David Byrne's Lyrics -------------------- Silvia Albertazzi teaches New Literatures in English at the University of Bologna. She has written essays and books about Victorian and contemporary fiction, the fantastic in literature, postmodern and postcolonial narratives. She is also the author of a novel, *Scuola di scrittura*, which was published by Marsilio, Venice, in 1996. A longer Italian version of this essay on David Byrne appeared last year on the magazine *Problemi*, #104.
"Like everyone else, he craves a meaning. Like everyone else, his life is so fragmented that each time he sees a connection between two fragments he is tempted to look for a meaning in that connection. The connection exists. But to give it a meaning, to look beyond the bare fact of its existence, would be to build an imaginary world inside the real world, and he knows it would not stand." - Paul Auster Right from the beginning with the lyrics for Talking Heads 77, the first album of the band, David Byrne reproduces the cultural movements, fashions and stereotypes of his times in his songs. For this reason, listening to his albums constitutes a unique experience not only from the musical point of view: it also means revisiting the last two decades of our social and cultural history, with the help of one of the most intelligent and ironic interpreters of our age. In the following pages I will try to give an outline of Byrne's lyrical itinerary up to now. 1) The Alienation Effect In a world where people have problems/ In a world where decisions are a way of life/ Other people's problems, they overwhelm my mind/ Compassion is a virtue, but I don't have the time/.../ You take my compassion and put it as far as it goes/ My interest level's dropping, my interest level's dropping/ I won't listen anymore/ What are you, in love with your problems?/ I think you've taken it a little too far/ There's nothing cool about having a problem/ Don't expect me to explain your indecision/ Go talk to your analyst, isn't' that what he's paid for? ("No Compassion") With these lines, written in the second half of the seventies, Byrne ironizes on the urge to communicate, to talk and to express one's feelings which seems to characterize that period. At the same time, he identifies himself for the first time with the prototype of the "young man suffering from a syndrome of sacrifice", which will find a naive visualization on the cover of the album Little Creatures, where he is painted in the act of carrying the world on his shoulders. This belief in being called to save the world - together with the continuous complaining about the hardness of this task - appears to be common to many of his contemporaries: people who, being too young to have taken part in the social upheavals of '68, now are haunted and fascinated by the deeds of their elders. The displaced characters who appear in Byrne's lyrics at this early stage of his career are often living on the verge of a nervous breakdown because of their inability to adapt themselves to everyday life. The danger of schizophrenia and fragmentation of the self is always very great for those who are not able to establish normal relationships with other people, let alone to communicate with them. Therefore, it is not surprising that the young Byrne's most famous poetic 'persona' is a "Psycho Killer" who, according to his author, derives directly from Norman Bates, the protagonist of Hitchcock's movie Psycho. In "Psycho Killer", a song which was probably written in 1974 or 75, but was recorded only in 1977, we can find an attempt at translating the experience of fragmentation of the self into words. The absolute incapability of the killer to cope with reality is suggested by the recurrence of a question in a foreign language, whose answer is only an inarticulate leit-motif . Other sentences in broken French try to reveal the crime committed by the killer , while his neurosis is apparent in lines like : "I hate people when they're not polite" and "When I've nothing to say, my lips are sealed/ Say something once, why say it again?". In this way, the typical Postmodern attempt to abolish the borders between literary genres and media appears in the lyrics of a song, together with the search for a language which can express the dislocation and fragmentation which characterize the late twentieth century. This will to eliminate any possible barrier between the arts was to become one of the most distinctive features of Byrne's production. On the other hand, his way of singing and performing seems to be strongly reminiscent of Brecht's epic theatre. More than being anti-fictional, like many Postmodern artists, Byrne is representative, like Brecht. His characters, his situations are not individualized: they are represented. While his gestures never try to reproduce reality, his behaviour never attempts to create a form of empathy, of solidarity with his audience (see, again, "No compassion"). It is not by chance that the second album of the Talking Heads is called More Songs About Buildings and Food, even if in the lyrics we can find very few buildings and even less food. Food and Buildings stand for everyday life: they are mentioned so vaguely because what really interests Byrne, more than the ordinary elements of commonplace reality (=l'ordinaire"), is that "quiet life of things" which the French writer Georges Perec called the "infra-ordinary" (="l'infra-ordinaire"). Here, as in Brecht's world, music interprets the texts, taking part, while the singer becomes a sort of speaker whose private feelings must remain unknown. It's the so-called "alienation effect", which is obtained mainly through a way of singing always slightly out of key, out of time or deliberately off-beat, and a way of performing which could be defined at once as nervous, asymmetric and uncoordinated. Like a Brechtian actor, wearing the mask of the alienated modern man Byrne 'shows' his texts rather than singing them, until he finally looks at the same aspects of society from completely different points of view. Consequently, while in 77 we can find a song like "Don't Worry About the Government", where he comments enthusiastically on the American way of life from a viewpoint which is completely different from his own, in More Songs ... we have "The Big Country", where the same reality is rejected with loathing. It's worth while having a look at the two songs: 1) I see the clouds that move across the sky/ I see the wind that moves the clouds away/ It moves the clouds over by the building/ I pick the building that I want to live in/ I smell the pine trees and the peaches in the woods/ I see the pine cones that fall by the highway/ That's the highway that goes to the building/ That's the building that I'm going to live in /.../ I see the states across this big nation/ I see the laws made in Washington DC./ I think of the ones I consider my favorites/ I think of the people that are working for me/ Some civil servants are just like my loved ones/ They work so hard, and they try to be strong/ I'm lucky guy to live in my building/ They all need buildings to help them along". ("Don't Worry About the Government") 2) I see the shapes/ I remember from maps/ I see the shoreline/ I see the whitecaps/ A baseball diamond, nice weather down there/ I see the school and the houses where the kids are/ Places to park by the fac'tries and buildings/ Restaurants and bars for later in the evening/ Then we come to the farmlands, and the undeveloped areas/ And I have learned how these things work together/ I see the parkway that passes through them all/ And I have learned how to look at these things and say/ I wouldn't live there if you paid me/ I couldn't live like that, no siree!" ("The Big Country") Starting from an objective description of the American province, Byrne reaches opposite ironic conclusions. In the first track, he wears the mask of the satisfied average middle-class American man; in the second, he looks at the same world through the eyes of a rebel. Both lyrics start from the same kind of objective description - Byrne himself confessed that at the time he was inspired by Alain Robbe-Grillet and his cole du regard. Yet the two songs achieve very different conclusions by shifting perspectives. Adopting opposite points of views, Byrne prevents his audiences from any identification with his poetic 'personae', while refusing them the comfort of a totalizing, universal vision of reality. 2) The Rhetoric of Terminality or, Apocalypse Here and Now One of the most striking features of the so-called Postmodern is an apocalyptic vision of life, a sense of disillusionment and of hopelessness which is to be found especially in the postmodern revisitation of history. Between the Seventies and the Eighties, the idea of the millennium appears more and more frequently in fiction, cinema and poetry. "We are no longer waiting in awe for the last times", the postmodern artists seem to say, "the last times are here, the Apocalypse happens every day". Refusing all reassuring myths of past golden ages, rejecting any possible philosophical, historical or political ideals and models, the postmodern artist looks ironically - but not without fear - at the void, believing that the only possibilities left to humanity are negative and unpleasant, since civilization has already offered its best. Fear of Music emphasizes this rhetoric of terminality. Here Byrne sings about the contemporary man's displacement and his inability to find a role in a reality which seems only to hurt him. The "infra-ordinary" appears to be full of dangers: paper, animals, the human mind, even the air itself are insidious, while cities are seen as battlefields. In a very postmodern way, the album opens with the musical rendering of a phonetic poem, "Beri Beri Bimba", written in the Twenties by the German poet Hugo Ball, who used to read it aloud dressed as a shaman during Tristan Tzara's Dadaist evenings in Zurich. Together with Brian Eno, Byrne adapts Ball's phonemes to an obsessive African rhythm and changes their title into "I Zimbra", words taken from the first and last stanza of Ball's poem. While the African atmosphere forecasts Byrne's future interest in World Music, almost all the lyrics of Fear of Music reflect the apocalyptic side of the Postmodern. At the core of the album are the anxiety of dislocation, the fear of living in a multifarious world, the obsession with demythicization and secularisation. In "Mind", Byrne complains about a widespread lack of communication with other people; in "Paper" he comments on a life which is as thin as a sheet of paper and a love story which is itself nothing more than paper. In a climax of anxiety and unsatisfaction, even air can hurt. Living is a continuous shock: the perception of reality is clearly paranoid. There is no possibility of finding some order, of retrieving lost certitudes. It's the triumph of alienation, in a total absence of models and ideals. The displaced man can't find a city to live in: London is only a "small city/ It's dark, dark in the daytime"; in Birmingham "There are a lot of rich people.../ A lot of ghosts in a lot of houses" and in Memphis "Home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks" the river smells like home-cooking. There are no privileged models, no historical memory: Presley and the ancient Greek are equally felt as images from an unknown past. In "Life During Wartime" metropolitan life is described as an endless guerrilla. Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons,/ Packed up and ready to go/ Heard of some gravesides, out by the highway,/ A place where nobody knows/ The sound of gunfire, off in the distance,/ I'm getting used to it now/ Lived in a brownstone, lived in the ghetto,/ I'll lived over this town / This ain't no party, this ain't no disco,/ This ain't no fooling around/ No time for dancing, or lovey dovey,/ I ain't got time for that now/.../ Heard about Houston? Heard about Detroit?/ Heard about Pittsburgh, PA?/ You oughta know not to stand by the window/ Somebody see you up there/ I got some groceries, some peanut butter,/ To last a couple of days. This is the space of the so-called "postmodern war", born with and out of the experience of Vietnam. It requires a new language which can express the collapse of any previous form of communication, the paradox of not being able to find a collective form of dialogue. The final stanza of "Life During Wartime" reminds the listener of the stereotype of the runaway couple we often find in the so-called "film noir". Yet the atmosphere of the "end of a party" which pervades the track is typically apocalyptic. The sixties are decidedly over, the seventies are almost gone, too: a difficult decade is opening. There is no more time to joke, to flirt, to dance: the party is over. All we can do is remember it , like the singer of "Memories Can't Wait". In Byrne's world, the nostalgia for a magical and festive dimension is always counteracted by a sort of disillusionment which deprives myths and dreams of their significance. It is not by chance that in "Heaven" one of the most meaningful myths of religious tradition, Paradise, is seen as a bar where the same party goes on endlessly and a band plays the same song all night long. In a crescendo of indeterminateness and indefinition, Byrne first observes that "Everyone is trying to get to the bar/... called Heaven"; then, he realizes that "It's hard to imagine that nothing at all/ Could be so exciting, could be so much fun"; and eventually he reaches the conclusion that "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens", thus emptying the myth of Heaven of any possible significance. In Remain in Light, Byrne emphasizes the postmodern aspects of Fear of Music, both at the thematic and at the linguistic levels. The haunted lyrics of the previous album are substituted by collages of quotations taken from the world of the media, excerpts of dialogues in different tones, recordings of documents testifying political scandals. When asked to explain these lyrics, Byrne always answered that they were only attempts at writing songs which, though being without apparent meaning, might establish an emotional approach with his audiences, by way of an accurate choice and juxtaposition of sentences. Consequently, in these lyrics the words of the media or the voices of the people involved in Watergate more than helping us understand the present, create a kind of historical amnesia, a will to forget. Also spatial conceptions are exasperated: in a world where houses are in motion, the only certitude left is doubt. "Once in a Lifetime" starts from the fantastic possibility of finding oneself , suddenly and unexpectedly, in an unknown house, with a strange wife, without knowing how this could have happened. On the one hand, we find again the commonplace situations of the early lyrics; on the other, irrational elements break out disrupting all rules. It is no use trying to resume old habits (suggested by the recurring words, recited as a sort of mantra, "same as it ever was"). At the end, doubt overcomes the individual, until his final admission of a Kafkian guilt. This doubting of the essence of reality reappears in a long list of apparently incongruous words we find in "Crosseyed and Painless": "Facts are simple and facts are straight/ Facts are lazy and facts are late/ Facts all come with points of view/ Facts don't go where you want them to/ Facts just twist the truth around/ Facts are living turned inside out...." Here words lose meaning by an excess of accumulation. Significant sentences are reduced to mere sounds by being put together without logical connections. While musically Byrne - together with Eno - produces the wonderful project of My Life in The Bush of Ghosts, lyrically he goes towards a rarefaction of meaning which will lead to the obscurity of Speaking in Tongues. In this album Byrne literally tries a postmodern translation of the Pentecostal speaking in different unknown languages. Byrne himself admitted more than once that he didn't understand perfectly well what he was doing. In some interviews at the time he even admitted that some of his choices didn't have any logical meaning, they were meaningful only at an intuitive level. He went on to confess that sometimes he realized what he wanted to say only after he had read some critics' explanations. 3) A Portrait of the Rock-Star as a Story-Teller To understand the importance of Postmodernism for David Byrne it's enough to see Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme's film of the 1984 Talking Heads' tour of that name. Starting from the title of both video and tour, we are in the realm of that American Postmodernism which takes everything as a game, a joke (see writers like John Barth or Donald Barthelme). Where everything is meaningless, it is no use looking for any kind of meaning. Byrne suggests the possibility of freeing oneself from the compulsion to interpret and signify which is typical of Western culture. Let's consider, for instance, his famous performance of "Once in a Lifetime". Wearing an enormous coat and a pair of huge tortoise glasses; moving in a goofy way and staring at his audience with wide open eyes, Byrne turns the story told in the song into a variation on the theme of Kafka's "Metamorphosis". The only difference is that, while in Kafka's tale a man wakes up one morning transformed into a huge bug, in Byrne's song the protagonist wakes up to find himself turned into an (apparently) utterly ordinary guy. While Demme's direction underlines Byrne's minimalism, the introduction of Afro-American musicians as guest-stars and the use of slides hint at future developments of Byrne's poetics towards a new socio-ethnic awareness. Until this moment Byrne, like all the greatest American Postmodern artists, used media images to create a kind of historical amnesia; from now on, orality and oral story-telling were to become key-concepts in his lyrics, which appear to be minimal mirrors of the present. The meeting with third world culture is fundamental to promote this passage from "stop making sense" to story-telling. Yet, the discovery of the roots of American popular culture is no less important. Even in a cryptical album like Speaking in Tongues one can find a track like "This Must Be the Place", where Byrne, dealing again with his desire to find a place to live in, identifies his ideal home in a space created by a feeling shared with his loved one. ("Home - is where I want to be/ But I guess I'm already there/ I come home - she lifted up her wings/ Guess this must be the place/.../ I'm just an animal looking for a home/ Share the same space for a minute or two"). "Feet on the ground/ Head in the sky", the dislocated Byrne, himself a migrant from Scotland via Canada, invents a place which is born out of his wish and of his urge to transform his own experience into metaphors and visions. It is not by chance that in this song we find one of Byrne's most captivating images: "Out of all those kinds of people/You got a face with a view". While reminding the audience of the title of a famous novel by E. M. Forster (A Room with a View), Byrne's "face with a view" is a visionary image whose strength can be compared only to the most surreal line of Paul McCartney ("Wearing the face that she keeps in a jug by the door"), which is to be found, of course, in the Beatles' song "Eleanor Rigby". The theme of the search for a place to live in is linked to that for musical roots. In the first half of the eighties, Byrne started studying white American popular culture with the same commitment with whom he had faced African and Afro-American cultures before. In 1985, with Little Creatures Byrne returns to the song genre, in the wake of North-American folklore and popular music. Even though the critics often consider Little Creatures as a minor incident of "the thinking man's rock star" (this is what they called Byrne at the time), the lyrics of the album show a narrative potentiality for the first time. Especially in two tracks, "And She Was" and "Road to Nowhere", taking his distance from his most famous British predecessors, Byrne expresses his own poetics, where typical elements of his previous production (minimalism, surrealism, dislocation and millennium anxiety) are revisited and recreated in a new setting: the American provinces, seen as the epitome of every province and marginality. In the first song - the story of a girl taking LSD in a suburb of Baltimore - the stress is not on the protagonist's visions, but on her feelings and reactions, seen by an external observer. It's quite interesting to compare the lyrics of "And She Was" with the lines John Lennon wrote for "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". Lennon describes Lucy's delirious visions : tangerine trees and marmalade skies, cellophane flowers of yellow and green that grow so incredibly high, plasticine porters with mirroring ties, rocking horse people eating marshmallow pies. On the contrary, Byrne relates the Baltimore girl's experience in quite an objective way: "And she was lying in the grass/ And she could hear the highway breathing/ And she could see a nearby factory/ She's making sure she's not dreaming/ See the lights of a neighbor's house/ Now she's starting to rise/ Take a minute to concentrate/ And she opens up her eyes". The accent is on the illusion of flying which the poet can only vaguely perceive from his external viewpoint. He can see a dreary urban periphery (highway and factory are both recurring images in Byrne's poetic universe) and he can understand the girl's wish to escape, to fly away, not only metaphorically. Under the effect of the drug, the girl has the illusion of floating in the universe, in other words, she feels as if she had overcome that sense of displacement characterising so many Byrnian poetic personae. For a moment, she finds her place in the world, her real being, as the verb "was" in italics seems to suggest. Yet, the use of the past tense implies the illusory nature of her precarious feeling of identity, its belonging to a past which is irretrievably lost . In 1967, Lennon invites his audience quite explicitly to share Lucy's vision: "Picture yourself in a boat on a river../Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly/.../ Newspaper taxis appear on the shore/ waiting to take you away..." Obviously, the poetic "you" can be another person (the listener, maybe) as well as a "first person you", that is to say a mask of the poet's self and, lastly, it can even be an impersonal form which the poet uses to generalize the experience of taking drugs. In any case, the poet shows a wish to share this experience with someone, even to introduce someone to it. On the contrary, in Byrne's song we have a third person description which underlines the distance between the teller (=the singer) and the object of his tale. "And she was drifting through the backyard/ And she was taking off her dress/ And she was moving very slowly/ Rising up above the earth/ Moving into the universe/ Drifting this way and that". We have the same feeling of slow motion, the same idea of flying, of a "magical mystery tour" we find in the Beatles' song. Yet, while Lennon uses suggestive language to create a surreal setting, Byrne prefers minimalist images yet another time. The 'trip' is incomprehensible for an exterior observer, but it is also impossible to relate for those who go on it: "She isn't sure about where she's gone/ No time to think about what to tell them/ No time to think about what she's done". The visionary trip becomes "exterior" even for the girl, who can eventually observe herself as another person, like in a movie. Paradoxically, the feeling left by the song is one of dispersion and loss of the self deriving from an attempt to unite in a single vision one's own fragmentation and marginality to all other realities of dislocation and emargination. The final stanza of Byrne's song seems to underline the two decades which separate Lennon's Lucy from Byrne's school friend: "Joining the world of missing persons/ (and she was)/ Missing enough to feel alright". Nothing is left in the experience of drugs: no more joyous visions, almost childish landscapes, like it was for Lucy; no more bright suns, lively colours, images which seem to come out of a cartoon. Now there's only a desire to disappear, a wish of annihilation, a paradoxical attempt at being by not being any longer. In "Road to Nowhere" Byrne looks at another myth of the sixties, the road, with irony and disillusionment. The first stanza (omitted in Byrne's solo versions) is highly confessional: "Well, we know where we're goin'/ But we don't know where we've been/ and we know what we're knowin'/ But we can't say what we've seen/ and we're not little children/ and we know what we want/ and the future is certain/ give us time to work it out". Here Byrne speaks for all his generation: people in their early thirties who suddenly realize that their youth is over, their future uncertain and their experiences quite limited. The road of life doesn't lead anywhere, its goal is never attained. Yet the rhythm of the song is merry, as if to suggest the unbearable lightness of incertitude. Time is still on Byrne's side, perhaps the road to nowhere leads to heaven. While in Kerouac's novel On the Road the main characters feel the urge to go forever, even though they don't know where, Byrne, too, keeps on going without stopping, but he knows that he's going nowhere. Yet on his road to nowhere he feels good, he is no longer upset because he cannot find a place to live in and he realizes that it's better to be forever on the road than to eventually reach a paradise where nothing ever happens. As for the city he is heading to, it appears as imaginary as the towns visited by Marco Polo in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, surely one of the best-known and most studied Psotmodern novels in the USA. Byrne's city, which grows in his mind day by day, instead of being a real town is, like Polo's Venice, "the desire of a city". True Stories, the film directed by Byrne in 1986, is set in another town which seems to come out of Calvino's novel. Virgil, Texas, an imaginary city which is similar to all the actual little towns one can find in the American province, is a town without a real centre, which can be crossed in any direction, like Calvino's "continuous cities". In his film, Byrne turns his minimalist interest for the American province into a series of fragmented narratives, linked one another in a very postmodern way, without a real plot. Visiting Virgil as an objective outsider, Byrne observes every detail of the town and every attitude of its inhabitants with ever increasing curiosity, irony and amazement. The result is one of the most original movies of the Eighties, a mixture of grotesque and paradoxical situations found in popular tabloids, which have been put together to shape an unpredictable collage of sounds and images. "I deal with stuff that's too dumb for people to have bothered to formulate opinions on", Byrne himself confessed about his film. Yet, what strikes the audience in True Stories is precisely the narrator's amazed attitude, his amused way of looking at things without taking part, his being more an accomplice than a judge of what he sees. In this way, True Stories, a complex mix of different languages and media, surely the most postmodern of Byrne's cultural experiments, turns into a sort of good-bye to the postmodern, for good. Fragmentation, use of quotations, multimediality, and a return to popular culture acquire a new meaning when seen through the narrator's sympathetic eyes. Even minimalism, which seems to be at the very core of Byrne's project, becomes something different: a way of looking at the details of triviality from an unusual perspective. Around the corner of everyday provincial life Byrne catches fantastic elements: Virgil and its inhabitants are 'special' and they celebrate their being 'different' with a queer parade at the end of the movie. The rhetoric of terminality seems to be far away. "For years we have been taught not to like things", Byrne observes, "Finally somebody said it was OK to like things. This was a great relief. It was getting hard to go around not liking everything". The very title of True Stories reminds one of the art of story-telling, the ability to tell the truth by telling lies. At the end of the movie, observing that only when you forget a thing can you really see it, Byrne seems to suggest new poetics, where the belief that nothing is more real than the things we imagine is linked to an idea we find at the basis of Calvino's Invisible Cities: "you can perceive the true shape of things only in the distance". In his last album with the Talking Heads, Naked, Byrne widens his musical horizon yet again to embrace contemporary American authors (Philip Glass, for instance) together with African percussion. Also in his lyrics he shows a will to deal with new themes. His language is still very colloquial, almost trivial; his technique, still the alienation effect created by putting usual words in an incongruous context, disrupting commonplace sentences and, by doing so, upsetting the audience's expectations. Yet this conscious device of linguistic dislocation does not translate a sense of existential displacement any longer. Postmodern crisis and anti-narrative lyrics are over. After True Stories, the story-teller acquires more importance than either the word juggler of Remain in Light or the shaman of Speaking in Tongues. Let's see, for instance, "Mommy Daddy You and I", where Byrne tells a story of migration and difficult adaptation to the "land of opportunities". All the way from Baltimore/ We couldn't find a seat/ Conductor says he's sorry for/ The blisters on our feet/ Come-a riding in a bus/ The high and the low/ Mommy, daddy, you and I/ Going on a trip/ And we're not going home /.../ Driving, keep driving/ Driving, driving all night/ Sleeping on my daddy's shoulder/ Drinking from a paper cup/ And I'm wearing my grandfather's clothes/ And they say up North it gets cold. The road to nowhere leads to the deep north now. The view is depressing, there are no perspectives ("Making changes day by day/ And we still ain't got no plan/ How gonna we make our way/ In this foreign land?"), but still there's a great faith in travelling, in moving and in changing. ("Well, We'll keep driving, keep driving/ Driving with all our might"). The postmodern fear of fragmentation has given way to a positive desire to change; to an energy and a faith in one's own potentialities whose literary equivalent can be found in the works of migrant writers. At the same time, Byrne starts to deal with more social issues, now with his usual irony, like in "The Democratic Circus", now with unusual verbal and visual violence, like in "Blind", where he talks about a terrorist shot dead "in the name of democracy" to the indifference of his fellow citizens. Anyway, in all cases his messages are not direct, but filtered through metaphors. The value of metaphors is "telling two stories at once", Byrne said to an interviewer. "You're telling a story on a deeper level that may be unconscious, or maybe it's obvious, and then you're telling a story that can be immediately perceived. I think that people intuitively perceive both simultaneously". This is what happens, for instance, in "(Nothing but) Flowers", an amusing joke at the expenses of all would-be ecologists. Actually, the songs deals with the problems of a pair of lovers who, "Like an Adam and an Eve" live in a sort of garden of Eden, but miss all the amenities of metropolitan life. While imagining a utopian world where "The highways and cars/ Were sacrificed for agriculture", Byrne makes fun of all those people who, in a similar context, couldn't help confessing, "I thought that we'd start over/ But I guess I was wrong". The protagonist of the song is introduced in a surreal way as is typical of Byrne the word-juggler: "Years ago/ I was an angry young man/ I'd pretend/ That I was a billboard". Yet this character's nostalgia for all the commonplace trivialities of American consumerism - pizza parlours, soft drinks, dairy products, shopping malls and discount stores - is even more humorous if compared with the Eden-like world he refuses. Another proof of Byrne's gusto for story-telling is the collection of Talking Heads' videos he edited in 1988, whose very title, Story-telling Giant, emphasizes his will to narrate, to fictionalize. All the videos (which are themselves minimal visual stories) are connected by tales told by ordinary people - memories, dreams, situations told to Byrne's camera by people who, not being necessarily familiar with the Talking Heads, don't comment on the songs, but talk about themselves in an enthusiastic way which reminds one of ancient oral story-telling. By opposing their words to his songs Byrne seems to suggest that mass society can transform orality into textuality just by translating the spoken word into images and sounds, without passing though the medium of the written word, exactly as it happened in primitive cultures. 4) World Music, World Poetry Byrne's interest for African culture leads him from Afro-American rhythms to Afro- Brazilian spirituality (to whom he devoted a documentary film called Il Ay ) and sounds, which are at the core of his solo pop album, Rei Momo. The critics tend to dismiss Rei Momo either as yet another white musician's attempt at conquering the music market with a multicultural project or as a sophisticated musician's surrender to pop and dance music. In other words, while Byrne realizes that rock has "reached saturation point" and soon people from the Third World "will assert their own culture, or take elements of rock or pop or whatever and put it into their own stuff", the critics cannot forgive him for leaving the Talking Heads to put together a "Latin-tinged selection" where "his educated, self- conscious, impossibly white voice [...] sounds amusingly ill at ease against the fluid, bubbling music". "Rei Momo" is the king of Carnival: consequently, the lyrics in this album depict a Carnival world, a world upside down where once a year you can literally be "struck by lightnin'" walking through the streets of New York. Singing alternately in English, Portuguese and Spanish, Byrne tells of a distorted world of people crazy for love and then paints a Carnival parade of weird masks - policemen controlling the dreams of mankind, office cowboys, the Mona Lisa and the invisible man, the Tattoo Rose and Noah, all marching through the wilderness, following a puppet-king who is mimicking tv people. In Rei Momo Byrne sings about the Carnival world and its abolition of barriers and distinctions through a series of outlandish metaphors and surreal similes. It has been observed that "in the midst of the party, he can still stop making sense, unearthing absurd lyrical gems". Lines like "I walk like a building/ I never get wet/ I'm looking at ladies/ I'm talking like men" and metaphors like "Like a pizza in the rain/ No one wants to take you home" show a will to overcome even rhetorical and semantic barriers. Here Byrne plays with lies to deconstruct the Western world in order to build a new magical fictional reality.: "It's a beautiful world and a beautiful dream/ And you know I don't care if things are not what they seem/ Making up stories that you know aren't true/ But you know it's all right 'cause I know it too". Revisiting a theme he had already dealt with in some Talking Heads hits like "Found a Job" and "Television Man", the relationship between television and the man in the street, in "Make Believe Mambo" Byrne faces his subject from an utterly original point of view. "I thought rather than criticising that, I'd encourage it", he explained, "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". This is the climax of the Carnival spirit: "He can be a macho man/ Now he's a game show host/ One minute hilarious comedian/ Now he's an undercover cop/ Oh - let the poor boy dream/ Oh - livin' make believe /.../ I can be you and you can be me/ In my mundo, todo el mundo/ Ev'ryone's happy, and ev'ryone's free". Commenting on True Stories, Byrne wrote: "Movie making is a trick. Song writing is a trick. If a song is done really well, the trick works. If not, people can see through it right away". And another time he said: "I don't think there's anything wrong with seeing the figure manipulating the puppets [...] But when you constantly have the sense that you're the puppet and this thing is dragging you along, it's an unpleasant feeling". Consequently, a humorous parody of current and identifiable situations now substitutes the typical postmodern humourless parody deriving from a feeling of political and cognitive impotence. At the same time, the awareness that art glories in the realisation of its functional role in social life takes the place of the postmodern concept that art suffers from the realisation of its marginality. 5) Past the next 'post' Byrne's last two albums show a mature author, quite conscious of his own literary devices. In both the story-teller prevails over the word-juggler. In Uh-Oh, he is still telling stories of a provincial life which is now haunted by uncanny winds of change. The lyrics talk about a father who, having changed sex, asks his adolescent daughter to accept him as a mother; of a man who cannot help thinking only of girls; of people whose greatest satisfaction is window shopping and of others who prefer mysterious walks in the dark. We find again, described with increased irony, two typical features of Byrne's geography: the tiny town full of gossips, and the violent metropolis, where young boys use guns and dress like gangsters. Then, there are new characters, like a Vietnam veteran who, observing the situation of his country, concludes that evolution must have inverted its course and a woman who "on the TV and in the magazines/ ... sees the people she would like to be" and doesn't realize that by so doing she allows herself to be robbed of her dreams, her pride and even her name. Even though most of these stories are told in the first person, it would be wrong to identify their tellers with Byrne himself. Rather than confessional lyrics, these are dramatic monologues and in each of them the poet (the singer) wears a different mask in order to tell the story of a different person. The poetic concept of "persona" (= the identity which the poet assumes in his first person poems) is here adapted by Byrne to the song form, following the personal poetics he had already formulated at the time of Little Creatures, when he affirmed that he wanted to change his poetic identity continuously in order to adapt his words to other people's lives and not only to his own. It is not surprising then, that his latest album is also the only one whose title is "David Byrne". By giving his name to the whole collection, Byrne not only chooses to talk about himself following the devices of confessional lyrics, he also proclaims his rediscovered personal identity after singing about displacement, fragmentation of the self and dislocation for so many years. Through memory and self-analysis Byrne eventually overcomes the sense of disembodiment, phantomisation and loss of the self which characterised most of his previous production. It is not by chance, that the album is illustrated with enlargements of particulars of Byrne's anatomy: an arm, an ear, the chest, and even X-rays of his teeth and his brain. The author's wish to oppose his sense of the body to every end-of-century alienation and phantomisation permeates all the songs, from the opening memories of "Long Time Ago" to the last track, which has the explicit title "Buck Naked". Here the body is a metaphor of the self. The whole collection can be interpreted as a sort of personal journey towards complete nakedness, starting from memories and dreams - which mark his need to find his own story - and leading to the identification with other people, the awareness that "we are all naked if you turn us inside out". As in all contemporary autobiographical fiction (see, among others, Peter Handke, Max Frisch, Paul Auster, Michael Ondaatje), past time and narrated space constitute one's self. Talking about oneself is a means not to get lost. Byrne's journey into himself starts from memories. In "A Long Time Ago" he realizes that in other times he kept too much of himself for himself: "And in the land where I grew up/ Into the bosom of technology/ I kept my feelings to myself...". As in Paul Auster's world, here memory is "the space where a thing happens for the second time". Memory can help understand the present ("It's not the ending of the world/ It's only the closing of a discotheque/ I used to go 3 times a week/ That was a long long time ago") and face the future ("In between stations I can hear/ A million possibilities/ It's only the singing of the stars/ That burned out a long long time ago"). The disappearance of events, situations and objects which were familiar in the past does not mean the end of one's world, only the loss of "a sense of infinite possibilities" which, in other years, could give meaning to the passage of time and make things happen. Byrne's starting point towards absolute nakedness is the awareness of having turned himself into a commodity he has been offering for too long to his audiences: "I'm just an advertisement/ For a version of myself", he confesses in "Angels". And in "A Self-Made Man" he even tries to analyse his role in relation to the world around him, striving to find a meaning behind appearances (quite an unusual move for the prophet of 'stop making sense'!) My cards are on the table/ I'm gambling ev'rything that I am/ And some of us are hoping/ To end up with a perfect life/ I'll trade you ev'rything that I got/ For the chance to be someone else/ And what you see is what you get/ And what you get is what you choose/ And what I am/ What you see/ Is exactly what I choose to be. The use of the second person suggests the possibility of identifying the "self-made man" with yet another mask of its author. Actually, the "self-made man" has no identity: he is an invented creature surrounded by the freaks of reality when he decides to face the world. His only chance to survive is to go "Back in the Box", to shut himself off in a dark place where he can avoid daylight and, by refusing to take decisions, can make no mistakes. This seems to be quite a depressing conclusion, but Byrne himself warns his listeners against the risk of taking his words too literally: "You may think I look sad/ But I am just sleeping/ It's my facial expression/ I'm probably dreaming". Obviously, when the singer takes his mask off, a feeling of bewilderment overwhelms him, together with the fear of losing his identity for good. Yet he badly wants to overcome his fears: "Shake your body till the fear is gone/ Like it was nothing at all". Moreover, what he needs to live better are a few very simple things: "I need a little water in my garden/ I need a little sunlight on my head/ I need someone to cover me with kisses/ When I'm all alone & scared". On the one hand, he wishes to find himself in another person; on the other, he realizes that he must create a link with other people in order to transform his individual search into a collective experience. To describe his personal relationship with a possible "you" Byrne uses a series of metaphors with all possible shades of significance, from commonplace sensibility to nonsensical surrealism, following an ironic crescendo: ""I'm the look upon your face/ The water on your lawn/ The light from distant stars/ The wreckage of a plane/ The space between your teeth/ The itch you cannot scratch/ The mentally unfit/ The pimple on your lip...". On the contrary, to talk about his vision of society and collectivity Byrne returns to the technique of lists and juxtaposed images he used at the time of Fear of Music and Remain in Light: "Saw people in a remote village/ wearing their ..digital watches/ Saw a young Indonesian girl.../ Possessed by the spirit of Mutant Ninja Turtles/ Saw... palatial estates, with crumbling/ decorations... and human furniture/ I saw hairstyles/.../ Saw a skyscraper made out of abandoned car parts/.../ Saw a man on a barstool ... who hadn't/ moved ... in 32 hours..." As he did more than fifteen years ago, Byrne is still trying to translate into words the way we often see the world: a heap of things scattered around carelessly, always unrelated to one another, linked by the poet only to create images whose meaning (if there is one) lies in the emotional fascination of pure sounds. Yet, while in the early eighties Byrne consciously proposed to 'stop making sense', in the mid-nineties he strives to build a context for the unnameable and the incomprehensible. As a result, life appears as a series of strange (because they are not understandable) rituals (e.g., recurring situations the artist tries to contextualize, seldom successfully). On the road to nowhere, now the naked poet runs after those angels who flew across the sky over Berlin on wings of desire. At the end of the ride, like in the visions of the beat generation, beyond the pearly gates, something happens, eventually, if not in heaven, at least on earth: "The sensuous world - The smell of the sea/ The sweat off their wings - the fruit from the trees/ The angel inside - will meet me tonight/ On wings of desire - I come back alive". -Silvia Albertazzi E-mail: