David Byrne in Love

For Talking Heads, America's most influential rock band, happiness is a hit album

Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 407 from October 27, 1983. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

David Byrne? Uh, lemme think … Talking Heads? Yeah, yeah, I know: "This ain't no party," right? "Psycho Killer"? Yeah, that guy. I know who you mean. He's a little … weird, isn't he? Sorta not playing with a full deck, if you get my drift. Or the deck he's playing with has, like, the Ace of Cups in it or something. Kinda looped, a little on the psychotic side, am I right? Yeah, Talking Heads … great band, saw 'em live once, terrific. Don't sell many records, though, do they? Too bad. Boy, that Byrne sure is weird, you know what I mean? Is he normal, or what?

Right now, David Byrne is trying very hard not to lose his cool. It is a blustery, brain-fryingly hot July day, and Talking Heads are on a New York City dock feverishly conducting their last rehearsal before hitting the road for a six-week tour to promote their new album, Speaking in Tongues. Things are not going well.

Sure, it sounds pretty good, even with the piss-poor acoustics of the dilapidated dockside building where they're playing. The newly refurbished band — original members Byrne, Chris Frantz (drums), Tina Weymouth (bass, synthesizer) and Jerry Harrison (guitar, keyboards) and hired players Alex Weir (guitar), Steve Scales (percussion), Bernie Worrell (keyboards) and singers Ednah Holt and Lynn Mabry — pumps out the songs with righteous fervor. And Byrne goes into the act that has spurred so many ruminations on his state of mind: he ululates his vocals, thrashes his body from side to side, all with a Buster Keaton deadpan.

It's all for naught, though. See, Byrne doesn't just want to hit the road with a standard rock & roll show; he wants to do something really different. And that's what's screwing up and testing his mental stability right now. All the band's equipment is brought onstage during the course of the show instead of being set up ahead of time. And he's got oodles of clever technical effects planned, from spotlights wheeled onstage to random words projected on screens behind the band. All ambitious, and all a hopeless mess at the moment.

"Holy shit, what the fuck's going on?" Byrne snaps at one blank-faced lighting assistant. He leaps offstage and into intense conversation with the befuddled tekkies. Even his parents — genial, ruddy-faced Scots from Baltimore, who've driven up for the day in their Honda Civic (complete with United Farm Workers bumper stickers) — look fretful.

A break is called. A young, attractive woman with a crisp haircut and a warm smile sidles up to Byrne and takes his hand. She talks to him quietly, calms him down. When the rehearsal starts again, the screw-ups just keep coming-but Byrne is unusually serene. Before long, he's standing onstage next to a floor lamp that looks as if it's fresh from a Sears catalog. As he begins "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)," he sings in a fragile, tender voice, minus his legendary whoops-a-daisies. And he stares straight ahead at the woman with the warm smile:

Home is where I want to be

Pick me up and turn me round

I feel numb-born with a weak heart

So I guess I must be having fun….

The woman with the warm smile watches him closely, with great affection. His parents merrily go back to work on one of his costumes. David Byrne, it seems, is no longer rock & roll's highest-strung hero. David Byrne is happy. David Byrne is in love. That right, David?

"Uh, yeah," he assents, before tacking on a typical addendum. "And the band is still going. We're somewhat successful."

Somewhat America, is it something they said? For eight years, ever since they organized as a three-piece in New York City and brought their six-months-in-rehearsal act to CBGB's, Talking Heads have composed and played the era's most consistently challenging and exciting music. If the essence of rock & roll is white kids trying to be as cool as black kids, then Talking Heads effected the most rarefied cultural synthesis of the Seventies, a fusion of git-down street rhythms and collegiate sensibilities heady enough to spawn a generation of imitators on both sides of the Atlantic.

Like their class of '77 mates — Blondie, Television, the Patti Smith Group, the Ramones — the Heads culled at least part of their aesthetic from punk: the hands-on spirit that detested the overblown corpo-rock afoot in the mid-Seventies and declared anyone could play rock & roll if what he had to say was important enough. But awash in this atmosphere of deliciously anarchic creative freedom, Talking Heads remained somewhat aloof. From the outset, there was an asceticism about the band that distinguished them amid the irresistible chaos.

That asceticism showed itself in the lean, supple quality of their music: Weymouth's clean, limber bass lines bouncing off her husband Frantz' rock-steady slamming; Byrne dodging in and out of the rhythm's firmness, plucking out punchy dance tracks like their "Artists Only" before wheeling into standards like "96 Tears" or "1, 2, 3, Red Light." It showed in their no-frills attitude toward touring. "We all wanted not to spend excessive amounts of money to try and make things work," recalls Harvard-educated Jerry Harrison, a former member of the Modern Lovers who joined the Heads a few months before they recorded their first album, Talking Heads: 77. "Tina had been the road manager, and then I was for a while. We only had a two-man crew, and we drove around in a station wagon. I always felt that the Modern Lovers' problems were half 'who's going to do the dishes?' and stuff. One thing about this band, everyone was more likely to do the dishes."

Above all, that asceticism — sort of a go-for-it minimalism — was most evident in the compositions and stage persona of David Byrne. Unlike the lit-drenched, punch-drunk verbiage of a Dylan or Springsteen, Byrne's lyrics were as terse as mathematical formulas. He took cultural clichés-on everything from true love to civic pride-out of their customary contexts and stitched them instead into Pinteresque pastiches, whose odd juxtapositions and things left unspoken were rich with wit and insight.

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