Heads Down

The Heads' Jerry Harrison on the controversial decision to carry on without David Byrne.

It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Chances for the resurrection of Talking Heads, a justly revered band that has been dormant since the release of the 1988 long-player Naked, looked slim: While Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz, the married bassist and drummer of the group, and keyboardist Jerry Harrison were eager to play as a unit again, lead singer David Byrne wanted nothing to do with the notion. So Weymouth, Franz and Harrison decided to take the initiative. Christening themselves the Heads, the three recorded an album of new material featuring a disparate assortment of vocalists and issued it under the title No Talking Just Head. Moreover, Weymouth created a cover for the album that echoes the color scheme of Talking Heads' debut, Talking Heads 77, and the type style of the 1982 compilation The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads. The Heads seemed to be saying with these decisions that Byrne was superfluous--so they would start over without him.

Byrne understandably found this point of view objectionable and filed a lawsuit to stop the Heads from touring and releasing albums under their chosen moniker. He subsequently dropped the suit, for reasons he has chosen not to make public, but that didn't mean the end of problems for the Heads. Plenty of reviewers were shocked and appalled by the entire Heads concept and have come after the trio with claws bared. Rolling Stone (which, to be honest, has a vested interest in sucking up to Byrne) responded to the album with a vicious notice, and many other periodicals have followed suit. And now that the Heads, supplemented by the presence of former Concrete Blonde lead singer Johnette Napolitano, are on tour, they're forced to turn for assistance in publicizing their dates to the very journalists who've already displayed contempt for their project.

Give Harrison credit, then, for grace under fire. Speaking from New York City, he is intelligent, loquacious, even witty at times--and when faced with questions that must be unpleasant to answer, he refuses to dodge them. Just as important, he makes a reasonable argument in favor of the Heads. Too bad he's got such an untenable position to defend.

"We knew going in that there would be people who wouldn't want us to make any reference to Talking Heads," he notes. "And yet we felt we were in a difficult position. Chris and Tina and I have played together for close to twenty years. What were we going to call ourselves, the Turtles?

"Also, we wanted people to know where we came from. We didn't want to call ourselves Franz, Weymouth and Harrison; that sounded like a law firm. So we tried to find some sort of a middle ground--a name that said this is not Talking Heads, but it does have a reference point to Talking Heads. And I thought we did a good job of it--although clearly, some people don't agree."

In fact, the Heads' scheme as a whole seems like a salvo aimed at a critical community that has long seen Talking Heads as David Byrne's band. The recently published Spin Alternative Record Guide offers a case in point: The Talking Heads listing includes blurbs on all of the act's long-players, as well as Byrne's solo work and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, his 1981 collaboration with Brian Eno. But Harrison, an original member of Jonathan Richman's Modern Lovers whose "Rev It Up" was an international hit single a couple of years back, is not represented, nor is the Tom-Tom Club, a Franz-Weymouth teaming that at one point actually outsold Talking Heads. Such a conspicuous example of disrespect might make any performer hungry for revenge, yet Harrison avoids citing an interest in historical revisionism as the primary motivating factor behind the Heads. In denying this assessment, however, he winds up lending credence to it.

"In the early days of Talking Heads, everyone was very aware of each of our roles," he says. "There was no question that since David was the singer, there was a great deal of focus on him--but because we always played with all the lights on, everyone could see what we were doing and how important everyone was. As a result, interviews up through, say, [1979's] Fear of Music often put everyone on fairly even ground. But when we did the tour for [1980's] Remain in Light, I hired [Parliament-Funkadelic's] Bernie Worrell to play with us on the tour--and people began to think that he'd played all the keyboard parts on the record even though he wasn't even on it. And then, in the Stop Making Sense film [made in 1984], the cameras spent most of their time on the singers, leaving the rest of us literally in the dark for large periods of time. Now, I'm very proud of that film and that tour--and because I hired all the musicians for it, I feel like I had a large part in their success. But it tended to cast Chris and Tina and I in the shadows. And then David was on the cover of Time magazine..."

After a pause to chew over this memory, Harrison gets back on track. "I think early fans of Talking Heads understand how much everybody contributed," he says. "But for newer fans--fans from maybe the mid-Eighties on--the new record might be, um, educational."

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