David Byrne

David Byrne

On landmark Talking Head’s album More Songs About Buildings and Food, David Byrne declares that, “I don’t have to prove that I am creative!” It’s true; he doesn’t. From the way he walks, talks, dresses, and, of course, writes and sings, there’s no doubt that Byrne continues to be a wildly creative person, even as he enters his winter years. Or, at least that’s what he seemed to be saying as he emerged at Carnegie Hall to premiere his latest oeuvre Here Lies Love, a collection of songs based on the life of Imelda Marcos, wife of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

The songs are good. It’s really that simple, but, to elaborate, they are full of interesting arrangements, percussive beats, and, perhaps the biggest treat, David Byrne in harmony with a range of other professional singers. His voice sounded fantastic, particularly when he sang the female parts (which drew some laughter at times), and the emotion was impossible to miss.

Of course, to me, the work’s subject seems obscure. It’s hard to know exactly what people think when they hear the name Imelda Marcos — other than the shoes, of course. Byrne willfully ignored the consumerist aspect of her life, focusing on more personal traits. This was a surprise, and it was hard to tell exactly how much he had considered the difficulty of selling this show as a financially viable theatre piece when he was creating it. Afterwards, I spoke to him briefly, dropping a few questions among a litany of adulatory wishes. I asked him whether or not it was more difficult to do the unexpected when his reputation precedes him. He told me that, at this point, he’s got nothing left to prove. Thinking about it another way, that might mean he’s been inhibited by his notoriety. I asked if he feels the need to live up to expectations that are higher than the ones he sets for himself? The ones of fans for instance?

He responded that it’s really almost impossible to tell. “It’s easier?” I asked. “Not necessarily,” he replied. Byrne was soon swamped by others, so I can’t say for sure, but it seemed like he was surprised by my questions. Maybe these dilemmas don’t enter his mind — perhaps it’s just natural for him to produce songs about a woman whose life may seem irrelevant, or at least too far removed for most to find interesting. But this is our folly, not his.

People often assume writers — and that includes songwriters — mine their own lives for material, but I’d hazard a guess that this happens less often than people think. Byrne found a muse in Marcos and created a complex work as a result, beautifully capturing the divide between her naiveté as a political figure and a young woman. In the show, the nervous breakdown she suffered as a consequence of the immense pressure placed on her small shoulders is contrasted with the outsider’s view of her childhood caretaker, Estrella. Following a song depicting Marcos’s breakdown and weakness, Estrella begs for Marcos to simply acknowledge her existence. The beauty in the impossibility of Marcos’s position is a metaphor for the situations in which we all find ourselves. We want to do right, and we start out with a plan to be pure and faithful. But life is never that simple, is it? Marcos has naive and idealistic views of the world that she hopes to espouse to the citizens of her nation, yet her position is not one that allows her to follow through. The juxtaposition of these personal and intimate feelings with the public perception of Marcos is so relevant in America today that it seems irresponsible to ignore them.

Despite being a longtime fan of Byrne’s work, I have to admit that I wasn’t convinced that I’d be enticed by Marcos’s story. And yet I was. The music would benefit from a more full theatre production — you yearned to know more, to see the full effect of the myriad pressures and forces being exerted upon this beautiful young woman. The pain she faces and her ability to find strength in her husband’s transgression are fascinating plot points. Although the songs evoke disparate images of confusion, power, struggle, and late-night dance parties, the David Byrne element is not to be underestimated either. The show would take on an entirely different form if produced theatrically — one with advantages and disadvantages over this concert presentation. Byrne himself is an interesting character; the background he provides and the glimpses into his thought process while creating these works are intriguing, humorous, and inspiring in and of themselves.

Byrne’s work insists on the importance of art, not only to tell the stories of history, but also to demonstrate the past’s relevance. Despite Byrne’s apparent surprise at someone seeing the story of Imelda Marcos as an obscure subject, he’s certainly not sheltered. The truth is that most of us just live in a very different world. While he is a well-respected artist within a certain circle, he is not so celebrated in the ultra-middle-class land where I grew up, where no one is willing to take a chance, where no one wants the unfamiliar. There might be some difficulty in convincing a mass audience that Marcos’s story is important to hear, and that, from it, one can gain wisdom — but it’s true. It really is. And there’s nothing to fear: the musicians are playing music, the singers are singing songs. There’s a tendency in this country to write people off as weird when they don’t follow the standard procedure. But Byrne has never had a standard procedure; he’s always seen endless possibilities. Of course, he’s also made a point of writing beautiful songs. And you can’t go wrong with that.