The Man From Utopia: David Byrne at 70
Looking back on the career of a Great American Eccentric
It is not an easy thing for a musician to maintain artistic currency – which to say, validity – as a creative force decade after decade. And maintain or keep building a fan base.
In the rock ‘n’ roll world, especially, the bloom can come off the rose mighty fast, and if you’re still in the game in at middle-age or late-middle-age, you’re a success. But maybe less than you once were. You’re often playing in a minor league at smaller venues. And to aging fans who think, “Yes, I remember this act. Haven’t seen them in years. Maybe I should check out the show. I hope it doesn’t cost too much and I hope they play the hits. And they sound like I remember them!”
David Byrne, who turns 70 May 14, is perched at the top of the list of continuing creatives, certainly of the musicians or bands that sprung from the New York new wave movement of the mid-late ‘70s. The rangy, oft-barefoot white-haired singer-songwriter-guitarist has built and sustained a multi-faceted career: Music (live and recorded), books, film, TV (he plays Amy Schumer’s oddball doctor on Life & Beth), websites, late night chat show appearances.
It’s not like this octopus of a career is a 21st century thing.
“Already, in the early ‘80s,” Byrne told me, when we sat down to talk in 2019, “I was doing dance scores or a movie soundtrack or something for theater in between Talking Heads stuff. I thought, ‘Oh, I get to stretch out a little bit.’”
When we spoke, he was about to preview American Utopia at Boston’s Emerson Colonial Theatre.
I’d seen the concert in Boston the previous year, with eight of the 21 songs from the Heads days. Not that he hadn’t relied, to an extent, on the old (oops, classic) material previously. He did a chunk of these songs when he left the band and toured solo (with another band of course) and no one’s going to argue his right to claim them and play them. So, it was no shock to hear a chunk of reconfigured Heads songs playing a large part in the American Utopia piece. Also, of course, with songs from the American Utopia solo album, his tenth, released in 2018. It seemed Byrne’s way of breaking from the past, yet holding onto certain tendrils. And, yes, keeping the customer satisfied.
When you first heard Byrne was releasing an album called American Utopia (before any knowledge of the tour or stage show to come) you thought, especially concerning an artist like Byrne, that the irony bell was ringing loud and clear.
Byrne – who has trafficked in irony a fair amount – was well aware of this. No, he didn’t think today’s America was anywhere near Utopia. He may have written “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” in 1983, but he’s not naïve.
“It’s not ironic,” he said. “It’s obviously a contrast [with today’s world] but that’s intentional. A friend of mine from London saw the show somewhere and his comment was, ‘This title’s not ironic; it refers to what we’re seeing on stage.’” Which was 12 musicians – all barefoot and sporting bespoke gray suits, many carrying percussive instruments – marching about the stage untethered and making merry.
Byrne developed the stage version of American Utopia along with production consultant Alex Timbers and choreographer Annie-B Parson, both having previously worked with him. Byrne: “I said to Annie-B, ‘You’re gonna like this. The whole band can move and we have the whole stage. There are no obstacles – no cables no mic stands, no pedals, no drum riser, nothing. It’s all yours.’”
The show, Byrne said, had what he called a “three-step arc.” It is not a precise narrative nor autobiographical but concerns “in a larger sense the journey we all kind of take: From being within ourselves, trying to figure out how we fit into the world, finding the community where we fit in and then with that little community engaging with the larger world.”
In rock shows, audiences sometimes value spontaneity – or at least the illusion thereof. In theater, much less so, of course.
“There are moments in the show that are more spontaneous than others,” Byrne said, “but mostly it’s worked out. The point, I think, is not whether it’s rehearsed; the point is whether it actually amplifies the meaning of the song or the emotion of what’s happening at that moment.”
Yes, like everything else it got put on hold during the COVID-19 lockdown and subsequent waves of variants, but it came back to life, finally shutting down April 3, 2022.
The show was, mostly, though not entirely, celebratory. The world he created on stage, Byrne said, was forged “out of desperation, in a way, but in a good way. It’s meant to be visceral living proof that alternatives are possible. A constructive way to respond to what’s going on in the world, rather than just yelling and screaming.”
Byrne said he does that, too, but off-stage. “I feel more now that this [show] is the only way I can stay sane,” he said, “the only way I can stop from being cynical, angry and depressed. So, it’s kind of survival.”
American Utopia closes with Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout.”
“I’ve often done a cover song, usually as an encore,” Byrne said, “and it’s celebratory and fun, something everybody knows and can sing along to, a bit of a release.”
But Monae’s song is something else. It protests African-Americans killed by police. “In this case, I thought in these times I have to kind of make a statement,” Byrne said. “Do a cover, yes, but it has to acknowledge what’s going on in the world. I’d heard that song a year earlier and thought it was one of the best songs or most appropriate song that I’d ever heard. I asked her ‘Is it OK if you have an older white guy do this song?’ And she was thrilled.”
VIDEO: Talking Heads Stop Making Sense trailer
Byrne, of course, came to early fame in the New York underground, the music played on college radio, featured in Punk magazine. With Talking Heads, he, Frantz, bassist Tina Weymouth and (later) keyboardist Jerry Harrison, created a sharp, sometimes surreal, art-funk-world music mélange. Detached, yet passionate. Observational, but of the moment. Over time, Talking Heads evolved into something more full-bodies and dance-driven, especially evidenced on the big band tour, captured by Jonathan Demme in the 1984 doc Stop Making Sense. Seeing the local show on that tour at the Cape Cod Coliseum was one of the most inspiring concerts I’d ever witnessed. (RIP, Bernie Worrell.)
But the Heads went on what turned out to be permanent hiatus in 1988 when Byrne exited. The stories vary about that exit. Byrne and drummer Chris Frantz have very different takes on the band’s end.
“I’m super-proud of what we did, the songs, the recordings and performances,” Byrne said. “I remember when [the 1980 album] Remain in Light came out and we tried to do one song, ‘Once in a Lifetime’ as a single, but we were told radio was not going to play it – it was too funky for rock radio and it was too weird and white for R&B radio. And we thought, ‘America, oh geez, get over yourself.’”
The dissolution was strange and acrimonious. In 1997, I was driving Byrne from a gig in Providence, Rhode Island to a gig Hyannis, Massachusetts in my Mitsubishi Eclipse. (Yep, that’s where we did interview, me driving, Byrne riding shotgun and then-wife Adele in the back.) It was nine years after the breakup, but still the band loomed large – there was quite a legacy – and had to be discussed.
Byrne took part of the blame for not immediately telling the other three he was leaving. But he said the strife within the band, both personal and creative, had been taking a wearying toll.
“Well, yeah, the end’s not so happy,” Byrne told me. “I thought the last record we made, [1988’s] Naked, is a really good record. But it was very psychologically hard to do. It had its very tense moments.
“I thought this is not why I play music. This is very miserable. It was not a very pleasant divorce. . .. People want bands to last forever because it’s part of their growing up, part of their adolescence. You want to have that touchstone to be able to go back to. Yet, they’re specific times, and [yet, bands] are human beings. It’s not like a movie that you saw when you were 19 that you can go back and watch again.”
Did Byrne mourn the Heads passing in any way?
“No,” he replied. “It was an incredible relief for me.”
Of his developing solo career: “It’s a way of saying ‘I’m my own person, I’m of my own identity, I’m not just the singer from a band who’s doing a vanity project.’”
VIDEO: Talking Heads perform “Psycho Killer” at CBGB
The first time I saw Talking Heads was at CBGB in 1977, just after their debut album came out. They were a trio then, pre-Jerry Harrison. It was one of those CBs moments, like what I had with Ramones and Television. To see these great innovative bands in their native habitat, their rock ‘n’ roll laboratory, when the place was jammed to the gills, well, it was a kind of bliss. And, yet, we – artists and audience – were all still were outsiders in the vast world of rock at large. And, sure, that was part of the charm.
You might have used the word celebration early in the Heads career – their first single “Love Goes to Building on Fire” is pure jubilation – but the group’s early period (“Psycho Killer,” “Don’t Worry About the Government,” “The Big Country”) was more marked by nervous energy and wariness. If it was punk, it was the art end of punk – and there was plenty of room for that amidst the snarl and chaos of Ramones, Dead Boys and Cramps.
All of that is long gone, of course. All things must pass, a phrase I keep cycling back to the older I get.
I’m glad I’ve got those memories. I’m glad Byrne and his fellow Talking Heads supplied a lot of those. And I’m glad Byrne continues to do so.
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