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.
As the late '70s segued into the early '80s, new wave—arty Yank punk, really—was part of a freaky multiple birth that included some other little squawlers called salsa, disco, hip-hop and reggae/dub. Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye nurtured downtown Kingston don Tappa Zukie and slammed a Robert Mapplethorpe shot of a bald black head on the sleeve of the dreadlocked Rasta rhymer's record. Blondie's Chris and Debbie sent me 12-inch Sugar Hill Gang records on small Harlem labels, and I sent them back a reggae compilation album on Virgin's new Front Line label featuring a lovely John Holt track called "The Tide Is High." (They obviously liked it.) Andy Warhol was still trawling downtown for art's next excitement and would soon find it in Jean-Michel Basquiat. Fab Five Freddy, who helped uptown spin into downtown (and vice versa) guested with the Heads on Glenn O'Brien's black and white cable gabfest, TV Party, and we'd all dance all night in the new downtown clubs sprung up in recent no-go areas. All these new youth cultures were converging to help the walls come tumbling down with a blast. Possibly sensing the coming wave of a multicultural America, Talking Heads' Sire labelmates The Ramones embarked on an aesthetic musical quest for white music: a doofus punk response to how thoroughly melanin-made influence had convinced the populace of its superiority. So instead of aping African-derived polyrhythms as delivered by Motown, Stax or even The Beatles, The Ramones response was stripped down tracks—short, sharp shocks that spat at the complexity of beat or word.
As is well documented, The Ramones often shared the small, sodden CBGB stage with Talking Heads. But the two bands approached the problem of finding a new musical dialect for their post-Vietnam generation rather differently. If The Ramones wrote obsessively simple songs like babies' building blocks, the Heads' song structures were more like a complex Lego construction that could turn from a bridge into a crane—if you forget Byrne's febrile howl, some of the chord changes could almost be progressive rock. As the hip-hop nation was about to drop the bomb on the racial paradigm of the time, David Byrne, who came from a rigid Scottish background, was arguably among the last textbook cases of an uptighty whitey finding liberation and his higher self through funk and tropical heat. Over the arc of the Heads' career they inched ever closer to what I call The Black Chord—the flow that links musics from the broad Afro-diaspora. And, racial debates aside, you must admit, it worked for them. Their most African-inflected disc, 1980's Remain In Light—also their last with producer Brian Eno—was the band's biggest seller.
Being a pioneering girl rock journalist when Talking Heads were starting out, I was able to pull back the ratty blanket that served as a backstage door at CBGB and see the band up close, if not exactly personal. Byrne was always formal and gentlemanly even while changing clothes in such squalid conditions. Talking Heads' music was also unconventional, their lyrics a shift away from typical love songs into a pursuit of the deliciously banal, the frisson of the quotidian which Byrne described as More Songs About Buildings and Food. Any social disconnect only seemed to serve how they meshed onstage–near-Brechtian lyrics uttered in a clipped Cary Grant accent, conjoined with a hyper-frenetic rhythm section. And Byrne didn't dance—he spasmed.
Byrne brought a nerdy geek persona to the stage, the flipside of cocksure strutters like Jagger or Prince. He was not androgynous; he was ambivalent. Not always the easiest bandmate for Frantz and Weymouth. Though they evidently came from comparatively privileged and preppy backgrounds, they were looser, funkier—especially compared to Byrne, whose thin granite jaw would clench just like Anthony Perkins' in Psycho.
Handsome and clever, Byrne was capable of great charm, but rarely warmth. He could seem twitchy, distant and hard to reach. Had he gone further down that path a few decades later, they might have called him deficient in something or other. Perhaps that's why Byrne's perspective was so original and his focus so intense. Certainly he was autocratic. It is part of feminist lore that Byrne got Tina Weymouth to audition twice for her job—when the band began doing well, he seemed to doubt her ability to master the groove. In fairness, by keeping her in the gig, Byrne acknowledged Weymouth's superiority. He expanded.
Over the years, Byrne seems to have blossomed and become more and more genial. Success agrees with him, as if he's grown into the Big Suit he wore in Jonathan Demme's 1982 Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense. The charm of the gangly neurotic outsider gave way to the glow and twinkle of the artist on an adventure he knows will last forever. Maybe I sensed some potential synergy with Brian Eno, because I mentioned Byrne's future musical partner in my Heads interview from the October 22, 1977 issue of Sounds. I doubt that Byrne and Eno had yet met, but theirs would prove the more enduring partnership:
"Byrne: The Talking Heads are not just entertainment, there is some substance there that would have meaning for some people."
Goldman: That's the way Eno operates, he won't lower his standards for some theoretical audience..."
Byrne: I think we'd agree with that, but we wouldn't want to underrate the audience, because I think they would see that and regard us as being condescending. It would be better if we presented them with something that they find a little bit—maybe confusing, and maybe a little bit more difficult to relate to at first, but once they'd got used to it they'd find more in it."
The Heads had a good run for a group marriage, 17 years, but fairly soon it seemed as if Byrne was no longer finding more in it. If bands were all having lunch in a big art rock school canteen, Byrne would rather sit with their producer Brian Eno, ex of Roxy Music, who helped mold some of the band's best-loved music, than at his own Talking Heads table. That impression's now confirmed as Byrne and Eno are working together again after 27 years, while Byrne has yet to share a stage with his (terrific) old rhythm section. Call me crass, but that's still a gig I'd like to see. After all, a flip through the many Byrne achievements confirms that surely this renaissance maverick has proven his point. Byrne and Eno clearly were the cleverclogs of their respective groups. As to Byrne and Eno's recent musical reunion, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, the duo boldly announced that these tracks had been kicking around in a drawer for years and that David had doodled away on their lyrics and melody for even longer. There are lovely, beguiling moments and the title track is seductive. If the disc doesn't have the spine-tingling urgency of a message from Mount Hip that once emanated from both auteurs, it has been replaced by a welcome familiarity—the feeling of an amiable ramble with old friends. Along with Patti Smith, Byrne and Eno are among the few creators we can turn to from that '70s generation for continued artistic challenge and brain-flaming. Let's hope that at the lofty heights of their cultural dominance, Byrne and Eno don't stop dancing barefoot on the cutting edge. For Byrne, as is well known, that edge has often been associated with the sandy rim of a continent. In 2001, just after he'd released Look into the Eyeball, I spoke to him for Interview magazine in the West Village office that materialized his passion: Luaka Bop. His label was fantastic at unearthing and re-branding superb but little known (often non-Anglo) artists:
"Goldman: You come from Scotland, a culture that's often associated with emotional repression. Yet you've always been drawn to African and Latin cultures, generally thought of as uninhibited. Has the contact changed the mix of your personality?
Byrne: Yeah. It's the same motivation that drove me to want to sound funky in the late '70s and '80s. Hearing salsa and a lot of tropical music here in New York in the clubs made me want to go further in that direction. In the old Celia Cruz songs, I heard this melancholy undercurrent in the vocal melodies, and yet the music was very danceable. So the music was providing the problem and its solution in one three-minute package, as if it were saying, 'Life is sad, but the solution is dance.' I thought, That combination feels great."
I'd already seen Byrne bewitched. In the early '90s we traveled together to the small but celebrated village of Palenque in Colombia, as part of a contingent attending the amazing old Pan-Caribbean Music Festival. A few of us disgorged from a stuffy, rattling van into a village far smaller and scruffier than I'd expected from the only surviving outpost of the descendants of Colombia's escaped African captives, and the home of a rapidly vanishing language. Somehow I'd expected UN centers with uniformed guides. Instead our hosts here were at subsistence level.
But then the drumming began—the drums that form a living link between the quest for survival of a tribe stranded in time, and of a worldly international musician. Way pre-internet, Byrne was seeking out rarities of African music just as Picasso dug tribal masks from Benin in the 1920s. Ain't nothing new—another young white boy transfixed and transformed by The Black Chord. Byrne was only passing through Palenque on a package trip, but you could see he was affected. It was as if, even before that blazing, dusty afternoon, those ancient beats being pounded out by people without solid footwear had propelled Byrne's change and pointed him on a path he'd never leave. I glanced over at Byrne. In his straw porkpie hat, shades and sturdy sandals, he seemed the true American abroad. Something of an innocent perhaps, with both the virtue of openness—and the risk that blissful ignorance always carries, of causing naive havoc. But Byrne seemed benevolent enough. I smiled and Byrne grinned back and I'd never seen him so happy. His eyes had depth and a sparkle and—yes, warmth. And he was dancing. Really dancing.