Born today 62 years ago, David Byrne was my main man, musically speaking, in the years 1979-83. As front-man for Talking Heads he had the best job in the world, as far as I was concerned. What a great sound, what an adventurous approach to rock/pop songs. The eclipse after 1983 wasn’t precipitate, but R.E.M. made the scene and changed my allegiances a bit. Fickle, we twenty-somethings. There was that whole new, grungier onslaught of American bands—The Replacements spring to mind—and the Brits provided the likes of Echo & the Bunnymen, The Smiths, Mekons.
The Heads kept it together and kept it interesting up till 1988, but the bloom was off the privy, er, lily. I mean, though, that there were cracks in band unity—that usually fictional construct that gets swept under or into carpets or closets during the “make it or break it” years and then rears its multi-purpose head later. Plus our man Byrne, like the New Wave Renaissance Man he were, was into things like Twyla Twarp and her dance works, and then he made a movie and such. Rock band? How quaint.
More power to him, as Byrne, who went for a bit to RISD and went for a bit to MICA, brought artsyness to rock legitimately. Then, too, paling with his buddy (tomorrow’s birthday boy) Brian Eno, he was clearly into the conceptual side of all this. So, what song to pay tribute with?
I’ve decided against the Seventies TH, and even the Eighties TH—though I was tempted to revisit “Road to Nowhere” or maybe “’Burning Down the House,” both of which might inspire some reflection on where I was when. Indeed, if I were to compile a greatest ever of the Heads it would not unduly slant toward the era of their starting out. In fact, I did compile a tape for KDB in the Nineties, toward the end of her gig in high school, called “Heads of the Class,” heh. Bet it’s pretty good.
Anyway, I grabbed from the first and only solo album by Byrne I bought. It was one of those serendipitous things. You see, once upon a time there were these shops called Borders, and therein one could find books printed on woodpulp and songs encoded onto discs read by lazers. The store featured headphones attached to wall units—disc players we called them—that would play a featured disc. One day in the spring of 2001 I was in one of these stores (they were called “stores” because they actually “stored” all this stuff for purchase and perusal) and availed myself of this—then—fairly infrequent set-up: and what I heard was the newly released album by my former main man called Look into the Eyeball. Was I overcome by nostalgia? Was I bored with the beguine? I can’t say, but I will say that the album by R.E.M. that summer suggested that the sheen was off the shiny new people and mayhap it was time to return to former glories. Whatever.
This album is a gem. It’s got everything I loved about Byrne way back when. The quirky vocals—can anyone speak of Byrne for more than 20 words and not use the word “quirky”—the oddball lyrics that give the kind of pleasures I used to get from Dr. Seuss (a weird mind is not exactly revealed but it is put on display), and the whole vast array of instrumental diversity in its best sense, creating rhythms meant to be tapped to or danced to or whatever you do to express your awareness that rhythm is happening to you.
The song for today is the lead-off song and a song I placed on tapes and playlists galore. In my relation to its lyrics I sometimes felt I was saying something, other times not. But in each case I felt I was giving a classic driving song. Get behind the wheel—or in the passenger’s seat, or even the train or plane seat I guess—and let the space you pass through unroll. “Baby, you are the only car I drive,” though, makes me think you can’t hear this song in a state of passivity. You’ve got to be at the wheel for full effect.
There are many great throwaways about “Jesus” of which the best might be: “Jesus’ll kill you if you don’t get along.” But the part I really loved—besides the notion that “U. B. [you be] Jesus”—is the Shine on, sister / Don’t need a book to put your hand in the fire / Shine on, sister / Come on in ‘cause it’s cold outside. It’s an invite to get down, sure, but it’s an invite couched in let’s celebrate this thing terms. It could just be a party invite. Until: “Said, kiss me / Kiss me.”
Byrne was known as the nerdy Asperger rocker. To hear him being even a little bit of a horn dog was refreshing.
And this part: Maybe I’m gonna fry in hell / But I feel good when I burn myself / In a smoky place, in my girlfriend’s car / Threw out the map when we drove too far. That’s got the what the hell, fuck it, vibe that goes so well with spring and summer, doesn’t it? What, me worry? And I always heard it as “I feel good when I’m by myself,” which is was and I hope always will be true. When I burn myself? Well…
Still, it is a friendly song. Even Jesus seems funky as imagined here. “Hey, be my savior.” Sure, dude. And, just because it’s so much fun to say: “Space boy / Fly girl / Livin’ in the underground.”
Maybe I should get around to getting some of those other Byrne albums or even that book he wrote How Music Works. Still, “don’t need a book to put your hand in the fire.”
Happy birthday, Mr. Byrne