David Byrne is a catalyst and a conduit for nearly two generations of musicians, artists and culture mongers—including those collected over the following pages. Here, we asked celebrated journalist and downtown mainstay Vivien Goldman, who has been chronicling Byrne since the ’70s, to capture what has made and what continues to make him so enduringly special.
Only the light has stayed the same since 1977, when I first really spoke to David Byrne in a Long Island City loft, with a wedge of the East River glinting in the giant windows. Today, Byrne is a don dada and major operator of the avant-garde who’s finally found a balance between his evident intellect and its physical packaging, to the point where he’s recently been sighted dancing across world-class stages in a man’s shirt and a see-through tutu. But back then, Byrne’s future was bright but opaque, like the light bouncing off the river.
I was interviewing Talking Heads for the punk rock weekly Sounds upon the release of their first album, ’77. There was a humor and serene confidence about our meeting. The band knew they’d got what they wanted down on vinyl and that it captured a new way of thinking about sound, about words. Drummer Chris Frantz mused, “It’ll be very interesting to see what people say about our record. If their concept of it is different from ours.” That year was a virgin moment for the Heads and their cohorts—the united downtown vanguard based around punk club CBGB, including The Ramones; Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty; Chris Stein and Debbie Harry of Blondie. There was a sense of a community finding its stride and seizing its moment. Primed with the team spirit of a movement about to crest, Byrne enthused, “I think we kinda felt, well, we’re all local bands, the people who make real records are somewhere else. But it was nice, almost everyone’s sounded like a real record.” Byrne’s current trademark thick shock of greying hair was just as unruly when it was black, though Byrne seemed to smooth it with Vaseline sometimes to make it flatter. He’d only recently dropped out of Rhode Island School of Art and Design, where he’d partnered up with our companions, Talking Heads’ newlywed rhythm section of Frantz and Tina Weymouth, whose brand new loft we were in. Everything about Byrne seemed angular, like his jaw and his shoulders—which, in a neo-preppy blue Aertex shirt, announced the imminence of geek chic. We feasted on grapes, crackers, salami and cheeses laid out on platters in the makeshift kitchen in the long, empty space. Loft living was still fairly new and the Frantz-Weymouths were among the first artists to move into what had been a redbrick factory and penetrate bohemia into New York’s scrubby, light industrial lowlands. Similarly, the Heads were neck and neck with fellow thoroughbred Patti Smith in injecting New York’s downtown punk/new wave’s hedonistic scene with some avant-garde heft.