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 Home is where I want to be
Home is where I want to be
2001 - David Byrne is the Same as he Ever Was PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marshall Sella   

From: New York Times, April 29, 2001

By Marshall Sella

Dear Francey,
I'm a writer for the New York Times (Sunday) Magazine, and I just wanted to tell you what a terrific website you have. I've just finished a profile of David Byrne--and looked really quite carefully through everything you have online--so I can say with confidence that it's incredibly well put-together. Dazzling. David has said the same thing to me. 


All the best, 
Marshall Sella


David Byrne carries everything he needs in a big red knapsack. He is 
self-contained. Like a strangely merry refugee, he wears the pack wherever he 
goes, his world on his back. "It weighs me down a bit," he says, "but I'm 
kinda married to it. I feel naked without it now. I like bein' portable." To 
prove its utility, he rifles through the miniature household: "Got my 
passport here, just in case. Once in a while you get to the airport and you 
don't have the passport. Makes life easier. Here, got a toothbrush. And my 
Swiss Army knife. Flashlight. Hey, look -- a sewing kit." 

Byrne and his effects have come to the Bowery Ballroom to see Los Amigos 
Invisibles, a Venezuelan sextet whose work appears on Byrne's record label, 
Luaka Bop. Now 49, he looks scarcely different than he did in his days with 
Talking Heads, the art-rock band that peaked in the 1980's with such 
critically beloved records as "Remain in Light." His close-cropped hair, a 
boy's cut unmistakably, is now gray. After all these years he remains a study 
in antithesis: a dour man who laughs all the time; a savvy man who marvels at 
the simplest little things. 

On arrival at the club, he is greeted in hushed tones, as Revered Artists 
always are. But Byrne's fame tonight keeps to the shadows. Los Amigos are 
blowing the roof off the place. Audience members are swirling around one 
another in joyous Brownian motion. Byrne is transfixed. Ignoring the heat, he 
refrains from shucking his little gray jacket or even the blocky rucksack, 
which he keeps tightly strapped around both shoulders. He stations himself in 
a corner next to a giant garbage can, swiveling his hips and clapping in 
syncopation. 

Grooving against the rubbish, he's oblivious to the patrons who accidentally 
bounce empty cups off his jacket and into the bin. Everywhere I've seen him, 
his stage presence is the same. From behind, Byrne is invisible. People 
jostle him, practically walk over him. Out front, they stop in their tracks. 
"I'm pretty anonymous," he insists, rather pleased. "Folks don't notice me." 

It quickly becomes clear that he doesn't notice them, either. Only now and 
then, when something knocks his pack, does Byrne glance over. Just for a 
moment, though; he is mesmerized by Los Amigos. There's nothing remote or 
superior in his expression. Despite having known every boulevard and back 
alley of fame, he is all wonderment. He smiles up at the band as if dreaming 
that one day he, too, might be a rock star. "That's somethin'," he says more 
than once, laughing in the dark. "Look at that!" 

Since the demise of Talking Heads, David Byrne has never ceased performing. 
He has made seven solo records since the band expired in 1992. And on May 8, 
he will release his latest, "Look Into the Eyeball." The CD is his best work 
in years, a masterful blend of orchestral string music and what Byrne calls 
"beats for the body." For a record with a unifying musical theme, its songs 
are curiously diverse. The Philly-soul-inspired "Neighborhood" is as lush and 
sunny as an O'Jays tune -- no coincidence, since it was arranged by Thom 
Bell, an inventor of the genre. A disturbing song called "The Accident" 
refracts a failed relationship through the twisted metal of an auto wreck. 
Despite the hybrid of influences, it's all indisputably catchy stuff. It's 
complex and poetic, but you can dance to it. 

As anxious as Byrne is about the CD's reception, he denies himself the luxury 
of focusing on any one project. He's all over the map. His mornings are spent 
at Luaka Bop's West 12th Street office overseeing the label's 13 
genre-hopping recording artists. His short story "A Self-Made Man" appears in 
"Songs Without Rhyme," a collection of prose by songwriters published last 
month by Hyperion. He's always prepping for an exhibition of his photographs 
somewhere, having shown all over Europe and the States. At the moment, he is 
obsessed with a book he was commissioned to write for an arts festival this 
summer in Valencia, Spain: a meditation on the concept of sin. "My job is to 
take the things we think of as virtues," he says, "and explain why they're 
only masquerading as virtues." 

The celebrity bestowed on Byrne as a Talking Head did not last and never 
could have. "No one -- not David Byrne or David Bowie -- can have teens 
lining up around the block forever," says the composer Philip Glass, who has 
known and occasionally collaborated with Byrne for 25 years. "But David's 
artistic personality is so compelling. People will always be interested in 
him." 

In his pop-star incarnation, Byrne's celebrity came from critical acclaim, 
not record sales. When he was on the cover of Time in 1986, hyped as "Rock's 
Renaissance Man," it had been years since "Burning Down the House," Talking 
Heads' only Top 10 single. "I can't even listen to most of the old stuff 
anymore," Byrne says. "All I can hear are imperfections -- problems in the 
recording, or words I should've chosen." 

Byrne has never longed for those glory days. He never designed himself to end 
up as a Mick Jagger or a Jerry Lee Lewis, doomed to spend middle age 
performing Madame Tussaud renditions of feel-good favorites. Instead, he has 
gone small, played the long game. In gambler's terms, he has scattered his 
chips all over the table, offering the public not one Byrne but a whole 
cluster of them. His rock career works partly because it's balanced by other 
passions, and Byrne doesn't waste much energy chasing lost celebrity. Then 
again, if it calls, he's packed up and ready to go. 

Distinct from Byrne's old associates at Warner Brothers, who never stopped 
pining for a Talking Heads reunion, Luaka Bop's goals are modest. The label 
is still plugging along in its 13th year. Artists like Cornershop and Silvio 
Rodriguez are hardly household names in the States, but each has a loyal 
following. Luaka's biggest seller to date (at 400,000 records) is a 
compilation of Rodriguez's music -- the first Cuban disc released on a U.S. 
label since the 1962 embargo. Yale Evelev, the label's president, recently 
saw a bootleg of it and, unlike any other record exec ever born, he was 
elated. "Luaka Bop doesn't follow a traditional plan," he says. "We're trying 
not to grow big. It's a balance between enjoying our lives, being true to our 
artists and managing to stay in business." 

Luaka Bop wasn't David Byrne's sole offspring in the twilight of the Talking 
Heads era. He married the designer Adelle Lutz in 1987; their daughter, Malu, 
is 11. The three occupy a large but unpretentious brownstone -- an airy, 
frugally appointed place with snapshots taped to the fridge. Byrne likes to 
describe it as "livin' near the store," meaning Luaka Bop's chockablock 
office.

It's clear that Byrne loves the creative distractions of Luaka Bop. Even at 
the height of Talking Heads' renown, he was taking on side projects. There 
were collaborations not only with Philip Glass but also with the 
choreographer Twyla Tharp and the theater director Robert Wilson. A film 
score for Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Emperor" (with Ryuichi Sakamoto and 
Cong Su) won Byrne an Academy Award in 1988. 

But his artistic appetites have sometimes caused him trouble. In the late 
80's, critics assailed him (along with Paul Simon) for what they saw as 
cultural imperialism: exploiting third-world art to attain pop rebirth. That 
debate has since faded to black, and even a single listen to "Look Into the 
Eyeball" explains why. It's a seamless combination of funk, groove, Brazilian 
Tropicalia, blues -- well, name a form. In today's splintered musical cosmos 
of hip-hop, trip-hop and trip-folk, rubrics aren't what they used to be. 
Which makes it a very good time to be David Byrne. 

Spending time with Byrne can be disquieting. Those who knew him in the 1970's 
still speak of him a bit like puzzled neighbors describing a serial killer. 
Hilly Kristal, the owner of CBGB, the downtown club where Talking Heads burst 
onto the scene, recalls him as "a pleasant guy who kept to himself." Deborah 
Harry, lead singer of Blondie, says: "Not many people did have a sense of 
him. He was very private." 

But Harry hastens to defend Byrne's air of reserve. "There's a distinction 
between artists, who write their own words, and pop stars, who perform other 
people's words," she says. "If you're presenting your own ideas, reaching out 
in a sort of verbal assault, that is a pure expression of yourself. And that 
should be enough for the public." 

Byrne himself says his aloofness isn't so calculated. "Performing is 
something I do partly for my mental health," he says. "I'm pretty shy. More 
than most people, I bet. I was at a dinner party the other night and someone 
commented, 'David, you didn't say a word the whole evening' " -- here he 
indulges in a gust of laughter -- but I felt I was engaged. They were all 
sayin' such interesting things. Why interrupt?" 

In person, David spends warmth like money, and money never lasts. When we met 
for dinner before the Los Amigos concert, he was as jovial as a boyhood pal. 
He'd chosen a fine little Mediterranean place about a block from CBGB. When 
his entree of octopus arrived, he proceeded to scarf it down like a prisoner, 
only faster. He went after the legs first, pouring himself glasses of red 
wine between gobbles, then attacked the head. "Have some," he offered. "It's 
not really so gelatinous." Everything was funny, everything was goofy. But as 
an hour or two passed, he wound down. Conversation became halting, even 
painful. By the time I dropped him off at his place in the Village, it felt 
as if we'd quarreled. "Well, see you soon," I said, jutting my hand out. But 
he had vanished. 

Later, I'd learn that Byrne was famous for this. He didn't mean anything by 
it. But it was still baffling; he'd always start out cordial, then gradually 
disappear. I told Chris Frantz, the Talking Heads' drummer and co-founder of 
Tom Tom Club, that the more time I spent with Byrne, the less I understood 
him. Frantz chortled and said, "Yeah, that's David all right." Tina Weymouth, 
bass guitarist of Talking Heads (as well as Frantz's wife and Tom Tom Club 
bandmate), had seen it all before, ruefully adding that "David really doesn't 
know how to say goodbye." 

Yale Evelev had a gentler explanation. "Of course he doesn't like big 
emotional goodbyes," Evelev said, though no one had mentioned anything 
remotely big or emotional. "David decides to leave and, boom! He's gone. And, 
you know, he's . . . nervous. He has an awful lot going on." 

David Byrne has often adopted the persona of Rock Star as Spaceman. As a 
Talking Head, he stared out through pinched features, as if the air were all 
wrong for him. He was always singing about factories, or paper, or the wheel 
of a large automobile -- metaphorically examining humankind by rifling 
through its big red backpack. "I'd like to write a song about hairdos," he 
once said, "not the people under 'em." 

In his more recent works -- music and photography alike -- Byrne has never 
lost that animist sensibility. Five months ago, influenced by Caribbean 
religions (voodoo in particular), Byrne and Lutz mounted an art exhibition in 
Italy in which household objects were dressed up as members of a wedding 
party. The idea, in Byrne's phrase, was to see if this might "give the 
objects life and a sense of power." Accordingly, they presented an end table 
wearing underpants, a clock in a sombrero, a radio in a bikini. This sort of 
disordering technique has been a hallmark of Byrne's fractious career. The 
boundary between people and their possessions all but vanishes. 

It's fecund terrain. "The Accident," Byrne's eerie allegory of ruined love on 
the new CD, is a prime example of the fixation. "The inspiration for that was 
a George Jones song called 'The Grand Tour,' " Byrne says, always proud to 
cite a nonintellectual influence. "He takes you through his house and 
describes the furniture, but it's completely heart-rending: 'There's the 
chair where we sat and talked, there's our bed. . . . ' It's simply a list of 
objects, and each one has more emotional attachment than the one before." 

For all his remoteness, though, Byrne is a fiercely pragmatic man. He is well 
organized and enchanted by machines. One of the most technical hours of my 
life was spent at a gallery in Washington, watching Byrne and a 
digital-printing expert discuss the arcana of how best to reproduce Byrne's 
photos. Speaking what seemed to be a secret language only twins comprehend, 
the two men plumbed the depths of computer-monitor calibration and the subtle 
advantages of imperceptibly different paper textures. "Can't we heat up this 
pink?" he said at one point, indicating a photograph in his recent series on 
surveillance cameras, a wry balance of beauty and repugnance. "I like when it 
kinda hurts to look at it!" 

Yale Evelev is well acquainted with Byrne's practical side. "He loves knowing 
how things work, how everything works," he says. "Even when he's immersed in 
writing, whether it's in the Catskills or in Spain, he'll call every day to 
find out exactly how some cover art is coming along." 

Byrne is frugal and a bit of a control freak. Though he divides his days 
between commerce and art (Luaka Bop in the morning, compositions after), 
there is nothing dreamy about him, at least before lunch. Even Byrne's music 
is grounded in pragmatism. He has never shunned the marketplace. "I don't 
hold much with downtown snobbism," he says. "The kind of thing where, if 
people like something, it can't be good." 

"Look Into the Eyeball" was conceived two summers ago. Partly spurred by a 
concert in Madrid that Byrne thought was "all wrong rhythmically and 
sonically, but with a great vibe," he was driven to combine the romance of 
orchestral music with percussive forms. But, as Byrne sees it, art must show 
fiscal promise if it's ever to grow up strong. So he searched out examples of 
the concept he was after: evidence that his impulse had forebears in the real 
world of music and money. 

"I wanted to create a historical confirmation," he says. "This was a 
tradition I was going to expand on, not something out of the blue." He made a 
combo tape, a mix of Bjork, Serge Gainsbourg, Caetano Veloso (a founder of 
Brazilian Tropicalia) and even Isaac Hayes's "Theme from Shaft." The idea was 
to give his collaborators a sense of what he was looking for -- to create not 
only a musical palette but a commercial one. 

"A lot of those songs were very successful," he says. "Our record wasn't 
meant to be some pretentious, arty project. It could be accessible without 
pandering. And here was the proof." 

Byrne and his friends laid down musical tracks. As is his custom, the words 
weren't yet written. The only way to arrive at the right lyrics, Byrne finds, 
is to speak in tongues a little. Listen to the early demos from "Eyeball" and 
you hear everything in place -- only, Byrne is singing gibberish. Not 
tentative gibberish. The "words" are clear and confident: oh mefah, sye 
kalyaneu-sheu! Incredibly, in the harmony track, Byrne often seems to be 
mouthing the very same sounds. His main objective is to avoid censoring 
himself. "It's like fishing in your unconscious," he says. "A lot of what you 
find gets thrown back. The music makes it rise out of you -- whatever you've 
been thinking about. Usually it even takes me a year or two to understand 
what any given song is about." 

Hitting his stride in this second act of his career has not come easily for 
David Byrne. Born in Dumbarton, Scotland, he spent most of his childhood in 
Maryland. From the beginning of his life, he has felt like a bit of an 
outsider. "There were always little reminders," he says. "Like the fact that 
we ate usin' a knife and fork at the same time. The way we did things weren't 
the way people were livin' in the rest of the world!" 

Byrne always talks that way: half-amazed, a sophisticate who has just seen 
the damnedest thing. His cadence is clipped one moment and fluent the next, 
as if various speeds are battling for control of his mind. His gerunds lack 
the final "g" sound, a byproduct of growing up with Scottish parents and of 
his stubbornly folksy demeanor. Everything in him is an explicit marriage of 
the utterly ordinary and the utterly foreign. 

As he recounts his early life, we're on a train from New York to Washington, 
hurtling toward the very patch of ground where he grew up. His boyhood home 
no longer exists; it was sacrificed for Interstate 95. "I've tried to find 
the woods where I used to play," he says. "But I can never get my bearings. 
It's pretty disorienting." 

Overhead, a red-lighted ad for Amtrak's Railfone service blinks out the sort 
of hollow corporate appeal that always makes Byrne laugh. treat yourself! the 
sign urges. you deserve it! But Byrne is staring out the window. "Look," he 
says, suddenly buoyed. "There's my sign!" 

Outside, bolted on old steel across the Delaware River, dilapidated electric 
letters trumpet the fact that Trenton makes, the world takes. David loves 
signs. (His 1999 book of photos, "Your Action World," is full of them.) He's 
drawn to motivational rhetoric and advertising -- even rusty declarations of 
Trenton pride. He loves it and he hates it. "Funny," he says, "I never 
noticed that sign when I was young." 

When he wasn't in the woods, the boy David was hunting for exotic music in 
the Baltimore Public Library: Stockhausen, Balinese gamelans, recordings of 
chain gangs. Anything and everything. "It seemed a cool habit, not a nerdy 
one," he says. "Well, maybe it was nerdy too. But you didn't have to like it 
all. If you hated it, you'd just take it back. Didn't cost you anything." 

By his early 20's, Byrne was intoxicated by the idea that anything could be 
art. Andy Warhol intrigued him. "I really liked his pictures of car crashes," 
he says. "And you'd hear all these things about the whirlwind of activity 
around him. People nominating themselves to be superstars. I thought, Wow!" 

Without explicitly nominating himself, Byrne did become something of an 
art-world superstar. Even in the era of New Wave, no band was more "art rock" 
than Talking Heads. Byrne's intricate songs evoked everything from Steve 
Reich to Kurt Weill to "The Golden Bough." At the same time, Talking Heads 
never relaxed into any single genre. There was no catching them. Anchoring 
all the experimentation was Byrne's jittery, clenched persona, which endured 
through Jonathan Demme's 1984 film "Stop Making Sense," arguably the best 
concert movie ever made. 

The images in "Stop Making Sense" remain arresting to this day. In one scene, 
Byrne, the pop animist, sings a love song to a Woolworth's lamp. Seemingly 
random supertitles ("Grits. Dog. Time Clock.") loom over the stage, goading 
the audience into considering how all the things of this world relate to one 
another. Most famously, there is Byrne's Big Suit, which he conceived as "a 
Mr. Joe Average suit that turns into a trap or cage." 

Of course, to the band members, Talking Heads itself was beginning to feel 
like a cage. Exasperated by the media fixation on Byrne as a rock "master," 
Tina Weymouth quipped, "David Bowie, David Byrne, David Berkowitz." 

During Talking Heads' "Stop Making Sense" tour, Byrne's bandmates were 
dismayed by his perfectionism, which often took the form of a fanatical 
adherence to the all-black set. "I was turning into a little dictator at the 
time," he has said. "Nobody could have a cup of water! That would detract 
from the look of the show." Byrne hopes he has changed somewhat. "I deal with 
stress a lot better than I used to," he says, shaking his head. "There were 
times when I threw microphones. At crew people. It's really embarrassing." 

Years after the breakup, the band members are not on speaking terms. Byrne 
says "things are tense-not-relaxed," sounding tense-not-relaxed just 
answering the question. 

"It's been a long time since we've been in touch," says Chris Frantz. "But 
that's just David being David. He's one of a kind -- with all the pros and 
cons that go with that. The band was always secondary to what he envisioned 
for himself. We've learned not to take that personally." 

Tina Weymouth adds, "We just wish David the best," pouring sugar before the 
punch. "We can only pray that he finds whatever it is he's looking for, so 
that maybe he won't be so angry." 

Watching David Byrne is like peering into an ant farm. His tics suggest 
nothing so much as a covert division of labor that governs his mind. He's 
intensely focused, but on several things at once, and each issue seems to be 
vying for position. As you speak to him, his eyes dart wildly, as if he's 
simultaneously puzzling out a melody, working out schedules and craving a 
sandwich. 

Conversely, he still has an outsider's knack for nailing the absurdity upon 
which good-and-noble society is based. His pose is as a naif who buys it all: 
corporations' can-do rhetoric, the caring embrace of government, how 
convenience makes life easier. Byrne was once called "the Typhoid Mary of the 
irony epidemic," but that's a fundamental misreading of him. His stance is 
one of ambivalence, not condemnation. 

"I really think he sees the total madness of things with a sweeping breath of 
love," says Beth Henley, who co-wrote Byrne's 1986 film "True Stories." "He 
doesn't miss anything. He's not out to judge. Just to see." 

Even when gazing at one of the corporate-headquarters signs he likes to 
photograph -- the tattoo on the belly of the beast -- he says, "You have to 
admit there's somethin' beautiful and seductive there." If societal comforts 
weren't so alluring, they wouldn't be dangerous. Byrne has no use for rage 
when left-handed exaltation will do the job just as well. Rage doesn't 
communicate. 

"Take Eminem," he says, laughing mirthlessly for once. "I can never lose 
sight of the fact that his music is corporate rebellion marketed in a 
corporate way. He's said to have this threatening quality -- but how can he 
be threatening if his music is sold by one of the biggest companies in the 
world? I think teenage fans realize that it's safe, a safe kind of 
rebellion." 

As we chat, Byrne and I are sitting in the basement of Luaka Bop. A young 
assistant named Kate has just finished arranging 53 of Byrne's pictures on a 
vast wall. Many are wire-service news photos of world leaders, all caught in 
seemingly insignificant moments: President Jiang Zemin of China with head in 
hands, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani staring off into space somewhere. Everyone 
seems to be between events. Byrne has chosen these images precisely for the 
fact that they're unremarkable -- that they're "part of the weird dance of 
gestures, random moments from a dance performance." 

I ask if the pictures, with the implication that government is nihilistic, 
could be described as subversive. "Not very!" he says, as if I've failed to 
hear. "It's a straightforward documentation of a performance." 

Kate fiddles with a rumbling Macintosh G4 computer at a large desk; David and 
I are seated in front of the desk as she readies more digitized photographs 
for printing. "I'm never intentionally tryin' to be cryptic in my work," 
Byrne says, leaning into the hot breath of the computer. "It works for me 
when it's just metaphorical enough so that I'm not screaming in your face, 
'This is what I'm tellin' you!' " 

The discussion caroms from the utility of art to the question of government 
financing. But I can't stop noticing the way David is endlessly contorting 
himself on his tiny blue chair. One moment his left leg flies over his right, 
until he's practically lying sideways on the seat; the next, his furry arms 
wind around each other until his hands fold in momentary alliance. The poses, 
at times, are hilarious. Tina Weymouth once claimed that David had to find 
interesting ways even to sit in a chair, all to prove his individuality -- 
but these days, there's nothing contrived about it. He's a twisty guy. He has 
sat in chairs for a long time now. If it ever was an affectation, that was 
long ago. Even Cary Grant, in time, became Cary Grant. 

One frigid spring night in Toronto, David Byrne is on public display, but 
sadly, there are no chairs involved. It is his second live performance to 
include songs from the new record. The venue is a harborside spot called the 
Orange Room. This is not so much a concert as an industry party thrown by 
Virgin Records, and it's a tough room. Everybody knows everybody else, and no 
one wants to seem easily impressed. 

The singer quietly meanders on stage wearing a khaki shirt and khaki pants. 
That's David Byrne all over: he's an art-technician, here to perform a 
service like a plumber or repairman. He refuses to present music as any one 
thing. It transports, yet is a workaday task. It is a spiritual release and a 
bodily function. It's ecstatic and ridiculous. 

Byrne knows this is an industry crowd, so he sings to an unseen listener 10 
degrees above eye level -- that is, directly to an empty balcony. His remarks 
between songs offer no mention of titles but rather come out in the form of 
absurdist snippets. When he brings out the string section he has hired for 
tonight's show, comprising three cellists and three violinists, his intro is 
limited to an amazed "These people are from here!" 

The old twitching is gone from his performance. His voice is utterly assured, 
stronger than it ever was. He performs his usual mix of old and new -- Once 
in a Lifetime" as well as the current "Like Humans Do." After eight songs, 
Byrne abruptly says, "That's all I'm going to do today." He wanders offstage 
distractedly, as if he's puttering around in a garage somewhere. The core 
band follows him off, leaving the string section bewildered. The six of them 
turn to one another, looking stranded. Classical people never behave this 
way. Is that it? 

Of course, that is not it. After a long pause, Byrne ambles back onstage. 
"O.K.," he says improbably, "this next song is not one of ours." 

For several lines, the piece sounds familiar -- then the recognition clicks 
in, at precisely the same instant for the entire crowd. We feel a wave of 
electricity and hear gasps as we realize that Byrne is singing Whitney 
Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody." It's silly, then fantastic. With his 
drive and the arrangement's staccato beat, the song takes on an urgency it 
never possessed in life. 

Having won over the crowd -- and dazzled even these jaded insiders -- 
something perverse takes hold of Byrne. He knows that rock 'n' roll law 
dictates that he must wow us at the finish, leave us shouting for more. But 
instead of kicking the door shut with an upbeat song like "And She Was" or 
"Take Me to the River," he chooses the new CD's most haunting number. Of all 
the songs in the history of rock, he heads straight into "The Accident." 

This is not an act of self-sabotage. Having foregone the secure confines of a 
rock niche, Byrne is exempt from the rules of traditional showmanship. "He 
doesn't feel he has to prove anything anymore," Jonathan Demme tells me a few 
weeks later, after seeing a similar gig in Paris. "He's way beyond that. I've 
never seen him so liberated." 

As the strings swell in the opening bars of "The Accident," Byrne's hands 
clasp behind his back, lending him the dual air of schoolmaster and 
supplicant. The tune is minor-key and melancholy to the point of being 
unsettling. By the time he's through the first lines ("When you see an 
accident/Do not turn your head and look away"), everything's turned around. 
Now the string players know what they're up to -- it's the audience that's 
mystified. Byrne reaches the grim climax: "TV crews arrive on the scene/And 
the anchormen, they break down and weep/Living proof that things are not what 
they seem/It takes all these wild and wonderful things/To set me free." 

In any other setting, it's an exquisite piece, but the partygoers receive it 
like a suicide note. After a pause they cheer nonetheless, howling for all 
the David Byrnes they've loved over the years; they'll cheer for a false 
deity when the man is not enough. "Thank you very much," he says, chuckling 
with what might be either exasperation or mischief. Again he wanders off, 
just as uncertainly. But the classical musicians exit briskly. They're not 
taking any chances. 

An hour after the concert, Byrne and I are riding over to another local hot 
spot, the Rivoli, to hear Moreno Veloso -- son of the great Caetano Veloso, 
whose music was part of the "inspirational tape" David used as the groundwork 
for "Look Into the Eyeball." 

"I think it was a while before they realized we were doin' a Whitney Houston 
song," he says in the car, laughing at the weirdness of it while still loving 
the song. "That felt O.K." 

This is followed by another gale of laughter as we pass a bank's billboard 
that proclaims, "Smile, you're making money!" With its sly confusion of joy 
and success, it's practically a Byrne lyric itself, like "My building has 
every convenience/It's gonna make life easy for me" -- or, for that matter, 
"We're on a road to nowhere/Come on inside." 

We reach the Rivoli, a narrow railroad car of a place. Moreno Veloso sings 
his tales of regret beautifully. After six songs, Byrne drifts off toward the 
washroom. Unencumbered, he could walk the 20 feet in a matter of seconds, but 
the sensible gear on his back makes him wider than he is. He keeps plodding 
along. Eventually, all that can be seen of him is his bright red knapsack 
wiggling side to side in the sea of bodies, pulling him down as it frees him 
up. 

Marshall Sella is a contibuting writer for the magazine. He last wrote about political comedy.  

 

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