Song of the Day: Don’t Worry About the Government

montwardbeehive
Montgomery Ward’s Busy Bee Hive via Urban Remains Chicago

Henry Blake Fuller in his 1893 novel, The Cliff-dwellers, described a Chicago in which “nobody really knows who he is, or who his people are, or where he is from .. a town full to overflowing with single young men … from everywhere,” where the people “had no sense of any right relation to the community in which he lived.”

-William Cronon. City and Country as a Unity. Nature’s Metropolis.

Fuller began his book with an extended description of life in Chicago’s skyscrapers, epitomized in the fictional building he called the Clifton. The four thousand people who work in the Clifton range from bankers, lawyers, and brokers to their clerical staffs, building engineers, and janitors. They are served by a lunch counter, a tobacconist, a newsstand, and the mechanism of the building handle their other creature comforts: light, shelter, warmth, water. They can work in this place without having much to do with the city outside, let alone the greater countryside beyond. As Fuller says, “the Clifton aims to complete within itself.”

-William Cronon. City and Country as a Unity. Nature’s Metropolis.

In 1893, Gay and Lesbian Hall of Famer Henry Blake Fuller wrote The Cliff-dwellers, imagining a building that epitomized modern life: everyone working at their specialized job, with all the amenities, but cut off from neighbors, their community and floundering for a sense of self.

In 1977, the Talking Heads came out with their first album, Talking Heads 77. Don’t Worry About the Government describes someone who is completely adjusted to this new type of life. David Byrne describes how

My building has every convenience
It’s gonna make life easy for me
It’s gonna be easy to get things done

It’s always debated whether this is an irreverent song or a sincere song. On one hand, he’s kind of like that. He loves life.

He’s a genuine eccentric. He’s always been exactly like that, and I’ve seen him remain like that in quite extreme situations. For instance, we were mugged together once in New York. It was quite frightening; we were mugged by 14 people. My enduring memory is of David being dragged off into the bushes, saying ‘Uh-oh!’ That’s absolutely true; it was like a cartoon scene.

-Brian Eno

On the other hand, David Byrne is pretty Spectrumy and early Talking Heads (especially before Little Creatures, although 77 is really an uplifting album overall) is pretty nervy and anxious. He’s not Jonathan Richman going hey little insect, please calm down. Think about Animals which came out two years later, talking about how animals are making fools of us humans.

I don’t think it’s sarcastic or sincere…it doesn’t have to be either. It’s the reality of the world. I want to be happy, I want to enjoy all the conveniences of your building (and for me, this includes my dishwasher, my vintage Robot Coupe, my bread machine and most of all my computer…previous modern conveniences like running hot water and light barely being thought of as such) and like the song says, I want for it to easy to get stuff done. But at the same time…I feel the sinister nature of the city, of the commodification of the countryside that makes life possible, of how abstraction separates me from what sustains me and obscures my relationships with others.

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