Back on Feb. 29, the extra day in this year of years, I stayed up to watch Saturday Night Live and saw David Byrne’s remarkable performance of “Once in a Lifetime.” I know the song well, although I usually get the title wrong, referring to it as “letting the days go by” or “same as it ever was,” which, along with “once in a lifetime,” are lyrics from chorus. My husband Mike has pointed out to me that both of my misremembered titles have a meaning that it opposite to “Once in a Lifetime.” But one of the reasons I love “Once in a Lifetime” is that it is somewhat at odds with itself, not only lyrically, but musically as well—although I didn’t really understand that until I read this article on NPR, watched this video, listened to multiple versions of the song on Spotify, and finally, after years of having it on my to-watch list, saw Jonathan Demme’s concert film Stop Making Sense. Yes, I fell down a “Once in a Lifetime” rabbit hole.
This was in early March, before quarantine had even started. But a certain anxiety had set in. At the playground, parents were standing farther apart during after-school chats, and everyone had stopped sharing snacks. I happened to have two annual check-ups scheduled for the first week of March: my doctor and dentist. My doctor assured me that the new coronavirus was nothing to worry about, while my dentist advised me to come in immediately for a follow-up appointment to fill a cavity. The day after I got my tooth filled, I went into Manhattan for a morning screening of Crip Camp, a documentary that I was planning to review for my blog. I could have asked for a screening link, but I wanted to go into Manhattan. Maybe I knew, in the back of my mind, that it would be the last time. I wore gloves on the bus and subway, and a lightweight scarf over my nose and mouth. I got off the train at Eighth Avenue and walked four long blocks to the Landmark 57, a new theater that I’d never gone to before. I didn’t realize, until I got there, that it was in the silver, triangular building that my son refers to the as “the cake slice” whenever we drive up the West Side Highway. I took a photo of it with my phone before I headed home.
The photos that follow the cake slice building are mostly of my kids, stuck inside, in crowded messy rooms, or of my kids, outdoors, in wide-open empty spaces. One of our favorite places to go for our daily Cuomo-approved constitutional was the parking lot of the shipyard, a place that is usually pretty empty, but which had become totally barren of cars, pedestrians, and commuters. Gone were the cruise ships and the ferries and the water taxis. My kids scootered past piles of empty shipping containers and yelled as loud as they wanted. Then they went home and watched Disney+ while Mike and I tried to figure out where we should go. We had been planning a move from Brooklyn to Queens—a future I was so certain of at the beginning of this year that I had begun to research nursery schools in our new, chosen neighborhood. I was concerned about the timing of everything, and I feared I was too late for the school I wanted, and too late with the camp sign-ups, and I was annoyed with my anxieties because I never wanted to be the person who was worried about getting her kids into a particular school or themed day camp.
I first listened to “Once in a Lifetime” when I was a teenager. I heard the lyrics as description of mindless acquiescence to the status quo: “You may find yourself in a beautiful house/with a beautiful wife/and you may ask yourself, ‘Well…how did I get here?’” Byrne’s performance of the song in Stop Making Sense seemed to support my interpretation. Halfway through the song he dons a bizarrely oversized suit, making him look like a child in adult’s clothes, or an overstuffed puppet. His dance moves suggest sleepwalking as he stumbles backward and repeatedly hits himself on the forehead with an open palm, as if trying to wake up —or realizing a terrible mistake. To my teenage ears, even the chorus was damning: I thought the phrase “letting the days go by” was a kind of accusation, a way of saying, You’re wasting your life.
I hear the song a little differently now. Now, it strikes me as a description of how we get through life: we let the days go by, riding on the backs of accumulated habits. But sometimes we stop and wonder: how did we get here?
I’m having one of those moments now. Maybe you are, too. The pandemic has had a way of slowing everyone down. Also, we moved to the suburbs. So did several of our friends. And so we are literally finding ourselves in strange houses. We’re part of a wave of New Yorkers that you may have read about the newspaper: people who left the city in the wake of the virus, seeking more space for home offices and classrooms. Mike and I are now renting the first floor of a house in Montclair, New Jersey that is at least twice as big as our old apartment and a lot cheaper. We’re kicking ourselves that we didn’t move out here years ago—except that we never would have, because all of our friends were in Brooklyn and Mike could walk to work and I didn’t have to drive anywhere. I can’t drive, by the way—I mean, I can, but it’s been 20 years since I’ve gotten behind the wheel. Montclair, fortunately, is very walkable, but the simple fact that I’m going to have to start driving again—that I won’t get everywhere on my own two feet or in the company of strangers on public transportation—is what leaves me really feeling the question: How did I get here?
When Byrne was on SNL in February, he was promoting his limited-run musical, American Utopia, which was a kind of a career retrospective for him. You can see it now on HBO; Spike Lee filmed it shortly before Broadway was shut down. I watched it last weekend and that’s what led me down the “Once in a Lifetime” rabbit hole a second time. Byrne has always struck me as a slightly detached performer, but in American Utopia he seems much more emotionally present, or maybe just more expressive. He sings more forcefully now and he dances with more precision. He’s older, too. You hear the strain and age in his voice as he aims for higher notes; maybe you worry a little when he executes a back-bending dance move—as he does frequently for “Once in a Lifetime.” When I saw Byrne on SNL, I thought he had the look of a mad, prophesying preacher, someone who’d come to a new realization of the divine late in life. The mystical imagery of the lyrics jumped out at me: had there always been so much water? Had the color blue always been so important? Above all, had it always been an ecstatic song?
The joyful version of “Once in a Lifetime” was always there. You can hear it in Angelique Kidjo’s cover, which she sings melodically, at a slight faster tempo, with a horn section and back-up singers. And you can hear it in the instrumentation of the original. But I don’t think you can hear it in Byrne’s early vocal renditions. When he was young, I don’t think he really knew what he had on his hands. I think he was just following his intuition and trying to make the song work.
My personal theory of “Once in a Lifetime” is that the song has a will of its own, and that it wanted to exist in the world. It came together very slowly, starting with a bass line that The Talking Heads recorded during a jam session inspired by the music of Fela Kuti. Bassist Tina Weymouth gets credit for coming up with the riff, but she claims that her husband, drummer Chris Frantz, yelled it to her during rehearsal as and adjustment to what she had been playing. When the song was ready to be arranged, producer Brian Eno misheard the rhythm of the riff, adding a rest at the beginning of the measure. When he realized his mistake, he decided he liked the odd arrangement, and wrote a call-and-response chorus to go with it. The band thought the chorus sounded like a preacher leading a prayer, which led Byrne to the weird world of televangelists. He found his now-iconic lyrics—“And you may find yourself…”—by imitating their Biblically-tinged cadences.
Borrowed beats, borrowed lyrics, misheard bass lines, bad transcriptions: the basis of this song about the unconscious way we move through life was made without much conscious thought. And yet it is probably one of The Talking Heads most beloved songs, the kind of song people know without even realizing they know it.
A few weeks after we moved to our new apartment, my landlord, who lives above us, filled me in on all the local lore. Apparently, Montclair used to be a weekend destination for Broadway performers. She tells me that the house down the street from us hosted marvelous parties, and that Marlene Deitrich was a frequent guest. How my landlord knows this, I don’t know, but I was able to fact-check the next bit of ancient gossip she shared, which was that the house across the street was once occupied by a musician and composer named Herman Hupfeld. You’ve probably never heard of him, but in 1931, he wrote “As Time Goes By”—one of those songs you know without knowing, and may find yourself humming every once in a while.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.