Morning Music: The Big Country

More Songs About Buildings and Food - The Big CountryStrangely, after yesterday’s morning music, I’ve had “The Book I Read” going through my mind. Catchy tune. Anyway, let’s just move on to the first truly great Talking Heads album, More Songs About Buildings and Food. It’s the one that had a reasonably big hit: their cover Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.” I like it, but I think it succeeds more because of Brian Eno’s production than anything else.

Yesterday, I avoided “Don’t Worry About the Government” — a song that is widely misinterpreted. Today, I want to highlight another song that is widely misinterpreted, “The Big Country.” On it’s surface, it is an attack on rural and suburban America with the chorus, “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.” But if that were the point of the song, it would be trivial — and offensive. It is the view from seven miles up from an elitist who really knows nothing of the people he is — literally and figuratively — looking down on.

It’s only in the third verse that the song gets to the point. The singer lacks a community. His attitude about the way “those people” live their lives has caused him to be cut off. His life lacks meaning. The song is ultimately, an attack on that kind of adolescent rejection of everything that is “normal.” And the singer makes a breakthrough, “I’m tired of traveling; I want to be somewhere.”

It speaks to Byrne’s weakness as a writer that he doesn’t manage to rework the chorus of “The Big Country” to integrate his epiphany. But far worse would have been to simply repeat the chorus. So instead, they go into a coda where he sings, “Goo goo ga ga ga” — which I believe means nothing at all. Still, the song works and the music is beautiful.

8 replies on “Morning Music: The Big Country”

  1. James Fillmore says:

    One of my all-time favorites. Oddly, when the Heads got around to experimenting with country-style music, the results were far inferior to this earlier song. But by then I think they’d stopped getting along.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      I’m not sure who did the slide guitar. I always assume any great production on the album is due to Eno.

      • James Fillmore says:

        Jerry Harrison. From the liner notes to their hits CD:

        “”I was at the house Tina (Weymouth), Chris (Frantz), and I lived in in the Bahamas, practicing the slide part. I was having trouble so I slowed it down so I could play it right. It was a fortuitous necessity as it made the song much better.”

        REM’s song “Don’t Go Back To Rockville” was a rocker that also got slowed down and was better for it.

  2. ross says:

    this song is a response to prairie rose by roxy music which idealizes the “strange allure” of Texas.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      That’s really interesting! But for the umpteenth time: artists do not define meaning. Artistic consumers define meaning. If a songwriter wants to tell me something, they’d better write an essay. Art doesn’t work that way. I’m always so depressed when I hear a songwriter or other artist tell me what they meant by a work of art. If you were to make a list from most insightful to least insightful people to explain what a work of art is, the artist would always be at the bottom. Any artist who can tell you what their art means is a bad artist. Any good artist should end a piece of art thinking that they know it works but not knowing what it means. If they know what it means, they didn’t they just tell us rather than wasting our time with the work of art? Also: the kind of mind that is good at creating art is very rarely the kind of mind that is good at analyzing art.

      • James Fillmore says:

        @Frank, re:artists

        It can get a bit tricky, sometimes. Over the years, I’ve grown to love this song more & more. I’ve always felt inferior and out of place around “hip” people. I dread even seeing my brothers — one of whom lives 30 minutes’ drive away, and is a nice person; I haven’t spoken to him in years. Because, when it comes to an enviable life, I fall short via any conceivable metric.

        “Big Country,” to me, is about embracing Square-dom. The window for being a cool kid with the nifty job and slickest deal on a sublet has long since closed, for me; I have jerk bosses and scummy landlords. And yet, for the first time in my life, I feel like I almost belong, here in the Upper Midwest. The old folks are square, too, but they vote union, and are happy to welcome strangers from other countries. Do I find church-basement Friday fish-fry dinners kinda dorky? Of course I do. Yet there’s something great about them.

        I can pretty much guarantee that Byrne did not intend his lyrics to be uplifting for people who are more comfortable being Square than Hip. So what. I choose to find his song something of a personal anthem, and if he would find me a colossal loser, well, that’s why I don’t eat at Elaine’s with Mr. Byrne.

        I’d probably be comfortable meeting Shane Macgowan, although my liver would flee my abdomen in protest after about three rounds.

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