A few minutes before we left the house I put on the 7” of Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads. (I had bought it for a quid in Missing Records in Glasgow a couple of days before).Then on the way down to the gig I had the song in my head and I said to my two companions: ‘Could Once in a Lifetime be the best song ever?’ They thought either I was just pulling their legs or that the question was ridiculous because they just laughed and said nothing. I guess Once in a Lifetime is one of my favourite songs (‘…the band in Heaven, they play my favorite song, play it once again, play it all night long…’). So, although the question was pretty daft, I still think it might be worth considering the song (if not the question) in more detail. I am going to take the long way round.
This is partly brought on by some recent reading – all of which I have, more or less, struggled through (though not without reward). One is Greil Marcus’s book The Doors; A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years. This is a fairly feverish and obsessive examination of fragments of the Doors output, songs, albums, films and live performances, the latter filtered through bootleg recordings. The second book is one of a series that invites fevered obsession. This is Jonathan Lethem’s analysis, song by song, of Remain in Light, number 86 in the run of books called 33 1/3. The last book that brought on this attempt at the close reading of one song is How Music Works by the co-writer of Once in a Lifetime, David Byrne. (And, in passing, why does this book have padded covers? Is it an obscure reference to sound-proofing or are we supposed to think that the book is an objet-deluxe in the surrealist tradition? Maybe it is ironic.) I say I have struggled through these books and it is probably worth saying briefly why I have had difficulties with each of them.
In the case of The Doors I am just not convinced that Jim Morrison carries the cultural weight that Greil Marcus (and, for that matter, Oliver Stone) suggests. Though I have enjoyed much of the Doors music since I first heard it there was always the hint of burlesque and the ridiculous about Morrison. Lethem’s book is convoluted and writerly and often hard to follow in its loops and complexities. But I have not read his books apart from this so I cannot profess any expertise about his work generally. David Byrne’s book irritated me in two ways that bothered me less as I read on. First was the folksy tone…as if he was still stuck in the voice of True Stories. The other was that he says that he is not doing the Talking Heads story but that is exactly what he does in the opening section of the book. There is nothing wrong with this…he was in the band after all…but his declaration struck me as disingenuous. Enumerating these problems makes me think it is likely that, at best, I will replicate some of them here. Who knows?
‘Well, how did I get here?’ I suppose this is the line in the song that gets me…I use it all the time (at least in my head) as if it were some blindingly obvious life fact that we end up where we are through a series of accidents and that an infinity of other possibilities are out there somewhere. This is only-just-philosophy and it is good to remember that Once in a Lifetime is just a pop song after all, and yet…there is something succinct about this statement. ‘Letting the days go by’ is how we live…oh no, I’m slipping into the ‘what do the lyrics mean’ mode and I really want to avoid this. I wondered if it might be possible to talk about a song in some other way, especially as I do not possess the resources to discuss it in terms of its musical construction.
So it’s a song about futility and potential (‘remove the water from the bottom of the ocean’, ‘time isn’t holding us’). It juggles pessimism and optimism, it sits on the fence and then falls off it, it vacillates. You’ve got to grab the chance that comes up once in a lifetime but you’ll end up living in a shotgun shack. That was ok for Elvis Presley…he ended up behind the wheel of a large automobile with a beautiful wife, with a beautiful home in Memphis (‘home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks’ [sic]). All that water…it slips through our fingers, unstoppable like time itself but the flow gets interrupted by this great riff…shuckdun-k-k-dundundun (or is it more smoother than those ks would suggest?)…then it re-gathers into itself and streams on eddying as it goes, mixing word and sound. Of course there is water at the bottom of the ocean – there is water everywhere. Even our bodies are 57% water. That water is holding us down. And when we are dead, after the money’s gone, we go back to the water. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, water to water. ‘Here comes the twister’ Toto…well, air to air. It can hurt you too.
These free-floating connections don’t explain why it is such a great song (is it?). How about this: ‘It somehow linked the abiding earth to the sense that we live, nowadays, in a TV set whose channel was constantly being changed’. (James Kaplan, quoted in fa fa fa fa fa fa, David Bowman, 2001)?. Or this: ‘Its lyrics evoke a sense of bafflement, a process of self-reflection that combines everyday routine with a feeling of spiritual panic’? Or this about the whole of the album ‘Remain in Light’: ‘It is music that confronts time, not in the domain of musical composition, but in the domain of the mass media’ (both Song and Circumstance, Sytze Steenstra, 2010)?
I thought I would take another tack on testing its greatness by listening to cover versions on Spotify:
The Bad Shepherds. A folksy version with inexplicable slightly altered lyrics.
Jacqui Naylor. So jazzy it actually mashes up OIAL with Weather Report’s Birdland.
The Boys. Inebriated acapella (really…the album is called ‘The Drunk Album’)
Barb Jungr. Flutes, cascading keyboard, an orchestra. MOR.
The Exies. Begins as a countrified acoustic rendition then throws in some heavy power chords to cover some more bases.
Mit Logarhyms. Slightly electronic with something that sounds a bit whip-like a la The Legend of Xanadu. Why not?
Chico Mann. Re-invented as a disco classic.
Wasis Diop. In Wolof with percussion and a female backing group. This one turns up on a Starbucks CD apparently and it is kind of ok. In Wolof the title is DeFaal Lu Wor.
Blind Corn Liquor Pickers. The bluegrass version.
Largely these cover versions hold no water. But then this one turns up:
Plumbline. Bored-to-death breathy delivery – two identical voices split between left and right channels and out of sync. It reminded me of Cristina singing the chorus of Is That All There Is? Perhaps incorrectly – but it is always worth listening to this song too. This one, apart from sounding great, adds a new reading of the song by stripping it all back and replacing Byrne’s frantic delivery with world-weariness.
Then there are the ‘tribute bands’ versions: Studio Sunset, Burning Down the House, Modern Rock Players, Saturday Night at the Movies and the Ta-Ta’s (sic).
I planned to make a Spotify playlist of these but who would listen? Not even me. So between the original and Plumbline there are two really good versions out there even before we start counting various live performances by Talking Heads:
The Name of this Band is Talking Heads. Sun Plaza Hotel, Tokyo. 27. ii. 81. CD reissue.
Stop Making Sense. LP, film and CD
Remain in Light. CD/DVD re-issue (Surround Yourself with Talking Heads). Rockpop German TV appearance, 1980.
And probably hundreds of bootlegs.
In live performance shukdun-k-k-dundundun tends to come out as dun-k-k-dundundun. And I’ve got one version the origin of which is obscure where Byrne sings in a variety of silly cartoon voices…someone out there knows where this comes from but I don’t. Actually the riff is so strong and the repeated phrases so persistent that there is not all that much difference between the live performances though they tend to lack the layered, collage-like form of the studio version.
Oh yes…and there is this one too:
On Soundcloud if you type in Once in a Lifetime as a title it comes up with ‘250+’ tracks….probably lots of these are different songs entirely but I have no intention of finding out. There are other tunes out there and this lifetime is too short.
This meandering reflection has not. I feel, got me (us?) anywhere nearer knowing what is really good about Once in a Lifetime. And right now I need to get the song out of my head. Same as it ever was.