Artist, Singer, Cyclist, Herky-Jerky Intellectual: The Endless Curiosity of Shy Talking Head David Byrne
David Byrne was never going to write a conventional autobiography. As lead singer of Talking Heads, and as a solo performer, artist, cyclist and herky-jerky intellectual, he has always displayed a restless curiosity; a rare quality in rock music.
But then, Byrne has only ever had one foot in rock. Though emanating from the same New York scene which produced the Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith and Television, who all got their start in Hilly Kristal’s club CBGB, Talking Heads borrowed heavily from disco, even though they couldn’t quite play it, and as Byrne’s confidence increased, they inhaled funk and gospel, with the singer exploring musical styles which favoured ecstatic abandon over intellect; though, obviously, he pursued this path with relentless intelligence. In his solo career, he has explored Brazilian music, opera, and film soundtracks, without ever abandoning the pop song.
In a personal sense, he is more concerned with questions of creativity and – a difficult idea, but not a contradiction – the sincerity of performance. In what is perhaps his most celebrated incarnation, as the centrepiece of Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert film, Stop Making Sense, Byrne offers a parody of a musical frontman, disappearing inside a giant suit, as if to demonstrate visually that the role of the performer, the clothes he inhabits, are more important than the singer himself. Hence, the pressures and pleasures of his own life appear only fleetingly here. When recording his eponymous 1994 album, the music became more spare, “possibly… in response to a recent death in the family.” Around the time of his 2004 solo LP, Grown Backwards, he notes, “there was love, anger, sadness and frustration in my life”. For his 2008 collaboration with Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, he explains: “I wanted to find a reason not to be cynical, to have some faith, even when nothing seemed to justify it. Writing and singing seemed to be an attempt at a kind of musical self-healing.”
Actually, the Big Suit has a broader significance for Byrne, because it signals his acceptance of theatricality. There had been costumes before, of course, including a checked polyester suit which shrunk to absurdity in the wash. Prior to that, Byrne had been an art student and a busker, with an “old world immigrant beard”. He had toiled in the folk scene, playing Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran songs on the ukulele (“it was an oddball mish-mash, but it wasn’t boring”). Then, on tour in Japan with Talking Heads, he encountered traditional theatre – Kabuki, Noh, and Bunraku. These forms, Byrne noted, were highly stylised, unlike the more naturalistic Western tradition. So, when fashion designer Jurgen Lehl suggested to him that “everything on stage needs to be bigger”, he took the remark too literally.
You can get lost trying to locate the irony in the symbolism of that outfit. On one level, at least, it symbolises Byrne’s view of himself as an art worker (he’s not big on the notion of musicians as creative geniuses). “Sometimes,” he writes, “it seems as if writing a group of songs is like getting groceries or doing the laundry – banal things I do more or less on a day-to-day basis. We deal with the issues involved in our mundane activities as they come up, and songwriting might be viewed similarly, as the response to specific and even pedestrian needs.”
Nor is he keen to explain the meaning of his songs, because he believes it changes with the context in which the song is heard, and in many cases his lyrics begin as gibberish and evolve to fit the music. Or, the songs change shape as other players join in: Psycho Killer was originally envisaged as a ballad, but Byrne’s bandmates pulled it in a different direction.
Byrne applies the same dry logic to his chosen career. He really does try to explore how music works, right down to the neurons, without ever quite letting go of the sense that its beauty is located in its mystery. At times, the book resembles a business manual, exploring the influence of technology (not always benign, he suggests, but mostly irresistible), and the death of the music industry. There is much surprising detail – perhaps too much – on the economics of recording and releasing music. The choices, these days, are a) being Madonna and selling your soul to a concert promoter or b) doing it yourself. It’s not impossible to pay the rent by following the second route, but generally speaking, money is made by touring, not recording. Byrne does OK, but not without careful arithmetic.
If he seems detached and almost clinically logical in his prose, it may be because his brain is wired that way. He suggests he had, or has, a form of Asperger’s syndrome (“very mild, I think”) in which “leaping up in public to do something wildly expressive and then quickly retreating back into my shell seemed, well, sort of normal to me.”
He adds: “Poor Susan Boyle; I can identify.” No irony there either; just a sincere appreciation of the power of song.
How Music Works is published by Canongate, £22