1979 - Psychodramas you can Dance to Print
Written by Mikal Gilmore   

From:†Rolling Stone, 11/29/79

 

New Wave Enters the Top Thirty

The scene thatís churning on this sweltering night at
Irving Plaza, a Polish youth hall turned New Wave juke
joint, is about to take a rousing twist. For nearly
two hours, Talking Heads, in a hometown kickoff for a
nationwide tour, have been plying the liquor-gorged
crowd with a display of rock & roll that brings to
mind a mating of Stax/Volt and R.D. Laing. Like the
songs on their recent Top Thirty anomaly, Fear of Music,
the Headsí performance is an obsessing coalition of
muscular rhythms and minimalist melodies, capped with
songwriter David Byrneís yelping fits about dialectics
and paranoia. Now, Tina Weymouth, the elfin bassist,
changes the tempo into a steady, thumping pulse, and
the band vaults into the much-adored "Psycho Killer."
The song swacks Irving Plaza like a catharsis,
converting floor and stage into a communal psychodrama.

Byrne steps into the opening verse with an edgy monotone
that portends a tempest: "I canít seem to face up to
the facts," he intones. "Iím tense and nervous and I
canít relax/I canít sleep ícause my bedís on fire/Donít
touch me Iím a real live wire." With his jolting
movements and clamorous vocals, Byrne resembles a
gaunt, dread-stricken figure bounding to life out
of an Expressionist painting, while Weymouth, drummer
Chris Frantz (wife and husband) and keyboard player
Jerry Harrison buttress him like serene architecture.

Every time Byrne convulses or looks ready to slip
into a petit mal, the floor roars jubilantly in
approval--as if theyíre cheering Tony Perkins in
Psychoís shower sequence. At the back, where Iím
standing, pockets of the place waver and collide in
lurid disco formations, while a few of the more
artistic types lurch and jig like Dawn of the Dead
extras. Maybe itís the Headsí incessant, full-bottom
rhythm, or just the gummy heat, but most of us here
are seriously wagging booty to a song about snapping-
-and thatís a hell of a mess to dance around.

* * *

The paradox isnít lost on Byrne, who sits moments
later at a small, smudgy table in a crowded upstairs
dressing room. Iíve been forewarned to expect a
painfully shy, elusive man, and in fact, during
our brief exchanges so far, heís seemed as wary as
a hare. Itís hard to believe the same person can
be so confident and stormy onstage. Now, when I
mention the fleshly response "Psycho Killer"
elicited, he issues a reedy laugh and contemplates
me for a moment from under thick, animate eyebrows.

"When that was the song that drew all the attention,
it used to bother us," he says. "But we rationalized
it by telling ourselves that it was that driving
meter of the bass line and chord changes that had
the appeal." In contrast to his yelping, inflective
singing, Byrne speaks in a somnolent voice, punctuated
with frequent yanks and stammers. "I realize now,"
he continues, "that the idea of a personality close
to the edge has something to do with the songís
attraction. I donít mean that in a sensational
way--itís just a normal human attraction for something
a little out of the ordinary."

Watching Byrne convulse his way through a performance--
or even talking to him, for that matter--one could
easily get the impression that this lanky, high-strung
entertainer just might have special knowledge of "a
personality close to the edge." Indeed that type of
character is so frequent in Byrneís songs that itís
sometimes a little hard to tell where persona ends
and personal begins.

On Talking Headsí first two albums, Talking Heads: í77
and More Songs about Buildings and Food, Byrne
forged a brainy, expressive, disoriented character
reeling in the schisms between conformity and
alienation, aberrance and normality. With Fear of
Music, though, he seems to have adopted the position
that anxiety is normality. The stunner is the voice
in "Drugs": "Feels like murder but thatís alright/
Somebody said thereís too much light/Pull down the
shade and itís alright/Itíll be over in a minute or
two."

Now, sitting with Byrne, Iím curious what he would
say if I asked about his much-ballyhooed flirtation
with neurosis. Finally, I decide that it seems too
premature for the question. Instead, Jerry Harrison--
the impish-looking keyboard player and, along with
Byrne and producer Brian Eno, a chief architect of
Talking Headsí sound--joins the conversation. I
ask the two about "Animals," a hilarious, distraught
disclaimer of Godís furry creations and one of the
few Fear of Music songs the band doesnít do live.
"The music to that is in some tricky meters," says
Harrison. "We have trouble playing them and singing
at the same time. Also, thatís one song you either
like or donít like; people have strong attachments
to their pets."

Harrison goes on to relate a story Tina told him
about a married couple who brought their dachshunds
along on a trip to Hong Kong. One evening they took
the dogs out for a walk, then stopped at a restaurant
with a sign reading, CHECK YOUR ANIMALS AT THE DOOR.
About half an hour later they discovered, to their
nausea, that it was a restaurant where you brought
your own entrees.

Byrne chortles hard at the story. "I thought of
ĎAnimalsí in terms of the Ďnoble savage,í" he says,
still laughing. "Animals and primitive people are
always thought of as innocent savages, free of problems.
Itís about time somebody debunked that one."

* * *

An album about paranoia and displacement is a fairly
unusual package to be found scaling Billboardís Top
Thirty, yet Fear of Music--easily the Talking Headsí
riskiest effort--is the groupís fastest-selling record
to date. To a large degree, their success has to do
with a point the band put across in last yearís hit
version of Al Greenís "Take Me to the River":
Talking Headsí music is nothing if not danceable.

"What appealed to me initially about their music was
its powerful structural discipline," says producer
Brian Eno, rockís leading experimentalist and founding
member of the original Roxy Music (one of the Headsí
models). "In the Talking Heads, the rhythm section
is like a ship or train--very forceful and certain of
where itís going. On top of that you have this
hesitant, doubting quality that dizzily asks, ĎWhere
are we going?í That makes for a sense of genuine
disorientation, unlike the surface insanity of the
more commonplace, expressionist punk groups."

Like Eno, the various members of Talking Heads migrated
to rock from art school. David Byrne, whose
introductions to the rock idiom at age fourteen were
"Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Day Tripper" ("They gave me
the impression that the purpose of my generationís music
was to stretch boundaries"), attended the Rhode Island
School of Design, where he studied Bauhaus theory
(noted for its functional design) and conceptual arts.
He also stirred some skepticism. On one occasion, he
shaved his beard and long hair onstage, accompanied by
an accordion player and a showgirl who displayed Russian
cue cards. Another time, he attempted to write the ideal
rock song, based on the results of a questionnaire heíd
compiled.

"The art scene," he explains, "had started to seem
elitist, aimed at a small band of initiates who knew
what all the right references were. I thought the
idea was to reach people and get feedback, so I started
doing these questionnaires. People reacted strongly
because it wasnít Ďart-related.í They thought I was
just some nut infiltrating the art community."

During his brief stay at RISD, Byrne met Chris Frantz,
a painter and poet who enjoyed drumming to Miracles and
Velvet Underground songs. In 1973, they formed an
anomalous dance band called the Artistics, later
rechristened the Austistics in honor of a second
guitarist who had once been diagnosed autistic.
The next year, Byrne moved to Greenwich Village, and
when Frantz followed--along with girlfriend Tina
Weymouth, another RISD alumnus--they elected to start
a new band.

Something was clearly starting to foment in 1974 in
New Yorkís Bowery--most notably in the form of Tom
Verlaine and Richard Hellís Television and Deborah
Harryís the Stilletoes (later dubbed Blondie). But
the budding leather crowd--estranged by Chris and
Davidís wholesome collegiate looks--never responded
much to the duoís quest for an R&B-style bassist,
and Tina was finally enlisted. Says Chris: "We
wanted someone who wasnít stylistically formed yet
or obsessed with technical virtuosity. Plus we
thought it was modern to have a female in the group
who wasnít featuring her voice or breasts."

By their third show in August of 1975, the three
had generated enough superlatives to reap the cover
of the Village Voice, tagged with the headline, TIRED
OF GLITTER? THE CONSERVATIVE IMPULSE OF THE NEW ROCK
UNDERGROUND. Also about that time, they signed with
Sire Records, a New York company that had taken the
greatest initial interest in New Wave. Then, in early
1977, the group adopted its fourth member, Jerry
Harrison, a Harvard architecture student and former
keyboard player with Jonathan Richmanís original
Modern Lovers. "Before Jerry," says Byrne, "a lot
of our songs were like sketches. Jerry made it
possible for us to fill in some of the missing colors,
and we became a real band."

Still, that "conservative" tag dogged the bandís early
steps, and when the Heads toured England with the
Ramones--the same week the Sex Pistols released "God
Save the Queen"--crowds booed whenever they played
"Donít Worry About the Government." Says Byrne:
"In rock, the normal point of view is exaggerated
individuality, which is perfectly valid, but I thought
it was more of a challenge to offer an opposing view.
It had to do with the Chinese idea that uniformity and
restriction donít have to be debilitating and degrading.
I found that attractive."

* * *

The evening after the Irving Plaza show, I meet
the group at--of all places--an athletic training
center, where one of the photo sessions for this
article has been scheduled. They chose this place
because Tina was enamored with the weight roomís
interior: barren, off-white walls, confronted with
gleeming, angular machines.

Jerry, Chris and Tina take to the equipment like
pups, while David mostly keeps a watchful distance,
as if the apparatus had appetites. It strikes me
as a good metaphor for Talking Headsí music--an
agitated presence in a composed environment.

But it also strikes me that sometimes that image
can come off as distant and calculating, making
for a band that, to its detractors, has seemed too
arty and reserved to make credible rock & roll. I
mention this to Chris and Tina over dinner later at
a neighborhood Japanese restaurant. The couple--who
were married in 1977, shortly after the first albumís
release--are erudite in a shy way, though when it
comes to questions about the bandís image, Tina is
especially assertive.

"I realize that some people think our music isnít
exactly heartfelt," she says. "Itís not that we try
to be aloof or oblique; itís just that the ideas are
a little unusual--not your typical love stuff. Weíve
been criticized for using metaphors about efficiency
and economy, but that doesnít mean there arenít real
feelings behind them."

A troubled look has been forming on Tinaís face.
"We feel emotional about our songs," she continues.
"But maybe other people just want us to explode. I
think sometimes we almost do spin out of control--I
feel like Iím driving a car very fast on a mountainous
road. But some things are just too...embarrassing to
do onstage." She looks to Chris for concurrence.

"I guess," he says, "the only thing we have going for
us, besides our eccentricities, is our sound.
Sometimes I imagine our whole purpose is to conceive
of a song structure or rhythm that would be a
breakthrough in music. Maybe get a little paragraph
in some theory book. Sounds real corny, but thatís
kind of what I hope this group does."

Tina giggles proudly. "What we are," she says, "is
a bunch of overachievers."

* * *

"Itís a question of semantics," David Byrne says
later when I ask him the same question about Talking
Headsí image. "I think people confuse coldness and
unfeelingness with the fact that weíre aware of what
weíre doing. I know that may suggest arrogance or
awkwardness, but I mean it in just the literal sense
of being aware of what youíre doing,í like: ĎLook
at the funny place weíre in; weíre in front of people
doing this.í That might seem cold to some; to me,
it just seems realistic."

Byrne is seated alongside Jerry Harrison in a
rotating bar atop the Peachtree Plaza hotel in
Atlanta, where the band officially starts its tour.
Weíve been chewing over the question of image for
several minutes, and I figure itís a fair platform
for asking why, in past interviews, the band has
disclaimed any suggestions that its music aspires
to art.

Byrne shrugs doubtfully. "What bothers us about
art rock," he says, "is the way other bands, like
Emerson, Lake and Palmer, have construed it. They
take something from a standard high-art context and
try to make it palatable for mass tastes. We donít
see ourselves as trying to simplify highfalutin ideas,
then slip them over on our audience."

"Every once in a while," say Harrison with a scornful
smile, "weíll meet some artist who says, ĎI think using
rock & roll for your art form is brilliant.í I find
that repellent. If anything, rock & roll should fit
the proletarian view of art, which is partly what made
punk so powerful: it was like a revolt of ugliness,
a revolt against the elitism of aesthetic beauty. I
think there are some deep differences between rock &
roll and art."

Does that mean that high art and popular art are
irreconcilable?

"Well," says Byrne, "the only reason to listen to
somebody like Stockhausen is to see if there are
any interesting ideas that arenít in pop songs."
He pauses. "Weíre in a funny position: it
wouldnít please us to make music thatís impossible
to listen to, but we donít want to compromise for
the sake of popularity. Itís possible to make
exciting, respectable stuff than can succeed in
the marketplace."

Later, during the Headsí concert at Atlantaís
Agora club, Byrne proves his point resoundingly.
From the opening--when they catapult into "Artists
Only" with the ejaculation, "Iím painting: Iím
painting again!"--itís as visceral a display as
is called for in rock & roll. Byrne and Harrison
interweave peppered and eruptive bursts of melody
that skitter madly across Chris and Tinaís immutable,
mesmerizing rhythm lines. But in spite of Jerry and
Davidís disclaimers, I feel very much that what Iím
watching has a foot in art--sinewy, rumbling, kinetic
art.

* * *

Back at the Peachtree, Byrne and I meet in his room
for a final interview. Itís four a.m., and vodka
and orange juice have done much to anoint our rapport.
After about an hourís discussion of the making of Fear
of Music (the title, Byrne says, refers to a disease
called musicogenic-epilepsy, which throws its victims
into fits whenever they hear music), it occurs to me
that beneath his nervous exterior, Byrne seems
extraordinarily self-possessed and lucid. He reminds
me of a shy, youthful prodigy who lives in mental
and emotional realms of a different order than his
peers. Sometimes a disturbed face is a DO NOT
DISTURB mask.

I decide this time is as good as any to ask if it
troubles Byrne that so many critics--and much of
his audience--see him as a twin of the characters
in his songs.

Byrne looks enlivened by the suggestion. He laughs
stoutly, then says, "I havenít done many interviews
recently, but when I do, I make it a point to mention
that Iíve never seen a psychiatrist." He takes a drink,
then laughs again.

"Iím not an entirely comfortable person. In fact, I
admit to being extremely shy at times. But that isnít
necessarily neurotic. Actually, I find it unfortunate
that people use so much psychology jargon when they
write about me and my songs. Iím skeptical because
so many people view psychoanalysis as a valid
interpretation of how people operate. I tend to see
my own viewpoints and behavior as sensible reactions
to the goofy things around me."

Byrne gets up and tosses fresh ice into his cup.
"In order to play a particular character, you have
to make yourself believe in the plausibility of his
actions or ideas. I couldnít write a song that I
didnít think was plausible."

Yet some of those characters, I offer, can seem
pretty unfeeling, like the one in "I Donít Believe
in Love" who sings, "I believe someday weíll live in
a world without love." I feel like an interloper,
but the question begs to be asked: "Do you believe
in love?" Byrne waits several seconds before answering.
"The unfortunate thing about love," he begins, "is that
the term itself covers so much: erotic love,
humanitarian, Platonic....

"All those things happen to me, although Iím not
running around looking for someone, at the moment,
to fall in love with. I guess thatís unfortunate
in a way, but itís a decision Iíve made. I really
enjoy what Iím doing; it has first priority. Itís
not that I want to keep my distance or be aloof from
people--there are people whose company I enjoy a lot,
who I feel real close to, but if the relationship
degenerates into love and infatuation, it can ruin
that. I think itís a myth that you always have to
get sex out of your system

"Sometimes itís a form of love just to talk to
somebody that you have nothing in common with, and
still be fascinated by their presence."

* * *

I leave that last conversation feeling both moved and
bewildered by Byrneís sense of stoicism. In the end,
I figure that the man in the songs and the man in the
room probably arenít all that dissimilar; like
Salingerís Seymour Glass, Byrne probably finds
enlightenment in an attitude that somebody else
might call a state of dislocation.

These thoughts take a final twist when I see
Talking Heads a couple of weeks later at the Greek
Theater in Los Angeles. Their performance is
staggering. Byrne shimmies and shuffles like a colt
having a flashback, and Harrison, Weymouth and Frantz
back him doggedly. By the time they reach the first
encore, "Life During Wartime," the audience has gone
gaga. They leap to their feet, yell along on the
credo chorus line--"This ainít no party, this ainít
no disco/This ainít no fooling around"--and break
into a disco frenzy, just like the Irving Plaza
crowd during "Psycho Killer."

Maybe weíre missing the point, but itís a party if
Iíve ever seen one. Or maybe that is the point:
Talking Headsí music evokes paradoxes in the same
motion that it deflates them. A song about paranoid
delusions--or, for that matter, snapping--is probably
nothing to celebrate, but a song with a seismic beat
is. Along the same lines, Byrne may champion repression
in some of his songs, but his music incites release.
It purges anxiety by bringing it to the surface.

Actually, very little of this crosses my mind while
watching Byrne. Instead, I just dance and revel in
the idea of this guy twitching and yelping his unlikely
way into the mainstream of Americaís music. Itís the
best Iíve danced in years.