More Songs About New York Buildings

I came to love Talking Heads tangentially and like many things it involved a girl. A classmate who loved Talking Heads was funny, snarky and post-punk before that was a thing, and only went to hear a particular club band because their repertoire included “Life During Wartime.” Enough late nights in the WPRB basement studying LP sleeves introduced me to the rest of their catalog, and an appreciation was born. A lifelong friend usually tags late 60s progressive music as “art rock,” but Talking Heads were the first true rock-as-art as art rock band — their music made me uncomfortable with repeating strange rhythms and Dada-esque lyrics and frequently random guitar solos.

Chris Frantz’s book “Remain in Love” tied together forty years of Talking Heads for me. It was art rock, born literally at RISD, and distilled and concentrated in the bowels of a pre-glamor NYC. While never playing huge venues, they stopped touring abruptly, more Steely Dan than Steely Dan itself, making music but not in a public way. David Byrne’s “American Utopia” was the Talking Heads concert I never got to see, through the eyes of the rhythm section, the songs taking shape bottom up and channeling the diverse influences that cemented the art in their rock. Byrne’s explanations of African rhythms, Dada poems subverted as lyrics and where we find home were the antidote to decades of discomfort.

I’ve had a half decade of Talking Heads plates of shrimp: thinking about a pregnant Tina Weymouth on tour and my physical approximation of that sound and shape while strapping my bass over my middle aged paunch; hearing Phish cover “Cities” and “Crosseyed and Painless” to put those songs in a new context; relistening to “Discipline” era King Crimson with Adrian Belew to transpose those erratic guitar solos on Talking Heads live albums in time and space. Exchanging bourbon and Frantz stories with a musical, Kentucky-bred co-worker made me refer to Frantz’s book, and also reference their (non) lonsman Belew. In this time of pandemic and fear, we find connections where we can, however many post-punk choruses away.

I also read “Remain in Love” as a call to action, a return to the literal shit hole days of New York before bankers, lawyers, Disney, and too much money pasted a facade over the neighborhoods where amazing art was created. Despite James Altucher’s premature call of NYC’s time of death, it’s not about retail models and high end sustainability — Kevin Baker gets it in one when he calls out affluence and disparity of consumption. Nowhere does NYC as a bastion of creative genius show up.

It’s about a place where you want to go to contribute, to collaborate, to eat sketchy food and pluck heavy metal strings (in every connotation) and remix five decades of music to craft the soundtrack for the next decade. “Remain in Love” is an indirect blueprint for the future NYC attitude, where it’s about collaboration, where grime and dirt and passion are fused into lives defined by creation over consumption.

By day: CIO for R&D at a drug company. Scalable computing, data privacy, performance. Non-day: husband, parent, phan, bass player, ice hockey coach

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Hal Stern

By day: CIO for R&D at a drug company. Scalable computing, data privacy, performance. Non-day: husband, parent, phan, bass player, ice hockey coach