1989 - Third Degree Byrne Print
Written by 20/20   
From 20/20 magazine, 1989

More than a Talking Head

David Byrne can talk happily for hours about Rock 'n' roll,
Latin music or Afro-Cuban religion. Try asking him about the
Talking Heads and suddenly you're playing with fire. Richard
Guilliatt turns on the heat. 

Like a post-mod God, it sometimes seems that David Byrne
is everywhere. One month he's knocking out a cinema
soundtrack for Bernardo Bertolucci, then he's down in
Brazil shooting a documentary of Yoruba religious
practices. One moment he pops up in the film 'Heavy
Petting' to reminisce about teenage sex, next he's
writing a two-hour orchestral soundtrack for playwright
Robert Wilson, or hosting a night of Afro-Cuban religious
music in the New York Town Hall, or putting the finishing
touches to another Brazilian pop compilation. Last spotted.
Byrne was bobbing around the back of rapper KC Flyte's
'Planet E' video, wearing a long overcoat and reprising
his forehead-slapping jog/dance. It was hard to suppress
the thought that, well, there you go, David being ironic

That KC Flyte song, which samples the gurgling funk of
Talking Heads' 'Once In A Lifetime' and tops it with a
surrealist rap about racial politicking, demonstrates
exactly how far and fast pop has come since David Byrne
first donned his horn-rimmed glasses and whacked himself
on the head in the name of rock-vid posterity. The jump-
cut lyrics and poly-rhythms of 'Once In A Lifetime' and
Byrne's bespectacled nerd-aesthete image once signalled
a quite radical shift in post-punk music. Nearly a
decade later the song has become just another part of
the pop lexicon, there to be sampled, cut-up and re-
constructed by a new generation that has taken Byrne's
own mutate-and-mix philosophy to extremes he might never
have envisaged. Meanwhile the cool irony which Talking
Heads helped make the defining philosophy of 1980s pop
culture is being usurped by a movement that's already
been dubbed Planet Pop, a world of Madonna rain-forest
benefits, ideologically-sound World Peace ice-cream bars
and electro-Israeli-hip-house dance hits. 

Which is partly why we have 'Rei Momo', David Byrne's
first solo pop album. Written and performed with the
assistance of veteran Latin musicians such as Willie
Colon, Johnny Pacheco, Yomo Toro, Celia Cruz and Ray
Barretto, the album grafts Byrne's sardonic lyrics to
the exuberant percussive chaos of Latin rhythms - salsa,
merengue, samba, pagode and cumbia. It's one more step
in the globalisation of pop, the only question being:
will they understand it in Peoria, Illinois? 

'I'm, uh, just not sure whether MTV are gonna like it,'
says Byrne, watching the monitor screens at a midtown
Manhattan video editing room one afternoon. His latest
creation, the single 'Make Believe Mambo', is skittering
across the monitor screen. Cameras jump-cut between Byrne's
face held in black-and-white close-up and Latin dancers
swirling to the single's infectious orisa rhythm, carried
along by seven horns and eight percussionists. 'It's not
really their kinda music ...' he murmurs. 

Byrne's quiet, tremulous voice always seems to come from
a great distance. Dressed like an off-duty lawyer - pale
blue striped shirt, leather shoes and olive cotton pants -
Byrne reaches into his satchel while the video is edited.
He pulls out a couple of prepacked muffins wrapped in cling-
film and starts munching while his eyes flip from screen to
screen and his feet nervously pace the floor. Even though
he's 37 and has a new-born infant daughter, it's hard not
to think of Byrne as some overgrown art student still prone
to delivering words like 'Gee!' in a voice that can suddenly
lift in pitch as if he's about to cry in mid-sentence. In
conversation his angular arms and legs still twitch and
jump almost involuntarily, while a particularly curly
question will create a 30-second pregnant pause during
which his eyes flick rapidly from left to right as if
reading an autocue somewhere in the distance. 

Several of Byrne's Latino musical collaborators, whose
boisterous warmth is as pronounced as Byrne's shyness,
have been taken aback by the contrast between this stammering
politeness and Byrne's animation in front of an audience
or camera. 'He's like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,' laughs Johnny
Pacheco; with whom Byrne co-wrote three of his new songs.
'On stage he's a maniac!' On stage these days with his new
16-piece Latin band behind him, Byrne sports the zany grin
of a novice gringo who's just been thrown in front of the
Tito Puente orchestra and told to let rip. 

Maybe that's why so many of Byrne's songs celebrate weird
and idiosyncratic behaviour, the new single being a case
in point. 'I guess it's about the televisions and cinema
generation of people in their mid-to-late adolescence
(who) pick role models off the TV and cinema screen and
imitate them.' Byrne explains. 'I thought rather than
criticising that, I'd encourage it ... see what kind of
strange mutated behaviour results. Rather than trying to
give some stupid advice like a guidance counsellor: "You
must be yourself", or whatever. Take the opposite path:
be someone else.' 

Byrne's egghead goofball persona - and his contribution
to what Spy magazine called 'The Irony Epidemic' of the
1980s - reached its apotheosis in 1985 with 'True Stories',
a movie that pretty much divided its audience between
those who thought it was a sardonic tribute to middle-
American wackiness and those who found it insufferably
condescending towards the 'little' people it supposedly
championed. Watching Byrne roam around Texas in a ten-gallon
hat scattering non-sequiturs to be wind, it seemed he'd
finally crossed the fine line between irony and glibness.
But Byrne insists that he genuinely loves the kind of
suburban American eccentrics that British people tend to
regard as ...

'... a bunch of loonies? Yeah, there's a kind of nutty
American creativity and boosterism that doesn't seem to
have any kind of European model. It just seems that people
who settled here have been cut free from their moorings,
so in one sense it could kind of drift into dangerous a
ctivities or attitudes and in others you're free to
invent all kinds of things that no one else would have
the audacity to do. I think it's a form of creativity.
It just hasn't been sanctioned by highbrow critics.' 

He does concede, however, that there came a point where,
with his face spread over every available inch of magazine
space, people had become sick of hearing about him. Once
you've been pronounced 'Rock's Renaissance Man' on the
cover of Time, a backlash cannot be far away. 'Uh-huh, I
felt that as well,' says Byrne of the David Byrne overkill.
'I felt that I was talkin' too much, promoting too many
things at once, or whatever.' He pauses, sitting on the
couch in an editing room, and then shrugs. 'So I just
cooled out. It was one of those things: you notice it,
and that's that ... I had a bunch of stuff to promote
and I was really excited about all of them. So I put the
wheels in motion and that's what happened.

'I'm also aware - and this I don't know what to do about -
I think people ... definitely a while ago were starting to
think of me as being pegged as some kind of, uh, ah, I
don't know what ... a pretentious, arty nerd or something.
And there's probably a certain element of truth to that but,'
Byrne laughs suddenly, 'I sure hope that's not all there is!
It's one of those things where you use it as a persona in a
film or video or whatever and it's the way people think of
you. And it's hard to get yourself across as a whole human

Ah, the lament of the pop artiste who wants to be appreciated
as the earthy guy he is underneath. A whole lotta contortin'
goes on when this particular dilemma raises its ugly head
(usually in career mid-life) which is why we now have the
unappetising sight of David Bowie writing songs about urban
malaise and employing slam-dancers to jostle him in a video.
Like Baltimore's other famous artistic son, film-maker John
Waters, Byrne has seen the kind of trash-Americana aesthetic
he championed become pandemic in recent years. 

As for the future of Talking Heads, it's a subject that now
seems to annoy the shit out of him. 'Rei Momo' is the first
time he's made a commercial pop record outside the group and
put a tour and promotional muscle behind it. The last time
Talking Heads toured was five years ago with 'Stop Making
Sense', a tour which saw the full flowering of Byrne's
backstage perfectionism to the detriment of personal
relations between the band's four members. 

'It's true that we wouldn't want to do another tour that
looked like that, that attempted to outdo it in the same
kind of way. Uh ...' Byrne trails off into a 30-second
silence that ends with a laugh, '... so, we didn't tour
for a while.' Leaning forward and shuffling his feet in
a nervous little dance under the table, Byrne says there
are no immediate plans for a Heads reunion. Their long-
term future as a band, however, seems assured, as they
have just signed a new five-album contract with Sire
records. 'To tell you the truth, I think we get along
better and work together better when we're focused on
making a record. It's harder for people to get along
day after day on the road.' 

Speaking to Byrne by telephone a couple of weeks after
the interview at the editing room, it became clear that
the band was not high on his list of priorities. The
phone rang and Byrne's high uninflected voice was on
the other end, sounding even weirder coming over the
phone line. 'Hi-this-is-David Byrne-calling-to-answer-
your-questions.' He was in the mid-West touring with
his new Latin band and clearly ecstatic about the
audience reactions. The audience wouldn't leave the
hall,' he said of one gig. 'I had to go back on and
explain we didn't have any more material.' 

It's fair to say that Byrne's most recent projects -
writing soundtracks for 'The Last Emperor' and Robert
Wilson's play 'The Forest', compiling two Brazilian
pop albums ('Beleza TropicaI' and the soon-to-be-
released 'O Samba') and filming a one-hour documentary
called 'Ile Alye' ('House of Life') about the Candomble
Nago religion of Brazil - have taken him so far from the
constraints of the Heads music that it's questionable
whether they will retain their importance in his future
work. His interest in tracing African culture from its
roots to its musical and religions flowering In Latin
America even caused Robert Farrie Thompson, the Yale
University professor of Afro-American, to say that he
is 'as much ethnographer as rock artist'. On its surface,
'Rei Momo' is the kind of cross-cultural thatching that
has earned Byrne his reputation as a white boy paddling
in the shallows of ancient black cultures. But Byrne's
Latin musicians don't feel that way. The conga and drum
player in his new hand, Milton Cardona, a priest of the
Santoria religion (a variation of voodoo), says he has
been impressed by Byrne's knowledge of deities and
ceremonial practices in these Afro-Latin religions.
'There are certain things he knows that he wouldn't
know unless he was getting into it deep,' says Cardona. 
'I've had shells thrown to find out what my orisha is,'
says Byrne of a Yoruba religious ceremony. 'I've made
offerings and done that kind of thing. I believe that
the religion holds a lot of truths and its attitude
and sensibility seems to embrace all aspects of human
living. It doesn't just say that religion or spirituality
is just something where you are quiet or sombre. It can
be sexy, for instance. 'I wouldn't go so far as to say
I'm a convert espousing this religion or trying to convert
people to it. But this religion and many others like it
have been very much maligned as "casting of spells",
all that kind of thing. People should hear what the
religion is really about instead of having movies and
TV tell them.' 

The 'Rei Momo' band's debut in Poughkeepsie, in
upstate New York, was one of those pan-cultural rock
events that make you blink. Dressed all in white, the
percussion-heavy 16-piece band was a set of swarthy
faces behind Zapata moustaches, with Byrne gooning
around our front occasionally breaking into his white-
boy-goes-native jiggle. The fact that he only played
one Talking Heads song did not seem to phase the
audience at all. A middle-aged couple up the aisle
bobbed cheerfully in their seats and some college
jocks behind me discussed the difference between
merengue and cumbia rhythm. Next to me was one of
the new breed of American teen-hippies whose life
was irrevocably changed when she listened to her
parents' 'Woodstock' albums. 'I'm, like, totally
psyched,' she said, spending most of the concert
waving her arms in the air like palm fronds. 

'I think one thing that's happened is that rock 'n'
roll has had its influence,' says Byrne of the new
global pop. 'It was this magical union of African
rhythms and European melodic sense, all kinds of
things came together and it just kind of snapped,
and everybody who heard it all over the world got
into it. But it did reach its peak, I think. I mean,
people are shocked when they go to Indonesia or
wherever and people are listening to the latest
Eurythmics single. But I think now it's reached
saturation point and people in those countries
will assert their own culture, or take elements
of rock or pop or whatever and put it in with
their own stuff. The wave will start receding and
all this other stuff will start coming in.' 

Then the subject of Talking Heads comes up again,
and Byrne's voice suddenly goes cold. 'You know,
I have been asked these kinds of questions for
ten years,' he says irritably. 'Since 1979 1 have
been asked whether Talking Heads are splitting up.
I couldn't give a shit any more, I really don't
care, We have gone on and done work together. We
have got back together and made wonderful albums.
Who gives a shit? We'll do it when we feel like it.'
Byrne sounds angry, a side of him that is normally
kept out of view. 'I get sick of hearing it!' he
says of the Talking Heads talk. 'Can you imagine
being asked the same question for ten years?'