David Byrne at the Ear Inn

More talk about buildings and food and Big Suits and Brian Eno and Richard Avedon and Twyla Tharp and Patti Smith and ...

Topics: Patti Smith,

I was the original singer of the Talking Heads. My childhood pal, David Byrne, was just the guitarist. During our first gig at CBGB in 1975, I bounced up to the microphone and opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Stage fright. Byrne quickly stuck his head over and sang, “I can’t seem to face up to the facts/I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax.” He paused, then glanced over to see if I could take it from there. Nope, still frozen. So Byrne continued singing, “Psycho killer, q’est-ce que c’est?” And the rest is “fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa” history …

None of the above is true. If Ronald Reagan’s biographer, Edmund Morris, can fictionalize his relationship with the Gipper, why can’t I do the same with David Byrne? I am in the middle of writing a history of Byrne’s old band, the Talking Heads, for Morrow. I recently met him for lunch in New York City at the Ear Inn, a bar lodged inside a two-story brick building called “The James Brown House.” Not that James Brown. This structure was built by another James Brown in 1817. I believe this is the oldest functioning bar in New York.

Shortly after I arrive, Byrne pedals up on a bicycle out front. He is very trim. He has all his hair, which is a little spiky. He is dressed in casual cottons — dark colors. He didn’t shave this morning. I suspect if he grew a beard it would come in gray. We walk in. The joint is dim, but noisy and friendly. A half-dozen hipsters slouch at the bar drinking pints. Johnny Cash plays on the sound system. The floor is so old you can feel the wood absorb your footsteps like carpet. We take our seats and he signals the waitress (a dead ringer for Myrna Loy).

“I like arugula,” he says, then pauses. “And I like watercress salad.” Pauses. “I don’t want the turkey.” Pauses. “Or the eggs.” I suddenly realize his inflection and rhythms are reminiscent of the preacher’s cadence in the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime”: “You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack” … eating arugula salad.

The waitress assures him that he can customize the salad. This is a good thing. “You’re not a vegetarian, are you?” I ask.

“No. I am not a vegetarian,” he answers. Good. “I have been a vegetarian on and off,” he says. “How about you — have you been a vegetarian on and off, from time to time, ever?”

I tell him no. I tell him that I pretty much only eat meat.

“You mean no vegetables? No breads? No grains?” he asks, both alarmed and intrigued, as if I were the one who had just stepped off a spaceship.

“Grains are cool,” I answer. Then I ask if he ever met Owsley, the old LSD guru from the 1960s. Byrne says that he saw him at a Grateful Dead concert once. I tell Byrne that Owsley supposedly only eats meat, following a complicated nutritional philosophy. This inspires Byrne to begin talking about … pig meat: “I was in Spain for the early part of this summer and my Spanish friends said, ‘You’ll never believe it. Our ham. Not the Italian ham. Not the other ham. Our ham. The fat is good for you. The fat in our ham is better for you than olive oil. Really.’ They treat their hams like caviar. They have pigs that only eat acorns off a certain tree. Their meat is really dark and nutty.”

The waitress returns for drink orders. He orders a Boddingtons. I order coffee, thinking, Good: He eats meat and he drinks!

I bring up the rerelease of the excellent Talking Heads concert film, “Stop Making Sense,” directed by Jonathan Demme. Much has been written about how this film presents a Talking Heads performance as a seamless avant-garde theater piece. As our drinks come, I ask Byrne if he has been hammered by questions from the press (as if I’m not the press).

“Yes. I get the same ones quite a lot,” he says, sipping his Boddingtons. “They ask, ‘Why a big suit? Why are you rereleasing this movie? When are you guys going to regroup?’ My answer to the last question is always, ‘We’re not gonna.’ Later on it comes back, ‘So. Well. Why don’t you get back together? Why don’t you do one of those reunion things?’ They just keep hammering at you. ‘So why don’t you get along?’ Which is — as Elliot Roberts, my old manager, says — it’s like you’ve had a real painful divorce and they want you to relive that pain for them. ‘Let me see you bleed again! Do it for me!’”

I tell Byrne that when I interviewed Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth (the husband-and-wife members of the Tom Tom Club and Talking Heads), they both suggested the Talking Heads will get together when the group is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“Oh really?” Byrne says, raising his eyebrows. “Ah-ummm. The ceremony is televised. Now it’s choreographed and done like a television show. Before it was sloppy and people would get up and play — and nobody saw it except your peers.” He pauses. “You know, once I would probably do it, but now I don’t think so.”

The movie “Stop Making Sense” begins with Byrne singing “Psycho Killer” to a boombox. Then, song by song, one by one, the other band members (and additional musicians) take the stage, to play the band’s African-influenced funk music — “Burning Down the House,” etc. At the climax of the concert, Byrne dons what has been popularly called the “Big Suit” — a huge white suit jacket with football-player-broad shoulders - in which he looks like a scarecrow designed by Edvard Munch.

“Did you invent the Big Suit in Japan?” I ask.

“Yes. I was in Tokyo around 1983. I had just met a fashion designer named Bonnie Lutz.” He smiles and says, “I was smitten with her.”

“Was she smitten with you?” (Lutz is now married to Byrne.)

He looks away. “I think she thought I was bizarre. I was painfully shy.” Byrne then tells me they were having dinner at a restaurant with another fashion designer, a German.

“A Japanese restaurant in Japan?”

“Yes,” he says, adding, “later, for a joke I’d go to a Japanese French restaurant or whatever. The food was good, but there was always something a little bizarre about it. There are Japanese Italian restaurants where they serve the pasta with fish eggs on it.”

Byrne told the German that on the next Talking Heads tour, Byrne should have a costume. “The German made a pronouncement,” Byrne recalls, then starts speaking in a guttural voice, “‘Well David, in the theater everything is bigger than real life.’ I think that was all he said. He didn’t say, ‘You should have a big suit.’ When I had time I would go to a Kabuki theater performance or a noh theater performance or sumo wrestling, just to see all the Japanese stuff. I drew this thing that looked like a Kabuki costume, which is also very rectangular. And the person’s head looks like a very small ball. But I thought, What if you take that kind of silhouette, but put it in a Western business suit? I became fascinated with the idea of taking things that look very everyday or commonplace and stretching that in some way, rather than making something totally fantastic and imaginary. I like to restrict myself, OK? It has to look like a suit, even if it’s pink fur. It makes reference to the businessman. It has some kind of psychological meaning besides being a costume. He is lost in his suit. Or his suit is swallowing him. It implies all these other things that a wild fantasy costume wouldn’t say.”

“I’ve only seen ‘Stop Making Sense’ on video,” I tell Byrne. “The thing that struck me is that the Big Suit doesn’t seem so big in 1999. If I saw someone wearing it on the New York street, I wouldn’t look twice.”

“Yeah, with the whole extra-large look — baggy pants,” Byrne says. He abruptly stops Myrna Loy, our waitress, as she’s walking by. “Can we order some food?” She takes out her pad. “I want to get an arugula salad,” he instructs her.

“Without the turkey,” she remembers.

“And catfish,” Byrne adds.

“The catfish will come with a small salad and home fries.”

“Sounds great,” Byrne says.

I order a cheddar omelet and bowl of chili. Jerry Jeff Walker has been playing on the tape system. I’m feelin’ Texan.

“The Big Suit wasn’t the first time you did Robert Wilson-style performance pieces,” I say. “When you were in art school in Rhode Island, didn’t you shave off your beard with beer and bleed all over the stage?”

He thinks for a moment. “I don’t know if I shaved with beer, but I did cut myself.”

“And at the same time, a girl was showing cue cards written in Russian?”

He nods. I ask, “The movie documents the last time the band played live. But I heard that you wanted the Talking Heads to perform songs from the film you directed, ‘True Stories,’ at drive-in movie theaters around the South. Is that true?”

Byrne nods. “There were so many of them — out of commission. These just kind of empty spaces. It would be fun to play there and have people drive in. Roll down their windows. Sit on the hood of their car or whatever — sit on their lawn chairs. And we’d play a show.”

He laughs. (Byrne’s laugh is not a chuckle or guffaw. It resembles the laugh of a very intelligent child who is quietly mischievous and doesn’t want his parents to hear.)

“You were serious about this enterprise?” I ask.

“Serious enough that we did a budget. We found that you would have had to bring in a whole bunch of stuff. Drive-ins don’t have any kind of sound system other than those little crappy speakers. It seemed to be too expensive.”

Our food arrives. Unlike fancy joints, this restaurant makes you forget you’re in a restaurant. Maybe it’s Myrna Loy bringing your food. Maybe your mom. Maybe your wife, June Cleaver. Byrne’s beer is singing, “Drink me! Drink me!” from across the table. “Do you care what people write about you?” I ask to get the beer to shut up.

“Probably,” Byrne answers, then adds, “I wish I could say no. But the truthful answer is I probably do. And it wasn’t until recently that I learned not to read reviews of, say, a new record or live shows when I’m on the road. It affects me and I would get emotional about it.” He takes a bite. “It’s really difficult because sometimes a genuine critic can talk about your work — whether it’s a performance or a record — and give you creative criticism. If you haven’t done something well they can help you find out why. They can push you to do something better next time. But just as often they’ve got some other kind of weird agenda and their comments are totally twisted.”

We eat in silence for a bit. “Do you read rock biographies?” I ask.

“Not that often. Once in a while,” he answers. “The last one I read was ‘Generation Ecstasy,’ all about the British rave scene. It had little mini-biographies in it. I read the Miles Davis biography several years ago. And the Mingus one. I like oral biographies like the one of Edie Sedgwick” — the Andy Warhol model and the subject of the Bob Dylan song “Just Like a Woman.”

“Do you think there is value in them?” I ask — because I’ve wondered why Byrne is cooperating with my book on the Talking Heads.

“I once derived tremendous inspiration from reading how other performers and artists got through their lives,” he says. “I was wondering, How did this person do this? What’s their attitude toward living? How do they make life decisions in this kind of work? It’s not like a 9-to-5 job. It’s not, I’ll just go and do my job and come home. You have to figure it out yourself. They don’t teach you it in school. They get you started with the rudiments, but then you’re on your own.”

We eat a bit, then he asks, “How is your book doing?” He pauses. “My help is not contingent on what you say,” he adds. Good. “I mean how is it going? Are there big gaping holes? Is it falling into shape?”

I tell him the book is going fine. Brian Eno is the only one who won’t cooperate.

“That’s understandable in some ways,” he says thoughtfully. “But in other ways when he starts talking you can’t stop him.”

I tell him that I think the new Victor Bockris biography of Patti Smith is a real cut-and-paste slam job. “Do you know Patti Smith very well?” I ask.

“No,” he answers. “I met her a couple of times and that’s about it. Talking Heads used to see her play all the time. It was great. But I think she felt we were sort of arty and pretentious or something. We didn’t have that rock ‘n’ roll romantic thing that she had. Maybe she felt that we didn’t hold any of those values.” He takes a bite of food, and adds, “Lenny Kaye, who was with her since day one, was real supportive of us. He saw one of our first shows and started calling other people to come see us.”

I reach out and touch his sleeve. “I want to be your Victor Bockris.” Byrne laughs — a wicked child laugh. He knows I’m making a sinister joke — Bockris seems rather sleazy. I then mention dancer Twyla Tharp’s 1992 autobiography, “Push Comes to Shove.” In it she reveals her affair with Byrne in 1981, during the period when they were working on “The Catherine Wheel.” I ask if she sent him a manuscript of her autobiography. Or was it a surprise to see himself mentioned?

“She didn’t send me a manuscript. I wondered if she was going to say something about me in it.”

“Were you surprised that she did?”

“I thought the things she said were discreet and even-tempered. Very understanding. Our relationship crossed over the line from professional into personal. That’s just sometimes inevitable. And sometimes it’s not always good.”

“Did you really court your wife at sumo wrestling matches?” I ask.

“Bonnie and I went to some sumo matches,” he says. “They’re really fascinating because when you go to a sumo wrestling match, at least half the time is spent in Shinto ritual. Actually the wresting is just boom, boom, boom, boom, boom — it’s over. Fifteen seconds or so. But there is all this elaborate ritual. The salt being thrown up in the air. And the priest coming in with this huge conical hat. And this indoor arena like a basketball court, but hung up around it are giant portraits of all the sumo families. It’s medieval. And sumo is a dining experience. You sit in little stalls on teeny tiny tatami mats on the floor. There are no chairs or anything. You can order all kinds of food. Eel and rice. It’s not just beer and popcorn.”

I unconsciously eye his beer. The glass is more empty than full, but what’s left still sings, “Drink me! Drink me!”

“You’ve been married for more than a decade,” I say. “How much has married life changed you?”

“It’s wonderful,” he answers. “But I’m also constantly conflicted about it. I see myself as this free creative spirit — and my image of married life is not what my married life is like. My mental image is something boring and conservative and completely, diametrically opposed to the free creative spirit that I am.” He says this with no irony. “So all those mental pictures are in conflict.”

“You’re been married for more than 10 years?”

“Yes,” he answers.

“The seven-year itch is long gone, buddy,” I tell him. “Here you are married and the owner of a record company, Luaka Bop. It’s like you’re now in Seymour Stein’s shoes,” I say, referring to the president of Sire records, who was a guiding force in the Talking Heads’ career.

“Sort of,” Byrne admits. “Artists — some young, some not so young — hope that you’re going to facilitate their career and you’re not going to do things behind their back. You deal with all those same hopes and frustrations and things that these artists go through.” He finishes his beer — down the hatch — and says, “Just yesterday … I had this emotionally wrenching discussion with an artist we have on the label who feels that we’ve disrespected him. We’ve been unjust to him. How come he’s never seen any money from his record sales?” Byrne pauses. “Well, the guy doesn’t have any record sales to speak of.”

“We try to have him do a record in a serious way as opposed to a lot of, quote, ‘world music artists,’ who go into the studio and are told, ‘OK. We have one day. Play all your songs. And tomorrow we’re going to mix them all.’ And the record always sounds like it was done that way. We wanted to treat our artists as you would treat any other artist. ‘Well, we’re going to make a record. If you can sell this number of copies we can afford to pay this much for a record’ — but realistically they’re not going to see royalties unless they sell above a certain mark. It’s a painful thing. I’m not used to dealing with that thing with artists.” He sighs. “I would love it to be simpler and it’s not.”

“Your natural sympathy is with artists,” I say. “But are there times when your sympathies are closer to those of management?”

“Oh yeah,” he says with a sad smile. “The stubbornness and bullheadedness. It’s always easier to give advice than to take it.”

“You remember all those interviews you did in the late 1970s when you railed against Tony Bongiovi, the producer of the first pre-Brian Eno Talking Heads album, ‘Talking Heads 77′? Lately it seems you’ve mellowed.”

“We didn’t know anything about making records back then,” Byrne says. “And I’m sure Tony was trying to make our songs a little more accessible. I figure, in retrospect, the poor guy took a lot of shit from us that at the time I thought was totally justified. The poor guy was just trying to help some kids make a record!”

Myrna Loy brings the check. Byrne makes for his wallet. I take the check and say, “In photos of yourself in your early 20s you look …” I pause, then mutter, “a little geeky. But then several years later, in photographs by Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton, you’re as beautiful as Gary Cooper. Did something in you click and you suddenly knew how to pose?”

“When the band was starting, I would get wrapped up in different ways of dressing. Leather pants one year. Dyed hair another year. Whatever. I was kind of naive about deportment. The whole thing of being onstage and presenting yourself — being this adjunct to the music — I didn’t have a grasp of it. It’s artificial in the same way that any acting or stage performances are artificial. But if you know how to do it, it’s telling the same story as your other work. It’s not like Robert Redford, who looks the same no matter what movie he’s in. You never feel like he inhabits a role.”

We head outside.

“As for Richard Avedon,” he continues. “I just thought, I’m going to get my picture taken by Richard Avedon so I’m going to look as good as I possibly can. I was so totally bowled over that I probably lost all sense of my own personal direction.” He mounts his bicycle. “Helmut Newton didn’t seem like anything. He’s known for pictures that to me are elaborate setups and electric lighting things, with the girls in their costumes and all the other stuff, but when he was doing my portrait it was like, ‘David, the light is very nice. Just stand there for a second.’ Click. ‘That’s great.’”

Before Byrne rides away I ask, “Have you ever done portraits yourself?”

“I did some in art school. I did some Polaroids with the Talking Heads. I haven’t tried it since.” He eyes traffic. “One part of it has nothing to do with photography. It’s relaxing the subject. And then, boom, getting a million shots and hoping you’re getting the one that’s right. There are so many people striving to do that, yet put their personal stamp on the photo. It’s kind of a crowded field. I don’t think I’m going to go in there.”

“But you take photos for the family photo album, don’t you?” I ask. He does. “Can you separate the artist from the …”

“Yes,” he assures me.

And just before he pedals down the street he says, “I pull those out. Those don’t get filed with the art pictures.”

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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