Why I like David Byrne

Posted by Ken Edwards on Wednesday, April 15, 2009 Under: music
Because he's not a brainless rock'n'roller. Check out the journal he's been keeping on his current tour.

Caught the Brighton date last night. A terrific five-piece band, plus three backing singers, three acrobatic modern dancers, all in virginal white. They moved all the time. You couldn't take eyes nor ears off them. Below is a pic stolen from earlier in the tour - I never got round to getting out my camera.

David Byrne has been a favourite of mine since the classic Talking Heads albums he made in the late 1970s/80s: Fear of Music, Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues especially. The first two of these, together with the proto-sampling album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (the title is itself "sampled": it's also the title of an amazing book by the Nigerian folk-novelist Amos Tutuola), were produced by and co-written with Brian Eno, and it is that collaboration the current tour celebrates.

As soon as the groove of "I Zimbra" began and the three dancers rushed the stage, I knew we were in for a treat. The playing (Byrne on guitar, plus bass, two percussionists, keyboards), singing, dancing and lighting were on razor-edge time and yet seemingly so casual and full of humour. Yes, the male dancer, did leapfrog over Byrne while the latter was playing his guitar. Phew. The ensemble (for that's what it was) ripped through old favourites "Houses in Motion", "Heaven", "Cross-eyed and Painless", "Born Under Punches", "Once in a Lifetime", "Life During Wartime", interspersed with songs from the new album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, which is growing on me even though it's a lot mellower than some of that on-the-edge stuff.

An oddity was the inclusion of two songs from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, "Help Me Somebody" and "Moonlight in Glory", the latter played live for the first time at this concert, so we were told, with Byrne effectively re-creating the original sampled vocals personally. And boy, was he in good voice all evening.

The predictable encore included "Take Me to the River", "The Great Curve", "Air", "Burning Down the House" (wonderful), and calmed us down finally with the title track of the new album, which I now think is rather touching ("everything that happens will happen today ... and nothing has changed but nothing's the same").

I want to say something about David Byrne as a poet. The collision of poetry and pop music usually has unhappy consequences. Most pop poetry is in my opinion pathetic and far inferior to even the most routine pop music. The idea that rock and pop musicians could also be "poets" started of course with Dylan, whose lyrics were "interesting", though usually less so when divorced from their delivery (I want to emphasise that he is another hero of mine, whom I will be going to hear in a week and a bit). Then again, Chuck Berry's lyrics were interesting too.

When a pop musician touts himself or herself (or is touted) as a poet, what it usually means is that they've heard of Rimbaud and aspire to the image. Yes, I am thinking of Pete Doherty.

The only pop musician to date who has made it as a bona fide poet is Leonard Cohen. That is to say, he has published books of poetry, albeit a long time ago, that you can read without embarrassment. And his poetic qualities do feed back into his song lyrics: the intelligence, the traditional tension between metre and speech rhythms, the consistent imagery (often a clash of the sacred and profane: "from the bloody cross on Calvary to the beach at Malibu"). These are somewhat old-fashioned qualities, and there's an occasional self-consciousness that puts me off. A bit. I do have respect for him.

With David Byrne, it's somewhat different. I don't know whether he's ever published any poetry. But his song lyrics of the 1970s/80s do have affinities with the poetry in New York and elsewhere that was happening at the time. The sampling of popular tropes, of corporate-speech and the language of marketing, the existentialist play with meaning and meaninglessness in a deeply, or shallowly, consumerist society ("lost my shape/trying to act casual"; "this is not my beautiful house/this is not my beautiful wife") - it's a small step to language poetry.

And there are clear hints he knows this. "I Zimbra", after all, is an adaptation of a Dada poem by Hugo Ball. He may not be a poet, but he knows what poetry is, or has been or can be.

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Ken Edwards This blog is written by Ken Edwards, co-founder and editor/publisher of Reality Street, and it's mainly about the press. Ken's personal blog can now be found at http://www.kenedwardsonline.co.uk