byrne repeating the phrase "goo goo ga ga ga." These are the syllables we frequently use, of course, to mimic the babbling of babies. I'm not 100% sure why Byrne sings this at the end. Is our narrator making a comment on the fact that the (in his opinion) worthless people down there keep reproducing and making more of themselves, i.e. more people for the narrator to hate? Is he dismissing the very idea of talking, implying that it all boils down to us making nonsense syllables that we pretend have meaning? Or is he just making a sarcastic comment on the low IQs of those he holds in contempt? We'll never know, but the ending feels right for the song. The song's intensity has been building slightly by this point, and this is where Byrne sounds his angriest. Like "Don't Worry About the Government," "The Big Country" is a song I'll never get tired of largely because I can't figure it out.

Hudson & Landry
By an amazing coincidence, I just heard a track by a once semi-popular, now very obscure 1970s comedy team which ties in very well to this theme of self-imposed exile from society. Hudson and Landry scored four gold records, a Grammy nomination, and several national television appearances in the same decade which produced those Talking Heads albums. H&L have all but vanished from our collective memories now, but there's a particular Hudson and Landry bit I want to share with you today because it ties in so well to "The Big Country." Just like that song, it makes repeated use of the phrase "I couldn't live like that." It's called "The Prospectors" and it concerns two would-be gold prospectors who have been out in the desert for decades with only each other -- and a pet snake named Floyd -- for company. The isolation from others has driven them quite crazy by this point, and their lives seem utterly miserable, but still they mock the ways of city slickers. I'd like to leave this slightly heady article on a fun note, so give it a listen:



I guess I'm writing about all this stuff because I've never been quite comfortable in "normal" society and do tend to isolate myself at times, as much as I attempt to avoid doing so. But sometimes I do look at regular, average people and can't help thinking, "I couldn't live like that."

But I'm trying to "live like that" anyway. Wish me luck.