What I Don’t Know About Once in a Lifetime
Friends of mine were making fun of music appreciation classes the other day. I’ve never taken one, but I did go through a period where I fell in love with classical music. Studying and exploring classical on my own really helped me learn how to listen. To music, especially, but also in general.
Another friend shared a really cool video of Kermit the Frog performing Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” She remembered I’m a Talking Heads fan, and she must also know I’m a good bit silly. I didn’t expect her to know how much I like the Muppets. The video clip is fantastic. Kermit (‘s muppeteer) does a terrific David Byrne impersonation. See for yourself:
I love how the video production nicely imitates the official video while paying tribute to the performance — and the suit — from Stop Making Sense.
Some folks see this and go, “ha,ha, that guy dances funny! Look at those weird, twitchy movements!” Some hear it and like the cool bass line; some go to the lyrical hooks. “Ha, ha! ‘This is not my beautiful wife!‘”
Me, I’ve always been interested in the lyrics and meanings of songs. Part of my character is always looking for deeper meaning in nearly everything. Music is particularly magical to me. The blend of meaning in the mix of rhythm, melody, harmony, AND words presents many layers to be interpreted.
And, yeah, I’m drawn to the weirdness.
Having been involved in collaboratively creating songs in a band, I am ever more in awe of the art in which each band member adds their viewpoint to the developing composition. All art being participatory, there’s the additional element of how the listener hears, feels, and interprets the song. It’s been said that communication depends not only on what is said but also, and more importantly, on what is heard. The listener’s point of view informs their understanding of what the musicians put out, and that informs their appreciation of it.
Considering that, when I hear “Once in a Lifetime” these days, I realize I maybe should have listened better long ago.
Go With the Flow
Not long before I first heard the song, when it came out in 1980, I read Alan Watts’ Tao: The Watercourse Way. It was one of Dad’s interesting books I found the book lying around the house. Being the impressionable kid I was, I adopted a lot of the philosophy in the book as great advice. Be like water, it says; when flowing water meets a rock, it goes around it. Eventually, as water gently washes against the rock, it wears it away. In short, go with the flow and you’ll avoid stress.
The Watercourse Way continues to be one of the most influential books I’ve read. And I did let it dramatically influence how I lived my life for decades. More on that in future posts.
As a teen, the Taoist philosophy I’d picked up led me to incorrectly hear what Talking Heads were saying in “Once in a Lifetime.” The imagery, all the “water flowing” references; I thought they were also saying, “go with the flow.”
Most folks probably don’t actively choose to use pop music as a guide for living.
I’ve never really been exactly like most folks.
Older and Wiser?
The story of my 20s and 30s is mainly one of going with the flow. Not that my life was completely rudderless, but I did get involved in stuff and head in unexpected directions I — looking back — might have been better off avoiding. Now that I’m near (at? past?) midlife, I believe “Once in a Lifetime” may be a cautionary tale about exactly that.
Listening to it with the experience and earned perspective I have now, the “you may find yourself…” lines and “how did I get here?” hold a lot more relevance than they did when I was young. They’re a little less funny and a bit more whoa.
I hear the song now as being from the perspective of someone at the end of life, looking back. Similar, I guess, to that god awful Sinatra song, but with a much funkier groove and postmodern poetry.
Don’t pay attention, let life carry you around without you navigating your way, and before you know it, everything’s over. And you weren’t ready for it.
Not exactly the message you’d expect from a young(ish) group for a young(er?) audience. I, and perhaps others, didn’t get the importance of the lyrics because it was unexpected. Sort of the same reason we don’t really hear advice from older, wiser people when they tell us we need insurance, or to save for retirement. It just doesn’t align with our beliefs of how life is based on our experiences at that age.
But — WOW — isn’t THAT exactly illustrating the point ? “Same as it ever was.”
Here’s something: even if you live a supremely directed life setting and going after goals, time still goes by. Everything you do, whether by choice or circumstance, occurs, in each moment, surrounded by the unique characteristics of that moment, once in a lifetime. You may drive the same route to work every day, but the weather, the other cars on the road, what you hear on the radio, all that stuff and more changes, so each drive is different. Singular. Unique.
The lesson I hear in “Once in a Lifetime” is a kind of old one, directed at the population who follow a plan, or at least a pattern of behavior, letting the days go by one 40 hour workweek after another. They might get the beautiful house and the beautiful wife, but don’t even know how they did. It isn’t purposefully choosing to go with the flow that makes one actually skip living; it’s staying busy with busy-ness, unconsciously going through the motions of work, societal expectations, and even leisure that keeps one so occupied that you don’t realize life is passing by.
I could totally be mishearing the song again. I’m fairly certain I’m overthinking it. Regardless, I believe it is extremely important to know we each have only the one life to live, and it’s a damn shame to waste it away punching timeclocks and watching sitcoms.
Mindful living, being present and fully aware in each moment, I truly believe, is the key. You can’t live every minute like it’s your last — you’ll never get laundry done if you act like you aren’t going to wear those clothes again — but you can choose to live each one like it’s the first and only one that will be exactly like it. What you decide to do with it can make the difference between looking back someday knowing how you got where you did rather than wondering how.
Originally published at regismurphy.com on April 8, 2016.