Burning down the house

A definitive new box set will proclaim the eclectic greatness of Talking Heads when the ugliness between David Byrne and Tina Weymouth has long been forgotten.

Published December 3, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

The pages of "Anna Karenina" contain Tolstoy's renowned quip, "All happy families resemble one another while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." His platitude also applies to those artificial family-like groupings called rock bands.

Consider Talking Heads. Led by art school dropout David Byrne, and manned by Army brats Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, as well as Harvard architectural graduate Jerry Harrison, Talking Heads' repertoire included everything from edgy love songs about Washington bureaucracy to African-influenced techno chants that could turn one's ears into savannas and jungles. Although Mick Jagger and Keith Richards started out as art students like Tina and Chris, the Rolling Stones never wrote a song called "Artists Only" that began with the line "I'm painting again!"

Talking Heads were born of the punk movement, but with their Brady Bunch haircuts and Lacoste shirts, they were obviously not of that brood. The band was also present at the birth of rock videos, yet they transcended the limits of MTV lip-sync fodder, instead producing videos that were the rock 'n' roll equivalent of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's surrealistic masterpiece "L'Age d'Or." Then there was David Byrne's "big suit." Byrne, normally the hipster generation's answer to Mister Rogers, would lumber onstage wearing a white suit padded to the size of a sumo wrestler, then sing, "Who took the money? Who took the money away?"

While your parents never knew that the Beatles almost broke up three or four times before they actually did, the members of Talking Heads aired their dirty laundry in public all the time. At the time of their first album, "Talking Heads '77," we all learned that Weymouth was a bass prodigy who only first began playing her instrument a few months before the band played in public. We also learned that after the band got a record contract David Byrne heartlessly made Tina re-audition. (Apparently she passed.)

Several years later, after the group began working with musical savant (and former art school student) Brian Eno, Weymouth bitterly remarked, "By the time Brian and David finished working together for three months, they were dressing like one another. I can see them when they're 80 years old and all alone. There'll be David Bowie, David Byrne and Brian Eno, and they'll just talk to each other." Doesn't that sound like something best said after your group has broken up?

Fans were surprised that Talking Heads lasted as long as they did. We wouldn't have been surprised to learn about such backstage backstabbing as Weymouth trying to pull a coup d'état by pleading with visiting guitarist Adrian Belew to replace Byrne as the band's singer. Belew wisely declined. On the other hand, in the early 1980s a Czech reporter surprised Weymouth by asking, "How do you feel now about the fact that David has announced he's leaving the group?" This was news to her. Byrne later changed his mind, but it came as no surprise that when he finally broke the band up for good in 1991, he did it in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

I dredge this up because the first Talking Heads box set, "Once in a Lifetime," has just arrived, and already the publicity wheels are turning to sanitize the band's history. Before anything more is said here, it must be pointed out that as an object "Once in a Lifetime" is the most intriguing box set ever created. Rather than some squat Kleenex box, it is a long rectangle the width of three CDs placed side by side, with a cover graced by a poppish painting by Vladimir Dubosarsky and Alexander Vinogradov of a baby among gentle wolf puppies. Inside the booklet are full-frontal nudes of naked suburban men and women, along with a smiling boy whose genitals are bleeding down his leg. On another page, a wolf triumphantly clutches the severed arm of another boy in his jaws. As we will soon see, this is the story of Talking Heads in a nutshell.

Interestingly, Rhino reports that the band was only gingerly involved in this deceptively psychotic package design. Mutilation aside, the box is a reminder that Talking Heads used to spend as much energy creating album covers as they did on recording the records themselves. Byrne and Weymouth labored together to create the mosaic of 529 Polaroids for the cover to the band's second album, "More Songs About Buildings and Food." Several years later, Jerry Harrison spent six months trying to find someone to manufacture the cover that artist Robert Rauschenberg had created for "Speaking in Tongues." Harrison finally found a company in Minneapolis that could do it -- it manufactured Oscar Mayer wiener packages.

As for the music in the box, the 55 tracks demonstrate that Talking Heads followed through on the Beatles-Dylan tenet that a band should change musical directions at least several times in its career. The box contains their early minimalist terse-titled numbers like "Pulled Up" and "No Compassion" as well as their brittle funk cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" and the neo-Eno-psychedelia of songs like "Drugs" to the neo-Funkadelic "Burning Down the House" to the simple pop of later Heads tracks like "Creatures of Love." Byrne once said, "I think Talking Heads can be as popular as the Carpenters." As unlikely as this goal seemed at the time, the box shows the band almost was.

The box set isn't a complete history, however. In their time, the songs on the Eno-Byrne album "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts," as well as the songs Byrne wrote (with production assistance from Jerry Harrison) for choreographer Twyla Tharp's "The Catherine Wheel," fit perfectly with Talking Heads' songs. Even the Shaggs-adelic record Weymouth made with her sisters, "The Tom Tom Club," goes well with some of the cartoonish songs from "Little Creatures." What's missing is worth mentioning because for 30 years now "greatest hits" collections have had as much credibility as original albums. In the early 1970s, the kids too young to have bought Beatles records snatched up "Beatles, 1962-1966" and "Beatles 1967-1970." Later, listeners too cheap to buy all the Eagles' albums made their "Greatest Hits Vol. 1" one of the best-selling records of all times. Lou Reed has almost as many "greatest hits" albums as full-fledged releases. The first R.E.M. record our children buy is likely to be a greatest hits collection as well.

At least the Heads' box set negates their 1992 contractual "greatest hits" obligation, "Popular Favorites: Sand in the Vaseline." All the former's new "extra" cuts are included in the new box, including the jagged-sounding early CBGB numbers recorded before Harrison joined the band. The box set's new "alternate versions" archaeology isn't as exciting as, say, Bob Dylan's "official" bootleg series. There is no Talking Heads equivalent of "Series of Dreams." Saying this, I must reveal that in 1999, I sold all my Talking Heads vinyl and CDs to Bleecker Bob's in Greenwich Village. I now gladly welcome Talking Heads back into my CD shelf with this definitive collection.

I tossed my Heads after having lunch with Tina Weymouth. At the time, I was writing a history of her old band, and her poisonous memories of the band's divorce finally made it impossible for me to listen to Talking Heads anymore. I mean, we all know about Paul McCartney and John Lennon's post-Beatles squabbles. John sang to Paul, "How do you sleep at night?" and 30 years later Paul reversed the Lennon-McCartney credits on songs that he wrote by himself. But neither one tried to reform the Beatles without the other, as Weymouth did in 1994 when she wanted to restart Talking Heads without Byrne. Neither John nor Paul ever accused the other of being autistic. In the late 1990s, Weymouth even reportedly called several old friends in the middle of the night to tell them that Byrne had a "baby penis."

While we were at lunch, Weymouth announced that she had heard David Byrne was a murderer. And she wasn't talking about his song that goes "Psycho killer, q'est-ce que c'est?" No. She heard at a party that Byrne had killed a boy in Brazil using voodoo. She wanted us to play Hardy Boys and solve the case. "David is a vampire, in a way," she told me. "Watch out for the autism. It might be something much more complex. Psychics have seen him and they say he just has a firewall around him."

Talking Heads fans generally don't take kindly to dumping on Weymouth, but she really is the Lady Macbeth of rock. I find her the kind of tragic anti-heroine who is rarely investigated in pop music histories. It's not that I see her as some kind of shrew. Rather, I like to picture her as a slim, naked, green angel. I never saw her this way, but more than a few former Rhode Island School of Design students remember Weymouth showing up at an art opening naked, her body covered with green paint. I think there is something sweetly innocent about that.

She recalled her first real meeting with David Byrne by telling me, "I went to visit him in his apartment in Providence, which was a pigsty. There were all these clothes strewn about. There was also a corset and white vinyl boots. 'Whose are those?'" she asked. "David said, 'Mine.' I said, 'It can't be. Prove it to me.' David went behind a wall and dressed in drag." She made no judgments about Byrne's propensity for cross-dressing. "Back then," she told me, "David was kind of fun."

Lee Blake, a friend of the band from its early days, told me, "People ask me over and over, 'What's the matter with the two of them?' I say, 'Tina's always been in love with David.' Maybe now she wants to destroy him rather than have him not be hers." Another witness, an old girlfriend of Byrne's named Mary Clark, believes, "Tina's obsession is just a control issue. She saw a loss of her own power, the more powerful David became."

When Seymour Stein -- who would sign Talking Heads to Sire Records -- first saw the band playing at CBGB, he said, "I was mesmerized. I saw this girl [Weymouth] -- and she looked like a Keane painting come to life because her eyes were so blown up -- transfixed on David. She was watching his every move. I thought mistakenly that they were together." He then added, "Not that I gave it much thought, because it was the music and David standing there -- great guitar player, that quirky voice and those lyrics one after another, and everything."

Again Byrne eclipsed Weymouth. She responded by telling anyone who would listen, "David takes the most obvious thing, and people all go, 'Genius! Genius!'" When you hear her say that in person, her voice rings with utter contempt.

Post-breakup, Byrne has rarely bad-mouthed Weymouth in the press, although I suspect this was for legal reasons. While I was interviewing Byrne, I said something unprintable about Weymouth, and Byrne just stared at the tape recorder and raised his right eyebrow. The only time I saw Byrne get visibly angry concerning her was when he described a letter Weymouth wrote him in 1996.

"I'd get these bizarre letters from Tina," he said, gritting his teeth. "They'd say what a fucking dumb jerk and asshole piece of shit I was. It would go into detail how badly I'd behaved. What a terrible person I was. How hard I was to work with. How unfair I was. It was this thing meant to make me feel real terrible and how much 'I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.' And then in the end she'd go, 'Why don't you want to work with us? Why in the world don't you want to work with us? What's the matter?'" Byrne paused and sighed. "You've answered the question. Look at the beginning of your letter, look at the end. You've answered it. There is some kind of weird denial going on."

In the end, Talking Heads' box set is a testament to music that transcends even the most sordid history. It also includes a DVD that contains all the band's videos, including the trademark image of a deadpan Byrne slapping his own forehead and intoning, "Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was ..." John Cale, once fired from the Velvet Underground by Lou Reed, told me this about Talking Heads: "The incredible nature of the band at the time [was that] everybody looked at them and wondered what exactly held them together. That's kind of a really cool cinematic thing about them; the best thing about cinema is when the audience is just incredulous about the plot and the story line of the film. And you think, 'This can't possibly be true.' And you follow it and you believe it and you buy it. The charm of Talking Heads was the same way. 'This can't possibly be true.'"

By David Bowman

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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