Sunday, May 20, 2012

Psycho Killer

David Byrne turned 60 the other day. The local radio stations played a pretty fair amount of Talking Heads in celebration. At least, I assume they did, because I only listen to the radio when I'm in the car, which is usually not more than a few minutes per day, and I heard a pretty fair amount of Talking Heads.

Which is a pretty swell thing to hear. My brother once remarked that on balance Talking Heads may be the most popular band ever, in that they may not have had a whole lot of people for whom the Heads were their absolute number one all-time band, but unlike U2 or Led Zeppelin or even the Beatles, there was virtually no one who actively disliked them and pretty much everyone really liked at least a few of their songs.

I've always liked Talking Heads and sometimes really, really liked 'em. Never quite verged into "love" territory, I don't think, but always had just oodles and boodles of respect and admiration and even a kind of fondness for them; I mean, how can you not find their combination of downtown NYC cool mixed with total geekiness endearing?

And, like most people I knew, I was pretty crazy about Stop Making Sense when it came out, both the film and the soundtrack. And none of it was more slap-you-upside-the-head awesome than the solo performance of "Psycho Killer" that opens the set. It's an amazing rendition and a fantastic opening.

We should have known then the band's days were numbered.

I've been watching a Talking Heads concert from Rome, their 1980 Remain in Light tour. It's an amazing document and a great show, filled with wonderful performances of great songs. But it's not a Talking Heads show, not really. Adrian Belew is just a monster guitarist. But a putative Talking Heads concert where he gets at least two or three times as much attention on every single song as any Talking Head not named David is not a Talking Heads concert. And the same goes for killer keyboardist Bernie Worrell or extra percussionist Steve Scales or vocalist Dolette MacDonald or, for pete's sake, their second bassist. Their second bassist. Yes, Busta Jones is a phenomenal bassist, clearly far better than Tina Weymouth. But that's not the point, now, is it?

Despite my love of Elvis, Dylan, Springsteen and Bowie, I've never—or at least very rarely—subscribed to the "great man" theory of rock and roll, where a genius is so singular that he or she is able to create masterpieces in isolation; in fact, it's because of my love for those gentlemen that I haven't subscribed, as all of them did almost all their best work when collaborating, at least to some extent. Whether it was Elvis with his original trio or later in Memphis, produced by Chips Moman, or Dylan being spurred on by Mike Bloomfield or the Band or relative unknowns from Minneapolis, or Springsteen being kicked in the ass by Jon Landau on his third album or being convinced by Steven van Zandt to release his demos for Nebraska as is, all of them benefited massively from collaboration.

The various Talking Heads, including Byrne himself, seem to acknowledge he was coming to be seen very much as the dominant personality in the band, and understandably—he was the singer and the lyricist and wrote somewhere between much and most of the music, depending upon whom you listen to, and that's just how those things go. But I guess I'd stack what the others have achieved outside the band with what Byrne has: Tom Tom Club had more commercial success and creative influence on later artists with their first few releases than Byrne's had in the past 25 years and, not that money counts for anything, I'm willing to bet Jerry Harrison made significantly more money in the 90s just as a producer than Byrne did as a solo artist.

Which isn't to say Byrne wasn't right to follow his muse, or that he should have stayed in a band that was no longer, in his own words, fun any more. I guess it's just that it's a shame it didn't last longer and, more important, that a reappraisal of just what talent is and does is long overdue, especially when it comes to this band. And that when it comes to the creation of great rock and roll, that guy playing the keyboards or rhythm guitar in the band very likely isn't just some guy playing keyboards or rhythm guitar behind some singular genius.

1 comment:

  1. When Little Creatures came out, it stayed on my turntable for like two weeks straight (vinyl!) And the next year, I had a design studio where we were assigned to design a house in Chicago based on the songs and writings of Byrne and the Heads. True Stories just came out, and we listened to it way too much, an overdose that makes me sensitive to too much Talking Heads to this day.

    However, I always did prefer the earlier double live The Name Of The Band Is Talking Heads, which had an early, raw, four piece live disc and a big-band live disc from the era you talk about.

    OT, and just by way of explanation; I followed Scott here from his blog, linked from Really Small Fish; and since I am partial to insufferable music talking, you guys have set yourself up for zombie visits. Sorry. I recommend you Blame Fish.