Cents and Sensibility: Talking Heads

You may find yourself…the leader of a rock band (of sorts)!

You may find yourself…starring in a movie of that band's performance! You may find yourself…in a foreign country, staying in a fine hotel and talking to people about that band and that movie! And you may ask yourself…well, how did I get here? And you may ask yourself…what do I do now?

Watch out! You might get what you're after.

David Byrne, the talking head of Talking Heads, is one of pop music's stranger creatures. This is readily apparent when watching him perform: his onstage demeanour is hugely unsettling; nervous mannerism writ large, one long twitch.

Odd things keep happening to his body. His arms and legs move seemingly without conscious volition; he gazes down at them in horror. He speaks in tongues — a process alluded to in the title of Talking Heads' last studio album — and produces some of the most peculiar vocal noises in popular music.

In 'Psycho Killer', the first great Talking Heads song and the opening number in the Stop Making Sense concert film, Byrne sings "I'm tense and nervous and I can't relax". When he sings it, no one doubts him.

We dress like students, we dress like housewives.

Talking Heads are the staying-power champs of New York City's class of '75. They came out of CBGBs, Hilly Kristal's Bowery snake-pit, alongside Television, Blondie, the Ramones, Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers and the Patti Smith Group. Although hardcore looks like bringing Da Brudders back strong, it's fair to say that Talking Heads have outlasted and outcreated their one-time peers.

Even then, Byrne and his crew were somewhat strange. They eschewed both the old and new models of rock flash – the standard stadium crap and the proto-punk rebel style – and they all seemed absolutely terrified.

At that time, Talking Heads were a trio — Byrne singing and playing guitar with Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz in the rhythm section — and they looked like emotionally disturbed preppies, frightened pigeons in a den of cats. Their music was as wildly incongruous as their appearance: a giddy blend of folk-rock and white soul.

Midway through the performance, Byrne broke a string on his only electric guitar, and no one ever made more of a display of changing it. The set ground to a halt and Byrne, his spiderly limbs contorted in an agony of embarrassment and clumsiness, seemed to be changing the string in slow-motion, face frozen, eyes staring.

Nine years later, the New York Times is hailing Byrne as being "in the forefront of young American composers". He scores ballets as well as racking up hit singles and is generally big potatoes. Talking Heads, augmented from the basic quartet by an ever-changing gang of stellar funk sidepersons, frame his anguished yelp with a dense, polyrhythmic wash of sound that's still one of America's most stimulating rock noises.

I'm an ordinary guy…burning down the house.

BYRNE IS installed in a very comfortable suite at the Hyde Park Hotel, equipped with a video and a stack of tapes, including The Evil Dead. On a darkening Thursday afternoon, Byrne almost seems part of the encroaching shadows.

In black slacks and shirt with immaculately polished black shoes, he dresses to emphasise his prodigious gawkiness. The slicked-back hair is now neatly trimmed and brushed forward. Despite his cordiality, he evinces an air of abstraction. He is not, however, a werewolf. I know this because his eyebrows do not meet in the middle. Not quite.

This is the meaning of life…to tune this electric guitar.

BYRNE REMEMBERS the broken string incident at CBGBs all those years ago. He recalls dragging the incident out as long as possible to get more time onstage. Then, as now, Byrne's philosophy was that everything that happens on stage is part of the performance.

"The prevalent attitude seems to be, look at this bit, but try to ignore what's going on over there and try to ignore what you're seeing in the wings. Look at the fact that I've got a nice haircut and a good tailor, but ignore everything else; like the fact that I can't move. StopMaking Sense isn't so much a film about the band as a film about that performance. It's like doing a film of a play, rather than a documentary about a theatre company."

Unusually for a concert movie, Stop Making Sense includes no footage of the band arriving at a hall, no cute "spontaneous" conversations in the dressing room, and hardly any shots of the audience going wild over the band. Its sobriety and absence of rockumentary trappings is an integral part of the way that director Jonathan Demme visualised the movie.

"Our hope was that, through the way it was filmed, you do get to know the personalities of the band members and the various people who play onstage as they're introduced, and that Jonathan would cut to them when they're doing something that reveals their personality rather than when they're doing something flashy like a solo. You think of them as people rather than as… something else."

Byrne's speaking voice is quiet and oddly quavery. He looks away as he speaks, and his limbs assume odd, contorted shapes as he speaks. Even answering fairly routine and unintrusive questions seems to be painful for him. Why am I tormenting this poor man? Byrne makes me feel as if I am poking him with a pointed stick.

THE STRUCTURE of Stop Making Sense is unusual (returning to business): it opens with Byrne arriving on a totally bare stage clutching an acoustic guitar and a ghetto-blaster.

The blaster blares out a beat-box backing tape to which Byrne performs a solo 'Psycho Killer', and gradually the musicians join him. First Tina Weymouth strolls on to play some bass on 'Heaven' and technicians wheel on keyboard stands and the drum kit for Jerry Harrison and Chris Frantz. As the set progresses, backdrops fall into place and the full band assembles.

Was the set/movie structured for visual or musical reasons, and was the order of songs intended to provide a cumulative build-up of information?

"Well, I think it would've been unsafe to end with a ballad or something, no matter how good it looked. In retrospect, Jonathan pointed out that there was some kind of psychological development going on. My character is kind of thrown into this situation and is a little bewildered by it — angst-ridden or whatnot — and gradually comes out of that until the end where he is eventually united with the other performers and comes out of that. He becomes a more comfortable human being and so it has a happy ending."

When the percussion break occurs in 'Psycho Killer', Byrne is almost buffeted around the stage by the punishing beat-box track: acted upon by the music rather than moving it.

"That's what happened the first time I heard it! I'd programmed the drum machine and put it on cassette and played it for the first time in rehearsal, and I'd forgotten where the little drum breaks were, so every time they occurred it was a kind of surprise. It felt like I was being constantly surprised by this thing.

"A lot of the time it feels like that to me: that even though a song might be of my own, or our own, making, when it's performed onstage it's done to me or I'm being swept along by it. It's a pretty good feeling: that it's all being almost forced upon me. It makes it easier than having to get into it myself."

How does Byrne feel when he watches himself? What does he think about that person?

"Most of the time I feel like I'm getting into another character, through he does have a lot of elements of my own. That's pretty comforting to watch, because it's like watching somebody else. The moments when I drop out of character and start floundering are the most uncomfortable to watch."

Do characters suggest songs or vice versa?

"In the recent past it's been the music first and that has suggested a lyrical attitude, but before the attitude of the character or the words came first. Now I'm back to that, so it's almost as if someone else is writing the song.

"Often I'm surprised, and that's my favourite part of it, when I come up with something and I don't know where it came from.

"There's an old one called 'Electric Guitar' and I'm still not sure where that came from. I scribbled part of it down when we were touring in a station wagon, and read it to the band, and we all got a big giggle out of it, but I was real excited because I didn't know where it came from or what it represented.

"There's that song on Remain In Light called 'Born Under Punches'… that was real spontaneous, just improvised in the studio… spontaneous emissions."

Are there aspects of Byrne's character which don't surface in the music?

"Oh, yeah. My political views are not very… um… so… lately I did some posters for the election and I found that that was a much more comfortable outlet. Maybe each aspect of my character has its own ideal medium for expression.

"It's assumed that a lot of musicians are speaking for someone else — speaking for the steelworkers or for the underprivileged — whereas a lot of musicians are privileged people.

"I find that it rarely works, except in the case of someone like Robert Wyatt. When he does it I find it pretty touching in a way. They're definitely political sentiments that he's expressing, but he does it in a way that's so personal. It's an intense personal emotion that's being expressed which happens to be of a political nature."

In that filmed performance, did Byrne feel "present" the whole time?

"It's a funny feeling: that I can feel like I'm there, that I know where I am on stage, whether my shoes are tight, or in the middle of singing a song I can know what the next song's going to be. And at the same time, I'm not aware of that; I'm totally subsumed by what I'm doing. It's a nice place to be: kind of two places at once."

What's the most satisfying part of Talking Heads? Is it that feeling of being subsumed?

"That's a good one. I think another one is probably to do with the reason why anyone performs on stage or creates anything, that you have something to say or to do and you want to get it before people. It's a great feeling. Even if they don't like it, it's a great feeling just to put it out and be heard. Even when I don't feel like doing it, it only takes two or three songs and then the music just takes me over again."

Byrne loosens up as the conversation goes on and the shadows draw in. He no longer fiddles with his shoelaces, and he starts to laugh more and more.

He's found a way to utilise shyness and awkwardness, so much parts of him, by dramatising them in his performance as he enacts his symbolic journey from the bare wires and raw nerves of 'Psycho Killer' through to the healing and redemption of 'Take Me To The River'. He even makes ironic references to his being "angst-ridden" here and there in the conversation.

You can't be angst-ridden all the time, David. Do you wake up angst-ridden every morning?

"No, uh…most mornings I feel fine. Just fine."

© Charles Shaar Murray, 1984

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