If the cover song is the highest form of musical flattery, then David Byrne must be tickled pink at how his 1983 classic “This Must Be the Place (NaÃ¯ve Melody)” has fared over the years. It was perhaps most famously covered by Arcade Fire, with the endorsement (and participation) of Byrne, as a B-side to their single “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out).” But it’s also been moped over by the Counting Crows, stretched into a full-on jam by The String Cheese Incident, piped from a laptop by MGMT and whimpered by Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio, who prefaced his cover by saying “A lot of people have told me this is their favorite Talking Heads song.”
Byrne is an undeniably great songwriter, but so many of his songs are weirdo musings on a distinct topic, a la “Artists Only”’s searing send-up of art-school snobbery or “(Nothing But) Flowers’” longing for chain stores after the world becomes overgrown with — you got it — flowers. “This Must Be the Place” is one of few love songs Byrne wrote with Talking Heads, and he included it in Speaking in Tongues, perhaps the most accessible album they recorded. But it was more than just the right song at the right time.
There is something in Byrne’s impressionistic lyrics that touches people — especially, it seems, young people. “I’m just an animal looking for a home,” he sings, and who among us hasn’t felt that way in the post-graduate haze of our early twenties? Perhaps this is why, no matter how many covers of the song have surfaced over the years, each version seems to belong distinctly to its singer. Everyone who sings it sings from a personal place and means it in a way that only he can. Nearly 20 years after its original release, “This Must Be the Place” has become something greater than the sum of its parts, some pop culture version of a hymn or a cherished lullaby. It connects us not only to the beauty of the music itself, but also to all the people who have ever loved it or clung to it in a moment of joy or sadness.
There are times while you are traveling alone when the gravity of utter lonliness becomes suddenly and shockingly real, and all you want is to go someplace that feels like home. Out of nowhere, the things that have been sustaining you — the kindness of strangers, the baguette you stowed in your purse to take comforting bites of when you start feeling uneasy, finding a shady patch of grass where you can snatch a few precious moments of sleep — cease to keep at bay the edge of fear that make solo voyaging feel urgent and infused with meaning. In these moments, you imagine a camera focused on you from above, lingering on your face for a few moments before zooming out at a frightening speed, up above the tall buildings, then the clouds and finally through the atmosphere and beyond until the Earth is just a tiny speck in the frame, and you just a tiny speck upon it. Before you know it, your day of sightseeing has been intruded upon by some hint of the infinite and the knowledge that you’re actually totally powerless in the face of it all, and, well, it’s pretty heavy.
For me, this heady show-down with infinity started with a closed-down pizza shop. But first, there was Budapest.
After a week of good home cooking and farting around in Budapest with a Belgian Erasmus student and an American friend of mine from a stint teaching English in Korea, I was riding high on the notion that we all might, in fact, be Nietzschean ubermencsh on the verge of ushering in a new paradigm of human existence. It sounds ridiculous now, but we had spent the week in such perfect harmony with each other, experiencing even the smallest pleasures as so outrageously decadent, that it was easy to imagine we had tapped into some vein of existential knowledge inaccessible to most of the rest of humanity. Emboldened by the certainty that nothing in my life could ever go wrong again, I took a detour to Rome, where I had studied abroad some years before. If I was embracing invincibility, I figured, I might as well take an extra 24 hours of train travel just to stop in the Eternal City for my favorite pizza and gelato. Both were heavenly, holy almost, stunning representations of what man could do if he dedicated his life to the pursuit of perfection in one tiny niche.
It seems fitting, then, that the disappearance of this pizza from the world was enough to derail the hubris and relentless joy that had led me to Rome in search of thin-crust perfection. I arrived at 21 Via di San Francesco a Ripa, the home of Nick & Tony’s, on a clear and sunny afternoon, anticipating a day of gluttony. But Nick & Tony’s was gone, replaced by an upscale restaurant. And my flimsy excuse for this absurd indulgence of a trip was gone. Now I was here in the glaring sunlight, hungry, almost out of money and with no place to go. My old neighborhood, Trastevere, wasn’t full of the smiling, familiar faces that populated my daydreams on the train. It was just another strange place full of strange people, and I was just another white girl with a backpack, dodging aggressive drivers as they zoomed down the small alleys I was wandering.
I had been thinking of Rome so fondly, all dripping heaps of gelato and accidental sightings of the Pope, but as I slumped there on the cobblestones where Nick & Tony’s used to be, other memories started bubbling up, memories that didn’t support my fantasy of being fabulously enlightened and able to transcend pain. There was the time a barefoot man stumbled down the sidewalk in the middle of the afternoon and shoved his hand up my dress as I tried to squeeze past him; or the night some guy tried to mug my friends using a comically long needle as a weapon; the Spanish boy from school who’d taken me out on a date and spent the night scolding me for eating too much and commenting on my “beer belly”; or the time the controllari caught me on the bus with no ticket and demanded I fork over 50 Euros on the spot or face jail time. Or that Fat Tuesday we decided to venture away from the ex-pat bars and my purse was stolen, along with my iPod, a music fanatic’s worst nightmare in the days before widespread Internet access. I’d spent the next four months singing Talking Heads’ “This Must be the Place (Naive Melody)” to myself as I walked to and from school.
That song had been with me every day of my old life in Rome, as constant as the club-footed beggar boy at Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere or the speakers that blared the Vatican’s church service in my neighborhood every Sunday. I sang that song to celebrate after I understood my first joke told in Italian. I’d hummed it in the kitchen the night our neighbors climbed up from their terrace and through the window of my flat to cook my roommates and I dinner. I started my walk to school from the Vatican each morning whistling the synth lines from the beginning, breaking into the first verse by the time I reached the Vittorio Emanuele II bridge and belting louder as I reached Trastevere’s sparsely populated streets. The man who guarded the door to my school once told me he always knew I was coming before he could see me, because he could hear me singing as I approached. That song was woven so deeply into the fabric of the five months I had lived in Rome, it had become a part of me and who I was there.
Back on the cobblestones, slouched over and wondering what to do next, the disappointment of this leg of my journey became so real and stood in such stark contrast to the bliss of the preceding week, I suddenly wanted the whole backpacking trip to be over. Everything I knew was wrong, and I wasn’t an ubermencsh at all, and the world did not, in fact, shift according to my plans and desires. I really was just a speck on a speck in the vastness of the universe. Then, for some reason, “This Must Be the Place” faded in to my consciousness. A light went on. Maybe the place I had hoped to go and get a taste of my old life was gone, but one of the most fundamental touchstones of that life was right there in my bag.
I fished my iPod from my purse, popped in my earbuds and cued up the song, and the city seemed to come into focus around me, same as it ever was. In a few notes, the feeling of being lost and alone in a strange place washed away, and Rome transformed back into a place I knew and remembered fondly. I hauled myself to my feet, shouldered the backpack and began walking nowhere in particular, keeping time to the music with my feet. Here was the familiar smell of orange peels ditched on the street. There, the buzz of a Vespa. From a window above, the sounds of that regular at the café, the one who never stops whistling. And here comes that handsome Brit from the gallery down the street, the one all the girls at school used to fawn over. A short walk away was Old Bridge Gelateria, my other reason for visiting, and I could call on my old fruit vendor on the way there. I could still have my gluttonous Roman afternoon, and I could finally soundtrack my walk along the Tiber not with my own whistling, sputtering version of the song, but with the lovely original rendition. Besides, there were plenty of other good pizzerias in Rome.
I had come back to the Eternal City after weeks of travel and novelty, looking for something I knew. In the end, I got what I wished for, just not the way I had planned. I listened to “This Must Be the Place” over and over that day, and each time David Byrne opened the second verse with those perfect lines, “Home/is where I want to be/but I guess I’m already there,” I knew what he was saying was true. And if I ever start a band, there’s no question which song I’ll choose for my first cover.