Imelda: The Nightclub Years
No shoes? No brutal husband? David Byrne tells Andrew Purcell why he teamed up with Fatboy Slim to write an opera about the disco-loving side of Imelda Marcos.
David Byrne keeps a small black diary on his bookcase, with "DB - Idears" written on the spine in gold ink. Without flicking through its pages (a sore temptation when left alone in his study), there's no telling how old it might be. It could contain handwritten lyrics for Talking Heads songs, a note to his occasional collaborators Brian Eno or Twyla Tharp, a draft screenplay for his 1986 film, True Stories, or a sketch for the chair made out of dried macaroni that sits by the window.
If his latest project was conceived there, it was surely a red-letter day, two silver stars, with an exclamation mark as bold as Byrne's shock of white hair: "May 12 - Write opera about Imelda Marcos! Call Fatboy Slim." It could be a gag about art-rockers in middle-age, a riff born out of his famously restless imagination - except for the fact that, this Saturday at New York's Carnegie Hall, the curtain goes up on that very project.
Byrne sits on a swivel seat in his studio. His hairy arms are salt-and-pepper now, his eyes intense and fidgety. No one would ever call him relaxed, but he is friendly and patient, even though describing the creative process comes much less easily than the art itself.
"Some years ago I read some books about the courts of people in power," he explains. "They behave in an artificial, theatrical manner. They have rules that have nothing to do with the real world. Then I read about Imelda Marcos and her going to [notorious New York nightclub] Studio 54, and converting the roof of the palace in Manila to a disco. I thought, 'Maybe this is a way in for me, maybe that music is an expression of what having that kind of power feels like.' Not that people in a club after a few hours of dancing go, 'Off with his head!' But there is this heady feeling, and there may be some connections there."
Byrne's opera, Here Lies Love, was designed to be a multimedia production that could be sent out on the road. But at Carnegie Hall, as at the show's debut in Adelaide, Australia, last year, he will lead the band, link the songs with a minimal, unscripted narration and lend his joyous, irrepressible yelp to the odd number. Two comparative unknowns play the key roles: Dana Diaz-Tutaan as the first lady of the Philippines, with Ganda Suthivarakom as her servant, Estrella.
The musical follows the "Steel Butterfly" from the genteel poverty of her childhood to the wild extravagance of her life in New York, where she engaged in handbag diplomacy with five US presidents, became close friends with Ronald and Nancy Reagan and charmed everyone from Pope John Paul II to Emperor Hirohito of Japan. "It was liberating being able to write from the point of view of another character," Byrne says. "No one's going to think you're using that character to voice your own opinions. I love the idea that it's all true, that I can write a song about her dancing with Kissinger and it's documented and there's video footage to prove it."
Byrne spent weeks cycling around Manila on his fold-up bicycle, interviewing scores of people, some of whom suffered under Ferdinand Marcos and others who still adore his widow - but the show steers clear of moral judgments. Several Australian critics complained that the widespread corruption and state-sponsored murder that defined the later years of the Marcos regime should have been addressed. In the Age, Raymond Gill wrote: "It's like doing a concert about Pinocchio and not mentioning his nose." Nor is there any reference to Imelda's infamous collection of shoes.
"For me, the darker side of the excesses are, for the most part, a matter of record," Byrne says. "A lot of the audience are going to come with that knowledge already. What's more of a challenge is to get inside the head of the person who was behind all of that, and understand what made them tick. You could set up another character who's always railing at them, criticising human rights abuses or whatever else. I haven't done that."
Byrne recruited Fatboy Slim, aka Norman Cook, despite never having met him before; after a year of exchanging songs and beats over the internet, he flew to Britain to record at Cook's studio in Brighton. Byrne describes the music as "house, techno, vaguely Latin", but won't share it yet.
"I imagined it being dance music, so I thought I should go to a professional for help," he says. "Norman's awfully good at that - he has played an instrument at some point, so has an innate sense of song structure that not everyone in the dance community has. He knows what a song is."
Although Byrne is widely perceived as a singular, idiosyncratic artist, most of his best work is in fact the result of collaborations such as this. The Grammy and Golden Globe trophies on his mantelpiece, tucked away behind cans of mushy peas and microwavable spotted dick, are for his score for The Last Emperor, written with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su. He has a long-standing creative partnership with Brian Eno, their best known collaboration being the pioneering, sample-based album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. He created The Catherine Wheel with choreographer Twyla Tharp and The Knee Plays with theatre director Robert Wilson, and has recently been working on a series of books with fellow polymath Dave Eggers.
"I think I am a little bit of a control freak," he admits. "Maybe I've learned to accommodate and steer things, to give in, but then incorporate the giving in into something I'm comfortable with. I'm trying to think of a real head-butting episode." There is a long pause, during which I imagine him throwing microphones at crew members during rehearsals for the Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense. "Maybe my choices have been fortuitous," he says.
For three years, Byrne has been keeping a journal on his website, by turns revealing and thought-provoking, always with more questions than answers. "I was a peculiar young man," he wrote last April. "Borderline Asperger's, I guess."
"I'd only heard of Asperger's a few years ago," Byrne says now, "when a group out of Stanford proposed a spectrum that goes from autism to Asperger's to sort-of-good-at-math. I thought, 'Wow, I see a lot of myself in that.' Not that I was good at math, but I could be very focused on certain projects, and painfully shy - although I'd get up on stage, and then be incredibly shy the minute I stepped off.
"And it fits that at some point, after a couple of decades, it wears off. I thought that the bits of therapy I've had, and making an effort to be more social, really paid off, but it could just be that it wears off by itself."
There is a small paper sign stuck to the door of Byrne's studio. The writing is childish and the sentiment anti-social: "Do not enter my personal space, you are not welcome since your presence interferes with my lifestyle and gives me a headache."
His assistant brings tea in a mug bearing the grinning faces of George Bush and Dick Cheney, a commemorative item for their inauguration in January 2001, before the war on terror had been set in motion. Byrne was a vocal opponent of the invasion of Iraq, but has since contented himself with blogging to the converted on his website. "It's like we're in shock. At least I am," he says. "The majority of Americans don't want to commit more troops, Congress doesn't want to commit more troops, the Iraqis don't want more troops, but George and Dick do, and by God they're gonna have it. And I thought, 'Holy fuck! Can they just do this?' I thought only people like Saddam Hussein could do those kind of things."
He is writing an elliptical protest song, which could be the flipside of Listening Wind, from the fourth Talking Heads album Remain in Light, in which he gave voice to a terrorist, Mojique, with plans to bomb American imperialists. "I have some lyrics that I've been working on," he says. "I'm trying to figure out how to write a political song that's very personal, that's not ranting about a specific issue or event, but that deals with what it feels like in a culture that allows those things to happen, or how you sense a prevailing mood in a culture or a society."
It is a return to Life During Wartime, and as that song observed, this ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no fooling around. Rome is burning, but Byrne is dancing in the flames, hand in hand with Imelda Marcos.