Creem MARCH 1979 - by Patrick Goldstein


Having survived several years of art and design school, Talking Heads have developed a finely honed sense of the absurd. Being on the rock 'n' roll road most of the year, God knows they need it. And their arrival at a funky-but-chic record store extravaganza in Chicago last summer sorely tested the patience of even the most unflappable road veteran.

The band plunged into the fray, cheerily swapping stories with their fans and autographing album, while two urchins in white face make-up hovered nearby, their heads bobbing above a table decorated with wine bottles and rubber fruit.

After an hour of this, the group retired to a limousine parked out front. Alas, their hapless chaffeur, a Flinstone Family clone, had locked his keys inside the Cadillac. Jerry Harrison, the band's guitarist, hurried off down the street in search of a coat hanger. The remainder of the group, accompanied by their befuddled record company chaperone, circled the car, enduring a steady onslaught of jeers from a motley clump of neighborhood hustlers. One gay blade, clad only in a bikini, suggested that they saw through the roof. "Convertibles are so inscrutable," he cooed before bicycling off.

Fortunately Harrison returned, coat hanger in hand, to save the day. This goofy incident gave me a sudden inspiration. Since this band is such a fanciful marriage of the arbitrary and the oblique, of precision and distortion, of passion and logic, then why not pursue our intellectual discourse - i.e., the interview - in a decidely non-cerebral setting.

I chose Comiskey Park, where the cellar-dwelling Chicago White Sox were entertaining the p[lay-off bound Kansas City Royals.

David Byrne, the band's owlish leader, sipped an Old Milwaukee, and reminisced about recording More Songs About Buildings And Food with Brian Eno.

"He's a brilliant producer," Byrne said. "And he's extremely perceptive. If you're uncomfortable, he's very sensitive to your feelings. He's not like Glyn Johns or somebody who says 'I make hit records so you do it my way.' We all participated in the production."

Of course, Eno's influence permeates the record, especially on the rearrangements of older Talking Heads efforts like Artists Only, wher he grafts Bowie-style metallic guitar riffs onto the band's staccato rhythms. The group's other-worldly sound - punctuated by queer, childlike visions and the awkward exuberance of a computer on holiday - perfectly compliments Eno's tape-loop sensibility. His role on the new record calls to mind a special effects director as he rearranges sound spaces, adds instrumental ornamentation and offers occasional production flourish.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the band's narcotic cover of Al Green's Take Me To The River, a version whose aquatic mix transforms the gospel number from an erotic baptism into a sea cruise through an underwater temple honoring the gods of lunacy and lust.

This drone-like texture is derived from one of Eno's favorite production gimmicks. "He plays synthesizer into the board using an echo delay and an equalizer to alter the natural sound," Byrne explained patiently, "Then he'll mix this synthesized track in with the original unaltered track to get a layered effect." Byrne began an extended analysis of synthesizers, which was drowned out by a loud chorus of boos directed at one of the umpires. Strike one against conceptual interviews.

In the stands, the conversation turned to sunny Nassau, where the group recorded More Songs About Buildings And Food. "We knew we'd be there for a month, so there wasn't any big rush for the beach," said drummer Chris Frantz. "It was a really friendly atmosphere and we succeeded in breaking down the standard distance between producer and musician.

"Eno was wonderful. He warned us he was also producing Devo, in case we were worried about any journalistic comparisons. He even offered to work under a pseudonym if it would make us feel better."

The band also had time to soak up some local color. "Nobody had heard much gospel music," said Jerry Harrison. "So we went church-hopping on Easter. I think we made it to a five churches in one day. One church even took up a special collection for David, Tina and Brian."

At this point, Chris and Jerry settled into a serious debate about the precipitous decline of new wave chic, both at home and abroad. The band had recently returned from England, where fashions change quicker than traffic lights.

"It's funny how fast it happens," said Frantz, probably the most loquacious member of the band. "We know this kid, who couldn't be much more than sixteen, and his first job when he moved to London was putting up posters for the Sex Pistols during the Queen's Jubilee week. We were on our first tour then and he was really punky - burns up and down his arms, blood stains and tattered clothes.

"Now he works for Virgin Records, in the mailroom, and suddenly he's taking better care of himself. He found out that getting drunk every night for a year can be pretty brutal He dresses up now. The kids all look more normal."

Frantz said that the art crowd had now adopted most of the more flamboyant punk paraphernalia. "They're wearing bondage clothes and dying their hair green, blue -" and, stealing a look at me - "even red. I think with the break-up of the Pistols and the Damned, that punk seems to have become a dying trend, not a happening one."

Many of Talking Heads' Bowery brethren seem to have met with the same fate. Byrne claimed that the demands of artistic excellence provoked this high mortality rate. "First, you're playing lots more than you used to," he said. "And you have to put up with the pressure of commercial success. So it's easy to get frustrated and a lot of groups start taking their careers too seriously. You begin to feel real competition. If you don't do well. someone else will."

At the end of the third inn ing, the band reminisced about their misspent musical youth. Everybody shared one common experience: they all played in groups whose names belong in National Lampoon's High School Yearbook. Byrne, while at the Rhode Island School Of Design, formed a group first as the Artistics, later as the Autistics. They won a huge following with eccentric cover versions of Smokey Robinson and Paul revere & The Raiders songs.

"You have to remember the kind of community we were playing for," the droll singer explained. "The people were more interested in your choice of material than in your execution."

Jerry Harrison joined his first rock group in the ninth grade, "But I'd been in a Dixieland band in the fourth grade that played Jailhouse Rock with a cello." His Milwaukee high school band was called the Walkers. Frantz's high school groups, based in Pittsburgh, included the Hustlers and the Racket Squad. "I'm amazed how many people that I grew up with are still trying to make it."

Harrison and I squinted at the scoreboard, checking to see how the Red Sox were faring. Harrison is a Harvard grad who has retained his loyalty for Boston area teams. "I went to study architecture, but I got bored so I moved over to design and art courses," he said. "I also did stupid things like take a grad course in psychology that I didn't know anything about. It was so dull I fell asleep in every class," Harrison laughed. "But I liked college."

One night when he was making a movie for an art class, Harrison met Jonathan Richman. "He just walked right into my room, so I ended up going to filom his band who were playing around Cambridge. We got to be friends and within a month, I'd left school and joined the Modern Lovers." By the spring of 1972, the Modern Lovers were suddenly inundated with record contract offers. The band drove out to California - "Jonathan wrote Hey There Little Insect in the back of my car," Harrison recalled - to start living the life.

"We were really hot but we fucked it up," Harrison confessed. "We never got the right manager. We started getting into fights over what material to do. And we couldn't make a record to save our lives. First we tried with John cale. No luck. Then we tried Kim Fowley. That was a disaster. We needed a calming influence, someone to put us back together and he wasn't it."

The band's luck ran out as fast as it had blown in. The group hung out with Gram Parsons, shooting hoops in his backyard. A month later he was dead. Miss Christine of the GTOs spent the weekend at the group's pad, where she promptly killed herself. "The landlord made us leave after that," Harrison groaned. Back in Boston, the prospects were still bleak. Warner Brothers cut off the group's cash flow and they found themselves headlining noisy clubs where, at Richman's insistence, the group played so softly they could barely make themselves heard over the waitresses.

Harrison tried teaching art and working for a computer firm before meeting the Talking Heads threesome. "I had just started architecture school," he said. "But they came up and we played a week together and I quit school right away. It was too good to pass up. It's very hard to find a band that shares the same kind of passion and commitment that you do."

Mercifully, the game ground to a halt as we spoke, with the White Sox eking out a rare victory. We joined the ragged clumps of happy fans filing out of the arena. Chicago loyalists are always overjoyed when their team wins. They like surprises. "I do too," said Byrne. "You know, in Pittsburgh we once played a pizza parlor." Was that unusual, I wondered? "Well, we weren't expecting such a big menu," he joked, as we turned on the car radio and rejoined the world of rock 'n' roll.

All I could think of as we drove home were a flurry of disjointed questions. Can Yankee Stadium be far away? Is it even on the menu? Maybe Talking Heads know the answers. Maybe not. For now, they spread David Byrne's Soho gospel. "Watch me work!"