#345: Talking Heads, "Stop Making Sense" (1984)

A few years after Stop Making Sense was born, I was.

Before that, as my senses started to sharpen, I was thrown around inside my happy mother, dancing and singing to her favorite band, Talking Heads. I came into the world instantly comforted by the sound of David Byrne’s voice, like the coo of another parent. The tickle of sounds produced by Jerry Harrison, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth must have felt as familiar as the percussion of my mother’s heartbeat—as the strum of breath and laughter.

A few years after I was born, my brother Gabriel was. Though my parents aren’t religious people, he wasn’t named by accident.

Gabriel was born less than a year after the death of my sister—he gave my family the first breath of joy we were able to take in a long time. During his childhood, he made sense of how wheels work by playing with wooden trains; he stared out the window in his car seat, asking how Christmas wreaths were attached to 30-foot light posts; he studied sharks and dove into other obsessions, collecting facts about the world to make sense of how it worked. Though he’s traded trains and sharks for other questions, he’s still making inquiries of order.

The six years I lived before Gabriel was born feel like a life separate from this one. When he was born, we became a new family, with a different order—different members. I think of this when I consider the differences Gabriel and I have in approaching the world—that maybe the only way a six year old could experience the death of a sibling was emotionally—that maybe I’ve never known how to approach anything any other way since. And maybe because Gabriel was born into the shadow of that loss, he worked out another kind of logistics. But as I’ve gotten older, I realize it is more than our experience that makes us move differently through our lives. That Gabriel was born wondering, asking questions and taking every inquiry seriously.

These variations in us have sometimes frustrated me. Growing up, I have wanted straight-forward affirmation and love from him. I have wanted him to be able to see the wooden train and love instinctually before he figured out how it worked, measuring its worth. I have wanted him to experience the loud range of emotions that have made my version of this world appear in technicolor—but those are colors you can’t see, can’t categorize. But mostly: I have just wanted him to love me as much, irrationally and unreasonably, as I love him. Every time I have ever looked at him, I have felt before thought.

Despite the differences in our experience and our nature, Gabriel and I share Talking Heads. Whether we learned to love the music that colored our childhoods or inherited it from our parents, we have this in common.

I often listen to Talking Heads and try to make sense of why it calls to Gabriel. The lyrics, appealing to his love of the ironic, require the investigation so natural to him. And they’re just really good. In our childhood home, we grew up dancing frantically to Talking Heads. As we’ve gotten older, dancing has become the most natural expression of love. Physically, he is not far off from David Byrne—their long, bony limbs look jointless when they dance—like they’re filled with water. And though when we grab each other by the elbows and jump, we are often singing the lyrics to “Psycho Killer” or “Life During Wartime” to each other, this is our sibling love language.

When I’m not around him, which is most of the time now, I listen to his favorite Talking Heads songs, searching for some answers in the lines or some kind of Morse Code message in the drum beat. Among my brother’s favorites is “Burning Down the House”—one of his favorite lyrics: “dreams walking in broad daylight.” I play out different ideas of what that may mean to him. Maybe a spotlight on the unconscious? Maybe materialized desires, or fears? I have spent a lot of time trying to extract his emotional life from such few words.

Another of his favorites—my favorite—is “This Must Be the Place.” I imagine him listening to it in his dorm room as I listen to it in my apartment 300 miles away. Us both singing along to the opening line: Home is where I want to be.

I don’t mean to say that my brother doesn’t experience emotion—that is grossly inaccurate. And I also don’t mean that I don’t ask questions and expect to spend my life in wonderment, as evident here. I think it’s just that I want to see logic move aside from time to time. And I do: when we dance to Talking Heads, I do. I am just greedy for his happiness—and to bear witness to it.

On this day, March 21, Gabriel was born. I wonder often if he realizes that he saved us on that day twenty-one years ago. When my mother went into labor, my grandparents picked me up from my kindergarten classroom. I remember running down the hall of my elementary school in light-up tennis shoes to meet him. As vivid as a six year old’s imagination is, he was, and is, so much better than I could have imagined.

I picture him now, with the quiver of “This Must Be the Place” in his earbuds, walking from one philosophy class to the next, where he works to make sense of this world he was born into. I wonder if he realizes that he is still saving us, but I hope he doesn’t preoccupy himself with that.

In less than a week, we’ll both be heading home to celebrate his birthday. At some point, our parents will put on Stop Making Sense. We’ll turn it up so loud that we won’t even be able to hear each other singing: “Love me ‘til my heart stops, love me ‘til I’m dead!” We’ll only break when at the end of each song, the crowd cheers.

—Elise Burke