It’s Never Too Late To Fall In Love With ‘Stop Making Sense’

Time for your weekly edition of the Defector Funbag. Got something on your mind? Email the Funbag. And buy Drew’s book, The Night The Lights Went Out, while you’re at it. Today, we’re talking about greed, the ’80s, books, putting on shirts wrong, and more.

Your letters:

Joe:

I was watching Stop Making Sense last week, as I’m wont to do on occasion. I noticed that, in the doc, Byrne’s Talking Heads play “Girlfriend Is Better” immediately following Tina Weymouth’s fantastic love song about her boyfriend. Knowing that Byrne kinda has a reputation with Tina & Tom, do you think this was accidental or intentional?

I have no idea if David Byrne meant to do that because David Byrne is a mystery, to even the people who worked closest to him. Byrne was weird back when weird meant “weird” and not “Our city has a lot of great taco trucks.” He was a genius, but his motives weren’t always easy to parse. A reticent fellow, one might say.

What I do know is that Stop Making Sense, the 1984 concert documentary that Talking Heads made with the late Jonathan Demme, is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. I had never seen it prior to this week (it’s now on Max), mostly because I was never into Talking Heads. I always liked their hits, and I always thought they were cool, but I never saw them live or bought any of their albums. I figured you had to be a Talking Heads diehard to appreciate Stop Making Sense fully.

You do not. Stop Making Sense was, by no small margin, the best concert doc I’d ever seen. It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen, period. On a sensory level, it’s just like going to a real concert. That NEVER happens with live music on tape, especially if you’re watching it on a home television. But in Stop Making Sense, the band is so tight—especially drummer Chris Frantz, who walks onto the stage dressed in the most dad clothes imaginable and proceeds to keep time with more precision than a fucking atomic clock—and the direction is so good that you feel as if the concert is happening in real time, right in front of you. I was blown away.

I read Roger Ebert’s review of Stop Making Sense right after I’d finished it, and he noted that Demme never used any close-ups of the audience in the final cut, which ended up making a huge difference. If I’m watching a concert film and they cut someone to the audience, I think to myself, “Hey, look at the people who are there in person, which I am not. Look at their funny ’80s clothes, which I no longer wear.” Stop Making Sense never gave me a chance to experience that subtle buzzkill. Instead, it connected me directly to the band and never cut away. And why would Demme cut away when the band was playing their asses off, building up both their stagecraft and the intensity of their performance with every song? I will never see another concert film that can match it.

Now I have to answer Joe’s question: Towards the end of Stop Making Sense, the rest of Talking Heads play “Genius of Love” (which became world famous when Mariah Carey sampled its main hook for “Fantasy” in 1995) while Byrne takes an extended break to get into his infamous Big Suit for the finale. Byrne’s relationship to the rest of the band was always fraught, so he could have designed the setlist specifically to take a jab at Weymouth and Frantz. But it’s also just as likely that he was in his special David Byrne headspace, where he was fucking around with weird ideas and settling on the ones that felt correct to him, even if they might have come across as bizarre, incoherent, or hostile. That mysteriousness is a big part of what made Byrne one of most incredible talents in the history of pop music. It’s also probably why Weymouth and Frantz still curse his name in private.

Whit:

A day or two after I heard Drew mention his personal favorite Wall Street quote, I saw Gordon Gekko referenced in the intro to John Ganz’s new book When The Clock Broke, and it made me wonder if you can explain how a Gordon Gekko reference felt in the ’80s. Was it hip and current? Was it washed and obvious?

By the late ’80s, Americans had already defined the decade they were living in for its excess. Every rich person was on cocaine. Donald Trump was famous merely for owning a lot of buildings. The biggest rock stars were the ones who had the biggest hair and fucked the most women. Materialism was the only –ism that mattered, and pop culture reflected it.

When the market crashed in 1987, the bill came due. Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, the latter of whom is now one of the richest men in the world, became front-page news because they were dabbling in insider trading fuckery. These were the kind of guys you despised but whose money you also envied. The disparity between them and America’s middle and lower class was, as it is now, glaring.

But the people who made money regretted nothing and, like Trump at the time, often served as inspirational figures to those who had nothing. That’s why Wall Street was a massive success, and why Michael Douglas’s character, a role for which he won Best Actor, became an icon. All of that happened in real time. The “greed is good” speech was an instant classic because it was both evil and seductive. Who doesn’t wanna be greedy, especially if greed might secretly be a virtue? Gekko was a bastard who, like all great villains, was also really fucking cool. I fucking wish our current billionaires were as cool as him, but movies are pretend for a reason.

HALFTIME!

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Shane:

Over at the Washington Post, Jeff Bezos wants Will Lewis to get Post’s subscription base up from 2.5 million to 100 million. When’s the last time you had to work at an absurd goal for a boss, and how did you deal with it? I get why master of the universe types tend to put insane goals for their peons. They’re trying to aim big and don’t want to be told, “no.” But I always wonder what it would be like if people didn’t have to work like that.

When I worked in the ad business, I was so far down the org chart that lofty CEO goals were either unknown to me or irrelevant to my work. I first worked for DDB, a global agency that was owned by a global holding company that owned lots of other agencies (Omnicom), and then I worked for Ogilvy, which had the exact same setup (owned by WPP). I was a cog in the machine at both places, doing what I was told and only worrying about my job if my immediate boss was worried about theirs. I only knew the parent company’s name from filling out 401k forms. Otherwise, I had no fucking clue who ran them, or what those people wanted (besides more money). I suppose I wanted to parent company to prosper as well, because of that 401k. But those hopes were entirely in the abstract.

For the most part, though, I didn’t give a fuck about Omnicom or WPP (still don’t), because advertising was, by then, already the kind of business where you only rose up in the ranks by changing jobs. I had zero fundamental connection to any CEO, save for rolling my eyes anytime I had to attend a companywide meeting and hear them extol the virtues of the Wanta Fanta campaign slogan. I lived in my world, and the CEO lived in theirs. Those worlds never touched.

This is how CEOs like it, of course. They prefer to be at a remove from the rank and file (and, at companies that employ thousands of people across multiple continents, they have to be), so that they can focus strictly on themselves and their kooky ambitions. In turn, I only cared about my own career, using whatever agency I was employed by to earn money and buttress my resume. Here is where the fundamental disconnect of the American business model makes itself known. Everyone is trained to work for themselves, even when they’re working together.

Jeff Bezos became the richest man in the world by adhering to this mentality with terrifying vigor. He wanted Amazon to monopolize the online retail space—which would eventually become just the retail space—and he did. And he wants the Post to monopolize the news media. For guys like Bezos, the stock is the product rather than the product itself. When you have $100 billion and never have to look a single reporter working for you in the eye if you don’t want to, it’s pretty easy to force absurd goals onto them for the sake of a market valuation that, on an individual level, they have nothing do with.

You’ve seen the damage this disconnect has caused, is causing, at the Post. You see it everywhere else, too. But when you’ve been trained to believe that looking out for No. 1 is the only thing that matters, that’s a hard mindset to break out of if you end up working for a company that has realistic goals for itself.

Kurt:

Is there an inconsequential action that makes you feel like more of a dope than putting a t-shirt on backwards? It likely isn’t witnessed by anyone else and it takes mere seconds to correct, but I let out an audible, “For fuck’s sake!” whenever it happens. I blame Big T-shirt for replacing actual tags with info printed on the fabric. A tag was an easily visible landmark to quickly tell you which side was which.

I get dressed in the dark a lot, particularly in the winter when the sun rises just before I’m ready to eat lunch. I’ll wake up, tiptoe around the bedroom so as not to wake my wife or the dog, and then slip on whatever T-shirt I have sitting at the top of the pile. Using only the rods inside my eyeballs and my sense of touch, I can usually make out which side of the shirt is which. But when I fuck up, I know it immediately. The collar pushes into the front of my neck and I feel, as Kurt does, like a complete boob.

I feel dumb because putting a shirt on is one of the simpler tasks an able-bodied human can perform. You should be able to get it right 100 percent of the time, so it’s never comforting to be a college graduate who gets it wrong. It’s like when I have a brain fart and throw out my fork with the food scraps left on my plate. Makes me wonder how I’m allowed to drive an automobile.

But then I go on about my day with my shirt on the correct way and feel better about my existence. Then I go to take a piss and realize that I put my underwear on backwards too.

Jake:

How many books do you read on average in a year? Have you ever thought about publishing a semi-regular post of books you have read or are looking forward to reading? I’ve got a list of books I want to read that is a mile long, but I’m always on the lookout for new ones. 

I’ve noted it before, but I have atrocious reading habits for a published novelist. I read a dozen books a year at most (my wife easily reads 50 or so). I almost never read novels. With a few exceptions, I never save any of the dead-tree books that I own. And I often desert books when I’m halfway through them. In fact, here’s a list of books that I liked a lot but still have not finished reading.

  • Island of the Blue Foxes, Stephen R. Brown
  • The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright
  • The Basque History of the World, Mark Kurlansky
  • Coffeeland, Augustine Sedgewick
  • Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  • The Verge, Patrick Wyman (sorry Patrick)

I cheated on these books with other books, some of which I finished and others I cheated on again. I’m the kind of consumer who likes shopping for books more than reading them, and my poor reading habits reflect it. Sometimes, when I’m asked about some other writer of note whom I’ve never heard of, I lie and pretend I’ve heard their name before. “I haven’t read any of their stuff, but I hear it’s good!” You are free to take a HUGE shit on me for all of this. While you do, I’ll refer Jake back to my old list of book recs at Deadspin, and then add in these other titles:

  • The Wager and Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann
  • Heat 2, Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner
  • Four Days in November, Vincent Bugliosi
  • You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live, Paul Kix
  • Fire Weather, The Tiger, and The Golden Spruce, John Vaillant
  • The North Water, Ian McGuire
  • Cod and Salt, Mark Kurlansky
  • Oranges, John McPhee
  • Boom Town, Sam Anderson
  • Cosmos, Carl Sagan
  • The Ends of the World, Peter Brannen
  • You Never Give Me Your Money, Peter Doggett
  • How Lucky, Will Leitch
  • God Spare The Girls, Kelsey McKinney
  • How Far The Light Reaches, Sabrina Imbler
  • Getting High, Paolo Hewitt

Email of the week!

Spencer:

On your 6/20/24 episode, you and Roth riffed about Tim Horton’s not necessarily tasting better just because you’re in Canada or Guinness not being great even if you’re in Dublin. I just wanna say I went to Golden, Colorado on spring break a while back. When we toured the Coors plant, that shit tasted SO much better than any Coors I’ve ever had (I’ve lived my whole life in Missouri for context). So I think there actually is something to being as close to the source as possible, at least for Coors.

Well now I have to the head for the mountains of Busch … Beer.

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