It is a Friday afternoon in Chester, New Jersey, June 1985, and the entire student body of Black River Middle School has gathered for an assembly in the cafetorium. The captive audience sits in fold-out chairs facing the slightly elevated stage, listening as the student council president stands before them to announce the main event: a live performance by five recent graduates who have formed a rock band.
I am in that rock band, which is really just a garage band, in the sense that up until this moment we have only played in the drummer’s garage. And the only audience we’ve ever played to before now is the drummer’s mother—once, accidentally, when she was carrying groceries in from the car that she couldn’t park in the garage.
Our band had only been “jamming” for four months when we came up with the bold (delusional?) idea to write a letter to our former middle school asking if they’d like us to perform at an assembly—and if they’d be willing to pay us $200. Inexplicably, our middle school made the bold (delusional?) decision to say yes. To both requests.
So now I’m standing behind my keyboard waiting for the curtain to open.
I don’t look much different from when I graduated this place a year ago. I am still tall, skinny, with long hair that falls over my thick eyeglasses and hides my face. My shoulders still hunch, my arms remain twiggy, my acne endures. High school has made me even more shy, more confused, more nervous. Today, however, upon my return to my old stomping grounds, I’ve decided to inhabit a new identity. Or at least try one on for size. Today, I’m not me. I’m not the me then, or the me just before now.
Today, I’m the keyboard player in a rock band.
I’ve even tried to dress the part. I’m wearing white cotton pants, a billowy white shirt with vertical blue stripes, grey ankle boots, and, most importantly, a white fedora. This is my attempt to look like a member of Duran Duran. I never dress this way. I’ve assembled a new me for this middle school assembly.
On the other side of the curtain, I hear the student council president introduce us.
“Please welcome, The Midnight Mists!”
That’s not our name.
Talking Heads released their fifth studio album Speaking in Tongues in 1983. “Burning Down the House” is the first track. It opens with a feverish acoustic guitar riff that sounds like two sticks rubbing together to make fire. As the friction builds, a ghostly synthesizer floats in, blowing smoke on the embers. A mighty drum fill ignites the tinder, David Byrne lets out an ascending sigh, and we’re off to the conflagration. For the next four minutes, we are engulfed.
Byrne sings like the awkward guest talking too loud at the party, telling a story without any prompting. “Watch out, you might get what you’re after. Cool babies, strange but not a stranger. I’m an ordinary guy, burning down the house.” What? Who is this dude? What is he talking about? Who invited him?
Something is happening in this song. Something urgent. “Burning Down the House” is about combustion. It is combustion. The lyrics push you forward. Toward what, you don’t know. But you are quickly in tow. You find yourself tripping over yourself. Hold tight. Pack your bags. Time for jumping overboard. All wet. Shakedown. You have not seen nothing yet. Fighting fire with fire. It’s a barrage. A torrent. But it’s somehow exhilarating. What’s next?
A keyboard solo erupts halfway through. A funky, percussive clavinet that groans and sputters and squeals, like it’s not sure what it wants to say but is frantic to be heard. All around, tom-tom drums rattle and tumble, like rafters collapsing.
The song makes you want to burst into flame.
Our band name is actually Midnight Mist. No “the.” No plural. All through our many brainstorming sessions, the five of us have been determined not to be a “The” band (why, I can’t quite tell you). And now, in one fell swoop, the Black River student council president has made us something we never wanted to be: The Midnight Mists.
The curtain opens. We stand in front of a completely full cafetorium. We will play five songs that afternoon. One of them is “Burning Down the House.”
When you’re a musician and you learn how to play a song, you step inside its skin. You disassemble its component parts and put it back together and occupy the song yourself. This incursion, however, comes at a cost. It’s thrilling to decode a piece of music and then recreate it. But it’s also disorienting, and maybe a little heartbreaking, because you’ve forever changed the way you will hear that song. You’ve removed the mystery. You’ve murdered to dissect.
Before, the song was a mystical, organic concoction, an incantation that you experienced in the form of an idea and a feeling and maybe even an emotional climate change. Now, however, the song is a series of notes and chords, layers and combinations, a blueprint, a recipe. You’ve learned the magic trick—which can be electrifying—but it’s changed your relationship to the song’s alchemy.
I know the trick of “Burning Down the House.” I’ve known it since I was fifteen. Whenever I hear that song, without fail, I picture my fingers on the keys, I visualize G and F and A minor 7th chords, I see my left hand toggling the joystick on my synthesizer as I play that funky solo. Again and again and again, I experience the song as muscle memory and key signature.
But I also experience it as middle school assembly.
In a 1984 interview with NPR, David Byrne was asked what “Burning Down the House” means.
“I didn’t really know at the time, but to me…it implies ecstatic rebirth, or transcending one’s own self…like in classic psychology, the house is the self, and burning it down is destroying yourself, and the assumption is that you get reborn, like a phoenix from the ashes.”
Something happens to me on the cafetorium stage.
From the first beat of our first song—a rendition of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” that’s not entirely terrible—I am in motion. I may be tethered to my keyboard, but I make every attempt to move within the confines. I jut my chin. I gyrate my hips. I lift a hand from the keys and wave. All the while, I’m flapping my legs together, as if I’m doing some kind of thigh exercise beneath my synthesizer. At one point I stop playing, turn sideways, look intensely at the floor, and jog in place.
I hadn’t planned to do any of this. I’d given no thought to stagecraft beyond wearing a fedora. Cheers—screams? cries for help?—start to come from the audience.
My bandmates, meanwhile, stand stone still. They are concentrating on their guitars, heads completely at rest, feet in concrete. This is not what I expected, either. I’d assumed they would be the performers. After all, in both our rehearsals in the garage and in the larger social world of our high school, the guitarist who is also our singer, the other guitarist, and the bass player have always been more outgoing, more self-possessed, more relaxed and playful than I could ever hope to be. Yet here on stage, they are reserved, static, almost inconspicuous. And, somehow, I am the one filling the kinetic vacuum.
I am combusting.
Three hundred sixty-five degrees…
Now we’re playing “Burning Down the House.”
I’m bringing the song home with another keyboard solo, my synthesizer emitting a celestial, haunting tone that I bend and vibrate with the joystick. The otherworldly sound floats from the stage and washes over the middle schoolers and our former teachers. It fills the room as our drummer pounds away on his tom-toms. The notes I’m playing reverberate in the great hall where I used to eat my bagged lunch with my one friend. They spill out into the hallways where I would scurry from locker to class wearing corduroys and a raggedy sweat jacket, avoiding eye contact. They resound in the classrooms where I would sit worrying if high school would be worse…
I extend my solo. I improvise. I go off script. I turn up the volume. My legs piston, my shoulders revolve. There are whoops, applause. I’m not the me that I was just before now. I’m an ordinary guy…
In a moment that will become a memorial, I am both the trick and the magic.
Image from the music video for “Burning Down the House” by The Talking Heads .