1986 - Making Sense of David Byrne Print
Written by Tom McDonough   

From: American Film, October 1987

Talking Head analyzed on the occasion of his directing debut.

Los Angeles has been soggy for three days: an invasion of Mexican
air in American February. The rain, propelled by a wind whose
intention is to knock things down, trickles into the stage where
David Byrne is directing a rock video on the set of True Stories,
his first narrative film.

"You look just like a director, David", says Tina, twirling
starlet twirl. Byrne, who also acts in the video, is wearing a
high-voltage Hawaiian shirt, mustard yellow suit, pencil mustache,
and shark-fin pompadour. Tina, tarted up in stiletto heels,
leopard-skin Spandex, and a colossal hair blow, struts her stuff
in front of fifteen blinking TV monitors. Byrne chuckles - he looks
quite natural in disguise - and consults quietly with Ed Lachman,
the director of photography, who's been scanning the set with
"what's next?" eyes.

Despite the formidably eccentric fashions, the scene feels tame
compared with the frenzy one expects of rock video. Karen Murphy
coproducer of the sublimely goofy This is Spinal Tap and now the
producer of True Stories, checks with her director about the
disposition of certain publicity photos. He stares, alert as a
deaf detective. He nods mildly. One was expecting post-apocalyptic
cool. Under his makeup, the author of some of the quirkiest
American lyrics since Emily Dickinson has the face of a precocious
grad student, an innocent face in the process of acquiring a fate.

Trying to understand how Byrne works is as daunting as making sense
of the images kaleidoscoping on the TV monitors behind him. Pioneer
performer of minimalist catatonia. Maestro of the amnesiac stumble
and the baroquely embellished nervous breakdown. Art rocker with the
properties of the elusive quark: strangeness, charm, and spin. The
man who, jerking like a glove on a stick, redefined dancing as
hopping and performance as an unnatural act. The future trying
awkwardly to happen.

Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme's 1984 film of the Talking Heads
in performance, created the sport of Byrne-watching. The fascination
was of watching a hostage ecstatically plot his escape - of watching
a man change his tempo, change his clothes, change his body, change
his mind. Today, amid the routine looniness of a film set, costumed
like an outtake from "Miami Vice", David Byrne happens to be an
executive, very much the man with a plan. He turns to Chris, a
burly actor decked out like a spangled hybrid of Sophie Tucker
and a badly eroded Elvis. Chris rehearses to the track of "Wild
Wild Life," a Byrne composition. His task is to spasm heavy-
metalishly. The sound men cranks up the volume smothering the
thunder outside. Thumpity-THUMP!

Life makes little sense, rock video says, but there's always dancing.
There is lots of dancing, the movies agree, and in the end there is
some sense, maybe even justice, and money. David Byrne, who looked a
few short years ago like an anorectic recently rescued from utter
weightlessness, is currently living in the movies. 

"Nice. Chris," he says softly. "Only can you snarl some more?".
Thumpity-THUMP!

* * * * * *

Everyone is looking for America. Bruce Springsteen, Steven Spielberg,
Elvis Costello, Albert Brooks, Lily Tomlin, Sylvester Stallone, Lee
Iacocca, Willie Nelson, Pee-wee Herman, John Cougar Mellencamp,
Jackson Browne - everybody's doing it. Even Ruben Blades, the
Panamanian salsa king, is buscando America. It may simply be the
kind of quest that naturally occurs toward the end of a century,
when we get an urge to add things up. In any case, the implication
is that we've lost it - our identity, our direction. Where has it
all gone - to the Jersey shore? Back to the farm? No, no that was
last year wasn't it?

Of all the contemporary questers for the national soul, David Byrne
is one of the cleverest. Certainly his means are the most varied.
For those of us who may not be too adept at connecting the dots to
the zeitgeist, he has simultaneously created, along with his film,
a sound track album and sundry videos as all as a book composed of
the film's script, storyboard sketches, location photographs, and
whimsical comments concerning fashion, architecture, frontier
history, the semiology of twins, the sociology of shopping malls,
the poetic aspirations of computer hackers and the real reason for
the disappearance of dinosaurs.

"Empires in retreat get into some pretty weird stuff", Byrne writes
in the introduction to True Stories, the book. "Some of us might
have seen the tail end of the heyday, but now most of us can feel
reality settling in."

Byrne, who's exhibited some pretty weird stuff himself, may have
glimpsed the reality of postimperial America in Texas. True Stories
is a musical morality play starring Byrne as the Narrator who
witnesses and joins in the lives of the citizens of Virgil, a
mythical prairie town. The players are as emblematic as they are
bizarre: the Laziest Woman in the World, so hooked on appliances
that she never gets out of bed; the Lying Woman, who claims among
many other things that her affair with JFK precipitated his
assassination; Ramon, an assembly-line worker whose head functions
as an extrasensory radio transmitter and receiver; Kay and Earl
Carver a successfully married management-class couple who haven't
spoken to each other in several years; a paranoid preacher; and
Louis Fyne, a middle-aged "single" who advertises raucously for
true love. The story, written by Byrne along with playwrights
Beth Henley and Stephen Tobolowsky, follows the characters
through a series of tableaux to their bittersweet fates.

Though Byrne chose Texas for the epic potential of its landscape
("It's an existential landscape. Stick some people out there,
they're all on their own"), True Stories is an epic of diminished
expectations, and the characters are studies in emotional
miniaturization. Which is not to say that their drama, prefigured
by the numb-nuts antihero of Stranger Than Paradise and any number
of sensitive but shriveled souls in contemporary fiction, is trivial.

"It's I quiet time", says Byrne. "People don't have the optimism
that they had earlier, that whole new vistas could open up and
the world could be different. There's a sense now that things
have settled; things are the way they are. My feeling is that
epic events happen because of the way people decide to order
their daily existence. The decisions are made about really
small things. The cumulative effect of all that stuff makes
big things happen."

* * * * * *

Cunning coincidence: The curve of Byrne's career parallels the
popularity of the personal computer. In 1975, when Texas Instruments
initiated an electronics boom with the four-bit microchip, when
digitalization began to change the way we tell time, play games,
cook food, and keep track of things, the Talking Heads materialized
on the New York art-rock scene doing the binary boogie: on/off,
up/down, right/left, see/don't see, sound/silence.

The shock of Byrne's no-frills rock and the generally flustered
reaction to the reductionist world of bits and bytes passed.
America's artists and entrepreneurs began playing with the New.
Home computers evolved into good citizens in step with pop music,
movies and cars (Byrne drives an old Peugeot). They became user-
friendly ways of confronting the technology - as opposed, presumably,
to user-hostile ways like high school, terrorism, and the fiction of
Don DeLillo.

But even if technology is a nice place to visit, most of us wouldn't
want to live there. Unless it's happening at Russian Hill Recording
Studios, where in the trouty coolness of San Francisco's early summer,
David Byrne is putting the finishing touches on True Stories. Karen
Murphy is doing what producers mostly do: talking on the phone. "I
appreciate what you're saying, but I don't think it's the disaster
you think it is", she assures I crisis-ridden caller. She strums
the touch-tone buttons, smiles firmly, and resumes her stillness.
With her is an emphatic young man named Leslie Shatz, the sound
designer of True Stories. A cloud shifts; a skylight brightens
the surgical pallor of his studio. On the desk lies a sort of
keyboard, apparently disembodied, bearing a decal: The Important
Thing Is to Express Yourself. Leslie turns dials and pushes
buttons with the serenity of a man greeting his pets. One quickly
loses track of how many times he says "instantaneously".

"I'm working with an Emulator. The DX-7, this other machine, is
a synthesizer. I've been experimenting with it, making musical
kind of sound effects on it. With this technology we can design
sounds from scratch, make archetypal sounds. Listen!"

Finches are chorusing brightly outside, just above the skylight.
Leslie slips a minifloppy labeled "Sound Design" into the Fat Mac
computer next to his synthesizer. He keys a high frequency tone
- beep - and instructs it to appear on the Fat Mac's monitor as
a blotty-looking squiggle. With a few clicks of the Mac's mouse,
a stroke of the keyboard, and the tone flutters: chee-EEP.
Outside, the finches continue to twitter, though more quietly
now, as if to say: "Very amusing, Leslie, but..." 

"The only problem", he sighs, "is human synapse burnout. There
are just so many decisions your brain can make in a day." On the
keyboard, he arpeggios the frequency into a more finchlike warble.
Again. Faster arpeggios. The finches - real finches - recognize
the synthetic serenade and reply with delight. 

Karen talks to the intercom. "Doctor Byrne?"

The Doctor is next door laying down tracks. In the dimness of
the mixing studio - churchy or techy, it's hard to say - Byrne
removes his trademark shirt-pocket pens and aligns them on a
legal pad next to his Nikon. He strums the changes for what
sounds like a country-western love ballad. He becomes fluid
as soon as he starts to play neck thrusting, head bobbing like
a pigeon strolling in slow motion.

It is a C&W ballad, but the love object in this case happens
to be a glass-and-steel office building prominent in True
Stories. One was expecting an electrocuted rendition of Lullaby
of Nerdland. But this is not just another smart white boy wit'
dem ol' libidinal cathexis blues. Byrne likes to put a spin on
things. With Byrne, the staples of popular music - orgasm and
nostalgia - become side issues. He is not about tumescence or
tantrums. He is about observation and comment.

"I stay away from loaded subjects," Byrne says faux naively.
"I deal with stuff that's too dumb for people to have bothered
to formulate opinions on."

* * * * * *

For the past few years, the School of Spielberg and its branch
campus, MTV, have been posing the Big Question (big, that is,
for the generation to whom World War II is a grainy newsreel
and World War III a video game): Is the new world - i.e.
technology- malignant or benign?

The Spielbergian answer is at once ingenious, scary, reassuring
and cute: Even Suburbia Has a Subconscious; or lately, All God's
Chillun Are Toys. The MTV response is easier to dance to: Somewhere
in Every Yuppie Soul There Lurks a Little Richard.

There are other variations: After the sexual revolution, Pee-wee
Herman's full-frontal infantilism is OK - a soothing diversion,
at least, from Rambo's rage. It's not that these visions are
simple-minded; nothing is that simple-minded, even in a world
bemused by media. They are becoming predictable, not to say evasive.

A haunted nostalgia, sometimes sentimental, sometimes irritable,
accompanies most quests for America. Perhaps memory - the
genuine article, myth-piercing memory on the order of Marguerite
Duras's or Gabriel Garcia Marquez's - is a more strenuous
enterprise than spinning stools in the old soda shop. Perhaps
the problem is that we don't really feel nostalgic anymore; we
just feel empty. Maybe America's memory is MIA.

Byrne, with his art-derived imagination, his instinct for ritual
and his snap-shot sensibility, picks up on this - on the high-strung
simplicity and innocence of hi-tech art: it's the stance he works
from.

"Moviemaking is a trick. Songwriting is a trick. When it doesn't work,
it's really offensive."

"I'm tying to put my finger on some kind ethical center. Maybe it's
a wish that people look within themselves and find something, make a
decision about what is right and what is wrong, and use that to guide
them, rather than returning to traditional values, which seems like
grabbing ahold of the raft. The characters in True Stories are trying
to establish a system of values of their own, however nutty they might
seem and however much clowning they might do. "Things don't exist only
in the present; they got there somehow. To me, there's a reason, some
sort of reason, why things are the way they are. It might be an irr-
ational reason, but that's good enough." The sweet anxiety Byrne
evinces is not just a modish diversion. His trick, his metaphor,
seems to be this: We are at the end of the old nineteenth-century
brute-force technology, a technology breed on blowing things up,
whether it's gas in an internal combustion engine or atoms in a
bomb. All we really know how to do right is make things go bang.
Or thumpity-THUMP! But if we manage not to erase ourselves with
the old machines, something new is going to happen. Byrne's work
may be the brightest banner of this interim art, nervously trying
to outlive the century. 

* * * * * *

He enters the restaurant smoothly, a skinny Buddha on casters.
His hair is dark, his shirt is white, his cardigan is black, his
hat is a creamy Panama. He is a two-tone rainbow, clearly etched,
elegant, and mysterious. He has created the most engaging icon of
machine-age man since Chaplin roller-skated in Modern Times (the
Little Guy is still free, even if his freedom is only mimicry of
the Machine).

The waitress finds a crush-proof spot for his Panama hat. He signs
autographs left-handedly. He sips wine and eats fish and shyly
enjoys the fuss. It is clear that there is no better way for
David Byrne to be than as a picture of himself. Against a
background of low murmuring lights and the clinking of nouvelle
cuisine platters, the conversation ricochets: The secret of
permanent pleating, according to Karen, was invented by an Italian
fabric designer of the twenties, but it's been forgotten. Oh, yes,
David has heard of this. Not to mention the prophetic significance
of Quonset huts, the cleverness of California wine labels, tips
on film festival strategies and the squeezing of fried garlic,
test screenings in Seattle ("We encouraged the audience to fill
in as many blanks in the multiple choice as they liked", Karen
comments); the strangeness of aluminium siding (rather like
haddock in paper), the mystifying aspects of screen direction,
the difference between European and American urban planning
(Byrne illustrates with ovals sketched on a napkin); coffee;
favored focal lengths for the camera he carries (55mm and
28mm: he doesn't care for telephotos, for their unreality);
Disneyland, robotic animals, and the proliferation of theme
parks, in one of which, Karen says, she observed an utterly
convincing mechanical cow wearing a dress. She is perplexed
about how they got it to fit so well.

"It's in the cut." Byrne's laughter rings just a note shy of
Tom Hulce's giggle in Amadeus. The topics continue to stray.
He listens like a lens. He chews his news carefully. What he
really dines on, voraciously, is eccentricities. He speaks
infrequently, because at thirty-four he has achieved that plateau
of celebrity importance where listeners might too predictably agree
with him.

"We left Scotland when I was two. I don't remember it at all. I
grew up in Baltimore at the end of the bus line. We had to move
a lot because they kept building highways over where we were living ...
Lately I've been moving a lot. After we finished shooting, I was in
Los Angeles. Now I'm here and when I finish here I'll probably go back
to Los Angeles. Then I'll go somewhere else. Maybe back to New York
for a while. It's not like I'm only in each place for a week. I'm in
one place long enough. Where is home? I don't know ... I don't know.

"I work most of the time, but that's because I like what I'm doing.
I don't separate it from enjoyment. I get stuck when it comes to
saying what my job is, I mean filling out IRS forms."

"How about 'designer who makes a song out of what he sees'?" a
friend suggests.

"That sounds pretty good. I'll try that one out".

He stands up like a diagram, then silently heads for the door. He is
on the sidewalk by the time Karen retrieves his hat and the shoulder
bag containing his camera. "You're always forgetting something, David."
He considers the return of his Panama hat a bonus and wonders aloud why
it is called Panama.

Karen chirps, birdlike, leading the way to the car: "Earth to David ..."
He peeks around distractedly." ... Earth to David. We're ready for you."

One wonders.