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  • Writer's pictureJamie Varley

Strange, But Not a Stranger

The Album

Stop Making Sense

Talking Heads knew they had something big on their hands in the leadup to Stop Making Sense (heck, they financed the $1.2M film on their own), but nobody could imagine the match they were about to set to the music, and the blossoming music television industry.

Talking Heads broke into the new wave scene in 1977 with their debut, aptly titled Talking Heads: 77. Their early music was gleeful, quirky, and awkward, and distinctively captivating in a thrilling New York music scene. David Byrne, the lead of the band especially so. He had a wailing voice and the perspective of someone in the dead centre looking around, jumping between stories and perspectives. His questioning of the human experience defined many of the Talking Heads highlights, assessing emotion like a computer that was programmed with slightly too much emotion and struggling to understand why it felt so irrationally sometimes.

The band put out albums spanning from catchy to classic over the next 7 years, but it would be while promoting their fifth album, Speaking In Tongues, that they teamed up with burgeoning director Jonathan Demme for their first live movie. Demme’s films excelled in capturing the depth of characters through nothing more than focusing on each in isolation, with trademark closeups revealing more about characters than their lines, none more notably than Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal seven years later.

Filmed at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre over 4 nights, Stop Making Sense exploded into one the most revered concert albums of all time and the defining moment in one of America’s most influential bands’ career. Much of the setlist were songs were reimagined from previous albums but with a newfound breath of life and animation through the energy on the stage and the bolder arrangements and accompaniments.

The lyrics, the instrumentation, and especially the performance of this album are absolutely like nothing before or after them. David Byrne’s performance grips you for a nail-biting ride, over the sound of urgent machine gun guitars, African drums, funky basslines (Byrne steals the show in the film, but Tina Weymouth is a hell of a sidekick), and data-crunching synthesizers. Byrne effortlessly dances around the stage, each movement feeding off the specific energy from the song blasting out of his nine-person band.

And the suit, the iconic baggy suit. In a decade of iconic getups, from Bowie to Elton to MJ, the oversized suit Byrne introduces for “Girlfriend Is Better” (and the jiggling he makes swimming it, reminiscent of Spiderman’s Kingpin deflating like a balloon animal) have a special place in music lore, combatting the “brutalist, anti-fashion” style of the upperclassmen in the Oliver Stone Wall Street era.

This film, and its enthusiastic soundtrack are now bigger than life, but really this was a band trying to capture a moment in time through an exceptional live performance. While it is stuff of legends now, the energy and creativity have become the blueprint for countless artists and performance since.


The Food

Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup

Grilled cheeses are as classic as they come. They are in the arsenal of anyone who has a fridge and a stove, but for a creation so simple, everybody has their own take on how to make them. By no means is this the by-all-end-all recipe, but a formula, or more a routine, that I have stuck with for years and has brought me countless bites of comfort and bliss.

Even for the most adventurous eaters, there is no more perfect take on a grilled cheese than three ingredients: bread, cheese, and butter. That’s it. The fat from bacon drowns out the cheese, spicy mayo changes the complexion far too much, and tomatoes make them taste too healthy. However, some well dipped ketchup on the crusts of the bread are always welcomed.

Cover the bread (and not the pan) in room temperature butter until every corner your bread looks like it’s been coated in sunscreen for a day on the beach. Slice the cheese into thick logs, and remember the cardinal rule that nobody ever regretted putting too much cheese on their sandwich.

Heat the skillet – preferably cast iron – over medium heat. Some folks like their sandwiches blackened, but for the complexion of a perfectly golden campfire marshmallow, stick to medium, and if the pan begins to smoke over then remove it from heat, check your Instagram, and try again a few minutes later.

Place the not-yet-grilled cheese on the skillet and prepare yourself for the pleasant hiss of the butter on heat. Give the top bun an occasional press to squeeze any cheese out the sides. Give it around a minute and a half to two minutes, using the spatula to take a peek at the warming underbelly, and flip when ready. Place on a plate, cut diagonally (necessary), and enjoy!

For the tomato soup, make sure you have a blender or a food processor, and if not, do yourself a favour and buy a can of it. I’ve tried this recipe without a way to blend the tomatoes, and a chunky tomato soup is a soup never again welcome in my home. Melt butter over medium heat and drop in a chopped yellow or Spanish onion, coat in the butter, and cook slowly for 20 minutes, avoiding browning. When the onions are soft, add flour to thicken the mixture.

Roughly chop vine-ripe tomatoes, keeping the juices. Add to the pot with chicken broth, salt and pepper generously, and add a small spoonful of sugar to balance out the tart of the tomatoes. Boil over medium heat to combine juices, then let the mixture settle over low heat for around 30 minutes.

Now comes the messy part that any kid in you will love. Let the mixture cool to roughly room temp. Take the mixture and add to a blender or food processor, blend till pureed, and expect your kitchen to look like a grade 2 art class. Add the soup back to the pot and cook until warm again, and serve with a splash of half-and-half cream. Voila!


The Experience

I took the afternoon off yesterday and spent it at a Basquiat exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Art. I’d always been familiar of Basquiat (my deep love of music sprouted from my upbringing on early hip hop culture, to which Basquiat was an inseparable figure), but had never seen his work live.

What I startled me about his work was the energy it conveyed. I had never seen a static, two-dimensional piece of work and feel the buzz radiating off it. As I had seen it, the foundation of art is often capturing every aspect of a single moment, in complete stillness, like blinking your eyes and holding a snapshot in your mind’s eye. What I saw yesterday was the opposite: it was boiling the energy of a time, or a period, and everything that led up to it, and everything that followed, into a single image. The vitality was tangible, even transformative, with each of his pieces on display informing like an entire documentary. The art distilled the feeling of an era into a moment, instead of capturing a single moment of an era.

Stop Making Sense is an experience similar to a Basquiat masterpiece. It captures an era in 90 minutes. The 80s were about bigger than life personalities and outfits. Technology was more prominent with the rise of the personal computer, and began making its way into music, often with novel use as an instrument. Distrust in the way the world worked led to the defiance of conformity, as youth were beginning to express themselves in new ways, with weirdness becoming originality. "A decade of revolution and renewal”, embodied into a single album.

Today, there is still a comfort and a familiarity with this album. When “Psycho Killer” comes on, everybody knows the words and dances along, and it still feels underplayed. The album was and is very progressive, but not in a way that turns people off, managing an impossibly tricky balance that is the single most important recipe to everlasting commercial success. This album sounds so 80s but feels so ahead of its time.

The meal has a similar timeless, but eternally exciting feel to it. Simple and flawless. Warm and invigorating. Accessible but sophisticated. The mouth waters as it’s served, even if you had the same exact meal hours earlier. The magic of a grilled cheese and soup is often almost always tied to a period, often in youth, serving up plenty of nostalgia without feeling corny or dated.

This leads to an experience of youthful energy and excitement, inarguably able to put a smile on faces and transport those experiencing it to a better place.


Home is where I want to be

Pick me up and turn me round

I feel numb, burn with a weak heart

I guess I must be having fun

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