I will love David Byrne until my heart stops (for those of you who are Talking Heads noobs, that was a reference to their zeitgeist-summarizing, “This Must Be the Place.” The fan service will only get worse from here.). Naturally, this would probably seem like a bad investment (“Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town.” Told ya.), pragmatically, emotionally, and yes–on paper–even culturally.
Chuck Klosterman, the armchair-philosopher-cum-music-journalist and first-rate idea man behind what exactly drives ground-floor lobby pop culture, addresses my trepidation through the lens of rock as social currency. In a 2003 article concerning his love for Billy Joel (while ironically almost clinically verifying Joel’s uncoolness), Klosterman outlines the unspoken motivations behind a fan’s allegiance to an artist:
In the idiom of rock, being cool is pretty much the whole job description. It’s difficult to think of rock artists who are great without being cool, since that’s precisely why we need them to exist… What they are is more important than what they do… Unlike Lou Reed or David Bowie, “Billy Joel” is not a larger pop construct or an expansive pop idea. Billy Joel is just a guy.
Klosterman’s decree likely sums Byrne up to most people, given that it can be pretty difficult for most to self-identify with a performer whose stage presence resembles that of an autistic giraffe. No one with any history as a consumer of Byrne’s work–pre- or post-Heads–is going to deny that he carries the distinction of being the most socially awkward musician of the post-Vietnam moment. The pre-Vietnam title belongs to both leaders of the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra:
But anywhoo, back to this weirdo: He refused to say anything to a live audience besides the song titles and the occasional timid “Thank you;” he wore clothes that often didn’t fit him (less big suit, more small shirt with the top buttoned); and he himself admits that his anti-James Brown dance breaks could be distilled to “nervous angsty flailing.”
And yet, this was not without charisma. Rather than in the case of Billy Joel– who, as per Klosterman, couldn’t help being “just a guy”–David Byrne seemed to want nothing more than to be that guy, rather than the other guy he was.
It’s not as if David Byrne was someone we’ve never seen before; it’s just that he was the first one of his kind to let himself be seen onstage, rolling over and falling on his face (“Slippery People”); and the fact that he (or at least, his persona) tried to contain all of his befuddled spasms in an attempt to drape himself in normalcy–albeit failing miserably–made him all the more fascinating.
Beyond a certain point, it was clear he couldn’t hold it in anymore:
This appealed to me enormously as a teenager, as you can see:
Nor was I exactly the calmest child:
David Byrne’s presence in my life seemed to validate who I was and what I saw on the other side of my eyelids, strangely enough, personally first, then musically. I recall an older, affable, white-haired Byrne picking up his daughter Malu from Downtown Day Camp in Battery Park City in the mid-to-late nineties, myself being fascinated with him in that way a child gawks at something novel, and him doing a double-take when he heard my pale Irish father and I speak to each other in fluent Spanish (Byrne is, like me, a Latin music paramour).
Years later, when I actually knew who he was through the appropriate channels of art as commerce, his influence weighed heavily on the scale which eventually tipped in favor of my fate-sealing decision to become a musician. He was the first rock star I really wanted to be:
Funny, considering how often he appeared to wish that he was anyone but himself. And yet even that resonated to me as honest; he remained planted on stage, making flippy floppy, trying to do his best (which,of course, implies mistakes: a cracked note here, a weird chord there), and somehow continued to send a powerful musical message to those who bear witness to it. He is Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” made flesh, for which I and others are doubtlessly indebted to him.
Which is all suffice to say that I hate it when I disagree with him. Having just sped through a paperback copy of his How Music Works–which, unlike Joe Jackson’s A Cure for Gravity, is much like a memoir disguised as a book about music–his recurring position regarding the coveted place of amateurs in the topography of the music-making world, I believe, merits greater discussion, and perhaps, even a second opinion.
David Byrne has always been an amateur in the most Gallic sense of the word (it literally meaning “lover” in French). That, of course, was a core component of his ability to hold the audience’s attention as a performer: it was never assured that things would go smoothly for him through a song, which created a dramatic narrative and tension to it that would be cathartically released when he pulled it off in his own way, on his own terms (often involving bug-eyed facial contortions and a variety of “extended” vocal techniques). Nevertheless, it was never in doubt that he loved what he was doing, his actions and career decisions speaking loudly of his appreciation of music as a means of creation and communing with others.
But in How Music Works, he goes further than that, asserting his identity as an amateur throughout the book and, whether consciously or not, seemingly framing it as the work’s overarching thesis. In this autobiography of opinions, if you will, Byrne slips in and out of a first-person yarn of his formative years, during which he describes himself as having, in retrospect, “a very mild (I think) form of Asperger’s,” and that, even throughout the first few Heads albums, “I still had no ambition to become a pop star; writing was purely and simply a creative outlet for me.”
To drive the point home that this isn’t just false humility (because I presume that Byrne’s particular brand of humility is actually very genuine), he recalls seeing–coincidentally enough–James Brown in the Collins brothers years, exclaiming:
It was the best show I’d ever seen… these folks were in the stratosphere, and we were just amateurs. That didn’t take any enjoyment out of the amateur experience; I’m just saying I didn’t have some transformative moment after seeing these acts when I immediately knew that was what I wanted to do. No way.
Now I promise this is the most ad hominem I’m going to get in this argument (if you can call it that), but I can’t understand how seeing this wouldn’t make anyone want to get up on stage and do something:
Especially given how James Brown wasn’t musically literate himself, very often running rehearsals by the sheer gravitational pull of his ego, coupled with the fact that much of the Heads’ music following “I Zimbra” and Byrne’s ensuing solo career (1989’s Rei Momo, in particular) borrowed from Brown’s cultural/stylistic predecessors and descendants, I have a hard time taking Dave’s word at face value that he didn’t find any musical inspiration from that experience (which I personally would equate with the ambition to be something more than an amateur). The iconoclast doth protest too much, methinks.
It further seems to call into question the idea of what Byrne believes an amateur to be. Is the gradient of musical ability between him and James Brown–discounting the musicians with whom they associate–really that wide? Is the ability to earn one’s living playing music–which seems to be one of the unmentioned qualifiers in Byrne’s dichotomy between him and his musical hero–a defining factor of professionalism? If so, is Byrne kept up at night by the fact that his ability to do so makes him less of what he purports himself to be?
Owing to its structure as more of a series of anecdotes than a cohesive argument, the book never quite circles back around to address these claims. However, at the risk of putting words in Byrne’s mouth (which seems only fair since he once asked all of us to sing into it; “This Must Be the Place,” again), I believe I understand his implicit target to be twofold: 1) the prevailing popular music of the late seventies, during which he, Tina, Chris, and Jerry announced their arrival on the New York Bowery scene; and 2), more importantly, the institution of European classical pedagogy, and any other body of work touted as a standard bearer for “great art.”
Byrne doesn’t exactly hide the fact that the prime motivator for much of his music making, at least in his early career, arose from a sense of dissatisfaction with the music–or “experiences,” as he would qualify them–that the culture was feeding him at the time. This was such an instrumental factor in his decisions that he defines a necessary component of a successful music scene to be “A Sense of Alienation From the Prevailing [One].” He writes,
The highest ideals of live performance at the time seemed irrelevant to us… mega-R&B ensembles were legendary for their elaborate shows… but they had no relationship to any sense of what it felt like to be young, energetic, and frustrated… If we wanted to hear music that spoke directly to us, it was clear that we’d have to make it ourselves.
Seems pretty clear cut to me. And that’s fair! There certainly was no shortage of very good music made at that time and place as a result. But already, Byrne seems to be making a generalization. It remains important to note that while musicophiles really only talk about a handful of bands that emerged from the tar pits of CBGB’s, there was likely three times that amount of bands replicating the same kind of music they heard on the radio. Byrne alludes to this by suggesting that the band at a scene should be able to be “ignored when necessary” and that the other acts often seemed like they “strayed to the wrong end of Bleecker Street.”
But nonetheless, Byrne concludes that, “We were all disaffected and dissatisfied with the rock dinosaurs who roamed the earth.” In the words of Hannibal Buress:
I’m all for going between the horns of a dilemma, but here there seems to be a bias at work. First, I’ll take an educated guess that Byrne is not a mind-reader; no one can presume (unless he sent out a questionnaire, which he was known to do) that the pangs of alienation served as the locus of a movement powered by however many bands that perused the club’s interior. If they were playing more mainstream music, they clearly didn’t fit Byrne’s idea of a scene insider. But, then, what would that make them?… Amateurs?
This is where the argument begins to snag. The most one can reasonably take away from these passages says more about Byrne himself than any socio-musical point he might be making. He was then and is now, in certain senses, a musical rebel, and as a result of his background possesses a very specific-though-unspoken series of aesthetic fenceposts that frame the way he sees things. Within that frame is an idea of the musical amateur, a group of which he considers himself a part. But despite distancing himself from those other unmentionable CBGB acts, he understands that they must be placed categorically in the same container to solidify his point, which is really in opposition to the aforementioned second target.
Byrne openly admits that he never exactly “got” Bach, Mozart, or much Beethoven, which puts him in a long list of distinctive musicians who–in my opinion–have made delightful, deep, and influential work without necessarily incorporating the thumbprint of classical music. But Byrne approaches this from a seemingly classist point of view, arguing that the peddlers of classical music are too quick to discount of anything of alternative origins, and therefore, lesser quality:
The act of making music… has a very different and possibly more beneficial effect on us than simply consuming [it]… It can often seem that those in power don’t want us to enjoy making things for ourselves–they’d prefer to establish a cultural hierarchy that devalues our amateur efforts.
According to Byrne, the predominant conceit of the one percent is that within the scope of human history, a canon of “great art” emerged, all from generally one geographic place (Europe) and all from a specific time (i.e., it ain’t now). Holding this in place is the pop concept of “the solitary genius,” whom “we often think we can, and even must, rely on… to lead us to some new place.” Naturally, this implies that no one born outside of that insulated world can ever expect to produce work of comparable timelessness or lead us to that new place; therefore, the amateur is pressured to believe that their voice doesn’t matter as much, if at all.
Let me know when it sounds like he’s projecting. If it wasn’t obvious enough, Byrne does us the favor of explicitly airing his feelings in the first person: “I resent the implication that I’m less of a musician and a worse person for not appreciating certain works.” And so the argument comes full circle, arriving at the same definition of an amateur that Byrne implied in reference to CBGB’s; that to him, it is not an identity that exists stands on its own two feet, but rather is dependent on its opposition to the musical practice he hates most: presumptuousness.
Essentially, Byrne is against those characterized by the diehard Suzuki polemicists; those whose only reference of taste is a concept that has been manufactured and prescribed to them; those whose reaction to being told what exactly it is that he does and what kind of music he makes is something along these lines:
To compensate, he trumpets the virtues of his views and experiences, delicately suggesting that “restrictions can be liberating… one might assume that [a higher level of musicianship] means a composer can be more adaptable,” but that “some of the most satisfying music I’ve made has come about as a result of naïve enthusiasm… nothing to do with dexterity or virtuosic skills,” ultimately concluding that, “there really is no hierarchy in music–good musicians of any given style are no better or worse than good musicians of another,” the crown observation of 374 pages.
And now, after seemingly endless exposition, here is my response, which we can call something like a rebuttal, but it may be just a re-framing of Byrne’s argument (despite our mutual days of chilling at D.D.C., I don’t exactly know the man). Nothing he has said here I believe is entirely untrue (you can guess the keyword to that sentence). Nevertheless, I feel it behooves me as a devoted listener of Byrne’s and a musician myself who inevitably emerged from amateurism to illustrate the assuredly stifling limitations of his views, as least as I understood them.
Arguing for amateurism as a sort of social equalizer and a panacea against the spiritually bankrupt and discriminatory ideology of the upper crust really only works when music is strictly regarded as a social phenomenon, thus ignoring its many other uses and functions in the lives of human beings. The best thing to be taken from a passion for music and creation devoid of any pressures of quality or assessment by one’s peers is just that: the enthusiasm which is at once the fuel for the amateur’s musical endeavors and–hopefully–a by-product of such an endeavor’s end result. According to this argument, this phenomena not only helps one develop creative problem solving skills, which Byrne reminds us are “renewable resources that businesses can and do tap into,” but also creates a space of community where otherwise there may have been none. As an example, Byrne tips his hat to the samba youth development programs of Carlinhos Brown in Salvador, Bahia, where the opportunity to play music as an ensemble provided an alternative form of self-expression to the violent malandro lifestyle.
Beyond this realm, however, the argument breaks down. When one considers the amount of moral and social good that music making–both individual and communal–is capable of, it’s hard not to wonder how this (as opposed to so many other things) came to be the force that could unite stratified and broken communities. In my opinion, it really just comes down to the fact that a lot of music is really good. Music is, in essence, what feelings sound like, and through its aesthetic beauty one can find a cathartic release for what ails them, as well as an affirmation of what brings them joy, sometimes all at once. There are no conditions for liking any kind of music, and Byrne is right to implicitly suggest that one need not know more than that to have a profoundly positive musical experience.
However, one does need to know a lot more about music, its history, how it is structured, its stylistic sub-categories, and an infinite array of other subjects in order to produce the music that others respond so positively to. Without a doubt, every culture has produced large amounts of truly wonderful music; equally as true is that so much more music made throughout the world and recorded human history is pretty damn awful. Outside questions of taste, I can’t help but believe that this has crossed everybody’s mind at some point. And it seems that, for better or worse, the music that people can generally agree upon as “good” was not often made by Byrne’s amateur but by individuals or groups thereof with a vast pool of musical understanding–both intellectual and intuitive–to pull from.
The teenagers in the favelas of Salvador, for example, do not enjoy music because they enjoy playing in ensembles together; rather, they play in ensembles together because they all enjoy music. The social consequences of such gatherings are merely positive externalities; if those teenagers had no reference point for what they thought good music was, if they had never had a positive musical experience, they would not be participating in the batería in the first place.
Everyone necessarily must begin as an amateur, but one need not be confined to it. Those who choose to pursue music almost by necessity absorb a great amount of information about what exactly it means to play an instrument, and how one does it. Byrne stresses that the question of how one plays music does not end at technical considerations, and he’s right. The misstep is the assumption that learning about music in the way that it is taught contemporaneously, rife with what Byrne labels as a class bias, runs the inordinate risk of sapping the creative impulse derived from the amateur’s naïve enthusiasm.
This notion I completely disagree with, due to the implication that a trained musician is more likely to be less “honest” in performance than an amateur. Shouldn’t it be the opposite? I can’t understand for life of me how an enhanced comprehension of any given piece of music’s inner workings (this can mean anything from chord progressions, to counterpoint, to simply how it makes you feel) would somehow inhibit a performer from communicating their intent to the audience more clearly. Just like how, when watching your parents drive a car as a toddler, you flailed about trying to imitate every disjointed observation you made in your personal re-enactment, only to refine and find the proper place for all of those gestures years later in driver’s ed, a greater knowledge of music’s mechanics alone will give weight to its emotional certitude, its charisma.
Nor can an amateur composer create in a bubble. To Hannibal Buress’s chagrin, I will now make an exceptionally broad statement, one that I hope, nonetheless, won’t be as weird when one stops to think about it: the best music made throughout history, around the world, derives from or has been at least informed by some form of folk tradition. I once heard the great New York bassist Robert Sabin say in a theory class that jazz is really just “super-complicated folk music.” The same could honestly be said of European classical music. Despite the stigma these two genres of American music carry with them (and at which Byrne takes aim), a lot of it is great. Though I am by no means an elitist, I proudly say that I get Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven as much as I do Monk, Bird, Miles, and Trane in my own way and on my own terms, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all of these artists at some point created in reaction to a tradition that they knew quite a lot about.
Here again I diverge from Byrne’s perspective, who seems to look upon the rise of accessible music technology as an overall positive. I’m not so sure. For certain, more people have fallen into a passion for music making since perhaps before the existence of recorded music with the arrival of programs such as Logic, ProTools, Ableton, and Reason to the market. My fear, however, is the distance that these products create between a passionate music maker and the opportunity–or even the desire–to play an acoustic musical instrument. The instruments of any style of music are awash in the traditions that formed them, and will forever be more capable of connecting the musician to those traditions in a viscerally tactile sense. With every step of mediation, something is lost. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that auto-tune does not do as much emotionally for me as Ella Fitzgerald singing “Misty” with nothing but the Tommy Flanagan Trio and a microphone:
But, finally, here’s the catch: those who pursue the path of a musician can’t afford to lose sight of that beautiful naïveté either, so easily lost to dogma and what one teacher of mine referred to as “bean counting” in the climate of the small, hyper-competitive world in which professional musicians reside. The reason for this is precisely to deter the cultural senses of complacency in a timeless “canon” of music that Byrne so vehemently warns against.
Here’s an idea: maybe the “timeless masterpieces” can only remain so if we have a reference point for them in contemporary culture. The mistake that the major orchestras make is the belief that stuffing the programs with Beethoven 5 is sufficient. It isn’t. Regardless of how great that music is (which I firmly believe), it becomes useless when taken out of its moment in time, and the audience has no artistic experience or means of creating an analogy with the music of their own time to grasp it. By creating music in reaction to traditions, regardless of its relative adherence or defiance, we create a trail of bread crumbs which may be followed to their sources, and even further down the musical rabbit hole.
All music has value, all of it has something important to say; it’s a question of both our knowledge of the past and our Whitmanesque enthusiasm for the musical present which Byrne embodies that determines whether or not we receive its message.
Be curious, not judgmental.
Give it a chance (“Moon Rocks”).
And now, having made my case for curious professionals, as a peace offering, I give you “Crosseyed and Painless” from Stop Making Sense, the best concert film ever made:
I’m sorry, David.