May 14, 1952– David Byrne:
“Let’s go out
To the place
Where the hands of time are slowed
Where no one walks
No one dies
No more hassles anymore”
In 1978, at a party, I heard a song titled Psycho Killer that changed my mind about the way I listened to music. At that time, my musical menu was full of Sondheim, plus college favorites: Carole King, Carly Simon, James Taylor, Paul Simon, plus lots of old school R&B. When I heard my first Talking Heads single I am sure I was quite high. But, Psycho Killer would have made a very strong impression under any condition. I had never heard something so raw and primal, and yet so tuneful. I have remained a lifelong fan.
The Husband (then The Boyfriend) and I watched the late, great Jonathan Demme’s masterful documentary Stop Making Sense (1984) several times. It was playing in the Pike Place Cinema, just steps away from where we lived in the Pike Place Market in Seattle. I sort of remember doing ‘shrooms and dancing in the aisles… actually I am sure I did that. It may be the best concert film of all time. It is different from other filmed concerts with its use of a carefully scripted performance. It is unusual for the genre because Demme uses few quick cuts, audience shots, applause sounds or unnecessary props (apparently, Byrne insisted all objects not central to the film be painted flat black). This film is most famous for Byrne’s eccentric and electric showmanship, the nutty choreography, and, of course, The Big White Suit.
I have every album by Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Byrne’s solo work, his collaborations with Brian Eno: The Catherine Wheel (1981) and My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (1981), plus his Academy Award-winning score with gay composer Ryuichi Sakamoto for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987). I have never stopped listening through the decades. My favorite song of all time is a Byrne/Talking Heads composition, Once In A Lifetime. I still get shivers each time I hear it.
Byrne was born in Scotland, but he spent his youth in the suburbs of Hamilton, Ontario, and Baltimore. The innocuous middle-class landscapes of those places played a role in shaping many of his songs. He is the son of a respected scientist. After high school, Byrne was accepted at the prestigious Rhode Island School Of Design (RISD) in 1970. He only went for a year, dismissing art school as overpriced and unnecessary. While at RISD, he met drummer Chris Franz and bassist Tina Weymouth which resulted in the formation of Talking Heads, the greatest band of the “New Wave” era.
The band landed regular gigs at the NYC music club CBGB. It was one of the few clubs to feature bands with a new sound, like The Ramones, Television, and Blondie. This small Manhattan venue was the birthplace of the fledgling Punk and New Wave scenes of the late 1970’s. By 1979, Talking Heads was the most influential band around. They already had two critically praised and popular albums and had appeared as musical guests on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. As lead singer and lyricist, Byrne got the most attention. His intense, frenetic stage persona made him a charismatic, original performer, and his astute yet accessible lyrics were loved by both pop fans and avant-garde purists.
They recorded eight original albums, plus a live album and two films. The band made 15 videos, working with important directors: Demme, Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, receiving heavy rotation on MTV. Their groundbreaking fusion of pop, disco, funk, and experimental music, along with Byrne’s refreshingly innocent, joyous lyrics, proved popular with music fans of all ages and persuasions. My circle of friends gave a new Talking Heads release the status of a holiday.
Talking Heads officially broke up in 1991, even though the band’s working relationship had been dysfunctional since the release of Naked in 1988. All the members wanted out to do side and solo projects.
Byrne remains an ambitious and prolific artist, working in a staggering variety of genres. Even before the band split up, he had released several solo albums and collaborated on recordings with other musicians. He established his own label, Luaka Bop, in 1990, founded to promote World Music musicians. He has had drawings, paintings, photographs and furnishings displayed at important galleries and museums. In the late 1990’s he hosted the PBS series Sessions At West 54th. He has appeared on The Simpsons and Inside The Actors Studio.
In 2002, Byrne created a giant flowchart to cover scaffolding at Saks Fifth Avenue in NYC. It was titled Everything Is Connected, and showed how designers and their brands could be connected to various trends and people in pop culture, notably, he connected Donna Karan with Karl Marx, and Prada with reality television.
Here Lies Love, a musical about Imelda Marcos, written in collaboration with Fatboy Slim, debuted at Adelaide Festival Of Arts in Australia in 2006 and then was performed at Carnegie Hall, NYC in 2007. It had long run at The Public Theatre two years ago and then toured. A reimagined version recently played to excellent reviews and SRO crowds at Seattle Rep and seems headed for Broadway.
Byrne is noted for his activism in support of Bicycling and for having used a bike as his main means of transport for most of his life, especially cycling around NYC. He has a regular cycling column in the NY Times. We have that in common. Like me, he does not own a car. Byrne has written widely on cycling, including a book Cycling Diaries (2009). Byrne has designed a series of bicycle parking racks in the form of image outlines corresponding to the NYC neighborhoods in which they were located, such as a dollar sign for Wall Street, a gay gym bunny in Chelsea, a desperate chorus boy at Time Square, a Jewish Intellectual on the Upper West Side, and a dead hipster in Williamsburg.
In late March, Byrne’s new rock musical Joan Of Arc: Into The Fire, opened at the Public Theatre, under the direction of Alex Timbers. At Carnegie Hall last Friday, African musician Angélique Kidjo, based in Brooklyn, performed Talking Heads, album Remain In Light, track by track. Byrne was in the house seeing another great artist doing his strongest, strangest work. He is currently collaborating on an album with experimental composer Oneohtrix Point Never and just announced a new album with Brian Eno for release in early 2018.
On Thursday evening, Byrne performed at a benefit for Million Witnesses, celebrating 25 years of making Human Rights change happen through the use of video and technology. Million Witnesses raises funds to help marginalized communities to amplify their voices, expose the truth, and achieve justice.
Byrne has spoken out against POTUS’ proposal to eliminate the National Endowments For The Arts and Humanities, as well as the Corporation For Public Broadcasting and the Woodrow Wilson International Center For Scholars:
“You may hate the arts. You may hate the stuff that people paint and the theater that they do, but do you want to lose all those jobs? Do we want to kill this part of the economy? That’s just completely stupid…”
I have every reason to believe, although it has never been formally discussed, that David Byrne is The Husband’s favorite musical artist. We have seen Byrne in concert several times through the decades. In 2009, I had given The Husband two tickets to see Byrne in concert for his birthday (hoping he would take me as his date). The concert was called Songs Of David Byrne And Brian Eno, all songs associated with their collaborations. I was overcome with relief when, post-concert, while walking down the street, The Husband turned to me and said: ”
Am I wrong, or was that the best concert we have ever seen? And, we have seen quite a few concerts in our 30 years together.”