Relics, Deaths and Departures (An Appreciation)
9 February 2020

There is an exuberance that pervades the Talking Heads’ 1984 concert film ‘Stop Making Sense. Watching it there is no doubt that they were a great band but on a recent re-watch what struck me is how much everybody seems to be enjoying themselves, particularly Tina Weymouth, their much-admired bassist. Though she might lack the demonstrative enthusiasm of some of the other players, her face says it all. Her wry, unbroken smile. The look of wonderment and joy, as though even she, an artist at the peak of her powers, seems to be amazed by just how good they all are.

This past weekend, my second to last in Malta, I solicited two compadres, a Canadian and an American, to accompany me on a swim. Their nationalities are only of significance as few locals would countenance a swim at this time of year and for the fact that I once watched C. the Canadian leap into the water off Grand Portage, Minnesota, from the deck of a 100’ gaff-rigged schooner, into one of Lake Superior’s frigid bays. There was a look of terror on her face when she scrabbled back up the ladder on to the deck, unprepared as she was for just how cold the water in August still was, such that I knew that this sea could never compare to such a shock and she’d likely be game. It is fun to take people unfamiliar with this island to spots that I hold dear, and I took them to Gnejna, one of my preferred swim spots, and we struck out north west a brief way and found our own little boat house and slip way to swim from. The water, chilly at first, soon warmed up and we swam and tread water and chatted for about 15 minutes. The occasion was of particular significance for me as I have spent the better part of three years unable to swim due to persistent ear trouble and had only recently been given the all clear to take the plunge, as it were, by my doctor. It was magnificent in that brisk, blue water, feeling the budge and surge of current and wave. Watching the swells roll in through the outlying rocks off the coast. After, we sat on our towels, the sun high and hot above us, the salt drying on our skin, and we each drank a Cisk, the local beer which I love and every year heroically do my bit for the local temperance movement by attempting to rid this small island nation of its national lager by drinking it. Beer tastes best with friends, by the sea in the heat of afternoon, and we sat a while, alone there and happy on our little stretch of rocky coast.

A few days before I accompanied my father to his family’s grave. I bought a dust pan and a whisk with me and got on my knees on that marble slab and I swept clear the dirt and the pine needles that had accumulated, like a paleontologist dusting off an ancient bone I uncovered the small pictures of my relations and the years of their births and deaths. Some died before I was born. Some I knew better than others and some I loved. When the tomb was cleared my father procured some water in an empty green plastic bottle that had had the top cut off for such a purpose and we placed flowers in them and laid them at the foot of the crypt. It was then that the lyrics of the old Flatts and Scruggs song presented themselves to me and I played the song for my father in the car on the way back.

“Won’t you give me the flowers while I’m living
and let me enjoy them while I can.
Please don’t wait til I’m ready to be buried
and then slip some lilies in my hand.”

There is much more I could have done for these people while they were living, then placing flowers for them, now dead, where they’re laid. There is much more I could do for people in my life today, but so much seems to get in the way.

Coincidentally, ‘Give Me the Flowers While I’m Living’ was covered by the American sculptor and alternative country singer Terry Allen, who’s 1996 album was produced by none other than the Talking Heads’ David Byrne. It was called ‘Human Remains.’

Stop Making Sense remains as potent an expression of its art as ever. Still as capable of inspiring and exciting each time that I watch it. It was recorded over four nights in 1983 at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre and filmed by Jonathan Demme who would later find international fame as the director of The Silence of the Lambs. On my last watch of it I found myself wondering what Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, bassist and drummer, husband and wife, talked about in their limo or cab on the way back to where they were staying. Did they discuss the minutiae? A post-game breakdown of the gig? Did they gush with excitement? Perhaps they were tired. Silent. Each choosing instead to stare out their respective windows and watch as the lights of Hollywood flashed by, unaware of the resplendent bouquet they had just helped create, something to be grasped by the hands of those living, grateful and willing, for generations to come.