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Those of you who've been counting the days until the reunion of Talking Heads can give your fingers a rest. David Byrne, the act's frontman, makes it abundantly clear that the chances of him joining forces again with keyboardist Jerry Harrison, bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz are none and none.
"I have no reason or need to talk to those people for the rest of my life," he snaps from Washington, D.C., where he is appearing in concert to promote his new solo CD, Feelings. "Why should I? You have no idea of the shit I took. We do the greatest concert film in the world [1984's Stop Making Sense], and they tell me how much they hate it, and what a jerk I am and how much they hated me telling them to stand still while we got the lights looking great. And all I can say is, I don't have to take that shit. I know what a great film that is. And that's just one example. It went on for years like that. And you put on a happy face and go on because you're making great music. But after a while, you go, 'This is not why I make music--to be beaten like this.'"
What prompted this outburst from the normally mild-mannered Byrne? Comments made to Westword late last year by Harrison in advance of the first tour by the Heads, a configuration in which he was joined by Weymouth, Frantz (her husband) and former Concrete Blonde vocalist Johnette Napolitano. In the article ("Heads Down," October 31, 1996), Harrison seemed mildly puzzled that Byrne was "resistant" to burying the hatchet and voiced his hope that his new project would disabuse fans of the notion that Talking Heads would have been nothing without its frontman. He also mentioned the lighting scheme of Stop Making Sense, which was directed by Academy Award winner Jonathan Demme. "The cameras spent most of their time on the singers, leaving the rest of us literally in the dark for large periods of time," Harrison said. "It tended to cast Chris and Tina and I in the shadows."
Such observations leave Byrne steaming, but what truly sets him off is the way Harrison characterized Byrne's reaction to the Heads. As Harrison tells it, the three other members of the band decided "that it was silly to believe that we couldn't play together just because David didn't want to join us." For that reason, they formed the Heads and recorded an album, No Talking Just Head, whose cover recalled the sleeves of a pair of previous full-lengths, Talking Heads 77 and The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads. Byrne responded to these moves by filing a lawsuit intended the stop the Heads from recording and performing live under their not-quite-original appellation. The matter was eventually dropped, and although Harrison was happy that litigation was avoided, he expressed disappointment that Byrne sicced his attorney on his onetime cohorts rather than huddling with them to work out the dispute. "I think we could have done it ourselves, but we didn't," he asserted.
To Byrne, this version of events bears no relation to reality. "I did call them up," he says, "and every time I did and said, 'I want to talk to you about this,' they'd say, 'David, we don't want to talk to you unless you want to talk about getting back together.' So there was no way to say anything. What the hell do you do? It was like, 'If you don't have good news, I can't talk to you.' Well, I didn't have good news, but at least we could have sat down and talked. But they wouldn't."
Given the pettiness of disagreements like these, it's instructive to recall that Talking Heads began as a band of friends. Byrne and Frantz started performing as the Artistic during the early Seventies, when both were students at the Rhode Island School of Design. Weymouth, another RISD enrollee, loved the group, and before long, she and Frantz were personally involved. After the pair graduated, they moved with Byrne into a New York City apartment and formed Talking Heads.
The band debuted in 1975 at CBGB's, ground zero for the American punk movement, and was soon lumped in with bands like the Ramones, with which it had little in common. But Talking Heads benefited from the comparisons nonetheless. In late 1976, the three signed a contract with Sire Records, and after adding Harrison, once a part of Jonathan Richman's Modern Lovers, to fill out their sound, they recorded Talking Heads 77, among the best-reviewed platters to come out of the era's New York underground. The album had a much thinner sound than did its successors, but it remains a first-rate offering thanks to great songs like "Psycho Killer," which convinced an entire generation that Byrne had only a tenuous grasp on sanity. So expert was his portrayal of a man with a couple of loose hinges that it would take years for most people to discover he was merely playing a role.
During the next three years, Talking Heads issued the discs on which its reputation is founded: 1978's More Songs About Buildings and Food, 1979's Fear of Music and 1980's Remain In Light. These often-brilliant efforts, which merged elements as disparate as art-rock and African beats into a daring and provocative whole, were produced by Brian Eno, and it was Byrne's increasingly close working partnership with this Roxy Music veteran turned conceptual auteur that led to the group's first major schism. A 1981 Byrne-Eno collaboration, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, provoked Frantz and Weymouth to form their own band, Tom Tom Club, which scored hits with "Wordy Rappinghood" and "Genius of Love." Around the same period, Harrison weighed in with a disc called The Red and the Black.