David Byrne, Rock Master of Multicultural Sound: The Rolling Stone Interview

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How about this line from "The Great Curve," from Remain in Light: "The world moves on a woman's hips."
Oh, boy. I'm not talking about one particular woman. I'm not talking about my girlfriend [laughs]. You think that's very down and earthy, but I was talking about something metaphysical. That a gesture can resonate outward, like ripples in a pond, causing realms of meaning. An attitude of the body can embody a whole world view [laughs].

"This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)," from Speaking in Tongues?
The most direct love lyrics that I've ever written. But I tried to do it in a way someone once described as a series of non sequiturs.

Like this one: "Sing into my mouth"?
I'd seen a picture of Eskimos singing. They'll sometimes sing into each other's mouths. I thought it was a most beautiful image.

Or "You got a face with a view."
It's romantic in the sense that romantic poets in the nineteenth century would write about a landscape. They'd write a whole poem about standing on the hill and looking out. I'm looking at her face and doing the same thing.

And finally, from that song, "Cover up and say goodnight" and "Hit me on the head."
[Laughs] When you fall in love, you feel like a missing piece of a puzzle that's been found. Plus, the epiphany of a love relationship is like being hit on the head, jolted into a different kind of a land.

What does the parenthetical phrase in "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)" refer to?
We were deliberately playing instruments we weren't technically good at. Tina was playing guitar, Jerry [Harrison, the band's keyboardist] was playing the bass, and I was playing the keyboards. So our playing was very simple. We couldn't help but be naive.

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"Creatures of Love," from Little Creatures?
It came from a daydream, or a dream at night. I can't remember it very well now. But it had something to do with a couple making love. And when they were finished, there were little tiny people all over the bed.

A dream script?
Yes. Most of it's pretty straightforward, but there are a couple of mysterious things, like the "sleep of reason." It's like Rousseau or something.

What about these lines from the same song: "A man can drive a car and a woman can be a boss/I'm a monkey and a flower/I'm everything I want"?
That's where the lyrics of the song kind of jump-cut into something completely different for a while. I think it keeps the song from falling into a rut. It also helps throw the whole thing into a wider context, if you're lucky.

Explain "The Facts of Life," from Naked, please.
The four of us had stumbled upon an interlocking improvisation. It was one of those numbers that started from one texture and evolved into another. And it became a challenge for me to write a melody that would bridge that transition in the music. It's almost like going from a factory to a pastoral landscape. Then I locked onto sex and procreation as being mechanistic. We're biological machines. Parents gave us our biological programming, from evolution. And it's monkeys. That's in-built into us. Not so bad, not so bad [laughs]. That's where a lot of good stuff comes from, but we're trying to deny it.

There are Asian as well as African influences in your work, and you contributed music to the soundtrack for Bernardo Bertolucci's film The Last Emperor. Was your wife instrumental in any of this?
She turned me on more to the various theatrical forms over there, but I was pretty much already on my way. Appropriately enough, the big suit for Stop Making Sense came from a drawing I did on a napkin in Japan. We were having dinner with a clothing designer, and I was thinking out loud, saying, "We're going to tour again," and wondering what kind of clothing to wear onstage. And he said, "Well, you know what they say about the theater: Onstage everything has to be bigger." I said, "Okay, that's perfect." So, to me, the implied story of that whole show was of this man who frees himself from his demons and finds release and salvation in his big suit. He lives in the uniform of his job. And just like Mr. Jones, he manages to not let that constrain him. He can cut loose in this house made of a business suit.

"Mr. Jones"! Now that song struck me as the mambo revenge of Dylan's Mr. Jones.
Yes, I'm doing it the other way around. He's a traveling businessman, who's usually depicted in songs by people of my generation as not knowing what's going on. A lot of people would stare at Mr. Jones and declare him the ultimate square. I'm saying, "Okay, now, this guy's breakin' out of that, and he's havin' a good time."

You know, I think the whole generation-gap thing is unique in Western culture. In Japan, the generation gap is there, but it's very small. Here, we often just accept that the generations don't mix as much. Which is a big mistake.

But how would one mount an intergenerational Woodstock?
I don't know. Maybe that's what's coming in the Nineties.

There's a song called "The Big Country" on More Songs About Buildings and Food, and you wore a big suit in Stop Making Sense. How about some big questions: What is your big goal?
One thing would be to do stuff that has serious underpinnings but is fun at the same time.

Big dreams?
I don't know. I don't have big, long-range ones.

Big demon?
I suppose that one is kind of outside of myself: dealing with business people and business stuff and that kind of thing, which I pride myself in being able to understand and deal with. I'm proud that I can, you know, that I have some measure of understanding of it, and yet I find that it always seems to be taking too much of my time.

Big regret?
Not that big. I regret that with True Stories we didn't put out a record with the cast singing the songs instead of me. They were written with other voices in mind, and to me the other people, like Pop Staples, did it much better than I did. I regret it never worked out to happen that way.

Big idol?
Yeah, but they would change all the time. Every few years there would be someone else. I never felt like one person had all the answers. They may have done some beautiful things, but it's that old Zen proverb: It's easy to mistake the person for the beautiful gifts they bring, or something like that.

Can you remember one or two of your idols? I think the sequence would be fascinating.
Hmmm. Gosh. I'd need a big listing. No, there's too many, and they really kept changing all the time.

Big obsession?
I guess I get obsessed by whatever project I'm doing. In retrospect, one can see a common thread, that maybe there's a common obsession or subject I'm not always aware of at the time.

Big break?
Oh, boy. Well, there's probably quite a few. One would be the first time you write a song and perform it with a musician or collaborate on a song and play it and it really works. I think the first song was "Psycho Killer." So that was a big breakthrough, like "Yes, we can do this." Another one was when we went from being a four-piece to however many it was – eight or nine. The first gig we played like that was in Toronto. That was something completely new for us. Everybody was energized, of course, and the audience was totally behind us. They could see that we were taking this huge risk, and they supported us in it.

Big love?
I don't know. You put some words together, and you look at it, and it's this new thing, and then it starts speaking back to you.

Of the new songs on Naked, how does "Blind" speak back to you?
It's pure imagination, but it comes out of reading the daily paper. It's a cry of anguish. It's a man crying, rather than a woman. And I think it's directed at the authorities. Someone has been killed, or badly beaten, and someone else is looking out a window. Terrible things are happening, civil strife. It definitely goes beyond just lack of sight. The more it's repeated, the more references are implied and the more it resonates with all the meanings within that word or phrase. And you're asking yourself and the listener to be aware of all that.

"Big Daddy"?
It's kind of a little Tennessee Williams scenario.

You mean Big Daddy from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?
But this story is from a woman's point of view. She's a young woman who wants to break free of Big Daddy and can't do it. It's not exactly the same guy but similar.

"The Democratic Circus"?
We're actually talking about the electoral process. To me, it's not a democracy as we imagined it. It's disillusioning in a way. But part of that might be because it's not what we would have hoped; it's not what we were led to believe it would be. I like the rain coming at the end, washing it all away, like blood [laughs]. We referred to the song as being a cha-cha.

"Cool Water"?
It's very dark, that song. It's a pretty bleak view of the end of life, of death. A lot of our stuff has been somewhat positive, but this one is pretty much the other side. Pretty bleak, but I think it would be silly to ignore it and to pretend it doesn't exist.

There's a kind of dirge with flutes. The image of the big cool water is like relief. But you can also drown in it.

"Mommy Daddy You and I"?
I would like to think that it's about all of us being immigrants of one sort or another, that we've all moved from one place to another, even if it's just that we move across town. There's a certain similarity to families that come up from Mexico, or the Okies that went to California, people who've come from Europe. Everybody's transplanted, even if it's just that at some point they have to make a life for themselves, you know? And think what is it they're going to do with it. I'm very happy with the lines, like "We're wearing our grandfather's clothes." To me, that meant not that you're just wearing old clothes but that you're part of a long line. That you're connected to your family, your ancestors. You're not just in a void. You're kind of a product of your ancestors and something else, but I can't think what.

I don't think it's something personal or autobiographical, but it reminds me of when you're a kid, riding in a car or a bus or train or whatever. And you doze off. And your head goes to the nearest shoulder.

Well, some final words on "(Nothing but) Flowers" and we'll call it a day.
On the surface, it's a pleasant kind of tongue-in-cheek thing of me talking about giving it all up, throwing everything away and going out to live in the forest or the woods or the jungle, whatever. I guess it's a very common wish – but for the moment not all that likely.

This story is from the April 21st, 1988 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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Song Stories

“Whoomp! (There It Is)”

Tag Team | 1993

Cecil Glenn — a.k.a., "D.C." — was a cook at Magic City, a nude dance club in Atlanta, when he first heard women shout "Whoomp — there it is!" Inspired by the party chant, he and partner Steve "Roll'n" Gibson wrote a song around it. Undaunted by label rejections, they borrowed $2,500 from Glenn's parents and pressed 800 singles, which quickly sold out in the Atlanta area. A record deal came soon after. Glenn said the song was meant for positive partying. "If you're going to say 'Whoomp there it is,' and you're doing something negative, we'd rather it not have come out of your mouth."

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