[2 December 2003]
By now, most people know that nerds are cool. I recently realized that my nerdiest relative, the uncle who went to MIT, gave me my favorite album, Remain in Light by the Talking Heads, (a pretty nerdy group of folks in their own right). I don’t remember exactly when he gave it to me, but I think it was probably Christmas, seventh grade. That would make the year 1985 and me 12. I was on the verge of great things, and his gift of the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light definitely did its part to push me over the top. Within a year I would have a punk rock mullet, pick up a guitar, start smoking pot, and start worrying about not getting laid. I got to know the album front to back, and even though the album was five years old, as they vaulted to stardom with the inclusion of “Burning Down the House” on the Revenge of the Nerds soundtrack, I was able to cop the ultimate music snob attitude: the I-like-their-older-stuff-better attitude. Life was good and I began my charade of cool and being a few steps ahead of the masses that continues to this day.
Remain in Light pulled me in for the first time with its unfamiliar rhythms and art-rock sensibilities. I pored over the lyric sheet when I first received the album, and the perfection of their post-modern inscrutability continues to be a source of pleasure. Possibly even more important was David Byrne. I’m no idolater and I eschew celebrity, but David Byrne was an object of rare obsession for a moment in late eighth grade. My status as a celebrity slut skyrocketed to its peak when I bought a poster from the hottest girl in my class. I never would have had the guts to talk to her then, and still wouldn’t today, but the prospect of acquiring a centerpiece for my shrine thawed out my normally frozen larynx. I even went so far as experimenting with the slicked back hairstyle David rocked in the poster, but my rapidly lengthening locks were not particularly cooperative, and soon after I graduated to “accidental” dreadlocks.
My musical interests became even more tangled, and my fascination with David Byrne and the Talking Heads faded. I had just been introduced to the sophistication of jazz. The intensity of metal beckoned. My excitement about hip-hop came to a head with Public Enemy, NWA, and all members of the Native Tongues family. At the same time, I was swept up in the local punk scene, playing in some bands and partying with the rest. And there was always classic rock on the upstate radio stations. But at 17, when packing for a move, I dusted off my Talking Heads tapes and records, bringing them back into rotation. But before long, I was distracted once again.
After a long lull during my bicycle racing obsessed college years, Remain in Light was periodically brought back into rotation for one reason or another. Most recently, it was the rising popularity of dance rock bands like the Rapture. The Talking Heads did that, and did it without resorting to the synth-heavy tactics favored by their new wave peers and most of today’s resurgents. A couple of years ago, I was introduced to a great new band, Los Amigos Invisibles, signed to David Byrne’s Luakabop label. Before that, it was Z-Trip and Radar’s set at the Transmission Theater for San Francisco’s now-seminal scratchaholic party, the Future Primitive Soundsessions, where they juggled “Once in a Lifetime” to great effect.
But the real reason the album has endured despite the constant assault of incessant influxes of fresh blood into my musical world is that it’s really fucking good. It’s moody without being whiny. Danceable, but musically sophisticated. Remain in Light is the Talking Heads’ finest work; the peak before the plateau. It is sandwiched between two live albums, followed by solo projects from all members and only a few more studio albums.
Remain in Light‘s awesomeness was made possible by the formidable talent of the band and the amazing cast of collaborators. Years later, when I entered an “experimental” phase and developed a love for Adrian Belew, I realized he was responsible for many of the guitar solos on Remain in Light. As I read more about some of my favorite artists, many of them cited Brian Eno as an important influence. Wouldn’t you know it, he was there too! Much later, as I explored music from ‘70s and that funky pop masquerading as jazz found on CTI, Kudu, and other now defunct great record labels, who should be playing percussion in Weather Report but Jose Rossy, also the percussionist for Remain in Light. After settling on hip-hop as my preferred genre, I can return to Remain in Light and David Byrne’s post-modern rap about facts, truth and reality at the end of “Crosseyed and Painless”. And now, as I explore the music of sub-Saharan Africa from the West African funk of Fela to Antibalas’ and Tony Allen’s reinterpretations of the same to soukous, Remain in Light stands as an early example of the same explorations by American artists.
The longevity of Remain in Light makes it an essential album for me. No matter how much I neglect it, it always comes back. It’s not my first album; that honor goes to Men at Work and their smash debut Business as Usual. It’s not my current favorite; that changes at least once a week. But Remain in Light‘s eclectic musical intellectualism suits me well, and I will continue to come back to it for as long my ears continue to function.