So Colin wants to know about the David Byrne show and why I like the Talking Heads in the first place. He feels like he “missed the bus” on the whole Talking Heads thing. And I feel so freaking happy that I’ve been on the bus for as many crazy decades as I have. My only regret is that I wasn’t standing in CBGB‘s back in the mid-1970s when it all began. But I wasn’t. Back then I was still a kid in Rochester, New York. Hometown of Foreigner’s Lou Gramm and home to really one radio station of any note, 96.5 WCMF “Long Live Rock” FM.
Luckily, MTV launched in 1981 and one of my favorite videos ever, the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” was in heavy rotation to expand my musical universe. Byrne, all nerded out in a skinny suit, bowtie and big Buddy Holly glasses, sweating profusely and hyperventilating, breaks out some spectacularly spasmodic, epileptic dance moves choreographed by Mickey’s Toni Basil (“Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, You’re so fine you blow my mind, hey Mickey, hey Mickey!”) while he appearing to undergo some sort of religious conversion. Afro-funk beat and global-inspired dance moves. It was so very different than anything else I had seen/heard, even by MTV standards, and I was instantly hooked.
There was an amazing art theater on BU’s campus in the 1980s, Nickelodeon Cinemas, wedged between classroom buildings on Cunningham Street, and of course it showed Jonathan Demme’s concert film Stop Making Sense? when it premiered in 1984. If you have seen this, Byrne first appears on an empty stage, armed with only an acoustic guitar, and eventually is joined by bassist Tina Weymouth, drummer Chris Frantz and keyboardist Jerry Harrison. They then play hit after Talking Heads hit, ending with a wild performance in which Byrne propels himself about the stage grooving and jerking to the music in now iconic enormous white suit.
At that point, it felt like all Boston was consumed by Talking Heads fever. We would party hop from school to school and every party, from BU to MIT, Harvard, BC and all the little colleges in the brownstones in the city would be blasting "Burning Down the House". I remember scavenging the record stores for used cassettes of Speaking in Tongues and other selections I was missing from the Talking Heads catalog. I splurged and bought Little Creatures new when it came out in 1985 and Naked when it came out in 1988 (somehow I missed 1986’s True Stories). Naked contains my favorite song, (Nothing But) Flowers”, which I love for Byrne’s lyrics. After seeming to rhapsodize about the return to an agrarian society,
There was a shopping mall
Now it's all covered with flowers
You've got it, you've got it
Byrne flatly rejects that hippy 60s utopian vision and pleads not to leave him stranded there.
“Flowers” has my one of my favorite song lines ever (“I dream of cherry pies, candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies”) which I like only slightly less than Ben Folds’ “I grew up on sugar cereal and TV/I'm starting to wonder what you see in me” from “Not a Fan”).
Later in 1988, I was studying abroad in Madrid and Stop Making Sense? made its way to the screen there. The theater was packed and the audience went crazy for it. I remember being so proud to be an American. I know that’s weird but absolutely true.
So, not much happened with the Talking Heads after that. They dissolved shortly after the release of Naked but officially disbanded in 1991. That’s the year I finished law school so I’m not sure I even noticed. In 2002, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Four of the band's albums appeared on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and three of their songs ("Psycho Killer", "Life During Wartime", and "Once in a Lifetime") were included among the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. Did I know this until I did a quick Wikipedia search? No, not specifically. Because besides keeping their music in regular rotation, I really had stopped actively following the disbanded band’s goings ons.
Then, early this year, I came across Bryne signing Bowie’s Heroes in a Choir! Choir! Choir! video. Oh, that voice and that presence! I knew right that moment that if I had the chance to see him in concert singing Talking Heads stuff, I would be there.
And so it seemed serendipitous when I learned that Byrne was touring and while he would not be coming to Columbus, he would be coming very close. In between catching the Heroes video and hearing about the tour, Byrnes had released his American Utopia solo album and I had received a live stream of it from one of my NPR music subscriptions and instantly felt at home with a few of the songs on the album. Little did I then know that I would be working and living in Boston in time to catch one of his two shows here in early August.
Ah yes, the show, I was supposed to write about the show. Remember Stop Making Sense? and how first it was just Byrne on the stage with a guitar and then one band member joined him at a time? Well, American Utopia started with Byrne sitting alone on a stage holding a big brain. The stage was boxed in by floor to ceiling curtains of silver-colored beads and in that sense it resembled the stage of a musical rather than a rock show. There was no drum kit, no microphone stands, no guitar racks, no amps, no roadies scurrying around busy with last minute setup and tunings. Byrne was in a business suit, this time grey and not oversized, but this reference back to Stop Making Sense? invoked in me the clearly intended sense of deja vu. Through these beaded curtains various groupings of Byrnes’ nearly dozen (11? - hard to count when they all were dressed identically and in constant, choreographed singing, music-making motion) musicians and dancers would pop in and out, appearing and disappearing as primarily white and blue lights bathed and flashed about the stage. At times, the effect was mesmerizing, like watching a giant fish tank of sparkly silver tropical fish dart and swim about.
The musicians all wore their instruments strapped to them so they could move about the the stage and, together with the two uber-cheerful dancers, execute Byrne’s classic freaky awkward but oh so fun to watch choreographed dance moves to songs including the new album’s opening track, “I Dance Like This.”
I dance like this
Because it feels so damn good
If I could dance better
Well, you know that I would
This freedom from standing instruments also allowed the stage to be re-set instantly between songs without needing to move any equipment.
My favorite “scene change” of the concert was the transition into “Burning Down the House”. Out through the beaded curtain comes Byrne with this red guitar playing one of the most memorable intros to any song - ever - and, as the musicians pop out onto stage and join in, the previously all blue set starts occasionally pulsing red as they (and the entire audience) sing/chant/yell “BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE!”
The final encore was a cover of Janelle Monae's "Hell You Talmbout" ("Say His Name) from the Women's March. So powerful with that many musicians in a line shouting all the names of those like Trayvon Martin killed in racist violence. I do think it was intended to be more interactive, yet those around me were content to pretty much watch rather than participate in the call and response. Hopefully, as with his music, where he was on the cutting edge of creating what Seymour Stein would christen “New Wave music”, Byrne is an early indicator, a barometer of sorts, of where society is headed in terms of unwillingness to tolerate this bigotry and ongoing needless violence. - Anne Marie