Tonight’s song is Talking Heads’ “(Nothing but) Flowers,” from their 1988 album Naked. Give it a listen before you read the rest:
This song came out during my adolescent protest phase. I remember the rest of Naked seeming rather heavy-handed and cynical. Not that this song isn’t heavy-handed and cynical, but by comparison with the rest of the album it is a ray of pure sunshine. I have always had a soft spot in my calloused heart for pure sunshine.
In 1988, music was never just about the music. It was about images too. I vaguely recall that at the time there was this TV station called Music Television that showed these little movies that accompanied the songs. I vaguely remember watching it a lot, in my room, by myself, with headphones on, talking to no one and only coming out for food and inarticulate grunting. If you are a teenager reading this, let that stand as proof that being a teenager in the late Eighties was not so different than it is now. Your forbears also spent all of their time in their rooms thinking about boys, or girls, or both, or sex, or boys, or girls. Except we didn’t have cell phones or the Internet and our iPods were these huge things that had big clunky buttons and played these weird plastic cassettes full of brown tape. It was like we were all toddlers and lacked fine motor control. And we had the Music Television, which was like a slow, non-searchable version of YouTube. It kinda sucked. You have it way better now. But we got by OK; we consoled ourselves with big, teased bangs and Urkel. Or so I recall; it’s all a bit hazy.
So I got introduced to a lot of music through watching television, which now seems utterly bizarre. That is how I encountered this song. The video for “(Nothing but) Flowers,” which is on YouTube but blocked in the USA by the rights holder, was a montage of the band playing the song cut together with various factoids about the rape of the planet by Advanced Capitalism. It was pretty bracing actually; it was perhaps my first introduction to anything like environmental consciousness. In those early days of media conglomerates, a select few musical acts could get a national platform to air issues like this, rather than having their music and messages finely market-segmented, targeted to maximize upward revenue stream dynamics, and safely out of the hands of anyone who might find them remotely uncomfortable.
Advanced Capitalism certainly won that round. But this song still remains, stuck in my memory forever. It was a mix of sweetness and savage satire that always felt natural to me, but that few others around me seemed to appreciate in 1988. Then, as now, people had difficulty telling when I was joking and when I was being serious. This is that kind of song. And I still love it, because I feel like I can tell which parts are serious.
One verse in particular sticks out in my memory, partly because it doesn’t really seem to fit the song very well. At least, not in any obvious way. David Byrne gave a pretty cool performance of this song at a TED talk in 2010 and completely left out this verse. It goes:
Years ago, I was an angry young man
And I’d pretend that I was a billboard
Standing tall by the side of the road
I fell in love with a beautiful highway
As an angry young man, I always felt a shock of recognition upon hearing this verse. It pronounced some secret doom upon me, fating me to stand still, rooted to the spot out of love, my face a sun-bleached, tattered, overgrown desuetude while my beloved road went ever on. It was always a stark, outlandish image. Certainly no such thing ever really happened. Falling in love with a highway, always there yet always on its way somewhere else?
Certainly love is never like that. Perish the thought.