Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Happy Birthday, David Byrne

I very much remember the first time I heard or saw Talking Heads - because the two happened at the same time.  I would assume it was sometime in 1983 that the video dropped for Burning Down the House on MTV.  This would have made me about 9 years old, and it didn't take much to sell me on a video or song, but the band appearing in white tuxedos in what looked like a ballroom in a shoebox, and absolutely kicking ass - while also being replaced in some shots by folks who were *not them* in white tuxedos, did not need any literal translation.  It just made sense.

At the front of the band was a wild eyed man who looked like no other front-man in rock and roll.  He was thin, almost gaunt, with slicked dark hair and committed to the bit.  And in a landscape of Europop, American rock like Journey and Springsteen, and even the hints of punk that made its way to MTV, it was like seeing your awkward high school chemistry teacher strap on a guitar.

Radio play and MTV were enough for me.  I was into them, but I was also a kid happy with whatever form I was getting music.   I was aware from 4th grade that Talking Heads were not in step with the pop music scene, were not fitting neatly into any categories, but did their own thing.

I got into Talking Heads as a band in late middle school and early high school.  In an era where things were hard to get and to find, the first time I heard about the movie True Stories was years after it came out while eating at a restaurant in Dallas under a subway-sized poster of the film poster, with David Byrne in his cowboy hat.  

Of course finally seeing both True Stories and Stop Making Sense (the tape of which I early wore out in my Eclipse), and both gave me a new perspective on the man.  As well as the occasional Talking Heads music video.  He was someone out there making new things, new visuals, new stories.  In the context of the 1980's - making a movie like True Stories was like putting a funhouse mirror to the exact version of the American Dream I knew, growing up in the prosperity of Texas' new frontier (as explored by a wide-eyed alien).  Stop Making Sense deconstructed the illusion of the rock show, processed it, and gave it back to you better than any fireworks or strobe lights were ever going to do with performance and musicianship.  

In college, around 1993, I started picking up Byrne's solo work.  Sure, I could understand the pivot that had somewhat ended Talking Heads when he went sort of "world music" with Naked.  So seeing him follow that path with his solo work was no huge shock.  I still dig Rei Momo and Uh-Oh.*  

But I also started digging into his catalog while also giving the new albums a shot, and liking quite a bit of what I heard.  But, yeah, the soundtrack to The Forest was a complete surprise.  In a weird, backwards way, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was my intro to not-Roxy Eno.  He also has partnered with interesting folks.  I think he might have been set to participate in Selena's crossover to English-speaking audiences with God's Child on Selena's Dreaming of You album.

In college, I managed to see Byrne play at La Zona Rosa (thanks, Winnie, for being a sport and going with me).  We were, curiously, the youngest people in the room.  I saw Byrne two more times, once at the original Backyard location, and then at Liberty Lunch (with Tosca, I believe).  And Marshall and I went to see him play with St. Vincent a long while back.  

But Byrne isn't just a musician.  He's kind of an all-purpose, multimedia artist who writes books, makes videos, has put on Broadway shows (American Utopia) and participated in ballet through scoring for Twyla Tharp (see: The Catherine Wheel).  He's put together Color Guard shows (Contemporary Color).   And some time in his 60's, figured out how to talk to people.  

His Luaka Bop label has managed to bring new artists to the world.  And - while he's fallen off - he used to blog quite a bit and generally use the internet quite well to communicate with whomever was interested.  

Whatever their differences, in general, all four of the main members of Talking Heads seem like decent folks.  They were never really wired for super pop stardom, and it's remarkable they did what they did.  And they've managed to remain relevant, year over year.  Certainly 2023's re-release of Stop Making Sense to theaters by A24 was a hell of a surprise, and - I assume - the sign someone at A24 just loved that band and that movie.  Pretty remarkable for a band that broke up something like 34 years ago and played maybe once or twice since.

Anyway, yeah.  Byrne is one of those folks who looms large in my personal pantheon.  It's fair to say, Byrne has just never stopped making things, pointing people to new things, challenged people to look at things in new ways.  It's pretty remarkable.  Some musicians get three or four good records out there and get called an icon.  Byrne certainly is famous, and it's not by accident, but he's not usually spoken about in the same breath as most rock stars with about fifty years under their belt as he kept exploring and refusing to stay in place.

*I'll also argue Uh-Oh's cover art is an all-timer.  

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