The 12 Discs of Christmas, Stop Making Sense

At different times, we all experience “existential” moments, where we have cause and opportunity to stop and think about what we’re doing. Sometimes we wonder big questions – I’ve always eaten meat, but do I really like it? Are men more attractive than I’d previously considered? Am I doing the right work? Do I have the right friends? Am I drinking too much, or too little? The early 21st century seems like a time when my caste are more inclined to wonder about these things than ever, and for various socio-political-economic reasons we’re “freer” to shake things up as a result. I expect in the 1950s people were just as concerned about it all, but the culture of continuity meant people just gritted their teeth and carried on. The answers by the way are yes, no, moreso now than previously, as much as you can pick, and there is no right amount. In my mid 30s I’m arguably the best version of myself I’ve ever been, but then, I can’t remember an age when I didn’t look back at the receding past and think “what an idiot”, so I hazard there’s still room for improvement.

One practical aspect  of with certain recent lifestyle changes and concomitant naval gazing has been that I’ve been rediscovering my own music collection. Over the last decade or so my music playlists have become more-or-less automated based on a complex system of genre classifications aligned with moods, play counts and play frequency. And I haven’t ported that over to my new computer, so when I want to listen to music I’ve either got to specifically pick something or really roll the dice on “random”. Picking music has been a little bit of “what do I feel like” and a little bit of “what does this music remind me about myself?”. A record isn’t ever just music, it’s the time and place where you were, the things you were doing. Having thus spent a fair chunk of time really thinking about my music, I thought I might as well share it with you, and my hope is you’ll see something interesting that you hadn’t before and make a new musical friend – because that’s how most of the records that are important to me entered my life.

Stop Making Sense was my introduction to the Talking Heads. Buffy Season 6 was premiering on NZ free-to-air television, so my flatmate and I had arranged to go have dinner with another colleague in Martinborough. It was a tense time at the office, so we slipped off a bit early rather than risk getting swept up into anything. I fancied myself as something of a chef at the time, but as it was a team effort we’d agreed some pretty simple dishes. Sloping off early cut out the traffic, the dish was simple, and TV had a fixed start time hard to remember now – so we ended up with twenty minutes to kill and our conversational gambits well and truly exhausted for the evening. So rather than try and part-watch something, our host slipped in the concert DVD of Stop Making Sense.

I remember with crystal clarity the image of David Byrne walking out onto the stage, in the dark, wearing his famous white suit, followed by the stripped-down sound literally from a tape-recorder. David Byrne’s voice on that first hearing was grating and atonal. We weren’t impressed, and I think we only made it a couple of songs into the DVD before it was mutually agreed that the outing had been a wash. It wasn’t the sort of music we had as a soundtrack in our house. But despite distinctly not having been impressed, there was something about the performance fragment that we saw which stuck in my head.

At that time, and for a couple of years afterwards, I used to buy myself a CD each week at the local independent music store. It was the size of a London flat, and the selection wasn’t what you’d call amazing, but the sales assistant was a very cute and beyond-cool young woman, and it was near work, and I liked CDs. I think the longest conversation we ever had was her derisively dismissing the new Matchbox 20 album and impressionable youth I was, I never listened to any of their music after Yourself or Someone Like You, which I’d owned for a couple of years at that point. But one day, a little after the fateful dinner, I was stumped for something to buy when the CD cover for Stop Making Sense caught my eye. It was $15, which I had, it was on my radar, I had nothing else in mind, and I was basically just wasting time fulfilling this silly habit when I really wanted to be on the road back to Wellington for the weekend. I really only broke the CD-per-week habit when I went back to do my BA and wasn’t working (hence, hadn’t earned a CD).

The basically weekly drive to Wellington was a chance to really thrash a CD, but it had to be one with a great beat and a certain intensity. Jazz, my go-to music at the time, really sucks when played through the slightly dodgy tape deck of a Citreon BX tooling over the Rimutaka Hill Road. The Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense absolutely did not suck. As I learned later, it’s absolutely crammed with the best music they produced in the first half of their career; it’s a live Greatest Hits. I think I prefer this version of all their songs to the original album, and I think in part that’s because this album feels like the moment they decided to let themselves be musical. Early Talking Heads is staccato and arrhythmic, with almost deliberately awkward delivery of the lines from Byrne. It’s confrontational in presentation. It’s music, but it wants you to engage on its terms. After Stop Making Sense they released Little Creatues, which is basically pop. It’s all good, I love all their albums, but Stop Making Sense represents an especially sweet spot of their punk sensibilities and accessible presentation.

I think my favourite track from the album is “Life During Wartime”. It’s an amazingly evocative song, creating a world, sketching a scenario, but not telling a story. Then again, maybe my favourite bit of the album is the solo introduction to “Crosseyed and Painless” which always seems to have the improvisational magic of Jazz perfectly adapted into the New Wave aesthetic. If I were writing this post tomorrow I’m sure different moments would appeal, as this album is one of those albums that’s never really dropped completely out of the playlist rotation. It came along at a really pivotal moment in my life, the moment really when I completely left behind adolescence and became an adult – better late than never.

Thinking about it now, 15 years later, on the other side of the world, it’s easy to remember the mistakes I made and hopefully not make them again. As a 22 year old I let my insecurities drive me, and I let the loneliness of living in a strange place lead me into some dark habits. Stop Making Sense was a key experience in that period of my life, but the way it seems to me now, it arrived at the right moment, the cusp of better times as I got a new job, moved back to the city I love best, and disentangled myself from the difficult habits and circles I’d moved into. Years later I was given the DVD by my girlfriend at the time, one of the most insightful gifts I’ve ever received, showing that the person in the world who should have known me best actually did.

Stop Making Sense isn’t my absolute favourite album of all time, but it’s the totem spirit of a crucial period in my life – and it’s damned fine music.

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