Let’s see how many times I can sneak a lyric into a single post.
Even if you’re not familiar with the Talking Heads, you’ve probably encountered the lyrics glowing on neon signs, woven into door mats, and/or painted onto various forms of wall art. The song is played at weddings, birthday parties, potlucks, and any other event celebrating life and community. During one of their tours, the band found themselves playing it outside of a 24-hour wedding chapel in Las Vegas because SO many people wanted to get married to it. The best part about it, David Byrne has admitted that he never intended for it to be a love song.
This song has transcended across musical genres, even by the jam bands who turn 4-minute songs into 14-minute covers because clearly, they love the passing of time. I’m convinced there isn’t a single person in the world that has listened to it and said “absolutely not.” It’s been covered so many times that even if you don’t like a specific version, you still have countless other variations to choose from. This song is arguably the most popular Talking Heads song, but its also still one of my favorite songs by them. We usually reject songs that are considered “mainstream,” but it has always felt a little silly to me, even though I’m also guilty of that rejection.
Music becomes mainstream when it resonates with a significant number of listeners. Something about the song makes enough people want to dance, either with their entire body or just through subtle movements like bobbing our heads, and/or tapping our fingers or toes. Sometimes it’s the lyrics, or lack of, that strikes us on an emotional level. I have a whole playlist dedicated to songs that made me cry, you know, for those times when you desperately just want to cry. We’ve all encountered a song that felt as if the words were written just for us.
Isn’t that such a special experience? We cannot hold a song in our hands, but music is often the best gift a person can receive. Our relationship with music will always be fluid because our connection to art will always vary depending on the context. We create playlists for others as a way of letting them into our worlds without a map. Human beans are beyond complex, but we’re also so simple and cute. We listen to songs because they have the ability to transport us back to a certain time, connection, or experience that we shared, either with ourselves or another person. These little associations are often kept as secrets with ourselves because we often do not have the language to explain them.
Sidebar: I’m really excited to share my association with the song Mambo #5 because it’s probably the most unexpected song to appear in my “songs that make me cry” playlist.
Okay, back to This Must Be The Place. Even without diving into the lyrics of the song, you can’t help but shimmy your shoulders or nod your head after the first couple of seconds. I know that it’s impossible for me not to smile when it comes on. I’ve listened to several covers of the song, there’s even a playlist on my Spotify that I created where I compiled every cover, and every version is beautiful in its own way. Some folks might resonate more with String Cheese Incidents’ cover, some might prefer Scott Bradley version.
My job recently hung up a neon sign with these lyrics in the window behind the bar. We’re a whole cast of Talking Heads fans so the new decor fits right in! I’ve been working in restaurants for over a decade and sometimes, I forget just how special these little spaces can be, even when you’re elbow-deep in mojito tickets or stuck explaining how the the chili is not a salad but it is, in fact, a chili. Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant understands the pressure of being in the weeds, but we also recognize that being weeded is not an infinite state of being. I really like where I work – There’s an ebb and flow to the rushes, but at any given time, the convergence of MIT brainiacs, Ivy League students, tech workers, and other industry folks all lined up around the bar makes the experience consistently inconsistent in the most beautiful way. I find comfort in seeing all the various sparks of conversation happening all around the bar. Bar banter is unique because its impossible to tell where the conversation will go, we’re all just making it up as we go along. With this in mind, seeing everything behind the bar illuminated by the soft, rose-tinted glow of the lyrics is a necessary reminder that even though home is where I want to be, the people around me are simply looking to share the same space for a minute or two and theres something undeniably special about that.
There are certain songs that have one specific association, and then there are some that feel as if they’ve acquired layers upon layers of nostalgia, kinda like sedimentary sentimental layers in our own little personal grand canyons. This is one of the songs that have several associations, but the most defining one took place over the course of one of the more stressful, yet transformative two months of my life. After leaving Indonesia in 2016, I traveled north into Southeast Asia and eventually ended up in Vietnam. I didn’t have much planned aside from countless bowls of pho, I don’t think I’ll ever be the type to organize a travel itinerary, but sometimes my spur-of-the-moment spontaneity leads to some… interesting decisions. On my third day, I impulsively bought a motorcycle from some Danish backpackers. I never had a motorcycle, but as the daughter of an ex-motorcycle lobbyist, the loud, rumbling of exhaust pipes and the smell of motor oil was woven into the background of my childhood. Motorcycles were significant part of my younger years, although I found comfort riding on the back of them, and had countless opportunities to learn, I was always too afraid to operate one on my own.
As soon as I bought the bike, I had one of those “oh shit… what did I just do” moments. I was terrified of riding it, especially in Vietnam where traffic feels like a labyrinth of chaos. The roads in Ho Chi Minh City are a whirlwind of cars, motor bikes, lorries, animals, people with carts, and the occasional bicycle. Even before entering Vietnam, I heard wild stories about motorcycle adventures, hostel banter always led to a group of bikers comparing muffler burns or scars caused by road rash. I heard horror stories about being driven off the road, roadside breakdowns resulting in costly repairs, cows, and being stranded underneath trees while waiting out torrential downpours of rain and thunder.
^ after two months, I gained stories of my own that include all of the above.
At first, I felt stuck in-between deciding to learn how to ride, and accepting defeat by immediately selling it to another backpacker. As the world’s most stubborn human, I knew that there was no way I’d be able to sell it because that would mean the English guy from my second day who told me it was dumb idea because “I wouldn’t make it out of Ho Chi Minh City” was right. I met a couple who was planning to drive North a few days later and I really wanted a group to go with so, I set a nightly alarm for 2am and spent the next ~3 nights learning how to shift gears and make turns while also getting used to the inevitable, unexpected road obstructions. Ho Chi Minh City never sleeps, but being driving around by myself at that hour felt like I was on my own intimate date with this foreign city. I couldn’t tell if I was overwhelmed by fear or excitement, I think it was a mix of the two and the feeling never really went away because after two months, I still couldn’t tell one from another.
Long story short – riding a motorcycle was terrifying BUT I learned how to embrace the fear and turn the experience into one of the best chapters of my life. Whether I was driving through the chaos of Vietnamese cities, or dodging potholes on mountainous roads lacking any clear signage, I found myself singing Talking Heads songs. I used to joke around about how I started my own solo Talking Heads cover somewhere in between HCMC and DaLat. I’m not really sure why I chose them to become the background of my journey, but ya know, being a human is always full of surprises. There was something comforting about (attempting to) overcoming my fear using music that I loved as some sort of grounding technique. I may have just fallen off my bike while driving up a hill that was too steep for my little 150cc engine, but at least I knew that I had plenty of time, and that there was still light in my eyes.
I made several connections throughout that trip with other terrified motorcyclists. I’ve never been an adrenaline-chasing daredevil, and I definitely wasn’t the only one who made the decision even though it was wildly out of character. I loved asking people how they managed to distract themselves from the fear and I learned that every person had their own method. Some people chose to count to 100 over and over again, one person tried to name every country, everyone had their own away and mine happened to be creating my own solo Talking Heads cover band.
Learning how to ride a motorcycle was scary, there is no denying that. I also remember being a child on a motorcycle, there was still a sense of fear but comfort was in knowing someone else was controlling the wheel (handlebars?). It wasn’t possible for me to ride on the back because I was the adult this time. The entire experience was scary and exciting, but I suppose that’s how I feel everyday as an adult navigating the world around me. I understand that the context is very different – the fear of riding a motorcycle that seconds away from breaking down through a foreign country with strangers is vastly different from my fear of certain social situations, centipedes, and or getting doored on my bicycle. Regardless of the context, fear and excitement are capable of bringing us outside of our bodies, or so it feels. I’ve learned the best way for me to return is to ground myself to something tangible or related to the senses. Making a solo Talking Heads cover band from within my helmet was not a conscious decision, but I’m happy I did. I think there’s something really endearing about my decision to distract myself from the fear by simply vibing to This Must Be The Place from underneath my helmet.
I have one vivid memory of losing the three people I drove with on one really long, low-traffic stretch of road. The road was beautiful, even when there was not an actual road to drive on. I remember looking ahead at construction signs warning drivers about the absence of pavement. I felt a shiver through every cell in my body as my bike hit the gravel causing the wheels to momentarily lose traction and like clockwork, my body tried to sooth the fear by singing “Home is where I want to be…”
So, if This Must Be The Place, or really any Talking Heads song, is playing, and you start to notice me drifting in and out of conversation, this is where I’ll be.