Imelda Marcos is as notorious for her shoe fetish as for her tyranny. Now David Byrne is making a musical about her with Fatboy Slim. Will she be the next Evita?
David Byrne is dependably quizzical; in conversation it often feels as though he’s interviewing himself. Questions hover; quite tricky ones on this occasion, as Byrne has devoted five years to composing and recording Here Lies Love, a “song cycle” of 22 songs about the former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos. Yes, really. It’s been the most time-consuming project of Byrne’s long and busy career so far, and it sure needs some explaining.
Talking to him is an oddly impersonal experience, almost disorientatingly so. He thinks he might suffer from Asperger’s. I’ve met him half a dozen times but there’s never a flicker of recognition. He avoids direct eye contact, stares intently into the middle distance, lapses into unexplained silences at odd moments and starts giggling for no obvious reason. Onstage and off, he’s curiously distant. It seems perfectly apt that his girlfriend should be the photographer Cindy Sherman, who makes eccentric, disguised self-portraits. He has a teenage daughter, Malu, by a previous relationship with a half-Japanese costume designer, and Japanese is very much his style: inscrutable and strictly self-contained.
It’s a long time since Byrne did straightforward pop — Talking Heads folded in 1991 (his refusal to re-form it has provoked fury among his former bandmates), and since then he has set up two independent world-music labels, Luaka Bop and Todo Mundo. But Here Lies Love is more radical: a whole album devoted to Marcos’s love of the disco she danced to with Warhol and other fashionistas in Studio 54, all the while overseeing a harsh regime of martial law back home in the heyday of the Marcos kleptocracy. Byrne says he wondered if the drug-fuelled headiness of dance music might feel similar to “the feeling one gets when one is in a powerful position”.
The work has already had a few low-key airings at arts festivals; it’s about to be released as a double CD, performed by an all-star cast of vocalists including Cyndi Lauper and Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine. So far, Byrne has borne most of the cost of the recordings himself, along with his chief collaborator, Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim. Cook’s compendious knowledge of vintage disco and R&B supplies the motor and musical back story. The Brighton-based DJ and producer was surprised to receive a cold call at home from Byrne — a musician he admired but had never got to know — five years ago. Byrne had become interested in the British dance-music scene, having scored a hit with a song called Lazy that he recorded with a trio of London producers.
“Three weeks later I happened to be over in New York and David cycled round to my hotel wearing this ludicrous helmet and carrying a case of beer,” says Cook. “We went down to the waterfront at TriBeCa, had a few beers out of brown paper bags and got to know each other.” By the time the pair were ejected from the pier for drinking in public, they had the basis of a deal. Byrne had the lyrics and melodies ready to go and just needed some rhythm tracks.
“Basically, DB had worked out the whole thing in his head,” says Cook. “He loves to do the right thing the wrong way. He always gets what he wants but he never takes the easy route. He’s like me, a white boy obsessed with funk.”
Perched on his SoHo office desk on a sunny Manhattan afternoon, Byrne is a picture of benign, eye-swivelling bemusement. Dressed in white jeans, shirt and shoes, a full shock of silver, tufty hair punkishly projecting from his head, he looks and sounds like a rumpled angel who has temporarily lost touch with his celestial map. “Why am I interested in this? Why do a series of songs about Imelda Marcos?” Good questions, surely. “Before I got into this I had the same opinion of her and her husband as everybody else. They were monsters, despicable really, though she was sometimes amusing for her outrageous behaviour. I was appalled that you’d see her in the gossips with the Shah of Iran. Then I found there was another side to it, but I’m not apologising for all that other stuff…”
Not quite apologising, just sidestepping it. Since Byrne took to travelling the Philippines on his new favourite vehicle, a road bike — an episode written up in his 2009 journal Bicycle Diaries — he’s taken a distinctly unusual angle on Imelda’s life story. Here Lies Love is marked by some striking omissions. The assassination attempt, filmed on television, in which a bystander on the street attacked Imelda with a knife — which she winsomely complained was “very ugly, he should have at least put a ribbon on it” — doesn’t feature. Nor do the embezzlement charges against her — 10 of which are still outstanding. Yet in the Philippines he was fascinated to observe the residual affection she inspired.
Leaving the biggest hole of all, there are no references whatsoever to her infamous collection of 3,000 pairs of designer shoes, stored in a wing of the so-called Manila White House, the Malacanang Palace. “The shoes were a very big problem,” Byrne concedes. “For me it became, how do you get beyond the shoes? But the shoes weren’t discovered, along with the house full of Heinz Sandwich Spread, until after the Marcoses were airlifted out of the palace in 1986, and for me the story ends right there.”
Byrne’s take on Imelda focuses on the insecurities of her upbringing as a cash-strapped scion of a well-to-do Filipino family during the second world war. After the death of her mother she was raised in a garage — with a car in it — by a young servant, Estrella Cumpas, only slightly older than she was. “Being that close to being socially accepted, but not quite, Imelda could smell it but not live it, and she had a pile of psychological baggage to lug around from pretty early on,” Byrne says. “I began to see that if you simply brand such people as monsters you’ll never understand what drives them to misbehave to the extent that they do. You have to try to empathise and see where it leads you. Though it’s pretty hard to defend myself!”
Indeed it is. Byrne’s focus on the long relationship between Imelda and her indefatigably loyal foil, Estrella, ends in a climactic betrayal after her retainer is placed under house arrest, and then forgotten, with the imposition of martial law in 1972.
So David, you have to ask, what’s to like in this ruthless social climber, beauty-pageant manipulator — a ploy that secured her her husband, Ferdinand — and part-time disco queen who built a dancefloor, complete with mirror balls, into the top floor of her palace? Pause for more eye-swivelling. “I guess I liked her extreme feistiness. And she was tough-smart. Especially after she took over the running of Manila. For me the question was, should I celebrate someone who’s worthy instead of someone who’s really not? That’s a tough one because it’s always harder to write about a good person.”
As the composer of Psycho Killer — Talking Heads’ signature hit about a mild sociopath — Byrne has undoubted form here. Is Imelda then just a more rock’n’roll character than, say, Nelson Mandela? Are we in sympathy-for-the-devil territory here? “Well, she definitely liked self-glorification, but she did build clinics, arts centres, hotels, bridges and roads, which is more than other Filipino leaders did. When they came to power in the 1960s they were loved like the Kennedys, for their youthful style and optimism.”
That optimism soon turned to hubris, financial corruption and outrageous architectural showing off. Byrne doesn’t mention that Imelda built a palace entirely out of coconuts in which even the fabrics were woven from fibre from the shells. Another spectacular folly was a film centre that partially collapsed during construction, was never used, and now houses an Egyptian-themed drag show hosted by an all-Korean cast.
Byrne also chooses to keep schtum about what his associates later assure me is Imelda’s intense interest in his musical. Now 80, still very much a public figure at home and comfortably ensconced in a swanky suburb of Manila, she offered to appear as herself singing the main parts in Here Lies Love. “She actually phoned David up and said, ‘Who’s going to play me? Can I play me?’ ” one associate told me. “She didn’t get that it wasn’t telling the glorious story of her wonderful life. David left the Philippines the next day.” Byrne shows this a straight bat. “I tried to contact her in a roundabout way when I was over there, but I, er, haven’t heard from her.” He insists the two have so far never met.
Early reactions to the project have been mixed. The Australian reviewers who saw it at its world premiere at the Adelaide Festival in 2006 were sceptical. They generally liked the music but it was, they felt, way too easy on the lady herself. “Imelda would like this show, and here lies its problem in its current state,” one wrote. “There are no judgments of her morally reprehensible activities or personal excesses.”
Exception was taken to Byrne’s cosy choice of title: Here Lies Love. This is the epitaph Imelda Marcos intends to have on her gravestone, summing up a life she described as unstintingly “devoted to beauty and love” in a speech she gave to the United Nations General Assembly, part of an eccentric lecture that laid out her plan for world harmony and involved numerous odd references to Pacman.
The main objection to the Adelaide show, predictably enough, homed in on the 3,000 pairs of unmentioned shoes: “It’s like doing a concert about Pinocchio and not mentioning his nose.” In conclusion, Byrne was modestly hailed as “the cool master of making the banal meaningful, though, as it stands, the show offers not much more of Imelda’s life than is already known”.
It’s been a different story back in the States. In America, the life of Imelda Marcos seems recently to have acquired a different cultural value. In the post-9/11 world, she’s passed beyond shoe monster to become weirdly iconic, or at least engagingly kitsch. A photographic exhibition of Imelda clad in all her lurid gladrags amid interiors that scorch the eyeballs, by Steve Tirona at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2009, proved a great popular draw.
And why not? Compared to some of the other truly scary foreign autocrats America has supported or created in recent decades, Imelda’s crimes against human rights and good taste seem relatively harmless by comparison now. Which is presumably why, when Byrne presented an expanded version of Here Lies Love at the Carnegie Hall in 2007, the critical response was ecstatic, with one reviewer professing to be “completely floored”.
Byrne’s interest in Marcos was sparked by a TV documentary in 2003 made by Ramona Diaz, a sympathetically inquisitive account that acquired the media nickname “Beyond the Shoes”. The rehabilitation continued with another film made in LA in 2007, Dictators by Design — a tour d’horizon of her public buildings in which the director Fenton Bailey spent a whirlwind five days following the 77-year-old Imelda around her home country, attending public functions and getting very little sleep.
She freely described herself to Bailey as “a building maniac” who still yearned to construct a canal across the Philippines’ largest island. Her undiminished sense of herself as the saviour of her people drove her on. The so-called “steel butterfly”, forgiven by many for her tyrannous past and welcomed home from exile after her husband’s death in 1989, just would not stop fluttering. “She still seemed to possess that same boundless energy. After a full round of activities that began at 6am, and carried on until well after dinner, she asked if we could do a sit-down interview to camera at 1.30am the following morning.” Bailey considered that the former first lady had developed a fear of her own company: “It seemed like she could not bear to be alone.”
Like Byrne, Bailey eventually adopted a forgiving, if slightly soft-headed, tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner attitude to the dictator of taste. “Imelda has an all-pervasive philosophy of beauty that, stripped of context, seems a kind of madness. But understanding her background and the inferiority complex that she and her country shared, her infatuation with bling becomes almost lovable.”
More surprising than the enthusiasm of the film-makers and shoe fetishists is the almost universal thumbs-up Imelda received from the 20-odd vocalists Byrne approached to sing on Here Lies Love. “I did have one rejection from a singer who had better remain nameless,” he says. “But mostly everybody loved the idea. They thought Imelda was an interesting character” — though you wonder if they weren’t also attracted by the oddball charisma of Byrne himself. Some of his more musically sophisticated contributors, such as Martha Wainwright, Tori Amos and Kate Pierson of the B-52s, found in it echoes of John Adams’s modernist opera Nixon in China, a work that presented another controversial political figure in an unusually favourable light.
One contributor who had a very good reason to turn Byrne down, but didn’t, was Natalie Merchant, formerly singer with the folk-rock band 10,000 Maniacs. Back in the 1980s Merchant was dating a Filipino man whose large family home was forcibly requisitioned by Imelda for her personal use, obliging the family to leave the country.
“Aspects of the way she lived her life were utterly despicable,” Merchant agrees, warmly. “But in other ways it was a fairytale life, a bit pathetic in its origins and very emotionally ambiguous.” In line with her ex-boyfriend’s shabby treatment, Merchant briefly adopts the role of Imelda’s spurned nanny, Estrella Cumpas. Her song, Order 1081, plaintively refers to the imposition of martial law, which ended the two women’s friendship. “I think I did a better job on that than I would have managed with one of Imelda’s disco numbers.”
It took Byrne and Cook five years to finish the recordings, due to their busy schedules and the fact that, because Cook is a bit of a technophobe who doesn’t like making music via email files, he had to wait for Byrne to come by and visit him and his wife, Zoe Ball, in Hove. “After 2½ years in, I just thought the whole thing might get lost in the post,” says Cook. “It’s never been properly financed. David paid for the musicians, but money isn’t a big thing in DB’s world. He tends to work round things.”
Cook’s understanding of Imelda was, by his own admission, sketchy. Despite being a former supporter in his twenties of right-on leftish causes such as Red Wedge, the iniquities of the Marcos regime seem to have passed him by. “All I knew was that she was a batty old woman with lots of shoes who’d been on TV making an idiot of herself singing with Louis Theroux. And David explained that he was sort of trying to put the record straight.” Having consulted some books Byrne lent him about Imelda and Estrella, Cook now views her as “a tragically naive character who represents the triumph of the ego”. He regards her as sad and deluded, “still trying to get elected, still obsessed with the love of her people, but unaware of the severity of what she’s done over the years”.
Though he admits that he hasn’t listened to Here Lies Love all the way through — “I’ve gotta say it hasn’t sold me on song cycles; I’m a DJ and I still prefer individual tracks” — Cook reckons he and Byrne might, just might, have pulled off something special here. “I think Here Lies Love could be the new Evita,” he says. The package contains a small illustrated book, with notes and lyrics by Byrne, plus an additional DVD of documentary footage. If he can secure the financial backing, Byrne hopes to present this in future as a sort of club-based musical.
“Some people may feel it’s a bit too close to Evita, but I’ve made a point not to see that show, so I don’t really know,” says Byrne. In truth, he says, he’s not that keen on straight musicals, but he accepts that this is what Here Lies Love will probably end up being. He prefers to see it as a drama set to music, a portrait of a flawed and needy attention-seeker. “To me, this illuminates the way people betray their psychological needs early on. Just watch them and imagine how these things are gonna play out. They never disappoint.” A wide-eyed smile suddenly creases his smooth features. “You have to try to put yourself in their shoes…”