You may recall David Byrne: Leader of Talking Heads. Intimate collaborator with the visionaries from Brian Eno to Twyla Tharp to Robert Wilson. (Would rock fans in the early ’80s have even known that the latter two existed if not for their collaborations with Byrne?) Curator of cool Brazillian and other music on his Luaka Bop label. If the name and face are still fuzzy, the following clip will likely ring a bell.
Whatever happened to that guy? I heard he’s put out some solo albums over the years. There was a good song from one of those albums in that movie with Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, and Scarlett Johansson. One day I almost bought the album that contained that song, but I sampled the rest of the songs and they didn’t come close to matching the generally strong album cuts on Talking Heads’ highly underrated swan song, Naked.
Talking Heads, “Ruby Dear”
Recently I was surprised and excited to learn that Byrne and Eno had collaborated on a new album, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Visions of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts danced in my head! You can stream the whole thing here, but I wanted more. I was pretty sure this would be worth owning. Before I even listened to the stream I acquired the whole album.
David Byrne & Brian Eno, “Home”
The opening track, “Home”, was nothing to write home about. It sounded like a warmed-over track from Eno and John Cale’s mildly underrated collaboration, Wrong Way Up. This is not to criticize the Cale-Eno collaboration, because it’s pretty good, especially the songs Cale sings.
Brian Eno & John Cale, “Crime in the Desert”
The new Byrne and Eno album had to get better, but even the best tracks sounded no better than one of the few tolerable songs from Talking Heads’ all-around worst album, Speaking in Tongues. Beside “Burning Down the House” that album was a heaping bowl of plain spaghetti! What’s the point?
After 2 dozen spins of this new Byrne and Eno record, here’s my relative favorite song from Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.
David Byrne & Brian Eno, “Life Is Long”
Pass the salt, please.
So what’s the deal with David Byrne? Is this what he’s reduced to?
Isn’t this why God created David Van Tieghem? (And if God’s got a few spare minutes, can he design a better Website for the technically and innovative proficient percussionist than the one he’s presently got?)
What I find fascinating about solo David Byrne, and what I was trying to hint at in a recent thread on visionary band leaders ill-equipped to go solo, is his inability to find his voice as a solo artist after having among the most distinctive artistic voices (in the broader sense) of his time when leading Talking Heads.
Byrne’s first forays as a solo artist–or intimate collaborator, not including Remain in Light, which by many accounts is a Byrne-Eno collaboration more than a Talking Heads record, were promising. We all know about My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Byrne’s first official collaboration with Eno. The Catherine Wheel, music he composed for a Twyla Tharp dance (or whatever–that whole world remains a mystery to me), is stronger than most if not all of the Talking Heads records following Remain in Light.
David Byrne (The Catherine Wheel), “His Wife Refused”
He also did the music for a Robert Wilson play, the CIVIL warS. The music Byrne composed was released as The Knee Plays.
David Byrne (The Knee Plays), “Social Studies”
These collaborations were from the early ’80s, an exciting time, when it seemed that mainstream and experimental artists were coming together on a weekly basis. Paul Simon launched mainstream collaborations with the likes of Phillip Glass as well as South African musicians and Chevy Chase. Laurie Anderson had a hit single. The Clash collaborated with graffiti artists and Allen Ginsburg. Peter Gabriel collaborated with just about everyone but the USC Marching Band. One of the leading lights in this period of cross-pollination was Byrne.
After Byrne had some time to regroup from his years in Talking Heads, I expected him to emerge in some new or interesting form, probably bridging the historical gap between Bowie and Beck. Surely he’d have soaked in his Brazillian stuff, hip-hop, new technology, and the films of Wes Anderson, then blasted into the 21st century to soak in the adulation due to him for helping to set the tone of modern-day popular art alongside resurgent early ’80s visionaries like David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch. Instead, we’re occasionally treated to performances like this:
Maybe I shouldn’t have wished for all that postmodern synthesis.
Perhaps Byrne is the ’80s version of Ray Davies, a band leader with a very focused, particular point of view that, once honed to a point, was complete. Yeah, I know we all like a post-Great Period Kinks song or two – and someone’s bound to like one of those albums that the rest of us don’t – but where was Ray Davies to go? Would anyone have cared if Ray Davies made grand statements on God, Love, Yoko, and John Sinclair? Once out of the Big Suit, where did David Byrne fit in? Is there any going back to that young guy playing “Warning Sign”?
Has his post-Talking Heads career been an extended, subtle cry for help, like the post-Silence of the Lambs films of Jodie Foster? David Byrne, phone home.