David Byrne has always resisted easy definition. His long-ago group Talking Heads stood out initially for its geeky, reductive, white-bread minimalism, then reinvented itself as a swinging, latter-day big band, brimming over with influences from North Africa and South America.
In the years since, Byrne has worked in theater, film, photography and many other genres. He founded a venturesome record company, Luaka Bop, which presented many artists then unknown in the United States, and he has continued to make his own albums (with and without his longtime musical partner, Brian Eno). Most recently, he has taken up the cause of bicycling, specifically bicycling in New York, which is the usual way the Scotland native gets around his adopted city and which he chronicled in a breezy series of observations published as “Bicycle Diaries.”
Byrne’s new book, an ambitious, illustrated 345-page volume titled “How Music Works,” puts me in mind of what it might be like to run into the author at a bar and spend the next few hours talking about a lot of things. Some disclosure may be in order here: I knew Byrne slightly more than 30 years ago, we have a number of mutual friends, and we lived in the same Manhattan building for a while. Still, as Byrne recalls, he was “incredibly shy at the time and remained so for many years,” and I remember our few meetings as virtually monosyllabic, both of us staring resolutely at the ground.
“How Music Works” suggests that such anxiety is long past. This is a decidedly generous book — welcoming, informal, digressive, full of ideas and intelligence — and one has the pleasant sense that Byrne is speaking directly to the reader, sharing a few confidences he has picked up over the years. It is part autobiography, part how-to guide, part history and part prognostication — all engaging but none really complete. While those who want an in-depth memoir of Talking Heads, for example, may be disappointed (although there are some terrific nuggets), Byrne touches on so many subjects that few readers with a more general interest in music will feel left out.
Not surprisingly, he is least convincing when writing about classical music and opera. He’s even a little flinty about it: “I never got Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven — and I don’t feel any worse for it,” he acknowledges. “I resent the implication that I’m less of a musician and a worse person for not appreciating certain works.” Such absolute dismissal comes across as intellectual insecurity (really — “a worse person?” What is this, high school?) and tarnishes Byrne’s authority. Still, in fairness, how many classical artists, with the eternal exception of Leonard Bernstein, ever had anything smart to say about pop music?
Byrne has plenty of smart things to say about pop music. For example: “We now think of the sound of recordings when we think of a song or piece of music, and the live performance of that same piece is now considered an interpretation of the recorded version.” True enough, for better or for worse, and a distinct change from even 50 years ago. He points out that some of Tom Waits’s songs “would sound pretty corny, sung ‘straight,’ without his trademark growly vocals. The sound of his voice is what makes them work.”
Writing of the vast traveling theatrical extravaganzas that the leading progressive rock bands of the 1970s, such as Pink Floyd, lugged from arena to arena, he says: “These shows were light years away from any connection to our reality. They were an escape, a fantasy, and hugely entertaining, but they had no relationship to any sense of what it felt like to be young, energetic, and frustrated. Those artists sure didn’t speak to or for any of us, even if they did have some good songs. If we wanted to hear music that spoke directly to us, it was clear that we’d have to make it ourselves. If no one else liked it, well, so be it — but at least we would have some songs that meant something to us.”
Byrne has been around long enough to recognize that music may be an extraordinary art but that it can also be a very tricky business. He examines the history of recording, from wax cylinders to MP3 downloads. He talks specifically, in dollars and cents, about the advances and royalties he has received from various record companies, and then compares the figures with those accrued when he self-produced his recent collaboration with Eno, “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.” He notes the irreversible decline of traditional record stores — Tower, Virgin, Borders and HMV — but recognizes that, through the Internet and other venues, “there have never been more opportunities for a musician to reach an audience.”
“I’ve made money and I’ve been ripped off,” Byrne says. “I’ve had creative freedom and I’ve been pressured to make hits. I have dealt with diva behavior from crazy musicians and I have seen genius records by wonderful artists get completely ignored. . . . If you think success in the world of music is determined by the number of records sold, or the size of your house or bank account, then I’m not the expert for you. I am more interested in how people can manage a whole lifetime in music.”
It’s a worthwhile goal — and Byrne and his book make for good company.
HOW MUSIC WORKS
By David Byrne
McSweeney’s. 345 pp. $32