Same As He Ever Was
By Marshall Sella
David Byrne carries everything he needs in a big red knapsack. He is self-contained. Like a strangely merry refugee, he wears the pack wherever he goes, his world on his back. "It weighs me down a bit," he says, "but I'm kinda married to it. I feel naked without it now. I like bein' portable." To prove its utility, he rifles through the miniature household: "Got my passport here, just in case. Once in a while you get to the airport and you don't have the passport. Makes life easier. Here, got a toothbrush. And my Swiss Army knife. Flashlight. Hey, look — a sewing kit."
Byrne and his effects have come to the Bowery Ballroom to see Los Amigos Invisibles, a Venezuelan sextet whose work appears on Byrne's record label, Luaka Bop. Now 49, he looks scarcely different than he did in his days with Talking Heads, the art-rock band that peaked in the 1980's with such critically beloved records as "Remain in Light." His close-cropped hair, a boy's cut unmistakably, is now gray. After all these years he remains a study in antithesis: a dour man who laughs all the time; a savvy man who marvels at the simplest little things.
On arrival at the club, he is greeted in hushed tones, as Revered Artists always are. But Byrne's fame tonight keeps to the shadows. Los Amigos are blowing the roof off the place. Audience members are swirling around one another in joyous Brownian motion. Byrne is transfixed. Ignoring the heat, he refrains from shucking his little gray jacket or even the blocky rucksack, which he keeps tightly strapped around both shoulders. He stations himself in a corner next to a giant garbage can, swiveling his hips and clapping in syncopation.
Grooving against the rubbish, he's oblivious to the patrons who accidentally bounce empty cups off his jacket and into the bin. Everywhere I've seen him, his stage presence is the same. From behind, Byrne is invisible. People jostle him, practically walk over him. Out front, they stop in their tracks. "I'm pretty anonymous," he insists, rather pleased. "Folks don't notice me."
It quickly becomes clear that he doesn't notice them, either. Only now and then, when something knocks his pack, does Byrne glance over. Just for a moment, though; he is mesmerized by Los Amigos. There's nothing remote or superior in his expression. Despite having known every boulevard and back alley of fame, he is all wonderment. He smiles up at the band as if dreaming that one day he, too, might be a rock star. "That's somethin'," he says more than once, laughing in the dark. "Look at that!"
Since the demise of Talking Heads, David Byrne has never ceased performing. He has made seven solo records since the band expired in 1992. And on May 8, he will release his latest, "Look Into the Eyeball." The CD is his best work in years, a masterful blend of orchestral string music and what Byrne calls "beats for the body." For a record with a unifying musical theme, its songs are curiously diverse. The Philly-soul-inspired "Neighborhood" is as lush and sunny as an O'Jays tune — no coincidence, since it was arranged by Thom Bell, an inventor of the genre. A disturbing song called "The Accident" refracts a failed relationship through the twisted metal of an auto wreck. Despite the hybrid of influences, it's all indisputably catchy stuff. It's complex and poetic, but you can dance to it.
As anxious as Byrne is about the CD's reception, he denies himself the luxury of focusing on any one project. He's all over the map. His mornings are spent at Luaka Bop's West 12th Street office overseeing the label's 13 genre-hopping recording artists. His short story "A Self-Made Man" appears in "Songs Without Rhyme," a collection of prose by songwriters published last month by Hyperion. He's always prepping for an exhibition of his photographs somewhere, having shown all over Europe and the States. At the moment, he is obsessed with a book he was commissioned to write for an arts festival this summer in Valencia, Spain: a meditation on the concept of sin. "My job is to take the things we think of as virtues," he says, "and explain why they're only masquerading as virtues."
The celebrity bestowed on Byrne as a Talking Head did not last and never could have. "No one — not David Byrne or David Bowie — can have teens lining up around the block forever," says the composer Philip Glass, who has known and occasionally collaborated with Byrne for 25 years. "But David's artistic personality is so compelling. People will always be interested in him."
In his pop-star incarnation, Byrne's celebrity came from critical acclaim, not record sales. When he was on the cover of Time in 1986, hyped as "Rock's Renaissance Man," it had been years since "Burning Down the House," Talking Heads' only Top 10 single. "I can't even listen to most of the old stuff anymore," Byrne says. "All I can hear are imperfections — problems in the recording, or words I should've chosen."
Byrne has never longed for those glory days. He never designed himself to end up as a Mick Jagger or a Jerry Lee Lewis, doomed to spend middle age performing Madame Tussaud renditions of feel-good favorites. Instead, he has gone small, played the long game. In gambler's terms, he has scattered his chips all over the table, offering the public not one Byrne but a whole cluster of them. His rock career works partly because it's balanced by other passions, and Byrne doesn't waste much energy chasing lost celebrity. Then again, if it calls, he's packed up and ready to go.
Distinct from Byrne's old associates at Warner Brothers, who never stopped pining for a Talking Heads reunion, Luaka Bop's goals are modest. The label is still plugging along in its 13th year. Artists like Cornershop and Silvio Rodriguez are hardly household names in the States, but each has a loyal following. Luaka's biggest seller to date (at 400,000 records) is a compilation of Rodriguez's music — the first Cuban disc released on a U.S. label since the 1962 embargo. Yale Evelev, the label's president, recently saw a bootleg of it and, unlike any other record exec ever born, he was elated. "Luaka Bop doesn't follow a traditional plan," he says. "We're trying not to grow big. It's a balance between enjoying our lives, being true to our artists and managing to stay in business."
Luaka Bop wasn't David Byrne's sole offspring in the twilight of the Talking Heads era. He married the designer Adelle Lutz in 1987; their daughter, Malu, is 11. The three occupy a large but unpretentious brownstone — an airy, frugally appointed place with snapshots taped to the fridge. Byrne likes to describe it as "livin' near the store," meaning Luaka Bop's chockablock office.
It's clear that Byrne loves the creative distractions of Luaka Bop. Even at the height of Talking Heads' renown, he was taking on side projects. There were collaborations not only with Philip Glass but also with the choreographer Twyla Tharp and the theater director Robert Wilson. A film score for Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Emperor" (with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su) won Byrne an Academy Award in 1988.
But his artistic appetites have sometimes caused him trouble. In the late 80's, critics assailed him (along with Paul Simon) for what they saw as cultural imperialism: exploiting third-world art to attain pop rebirth. That debate has since faded to black, and even a single listen to "Look Into the Eyeball" explains why. It's a seamless combination of funk, groove, Brazilian Tropicalia, blues — well, name a form. In today's splintered musical cosmos of hip-hop, trip-hop and trip-folk, rubrics aren't what they used to be. Which makes it a very good time to be David Byrne.
Spending time with Byrne can be disquieting. Those who knew him in the 1970's still speak of him a bit like puzzled neighbors describing a serial killer. Hilly Kristal, the owner of CBGB, the downtown club where Talking Heads burst onto the scene, recalls him as "a pleasant guy who kept to himself." Deborah Harry, lead singer of Blondie, says: "Not many people did have a sense of him. He was very private."
But Harry hastens to defend Byrne's air of reserve. "There's a distinction between artists, who write their own words, and pop stars, who perform other people's words," she says. "If you're presenting your own ideas, reaching out in a sort of verbal assault, that is a pure expression of yourself. And that should be enough for the public."
Byrne himself says his aloofness isn't so calculated. "Performing is something I do partly for my mental health," he says. "I'm pretty shy. More than most people, I bet. I was at a dinner party the other night and someone commented, 'David, you didn't say a word the whole evening' " — here he indulges in a gust of laughter — but I felt I was engaged. They were all sayin' such interesting things. Why interrupt?"
In person, David spends warmth like money, and money never lasts. When we met for dinner before the Los Amigos concert, he was as jovial as a boyhood pal. He'd chosen a fine little Mediterranean place about a block from CBGB. When his entree of octopus arrived, he proceeded to scarf it down like a prisoner, only faster. He went after the legs first, pouring himself glasses of red wine between gobbles, then attacked the head. "Have some," he offered. "It's not really so gelatinous." Everything was funny, everything was goofy. But as an hour or two passed, he wound down. Conversation became halting, even painful. By the time I dropped him off at his place in the Village, it felt as if we'd quarreled. "Well, see you soon," I said, jutting my hand out. But he had vanished.
Later, I'd learn that Byrne was famous for this. He didn't mean anything by it. But it was still baffling; he'd always start out cordial, then gradually disappear. I told Chris Frantz, the Talking Heads' drummer and co-founder of Tom Tom Club, that the more time I spent with Byrne, the less I understood him. Frantz chortled and said, "Yeah, that's David all right." Tina Weymouth, bass guitarist of Talking Heads (as well as Frantz's wife and Tom Tom Club bandmate), had seen it all before, ruefully adding that "David really doesn't know how to say goodbye."
Yale Evelev had a gentler explanation. "Of course he doesn't like big emotional goodbyes," Evelev said, though no one had mentioned anything remotely big or emotional. "David decides to leave and, boom! He's gone. And, you know, he's . . . nervous. He has an awful lot going on."
David Byrne has often adopted the persona of Rock Star as Spaceman. As a Talking Head, he stared out through pinched features, as if the air were all wrong for him. He was always singing about factories, or paper, or the wheel of a large automobile — metaphorically examining humankind by rifling through its big red backpack. "I'd like to write a song about hairdos," he once said, "not the people under 'em."
In his more recent works — music and photography alike — Byrne has never lost that animist sensibility. Five months ago, influenced by Caribbean religions (voodoo in particular), Byrne and Lutz mounted an art exhibition in Italy in which household objects were dressed up as members of a wedding party. The idea, in Byrne's phrase, was to see if this might "give the objects life and a sense of power." Accordingly, they presented an end table wearing underpants, a clock in a sombrero, a radio in a bikini. This sort of disordering technique has been a hallmark of Byrne's fractious career. The boundary between people and their possessions all but vanishes.
It's fecund terrain. "The Accident," Byrne's eerie allegory of ruined love on the new CD, is a prime example of the fixation. "The inspiration for that was a George Jones song called 'The Grand Tour,' " Byrne says, always proud to cite a nonintellectual influence. "He takes you through his house and describes the furniture, but it's completely heart-rending: 'There's the chair where we sat and talked, there's our bed. . . . ' It's simply a list of objects, and each one has more emotional attachment than the one before."
For all his remoteness, though, Byrne is a fiercely pragmatic man. He is well organized and enchanted by machines. One of the most technical hours of my life was spent at a gallery in Washington, watching Byrne and a digital-printing expert discuss the arcana of how best to reproduce Byrne's photos. Speaking what seemed to be a secret language only twins comprehend, the two men plumbed the depths of computer-monitor calibration and the subtle advantages of imperceptibly different paper textures. "Can't we heat up this pink?" he said at one point, indicating a photograph in his recent series on surveillance cameras, a wry balance of beauty and repugnance. "I like when it kinda hurts to look at it!"
Yale Evelev is well acquainted with Byrne's practical side. "He loves knowing how things work, how everything works," he says. "Even when he's immersed in writing, whether it's in the Catskills or in Spain, he'll call every day to find out exactly how some cover art is coming along."
Byrne is frugal and a bit of a control freak. Though he divides his days between commerce and art (Luaka Bop in the morning, compositions after), there is nothing dreamy about him, at least before lunch. Even Byrne's music is grounded in pragmatism. He has never shunned the marketplace. "I don't hold much with downtown snobbism," he says. "The kind of thing where, if people like something, it can't be good."
"Look Into the Eyeball" was conceived two summers ago. Partly spurred by a concert in Madrid that Byrne thought was "all wrong rhythmically and sonically, but with a great vibe," he was driven to combine the romance of orchestral music with percussive forms. But, as Byrne sees it, art must show fiscal promise if it's ever to grow up strong. So he searched out examples of the concept he was after: evidence that his impulse had forebears in the real world of music and money.
"I wanted to create a historical confirmation," he says. "This was a tradition I was going to expand on, not something out of the blue." He made a combo tape, a mix of Bjork, Serge Gainsbourg, Caetano Veloso (a founder of Brazilian Tropicalia) and even Isaac Hayes's "Theme from Shaft." The idea was to give his collaborators a sense of what he was looking for — to create not only a musical palette but a commercial one.
"A lot of those songs were very successful," he says. "Our record wasn't meant to be some pretentious, arty project. It could be accessible without pandering. And here was the proof."
Byrne and his friends laid down musical tracks. As is his custom, the words weren't yet written. The only way to arrive at the right lyrics, Byrne finds, is to speak in tongues a little. Listen to the early demos from "Eyeball" and you hear everything in place — only, Byrne is singing gibberish. Not tentative gibberish. The "words" are clear and confident: oh mefah, sye kalyaneu-sheu! Incredibly, in the harmony track, Byrne often seems to be mouthing the very same sounds. His main objective is to avoid censoring himself. "It's like fishing in your unconscious," he says. "A lot of what you find gets thrown back. The music makes it rise out of you — whatever you've been thinking about. Usually it even takes me a year or two to understand what any given song is about."
Hitting his stride in this second act of his career has not come easily for David Byrne. Born in Dumbarton, Scotland, he spent most of his childhood in Maryland. From the beginning of his life, he has felt like a bit of an outsider. "There were always little reminders," he says. "Like the fact that we ate usin' a knife and fork at the same time. The way we did things weren't the way people were livin' in the rest of the world!"
Byrne always talks that way: half-amazed, a sophisticate who has just seen the damnedest thing. His cadence is clipped one moment and fluent the next, as if various speeds are battling for control of his mind. His gerunds lack the final "g" sound, a byproduct of growing up with Scottish parents and of his stubbornly folksy demeanor. Everything in him is an explicit marriage of the utterly ordinary and the utterly foreign.
As he recounts his early life, we're on a train from New York to Washington, hurtling toward the very patch of ground where he grew up. His boyhood home no longer exists; it was sacrificed for Interstate 95. "I've tried to find the woods where I used to play," he says. "But I can never get my bearings. It's pretty disorienting."
Overhead, a red-lighted ad for Amtrak's Railfone service blinks out the sort of hollow corporate appeal that always makes Byrne laugh. treat yourself! the sign urges. you deserve it! But Byrne is staring out the window. "Look," he says, suddenly buoyed. "There's my sign!"
Outside, bolted on old steel across the Delaware River, dilapidated electric letters trumpet the fact that Trenton makes, the world takes. David loves signs. (His 1999 book of photos, "Your Action World," is full of them.) He's drawn to motivational rhetoric and advertising — even rusty declarations of Trenton pride. He loves it and he hates it. "Funny," he says, "I never noticed that sign when I was young."
When he wasn't in the woods, the boy David was hunting for exotic music in the Baltimore Public Library: Stockhausen, Balinese gamelans, recordings of chain gangs. Anything and everything. "It seemed a cool habit, not a nerdy one," he says. "Well, maybe it was nerdy too. But you didn't have to like it all. If you hated it, you'd just take it back. Didn't cost you anything."
By his early 20's, Byrne was intoxicated by the idea that anything could be art. Andy Warhol intrigued him. "I really liked his pictures of car crashes," he says. "And you'd hear all these things about the whirlwind of activity around him. People nominating themselves to be superstars. I thought, Wow!"
Without explicitly nominating himself, Byrne did become something of an art-world superstar. Even in the era of New Wave, no band was more "art rock" than Talking Heads. Byrne's intricate songs evoked everything from Steve Reich to Kurt Weill to "The Golden Bough." At the same time, Talking Heads never relaxed into any single genre. There was no catching them. Anchoring all the experimentation was Byrne's jittery, clenched persona, which endured through Jonathan Demme's 1984 film "Stop Making Sense," arguably the best concert movie ever made.
The images in "Stop Making Sense" remain arresting to this day. In one scene, Byrne, the pop animist, sings a love song to a Woolworth's lamp. Seemingly random supertitles ("Grits. Dog. Time Clock.") loom over the stage, goading the audience into considering how all the things of this world relate to one another. Most famously, there is Byrne's Big Suit, which he conceived as "a Mr. Joe Average suit that turns into a trap or cage."
Of course, to the band members, Talking Heads itself was beginning to feel like a cage. Exasperated by the media fixation on Byrne as a rock "master," Tina Weymouth quipped, "David Bowie, David Byrne, David Berkowitz."
During Talking Heads' "Stop Making Sense" tour, Byrne's bandmates were dismayed by his perfectionism, which often took the form of a fanatical adherence to the all-black set. "I was turning into a little dictator at the time," he has said. "Nobody could have a cup of water! That would detract from the look of the show." Byrne hopes he has changed somewhat. "I deal with stress a lot better than I used to," he says, shaking his head. "There were times when I threw microphones. At crew people. It's really embarrassing."
Years after the breakup, the band members are not on speaking terms. Byrne says "things are tense-not-relaxed," sounding tense-not-relaxed just answering the question.
"It's been a long time since we've been in touch," says Chris Frantz. "But that's just David being David. He's one of a kind — with all the pros and cons that go with that. The band was always secondary to what he envisioned for himself. We've learned not to take that personally."
Tina Weymouth adds, "We just wish David the best," pouring sugar before the punch. "We can only pray that he finds whatever it is he's looking for, so that maybe he won't be so angry."
Watching David Byrne is like peering into an ant farm. His tics suggest nothing so much as a covert division of labor that governs his mind. He's intensely focused, but on several things at once, and each issue seems to be vying for position. As you speak to him, his eyes dart wildly, as if he's simultaneously puzzling out a melody, working out schedules and craving a sandwich.
Conversely, he still has an outsider's knack for nailing the absurdity upon which good-and-noble society is based. His pose is as a naif who buys it all: corporations' can-do rhetoric, the caring embrace of government, how convenience makes life easier. Byrne was once called "the Typhoid Mary of the irony epidemic," but that's a fundamental misreading of him. His stance is one of ambivalence, not condemnation.
"I really think he sees the total madness of things with a sweeping breath of love," says Beth Henley, who co-wrote Byrne's 1986 film "True Stories." "He doesn't miss anything. He's not out to judge. Just to see."
Even when gazing at one of the corporate-headquarters signs he likes to photograph — the tattoo on the belly of the beast — he says, "You have to admit there's somethin' beautiful and seductive there." If societal comforts weren't so alluring, they wouldn't be dangerous. Byrne has no use for rage when left-handed exaltation will do the job just as well. Rage doesn't communicate.
"Take Eminem," he says, laughing mirthlessly for once. "I can never lose sight of the fact that his music is corporate rebellion marketed in a corporate way. He's said to have this threatening quality — but how can he be threatening if his music is sold by one of the biggest companies in the world? I think teenage fans realize that it's safe, a safe kind of rebellion."
As we chat, Byrne and I are sitting in the basement of Luaka Bop. A young assistant named Kate has just finished arranging 53 of Byrne's pictures on a vast wall. Many are wire-service news photos of world leaders, all caught in seemingly insignificant moments: President Jiang Zemin of China with head in hands, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani staring off into space somewhere. Everyone seems to be between events. Byrne has chosen these images precisely for the fact that they're unremarkable — that they're "part of the weird dance of gestures, random moments from a dance performance."
I ask if the pictures, with the implication that government is nihilistic, could be described as subversive. "Not very!" he says, as if I've failed to hear. "It's a straightforward documentation of a performance."
Kate fiddles with a rumbling Macintosh G4 computer at a large desk; David and I are seated in front of the desk as she readies more digitized photographs for printing. "I'm never intentionally tryin' to be cryptic in my work," Byrne says, leaning into the hot breath of the computer. "It works for me when it's just metaphorical enough so that I'm not screaming in your face, 'This is what I'm tellin' you!' "
The discussion caroms from the utility of art to the question of government financing. But I can't stop noticing the way David is endlessly contorting himself on his tiny blue chair. One moment his left leg flies over his right, until he's practically lying sideways on the seat; the next, his furry arms wind around each other until his hands fold in momentary alliance. The poses, at times, are hilarious. Tina Weymouth once claimed that David had to find interesting ways even to sit in a chair, all to prove his individuality — but these days, there's nothing contrived about it. He's a twisty guy. He has sat in chairs for a long time now. If it ever was an affectation, that was long ago. Even Cary Grant, in time, became Cary Grant.
One frigid spring night in Toronto, David Byrne is on public display, but sadly, there are no chairs involved. It is his second live performance to include songs from the new record. The venue is a harborside spot called the Orange Room. This is not so much a concert as an industry party thrown by Virgin Records, and it's a tough room. Everybody knows everybody else, and no one wants to seem easily impressed.
The singer quietly meanders on stage wearing a khaki shirt and khaki pants. That's David Byrne all over: he's an art-technician, here to perform a service like a plumber or repairman. He refuses to present music as any one thing. It transports, yet is a workaday task. It is a spiritual release and a bodily function. It's ecstatic and ridiculous.
Byrne knows this is an industry crowd, so he sings to an unseen listener 10 degrees above eye level — that is, directly to an empty balcony. His remarks between songs offer no mention of titles but rather come out in the form of absurdist snippets. When he brings out the string section he has hired for tonight's show, comprising three cellists and three violinists, his intro is limited to an amazed "These people are from here!"
The old twitching is gone from his performance. His voice is utterly assured, stronger than it ever was. He performs his usual mix of old and new — Once in a Lifetime" as well as the current "Like Humans Do." After eight songs, Byrne abruptly says, "That's all I'm going to do today." He wanders offstage distractedly, as if he's puttering around in a garage somewhere. The core band follows him off, leaving the string section bewildered. The six of them turn to one another, looking stranded. Classical people never behave this way. Is that it?
Of course, that is not it. After a long pause, Byrne ambles back onstage. "O.K.," he says improbably, "this next song is not one of ours."
For several lines, the piece sounds familiar — then the recognition clicks in, at precisely the same instant for the entire crowd. We feel a wave of electricity and hear gasps as we realize that Byrne is singing Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody." It's silly, then fantastic. With his drive and the arrangement's staccato beat, the song takes on an urgency it never possessed in life.
Having won over the crowd — and dazzled even these jaded insiders — something perverse takes hold of Byrne. He knows that rock 'n' roll law dictates that he must wow us at the finish, leave us shouting for more. But instead of kicking the door shut with an upbeat song like "And She Was" or "Take Me to the River," he chooses the new CD's most haunting number. Of all the songs in the history of rock, he heads straight into "The Accident."
This is not an act of self-sabotage. Having foregone the secure confines of a rock niche, Byrne is exempt from the rules of traditional showmanship. "He doesn't feel he has to prove anything anymore," Jonathan Demme tells me a few weeks later, after seeing a similar gig in Paris. "He's way beyond that. I've never seen him so liberated."
As the strings swell in the opening bars of "The Accident," Byrne's hands clasp behind his back, lending him the dual air of schoolmaster and supplicant. The tune is minor-key and melancholy to the point of being unsettling. By the time he's through the first lines ("When you see an accident/Do not turn your head and look away"), everything's turned around. Now the string players know what they're up to — it's the audience that's mystified. Byrne reaches the grim climax: "TV crews arrive on the scene/And the anchormen, they break down and weep/Living proof that things are not what they seem/It takes all these wild and wonderful things/To set me free."
In any other setting, it's an exquisite piece, but the partygoers receive it like a suicide note. After a pause they cheer nonetheless, howling for all the David Byrnes they've loved over the years; they'll cheer for a false deity when the man is not enough. "Thank you very much," he says, chuckling with what might be either exasperation or mischief. Again he wanders off, just as uncertainly. But the classical musicians exit briskly. They're not taking any chances.
An hour after the concert, Byrne and I are riding over to another local hot spot, the Rivoli, to hear Moreno Veloso — son of the great Caetano Veloso, whose music was part of the "inspirational tape" David used as the groundwork for "Look Into the Eyeball."
"I think it was a while before they realized we were doin' a Whitney Houston song," he says in the car, laughing at the weirdness of it while still loving the song. "That felt O.K."
This is followed by another gale of laughter as we pass a bank's billboard that proclaims, "Smile, you're making money!" With its sly confusion of joy and success, it's practically a Byrne lyric itself, like "My building has every convenience/It's gonna make life easy for me" — or, for that matter, "We're on a road to nowhere/Come on inside."
We reach the Rivoli, a narrow railroad car of a place. Moreno Veloso sings his tales of regret beautifully. After six songs, Byrne drifts off toward the washroom. Unencumbered, he could walk the 20 feet in a matter of seconds, but the sensible gear on his back makes him wider than he is. He keeps plodding along. Eventually, all that can be seen of him is his bright red knapsack wiggling side to side in the sea of bodies, pulling him down as it frees him up.