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Squawking Head

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.

A tenuous detente was reached on the 1983 Talking Heads effort Speaking in Tongues, in which Eno did not participate, but the Stop Making Sense flick of the next year pretty much shattered it. During the Eighties, the act managed just two more studio LPs (1985's Little Creatures and 1988's Naked) and an album of songs from True Stories, a 1986 film in which Byrne attempted, without much luck, to reinvent himself as a director and movie star. When Byrne declined to join Weymouth, Frantz and Harrison for a 1991 tour that included CBGB regulars like Deborah Harry, Talking Heads' doom was sealed.

Going out into the big, bad world alone was no problem for Byrne, who had for years seemed more passionate about his side projects than about the quartet that had made him famous. Before Talking Heads' breakup became official, he had created the music for the 1981 Twyla Tharp ballet The Catherine Wheel, produced the B-52's EP Mesopotamia, penned material (collected on Music for the Knee Plays) for the Robert Wilson stage epic The CIVIL warS, won an Academy Award for his contributions to the soundtrack of 1987's The Last Emperor, wrote a classical score for Wilson's 1988 opus The Forest, assembled a cadre of Brazilian musicians for the Latin-dance- flavored 1989 platter Rei Momo, and formed Luaka Bop, a record label dedicated to world music. (A profile of a Luaka Bop signee, Zap Mama, appears on page 74).

Many of these works earned Byrne acclaim and enhanced his prestige, but none of them hit home with mass audiences. Many reviewers of Rei Momo accused Byrne of being a cultural hijacker--charges that Byrne shrugs off. "That's like calling T.S. Eliot a dilettante because his real job was working in a bank--so he obviously can't be taking this hobby of his very seriously," says Byrne. "But I don't think anybody believes that kind of thing anymore. After all, nobody evaluates T.S. Eliot on how good a banker he was." He adds, "Rei Momo was not embraced here, but it was perceived completely differently in other parts of the world. Elsewhere, it was considered a great dance record--which just goes to show that the United States is not the same as everywhere else."

Perhaps not, but in America, Byrne's dabblings, some of which resembled novelty songs, were rejected by Talking Heads boosters. So, too, was 1992's Uh-Oh, an album that lacked the intensity and focus of his best work. And even though 1994's David Byrne, which rejected horn sections and the like in favor of a harder, more guitar-oriented attack, was a vast improvement, his loss of momentum guaranteed that most of its pressing would wind up in the bargain bins.

Feelings seems unlikely to reverse Byrne's fortunes, despite its fabulous art design. The package's dominant image is a David Byrne doll that displays what Byrne describes as the four feelings of which he is capable: "Happiness, sadness, anger and numb--which I guess is the lack of any feelings at all." But the ditties on it, though professionally rendered and consistently intelligent, are far from outstanding. The single, "Miss America," is yet another modified samba, and mood pieces such as "A Soft Seduction" and "You Don't Know Me" meander to little purpose. And while "Fine = Alright," built upon Peter Scherer's Wurlitzer, "Wicked Little Doll," co-produced by Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, and "They Are in Love," featuring the Black Cat Orchestra, are pleasantly creepy, their affectations prevent them from making much of an impact. Likewise, the handful of tracks produced by the members of Morcheeba, who were profiled in Westword earlier this year ("Name That Style," March 20), fail to establish Byrne as a man on the cutting edge. They do not sound as trip-hoppy as might have been expected under the circumstances, but neither do they display a style of their own. "Fuzzy Freaky," for one, suggests mid-Eighties Talking Heads filler.  

Predictably, Byrne does not share these opinions. To him, the variety of genres he tackles on Feelings is representative of what's happening in the music scene as a whole. "There's an upheaval going on that's really great," he says. "I hear great music in clubs in New York and England and other places as well. A lot of it's not being played on the radio yet, and maybe it won't be played for another ten years, but it will. The categories are being torn down, for at least a minute or so, and you're getting mixtures of hip-hop with rock and jungle with country and ambient with folk and all kinds of stuff. There aren't radio categories for all these things, but the artists are saying, 'We don't care. This is the world we live in.' And that's the way I see it, too."

Byrne suspects that listeners would embrace these adventurous hybrids, including his own, if only they got the chance to hear them; as proof, he offers the reactions of audiences at his recent series of concerts, which have been, according to him, "pretty amazing. People have been on their feet a lot. And even though we're doing some older stuff, we've updated it so it sounds a lot more contemporary. It sounds like it was written yesterday."

Not that yesterday is a place to which Byrne would like to return. He knows that he would immediately receive a great deal of attention if only he would kiss and make up with the Heads, but he's adamant about his unwillingness to do so. "Chris and Tina, especially, would berate me and tell me how horrible I was, and then after berating me for an hour, they'd say, 'So, David, let's get back together.' And I'd be like, 'Wait a minute. I'm the wife who's just been beaten up, and now my husband is telling me how much he loves me and how we should stay together?' Well, I'm not stupid. I'm getting out.

"You can believe whatever you want to believe. But in the end, marriages fail. Everybody on both sides has terrible stories to tell about the other side, but what difference does it make, really? It's over."

David Byrne. 7:30 p.m. Monday, August 25, Paramount Theatre, 1631 Glenarm Place, $23.50, 623-0106 or 830-


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