Television Man: David Byrne on the Couch
September 5, 2012 | by Brian Gresko
I was born in a house with the television always on. The lyric comes from “Love For Sale,” a song penned by David Byrne and recorded on the Talking Heads album True Stories, but the same could be said for where I grew up, in suburban Philadelphia. My dad watched television even when cooking dinner, which seemed crazy to me, minding an open flame while keeping one eye on some “reality” courtroom drama—not sure you can rightfully call those staged scream-fests real. Judge Judy was such a constant presence, she feels like a family friend. I hear her gravelly voice chewing some idiot out and smell Dad's stir-fry.
Our house was small enough that, unless I played music, I couldn't escape the tube's empty murmuring, not even in my room, which abutted my parents'. As a teenager, then, it made sense that I'd fall in love with Talking Heads' song “Found A Job,” from their 1978 album More Songs About Buildings and Food. David Byrne, the band's vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter, doesn't so much sing as sing-narrates the story of a couple, Bob and Judy, frustrated watching television because “nothing's on tonight.” Byrne as narrator intrudes upon this domestic scene like one of those omniscient charlatans on infomercials—But wait! There's a solution to their problem!—suggesting they “might be better off... making up their own shows, which might be better than TV.”
By the song's end, Bob and Judy are collaborating, creating their own TV program, a show that “gets real high ratings.” They've saved their relationship and turned their whole lives around. “Bob never yells about the picture now, he's having too much fun,” the narrator tells us. He wraps it up like a fable, inviting the listener to “think about this little scene; apply it to your life. If your work isn't what you love, then something isn't right.” While Byrne tells the story, his guitar noodles on the edges of a funky, bass-driven rhythm, until, at the end, a six note melody emerges like an epiphany over the groove. Bob and Judy have learned to sing a new tune.
“Found a Job” encapsulated what I loved about Talking Heads music: the sophisticated, literary lyrics that used dialogue and meta-aware narration, the stance that admits television isn't all bad—because hey, I like watching TV too—but that passivity, and griping without taking action, is. The song's moral, of doing what you love, of not just watching but getting involved, has been with me my whole life, for better (I've always been happy), and for worse (I've never been rich).
“Found a Job” marks the first time in Talking Heads oeuvre that television would make an appearance. The band, comprised of Byrne, Chris Frantz on drums, Jerry Harrison on keyboards and guitar, and Tina Weymouth on bass, released their first album in September of 1977. In their nascent years, the band played at the legendary New York venue CBGB with punk bands like the Ramones, a pairing which used to strike me as an incongruity. Talking Heads' clanky and precise sound, heavy on funk and rhythm, never distorted and certainly not out of control, seemed very different from punk's angry, dirty sloppiness. In attitude, though, Talking Heads proved themselves super-punk. They looked at the conventions of society: falling in love, having a relationship, feeling compassion for others, watching television, having transcendent experiences with drugs, even making art, and cried “bullshit!” By holding these things up to the light, they showed them to be uncomfortable activities, appealing but also troubling. They made social criticism you could dance to.
Until, they didn't quite. By their sixth album, 1985's Little Creatures, Talking Heads, operating less democratically and more strictly under the direction of Byrne, began embracing the things they decried in their youth, or at least approaching them with less skepticism. This wasn't always bad. Byrne had already penned a fabulous, heartfelt love song in “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” on Speaking in Tongues. Now, on “Stay Up Late,” he poked fun at parenting, talking about keeping a baby up all night with, of course, “the television on,” while on “Road to Nowhere,” he brushed aside the meaning of life with a “What, me worry?” flippancy.
But while “Road to Nowhere” captures the contrariness of Talking Heads' early works (and stands out as the strongest track on the album), elsewhere anger gives way to sweetness, even corniness. In “Creatures of Love,” the singer who once asked “Do people really fall in love?” says that “he's seen sex” and “thinks it's ok.” Not a ringing endorsement, as pop songs go, but an endorsement none-the-less.
The boob tube comes in for a make-over as well, in the song “Television Man.” Perhaps talking about his earlier self, he sings “People like to put the television down, but we are still good friends, I'm a Television Man. … I watch it everyday.” Some dark notes seep in from the keyboards and lyric choices—the world “crashes into his living room” through the TV, the narrator meets a girl who turns out to be a man, but “it's alright, I wasn't fooled for long.” A mid-song vision of being swept away by the television to a beautiful garden leads me to think this Television Man is, at best, adversely pacified by his good friend, and at worst, perhaps mad. The final percussive breakdown, a chant of sorts, “I'm a Television Man,” comes across with a harsh, unhinged edge to Byrne's voice. He still sounds somewhat critical of television, wary of repeat exposure and locating reality in its images, but his criticism is implied, as opposed to the directness of “Found A Job.”
My uncle, who introduced me to Talking Heads' work when he gave me their first four albums, didn't have any of their later stuff. I kind of understood why as I tracked their catalog down in high school, though at the time I identified so absolutely as a Talking Heads fan I refused to take any shots at the band. I didn't just want to love the whole endeavor, from beginning to end, without reserve, I had to—my love of these lovably-pretentious art pop geniuses was what set me apart from the television-watching, grocery-shopping, God-fearing suburban hoi polloi. “Give David Byrne a break!” my dad used to yell, tired of me listening to the same set of songs again and again.
Now that my ardor's cooled, I recognize that though the pop confections on the band's last three releases were sweet and easy to sing along with, they largely lacked, both lyrically and sonically, the harder, sometimes bitter sharpness at the center of the band's early work. A flavor that I loved, and continue to love, about Talking Heads' take on American life.
In the late nineteen-eighties, Talking Heads broke up, rancorously. Since then, David Byrne has continued to record. Some albums—like his 2008 collaboration with Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today—flirt with greatness, and reward repeat listens. Others could be heavily edited, even reduced by half. Throughout, television returns as a subject, either in passing (“I never watch TV except when I'm stoned” on “Like Humans Do” from 2001's Look Into the Eyeball) or in entire songs (“Make Believe Mambo” off 1989's Rei Momo tells of a boy with personality cobbled together from TV shows). It comes up again on his latest album, Love This Giant, a collaboration with St. Vincent, the recording name of Annie Clark, in a song called “I Should Watch TV.” The nature of this project – both Byrne and Clark contributed music and lyric writing, with song ideas evolving through drafts over email – means it's impossible to know who penned what line, but seeing as Byrne's the one singing, let's assume he endorses the views exposed there.
The narrator of “I Should Watch TV,” like that of “Found A Job,” maintains an anthropologist's distance, at first. He thinks he should watch TV because he “wanted to know what folks were thinkin', to understand the land I live in.” Yet he finds the more he loses himself to the medium, the more it “sets him free.” He loves this giant—television (hence the album's title). While Byrne sings, horns ricochet around the track like a bird struggling to free itself from a trap, becoming frenetic at the moments he sings of freedom, down-right exultant. The tune wouldn't sound unfamiliar in a church.
The only dark note comes toward the end, when the narrator asks “How am I not your brother? How are you not like me?” as if this difference troubles him. Without any irony, he celebrates the weirdness we see on TV as a reflection of the weirdness inside of every human being. Television is the great unifier, humanity coming together to channel surf as one in weirdness and joy—a far cry from the sentiment of “Found A Job.”
For this guy who fell in love with Talking Heads precisely because they said it was ok to be different and be a creator rather than a passive recipient of culture, I can't help but feel disappointed. I should watch TV—really? Perhaps Byrne's mellowness is a natural result of age, or of his cultural position. Instead of an angry young artist, he's a successful elder statements of artsy rock, a photographer and visual artist, even an author. Maybe watching television, stoned or not, offers a welcome relief from his busy schedule. Certainly the idea that television provides a glimpse into the collective gestalt of humanity bears some merit, but it lacks teeth compared with his old view, which, with equal parts humor and honesty, cool remove and intense emotion, shot a healthy dose of discomfort at the whole medium.
This discomfort, be it from fear, anger, arrogance, or rebelliousness, is largely lacking from the songs on Love This Giant, and much of Byrne's recent work in general. Nor does he play early Talking Heads songs like “Found A Job,” “Artists Only,” and “I'm Not in Love” in concert. I wish he'd regain a bit of that old antagonistic spirit. There's room, I believe, for an angry old intellectual in pop music. The guy who, at sixty, rigorously wonders about love, children, TV, and the meaning of life in all its nasty complexity and beauty. The sixty year old who says he really likes sitting in front of the tube? That sounds a lot like my dad.
Brian Gresko is a stay-at-home dad and writer based in Brooklyn. He has contributed to The Huffington Post, The Atlantic.com, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Glimmer Train Stories. Find him online at briangresko.com.