Double Dutch: An Appreciation of David Byrne

[22 September 2009]

By Chris Osmond

DATELINE: July 31, 2029—“International song stylist, band leader, and impresario David Byrne passed away quietly in his sleep last night. He was 77 years old.”

Let’s go out
To the place
Where the hands of time are slowed
Where no one walks
No one dies
No more hassles anymore

I know the other tributes we’ll see are going to focus on the man’s aesthetic contributions. First with Talking Heads: the CBGB orthodoxy that says, “Talking Heads were the NYC art students that gave punk its brains” (the story in which Patti Smith is The Tin Man and The Ramones are the Cowardly Lion). Then mention of the groundbreaking collaborations with Brian Eno on Fear of Music, the polyrhythmic advances of Remain in Light, the vanguard videos from Speaking in Tongues, the reworking of the American pop tradition on Little Creatures and True Stories.

They might even name the ways that his first solo work—the fraternal twin albums Rei Momo and Uh-Oh—rescued “world music” from a decade of Putumayo-driven irrelevance. The first was his graduate thesis in Latin-American rhythm, with each song style named on the jacket—see how much I know?—and the second a savage turning-on-its-head of those same conventions, backed by a fiery, clattering band he called 10 Car Pile-Up. They’ll note how “She’s Mad” morphs from punk yowling into a perfect cumbia chorus and back again (at least I think it’s a cumbia—he has the degree, not me).

If people have any sense at all, they will note how his Luaka Bop label was the bridge between Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club. He introduced Silvio Rodriguez, Cuba’s premier trovador and public intellectual, to these shores. His early dance music collections show up on all the cool kids’ iPods. He helped make Alison Krauss and Robert Plant pitchable, let alone profitable.

And ever eager to fan the flames, they’ll probably also mention the well-documented bullheadedness and grandiosity that drove away the Century’s Most Important Rhythm Section (as I sloppily proclaimed Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz to their faces after a Tom Tom Club show in 2002—they were very gracious). Apparently all that searching and creativity made it hard for him to share credit, and even harder to live with.

All true. But whatever.

I’m still going to miss David Byrne because he taught me how to meet girls.

I’ve got girls
Girls on my mind
I think about them mostly all the time

It happened at the beginning of my freshman year at a swank New England college. It was September, 1987; I had arrived a week earlier from Atlanta and was completely lost. I was in awe of the sophistication of all the New York kids around me, their speed chess and fast talking, their obscure CD collections and ultimate Frisbee teams. These people from “The City” knew so much about so much. How would I find a place here, with my stories of big southern high school marching band competitions and my Rush albums? More importantly, how would I meet girls? I desperately wanted to meet girls.

That morning I stepped on a hidden rusty pipe while crossing an idyllic lawn and cut my foot deeply, another warm welcome. I was patched up with a butterfly bandage, given some painkillers, and ordered to stay off it for a few days. I decided to attend a midnight screening of a film called Stop Making Sense in the student center’s multipurpose room. Something about a big suit. A movie seemed like a good idea. Restful. And maybe there would be girls.

The film opened amusing and confusing. David Byrne duckfooted onto the stage in his geriatric white sneakers and said in his wisp of a voice, “Hi, I’ve got a tape I want to play.” “Psycho Killer” was odd, and his epileptic dance to the rhythm breaks at the end kind of scared me. Who was this weirdo? I looked around—others were sitting slack-jawed too—so at least this was something no one else was getting either.

The first few songs were minimalist and beautiful. A new member of the band came on for each song—the ethereal “Heaven” and “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel.” Finally it became a rock movie when “Found a Job” rammed home the downbeat with a strangled, tight, no-bullshit sound I had never heard before.

Damn that television
What a bad picture

I felt a little rhythm beginning to creep into my feet, even the bandaged one. Others were tapping toes and nodding heads as well. Christ, it was loud. And he was so big up there.

When the song ended, a black scrim dropped behind the band, and out walked three more people: a tall guy with bongos, and two girls (Edna Holt and Lynn Mabry, I would later learn—The Brides of Funkenstein).

Wait a minute.

Let’s be serious: these three people would never talk to Mr. Byrne, let alone share a stage. Especially not the girls. Not in class, and certainly not in the hall. They are tall, beautiful, confident, black. Their interests lie elsewhere, their investments in things like parties this weekend, while his encompass Kurt Vonnegut stories handed around like Hustlers at the back of the chemistry classroom. I know about girls like this. So does he, certainly. What is he doing?

He notices them the moment they come out, but they barely register him—waving at the audience, looking at each other, actually whispering to each other behind their hands. They peer past him, flirting with the muscular dude setting up at the other end of the stage. Byrne glances over at them, perhaps in disbelief that they showed up at all. But when the voodoo groove of “Slippery People” starts and he begins that geeky, uncontrolled bobbing of his head, he looks over again, with new power this time, with something to share, something to say, the first flash of confidence that this might all work out. They sing the harmonies in their own world, and then when the call and response chorus kicks in, Byrne looks again with the faintest smile dawning across his face.

What about the time
You were falling over
Fell on your face
You must be havin’ fun

I suddenly saw the whole thing as playground politics. In school, the rules are clear, but outside on the playground, things can relax. The girls stop playing Double Dutch for a moment and see the weird kid doing ... something, something odd, over on the far boundary of the playground, by the edge of the woods. What is that dance, what is that sound he is making? And they come to investigate, then decide to stay, to dig it, to do what they do with him.

But the main point here is not sex. Sex rumbles like an underground waterfall deep beneath the whole thing, but we are here—first and last—for fun. The geek brings his guitar and his freaky songs, and the girls bring their moves. Private moves that they create together, on their own, in the lost hours of childhood when the grown-ups forget you are there. Moves they make up on the spot—hey, do you think this might work here? Oh my god, it does, oh my god. What about this one? They are the perfect fit for what they are feeling now. They dance nonstop, looking to each other for support and affirmation and, eventually, celebration at how much fun this is, how cool it has become to dance with this funny little man.

Back to David, we see him thinking holy shit, this is good. The girls are having fun. This is going to work out. Could he get laid tonight? Maybe, but right now—perhaps for the first time—that is not even really the point.

I danced with the whole room through the perfect arc of the rest of the film: the skunk funk of “Swamp,” the aerobic freakout of “Life During Wartime,” the soaring redemption of “Once in a Lifetime,” where the girls are still for once as they bend over backwards in the blinding light, slowly coming erect like the Brides they are, as David murmurs his incantations, hand up like a tent preacher:

Time isn’t holding us
Time isn’t after us

And finally the straight-out church boogie of “Take Me to the River,” which someone describes somewhere as a hymn to “the mighty spurtin’ Jesus,” wherein all are saved at last. House lights up, and everyone’s jumping up and down, sweaty and sanctified. My sock was bloody, but I felt no pain.

You’ll recall that in American Pie, it turns out the band geeks are the only ones getting any. While the jocks and the cheerleaders chase each other for their mutual amusement, it’s the nerds who repair to the woods, practice all day, and fornicate all night. Played for laughs, sure, but like most good jokes, it holds a golden thread of truth. Musicians are in tune with the deeper grooves that bring us together, and conversely, people bring their most honest parts to the music they love. Nothing is as sexy as honesty, nothing as desirable as the freedom that gives people permission to connect.

You know how it ends. I met girls, and a lot of other people, too. I found my mojo by being all the band geek I could be, by sharing with everyone what I loved most and finding others willing to come dance to my own weird rhythms. David Byrne taught me that. Thank God for him.

Chris Osmond lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with several people, several animals, three pairs of running shoes and a word processor. He cannot get you basketball tickets.

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