When I first saw this video, I’d never heard of the Talking Heads. Had no idea who they were. There I was, in my first year of university, hooked on the music of the sixties and wondering whether the popular airwaves would ever again crackle with anything meaningful and moving, and suddenly there was David Byrne, flop-sweating and apparently overwhelmed by dread, looking terrified by both the present and future, and suffering the repeated existential body blows of life’s dreary realities and crushing expectations, standing there being rocked back on his heels as if struck by the random bullets of life’s eternal drive-by. Staring into the camera with his confused, almost beseeching eyes, he was asking the deceptively complex questions that afflicted me and most everybody in my mixed-up, anxious cohort: You may ask yourself, how do I work this?
The music was extraordinary, spare, stripped down, almost primal, with rhythms straight out of Africa, sounding agitated, upset, and evocative of someone inching ever closer to the breaking point. This wasn’t Culture Club, and it sure as hell wasn’t Bananarama. It was scarcely pop music at all, not as we’d grown accustomed to it in that strange period of transition at the end of the Seventies; Remain in Light, the epochal album on which Once in a Lifetime was centrepiece, was released in1980, the same year that Captain and Tennille, Olivia Newton John, and Air Supply were still charting hits. One of the biggest songs that year was Rupert Holmes with his insipid Pina Colada Song. Lipps Inc. had a huge success with Funkytown. Gary Newman was flogging the vapid techno-pop of Cars. Emerging out of the miasma that hung over all of that slickly-produced musical processed cheese food, Once in a Lifetime cut like a knife. It was out of time and seemingly out of nowhere, and it was saying something unsettling about the way we lived our lives.
Letting the days go by. It was both lament and warning, and boy, what a piece of performance art. I guess you could argue that being in a position to indulge in the luxury of second-guessing your life choices falls under the category of “First World Problems”, but Once in a Lifetime is more total nervous breakdown than mere bourgeois existential angst. This guy is flipping out. I think maybe we all flirt with this sort of mental collapse at some point, wondering what in God’s name we’ve done, whether we’re right or wrong, and continually seeking, whether we know it or not, escape into the cool, silent, psychic solace of a quiet space within ourselves, referred to here as the water underground. Into the blue again we go, into the silent water.
Same as it ever was.