The Byrne-ing Time

I’m always coming late to the party, it seems.

One evening a few years ago, Indigo had me over to dinner, and she had some really kickass music playing.

“Who’s that?” I asked innocently.

She stopped short in the middle of the kitchen and looked at me incredulously. “‘Who’s that?’ What kind of a question is that?”

“It means,” I said carefully, slightly concerned about the large knife in her hand, which was swaying with emotion, “that I don’t know the music you’re playing.”

She paused, then enunciated, “The Dead,” as if speaking to a small and rather stupid child.

That’s the Grateful Dead?” I exclaimed.

The knife pointed rather distinctly at my midsection. Her sigh betrayed just a trace of exasperation.

I knew numerous stories about Jerry Garcia. I recognized the names of Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. I had two Mickey Hart albums (Planet Drum and Drumming at the Edge of Magic) and knew of his work with archivists and ethnomusicologists at both the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institution. But I had never actually heard any Grateful Dead music. I felt deeply ashamed.

She put down the knife, guided me into the living room, and sat me down with the CD liner, where I stayed put until she needed me to chop something.

What can I say? My head had been elsewhere, musically speaking. I worshiped at the altar of Cole Porter (and, as you’ve seen, Bertolt Brecht and Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway and Fats Waller — not your run-of-the-mill pop stars).

Another Big Name that I discovered all too late is David Byrne. I had heard “Burning Down the House,” of course, and somewhere along the way “Take Me to the River,” but otherwise I knew next to nothing about him or his work with Talking Heads.

Then came this video, and everything changed for me. I’m sure it was the fact that it was a Cole Porter song that caught my attention, but there was something clear and lucid about the way he sang, the way he looked straight at you, that made it so compelling:

It’s from an album and video (now re-released on DVD) called Red Hot + Blue. An eclectic musical homage to the legendary songwriter Cole Porter, it went platinum, spent twenty-four weeks on the Billboard charts, and generated $3 million dollars for AIDS charities worldwide. It featured such world-class artists as Byrne, U2, Annie Lennox, Tom Waits, and Sinead O’Connor, and videos by acclaimed directors like Wim Wenders and Jonathan Demme.

Once I started to immerse myself in Byrne’s music, I found myself being drawn to some of his lesser-known pieces. One of the more interesting, for a whole host of reasons that I have difficulty putting into words, is “Angels,” from his 1994 self-titled album:

I can barely touch my own self
How could I touch someone else?
I am just an advertisement
For a version of myself
Like molecules in constant motion
Like a million nervous tics
I am quivering in anticipation
Like the sunlight on their wings
I’m ready now (don’t look back)
I’m ready now (I’m ready for this)
I’m ready now

The sensuous world — the smell of the sea
The sweat off their wings — the fruit from the trees
The angel inside — who will meet me tonight
On wings of desire — I come back alive

In 1989 he put out an album called Rei Momo. It’s named for King Momus, an important figure in many Latin American countries (including Brazil) whose appearance signifies the beginning of Carnival festivities. Traditionally, a tall, fat man is chosen to fulfill the role, and he is usually presented with the key to the city. Byrne’s album featured many Afro-Cuban, Afro-Hispanic, and Brazilian song styles including merengue, salsa, samba, mambo, cumbia, cha cha cha, bomba, and charanga. Here’s a cut from that album, “Make Believe Mambo”:

About the time I discovered Rei Momo, I learned that Byrne did a breathtaking documentary that same year on Candomblé, the African-influenced spirit cult of the Bahia region of Brazil.

The 1989 film, Ilé Aiyé (The House of Life), explores the ways in which Candomblé has influenced the daily life and culture of the people of Brazil in music, art, religion, theater, food, dance, poetry and more. It uses experimental film techniques, music, and cultural observation to express the life and rituals of Candomblé and the symbolic manifestation of the Orishás, the deities that represent the wide range of natural and spiritual forces. The rhythms of the sacred drums and bells, a dance of spiritual ecstasy, offerings and sacrifices, divination and the visitation of the Orishás through trance are all part of the color and life of Candomblé. And of course Byrne wrote the score, which was complimented by ritual music recorded during ceremonies as well as popular Brazilian songs influenced by Candomblé.

How I wish even a little bit of it were on YouTube!

Content yourselves with this bit of lyrical beauty. It’s “The Great Intoxication,” recorded live at Union Chapel, London, in 2002:

Before you go, I wanted you to see another video from the Red Hot + Blue collection. Two, actually, but I don’t want to bore you, so one’s optional (U2’s stunning version of Night and Day, now a tale of obsessive love).

The first time I watched “So In Love,” performed by k.d. lang and directed by Bagdad Café’s Percy Adlon, I wept for long while afterward. I no longer weep, but it’s still very affecting:

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~ by Craig R. Smith on 19 September 2007.

4 Responses to “The Byrne-ing Time”

  1. Don’t be ashamed: the Dead are easily stepoverable, they don’t fit with anything or come from or go to anything. No reflection on them of course ( no Indigo, not the fuzzy stick….). I have very fond memories of seeing ‘Stop Making Sense’ at the Rio Dalston, in the middle of the miners strike (collection buckets jangling everywhere) with ‘I walked with a zombie’: but I got it from the library recently and it was unlistenably eighties-ish. I have a theory (well an arbitrary assertion) that Talking Heads are the Beatles of the eighties, because you heard so much of them so often that you never need to deliberately play their music ever again….

  2. I’m in a post with the Grateful Dead, David Byrne, kd Lang, Cole Porter? Great! I think I remember this incident. Of course, you are such a fine storyteller that I’d like believe anything you told me. You could rewrite my history, and I’d say, yeah, that probably happened. What power!

    Makes me think I should check out that Porter collection…

  3. Indigo: As I’ve always said, never let the truth stand in the way of a good story!

    A lot of the Red Hot + Blue videos are on YouTube. They are all quite interesting to watch, though some are not to my taste, musically. It’s rather like the recent Porter pic with Kevin Kline, De-Lovely: they did many of his biggest songs, and created wild new arrangements for the contemporary pop singers posing as lounge acts in Porter’s day, which was both refreshing to hear and occasionally intolerable to listen to, like Sheryl Crow butchering “Begin the Beguine” in a strange minor key.

  4. Where do I start with this? I am in my office, not writing webfodder for our project, reading your blog instead and not half an arm’s length from three Rolling Stone magazines I have saved. One of them has Dave Gilmour on the cover. The second is the 100 Most Important Records of all Time. The third cover is graced by David Byrne.

    I saw him on Austin City Limits a few years back. He did quite a range of his music including some things even a bit out there for ACL. It is one of the few ACL shows Lee and I watched together. She looks at me about two minutes into the performance and says, “He just left. He isn’t there anymore.” And indeed, it seemed as though Byrne had vacated his body, was performing as spirit, was joined with that which draws forth that magic which is music and inspiration. It was spirit without ego and the music was magnificent. Another might have said he was possessed.

    One of the first VHS tapes I rented was Wild Life. “Is THIS what people put on tapes?” I just repurchased it on DVD.

    It was in he early nineties, during what I think was the Byrne’s Rei Momo tour, that I paid ten dollars to see him at Central City. I was in Gainesville then, and this was a time when our food budget was twenty-five dollars a week to be spent carefully at the farmers’ market. But Byrne was at Central City, a small venue that would hold about two hundred people, and so I took the scooter and went.

    I was in the front row, by which I mean I was crushed against the stage and a tower speaker. The seats had been removed and there was standing only.

    He was backed by a band that I can best describe as looking like it came out of the Copa Cabana. He was joined onstage by a Brazilian singer who was taking the part of a young Célia Cruz. She was black and dressed in bright white. Everyone was dressed in white, bright and stark.

    The energy was as high as I could imagine it for such a venue and then it became ecstatic and without self-consciousness. The music was loud and I was far too close to the speaker. I was against the stage and the crowd against me and all I could do was look up at Byrne and at the band and at the singer.

    It became hot. I was drenched. The band was soaked. The singers were soaked through. The singer, apparently wearing nothing beneath her white dress, soaked through, sang with such spirit, her body drawing such energy from the crowd that is was really hard to tell where the spirit of the performers ended and that of the crowd began. It was like a rave and it went on and on and on.

    I have in my office a Rauschenberg of Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues. Three transparent records attached at the center, all spinnable around the core. Each in a primary color. The scenes change as the records spin.

    As a composer, Byrne is no slacker either. The first time I heard his screen compositions was for the movie The Last Emperor.

    I should stop writing now.

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