[SoundStage!]For a Song
Back-Issue Article

July 2005

Outside the Box: Talking Heads’ "Psycho Killer"

"Psycho Killer"

I can’t seem to face up to the facts
I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax
I can’t sleep ‘cause my bed’s on fire
Don’t touch me I’m a real live wire

Refrain: Psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est?
Fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa
Better run run run run run run run away

You start a conversation you can’t even finish
You’re talking a lot but your not saying
When I have nothing to say, my lips are
Say something once, why say it again


Ce que j’ai fait, ce soir là
Ce qu’elle a dit ce soir là
Réalisant mon espoir,
Je me lance vers la gloire** … okay
We are vain and we are blind
I hate people when they’re not polite


*The first three lines of the second verse appear in the album’s liner notes in this way:

I passed out hours ago
I’m sadder than you’ll ever know
I close my eyes on this sunny day

I have discussed the lyrics sung on the album and, as far as I know, in all or most Talking Heads performances. They are a significant improvement over those in the liner notes, which I take to be an earlier version. The dropped lines tend to confirm my interpretation of the song and do not appear to contradict it in any way.

**The album’s liner notes include a few errors in the spelling of French words. The words are sung correctly on the album and are rendered correctly here.

If Bob Dylan’s "Blowin’ in the Wind" represents the folk revival’s outward, sociopolitical orientation, Talking Heads’ "Psycho Killer" reflects a theme of the late-1970s/early-1980s New Wave movement in rock: psychological satire. Like many songs by Talking Heads, Devo, Elvis Costello, and other New Wave stars, "Psycho Killer" sheds humorous light on the Human Potential Movement and a trend toward introspection that attracted some of the affluent and educated when assassinations, killings by police at Kent State University, and the Watergate scandal made '60s idealism seem simplistic, out of touch with human and political complexities.

Packed with irony and wit, "Psycho Killer" was written by Talking Heads leader and principle songwriter David Byrne, with assistance from drummer Chris Frantz and bass player Tina Weymouth. The most notorious song on the band’s captivatingly intelligent and witty 1977 debut LP, Talking Heads: 77, it soon became a New Wave anthem. If "Wind" was solemnly recited by folkies of all ages standing in circles holding hands, "Killer" was shouted by college grads frenetically dancing to hot new rhythms and quirky electric-guitar riffs in darkened clubs with minimal or morbid decor.

But qu’est-ce que c’est?! What the heck does "Psycho Killer" say?

Je suis psycho killer

The singer/narrator adopts the persona of a "psycho killer" to lampoon the notion that such expression has precise meaning or predicts who will kill. It is casually applied to a wide array of people who kill for no apparent reason -- people who, according to the news, appear ordinary in other respects but suddenly "snap" and kill. A murderer who has terrorized the community for years, when caught, turns out to be a beloved physician or scout leader or a supposedly harmless loner. A mail carrier who talks baseball daily at the diner suddenly "goes postal."

The narrator sings, "I can’t seem to face up to the facts," which reminds us that just about anyone may have difficulty accepting limitations or making a tough decision. The next line, "I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax," could also describe just about anyone in the modern world at some time or other, especially when faced with difficult "facts." "I can’t sleep" is a common enough problem, and one from which publishers and pharmaceutical companies make billions. What about "I’m a real live wire"? Lots of people are told, "You’re a live wire!" -- meaning always ready with a joke. Not particularly alarming. Thus, "Psycho Killer" embodies and debunks its own concept.

Hey, I mean it!

But what about when the "live wire" can’t be touched because he’s a real live wire, not a metaphorical one? Hmmm, we seem to have a problem here. And what of the sleeping problem that can’t be handled by Sominex or a couple of drinks because "the bed’s on fire"? Well, maybe we shouldn’t go to this guy’s Son of Sam party! He seems like anyone you might encounter, but he might also surprise.

Why "Psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est?" and not "Psycho killer, what is that?" Switching languages in the middle of a sentence suggests that the singer is out of control and more specifically might be schizophrenic, the paranoid version being consistent with his thinking his bed is on fire. We appear to be going beyond anxiety or neurosis toward psychosis. Also, among the foreign languages that large numbers of Americans learn, French is most often stereotyped as reflecting a superior attitude. That aspect of nos ami’s second language gains resonance as the song progresses.

I give me a lot to think about -- and I don’t like my thoughts

The song’s first three lines begin with "I"; the fourth also contains an "I" clause. The singer/narrator is certainly self-absorbed. In the second verse, the delusional element -- the singer’s thinking his bed is on fire -- manifests itself in his making ordinary human foibles sound like crimes: "You start a conversation you can’t even finish / You’re talking a lot but you’re not saying anything." Calm down, buddy, we want to say. We’re just chatting. We’re not claiming to be Einstein or Springsteen. "When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed"? Lighten up, fella. We won’t shoot you if you say something inconsequential. He sounds a tad less magnanimous, though! (Said of a loner: "Have you noticed how he stands around and glares, doesn’t contribute to the conversation? You don’t suppose he…. No, he’s just a little bit awkward.")

In the bridge, the French is no longer limited to "qu’est-ce que c’est?" (what is that?) but hints at a more intense internal drama. "Ce que j’ai fait ce soir là" (What I did that night): He remembers something sensational that belongs to the night -- a crime, perhaps. "Ce qu’elle a dit ce soir là" (What she said that night): That could refer to a female victim’s pleas before the narrator/psycho killer murdered her. But it could also refer to a lover’s exclamation if nos ami had sex -- maybe for the first time, because the intensity of his thought suggests a life-altering event. Whatever he did "ce soir là" (that night), he’s become obsessed with it. It appears to have driven him, or to be driving him, over the edge.

If it’s the "good thing" he did -- which under some circumstances is considered wrong but not necessarily a horrendous crime -- then he’s a scary guy because he seems so confused about it. If it’s the "bad thing," that says it all! Either -- or confusing the good with the bad -- could lead to "Réalisant mon espoir, / Je me lance vers la gloire" (Fulfilling my ambition, I propel myself to glory). Maybe he raped and killed someone. Maybe consensual sex fills him with guilt, which turns to rage in his burning bed. Either way, this guy has delusions of grandeur. Neither the good nor the bad he might have done smacks of glory, so "Run run run run run run run away" is looking more appealing all the time.

"We are vain and we are blind / I hate people when they’re not polite." Well, he sure seems vain in his French mode, in condemning people for engaging in small talk, and in considering himself above doing so. And he isn’t very polite -- whether merely due to his superior and aloof attitude or due to his crimes. Like some "psycho killers," perhaps he has reached a point where he thinks killing others is worthwhile even if -- or because -- doing so would lead to his own destruction as well.

I slay you, I slay me

What starts out as superficially fashionable comments -- examining and revealing oneself, acknowledging one’s limitations, being "vulnerable" -- shifts to irrational complaints, then plunges into desperate ravings. The listener’s hair would stand on end, except that the abstract lyrics include no gory murder images, and the opening tells us the song is satire. Stating that one "can’t seem to face up to the facts" might seem ordinary spoken to a close friend or a psychiatrist, but it is comically awkward, prosaic, and emotionally detached as a singer’s self-introduction. Compare with "I think I’m gonna be sad, I think it’s today, yeah …," or, "Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning, and the first thing that I saw…," or, "I got a dollar in my pocket, there ain’t a cloud up above…."

The way Byrne sings "Psycho Killer" -- mimicking demented speech -- is undeniably tongue-in-cheek. So are his fits of out-of-control screaming, the psychotically choppy treble-intensive rhythm guitar, and other details of the recording. Perhaps the surest indication "Killer" is satire and isn’t meant to glorify motiveless murder: Three decades have passed since Talking Heads 77 hit the stores and Byrne’s royalties have not been paying rent on a padded room.

In just a couple dozen lines including repeated ones, this ingenious song engages, amuses, and raises questions. Who is the psycho killer? Me? You? The guy who just the other day told you something peculiarly intimate about himself just moments after you’d met him? Why strive to maintain normalcy if normalcy typifies the psycho killer as much it does his victim or his innocent neighbor? Like rock of many styles, "Psycho Killer" conveys through one succinct thought the broader concept that we should be skeptical of social fictions and received assumptions.

...David J. Cantor

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