Rock's Renaissance Man
"Oh," David Byrne said, "you want to see the African fire ants?"
It was deep night out on a Texas plain flat as a pan bottom and just about burned through. A recent rain had slaked the land a little but brought forth legions of ants to infest the ground and pester a nearby film set.
Exterminators were summoned, ants dispatched, but one actor, arriving late, felt he had missed out on some fun. "Follow me," said Byrne sympathetically, as he grabbed a flashlight and walked into the dark.
This is a man whose first great song was called Psycho Killer. A man who is the formative force behind Talking Heads, one of the decade's most formidable bands, a group responsible for the sweetest, strangest, funniest rock to roll over the '70s and nestle into the '80s. A man who should be hanging close to the set, seeing to the details of directing his first feature film, not striking out on some weird nocturnal expedition in search of hymenopterous marauders. He may not resemble the manic murderer in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but he will never be mistaken for Mark Trail either. Is this a man to follow into the night?
No question. It took a while, and a little stumbling, but Byrne found what he was looking for. He stood near a mound of earth and shone his light down and waited. This was no exterminator. He was more like an ally. And after just a little while, the fire ants came out for David Byrne.
He has been, for ten years now, a cool hand at bringing up all manner of crawly things from just below the surface. Byrne and the Heads made music that examined some of the oddest, spookiest manifestations of modern emotional life, sang songs that turned grim tidings into deadpan jokes and disaffection into disarming social parables. Byrne's lyrics played four-wall handball with anomie and, floating all around the band's cunning and enterprising rhythms, moved the Heads past punk and over the crest of rock's new wave into a forefront they had sharpened up for themselves.
The Heads were a prominent part of a creative community that kicked avant- garde American culture into a newer, more accessible shape. Music, dance, performance art and rock all flowed together into a single swift stream, which Byrne navigated effortlessly (see following story). He also wrote scores for the spectacular theatrical ruminations of Robert Wilson (The Knee Plays, segments of Wilson's grand-scale project, the CIVIL warS) and the spirited, quirky choreography of Twyla Tharp. "He is very precise and very careful," Tharp says admiringly. "He doesn't waste things, but he is also capable of being very adventuresome and working with great imagination in a studio." Indeed, Byrne's 73-minute score for Tharp's The Catherine Wheel was a dazzling bit of aw-shucks virtuosity.
In his younger years, Byrne's ambitions were not quite as grand. "Gosh, I'd love to be a mailman," Byrne, 34, sometimes thought as he was growing up. "Read postcards, walk around the neighborhood." If Byrne sent out cards of his own about his career, the messages might go something like this: "Heads bust out -- six of our ten albums go gold"; "Heads albums make the Top 20 (Remain in Light to No. 19, Speaking in Tongues to No. 15)"; "Hi everybody. Gone to Hollywood. Love, David."
True Stories, the movie Byrne directed between ant forays in Texas, promises to introduce its maker's quirky imagination to the widest audience yet. He also co-scripted it, helped design it, acts in it and wrote the score, which, as performed by the Heads, is currently selling fast in your neighborhood record store. True Stories, which opened in New York City two weeks ago, and will be playing in half a dozen cities by month's end, was made for under $5 million, slightly more than the catering budget at a studio Christmas party.
The film has no box-office stars, no sex appeal and no traditional production values. It is photographed in hues that look like a dishware party -- color by Tupperware -- and its biggest scene is a talent contest that concludes a sesquicentennial Celebration of Specialness in the mythical town of Virgil, Texas (pop. 40,000 and growing). Kind of a downtown Our Town, you might say, full of high boho spirits and jokey asides that illuminate with fondness as often as they satirize without malice. But do not doubt it for a second: True Stories is the most joyous and inventive rock movie-musical since the Beatles scrambled through Help!
Byrne in person is unassuming and unprepossessing, a still, shrewd presence. "I've seen David in a room full of people, acting like he was reading the newspaper," says Jo Harvey Allen, who enlivens the movie with her periodic appearances as the Lying Woman. "Two weeks later, he would make some comment about who said what, some tiny detail. He doesn't miss anything." On screen, as True Stories' Narrator chatting to the camera or wandering through the action in a red Chrysler convertible, there is something both warming and ominous about him. The voice, maybe: flat, arrhythmic, dispensing stream-of- consciousness folk wisdom ("Things that never had names before now are easily described. It makes conversation easy") like an old-time pharmacist handing out a Bromo. Or just his presence: decked out in cowboy duds ("They sell a lot of these around here, but I never see anybody else wearing them"), moonstruck and heartfelt, with knowing eyes and open face and sloping, sculpted jaw. Gregory Peck dosed out on lithium. He sure gives you pause. Then he makes you laugh.
"People talk about how strange I am," says the man who dances onstage like a Bunraku puppet leading an aerobics class and ended his last series of Talking Heads concerts wearing a huge white suit cut like a tailored tennis court. "Of course, being inside myself, not having the perspective, I don't think I'm odd at all. I can see that what I'm doing is not exactly what everyone else is doing, but I don't think of it as strange."
Not exactly, indeed. Byrne's band started out in the punk new-wave era but outlasted and outclassed it. His lyric for their 1979 song Life During Wartime has a spooky pertinence that sounds like sci-fi for a perpetual present tense:
Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons,
What made Heads songs like this so insinuating -- so persistent, so haunting -- was not just their edginess but their off-kilter humor. A verse full of imminent violence could almost scar you with surprise, scare you from laughing. Then a chorus ("This ain't no party, this ain't no disco,/ This ain't no fooling around"/ This ain't the Mudd Club, or CBGB/ I ain't got time for that now") comes bouncing in to turn everything inside out and dare you not to.
Byrne and the band are still looking for laughter and surprise, but the tune is different. Nowadays it has a larky uptempo swing that sounds like a roadhouse Saturday night and goes like this:
Wild Wild Life, currently jollying up Top 40 radio, could be the Heads' happiest hit yet. It is, additionally, the musical cornerstone for True Stories, perfectly capturing the sense of wonder that infuses the film. If True Stories hits American films the way Talking Heads hit music, things are going to be different around here. It's going to be a wild, wild life.
"David is one of those people who has forced us to redefine what we mean by popular culture and serious culture, commercial art and noncommercial art," says Philip Glass, who has known and worked with Byrne since 1975. "He so resolutely does his own work regardless of whether it is commercial or noncommercial, and with so little regard for the canons of either of those fields, that he creates something uniquely his own."
If all this seems a bit rarefied for the populist currents of rock culture, it should be remembered that Byrne and the Heads were one of the few new-wave bands to groove on black music and learn from it. Heads albums like Fear of Music (1979), Remain in Light (1980) and the stunning Speaking in Tongues (1983) have a heavy soul inflection and an African accent. When Byrne collaborated with Rock Producer and Theorist Brian Eno on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981), the results were like trance music programmed for a ghetto blaster.
Lately Byrne's music has been swimming in odd, winding tributaries close by the mainstream. He will defend his independent writing away from the band by saying, "Just because you say you love pop or rock or whatever it's called, that doesn't exclude liking other kinds of things." He says the True Stories score is "pop songs, and, for us, it sounds fairly conventional," but it might be best to tread a little carefully here.
Pop, in rock vocabulary, is slick suburban territory, the place where Billy Joel dwells, and it is no address for a low-key aesthetic incendiary like Byrne. By implying that Heads music is nibbling on pop- corn, Byrne is being provocative, as is his habit, and canny, as is his nature. The songs in True Stories are kickback good-times music, but Byrne means to do with this score what he and the Heads have always done: infiltrate a genre, work inside it and make it over before anyone realizes quite what is happening.
Talking Heads, formed in 1975, was an art school band: Byrne, Drummer Chris Frantz and his wife, Bass Player Tina Weymouth, all attended the Rhode Island School of Design, and Keyboard Player Jerry Harrison came from Harvard with a B.A. and a semester of graduate school in design behind him. They were used to the behavioral extravagances and shock-therapy experimentation of the young avant-garde art world, and brought that same go-for-it attitude to their music. Playing at Manhattan's CBGB, the proto-punk club on the Bowery, the Heads dressed in strictly Ivy spiff, like floorwalkers from Brooks Brothers. Byrne, eyes bulging, long neck turning like a periscope, sang like a carny geek who could not digest his chicken. Then there were the songs. "Psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est/ Run, run, run, run away," Byrne would blurt, contriving to sound simultaneously like the murderer and his victim. Perfect new-wave icons, then: psychotic preppies. The pure products of America in the process of going blissfully crazy.
The mid-'70s nourished punk, which had been born in London out of rage and poverty. By the time it crossed the Atlantic, however, punk was more attitude than anything else, a rallying cry for a kind of aesthetic housecleaning. Artists, who are perpetually reinventing themselves, copped on to punk's foot- to-the-floor energy. Rockers hung out with painters all over lower Manhattan, and there was a loose alliance drawn from other forms of dance and theater and music too.
Byrne and the Heads took a prominent lead in all this. They adopted their thematic boldness from artists and their musical inventiveness from sources as diverse as Glass and James Brown. The band found a niche where the avantgarde and the mainstream could nicely accommodate each other. Says Byrne: "The band and I existed in a kind of middle ground, somewhat art, somewhat popular, so we ended up being caught in that whole phenomenon."
Byrne had a knack for making the everyday seem paranormal and the bizarre just something on the lee side of ordinary. His sister Celia, 29, a graduate student in public health at UCLA, calls this "David's different way of looking at something old." Beth Henley, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her play Crimes of the Heart and who collaborated with Byrne and Stephen Tobolowsky on the True Stories scenario, says he "avoided anything flashy. He went for the specialness of the ordinary."
"David has a very bewildered sense of humor," Henley adds. "I wouldn't call it wry because that implies a sarcasm that he doesn't have. He laughs really loud at things and then gets embarrassed because he did." Still, getting on Byrne's wavelength takes adjustment. "I didn't put a lot of emphasis on the psychological motivations of the characters, and some actors found that a little troublesome," he admits. Ask John Goodman, whose portrayal of the earnestly romantic Louis Fyne is a memorable one, what he thinks about Byrne, and he will smile and say, "That man uses a different dictionary." Spalding Gray, the gifted monologist who appears as the civic leader of Virgil, notes that "David's a paradox. He's the most absent-present person I've ever met. He has two worlds going at the same time."
That did not prevent Gray from checking out the African fire ants with Byrne or from embellishing his character with some of his own dialogue and with gestures derived from a vintage volume on public speaking provided by the director. Byrne, indeed, remained approachable throughout his stay in Texas. Out dancing at night, he moved much more shyly and tentatively than he does onstage and even produced his wallet ID for skeptical clubgoers who demanded certification that the David Byrne was in their midst.
For their part, the folks in Texas were guarded but quickly won over. Some 130 acts showed up at the Arcadia Theater in Dallas to audition for a slot in the film's talent-show sequence. There was everything from dancing goldfish to a man who set his foot on fire. "No one treated it like The Gong Show," says Byrne. "No matter how outrageous or eccentric their act was, they were very sincere about it. There was a lot of heart in the performances." Byrne discovered that film can be as subtle and malleable as the tracks of a recording, which may account for the sense of glee, of risks that paid off, that pervade True Stories. Says Filmmaker Jonathan Demme (Melvin and Howard), who directed the extraordinary Talking Heads performance documentary Stop Making Sense in 1984 and served as an "active friend" to Byrne during the making of True Stories: "You couldn't name a more exciting new director. He can give you something brand new that you understand even as you're experiencing it. He's like Martin Scorsese in that regard. Experimentation becomes instantly accessible."
Looking at old videotapes of early Talk- ing Heads performances, Byrne now says he recognizes "how really strange we were. A lot of it was my lack of confidence and technical ability as a performer and a musician. We were an alternative to a lot of the overblown pop music that was around then, but it wasn't as simple as what I described. The music had this disturbing hue to it." Heads fans of long-standing will notice the difference, say, between an early song about America called The Big Country, with its disaffected chorus ("I wouldn't live there if you paid me to"); and True Stories' anthemic City of Dreams, with its poignant, lulling melody and amber-waves-of-grain imagery: "We live in the city of dreams/ We drive on the highway of fire/ Should we awake/ And find it gone/ Remember this, our favorite town." Byrne finds the contrast untroubling. "I discovered that it's more fun to like things, that you can kind of like things and still be gently critical, without blind acceptance," he says.
Spoken like a regular Thornton Wilder. But then part of Byrne's deft comic talent has always been that he is a quick study. Born in Dumbarton, Scotland, Byrne moved with his mother Emma and electrical engineer father Tom first to Hamilton, Ont. (where Sister Celia was born), and then to Baltimore. Young David arrived there at age seven with an already burgeoning interest in music. (His folks say he played his phonograph almost perpetually from age three and took up the harmonica at five.)
"We weren't your typical American family," Celia says, and her brother adds, "My parents fostered a little bit of a view of us as outsiders. They are very happy, but they never completely adapted." It wasn't simply that the Byrnes had teatime in the afternoons -- a habit in which David still indulges -- or that Tom Byrne seemed to others to be just the kind of mildly eccentric technowhiz who really could, as family legend insists, have once fixed a submarine with a coat hanger. The Byrnes were politically active and socially liberal; Emma Byrne is a Quaker. Folk and Scottish music was played in the house, and the Byrnes seemed to be the only parents around who were not making speeches and threats about everything from loud rock to long hair.
Music had always been important, of course -- by high school, David was onto the violin, accordion and guitar -- but Emma remembers an art and music exposition in Montreal that sent her 15-year-old son off in another direction. "As soon as we came back," she says, "David spent the next few months in the basement, painting and just doing things all day." Some of David's efforts are still to be seen in the town house in Columbia, Md., where the Byrnes live now, including a comic strip he drew to illustrate some personal notions of paradise. "When we die," says one frame of the strip, "there is a party in heaven."
David took honors classes at high school, but it was extracurricular action that got his full attention. Early attempts at mainstream musicianship met with some resistance. He was rejected from the choir at Arbutus Junior High because, the teacher told his parents, David was "off-key and too withdrawn."
Yet a few years later he was playing Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell tunes at a campus coffeehouse near the University of Maryland. A lot of Byrne's high school classmates were going into the military, but, Celia says, "David wanted to go to art school. Teachers and guidance counselors tried to talk him out of it. My family was supportive though. They just wanted us to be happy."
Art school liberated Byrne. He logged time at two of them, the Maryland Institute's College of Art and the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. He was formally enrolled at R.I.S.D. for just two semesters but subsequently spent one year hanging out and letting his fantasies roam wild. "He was doing conceptual art," Tina Weymouth remembers. "David has never been one for draftsmanship." Byrne earned some money working the grill at a hot dog stand but largely devoted himself to experimental extravagance. At Maryland he formed a duo called Bizadi with an accordion-playing friend, and would sometimes perform with a lighted candle on his violin bow.
"David would do anything to get attention," Weymouth says. "He'd do anything on a dare. He'd go to a party wearing a red taffeta dress." Byrne's taste in wardrobe tamed down as his musical inclinations became more focused. Frantz had fantasized about forming a rock band. He and Byrne provided music for a film a friend was making, Frantz recalls, "about his girlfriend being run over by a car." The way Weymouth remembers it, "By the end of the session, Chris said to David, because, you know, David didn't talk very much, 'Look, let's start a band.' It clicked." Says Frantz of that historic moment: "We started Talking Heads because we thought we'd never be happy in life until we gave rock a shot, a serious try." They moved the action south from Providence to New York City, a friend came up with a name for the band -- drawn from TV argot for head shots of people holding forth -- and things began to happen very fast for Talking Heads.
The band first appeared at CBGB in the summer of 1975. Their lack of technical finesse would hardly have been worth remarking in the free-for-all punk scene, but their material was already abundantly strange and appropriately heretical. By the end of 1976 they had signed with Sire Records and recorded, as a trio, the wonderfully titled single Love Goes to a Building on Fire. Then they added a fourth member, Jerry Harrison, and went on a tour of Europe with the Ramones.
Byrne recalls that the punk "attitude and dress and hairdo were kind of fresh and exciting, but the music wasn't as innovative as we hoped. Some of it was difficult to listen to." Nevertheless, it was in England and on the Continent that the Heads started reaching a wide audience. When their first album, Talking Heads 77, was released in late 1977, the record company promoted it as part of a punk package with an ad that declared, GET BEHIND IT BEFORE IT GETS PAST YOU!
The music had already put them in a groove all their own, but after three more albums, the band had become a little fractious inside its own world. There were quarrels over songwriting credits, with Byrne almost always assigning himself primary authorship. There was dissatisfaction about Byrne's working on his own without the band. Harrison concedes that that period "was a point of maximum tension" but says the cure was for the other Heads to work outside the band as well. "You take the major step of all doing solo projects," Harrison says, "and then you stop worrying about apportioning Heads credits."
Still, Byrne remains the focal personality of the Heads. His habits (working from about 9 in the morning to maybe 8 at night), his personal tastes ("strong flavors, spicy foods"), his private life (living, largely in lower Manhattan, with Actress and Designer Adelle ("Bonny") Lutz, who created some of True Stories' most inspired outfits, for "it might be four years now . That's pretty good"), even the few personal surprises he lets drop (choosing to remain a British citizen because "it was easier to travel. Still is. But I can't vote. And I can't hold a job in civil service") all somehow take on the shape of legend as oversized as that white suit.
The band last toured in 1983, and Byrne remains noncommittal about future gigs. Nonetheless, Frantz is justifiably proud of the True Stories album. "We did it in five days and performed much better than we ever performed a record before. We rehearsed it, and then we played it like a garage band." But he does admit, "Tina and I would love to just get out and play. I feel like I'm forgetting how."
"So far we've managed pretty well to drift apart and do other projects and come back together and do an album of new pop songs," Byrne observes. "As long as I have an outlet for the other things I want to do, usually I am really happy to work within the band form." But Byrne's breakthrough with True Stories may tip the balance. He is reading books like Watunna: An Orinoco Creation Cycle and The Epic of Gilgamesh, brainstorming on a new movie. In one way or another, every rock singer wants to be Elvis Presley. But here, all of a sudden, is one who can take a cut at being Orson Welles. Glass thinks "the Talking Heads will go on," but adds, "For many of us, it's the other ways in which David will be developing that will be the most interesting."
No matter how Byrne swings, it will be worth recalling that, according to Spalding Gray, "David doesn't say goodbye. He's afraid to say goodbye; he just doesn't do it." He has worked at it, though, and when Gray dropped around recently to visit Byrne, he passed a couple at the door. "Oh, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye," Byrne called to them earnestly, baffling Gray. Was he serious? Teasing? Or performing? For this singular creative spirit, there is no operative distinction between any of those alternatives. No question about it. Is there?
Then Byrne winked at Gray and, after a short visit, tried out a few more goodbyes.
With reporting by Elizabeth L. Bland/New York, Elaine Dutka/Los Angeles and Richard Woodbury/Dallas