Friday, November 30, 2012

You May Find Yourself

Lately I've been reading How Music Works by David Byrne, lead singer of Talking Heads. It's a fun read--parts of it come off like an undergraduate discourse on music theory, frankly, painting whole movements with very broad brushes, and I can almost see him shrugging his shoulders in that giant suit of his as he occasionally opines and moves on--but it's David Byrne, for crying out loud. Who wouldn't want to get inside his head about how music works? Brilliant.

Anyway, I'm at the point where he's describing the creative process for the album Remain in Light, in which the band tried to effectively learn pop music from scratch, as though they'd found their instruments at an archaeological dig. Their funk is post-funky, their rock is post-rocky. Byrne and producer Brian Eno had recently collaborated on a "found music" project that mixed together snippets of radio broadcasts, street sounds and the like from all over the world, and the experience was still in the foreground of Byrne's creative process. So as he sat down to write the lyrics (the very last stage of the game--all the instrumental tracks had already been laid down) he let the groove guide him. Here's how he recalls the writing process for "Once in a Lifetime," a song I loved as a kid and love even more today.

The gently ecstatic nature of the tracks meant that angsty personal lyrics like the ones I'd written previously might not be the best match, so I had to find some new lyrical approach. I filled page after page with phrases that matched the melodic lines of the verses and choruses, hoping that some of them might complement the feelings the music generate. . . .

In keeping with the rapturous nature of some of the tracks, I was also drawing lyrical inspiration from the radio preachers I'd been listening to. . . . At that time, American radio was a cauldron of impassioned voices--live preachers, talk-show hosts, and salesmen. The radio was shouting at you, pleading with you, and seducing you. . . .

I started by taking on the character of a radio preacher I'd heard on one of my cassettes. There was a serious use of anaphora--employing the same phrase to begin each sentence. It's a common device that preachers use, and it brings their speechifying one step closer to poetry and song. One or two fragments that I used--the repetition of the phrase "You may find yourself," for example--were straight lifts from the radio preacher, but from there I'd improvise and change the focus from a Christian message to, well, I wasn't sure at first what I was getting at. The preacher was focusing on the lack of spirituality in material striving. . . . I'd get myself worked up, pacing back and forth, breathing in sync with the preacher, phrases would come into my head and I'd jot them down as quickly as possible. I maybe went off topic once or twice.

Pardon me, but that's amazing. So method. "Once in a Lifetime" had become, for me, a kind of life sermon, an existential shout defying the vagaries of circumstance and declaring existence to be fundamentally good. It's preaching without the modernist fundamentalist hubris. Here's the video--perhaps you've never heard or seen the song, but having now read this passage from How Music Works I'm inclined to declare it the ultimate anthem of Generation X.

And now for the benediction: Wherever you find yourself, may you find yourself.

1 comment:

Chad Allen said...

That is one sparkly little gem you uncovered there. Thanks for sharing!