Category Archives: new journalism

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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on the mall at the Democratic National Convention: “come on out and buy some product!”IHa

Having no special tickets to get me into the “special musical events” for the “special” people at the Democratic Convention (the conventioneers and those who are connected to them and those who donated lots of money or those who are just paying close attention to the parties), I didn’t see Sheryl Crow or Stevie Wonder or the Drive-By Truckers playing for the Montana party or any of the other people who performed in the exclusive events.  But I didn’t really want to…much.  I was even too tired to try for the Rage Against the Machine tickets, in part because I think the band is imitative and strident and NOT FUNNY (the best of the older punkers had a sense of humor, remember?).  But I kind of wish I had, since there was a big protest afterwards, and it would have been fun to see that.  But by then I had already spent hours walking around the 16th Street Mall, a ten block downtown area that was packed with people throughout the convention. (Oh, it seems so empty and lonely now.)  I went to hang out, to watch, to just sit and listen.  I heard some music in the protester’s park and I heard some musical snippets of conversation.  I’ll try to give you a sense of what it was really like at the convention, from someone who was not Important:

On the way to the mall, walking through Denver’s strip of parking lots and office buildings–one lot attendant to another: “The guy got a replacement eyeball and he said he never wanted to  see the person it was  coming from.  He said it just kept lookin at him.”

This set the tone.

The mall is crammed with people.  Not the kinds you’d necessarily imagine.  Some were delegates, easy enough to spot in their suits and conspicuous nametags and their happy grins.  Some were tourists, all ages (especially teenagers) from all over the city, all ethnic types, all shapes, all weaving through and seeming to have a good time.  It is very carnivalesque; a lot of people are drinking from cups, people drinking liquor in the sidewalk cafes, people laughing.  While there is an armed brigade of police in riot gear on every corner, in the middle of every street, literally everywhere, it doesn’t diminish the generally gleeful mood.  People are really happy about the Obama thing.  (Sure the press is full of accounts of disgruntled Hillary people, but they weren’t very obvious about it.  I saw very few Hillary signs, saw very few people looking angry.  Maybe the press assumes that all middle aged women are Hillary supporters?–because there were many middle aged women around, particularly among the delegates, all of them exceedingly well groomed.)  There was a guy on stilts and an Uncle Sam outfit carrying his signs, and a random T-shirt booth trying to pass off the Hillary gear, but other than that….It felt all about unity, man.  Progression, all that good stuff.  The glee was apparent at night when people would stumble out of the clubs, trying to figure out how to find a taxi in North Denver.  It actually did have a feeling of hope.  

Though hope was not particularly apparent in the music that I heard that day.  The street musicians were singing folky songs, but nothing that would offend–nothing that you wouldn’t hear from any standard street musician in any given city.  Like the pan flute–oh, yes, we had one.  And a guy with a clown nose playing Dylan on a harmonica.  You couldn’t really hear the 5 piece doo wop group who sat against a downtown wall that entire day, collecting money for independent musicians (according to their sign).  They were mostly drowned out by the anti-abortion protesters not far from them, who were rather vocal in their disapproval of the Democratic party.  They were the most obnoxious and obtrusive of all the protesters I saw on the street during the convention.  They positioned themselves at an intersection and proceeded to block the sidewalk so that it was nearly impossible to get around them, and thus were forced to actually listen to them.   Another vocal protester was the nutjub who walked down the street chanting “Democrats are Crybabies!!”  He was engaged in vociferous debate with a tidy young man until a police officer strode over to add his views on the matter.  Also drowned out were the clipclops of the horses ridden by some of the officers, who mostly hang out in groups and talked about their horses.  The token German Shepherd was also led around by riot police looking for drugs? bombs?  Once the dog started fiercely barking, sounding like he was tearing off someone’s leg; when I walked past, the officer told another, “I love this dog’s bark, it sounds so ferocious.”  And the dog was just hanging out, not looking particularly threatening, but looking rather German nevertheless.  Occasonally, too, you’d hear the rev of a group of cops racing their motorcycles down the center of the mall (causing consternation among the crowd, who scrambled to grab their children).  Also bullhorns blasting out views of various varieties, most of them conservative, actually.  

“This place has a bad vibe, man,” I heard one teenager say.  

But I did spent quite a lot of time at the center of radical activity, the Civic Center park.  This was where the hippies, the protesters, the rowdy professorial types, the media, the curious set up shop.  Ther e were booths promoting the legalization of pot, booths against the war (of course), booths for animal rights (veganism, anyone), booths selling tshirts and buttons and such of course–maybe 12, 20 booths in all, scattered around the periphery of the park.  There was a bus for Rock the Vote (which never garnered a bit of attention the whole time I was there).  It all felt very sixties and early seventies, as in the days when I went to college at the hippie school (Sangamon State in Illinois) and there would be protests emanating from some of the residents of the nearly communes and from radical faculty and such.  People even dressed the same, had the same beards, but they were young, and so that was strange, that was quite timewarpish.  You’d think that they’d have some new styles, something other than the long hair and braids and peasant skirts, but maybe it’s just that “back to the earth” thing.  I liked the face paint.  Anyway, they were all very quiet, these people, sitting in their little roped off areas playing guitars and singing folk songs and (maybe?) getting high (though with the police presence, maybe not).  They looked a little bored, a little disappointed, because really,  not a lot of protesting was happening, and there weren’t that many of them.  It felt a little lonely somehow.

So I saw a band there.  I’d tell you their name, but I don’t know it, because I didn’t get there at the beginning of the set and they weren’t exactly handing out programs.  These were the free concerts, “for the people,” and they performed in this well area where the acoustics aren’t too bad.  The band was, I believe, a Puerto Rican-American hip hop band from Chicago.  Five or so people who played instruments and sang along with their rapping. And they were pretty good.  They added some flavor, and while I thought I was just observing, I actually got into them.  The listening crowd was pretty sparse–maybe 50 people up front paying close attention and a lot of scattered observers–and so their chants about liberation and the murdering pigs kind of fell flat.  The murdering pigs, by the way, were there, but they stayed far back from the action, hanging out on their bicycles and talking about their lives.  They seemed to be pretty amused by the whole thing, and didn’t rise to the bait.  “You have to be willing to DIE for your beliefs!”  Right.  And it’s true.  Unfortunately, they were being ignored by the authorities at the time, even though I never shook that sense that we were all being watched.  Because we were, and having our pictures taken, too.  I walked around the park area while they were playing, taking in the scene, and I’m posting a few pictures of what I observed there.  Despite my own cynicism, I was taken in by the feel of the thing; it felt important that it be there and people be allowed to say what they felt.  Maybe it was that old sixties laid back feel of optimism and community that I was trying to find.  They were lucky to find it so simple.

The media did outnumber everyone else there.  And I have to say, I found that exciting.  The documentary crews (announced by their shirts, which said Documentary Crew).  The CNN, MsNBC, Associated Press, the unidentified, it was interesting to watch the interplay between them and the people being observed.  It added to the sense of it all being staged, right down to the peace & love (although I know that the kids were sincere).  It felt like something I was watching from a distance.

I left when a performance poet, a really bad one, came on–preceeded by an announcer who said:

“Come to the liberation source!”  (And just where was that again?)

“Art is not free!”  Which was a lead in to:  “Come on out and buy some product!”

Hmm.  You mean over at that Free Trade Booth?

It’s hot as hell and my feet hurt.  It’s starting to get dark and the police are looking ancy; they start challenging some of the people working in a booth; someone, I hear, gets robbed.  Everyone is drooping.  On the way back, a man carrying a Hillary sign is laughed at uproariously by a man in shades sitting in a sidewalk cafe–Hillary guy starts yelling “Chill out!  Chill out, man!”  And the guy laughs louder and louder as the crowd looks at the Hillary guy runs away.  

Even so, it is mostly quiet.  “Freedom ain’t no joke, ya’ll” were the last words I heard from the performance poet.  Mexican workers begin carrying in chairs from the middle of the mall.  The shops begin to close.  The mall empties as people head to the speeches, to the parties, to the food.  I think I even saw Angelina Jolie throwing out her lemonade.