"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Wire SEPTEMBER 2010 - by Clive Bell
SONG AND CIRCUMSTANCE: THE WORK OF DAVID BYRNE FROM TALKING HEADS TO THE PRESENT
In 2007 David Byrne visited the studio set for Big Love, a TV series for which he was writing music. In his online journal he wrote: "I love these places - you're in the set and it's completely believable as a suburban home or an office and then you look up and there is no ceiling... and through the window is a massive photo backdrop of the mountains that ring suburban Salt Lake City." Walking round this carefully faked copy can make your own home feel hollow and unreal, muses Byrne. "The mental dislocation is a wonderful feeling. It's somehow liberating."
Sytze Steenstra, a Dutch writer and philosopher, is good at pinpointing these moments as keys to Byrne's practice. Before assembling Talking Heads in mid-1970s New York, Byrne dropped out of a couple of art schools and became fascinated by the Art & Language movement, a Marxist based critique of the consumption of art and culture. His ambition was to make his life into a work of conceptual art. But how? His first idea was to become an anonymous rock singer, but Steenstra's take is that the rest of his ambition remained very much in place, and that Byrne's sprawling portfolio can best be understood as a high-profil;e and high-spirited, but essentially serious, romp through a series of conceptual art projects concerning mental dislocation. So, instead of the depressing 'rock star takes some photos' syndrome, with the underlying suspicion that no one would look at these artworks if the artist weren't so goddamn famous, Steenstra highlights Byrne's interest in, for example, issues of authenticity, and traces his thinking right through from early Talking Heads (critiquing Romantic rock authenticity) to his 2008 Songs Of David Byrne And Brian Eno tour, in which gospel-influenced songs were performed with minutely choreographed dance movements.
This is a bookish book about bookish people. At the release of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, Byrne and Eno handed journalists a reading list. They included John Miller Chernoff's African Rhythm And African Sensibility, and Byrne later roped in Chernoff to play guitar strings with pencil erasers in the studio. "The book is delightfully and unusually free of gossip," purrs Byrne in a rave blurb on Song And Circumstance's back cover. True - there's none of those nasty rows about who broke up Talking Heads. The other Heads were bookworms too, and the only bitchy quote is bassist Tina Weymouth saying "I didn't read those books", in reaction to Byrne and Eno's love-in. This was around the time Weymouth started up Tom Tom Club, a side project which sold more copies that any previous Heads album.
So if you want to know what Byrne was reading at any point, Steenstra is here to tell you. Fortunately, he sits down the chatty end of the academic high table. He's clear, engaging and readable, and when he works his angle about German Romantic poets, he will tell you who Novalis and Schlegel are, rather than rubbing in your ignorance. "The poet uses things and words like a keyboard," wrote Novalis around 1800, while Friedrich Schlegel jotted down a formula for God and art that looks very Byrnesque. Steenstra's point is that Byrne's playful approach has much in common with these witty Germans, and deserves the tile Romantic Conceptualist.
From a 2001 photographic exhibition to the 2009 prose book Bicycle Diaries, Byrne's work stretches way beyond music. Steenstra focuses on the underpinning philosophy, but is goos on the music too, and I particularly liked his characterisation of Byrne's songwriting as Alice Cooper meets Randy Newman.