I remember the first time I heard They Might Be Giants. I was sixteen-ish, I think, visiting my friend Pete at his farm. There was a deck being built, I believe. It could be that I was there to help build it. But probably not.
My memory feeds me details about the past reluctantly, in a sort of staccato impressionist smear. It’s hard to pin down details.
At any rate, there was a deck being built, and I was there, and Pete was there, and my friend John was there, and John was playing TMBG’s eponymous first album.
It bewitched me. I’d never heard anything like it. Granted, my range was pretty limited back then: I grew up on a steady diet of 80’s pop music. But even from that blinkered perspective I could tell this was something special. Quirky melodies married to quirkier lyrics that weren’t just strange but mysteriously strange, and silly and clever and fun.
I’m not sure if I heard Don’t Let’s Start — the fourth track on their first album — that day, but its lyrics have been burned in my mind for the last 35 years:
When you are alone, you are the cat, you are the phone
You are an animal
The words I’m singing now
Mean nothing more than ‘meow’ to an animal
Wake up, smell the cat food in your bank account
But don’t try to stop the tail that wags the hound
I don’t know what this means. Why does it make me so happy? I don’t know that either. That’s the mystery of TMBG.
Anyway, they’re still around, still making music, still touring. A few years ago they reissued their music video for Don’t Let’s Start. It’s as delightful today as it was in 1986.
- Sci-fi/fantasy they’d recommend to non-SFF fans
- Classics that still hold up
- The best book they’d read this year
- Books they didn’t expect to like, but did
It was a great discussion, and I’ve been thinking about what I would have chosen ever since. My current list:
- Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguru)
- Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams, of course)
- A tie: Klara and the Sun (Ishiguri, again) and Crossroads (Jonathan Franzen)
- Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen)
Lots to say about all of these, but the book that I settled on immediately was Sense and Sensibility.
I read it a long time ago, and have no idea why — “early 19th century novel of manners” is more or less the opposite of the sort of thing I normally enjoy. I can still remember the immense shock of loving it, though. It delighted me on the first page, and continued to delight me all the way through to the last.
I recently picked up Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and was delighted all over again. It’s amazing that something written two centuries ago can still feel so vital, fresh, and funny. I love its sharp prose, well-drawn characters, deft plotting. And the dialog! Some of the nuttier exchanges are authentically hilarious: formal to the point of absurdity, bombastically circumnavigating the point over and over again before finally settling on it, rarely saying in one word what can be said in five.
One of my favorite exchanges is between Elizabeth and the pompous Mr Collins, whose proposal Lizzy has just rejected. She tries desperately to convince him that she means it.
“I am not now to learn,” replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, “that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second, or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.”
“Upon my word, sir,” cried Elizabeth, “your hope is a rather extraordinary one after my declaration. I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly serious in my refusal. You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who could make you so. Nay, were your friend Lady Catherine to know me, I am persuaded she would find me in every respect ill qualified for the situation.”
“Were it certain that Lady Catherine would think so,” said Mr. Collins very gravely—“but I cannot imagine that her ladyship would at all disapprove of you. And you may be certain when I have the honour of seeing her again, I shall speak in the very highest terms of your modesty, economy, and other amiable qualification.”
“Indeed, Mr. Collins, all praise of me will be unnecessary. You must give me leave to judge for myself, and pay me the compliment of believing what I say. I wish you very happy and very rich, and by refusing your hand, do all in my power to prevent your being otherwise. In making me the offer, you must have satisfied the delicacy of your feelings with regard to my family, and may take possession of Longbourn estate whenever it falls, without any self-reproach. This matter may be considered, therefore, as finally settled.” And rising as she thus spoke, she would have quitted the room, had Mr. Collins not thus addressed her:
“When I do myself the honour of speaking to you next on the subject, I shall hope to receive a more favourable answer than you have now given me; though I am far from accusing you of cruelty at present, because I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character.”
“Really, Mr. Collins,” cried Elizabeth with some warmth, “you puzzle me exceedingly.”
You puzzle me exceedingly. Need to find a way to slip that into conversations.