1996 - View on the Lyrics Print
Written by Silvia Albertazzi   
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: 
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
  (C)1996