Seeing The Light
The art room at Springfield High School (Springfield, Illinois) circa 1983 was a safe zone within the scheduled days and regulated mobility of public school life, at least for a young art-punk wannabe. It was two rooms in the basement of the sprawling, three-story building, and it existed outside the laws of public schooling in no small part due to an art teacher who ignored those laws; it was a place where you could skip classes without leaving the building, it had its own exit that accessed “smoker’s alley,” and in a very segregated, very Midwestern capital city, it became a place where teens of different races might on occasion cross paths without guidance or authority.
In the second room, hidden behind the main one, you could—if you were the first one in—set up a boom box and, for a short while, feel like you weren’t at school. Sometimes the Deadheads got there first, sometimes the pop kids with their sanitized “new wave” (i.e., the Police), but more often than not no one dared do so, as if we knew not to take too much advantage of our tiny liberties.
Such divides, of course, are everything in high school. Music defines the tribes. And so it was, one morning, when I walked in and the only person in the room, a black kid, older than me I thought and whose name I didn’t know, was playing a mix. From the two round speakers on his oversized player floated a familiar, almost angelic voice over an incessant, tinny beat. “I’m in hea-ven / with my boyfriend, my laughing boyfriend.”
This rang with the recognition of a major moment, not just for me but for adolescent humanity. He was playing the Tom Tom Club! There was suddenly the potential to reach across a racial canyon stretching from the city’s east side to the west.
But I had to play it right. I couldn’t act like he didn’t know what he was listening to and I certainly couldn’t appear eager. I had to play it cooler than cool. I opted for a bit of nonchalant lip-syncing while setting up my paper and Cray-Pas.
My fellow student, this large, dark-skinned near-man who in all honesty I might have avoided outside the bubble of the art room, caught it immediately. He laughed hard and in disbelief. “Aw shit, you know this shit?” I said, “yeah,” with the matter-of-fact of-course-ness of a true cool cat. I was tempted to go on about the musicians mentioned in the song that I also knew (Bootsy Collins, Kurtis Blow, James Brown), avoiding the ones I didn’t (Bohannon must be a band, right?), but no, remember, keep it cool. We worked in silence, his mix blasting in the empty classroom.
The next morning I found him again in the art room. The boom box was in place but not turned on. Perfect. I’d brought my own cassette with me. I asked if I could put something on. “Go ‘head, man.” Click and a weird marching guitar emanated from the speakers, then three ghostly synthesizer notes, a pounding bass drum, a throaty yell, a briskly-strummed acoustic guitar and we were off.
My new friend whose name I never learned laughed again. He knew the song, of course. Everyone knew “Burning Down the House” that year. My Talking Heads had become ubiquitous in the heartland. “You’re into this?” he asked. That was all I needed—the music geek in me had been summoned and released. Talking Heads he knew but “Genius of Love” was just a song to him. He didn’t know of Tom Tom Club and didn’t know that it was a Talking Heads’ rhythm (“No shit, they white?”). It was a simple, and short, conversation but it didn’t at the time feel shallow. It was talking about race and across race lines, even if none of it was stated.
Talking Heads weren’t the first interracial pop band; the Specials and the Two-Tone movement had already made mixed-race lineups de rigeur in the 1970s. Before them was Sly and the Family Stone, the Rat Pack, and dozens of doo-wop groups.But Talking Heads seemed different. They weren’t people of different races from the same neighborhood. They didn’t grow up together. The original (and very white) quartet—David Byrne, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth, and Chris Frantz (the latter two being the husband/wife rhythm section that formed the also-mixed-race Tom Tom Club)—was building something, something that wasn’t just interracial, but worldly. On 1979’s Fear of Music, they introduced African influences with five additional percussionists on the song “I Zimbra.” The following year, they released the album Remain in Light, further expanding the band’s instrumentation, demographics, and influences. Byrne’s lyrics, as well, began to shift from neurotic New Yorker toward a more cosmopolitan eye. By 1983’s Speaking in Tongues, they had become, it seemed at the time, global both in scope and acclaim.
All of this came back to me during a concert in August at Lincoln Center Out of Doors. The remarkable singer Angelique Kidjo, from the nation of Benin, performed a reworking of Remain in Light from the context of her West African origins. But it wasn’t just the music that had changed. Where Byrne had been hesitant, nervous in his embodiment of the songs, Kidjo was confident, almost heroic. She brought it full cycle, from the old, African records that initially inspired Byrne and company to the Afro-new wave funk the Heads created to the rhythms being boldly and respectfully reclaimed. For a wonderful seventy-five minutes or so, it seemed like those divides between continents—or between sides of town—might actually be crossed.
KURT GOTTSCHALK writes fiction and about music for various publications, hosts the Miniature Minotaurs show on WFMU, and struggles with a variety of stringed instruments.