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  • Aarik Danielsen

Going to David Byrne's Heaven

Two songs into the liturgy of rock and roll, David Byrne stands on a spartan stage and starts rhyming ideas about heaven.

A gray suit, already slack, hangs from the Talking Heads leader’s frame; he keeps time with a restless left leg. Behind Byrne, an incomplete vision. Ladders reach no Babel, nowhere. In the song’s final minute, a drum rig is wheeled into place, readying the full sound of 1984’s “Stop Making Sense,” perhaps our greatest modern concert film.

Beside Byrne, only bandmate Tina Weymouth for now, also cloaked in gray. But she is more than enough, her bass guitar a minor prophet or some low-end oracle upholding the “Heaven” in this song.

Achieving tenuous balance, Byrne and Weymouth visit enclaves of heaven, describing scenes they discover among eternal neighborhoods. Heaven, they put forth, is an in-demand bar and the house band plays Byrne’s favorite song forever and ever, amen. Heaven resembles a party with no need for hellos or awkward goodbyes. Or maybe it’s a kiss—lips meeting, withdrawing, then knowing their cosmic pull again in a loop that outlasts the sun.

Byrne and Weymouth make the shapes of Jesus’ parables (“the kingdom of heaven is like”), then punctuate each possibility with a common refrain: “Heaven is a place / a place where nothing / nothing ever happens.”

Their heaven—first a floating impression, then the hum between my lips—returns to me on a recent Wednesday. A Wednesday with too much.

Already a middling slump settles around and through, my body and brain either unwilling to cooperate or conspiring against me. Then my sisters type stories, of awful and degrading words spoken in surround sound, of human animals clawing after them. And whatever nerve endings I have left thrum with echoed pain.

The words I wrote just a few days before crash into the void, a gift returned. My son is not himself. News travels, of Sinead O’Connor’s last breath. A climate change novel moves from my bedside to my body as Midwest temperatures sear all they touch.

I recognize myself only in words from Vincent Van Gogh, repurposed for social media; words like “the best way to know God is to love many things” and “your life would be empty indeed if you didn’t regret anything.”

This “Heaven” envisions a place where no desire or gesture bends beyond its original shape, where nothing transpires outside timeless intent.

Every breath leaves as a sigh;

and clouds somehow keep out the rain;

and all the orchestras play only drums, the conductors forgetting to cue the strings.

Living with the chorus, somehow losing the verses, I once heard “Heaven” as a signal, conveying nonbeing, something like the end of matter. “Where nothing ever happens” submerging me deeper into a pool till the summer sun’s halo and cool ultramarine become one; suggesting how it might feel to achieve glorious ruin, obliterated by the light of God.

But on a Wednesday where everything happens, the song becomes a hymn with verses sounding out a rightful end to every matter. This “Heaven” envisions a place where no desire or gesture bends beyond its original shape, where nothing transpires outside timeless intent.

In the bleak midweek, I slip into David Byrne’s big suit, gray fabric everywhere. And I warm my voice to cover his song. At the microphone, I sing a story of fumbling with my ID outside the bar before St. Peter waves me off and waves me in.

Botanical spirits bind to the molecules breathed within that great room. A stage decorated beyond any Talking Heads knew, all Christmas lights and bouquets and operahouse fixtures, welcomes a band who keeps playing Bon Iver’s “Calgary.” Or “One” by U2. Given the past week, maybe “Nothing Compares 2 U.” But just the part where Sinead sings her doctor’s diagnosis, then offers antiphon. That part, stretched out into forever.

I skip the verse about the party, go straight to the undying kiss. Then I make up my own stanzas; maybe the house band will play this song as ouroboros. Spilling past my lips, visions of friends sitting close, unburdening themselves. But any word born of shame is swallowed up by the air, never to be uttered again.

Each practice, each possibility redeemed to simplicity; it sounds humble, but feels like everything.

Another verse clings to Whitman’s America (“Always California’s golden hills and hollows, and the silver mountains of New Mexico”), but no degree ever rises beyond its thriving. Clouds don’t obscure a thing, but pass making their own daylight constellations; any rainfall gladdens the spirit, never dampens the bones.

And, in my extended “Heaven,” the night gives no quarter to the shifting shapes of fearsome men, only harbors the lights we make—red and green neon, blurred washes of gold—against the deepest blue-black on God’s color wheel.

Each practice, each possibility redeemed to simplicity; it sounds humble, but feels like everything.

Every two months, three if my will holds, I tell my editor to stop me from writing about heaven. God knows I have no idea what I am saying. And my words ring like those of a man desperate for anything else. But I need to live in a place where nothing happens—at least for a while. That sounds like heaven to me.


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