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Saturday, February 3, 2007

David Byrne, day one: today is an important occasion

Thursday night, February 1, I went to Carnegie Hall for the first of four concerts hosted and programmed by David Byrne. Sadly, it seems he will only be performing at two of them, but having seen him thirteen times already, perhaps I should welcome something new.

The first concert was a special one for me because of the material he played. I discovered Talking Heads back in 1983 when their Speaking in Tongues album came out. It wasn't just a great record with strange lyrics that teased my youthful understanding. It was literally like nothing I had ever seen before. That's no exaggeration: the first copy I encountered was the clear-vinyl limited edition designed by Robert Rauschenberg. (No, I only had the regular edition.)

By the time Talking Heads split up, I had already tracked down all of David Byrne's solo albums. Two stood out as major records of my teenage years: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and, still unissued on cd, Music for The Knee Plays. It was the latter album that Byrne and Les Misérables Brass Band performed at Carnegie's Zankel Hall.

Lyrically, the album belongs to Byrne's absurdist flat-affect period, so flat that his vocals are all spoken declarative sentences. 'Tree', my favourite track, demonstrates what I mean:
'Today is an important occasion.
She thinks that she must wear the right clothes.
The right combination of clothes
Will make her lucky.
But there are specific kinds of luck
And different kinds are needed
For different occasions.'

That same year, 1984, Talking Heads released their second live album, Stop Making Sense. The album's title was probably the first time anyone had explicitly invited me to do that. And, Reader, I did it. I stopped making sense and began conjuring apparently meaningful statements that led listeners nowhere. At last, a new function for language: non-sense. I was an uptight kid, so this was a valuable discovery.

The Stop Making Sense liner notes were full of similar Knee Play-like statements:
'Table manners are for people who have nothing better to do. Civilization is a religion. Civilized people walk funny. There is always a party going on somewhere. People will remember you better if you always wear the same outfit. Men like pastries, women like custards. [...] Schools are for training people how to listen to other people. Body odor is the window to the soul. Sound is worth money.'
Then there's the brilliant section on the Space People:
'Space People read our mail. The Space People think that TV news programs are comedies, and that soap operas are news. The Space People will contact us when they can make money by doing so. The Space People think factories are musical instruments. They sing along with them. Each song lasts from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. No music on weekends.'
Now imagine David Byrne reciting statements like these over a brass band playing gospel hymns and Bulgarian folk melodies, and you've got the Knee Plays album. (For the gospel hymns, think of 'Abide with Me' from Thelonious Monk's 1957 album Monk's Music.)

But flat affect and non sequiturs tell only half the story. Talking Heads always owed as much to funk as to punk, as evidenced by adding P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell to the band in the 80's. Or better yet, recall the Dadaist poem set to polyrhythms on their Fear of Music (1979) album. And that was 1979!

Thursday night's concert demonstrated how much genuine swing lay just beneath the surface of Byrne's beguiling lyrics. Les Misérables Brass Band—two trumpets, two saxes, trombone, tuba, and drums—played the gospel and Bulgarian compositions with more feeling and swing than they did on the original album back in the day. As ironic and cheeky as Byrne's lyrics could be in the 80's, there was nothing but earnest appreciation for the musical genres that he and his various collaborators drew on. The lyrics may have been funny at times, but the commitment to the musics—post-punk, gospel, African, Brazilian, etc.—was always genuine. And all of that—the brains, the soul, and the wit—was movingly demonstrated at Thursday's performance.

For me personally, there's also an uncanny aspect to The Knee Plays. Although I played the album a lot as a teenager, once I went to college I never had a turntable again until 2006. Last year my grandmother died and I spent several weeks cleaning out her house, the house I grew up in. Just as we were finishing packing everything, my mother discovered a shelf under the basement stairs with stacks of 78rpm records, most of them Czech folk music, belonging to my grandmother. They had been there so long that the dust was right out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Not only had I not known there was a shelf there, but I had never known my grandmother to play music. There was only one thing to do: buy a turntable and bring back to life my grandmother's forgotten record collection.

One side effect of the discovery was that I could now bring my own vinyl records to my apartment in Brooklyn and play them. And so, more than a dozen years later, I finally got to play The Knee Plays again, many times over. Then, incredibly, Carnegie Hall announced that David Byrne would be performing it live for the first time in fifteen years. So many memories rushed back to me during and after the concert—being a teenager, finding the music I could call mine, playing vinyl records in my bedroom, living in my grandparents' house.

There's no rational explanation for why we like one thing over another. Ultimately, we're all stuck with our tastes. We can expose ourselves to an infinity of possibilities, but what actually moves us is beyond our control. For better or for worse, David Byrne is the main soundtrack of my life and a significant intellectual influence as well. Why should a performance of spoken word over a brass band send a decade of my life rushing back to my conscious attention from the shadows of memory? That's the mysterious power of music. Thank you, David Byrne, for bringing The Knee Plays back to the concert hall. (And if somehow you ever read this, please issue it on cd already!)


Anonymous big mac attack said...

I've always thought of David Byrne as the MacDaddy of 1970s and 1980s pop, and indeed as the Apple of pop musicians: stylish, savvy, artsy-fartsy (in the best sense of the term) but fairly wholesome.

9:53 AM, February 03, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

How dare Big Mac Attack describe David Byrne as 'but fairly wholesome'? No one who stands in any positive relationship to the world of funk can ever be described as wholesome. Funk is the opposite of wholesome. Let's turn to our old friend the OED.

Funk has several separate entries. The first relevant definition is this one:
'1. A strong smell or stink: also, tobacco smoke. Obs. exc. U.S. dial.'
The oldest use of this sense of funk occurred in 1623 by a bunch of smokers in the American colonies:
'Betwixt decks there can hardlie a man fetch his breath by reason there ariseth such a funke in the night that it causes putrefaction of bloud.'
Hardly a wholesome sensation.

The verb and the adjective bring out the stanky aspect of the word:
'1. To blow smoke upon (a person); to annoy with smoke.
2. To cause an offensive smell.'
'1. Mouldy, old, musty; smelling strong or bad. Now U.S. dial.'

In the twentieth century, the foul-smelling sense of funk become a property associated with African-Americans. In Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life (1929), Thomas Clayton Wolfe referred to a black woman's 'strong smell, black and funky'. Over time, black folks took up the label themselves. James Baldwin in Another Country (1962): 'They knew...why his hair was nappy, his armpits funky.' Hence the observation—I wish it were mine—that funky fresh is an oxymoron.

If Big Mac Attack wants to make some sort of argument that Byrne's unique combination of art-school chic with funkified punk was somehow 'cleaner' or more 'wholesome' than the funk of black artists, I would invite him to do two things: first, go back and listen to Fear of Music and Remain in Light; and then consider Senator Joseph Biden's unfortunate remark about Barack Obama being 'clean'.

(Just for the record, I am only accusing Big Mac Attack of an ill-considered remark about David Byrne.)

12:33 PM, February 04, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Anyone who still thinks David Byrne is 'wholesome' is invited to scroll down to the bottom of this page and watch the video for 'Help Me Somebody'.

There ariseth such a funke indeed.

4:23 AM, February 10, 2007


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