Periscope Depth

nothing is better than this

There’s a bald guy with a scraggly beard who sits at the bus station outside the Boston Public Library most afternoons. He makes popping and clicking sounds with his mouth. He doesn’t appear to me making them at anyone – not the ck-ck of the cartoon wolf leering at a dame in a checkered skirt. He just sits there and makes sounds. It’s something we’ve all done as four-year-olds or in the privacy of our bathrooms: experimenting with the sounds that the human body can produce. But this guy does it every day. The man’s clearly mentally challenged in some way. You can tell because he spends all afternoon making noises that entertain him, instead of putting on a tie and going into and out of an office.

I thought of this when I saw David Byrne on the big screen in the Somerville Theater‘s showing of Stop Making Sense this past Wednesday. Byrne plays his music without the conscious affectation of other artists. The look on his face as he bounces and bops through his music straddles the line between religious ecstasy and animal terror. He’s continually amazed at what he sounds like. And what’s amazing is that the results aren’t garbage. They are, in fact, catchy and moving and good. How do you come up with a song like “Psycho Killer”? What musical tradition does that tap into? How do you convince yourself that “fa-fa-fa-fa, fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa” is a legitimate chorus? And how did you convince me of that?

That lack of self-consciousness translates to the rest of the band as well. Steve Scales sticks his tongue out at the camera. The backup singers jog in place. Tina Weymouth bops back and forth in tune with her bass rhythm. Everyone experiments with what feels right. Everything is weird and exploratory. Nothing seems to have a Grand, Implicit Purpose behind it. David Byrne doesn’t don an oversized suit as some deep metaphor about the hollowness of corporate America. He dons an oversized suit because a skinny guy in a big suit looks weird. The most casual movements become stylized.

Not all art needs to be this trippy. But I’m glad there is, or was, a place for it.