House on Fire

View from Legion Park“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

Hold tight wait till the party’s over Hold tight We’re in for nasty weather There has got to be a way Burning down the house”

Thus read the first two stanzas of the hit rock song, “Burning Down the House.”   Despite the driving, clanging beat that obscure the lyrics, I’ve long been fascinated and slightly troubled by these words. A sense of significance has smoldered in the back of my mind for a couple decades, never rising to the place of careful consideration.

In the intervening years, a book entitled “The Clock of the Long Now” did capture my attention. Recently, this little known book brought the much-more-famous Talking Heads song to life, as we shall see! The book opens with:

“Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multi-tasking. All are on the increase. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed . . . where ‘long-term’ is measured at least in centuries.”

I resonated greatly with this unique little volume, written in 199 by Steward Brand. It seems to me that our “pathologically short attention span” is a major impediment to our ability to move towards healthy and lasting ways of living – sustainability, if you like. The book (and now website for the Long Now Foundation – posits: we “need a mechanism or myth which encourages the long view.”   Unfortunately, the long view seems forever over the horizon. With an increasingly abbreviated attention span, our society rushes like lemmings towards all manner of cliffs.

One of the cliffs we are dashing towards is climate change.   So-called “climate deniers” make it harder for us to collectively see the cliff even exists. More disheartening, though, is how those of us who think climate change is real and human-caused still knowingly run towards this precipice! Why would we do this? At least part of the explanation is that our entire society – climate change believers and naysayers alike – is caught up in an ever-hastening quest for growth for its own sake. We want to steer away from the cliffs, but the structure of our society and the mantra of growth-at-all-costs seem to compel us in lock-step towards the danger.


Recently, I attended an assembly at my kids’ elementary school presented by a well-known, accomplished wildlife photographer. It was an excellent presentation with incredibly beautiful and engaging photographs. The dramatic shots of Bald Eagles were almost as captivating as the live Bald Eagle the presenter brought along!   Just as compelling to me, though, was that he chose to link the fate of wildlife with climate change. Gently and effectively, through story and photos, he explained how climate change is basic to the fate of wildlife species he’d been discussing and to our human well-being as well. He encouraged kids to learn about how their energy choices affect the world and endorsed a switch to LED lights, solar energy and efficient cars. That this popular photographer was using his craft to make these points and being welcomed by the school to do so is encouraging!

Later that same day, I was returning from an errand to the ReSource Yard to pick up reclaimed lumber for educational displays I was making. On the way back, I pulled off at Legion Park, a hilltop oasis overlooking Boulder, the front range of the Rockies and the Valmont Power Plant. Even with the stacks of the power plant in the foreground, the sight is stunningly beautiful sight. While munching a sandwich, I contemplated the morning presentation, the coal being burned, the massive amounts of energy being used all around me and my own role in all of this. “Oldies” wafted from the radio, a background to my reverie.

Suddenly, a familiar, clanging beat imposed itself upon me. Hold tight wait till the party’s over; Hold tight We’re in for nasty weather; There has got to be a way; Burning down the house.“No, it couldn’t be,” I thought as the words gathered like a haze over the Valmont smokestacks. From this cloud, a familiar question slowly condensed: “Why do those of us who believe that climate change is real find it difficult to do anything about it?”

Back home, I couldn’t wait to research the lyrics. Wikipedia yielded this: Apparently the words for “Burning Down the House” were “backfilled” into the song. In an NPR interview, David Byrne of the Talking Heads said that the song started simply as an instrumental jam. Using a technique favored by band member, Brian Eno, Byrne would “just write words to fit that phrasing.” Byrne said that various renditions of the song included phrases “I have another body,” “Pick it up by the handle,” “You travel with a double,” and “I’m still under construction.” (

“What?” I thought to myself . . .“the words are nothing but random, meaningless drivel?” I read them again with great skepticism and further research yielded some fascinating facts. These supposedly pointless, hollow words were placed on Clear Channel Radio’s list of possibly inappropriate songs after the infamous September 11 attacks! Not only that, Brian Eno of the Talking Heads is a passionate and long-time advocate for action on global warming! Eno has organized events to call attention to climate change. Coincidence?

Eno has said “. . . artists can create a sense of what is cool and what is not, what is acceptable, exciting, timely… I would like to see a future where artists think that they have a right to contemplate things like global warming.” And yet, the lyrics of “Burning Down the House” supposedly have no meaning at all. Ha! Well, if this is true, so is the adage that nature abhors a vacuum! If the Talking Heads can backfill gibberish lyrics into an instrumental jam, then I choose to backfill meaning into that void. Check out the lyrics of Burning Down the House with my Interpretations shown in bold italics immediately after each stanza:


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

                   (We’re all in this together, ordinary people, burning down the house)

Hold tight wait till the party’s over Hold tight We’re in for nasty weather There has got to be a way Burning down the house

(We can, indeed, to just wait until the party’s over, but there has to be another way).

Here’s your ticket pack your bag: time for jumpin’ overboard The transportation is here Close enough but not too far, Maybe you know where you are Fightin’ fire with fire

(We’re all playing the growth game, hoping our ticket will be enough to get us through . . . we’re fighting fire with fire.)

All wet hey you might need a raincoat Shakedown dreams walking in broad daylight Three hun-dred six-ty five de-grees Burning down the house

       (Every day of the year, all around the globe, we’re following the dream of growth.)

It was once upon a place sometimes I listen to myself Gonna come in first place People on their way to work baby what did you except Gonna burst into flame

(We’re all playing the growth game, just going to work, hoping to come in first place . . . Gonna burst into flame.)

My house S’out of the ordinary That’s might Don’t want to hurt nobody Some things sure can sweep me off my feet Burning down the house

(That big house is a sign of might, not of right . . . but we don’t want to hurt nobody)

No visible means of support and you have not seen nuthin’ yet Everything’s stuck together I don’t know what you expect starring into the TV set Fighting fire with fire

(It doesn’t seem like we’re connected to something bigger, but we are. Can’t get that from a screen.)

Later, I did more research and was stunned by what I found: it was none other than Brian Eno who coined the terms “The Clock of the Long Now” and “Long Now Foundation.” See his inspiring essay on these ideas at . In this essay, Eno writes:

“Humans are capable of a unique trick: creating realities by first imagining them, by experiencing them in their minds. When Martin Luther King said “I have a dream…” , he was inviting others to dream it with him. Once a dream becomes shared in that way, current reality gets measured against it and then modified towards it. As soon as we sense the possibility of a more desirable world, we begin behaving differently – as though that world is starting to come into existence, as though, in our minds at least, we’re already there. The dream becomes an invisible force which pulls us forward. By this process it starts to come true. The act of imagining something makes it real.”

It’s a mindset we’re in need of. One in which we see ourselves as a seamless continuum of a living planet. A perspective that allows us to slow down and see alternatives. Into the daydreams we still occasionally enjoy in the midst of our rushed lives, perhaps we can backfill this awareness. Into whatever we’re doing, whatever we’re thinking, wherever we are, we can plant the seeds of new possibilities. We can envision alternatives to growing ourselves to death. It’s true – Everything’s stuck together. Backfill that!

So . . . did Brian Eno or other Talking Heads intend something with the curious and powerful words of “Burning Down the House?” Hard to tell, I guess, but if he did, it would not be surprising, given Eno’s interests and the fact that he “would like to see a future where artists think that they have a right to contemplate things like global warming.”   (

Let’s envision alternatives to growth and avoid that cliff.