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Wednesday, February 7, 2007

David Byrne, day three: and she was

On Saturday, for the third of his four concerts at Carnegie Hall, David Byrne performed his new song cycle Here Lies Love. The subject: the life of Imelda Marcos.

Because I have the pleasure of teaching at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, I get to force the next generation of actors and filmmakers to listen to my fortune-cookie wisdom about the arts. One thing I tell them is that everyone has crazy, fantastic ideas, but only a few people heed those bizarre visitations and trust them enough to try to make something out of them. Those are the people we call the artists. A pop song cycle on Imelda Marcos surely sounds like a crazy idea, impossible even. Yet there is now such a work in existence and I hope it will soon be available for purchase because it was indeed impossible, and I mean that in the best sense possible.

I have long admired the way David Byrne effaces the separation between the earnest and the ironic. When he treats material easily ridiculed by less interesting minds—like, say, Microsoft PowerPoint or sesquicentennial Texans—he invariably does so from a position of genuine, non-condescending fascination while still retaining an awareness that, yes, these things are ridiculous, but...

With age, his songwriting interests have grown from quirky recitals of fact and paranoia on early Talking Heads albums to the moving and sweet emotional depth found throughout his later solo work. And as long as I'm making comparisons, why miss an opportunity to quote from 'Animals', a classic Byrne composition from Fear of Music (1979)?

'I'm mad
And that's a fact.
I found out
Animals don't help.
Animals think
They're pretty smart.
Shit on the ground,
See in the dark.'


'They say they don't need money.
They're living on nuts and berries.
They say animals don't worry.
You know animals are hairy?'

Oh yeah. They definitely don't write songs like that anymore.

As for the Imelda cycle, the closest thing to it is Sofia Coppola's recent film Marie Antoinette. The film depicts not the cake-eating, head-losing queen of French nightmare but a young woman dealing with sexual and romantic complication in a foreign setting. Likewise, Byrne presents Imelda, lover of beauty and glamour, through her relationships to the servant who raised her and the men who loved and left her. (The lovely-voiced Joan Almedilla and Ganda Suthivarakom sang the roles of Imelda and Estrella, respectively.) Here, too, the signature fact that dominates the public imagination—in Imelda's case, the thousands of pairs of shoes—is nowhere mentioned. Its conspicuous absence signifies other narrative and affective interests.

Surely some out there are sniffing this out as a sterile exercise in humanizing dictators. I, for one, appreciate any attempt to capture the complexity and surprise that we sometimes find outside our usual zone of judgment. Yes, let's bring down all the dictators and tyrants. But surely that does not mean that we can't stop for a moment and enjoy the weirdness of life. Saturday night at Carnegie Hall was the time and the place to do just that.

I'm going to limit myself to a single song, not simply because it's hard to write about twenty unrecorded songs performed once, but also because I hope to have the chance to revisit this material in greater depth when an album eventually comes out. Nevertheless, one song stood out beyond all the rest. Indeed, this one song 'Order 1081', about the imposition of martial law in the Philippines, may belong in the highest rank of art, i.e. the impossible.

Before getting to the unlikelihood of a pop song about martial law that is anything other than obvious, it's worth reminding ourselves that David Byrne has written a number of great songs on other unlikely topics, terrorism for instance. Reader, if you don't have Talking Heads' Remain in Light album (1981), stop reading now and download it. On it you will find 'Listening Wind', a song that dares to give us the POV of a terrorist named Mojique:

'Mojique sees his village from a nearby hill.
Mojique thinks of days before Americans came.
He sees the foreigners in growing numbers.
He sees the foreigners in fancy houses.
He thinks of days that he can still remember...now.

'Mojique holds a package in his quivering hands.
Mojique sends the package to the American man.
Softly he glides along the streets and alleys.
Up comes the wind that makes them run for cover.
He feels the time is surely now or never...more.'

'Order 1081' does not give us the dictator's POV on martial law, nor is it sung by a dissident. Instead, Byrne has made the boldest choice of all: it is sung by Estrella, Imelda's childhood servant, and she sings it from the position of gratitude for the order that martial law brings. (I previously wrote about the appeal that order holds for the fearful on January 2, 2007.) This song broke my heart because it bore witness to the truth that many people, if not most, welcome martial law when it comes. The song was accompanied by eight classical strings and seven brass and woodwinds beautifully demonstrating the bliss that people feel from knowing that the troublemakers are being suppressed and order maintained.

I imperfectly scribbled what I could of the lyrics:

'Got to stop all this confusion.
[failed to transcribe this line]
And the way to make it happen
Is Order 1-0-8-1.'

[... ]

'Now it's safe to walk the streets at night
[failed to transcribe this line]
Everyone is sleeping soundly
Thanks to Order 1-0-8-1.'

The song is not sarcastic in the least, nor is it sung with any ironic winking. We live in an age of fear, when torture and amplified executive powers and the suspension of the rule of law somehow seem attractive to many and have entered public discourse on a basis other than shame. We need to accept that many of our fellow human beings are prepared to sacrifice law—and us—in order to allay their fears and sleep more easily at night. Where 'Listening Wind' asked us to identify, this songs asks us to come to grips with the mentality of so many among us. Somehow, the song was depressing and beautiful at the same time, and the intentions and method behind it were absolutely brilliant. It was, in short, an impossible artistic achievement.



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