OffstageOf , David Byrne has just enough of the look of a short-circuiting android to O confirm that he is, in fact, the head Talking Head. Bone-thin, razor-edged, Byrne is the professional manic-expressive who has led the Talking Heads' charge from New York basements in the mid-'70s to tremendous pop success in the mid-'80s. His dark saucer eyes are intense and mobile, always scoping out escape routes. His lithe body is permanently taut, poised for flight, not fight. Handsome and ascetic, Byrne looks, someone said, like an emotionally disturbed preppie, a prime candidate for Neurotics Anonymous.
But the voice is surprisingly soft, the answers considered, the words self-edited. If nothing much is revealed, nothing seems to be hidden, either. This hardly seems the same man whose stage presence suggests Norman Bates, the killer in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho." Or a man whose first big hit was the chilling "Psycho Killer."
"It's been a heavy thing, escaping from that," Byrne admits, a smile tickling the edges of his mouth during a recent visit to Washington. "As bands do, we got locked in to how people identified us at the beginning. But of course, everybody changes over the years, and you're just not like that anymore. Everybody has more sides to their personality than their early manic stage performances."
The Talking Heads -- comprising singer Byrne, bassist Tina Weymouth, drummer Chris Frantz and keyboardist-guitarist Jerry Harrison -- are the most successful of the bands to emerge from New York's art-rock scene. In fact, they got their start while three of the four were still students at the Rhode Island School of Design, where they were known as the Artistics (or Autistics, some critics claimed).
Their first show, in 1974, found them double-billed with the Ramones, but while that group honed its singularly blunt and frenetic style, the Talking Heads charted an eclectic, persistently adventurous course defined by Byrne's quirky, bizarre, compelling songs. A dozen of them are at the center of "Stop Making Sense," one of the best concert films ever made, now in its 15th week at the West End Circle.
Byrne, who was born in Scotland and grew up in Lansdowne, just outside Baltimore, shrugs at the idea of the Heads making it, even as he acknowledges he "always thought it was possible. I thought, well, we might not be the ones to do it, but I thought, somebody's going to do it. There were a few of us starting at the time who thought there was a big gap in the music we were hearing over the radio and on records, that there was not much being made for us, that spoke to what we were feeling at the time. So we felt we had to do it ourselves. If other people across the country felt that as well, they might like it, even if it wasn't as slick as some of the other stuff. It was going to feel more real to them."
The Heads joined with Blondie, Patti Smith, Television and other lower Manhattanites in proposing an alternative to the bland pop of the mid-'70s. Their music introduced a minimalist me'lange of sparse instrumentation, insistent rhythm, quirky textures, confessional lyrics and hyperactive delivery. The discontinuities and cultural repressions of urban life provided the backdrop for the Heads' psychodrama, with Byrne as a combination geek/Greek chorus.
A byproduct of New York's art scene, the new wave was consciously anti-elitist, seeking to deliver art to the masses. And though the music was stark and the message stern -- nothing came between Byrne and his Calvinism -- it was accessible enough, sort of avant-pop, to elevate the Heads beyond cult status.
The lyrics were something else again: Byrne had a canny feel for putting a spin on cliche's, for restructuring the familiar and couching it in intellectual terms without dousing it in self-importance. Like William Burroughs, Byrne relied on fragmentation and randomness to evoke a pop-apocalyptic foreboding tempered with cautious optimism. Fire has been a recurring image for Byrne, from the Heads' first single, "Love Goes to a Building on Fire" to their most recent hit, "Burning Down the House." All wet Hey, you might need a raincoat Shake down Dreams walking in broad daylight 365 degrees Burning down the house Strange but not a stranger I'm an ordinary guy Burning down the house
The band's unsophisticated musicality tended to typecast the Heads as a hybrid of punk and new wave, a cerebral bridge between the New York Dolls and Television. And within the stark rhythms of the band, Byrne looked liked a man with angst in his pants. He was, he admits, looking for a different physical posture.
"I'd seen all the ways musicians moved around the stage, and they seemed pretty cliche'd to me, so I threw all of that out. Until I could think of something that made sense to me; then I just wasn't going to do anything unless it seemed spontaneous. It took a long time."
Byrne's stage manner -- he often looked like a chicken who thought its head had been cut off -- was something that critics and fans alike zoomed in on. If a review "says, as some reviews have, that this is a disturbed individual who makes me feel uncomfortable as an audience member, well, I don't mind giving that impression for a song or two, but for a whole show, I think it's a bit one-dimensional, and I'd think that's not the impression I meant to give with a lot of those songs. Something has to be done to change that."
Something was done in 1980 when the band's focus shifted dramatically with the release of "Remain in Light," which was full of Afro-funk polyrhythms and energies that added the "p" to "arty." Even though Byrne still wrote the material, the spirit became increasingly collective and less introspective, particularly when the band expanded to nine members.
Says Byrne of that period: "It wasn't just, okay, let's have fun and forget about all that other stuff. It also seemed to offer the possibility of a genuine communal antidote to a lot of the things that I'd been worrying about. It didn't make them go away, but it offered an alternative."
There were tales at the time that the group was coming apart. Frantz and Weymouth, who were married in 1977, started the Tom Tom Club, the dance-oriented band that featured Tina's two sisters. Harrison produced a solo album that was critically well recieved, and Byrne scored "The Catherine Wheel" for choreographer Twyla Tharp and cemented a long collaboration with rock-guru Brian Eno on the experimental "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts."
Eno's odd-boy network included Byrne, but his involvement with the Heads since their second album had also threatened to tear them apart. "Ghosts" would be the last Eno project, though Byrne says he would like to work with him again.
Ironically, when they got back together, the four Heads found they were better than one.
"It felt good to be playing together again," Byrne says. "If that can continue -- and I hope it can -- so that we can all go our separate ways and come back together and do something, that would be great, that would be ideal. It might be disappointing for people who want a Talking Heads-type project every year, because it doesn't come as often as that when you spend time doing other stuff in between. But it's all right, I guess."
The band is due to record soon, and Byrne points out that "it's still a quartet. When we perform live, we'll take whatever form seems appropriate."
"Stop Making Sense," directed by Jonathan Demme and financed by the group, has been getting rave reviews and doing strong business, even with limited theater availability. "We wait for the right theaters, with good sound systems," Byrne says.
"Sense" is aswirl with intriguing and often jolly visual choreography, reflecting Byrne's "not wanting it to be another concert film."
What "Sense" offers is a structural metaphor for the Heads/Byrne journey, kicking off with a solo, anguished "Psycho Killer" and ending with the entire expanded Heads performing Al Green's redemptive "Take Me to the River." It is concert as catharsis.
"I think it's kind of an accident," Byrne says, refusing to let too much be read into the plot. "It's not entirely an accident because it's sort of following an old tradition that the show should end big. You can start small, there's nothing unusual about that. But working on that level that you're talking about, it was kind of an accident. It's kind of a shame to admit that about a lot of the 'deeper' meanings of the show -- where I see myself as this character that goes through all these traumas and comes out of it and survives it with the help of the musicians and the music and there is a happy ending."
Even as "Stop Making Sense" puts subtle spins on rock cliche's, Byrne remains the compelling presence, particularly when he dons an oversize suit ("Maybe I'm acting like a stand-in for the stiff businessman who gets down," he laughs) and lets the music take him over. His singing has improved, despite some aborted voice lessons, and he now seems at ease with his own material. Byrne once said he wasn't sure if it was the singer who put emotion into a song, or the song that put emotion into the singer.
"It's the feeling of riding a song, or surfing, although I've never surfed. When you say you get lost in it or go into a trance, you lose some element of control, or, more realistically, you give up some areas of control. It's not taken from you, you give it. But at the same time you're totally aware of everything that's going on around you -- where the mike stands, if it's at the proper height -- and at the same time you're completely, emotionally and physically wrapped up in the other thing."
It's a long way, he says, from the early daze. "Last year I pulled out some old videotapes for British television, and there was one in particular that really had that shellshocked kind of stage presence. I loved it. I'm totally detached from it now. I thought it was hilarious but kind of scary. I'm still nervous. I get less articulate and have to relieve myself quite a few times before going on stage. I still pace back and forth . . . "
The Talking Heads' worldwide success has, of course, given its members the creative freedom and flexibility. Byrne's energies are diffuse. He's quite serious about photography, but it's shades of music that still intrigue him the most. Besides the Heads record and the some film projects, he recently collaborated with choreographer Suzuki Hanyagi and wrote some incidental music for director Robert Wilson's epic theater piece, "Civil Wars."
"The sections I worked on were five-minute pieces that go in between the larger scenes. I wrote music for brass instruments and a drummer -- it doesn't sound anything like the band. I didn't want it to be studio effects that couldn't be duplicated. If this thing tours, people can just get their sheet music and do it. It has a pleasant, warm sound that's really rich. That's what I wanted to hear, rather than something electronic."
Byrne, who has directed the last two Talking Heads videos, also wants to do more film. "I want to do something that incorporates all that kind of stuff, still on a low budget, but long."
And though he's done no producing since the B-52's and Fun Boy Three, Byrne recently had an unexpected hit when the Staple Singers recorded his "Slippery People." "They'd never heard of us, but they kind of liked it, I guess. I thought it was great."
In the meantime, the Heads seem to roll on, though Byrne would be the last to define his band as a model of social progress. "That's a funny thing," he says seriously. "There must be something about the notion of a band, especially since the Beatles: They were the first where it was assumed that the band were all more or less equal and wrote and performed their own songs, had a certain amount of self-determination. It became a very important item -- the band as a whole stood for something, everybody more or less said the same thing, as if the group was on a mission. It happens, but gosh, it doesn't last forever."