The Imelda Marcos Story — As Told by David Byrne
By Douglas Wolk
10 April 2010
David Byrne and Norman Cook, a.k.a. Fatboy Slim, are an odd couple to begin with: one an ex-Talking Head and lateral-thinking pop singer, the other a star club DJ and dance-music producer. So the news that the two were collaborating on a disco musical about the life of Imelda Marcos, the widow of Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was something of a head-scratcher. Peculiarity, though, is Byrne's specialty, and the recorded version of Here Lies Love is a winning twist on the "album musical" tradition. Twenty-two different singers (including the likes of Tori Amos and Nellie McKay) alternate in the roles of Imelda Marcos and the people who passed through her orbitmost notably Estrella Cumpas, a housekeeper and mother figure to the future First Lady who later made the mistake of speaking out about their relatively humble origins.
The idea of presenting this story as dance music came from an article Byrne read some years ago that discussed the former beauty queens reputation for clubhopping in the '70s and early '80s. He'd been interested in what he calls "the bubble worlds of the rich and powerful" for a while, and asked Cook to work with him on a set of songs that would be both about and in the musical forms associated with Imelda's particular bubble world. Here Lies Love was first performed in concert in 2006; Byrne had initially hoped to stage it in dance clubs. "In those days, there were these giant mega-clubs in warehouses," he says, "and I thought: what if you put a little stage at one end with a video screen, and you had a series of songs that told a story with an emotional arc to it? When you were there, you'd be dancing and drinking and God knows what, but something would be imparted beyond just the arc of a DJ set. That was the idea, anyway. I don't think that could happen now those clubs are gone."
Some of the highlights of Here Lies Love echo the records Imelda might have danced to at New York discothques a few decades earlier. "Ladies in Blue," a tribute to the pill-popping entourage that surrounded the "Iron Butterfly," as she was known, recalls the cooing stomp of ABBA; Kate Pierson of the B-52s belts "The Whole Man" as if it's one of her own hits. "The text on that one is almost one hundred percent taken from one of Imelda's wackier speeches," Byrne says. "She got into her own kind of cosmology where binary code, zeroes and ones, would turn into flowers and trees and heart shapes, and she'd give these speeches and do drawings at the same time. She did one in front of the U.N. General Assembly; I can only imagine what they thought."
Many of the lyrics on Here Lies Love, in fact, are adapted directly from the principal characters' own words. (The quotations from Imelda tend to be enormously self-aggrandizing, of course, but that's part of the fun.) The story arc follows Imelda from her troubled childhood through her whirlwind courtship with Ferdinand Marcos, her gradual assumption of political power and her break with Cumpas. By the last few songs, however, everything falls apart: following years of martial law and the assassination of Marcos' rival, Benigno Ninoy Aquino (who had briefly dated Imelda in their youth), the Philippines are on the verge of collapse; in the end, U.S. Marines airlift Imelda and Ferdinand into exile.
Byrne researched the Marcos era for a year before he and Cook started writing Here Lies Love, and he's still digging up material for a potential stage incarnation. "I just found a speech that Benigno Aquino made, specifically attacking Imelda," he says. "I thought 'ooh, that could be good.'" The one thing he deliberately didn't look into is another show that got its start as an album musical: "I made a point not to see Evita. I do know that they're both rags-to-riches, or rags-to-figurehead-of-a-country, stories. But beyond that I don't know what the similarities are."
The real-life Imelda Marcos, now 80, has recently tried to relaunch her political career, and Here Lies Love is, among other things, an attempt to explain her monomaniacal craving for power and respect: Byrne notes that he'd like listeners to "reluctantly empathize" with his version of her. "Audiences already have a certain amount of knowledge--it might be just the shoes and the money in the Swiss bank accounts. So I have to let people know what drove her to this, and to see if they can see things from her point of view. Which is not to excuse her, but there are human drives and passions that are played out on a national scale sometimes."