Ode to The Big Country

In the autumn of the first quarantine year, I became friends with my neighbor––real friends. I’d vaguely known her since middle school, but I’d always thought of her as the boisterous theater kid, whereas I’d been shyer, more tentative. In short, we never hit it off back then. However, in late August of 2020, we were practically the only college-aged people in our suburban Maryland neighborhood. With nothing but time on our hands, it felt like we had no choice but to become intimately acquainted with each other.

Before long, the two of us organized our lives around each other’s miniscule errands. For instance, whenever she needed a haircut, she would call me up and I’d end up accompanying her to the appointment (what else was there to do?). The first time this happened, she came to my porch afterwards and complained about how she couldn’t “believe that the hairdresser had fucked up this badly,” and how weird was it that she “kind of looked like a member of the Rolling Stones.” Often we’d take long night walks together. She taught me to appreciate the distinct synthetic beauty of a golf course.

Compared to our peers who were jet-setting or working full-time internships, our gap semester plans were relatively undefined. For my part, I’d just gotten out of a serious relationship back in college and still had not a clue what I was going to major in. I was serving as an assistant for a law professor, which often meant deleting commas from her book or finding obscure articles in recesses of the Internet I’d otherwise never touch. My friend was taking time off from theater school and considering becoming a “governess” for a rich family, making sandwiches and supervising their Zoom “pod” of remote learners. To mask the strangeness of this pivot, she often joked that being an elementary school teacher and a theater director were effectively the same job. 

Perhaps we could have taken comfort in the lately-popularized idea that chronic inactivity was some sort of radical stand against capitalism. But that felt like bullshit to both of us, who knew perfectly well that lazy afternoons in our parents’ homes wasn’t exactly rebelling against the System. Mostly, we clung to goals that we knew were arbitrary. We obsessed over lists of books, movies, and songs we wanted to consume, or fixated on people we missed.

Strangely enough, though, all that seeking and searching isn’t what I recall most vividly. Maybe it’s just the distortionary power of memory, but, looking back, I remember feeling a real sense of contentment during that period. I think it’s because my friend is good at making gratitude a practice. I don’t mean that in a New Age, self-help kind of way. I simply mean that she is skilled at allowing other people the grace to be who they are, and at letting important moments unfold without needing to control their meaning. One chilly autumn afternoon, she told me that she had become interested in artists who defied narrative structure, who knew that the real story of the world had slipped away before they could put words to it, and who laughed at their own attempts to make sense of things. This resonated, perhaps because the arc of my own life had started to seem so blurry. 

Unsurprisingly, this interest of hers brought us to the Talking Heads’ discography. The two of us came to think of David Byrne’s lyrics as the ultimate model for how we wanted to see the world, or at least our time off from college. Her favorite song was (and still is) “The Big Country,” a track that covers the experience of traveling and looking out at the cities and towns passing below. She once told me that the song’s industrial symbols––factories, baseball fields, parkways that link urban centers––-comforted her. At a time when the world felt so fragmented, it made sense to find solace in the infrastructure that connects people, even when we couldn’t see it.

I think of that song now, too, when I look out of the window on the train or when I pull up to the gas station––moments where I might otherwise feel alienated by the sheer volume of people I will never know.  “The Big Country” is a song about longing for comfort in the faces of strangers, but in Talking Heads’ characteristic style, Byrne masks this under a blanket of sarcasm. As he observes a rural town from a bird’s-eye view, he assumes the condescending tone of an American coastal elite: “I couldn’t do the things the way those people do/I couldn’t live there if you paid me to.” When he sings “paid me to,” his already-abrasive voice has turned to a yelp. (Byrne once famously said that “the better a singer’s voice, the harder it is to believe what they’re saying.”)

In the last line, Byrne ironically contradicts the purpose of the song itself, saying, “It’s not even worth talking about those people down there.” It is difficult, impossible even, to convey the sense of motion and life within a faraway place, so Byrne pretends to give up. Those who love his work, though, know that he has not really given up at all. Rather, this song, like all of his best, is about reverence—for people and moments that cannot be historicized or explained. 

Many of Talking Heads’ less famous songs delve further into absurdity, into narrativelessness, and those are delightful in their own way. Admittedly, though, we also loved their two most popular songs. “Once in a Lifetime” is about not understanding how you’d arrived at your own life, with your particular wife and house and automobile. We had no wives or houses or automobiles, but the lyrics felt weirdly applicable, and she and I liked to repeat “how did I get here” in our best robot voices whenever we felt confused or overwhelmed. “This Must Be the Place” also evokes uncertainty. Byrne himself said it was “made up almost completely of non sequiturs.” He acknowledged that he was hopelessly improvisational, that he didn’t know how long an era of his life would last, that he was scared to talk about his joy for fear that it would disintegrate before his eyes. Still, the two of us lived by it, because it was also a song about that rare moment when you realize that you already have everything you’ve been so desperately trying to find. 

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