Maybe it’s because as a teenager you’re trying so hard to put distance between your circle and the generation just ahead of you and you’re caught up in your own bubble that you don’t appreciate that things you think are radical departures are actually baby steps in a different direction – sometimes even merely cosmetic. Punk seemed like some snarling new beast at the record store but was really the Stooges with safety pins, David Sylvian merely had longer and more dramatically dyed hair than Bryan Ferry. And sure, then, every so often there is an artist who coalesces a bunch of different cultural threads into some electric and transformative package that makes everything feel like it’s been shaken loose, like Prince.
I got interested in the Talking Heads through the usual channels – the music mags I was reading in 1977 and the murmurs of friends. And those first two records seemed so radically new with their hesitant riffs and quirky delivery. In retrospect, they were just well-crafted pop songs with a more brittle edge, music to dance to at the edge of the room on ’77, creeping a little bit closer to the middle on More Songs… .
In August of 1980 I attended the Heatwave Festival at Mosport Park in Bowmanville. I was primarily there to see Talking Heads and made my way to the front for the start of their set, which began with songs from the first two records, fleshed out with a bigger band, including Parliament Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell on keyboards, Steve Scales on percussion, Nona Hendryx and Dolette McDonald on vocals and Adrian Belew on guitar. The sixth number was “I Zimbra” from Fear of Music, followed by “Once in a Lifetime”, “Houses in Motion”, “Born Under Punches” and “Crosseyed and Painless” from Remain in Light. Even without benefit of psychedelics, I was transformed. The way melodies, riffs and rhythms interlocked, the relationships between the musicians on stage, the shifting shapes of the songs themselves. It seemed to me at the time like it was white, western popular music finding a brand new purpose and texture, structure and direction by absorbing the lessons of Ghanaian drumming, which I was just starting to study a little bit. I became evangelical for the Talking Heads.
I was involved in a lot of marches and rallies around that time: Rock Against Racism, Anti-apartheid, anti-Reagan/Thatcher, etc. Invariably, there would be a flatbed truck with a folk singer on the back earnestly leading chants and slogans to a 4/4 beat and it all seemed so … stuck … to me and it actually made me a bit angry. After all, if we were going to challenge the status quo, if we really wanted to affect radical change in institutions we felt were outdated and immoral, shouldn’t we model our revolution on a musical form that had that optimistic and generous and open kind of democracy baked right into it, like the music Talking Heads was making?
Talking Heads (supported by other things I was reading and thinking about at the time) planted a seed that germinated in me and nourished my way of seeing the world for years to come. They also continued to make great records until they split up and continued doing interesting things in their various separate incarnations and partnerships and influenced me in other ways – even in the face of acquired wisdom and cynicism about politics and radical change and culture and society and all of that.
This past Saturday night I saw the latest David Byrne show live at the Sony Centre and realized that the same seed that Talking Heads planted in me back in 1980 was planted in David Byrne as well and planted in the culture writ large. That seed is not dormant at all and in this show it has germinated into something so vital and so current and so generous and so hopeful. Byrne is, of course, the name on the ticket and is the only member of the “band” (troupe? company? cast?) who engages in any patter with the audience but his role as “leader” is entirely fluid – slipping in and out of the spotlight (both literally and figuratively) and serving as both figure and ground for the elaborate interplay of music and movement and light. The technology that allows all of the musicians to be untethered from any station, free of cables and lighting marks, makes each of them a free agent, a musical citizen, a character who surges into prominence and recedes and colours in details and draws the eye – even when everyone on stage is moving in unison or broken into little teams by virtue of steps and gestures and musical figures. The uniform of the grey suits that everyone wore – grey that echoed the chainmail curtain backdrops that simultaneously hid and revealed the essence of the theatre they were all making – served to frame and accentuate the diversity of the people on stage.
In a political climate that is arguably more dangerous, more cynical, more repressive more anxiety producing and more existential than it was in the 1980s, that seed that Byrne planted then has mutated and blossomed in this way that once again provides the model for how to move forward. It joyously celebrates American diversity and progress and democracy and breaks through the shadow that American hate and cynicism and protectionism has cast over the culture of their own country and the rest of the world. The show was smart and nimble and radical and not at all earnest. It was full of joy, exuberance, intelligence, humour and optimism. It made me feel that if American artists can make art like this and inspire possibly the most enthusiastic crowd response I’ve encountered for years – because I know everyone in that room who stood from the first note on stage felt that seed re-animating in themselves as it did in me – then maybe it’s not as dark as we feared. And maybe, once again, the model that we celebrated with three curtain calls is a model we can use out in the world and not just in the theatre. Another seed is planted.