By Louise Rimmer
Scottish-born David Byrne has re-invented himself so many times in his 49 years, his geographical roots are probably the least interesting thing about him. From frontman of the pioneering funk-driven rock group Talking Heads, to Oscar-winning film composer, world music record boss and conceptual artist, Byrne has certainly earned the title 'Rock's Renaissance Man', if only in terms of his interests. So it's perhaps not that surprising he has turned his hand to rewriting the scriptures.
Entitled The New Sins, Byrne's little red leather-bound book is available not only in bookshops but is also, like the almost identical-looking Gideon Bible, awaiting perusal in the drawers of selected hotel rooms. Byrne first came up with the idea of free distribution when asked to create a piece of art for the Valencia Biennial, on the theme of 'vices and virtues'.
"I liked the idea of placing this little book, which would look very much like a Bible, in hotel drawers because I figured giving the whole thing away would run at the same cost of shipping art in and out. This way everyone gets a souvenir," says Byrne benevolently.
What everybody thinks of their little souvenir, particularly Spanish Catholics, may be a different matter. As a parody of the Bible, The New Sins is witty and thought-provoking, though at times downright confounding.
His attention to detail is meticulous; from the blank spaces for the receiver's name and date on the opening page, to the declaration that it was 'Translated out of the Original Tongues with the Former Translations Diligently Compared and Revised'. (Sound familiar? Check out King James Bible.) Like the Bible, it is full of now-hackneyed metaphors: 'The heart is a treasure house of sin', and pointless digressions: 'I was walking in my garden the other day - actually I was walking on a street in Florida'.
"There are elements of the book which are rants and complaints, but there are other elements which are a little more tongue-in-cheek," says Byrne. "But that's kind of intentional, and it's up to the reader to make up their own mind which bit they take seriously."
The book opens by satirising the self-help phenomenon, describing itself as 'a laptop for the soul' which, 'like a porno magazine, a home-cooked meal or a strand of DNA' can be used at any time. Making the point that "each culture and society make their sins," Byrne replaces the money-lenders and whores of Babylon with 'graphic designers, website managers... women who have married stupid, well-endowed but ridiculous men and Nobel Prize winners'. Such inclusions will be familiar for confirmed Byrnites, as his suspicions of the material world and advertising are well known.
"All over the West and other parts of the world too, we're a touch deluded with this propaganda about how modern technology and modern life are going to make life so wonderful for us," says Byrne. "If you disagree, God help you, you're ostracised."
You have to wonder if that's how Byrne himself sometimes feels. His songs are full of highways that lead nowhere, homes that are spied on and air that poisons. In a similarly ironic yet paranoid vein, a collection of his photographs exhibited at Glasgow's Lloyd Jerome gallery two years ago juxtaposed images of serene landscapes with cryptic corporate 'go get it' mottos. Byrne was criticising corporate invasion long before Naomi Klein, but with wittier, more oblique observations, complemented with mesmerising 'nerd school' dancing when performing live.
Indeed, so 'beguiled, bewitched, enchanted, charmed, entertained, enthralled, delighted and captivated' has the world become, it is no surprise that Byrne's new sins are in fact old virtues. Therein lies the deception. Beauty is a sin because it 'creates the illusion that all is well'; a Sense of Humour a sin as it 'keeps a hapless population in stitches'; Charity is a means of exerting 'not-so-subtle control over another party'; whilst Hope is the most deadly, for it 'is for the cowardly... it deceives us into thinking that there IS narrative, linearity, and not chaos, chance and luck'.
"We are being pleasured into sleep," says Byrne solemnly, though I have to say, for most of our conversation he's surprisingly giggly. "It's not a dictatorship of the military, it's a dictatorship of somnolence."
The zeal with which Byrne urges us to resist the 'Spin Doctors, Hype Merchants, TV Pundits and Talk Show Experts' is akin to evangelists warning against Satan. Byrne, no stranger to the rhetoric of evangelists, as those familiar with the Talking Heads' hit 'Once in a Lifetime' will recall, often attends evangelic services. "It's a good show, the music's often very good. You don't have to believe to have a good time. Sometimes you can have a really good time. Sometimes it's just a laugh," he says. "I think some of the evangelists would probably agree with me on some of the things in the book."
Byrne insists that the book is not all satire, and says I'm being "too sceptical" when I ask him if writing The New Sins was a way of exorcising his own paranoia.
"There's a dose of love and appreciation in there too," he argues. "It's an appreciation for how beautiful and poetic those things can sometimes be, despite their absurdity."
This comes across more in the photographs that accompany the text: a pile of naked Barbie dolls, entangled in their masses of fluffy blond hair; a row of satin confirmation dresses sagging off coat-hangers. In fact Byrne's compassion comes across most through what he omits. He wittily discards the traditional idea of punishment by brimstone and hellfire, pointing out that 'a labyrinth of rooms deep in the earth filled with demons, cesspools and burning embers' is actually a disco, not hell. Byrne's concept of justice is more personal, more immediate, and, with more than a nod to Dante, condemns website designers to forever click on sites that contain 'mountains of inscrutable and meaningless data'.
"There are a lot of passages in the Bible that I think are beautiful, but I find the first five books of the Old Testament far too bloody and filled with hatred and vengeance. It's very Middle Eastern, it sets the tone for a lot of things over there. I didn't want to finish it. I thought it was a nasty piece of work."
I did finish The New Sins, but at times it was something of an effort. The ambiguity of Byrne's humour is occasionally tiresome and the book feels like it cannot always sustain its conceit. But then I re-read Byrne's advice at the beginning: 'It is to be dipped into - added like a seasoning... season lightly, sparingly.' Read this way, his pearls of wisdoms are timely in their warnings against the glossy PR we accept as truth in our daily lives.
You may find yourself raising a lot of questions that Byrne does not provide an answer to. But then, if we are all under a dictatorship of somnolence, that's maybe not such a bad thing.