By Matthew Weiner
Why are these two urban, urbane, successful, and apparently secular white men…push-pushing in the bush, haunted by ghosts?”– writer/composer David Toop, liner notes to the Nonesuch reissue of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, January 2005.
Like the offspring of two Mensa members, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts has always carried around its musical pedigree like an SAT score in the ninety-eighth percentile. To be fair, its lineage wasn’t a laughing matter. Not with Brian Eno on one hand, the hardest thinking man in show business, his uncalloused hand in virtually every major pop music development of the late 1970’s. Not with David Byrne on the other; four years his partner’s junior, he was in the midst of an extraordinary run himself, fashioning a persona that gave voice to the moral paradoxes and institutional mistrust emerging in post-war, post-Civil Rights America. And not with two critically-acclaimed Talking Heads collaborations under their belt, during which the pair had developed a growing and mutual fascination with the recording studio’s capacity to build cultural tension.
Given such impressive extraction, one can imagine the palpable sense of excitement My Life in the Bush of Ghosts elicited upon its release in 1981—a sentiment apparently shared by the good folks at Nonesuch, who have reissued the record on the twenty-fifth anniversary of its release. Still, for every listener who came away convinced that the record’s Third Stream Afro-funk realized fascinating new technological and aesthetic possibilities for pop music, it seems there has been another who interpreted its Johnny Weissmuller jungle beats and spliced-in recordings of preachers and North African singers as clear-cut indicators of arrogance, hubris, and cultural imperialism. Indeed, as if to reinforce the image of two men plundering away with little respect for or understanding of their source material, Eno and Byrne would later boast of never having read the Amos Tutuola book for which the record was named.
One listener firmly lodged in the latter group was avant-trumpeter Jon Hassell, from whom the pair apparently lifted the Bush of Ghosts concept. Initially conceived as a trio project exploring a fake culture—a sort of African counterpart to The Residents’s Eskimo—Eno and Byrne escaped to New York in early 1979 to cut tracks on their own without so much as notifying the Canadian composer-performer (who would later call his exclusion “a testament to the testosterone in the room at that time… I imagine it went something like, ‘We’re rich and famous...we can get away with it, so we'll do it’”). To be fair, though, the results of those sessions bore little resemblance to Hassell’s own “Fourth World” creations, its dub rhythms and electronic sheen hewing much more closely to the contemporaneous records of Krautrock maestros Dieter Moebius and Conny Plank, with whom Eno had (perhaps not coincidentally) recently worked.
But for all of the pair’s obvious skill at manipulating pre-recorded sound to their own, sometimes thrilling ends, not everyone shared Eno and Byrne's enthusiasm. When the estate of evangelist Katherine Kuhlman refused to authorize the use of one of her sermons for “Into the Spirit World,” the record became among the first to be mired in lawsuits over sample clearance. Another track (“Qu’ran”) featured the recording of Muslims chanting the Koran; that, too, was objected to—this time on grounds of cultural insensitivity—forcing the duo to ultimately drop the song from the album. Indeed, by the time it was finally released in 1981, Bush of Ghosts had taken such a circuitous route to completion that the Talking Heads record that Eno and Byrne had begun recording in the interim—the Afro-pop fusion classic, Remain In Light—had already been released to great acclaim, the MTV success of single “Once In a Lifetime” bringing Byrne his first taste of stardom.
Accordingly, the record underwent a fairly significant transformation; far from the idyllic partnership portrayed by Byrne in his liner note essay to Nonesuch’s reissue, the latter stages of the recording reveal evidence of an unmistakable shift in power toward the Talking Heads front man, who may or may not have developed a big head to go with that big suit. Wiped from the final product were not only the offending samples but also many of the choppy electronics and quasi-dub rhythm tracks recorded on cardboard boxes and other found objects; in their place appeared new tracks like the jumpy funk of “Help Me Somebody,” featuring holy roller Rev. Paul Morton, and the retooled “Into the Spirit World” (re-titled “The Jezebel Spirit”). Featuring several American talk radio hosts and evangelists, the revamped first side showcased the crisper, simpler pop song structures and disco polyrhythms favored by Byrne, with special emphasis on danceability (“America Is Waiting”’s proto-hip-hop and the big beat slap-bass funk of “Regiment”), ecclesiastic drama (“Help Me Somebody”), and narrative (“The Jezebel Spirit,” which reaches an ecstatically dinky climax following an apparently successful exorcism).
But if the A-side wears out its welcome by pushing Byrne’s hyperkinetic paranoia to the fore with catchy if facile results, the flip remains more mysterious and quintessentially Eno, with the unsettling modal vocal harmonies of “A Secret Life” and ghostly swells of “The Carrier” among the highlights. Best of all is the delicate metals and reverse reverbs featured in closer, “Mountain of Needles,” which finds the Ambient pioneer at his textural, captivating best.
Ultimately, despite the considerable pomp and circumstance of Nonesuch’s reissue—with new cover artwork, seven bonus tracks (“Side 3”) and a website that allows the listener to download and remix the original multi-tracks of two songs—there’s a lingering sense that the product at the center of all the hubbub remains something less than its lofty reputation. And perhaps more importantly, by papering over the Kuhlman debacle and offering not so much as a hint of “Qu’ran”’s existence in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy, the reissue essentially avoids delving into Bush of Ghosts’ more controversial (and, some would argue, lasting) legacy: that the issues it sought to transcend—of ownership, authenticity, and cultural transgression—are no more closer to being resolved in the public sphere today than they were a quarter-century ago.
If nothing else, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts raises an interesting question: what if information, education, and communications technology don’t transcend cultural differences, as we’ve grown to accept, but exacerbate them? It’s a question that even Eno and Byrne couldn’t possibly have pondered as they set about recording 25 years ago; and admittedly, taken to its logical conclusion today, the notion is fairly dire. But if Eno’s recent Another Day on Earth is any indication—the soundtrack to one man’s profound sense of despair and disillusion in the post 9/11 world—we may at last be discovering what’s been haunting these boys all these years.