Music

Talking Heads' Chris Frantz Doesn't Miss a Beat With 'Remain in Love' Story

Photo: Ebet Roberts / Courtesy of St. Martin's Press

There's a whole lotta love (and maybe a little hate) in the captivating new memoir by Chris Frantz, who is an open book while talking about life with Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, and wife Tina Weymouth in this candid interview.

Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina
Chris Frantz

St. Martin's Press

July 2020

Other

Instead of fictionalizing a fascinating period of his life in the mid-1970s that turned into the fabulous rock 'n' roll film Almost Famous, director-writer Cameron Crowe could have turned to former Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz to tell a story that's richer, deeper and darker — with just as much heart, soul and humor.

Luckily, Frantz finally got around to sharing his account of an innocent youth's awakening from tranquil, old Kentucky home surroundings to survive the squalor and rat-infested Bowery of New York City. He went on to travel the world as a founding father of one of the best damn American rock bands the world has ever witnessed. "From our first show we sounded like nobody else," he wrote, describing that Talking Heads played "Thinking Man's Dance Music".

In Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina, his captivating memoir that published today, Frantz reveals moments of his life that Almost Famous teenage protagonist William Miller could only imagine in his wildest dreams. "I feel very fortunate to have had a life that was successful, you know, commercially up to a point, a pretty good point," a friendly Frantz says on the phone in mid-July from his home in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Living there since 1985, he has found a peaceful coexistence with bandmate for life, Tina Weymouth, his smart, lovely, and talented wife of 43 years. She had to be talked into becoming Talking Heads' bassist by her ever-supportive partner after they started dating as college art students at Rhode Island School of Design, where they met at a Figure Painting class in 1971.

"I mean, we never made Michael Jackson money or Madonna money, but we did very self-respectable, you know," Frantz humbly continues. "But even more importantly, I was able to live the life of an artist, which I always wanted to do since I was a young teenager. And we did it. I would like to convey in the book that the chemistry of Talking Heads was so unique, and we had such a strong work ethic, that … we were able to accomplish some long-lasting pieces of music that will be remembered for many, many years. It's so great that our songs still sound hip today.

Design Face Eye by Geralt (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

"So I'm very happy about that. Imagine if it sounded terrible. We wouldn't be talking about it right now," he quips, punctuating the last two sentences with laughter.

Fairfield is a small town just over an hour's drive from the rat race in New York, but its bucolic setting is practically another world for Frantz and Weymouth, homeowners who rely on a personal shopper and adhere to social distancing while spending most of their time with pet beagles Poppy and Kiki. When it became "crazy-expensive," they eventually gave up the Long Island City loft where they resided after moving in 1976 from a scary ninth-floor loft (with toilets down the hall) on the Lower East Side, three blocks from CBGB.

For a while, they shared the place at 195 Chrystie Street while splitting $289 monthly rent bills with David Byrne, who would become Talking Heads' unconventional lead singer. The Remain in Love couple still have an apartment in the Bahamas, where they recorded albums at Compass Point Studios by Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, the energetic funk-rock unit Frantz and Weymouth formed in 1981 almost out of necessity after getting "Byrned" by their bandmate.

Surviving the coronavirus pandemic "surprisingly well," Frantz describes his idyllic small-town life ("like a Beatrix Potter book") among snapping turtles, deer, groundhogs, and muskrats on a two-acre site with a pond. "I'm happy to be here," Frantz, 69, says sincerely, considering he suffered a heart attack over the Memorial Day weekend.

Frantz thinks the experience was far more frightening for his wife, also 69, and grown sons (Robin, 37, and Egan, 33), along with his younger brother Roddy (previously a singer-songwriter with the Urban Verbs), who was there.

Microsurgery on his wrist to place three stints in a blocked lower coronary artery was bad enough. But that was after a 100-mph ambulance ride up Interstate 95 to Bridgeport Hospital.

Weymouth is dealing with some health issues, too, though "she doesn't like to make a big deal out of it," Frantz adds. "But it's a pre-existing condition in her lungs, respiratory system that's genetic. In the past five or six years, she's had pneumonia three or four times. So we just have to be real careful."

Out of the hospital in three days, Frantz is doing "gentle walking" daily for about a mile and a half and will soon start working out with a special cardio trainer. "Now I feel way better than I did for the past few years," he says. "I'm watching my diet. I lost a good deal of weight, like over 20 pounds. Tina says I've only got 40 more to go."

Certainly, the personable drummer seems ready, willing, and able to share some of the best (and worst) moments of his life.

Turning Heads

Frantz never was called cool as a young kid growing up in a Pittsburgh suburb who listened to Chubby Checker ("The Twist") and the Four Seasons ("Walk Like a Man"), finally making his first record purchase — a 45 single of Jimmy Dean's "Big Bad John". After joining the Kerr School band, and switching from the trumpet to drums, his musical tastes and "cool factor" improved, particularly when he was introduced to soul records.

He went from playing in early groups like the Lost Chords and the Brotherhood to starting a band at Rhode Island School of Design in early 1974 called the Artistics that included fellow students David Anderson, Hank Stahler … and Byrne, a RISD dropout who was called "Mad Dave" in college. His first introduction to Frantz took place when they played music for a student film. While at RISD, Frantz and Weymouth helped Byrne write their first song together — "Psycho Killer".

Propelled on their first record by Weymouth's signature thumps, that would soon become a defining track for the edgy and fearless new wave pioneers, though Frantz writes that "David had trouble looking me in the eye when I asked him to start a new band with me, but I heard him say, 'I guess so.'"

Officially born in 1975, Talking Heads started as a trio. Byrne, the Scotland-born oldest son of parents who moved the family to Canada when he was two before settling in Baltimore County, became the ubiquitous frontman-guitarist-scene stealer. Weymouth, a California native, finally gave in to Frantz's repeated requests to join him by buying her first bass guitar, a 1963 Fender Precision. (In a 2013 interview, she said Byrne made her audition three times.)

Milwaukee's Jerry Harrison (formerly with the Modern Lovers) made them a foursome in 1977, adding keyboards, guitar and backing vocals.

Of course, Frantz's good-natured demeanor, bright smile, boyish charm, and good looks were traits as common as the yuppie-ish Polo shirts he wore behind the drum kit back in Talking Heads' formative years. Remember that scene in Almost Famous where "band-aid" Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson) tells young, aspiring rock writer William Miller that he's "too sweet for rock 'n' roll"? That could just as easily have applied to Frantz, the personable drummer who recalls in the book running into New York Dolls lead singer David Johansen one cold winter night at CBGB. Johansen squawked, "Chris, you're never going to make it in this business. You're too nice!"

Frantz was determined to prove him wrong.

Former Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz began writing his memoir Remain in Love two years ago. (Photo: Tina Weymouth)

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz met at Rhode Island School of Design in 1971. (Photo: Roger Gordy / Courtesy of St. Martin's Press)

Live From New York!

After struggling to come up with a band name, the group relied on friend Michael "Wayne" Zieve, who chose it after seeing a glossary of television cameraman terms in TV Guide. Talking Heads were nearly ready to play live. But the month before their first show on 5 June 1975, opening for the Ramones at CBGB, Frantz had to ask bar owner Hilly Kristal if they could audition for him. They got the gig — and a backhanded thumbs-up from irascible guitarist Johnny Ramone, who is quoted in the book saying:

"Yeah, they suck, so they can open for us. They'll make us look good."

That began a ten-year run of live shows, and the career experiences Frantz describes were, at times, incredible, risk-taking, head-scratching, mind-numbing, and just plain insane. He rubbed elbows with A-list artists like James Brown, Lou Reed, and Robert Palmer and mistakenly snorted heroin with an unnamed member of the Rolling Stones. When will he reveal that person's identity? "Oh, probably not until they are dead," Frantz shrewdly responds.

During an explosive era that produced personal favorite artists such as Todd Rundgren, Queen, Mott the Hoople, X, the Clash and the Pretenders, Talking Heads found a prominent spot on my musical timeline as an intense listener, way before I started covering bands and entertainers as a part-time avocation. Expressing this feeling to Frantz, he laughs when I mention my efforts to avoid the fan-boy antics of Chris Farley with Paul McCartney on a Saturday Night Live "interview".

Yet I have to share a moment that sticks firmly in my brain: walking into a record store on the Hill in Boulder, Colorado, and hearing for the first time More Songs About Buildings and Food, Talking Heads' second album. Listening to the propulsive beats of Weymouth's bass and Frantz's drum rolls on "Found a Job" and "I'm Not in Love", I wonder, "Who are these guys?" and immediately buy the record.

"Cool," Frantz says, too cordial to dismiss another example of fandemonium before sharing his music appreciation for this special date in Talking Heads history. "You know that [record] was released on this day, July 14, in 1978."

Living vicariously through the experiences of an accomplished drummer with an incomparable band made Remain in Love (subtitled Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina) such an enjoyable read. However, there are passages filled with exasperation, disappointment and touring road rage.

For the most part, during our chat, Frantz stays positive about those years, discussing the incredible trajectory of a band that quit performing live together in 1984.

"It's a cliché to say it, but it's true — we were in the right place at the right time," he contends. "And we were also able to deliver the goods, I think, which is a big part of it. But also we were just plain lucky to arrive in New York in the autumn of 1974. I consider myself very fortunate. And to have worked with Tina and David and Jerry, I consider myself very fortunate about that also."

Regarding Byrne, who is the subject of many surprising revelations in the book, he treads lightly while speaking, perhaps saving his best anecdotes for would-be readers. And it wouldn't be fair to give it all away here. But looking back, Frantz does address a couple of issues that many groups face during their lifetime. "There are certain things a young band really should do, which is to have a band agreement. Like if we break up, who gets the name, who gets to do this, who gets to do that," Frantz replies when asked if he would have done anything differently.

"We also should've had a publishing agreement that was, shall we say, more fair to everybody in the band. But we didn't do that. We just barreled on. I mean, we had good advice from our business managers, and they advised us to do these things, but we just never got around to it. But you know what? We had a helluva run. So that's the only thing I would change. I would do it all over again. I would try to make sure somehow that things were shared more fairly. (laughs) But I'm not in any way embittered. You know, I think people might expect me to feel bitterness about certain things, but I don't. I'm just like, (laughs) 'I've got it made, man.' (laughs) Why should I be bitter?"

Photo: Michael Bialas

By the Book

Though he failed at previous stabs to put together a memoir, Frantz began writing Remain in Love (playing off Remain in Light, Talking Heads' 1980 album) two years ago after getting a book deal in five days through literary agent Sloan Harris of International Creative Management. During their introduction, as Frantz tells it, Harris asked his assistant to hold all his calls, even wanting Joe Biden to get back to him because "I'm in a meeting with Chris Frantz."

Three chapters, including one on meeting Andy Warhol and another on Talking Heads' first major tour of Europe and the United Kingdom while supporting the Ramones, got the deal done. "Then it was serious," Frantz says.

"I started to get a little anxiety," he admits with another laugh. "Like three chapters is one thing, but an entire book is another thing. So I could feel this writer's block or terrible anxiety coming, almost like stage fright coming on. And I tried something I hadn't tried before, which was CBD oil. I took a dropper full of this Vermont Organic CBD Oil, and it just chilled me right out, and I started writing, and everything was great." Overall, he considers it "a very smooth experience."

Frantz covers the band's history and other facets of his life in phenomenal detail, combining his "good memory" with Weymouth's thorough datebooks that listed specific show dates and locations down to the number of encores they performed at each stop. "It was important to me that things be factually correct," Frantz offers. "I noticed I made one mistake."

For the record, he points out that Damon Albarn wasn't the night barman at the Portobello Hotel in London in 1977, when Talking Heads visited. The year was actually 1988, when Tom Tom Club's founding couple ran into Albarn, who is quoted as telling them, "I have a band." (Albarn went on to become Blur's lead singer, then co-founder of Gorillaz.)

Frantz, who owns recent rock memoirs by Blondie's Debbie Harry ("I have mine autographed!" he boasts) and Go-Go's bassist Kathy Valentine (he's planning a future Zoom session with her), praised the Slits' Viv Albertine for penning two books he enjoyed. "The first is her experience with punk rock, which was pretty amazing because like her first boyfriend was Mick Jones from the Clash and then her second boyfriend was Sid Vicious (Sex Pistols). Could you imagine!" he exclaims.

Former Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter, who wrote Diary of a Rock 'n' Roll Star, the original version essentially a five-week 1972 tour diary published in 1974), lives about 20 miles from Frantz, and proved to be a valuable source of information. "We've seen him play many times at our local theater here with his band, the Rant Band, and I had lunch with him one day to sort of pick his brain about writing a book," Frantz relates. "And he gave me some tips, and mostly it was just, write about what really happened. (laughs) So that's what I did."

For her book All I Ever Wanted: A Rock 'N' Roll Memoir, Valentine said during our March interview that she provided early drafts of what she was writing to her fellow bandmates. Telling Frantz that her process must have been exhausting, I ask him if he did the same with Byrne and Harrison.

"I did not," he simply replies, perhaps getting ready to deliver a proper punch line. "I can see why Kathy would do that with the Go-Go's because I know they're all very sensitive people. Not that we in Talking Heads are not sensitive. We are. But I wasn't going to go that far."

Byrne Notice

Though he's planning to send ex-bandmate Harrison a copy of the book (saying, "I speak pretty highly of Jerry, I think"), Frantz won't do the same with Byrne, but here's his logical explanation. "David doesn't want to see it," Frantz claims. "He doesn't want to read it — he told me this himself in an email — because if he does read it, then when people ask him what he thought about it, he'll have to answer. Whereas if he doesn't read it, he can just say, 'Oh, I haven't read it.'" (laughs)

I'm certainly not in a position to judge Byrne, an idiosyncratic artist I've admired even after Talking Heads. His 2012 Love This Giant album collaboration, then Telluride tour stop on July 14, 2013, with St. Vincent were splendid. Yet it's still easy to understand why Frantz aired his grievances in a book with a man who is "incapable of returning friendship," as Weymouth described him in an article more than 15 years ago.

For instance, Frantz writes, "The story that there was one songwriter in Talking Heads was a myth."

The couple learned early on, after being stranded in a blizzard on a 1977 tour stop in Toronto, they couldn't always depend on Byrne. There were claims (addressed in the book) that he treated his fellow members with disrespect, took credit for writing collaborative songs and others' ideas, began solo projects without his bandmates' knowledge, cut short the group's touring life in the prime of their career and displayed strange behavior, all obstacles tough to ignore or overcome.

Drummer Chris Frantz founded Tom Tom Club with his wife Tina Weymouth. (Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

Describing their relationship with Byrne as "a complicated thing," Frantz believes Talking Heads did play nice with each other when they were playing songs. "When it got down to music, and, you know, in most respects, we got along very well, the four of us," he asserts. "The band wouldn't have lasted if we hadn't. And my feeling is that somebody — I'm not going to point the finger at any one person — but somebody at some point decided that, 'Conflict is the way I'm going to sell this band.'

"People like to read about conflict, especially in rock magazines, you know. … So there was always this, from very early on, this conflict aspect that I always felt like, 'What are they talking about?' Fights in the studio? We didn't have any damn fights in the studio. So, you know, people make shit up. (laughs) And there's a lot of stuff that's been written about Talking Heads that is really not — I mean there might be an ounce of truth in it — but it's really kind of grossly exaggerated."

Citing examples, Frantz pointed out inaccurate reports of conflicts/disagreements during the making of Remain in Light, an album (bolstered by "Once in a Lifetime") in which their sound (influenced by world music) expanded, along with their lineup.

During an incredible 1983 tour that featured an August show I saw at Red Rocks, where they played "Burning Down the House" twice, and four final nights at Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles to shoot footage for groundbreaking concert film Stop Making Sense, their talented additions included Bernie Worrell, Steve Scales, and Busta "Cherry" Jones.

Yet along the way, there were accusations that Frantz and Weymouth resented Byrne's notoriety.

"No! We made him," Frantz declares. "We pretty much handed him that notoriety when we invited him to be in our band. My point is that things were a lot more fun than one would gather from reading certain accounts of our band."

Much has been made lately, including on The Big Interview With Dan Rather in 2019, of Byrne identifying with symptoms of Asperger syndrome when he was in his 40s or being somewhere along the autism spectrum.

"I can't imagine my life being totally, myself being different than I am," Byrne told Rather when asked about this discovery. "… I am what I am. But I realize that it wasn't all bad. That there were aspects of the kinds of intense focus and interest … having that kind of sensibility. That was, in some ways, a good thing. It was maybe difficult socially, but I had other things to keep my interest."

Frantz thinks that if he knew then what he knows now about how the disorder affects people, the band's relationship with Byrne wouldn't have changed.

"You know, I have to be very careful when speaking about the spectrum," Frantz says. "Quite understandably, people on the spectrum are very sensitive about it. So let me just say that we always knew there was something unusual about David and … we feel that his different point of view is probably a result of that. But it was also something that we loved about him and his writing. That it was, he had a different point of view. Like, for example, the song 'Don't Worry About the Government'. I mean, who would write that except for an individual who had a very unusual point of view? (laughs) So I'm sure that David is aware of certain things that he had to live with his entire life, and I'm sympathetic to that."

Frantz did disagree with the notion that Byrne operated as a "my way or the highway" kind of musician decades ago, as was suggested in the Rather interview.

"David never really told us what to do," Frantz states. "I mean, he certainly never told me what to play on my drums; he never told Tina what to play on her bass. The more famous we became, and the more successful we became, the more distant he became to the rest of us. We could still have fun and everything, but there wasn't the closeness that we had in the early days."

Crush Hour

Frantz's love for his wife never waned, though. From the first time he met Weymouth, he felt a special attraction. Married in Washington, Kentucky, on 18 June 1977, three months before debut record Talking Heads: 77 was released, he never minded that other artists (including Brian Wilson) and fans (including myself) developed Tina crushes over the years.

Their 24/7 existence was unparalleled. After seeing Talking Heads for what would be my third and final (who knew?) time — at New Orleans' Municipal Auditorium on 21 October 1983 — I ran into the couple touring the French Quarter, and they autographed my ticket stub that Byrne had already signed. Standing alone, they had the look of love worthy of a rare pair who must hold the record for the longest ongoing relationship among husband-and-wife rock stars.

"I think we do," Frantz says, mentioning that only Steven and Maureen Van Zandt's marriage (37 years) might be close. "But they're not in the same band." (Unless you count their time together in The Sopranos as a duo act.) Saying, "We've been very lucky; I've been very lucky," Frantz dealt with some demons that threatened his marriage in the summer of 1984.

"The love I have for Tina remains very strong to this day, and I believe the same is true for her," he adds, later divulging that Weymouth has just started writing her own book. "But there was a time when I was getting into trouble with drugs, and she had to step away at that time. And she basically said, 'You've gotta get yourself together, or you're gonna lose me and the baby (son Robin, who was born in 1982).'

"And I did get myself together. It took a little while. I got myself into a program for successful people who have substance abuse problems. And I did have big problems. And I got straightened out. And everything's cool now." (laughs)

It can't get any better for a drummer to perform in a rhythm section with a sexy partner who plays bass with such style and grace. Frantz realizes this and sounds overjoyed when asked about Rolling Stone recently ranking Weymouth No. 29 among the 50 greatest bassists of all time.

"Yeah! I think they thought that was how old she was," he raves before coyly adding, "Tina's my No. 1."

Road to Nowhere?

Frantz and Weymouth could have called it quits musically after Talking Heads' last show, as headliners at the Sweetwaters South festival in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Feb. 6, 1984. But ending on a sour note wasn't the way they wanted to go.

Calling it the "absolute worst gig ever," Weymouth said for a 2011 article in the Guardian, "We couldn't go on stage because David Byrne, without telling anyone, had let on a couple of crazy girls — who I suppose had their hearts in the right place — who were trying to promote this freedom for Maori people thing, but it was the wrong place and the wrong time. People were booing and throwing things at them, and that was difficult enough.

"Anyway, we finally got on stage, and we were five songs into the show when David Byrne ran off and refused to come back on. He said: 'I'm not going to play for a bunch of people dancing in the mud.' Go figure. David had a lot of temper tantrums when he got to be a big star. He couldn't stop it; fame and the whole diva thing was just overwhelming for him. … The tour ended not with a bang but a whimper. It was awful that everything we'd been working towards ended like that."

Tom Tom Club kept having some fun, though, their "Genius of Love" hit, making them richer and more world-famous. The band had a three-week residency at CBGB in 1988, made North American stops with Debbie Harry, the Ramones and Harrison for the Escape from New York Tour in 1990, and Frantz and Weymouth continued to produce records in the Bahamas.

After Byrne "sneaked out of Talking Heads" in 1991, Frantz and Weymouth later reunited with Harrison as "The Heads" for an album as their ex-lead singer filed a lawsuit (eventually settled out of court) to prevent them from using the group's full name. Their record with a clever title — No Talking, Just Head — was released in 1996, and Frantz lured several exceptional voices into their Connecticut studio, including Harry, XTC's Andy Partridge, INXS' Michael Hutchence, Maria McKee, and Richard Hell.

"I'm very grateful to all the people that helped us," proclaims Frantz, who didn't mention that development in the book. "It was a lot of fun, but the record company didn't do such a great job with it, and critically, I don't know what was going on, but a lot of people, their attitude was kinda like, 'How dare they make an album without David Byrne.' (laughs) So I just said, 'Fuck this.' We went back to doing Tom Tom Club again."

So don't expect a real show reunion with the original gang of four, though Byrne and Frantz still communicate via email. The last time they spoke face to face, in 2003, the drummer asked about a possible reunion.

A couple of days later, he had his answer. Frantz recently said in Rolling Stone that an email from Byrne read: "I've told you before and I'll say it again for the last time. I will never reunite with the Talking Heads. Please don't bring this up again."

That's not a proper way to close out this rich history of four innovative, artistic individuals who banded together to make alternative music as — what Frantz writes in the preface — "one of the most unique and exciting rock bands of all time."

So let's rewind to 2002, as the book wraps up with Talking Heads' somewhat awkward induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

If Byrne can't finally make peace while the four core members are still living, at least we can remember Frantz's acceptance speech, the shortest of the bunch: "I'd like to thank the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for giving this band a happy ending."

Until either a full-fledged farewell tour, honest rock doc (check out The Go-Go's coming to Showtime) or even a virtual Stop Making Sense sequel happens, leave it to Mr. Nice Guy to try and make it right.



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