Category Archives: music criticism

Don’t Worry About the Government

One of my favorite bands has long been The Talking Heads, the great late 70’s/early 80’s punk-new wave group fronted by the ever erudite David Byrne. I never tire of them, not after all these years of semi-constant rotation. I could blither on about the musical reasons that this is so, and then engage in arguments over “who is better? The Talking Heads, The Clash, The Ramones, or Blondie”? But I never have much steam for these debates. I still obsess over the Talking Heads because of the odd abstractions of the lyrics, the driving rhythm, and the jangling guitar, and something incongruous about all of them put together. (David Byrne solo work doesn’t interest me nearly as much, so it isn’t just that I think the lyrics intellectually…deep.) The Talking Heads are so cheerfully abstract.

I have a long string of favorite Heads songs, but the one that sticks with me in a particularly personal way is Don’t Worry About the Government from their first album, Talking Heads ’77. (Man, I’ve always wanted to steal that title for something. Maybe someday I will.) You don’t need to have heard this song to follow my story here, but if you haven’t heard it, don’t you think you should? (Sadly, I guess we’re no longer allowed to post music mp3s here, so I can’t help you out with this one. I’m supplied an okay video of the song that’s on youtube instead.)

I see the clouds that move across the sky/I see the wind that moves the clouds away/It moves the clouds over by the building/I pick the building that I want to live in


This is a happy, weirdly and eerily happy, song about working at a bureaucratic desk job. And this is something I know about. It is a song that is not about laughing at the guy who loves his stapler. This is not a song about destroying the boredom from within or without. This is a song about — working —working–. And—living at your desk. And showing off your office to your friends. And being safe.

I smell the pine trees and the peaches in the woods/I see the pinecones that fall by the highway/That’s the highway that goes to the building/I pick the building that I want to live in/It’s over there, it’s over there—

There’s debate out there about whether this is an ironic song or one that is straightforward as can be. To me the song is poignantly real. And sad. And the only people who see it as irony are the ones who have never sat for years behind a desk. Or have not had friends and family who have sat for years behind a desk.

Springfield, Illinois, where I lived for a long time, has the country’s second largest bureaucracy—second only to, you know, the feds. It is an especially corrupt bureaucracy, which honestly just made it sort of fun. The level of evil dealing was really quite exciting and the gossip surrounding it all, nice and juicy, and very often sexual. I, and pretty much everyone else I knew, worked for the government (or people who received direct funding from the gummit). That was what there was to do there. And if you didn’t work there, you kinda figured you should, or that you would eventually, because the State paid better than nearly anyplace else. And if you went to the right fundraisers, and paid the right dues, you’d keep your job for a long time—possibly even through the next change in administration.

My building has every convenience/It’s gonna make life easy for me/It’s gonna be easy to get things done/I will relax along with my loved ones

Loved ones, loved ones visit the building,/take the highway, park and come up and see me/I’ll be working, working but if you come visit/I’ll put down what I’m doing, my friends are important

When this song came out, I had friends, of course, with government jobs, some more ingrained in the bureaucracy than others. In 1978, I was a student and got by through a string of part-time jobs pieced together to help me avoid getting a “real job.” I swore then that I would never work for the State, because, well—I knew I couldn’t do it. I was too ancy, too easily bored and too rude. Growing up around Springfield, it seemed to me like the beginning of the end—a trap. My mom at that time had just started the State job that she would have until the end of her life. She loved her job—at least it wasn’t housework. The people I knew with State jobs all pretty much liked their jobs—or at least they rarely hated them. I came to understand why later.

When the song “Don’t Worry About the Government” first came out in ’77, I thought it really was a kind of joke. Or, well, I wasn’t sure. Admittedly, a lot of Talking Heads songs were about work, whether it be artistic work or training to be a psychokiller or whatever. I had worked my way through college—I never once just “went to school”—but I hadn’t yet made that distinction between work (done for pay) and Work (done for love). For the Talking Heads, work was about both love and commitment.

As I got older, the lyrics to these Talking Heads work songs kept coming back to me. They’d spring into my head at inopportune moments. When I was working, mostly. The songs had very chimey refrains, which honestly was a bit disturbing when one was trying to type a long dull document, or file, or proofread. You could practically whistle along with those Talking Heads refrains. “I’ll be working, working, but if you come visit I’ll put down what I’m doing….” Yikes. Especially since I did not really want to put my work aside for my loved ones. Along with the lyrics would come things that friends had said to me about these songs.

“I love that song!” said one friend. “I know so many people like this. They really say things like that! Our office is really a kind of…family.”

I found that hard to believe, at first. But then I worked in a couple of these pseudo-family offices. I stayed in one for nearly ten years. We had potlucks and secret Santas, and when women (they were all women) came back from trips, they would bring little presents like pencil erasers that looked like pigs. I once had someone in the office give me a button that said “Almost Famous” (before the movie made that cool), which honestly just pissed me off. We had pens that had little airplanes embedded inside and we had pieces of seashells. We loved each other the way we would love people in our family that we would half-hate. We would perch on the desks and share stories and would sadly shake our fists at injustice. When newcomers came into the office, they were given intense loyalty screenings, and they nearly all failed. Since it was an all woman office and we dealt with the bureaucratic side of social services, we may all have bonded particularly intensely out of sheer fear. We never knew when some crazy guy whose wife was hiding in a domestic violence shelter would come and get us all. And when you read about rape, beating, and killing day in and day out, well—the world looks like a pretty scary place. I mean, it was not an entirely paranoid fear.

Nearly all the places I worked—libraries, universities, hospitals, and, yes, our little office—had an element of this “hating outsiders” fear. When pressed into service (for cash), we bond with our surroundings and we bond, for good or ill, with the people around us. And we bond, too, with our buildings. The buildings themselves represent what we need. And it is safer in an office with all of its many rules (which could not be broken unless the job was to be lost) than it was in that flux outside. But being in the office too much made the outside seem more and more overwhelming, incomprehensible. It became harder and harder to leave.

Don’t you worry ’bout me/I wouldn’t worry about me/Don’t you worry ’bout me/Don’t you worry ’bout me

David Byrne’s voice in this song is so plaintive and so…sweet, in a way. The song honestly has always made me worried about this man in his little office. I imagine him looking, well, just like David Byrne if David Byrne worked in an office. There are a lot of sweet natured people working in their buildings. They usually don’t rise very far because if you are too nice, you’re going to be run over by the competitive ones. But there are always these quiet ones who just sit at their desks and work. I think they are worth worrying over, mainly because no one will notice them enough to worry.

I see the states, across this big nation/I see the laws made in Washington, D.C./I think of the ones I consider my favorites/I think of the people that are working for me

I absolutely love this passage. This is how you know this is a government job. People who work at government jobs really do have their favorite laws. I know I had mine. And my mom, who did precisely this kind of rules-logging, definitely had hers. The legislation, the legal-ese, becomes oddly consoling in its blandness. Even the most morally threatening law is written in this kind of whitewashed language, and the language means, see? you’re safe. see? how innocuous. see? how boring. don’t think about that. We are benevolent. We are good. We have your interests at heart. And we are only words, and can be changed. If you work within our system.

Some civil servants are just like my loved ones/They work so hard and they try to be strong/I’m a lucky guy to live in my building/They all need buildings to help them along—
it’s over there, it’s over there

In a big messy corrupt bureaucracy the work filters down through so many people. Our little office received government funding, but all we could do was to lobby to get more of it so that the good cause would get some of that stinking green slop. As the work sifts through levels, it becomes so bland that one’s little piece means virtually nothing. What is left at this point of powerlessness are the attachments made with the people in the office. You do come to know these people that you don’t really know at all. You do come to really care for the people you work with. Whether you adore them, hate them, disrespect them, admire them, pity them, fear them, you really are forced to care. You hear the most personal things about people, things that I can’t repeat, that are truly scandalous. I heard of these things from people who I barely knew, from people of all ages and all backgrounds. Within a month of a new job, I’d hear confessions of affairs, of abortions and suicidal brothers, of seductions of the young or neglect of the old, and eventually I would usually get invited to toke up on the roof. I thought every time that this person might always be my friend. I even occasionally thought my enemies would be my friends. But I’ve found that once a job is left, the people are nearly always left behind, too. Maybe Christmas cards will be exchanged for awhile, or maybe not, but I’ve found these friendships formed at jobs to be nearly all time-limited. I don’t even remember everyone’s names, though of course I remember the faces of everyone I ever worked with, whether I liked them or not. Once we left the building, there was no point of re-entry. I don’t know what became of most of them. A lot of them are probably even dead by now. Isn’t that spooky?
The man in the song probably knows this. That’s why he’ll never leave his job. He’ll know what happens, and he won’t care about the ones who leave. He likes it, and he’s lucky. Where’s the irony in that?

My building has every convenience/It’s gonna make life easy for me/It’s gonna be easy to get things done/I will relax along with my loved ones

Loved ones, loved ones visit the building/Take the highway, park and come up and see me/I’ll be working, working but if you come visit/I’ll put down what I’m doing, my friends are important

Don’t worry ’bout me/I wouldn’t worry about me/Don’t you worry ’bout me/Don’t you worry ’bout ME……….

p.s. Here is another favorite Talking Heads’ song of mine, “Citiesfrom Fear of Music.

(Lyrics by David Byrne. Index Music, WB Music Corp., publishers.)

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Rocky Mountain High

I’m not saying I’m a John Denver fan. Really. I’m not. When I hear that nasal whine, I really want to duck and cover. Sort of. Look, I live in Denver now. He’s our native son, the naive train that smacks into the tree; he crops up in the most peculiar places. A hip coffee shop, a road sign, the park in Aspen. John Denver’s mom died today, I read in the Denver paper—actually, John Deutschendorf’s mother died—and it turned out she’d gone to a nearby Presbyterian church and of course did all the things that nice middle class women do in Denver. The paper said she was “feisty,” right in the headline. She liked to drive 90 miles an hour. She liked pecan rolls and tacos. She lived in Aurora, a Southern suburb gone a bit to seed. I imagine I ran into her at Whole Foods, for instance, or sat with her while entertaining a guest at India’s Pearl. This got me to thinking about what I really felt about John Denver—trying not to care about what others might think of my opinions.

Hard to do. There are always those performers we hear at a certain young age and love a little, only to find later, and with more musical and urban knowledge, that they are sappy schmoes. We all have these people tucked in the dark pockets in our hearts. I know, Post-Modern Professor, that at your deathbed you will utter…”Barry…Barry Manilow….croon Mandy, one more timmmmeeeeee.” Your final words. Scary, isn’t it. I have quite a few of such people in my secret past, and some of them actually are good and some of them are worth artistic justification. I’m not going to do that here. I’m talking here about pure sentimentality, about meaning and identification that comes long before rational judgment. Back before you have that real basis of comparison.

I first heard John Denver back in the 1970’s, when he had a string of big sappy hits. (Actually, I heard his song first, we all did, sung instead by Peter, Paul and Mary: “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Come on, you’ve heard it: “All my bags are packed I’m ready to go/I’m standing here outside your door”….moving on to that kind of lame chorus: “ I’m leaving on a jet plane/ don’t know when I’ll be back again/oh babe, I hate to go..oh….” Maybe it’s me, but I still hate the way that chorus trails off, like a car with a radiator leak coming to a full stop and at all dramatically.) I really hated some of his hits, even then—they were played to death on the radio, which, guess what, was my only access to music at that time. You heard what you heard. You loved, shrugged, and hated, but as the radio is a stream, there was no ability to cut off that stream of song other than to turn off the machine. There were no one thousand channel options. There were maybe three if the reception was clear, and the other two were a country station and a talk radio channel playing a lot of Paul Harvey and Swap Shop. On a crystal day, we might pick up WGN in Chicago or KXOK in St. Louis, both to be greatly desired, but only found if the radio was just so, cocked to the window like a half deaf dog. So across a few summers, it was John Denver, crossing over on both rock and country. This song he did that finally turned me against him forever: “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” Pure sugar shtick and not good, either—and worse, it was so damned clear that the guy had never lived in the country, him with his “old fiddle” and his farm that was “kinda laid back.” Farms are not laid back, fella. Farms are places where people work their asses off. If he had lived where I lived, he’d be slipping in more negatives, like the real country singers did. But John Denver caught me on this other damned country song. I loved this song then, and when I hear it now, I don’t love it, but this little hinge kind of swings open and I go, “Goddamn it.” This song is “Take Me Home, Country Road.” It’s a paean to West Virginia, and the middle section is really pretty—”I hear her voice in the morning hours she calls me/ the radio reminds me of my home far away/and riding down the road I get a feeling that I should have been home yesterday/yester-day-yay”—and I didn’t have to look up those lyrics. I know them all. I learned to play them on the piano, in fact, and I could probably sit at the piano and play that song even now. The song is a homesick song, and for John Denver, it’s pretty restrained. I think he really did want be taken home by country roads to the place he belonged, West Virginia. Except apparently as a kid John Deutschendorf belonged nowhere. He was a military kid, bouncing from Roswell, New Mexico, to Tucson, to Montgomery Alabama to, sadly, Fort Worth, where he ran away with his Gibson guitar while still in high school. He called himself Denver because, well, he loved Denver best, and look at his real name. He loved the mythical West Virginia best until he got stoned on a mountaintop in the 27th year, on the road to a place he’d never been before—when he got his Rocky Mountain high.

I know what that Muppet-looking mop-head meant. (An aside: John Denver looks like a stuffed toy with a wide mouth and big 70s glasses. I recommend the movie he did with George Burns, “Oh, God,” to get the full impression is how almost cute and downright ugly John Denver nee Dusseldorf actually could be. Or watch The Muppet Show. There was a reason he was regular.) I was homesick for country roads even when I lived on them (hell, I wanted John Denver’s, not mine; his had more trees and less Illinois corn). And when I moved to Colorado I caught the high, even though I don’t walk down to the neighborhood medical marijuana shops and purchase the wares. The mountains trump all. Coloradans love John Denver’s tribute to the mountains; “Rocky Mountain High” is officially our state song, and we like to think he is high on life as well as the ever-present weed because when you’re up there, you can see nearly everything. John Denver is not faking his love in this song and when you hear it slipping into some song mix in some mountain town, you know it. Even if you don’t really like the song, like me, you can’t help but feel in that sub-logic part of your mind that he nailed it. “He was born in the summer of his 27th year/ on the road to a place he’d never been before/ he left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again, you might say he’d found a key to every door” (okay, say what you will, but that last long line is really cool, even sung in Denver’s piercing tenor—because he nailed the conversational rhythm, he’s getting ready to tell us a story over, say, a sub sandwich in that dive)….And then there’s the chorus, heard ad nauseum all over Colorado: “And the Colorado Rocky Mountain high/ I’ve seen it rain and fire in the sky/ Friends around the campfire and everybody’s high-yi-yi” (dogs wail at this final note)…Rocky Mountain High, Coloradohhhhhhh.” Enough? Okay. The thing is, it does rain and fire in the sky. When you’re in the mountains you are close to the sky. You can kiss the sky, of course, although it’s likely that the sky will smack you in the mouth then and knock you down the mountain. The sky in the mountains is so close that you are subject to electrocution during a sudden storm, knocked over by wind, burned by a sun that is shockingly close to you (I never get used to that). It is not benevolent but something odd happens to humans there. In packs, we get kinda mellow. We feel really good. We are kind and we walk big dogs, and even mountain bikers say hello on the way down. Strangers tell you what’s around the next turn. We are really high.

Poor John Denver was killed flying a small plane. I always respected that. Of course, it’s the fall that gets you, but that’s not the point. It’s how high you got. Everyone in Colorado, even the conservative ones, know that John Dusseldorf went into the clouds. We don’t really care if he was any good or not. That’s not the point.