Talking Heads, “Road to Nowhere”

roadtonowhere.jpg“They can tell you what to do
But they’ll make a fool of you
And it’s all right, baby, it’s all right

We’re on a road to nowhere…”



I have to come clean about this one: the only reason I ever noticed this song was because, as a child, I had a fixation with the Fred Savage movie “Little Monsters.” That’s right: Fred Bloody Savage. I used to watch this movie once a day – sometimes twice. About a year ago, I found it in the on-demand section of my cable box and discovered, much to my chagrin, that I can still recite every line of this movie. All of them. And yet, for some reason, I almost never get a chance to do this at parties. You would think that this film – along with “The Wizard” – would have finally breached the canon, but, sadly, it has not. In any case, this entry isn’t really about Mr. Savage’s oeuvre. Instead, it’s about how a song can grow along with you, and how some of the most salient facts about your life can come straight from sweetest frivolity.

“Road to Nowhere” shows up for the end credits of “Little Monsters,” and comes in about halfway through. As such, there’s no a cappella introduction. No verses. It is, as I remembered it for so long, a sunshine-sounding chorus about a happy bit of wanderlust. These days, if you were to ask me about it, I would say that the song is a sly, ironical one. It talks about the perils of assimilation in a life that can only end in one way: death. This is what I’ve grown into, with this song. What made me think about this, in the first place, was a late-night drive home – song blasting, throat scraping to keep up, and the weight of the world crashing in.

Allow me to back up a bit, won’t you?

I think that we all have songs that have, at first, seemed like musical daffodils. These fluffy little bits of ephemera that serve to instantly brighten any day or road trip. Inevitably, as this song did for me, they turn into poetic lions – confronting us with sober truths usually left in the corners of the mind. For years, I listened to “Road to Nowhere” as a sort of torch song. A banner for my desire to move about unhindered in the pursuit of happiness. I would put it on summertime mix tapes, and cheerfully sing along to its strident tempo and upbeat melodies. I can remember being about fifteen, riding around in The Tempo, and defiantly singing: “There’s a city in my mind / Come along and take that ride / and it’s all right…” That Tempo was head for parts unknown, which, as we all know, is the best possible place for wayward teenagers to go.

I remember stealing the two-disc “Sand in the Vaseline” collection from my uncle Troy, and listening to all of silly songs: “Stay Up Late,” “Once In A Lifetime,” etc. My father liked some of their songs very much, and we’d occasionally talk about what the crazy lyrics were about. I think we both regarded “Road to Nowhere” as a bit of fluff – a beautiful bit, but fluff just the same. (And this from the same people who would cry desperately right around the lyric “…green scales fell like rain…” in “Puff the Magic Dragon.”) And yet, if not for the inspiration to listen to that “silly band,” I would likely have never found the chestnut of truth buried in “Road to Nowhere.” It’s proof of evolution, in a sense.

At some point, I heard the other verse. The one I quoted above. And I thought hard about the warning against listening to this mysterious “they.” In my own teenage struggle against suburban integration, I suspected that this came from a similar place: a place of fierce individualism. I assumed that the message was to avoid the guidance of fools, and to just light out for the country. A “follow your own compass” kind of thing. And, more or less, that’s the basis of what I still feel when I listen to the song. Only, as it so often does, time has brought on a change.

As ever, the fools remain. I am constantly bombarded with advice about how to run my life, and how to become a respectable adult. (Oddly enough, these are both things I don’t want to do. A most ingenious paradox…) I’ve been to Oxbridge. I teach for a living, and I’m working on a Ph.D. I have wonderful relationships, and I’m afforded the opportunity to pursue lots of silly projects (like this one!). And yet, for all that, there’s a constant pressure to conform. To give in, and to become “adult.” The constant, middle-class sales pitch for a “life upgrade,” or something equally absurd.

And to be honest, I’m not really sure why. True enough that my life has been governed by an assortment of whims and passions. Reason is for other people, I reckon. Even so, I am a contributing member of society (1). Why then, am I constantly trying to explain myself to friends and acquaintances with “real jobs” and “grown-up responsibilities?” I think, as much as it saddens me to admit, that it’s because I now want the approval of my former enemies. Because I want people to mark my maturity. Because, like so many of you, I want my life to “matter” before it ends.

Which, honestly, is about as silly as it gets. And it’s where this song pulls me back from the brink of self-negation. A simple reminder that we’re all going to end up the same, no matter what, and I’m encouraged to continue following my own path. (I touched on this a bit with “Mayonaise,” I think.) Returning to the earlier point, I find it really interesting that this song has gone from being the epitome of youthful ephemera to a sage warning against the dangers of straying from my beliefs. I mean, this is absolutely why I am so interested in this site, and in other people’s stories of living and growing with music. It’s the journey that matters, and which provides the best insight into the soul.

My experience with “Road to Nowhere” should, I hope, comfort those among you who feel that they simply “don’t get” certain songs. That the “real meanings” are somehow hidden. I’ll set aside my impulse to assault you with literary theory, if you’ll accept that meanings are situational. The other night, while driving and singing, I thought briefly about all my worries – dissertation, money, sanity – and a cloud began to form around the words “…and it’s growing day by day.” But then I thought for a moment about this song, and how its role in my life had changed, and I began to realize something: the truly beautiful stuff is eternal. And you can carry it with you – as far as you’re going. Even “nowhere.”

And, really, isn’t that what matters most?

So, thanks Fred Savage for being such an amiable goofball. And thanks David Byrne for insisting on the a cappella introduction to this song. And thank you all for coming along for the ride…

And, hey, this isn’t even a terrible cover:

  1. Something like a junior copy-assistant, I think [Back]

12 thoughts on “Talking Heads, “Road to Nowhere”

  1. Having just re-listened to this song, I think I missed a little bit out of my entry.

    “…They’ll make a fool of you / and it’s all right…” Perhaps, even if you do give in to all of those fools, you should take some comfort in the fact that your mistakes will be erased in the afterlife. That everything – positive or negative – is simply part of the journey. Mere prelude for what follows.

    It’s a stray thought, but I like that my understanding of the song evolved just by talking about it… 🙂

    • The song is transparent as is many of his songs are.
      Take the shit that comes along in your life because it
      only hurts you if you rebel and after all everybody ends
      up in the same place. Oblivion. You can’t stop the shitheads
      that have control over you but “baby it’s alright”. Its upbeat
      but depressing at the same time. We all end up equal in the
      end. Dust in the wind.

      • This seems right to me – it’s the repetition of “it’s alright” that leads to this interpretation. The city in his mind is alright and being made a fool is alright because either way it ends the same. Might as well get a big suit and have some fun.

  2. It’s part of, unfortunately, a genre of music now known to me as “Starbucks Music” as the song, sans a capella intro, appears on the Hear Music Senses Working Overtime CD….which I think I own, but I mostly associate the song with a supervisor who insists on playing the playlist everytime he’s on the floor (better than the techno Porgy and Bess song, but still “Starbucks Music”)

  3. I absolutely agree with you that meaning is situational – but also personal – isn’t it funny how some songs keep their original meaning even numerous years down the track.

    I love this song. Like you I sort of dismissed it a bit at first but it’s a stayer. Every time I hear it I get a little smile on my face. Talking Heads are wonderful.

  4. Speaking of The Wizard, have you seen the latest Jenny Lewis/Rilo Kiley vid. It’s at Stereogum and it’s pretty okay.

    Anyway, always great to read about a song that was played so often in the Tempo. It’s a song that I can listen to in many different moods, and in each different mood it means something, well, different.

    I think I’m done writing comments for the day. I am not speeching the English so goodly this morning. Ah well. Good entry.

  5. Beth: Sorry that your supervisor has ruined such a lovely song. I’ll make sure to have a word with him when I get a chance. In the meantime, if you’re ever interested, try to get a copy of David Byrne’s “Live at Union Chapel” from the library, as I think that version will give you something fresh to play with. (Actually, that goes for all of you!)

    Mez: Perhaps Beth has just given us a demonstration of this phenomenon? I do think it’s strange that there are some songs – “Mayonaise,” for instance – that have hardly changed for me at all. Of course, there are some – “The River” being prominent among these – that seem to evolve with each listen. Mostly, I find this reassuring, but I do begin to wonder, at times, whether or not it means that it’s my Will that drives interpretation, rather than my sense of (and critical appreciation of) aesthetics.

    This probably doesn’t matter, in the end, but I was exposed to too much existentialism as a child not to notice. I suspect we can blame members of the Frankfurt School, as well. Either way, as you say, Talking Heads are wonderful. In the end, nothing really matters apart from what you share with your stereo (“when you’re uncool,” to complete the Almost Famous paraphrase…)

    Chris: I haven’t seen the new video, but will check it out right away. I rather like Rilo Kiley, and am behind the curve on the new album. I’m glad you still like the song, after so many years and mix tapes, and I’ll look forward to hearing more about your experiences when next I trap you in the car. (Quite soon, actually.) I should say, however, that it’s really I that should thank you, given that you provided me with the opportunity to get to know this song through so many late nights of indulgence. So, thanks!

    🙂 Forgive me, all, if I went astray… it’s been a long, long day!

  6. Really enjoyed reading this entry, I was just listening “Road to Nowhere” and was baffled in how to interpret this great song. I totally agree with you too about the need to follow your own path no matter what direction society is pulling you to. I’m practically in the same boat to be honest. Grew up in the ‘burbs and am in my fourth week of student teaching in English right now. I think I’m going to use this song (among a few others) to springboard a quick “Memoir” unit for the seniors!

    Always remember: “If you get confused, just listen to the music play”

    • Hey there. I’m glad you liked the article, and that it gives you a useful starting point for both analysis and lecture. I’m also teaching English, but have yet to work these songs into my Medieval Lit classes. 😉 It’d be great to hear more about how you’re doing that…

      But more importantly, thanks for stopping by to remind me that there are others out there who feel like I do. In the deepest depths of dissertation writing, that’s very comforting indeed.

  7. I am in sync with most of the comments on an intellectual basis and felt similarly when I was younger … however today I wonder if David Byrne was not addressing the larger social and political issues of the time; and to me it seems even more poignant today… the last verse of the song draws me to that strong conclusion.

  8. He’s making Biblical references the whole time and the music video backs it up. road to paradise. they’ll make a fool of you. There’s a city in his mind that’s growing day by day (which he says while wearing a square on his head.) people going up a ladder. And it shows him receiving a crown! It’s all there. Plain as day. Completely awesome.

  9. David said this about his song, “It’s this little ditty about how there’s no order and no plan and no scheme to life and death and it doesn’t mean anything, but it’s alright.” I like that. It is honest and clean. I am working on an Easter sermon. The song is a helpful back drop.

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