Talking Heads, “Once In A Lifetime”
Twice in a Lifetime
David Byrne as a Speaking Head was, arguably, in no way out of character. Wide-eyed and quirky, he managed a mindset that—it seemed—no touring musician with a significant label record deal could reasonably preserve. Contemplate the pointedly hilarious and typically overlooked “Found a Job” from the band’s second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food. Byrne does not just serve as narrator but offers voice to both partners in a marraige saved by writing and making television pilots. He’s also embedded to make the mass-media suburbia joke outright but we get it anyway. Byrne was right here merely to describe the planet around him. As opposed to the shouting and finger-pointing punks and hippies who had occupied the decade therefore far, Byrne was (or played it like) he was just right here to observe—a sort of Silver Surfer in sensible footwear.
But 1 issue he didn’t do is put on costumes. In these heightened days of makeup and hair styles—when obtaining seen on MTV was becoming more critical than becoming heard on the radio—he and his foursome avowedly dressed in straightforward, collegiate, even slightly preppy, garb. Wasn’t that in itself a costume? Confident it was. And did it get them noticed? Confident did.
There had been occasional exceptions to the no-costume policy The cowboy hat Byrne wears in Accurate Stories (the 1986 absurdist descent into Texan Americana he co-wrote, directed and starred in), for example, underscores how rare dressing up was for him was by just how funny he looked, how out of character. His most popular costume was without doubt the oversize white organization suit he wore during “Girlfriend is Better” in the 1984 concert movie Stop Creating Sense. “It’s often showtime here at the edge of the stage,” he sings to us, on the other side of the stage, observing.
The most efficient disguise Byrne donned throughout his days with the Talking Heads was a simple pair of glasses. The video for the 1980 song “Once in a Lifetime” prominently featured him spinning and panting and famously creating a chopping motion across his arm. Bedecked in a grey suit, bow tie and a pair of horn-rims, his appearance somehow didn’t call back to Elvis Costello or Buddy Holly but to one thing outside the globe of well-known music. It was much more like the Michael Douglas’s character in the 1993 film Falling Down, or the confused protagonist in any number of epidoses of The Twilight Zone. It was the costume of a good man wronged. What that incorrect against him is we don’t know. Our protagonist, it appears, is suffering from amnesia, awaking one particular morning to discover that he recognizes nothing at all about his life. We can only imagine he’s suffered some type of trauma and (given that the song is sung in the initial individual) can only speculate as to the trigger.
For the sake of argument, let’s take one more Byrne character from a song with a comparable enough title that we can pretend it was all part of some grand plan. “Life Throughout Wartime” (from the year prior to “Once in a Lifetime”) is yet another very first-individual narrative, this one about a g-man, a spy—or possibly a mercenary. We’re not very certain what he’s up to, but it is some quite covert stuff. “I got three passports, a couple of visas, you do not even know my genuine name,” he announces in a nervous, spongspiel style, then, later, “We dress like students, we dress like housewives, or in a suit and a tie. I changed my hairstyle, so several occasions now, I don’t know what I appear like.”
We don’t know exactly what is going on, but we know it is not great. Byrne and his accomplice/companion are moving via the city at night, the sound of gunfire off in the distance, and transmitting messages to HQ without expecting a response. They finally look to make their way out of the difficulty zone and Byrne says to his companion, “Don’t get exhausted, I’ll do some driving, you ought to get you some sleep.” It’s as damning a sentence as asking “What is this spot?” while entering the haunted castle.
Suddenly the car skids, almost everything goes to black, and then he awakens. It is morning. He appears about the beautiful house he’s identified himself in and at the stunning woman he doesn’t recognize lying asleep next to him and he asks himself, “Well, how did I get right here?”
The gaps in the narrative only bolster the paranoic plotline. We do not see the large image because our protagonist never saw it, even before his position was compromised and he was brainwashed and relocated. He is shellshocked and we are correct there with him, suffering below the grip of a force that can steal your memory and make you disappear. (“Do you keep in mind anyone here? No, you don’t remember anything at all. I’m sleeping, I’m flat on my back, By no means woke up, had no regrets,” Byrne sang on “Memories Can not Wait,” the song following “Life Throughout Wartime” on 1979’s Fear of Music.)
This is all, give or take a year or two, a Reagan-era romance (accurate, he wasn’t in office yet when Worry of Music was released but the storm clouds had been darkening). It’s a Cold War saga. Times have changed because then—or maybe changed and changed back once more.
I was 18 when the Jonathan Demme–directed Cease Making Sense came out. The band had a lot more than doubled in size for that tour and now counted funk keyboard legend Bernie Worrell among its ranks. I had noticed them in concert the summer time ahead of and knew better what I was in for, possibly, then some who went to see the film. I only recently saw it for a second time, best-to-bottom on a large screen. It was in Keene, New Hampshire, two days soon after Thanksgiving and 18 days right after the 2016 presidential election. Our party integrated my girlfriend (who had by no means seen it just before), my sister and her girlfriend and my nephew. Two years younger than I was the very first time I saw the film, it was also his 1st time seeing it. Through the gaze of his eyes, and the haze of passed time, I watched as if I’d by no means seen it before, and one thing funny occurred. Following the serenely beautiful “This Have to Be the Spot (Naive Melody),” when the band launched into the crowd-pleasing “Once in a Lifetime,” I felt an unexpected calm wash over me.
My nephew—who most likely has far more days to negotiate on this dying planet than I—may well come to discover himself living in a shotgun shack. He might ask himself if he is proper or he is incorrect and he may possibly say to himself, “My God, what have I completed?” I believe it is far more most likely, even so, that he may look around and ask what was done before he came along and just before he was in a position to do something about it. He may possibly watch the country he and I get in touch with house fall back into life during Cold Wartime mentality. He might ask himself if there is hope to be had.
“Once in a Lifetime” isn’t a song about hope, but sitting there in that theater it struck me that it is not about despair either. It is a song about the flowing of time, an extended koan about old life giving way to new life. It’s about acknowledging that there are larger things than us and larger factors than our governments. None of us can completely grasp how it is that we got here, but we can let the days go by, let the water hold us down. Since right after the money’s gone, the water will nevertheless be flowing underground.
Exact same as it ever was.
– Kurt Gottschalk
Kurt previously wrote for OWOB about Paul McCartney & Wings.