House on Fire


House on Fire

“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 about them has smoldered in the back of my mind for a couple decades, never rising to the place of careful consideration. Until today.

This essay recounts some seemingly disparate observations that were suddenly brought together for me in remarkable fashion by this Talking Heads song. I hope you find each element intriguing, and how they ultimately integrate to be downright, well, Earth-shattering.  Read on.


Not too long ago, I was reacquainted with a unique little volume entitled “The Clock of the Long Now” written in 2000 by Steward Brand. One of the quotes that I had pulled from the book reads as follows:

“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.”

It seems to me that our society’s “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, a 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 to me, though, is how those of us who think climate change is real and human-caused still knowingly run towards this precipice! We continue to demand and use huge amounts of fossil fuels for our travel, food and myriad goods and services.   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 economic system that demands growth for its own sake to consider itself successful. Even though some of us profess wanting to steer away from the cliffs of climate change, the structure of our society and the mantra of growth-at-all-costs drag, push and compel us towards the danger.


This morning, 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!

A couple hours later, I was returning from an errand to the ReSource Yard to pick up reclaimed lumber for educational displays I was making. On my 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. 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, that familiar, clanging beat arose out of musical background and imposed itself upon my consciousness. 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 question slowly condensed in my mind: “Why do those of us who believe that climate change is real find it difficult to do anything about it? . . . Why are we collectively burning down the house? ”

Back home, I couldn’t wait to research the lyrics. According to Wikipedia, 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.” (

This seemed odd to me. Could these lyrics possibly be nothing more than random, meaningless drivel generated for their sheer compatibility with musical phrasing?” I couldn’t believe it!  With great skepticism, I read the lyrics again and then embarked on further research. Fascinating facts emerged. One interesting thing: these supposedly pointless, hollow words were placed on Clear Channel Radio’s list of possibly inappropriate songs after the infamous September 11 attacks! A second point of interest: 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.” This seemed to contradict my initial findings that the lyrics of “Burning Down the House” have no meaning at all. Ha! Well, if this is true, so is the adage that nature abhors a vacuum! If the Talking Heads could backfill meaningless lyrics into an instrumental jam, then I could choose to backfill meaning into that void. So, here are 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, just wait until the party’s over, but we’re in for nasty weather. 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

(Our 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, where all we learn is to fight fire with fire.)

I was further stunned by just a bit more digging: 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 it wouldn’t be surprising if they did, 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. Let’s put that fire out and save our house!