Rich Wilhelm

Archive for June, 2015|Monthly archive page

Two of a Kind? R.E.M. Meets Talking Heads!

In 1980s, 1985, music, Music/Memory on June 10, 2015 at 9:32 pm

Can’t get there from here? That’s because you’re on a road to nowhere!

Thirty years ago today–June 10, 1985–I walked into a record store. I am not absolutely certain, but I think it was the Sounds of Market near 13th and Chestnut, in Center City Philadelphia. Don’t look for it now; it’s long gone.

I walked out of that store with two albums, both just released that day: Little Creatures by Talking Heads and Fables of the Reconstruction by R.E.M. I caught the train and bus home and soon after that, I taped the albums back to back on a cassette tape. I proceeded to spend the summer of 1985 riding buses and trains from deep in Delaware County to the heart of North Philadelphia, listening to that tape on a constant loop.

Little Creatures and Fables of the Reconstruction–or if you prefer, Reconstruction of the Fables (which I don’t)–did not change my life in any major way. But, as the primary soundtrack to the summer of my 20th birthday, both records certainly secured a place in my heart, brain and soul. Three decades later, R.E.M.’s third full-length studio album and Talking Heads’ sixth continue to inspire and beguile me.

Here is what I wrote in my journal on 6/17/85, after I’d had a week to listen to both albums:

The brand new albums by Talking Heads and R.E.M. are both fantastic records. The Heads album seems like a culmination of everything the band has ever done. It has the minimalist new wave approach of the early albums, but many of the songs have retained the funk elements of Speaking in Tongues.

The name of the LP is Little Creatures, an excellent title since at least two of the songs are about children. One of them, “Creatures of Love,” is a country song, which is a real departure for the band.

Fables of the Reconstruction, R.E.M.’s follow-up to Reckoning, is a stunning moody album. It’s similar to the Murmur album in that the sound of the music and the mood it generates is more important than song titles or the lyrics. Fables sounds like it contains a lot of desperation and loneliness.

R.E.M and Talking Heads were already among my musical favorites the day of their dual release, but these two records solidified my love of both bands. I remember how much I loved sinking into the dark and murky atmosphere on Fables–five years later, I’d have the same experience watching the first episode of Twin Peaks. Some fans and critics might have considered it a “grower”–an album you gradually appreciate over many listens–but I completely surrendered to the sound and feel of the album almost immediately. Seeing R.E.M. live later that summer, performing a concert as moody and dark as the album itself, was all I needed: after that, R.E.M. ascended to #1 on my favorite band list and has yet to relinquish that spot, even though the band has retired.

As for Little Creatures, it proved to be more a grower for me than Fables, but perhaps only because the deceptively simple pop songs with rootsy influences threw me for a loop after the funk-influenced sound of their previous two Talking Heads albums. But I grew to love Little Creatures. No other artist captured the way I was starting to look at life as David Byrne did on this record. The simple but odd storytelling, matched with Byrne’s detached irony, seemed like a great way to describe the world as I was seeing it. I still think so, though I gave up irony as a lifestyle choice many years ago.

It’s no wonder that I named my college newspaper column, “Road to Nowhere,” after the final track on Little Creatures. At least one friend asked me why I’d name my column after a song that was so obviously about death. I replied at the time that to me the song, and thus my column, was all about the journey without a destination, etc. Thirty years down the line, I’m thinking that, yeah, “Road to Nowhere” is pretty clearly about death. Of course, since I am now a cemetery tour guide, I guess I’m OK with however the song is interpreted.

I am not into nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia, though this column may indicate otherwise. However, I think we all have cultural moments–albums, movies, books, etc.–that stay fresh for us. We return to these when we need to, maybe sometimes as a form of spiritual renewal. I have spent much of today listening to Fables and Little Creatures, but I have also been very much in the moment of my life right now and both albums were a snug fit for that right now. In fact, I even had a new audio/visual juxtaposition: driving down 15th Street from Girard Avenue in Philadelphia this afternoon, I caught a glimpse of one of my favorite buildings, the magnificent Divine Lorraine Hotel on North Broad Street, as I was hearing “Can’t Get There From Here” from Fables. This was a new combination and I very much enjoyed it. It got some neurons fired up in my brain and that’s a good thing.

So, thanks Chris, Tina, Jerry and David for Little Creatures. And thanks BerryBuckMillsStipe for Fables of the Reconstruction. You created the music for my summer of 1985. And every season since.

Patrick F. O'Donnell

writer, editor, general wordsmith and scribe

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